Roots in the Air: Honesty, Poetry, and Abstraction

“Man is an upside-down tree, the roots of which are in the air.”

 – Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov

In context, Shem Tov—a Spanish Kabbalist quoted in Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory—is speaking about how humanity feeds off of spiritual nourishment, rather than the material world. The image, however, has stuck with me for another reason, and fed my thoughts over the last week or so with regard to the integral role of abstraction within our thought and language.

Personally, I’m recognizing how frequently I take recourse to abstraction in my writing and in my teaching when I’m unsure of the point that I’m trying to make, or trying to dance around some sensitive issue. It’s always easier to treat a topic from 10,000 feet above it, rather than mucking through the particulars. It is a symptom of my laziness, an attempt to avoid the hard work of research or careful thinking that would allow me to write or speak more exactly. As such, I’m trying to shorten my own leash on abstractions.

More generally, I’ve become aware of how much power there is in abstract language to mask and distract. Abstraction allows someone to speak when there is really nothing to say, or to speak in a way that obscures what is really taking place.  Not only is abstract speech very often the language of politics (especially campaign politics), it is frequently the language of religion, and most unfortunately, the language of prayer. Abstraction is empty talk, the raw material of ideology; but it is nonetheless effective for that. We have our roots in the air, and we feed on abstractions.

In contrast, concrete-ness is the blood of poetry; intimacy with poetry provides an education in avoiding abstraction. I’m sure that this statement will come back to bite me, but I can’t think of any straightforwardly ideological poetry.

Of course, politics, religion, and prayer are hardly dispensable or peripheral human activities, and I’ll be the last to try to put a stop to any of them. But without question, politics, religion, and prayer are the most honest, and do the most good, when they forego winged words and endlessly maleable concepts and speak instead with earthy imagery, verbs that move, and visible nouns.

3 Replies to “Roots in the Air: Honesty, Poetry, and Abstraction”

  1. Thanks Eric. Your thoughts bring to mind going to Confession. Every time I’ve gone I am urged to confess my sins particularly, for it is in the particular where the real work of repentance can take root.

    As for poetry and prayer, spending time in the Psalter should blow a hole in anyone’s notion of prayer being abstract. I think that is (one reason) why many today find the Psalms difficult – they are so direct – as if prayer should not be so, as if God can’t handle it! I’m with you – intimacy with poetry provides an education in avoiding abstraction. Amen! Amen!

    1. Hi Tim! I was hoping that my long radio-silence hadn’t chased you off entirely. Thanks for your thoughts. And I’m with you, prayers worth praying look a lot more like the Psalms than vague requests that God should “just bless” or “just help” someone, or vague confessions that we are “so blind” or “so confused.”

      Someone could take it a step further and argue that the abstract prayers are actually dangerous, clogging our connection to God with empty words and banal formalities when there is nothing honest to say.

  2. No – I get email notification about your posts but just haven’t commented in a while. I’m heartened by the flurry of recent entries. Keep ’em coming.

    I’ll go ahead and be that someone who argues that abstract prayers are dangerous. I’ve been musing lately on how much of my past experience of Christianity was downright Gnostic and denied much of what is good about being human. Abstract prayers often lean in that direction. Off with their (abstract) heads!

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