In a way, language vs voice is a perfect analogy to order vs chaos. In the same way that we try to make order out of chaos, we try to pick out language in speech. But is it necessary for us to know the language to hear the voice? Is it better if we don’t?
Stephano Colangelo started the seminar talking about contemporary poetry, but I think it migrated toward an more interesting topic. I was drawn to the story of the person going to country without knowing the language or the culture or anything about the place he was going. First of all, this can be dangerous. For social and health reasons, sometimes you need to be informed about the area you’re going to. But the lack of research was for a beautiful reason. He wanted to see and hear what this place was without the corruption of knowledge.
When I first was at the talk, I didn’t agree with this notion. I’m going to Uganda in January, so I’ve been learning about the dangers of going to a different culture uninformed. In Uganda, you can be thrown in prison for being gay or taking pictures in the airport. You can’t drink the water without risking serious illness, and you can’t eat dairy in rural areas because the electricity goes out and the refrigerated goods go bad. You can’t just step into a whole different world without knowing how to keep yourself safe. While it’s great to see a world with fresh eyes and eyes, it’s also a liability.
I’ve changed once or twice since I sat in that talk. Though I am not religious, I celebrated Shabboton this weekend with my Jewish roommate. I went to dinners and concerts and celebrations. About 25% of the formal speaking was in Hebrew. I know next to nothing about Hebrew, and I had no idea what was happening for most the time. I couldn’t even find the right page in the song packets they gave out. At first I was frustrated that I couldn’t understand what was happening. I was bewildered to look around and see that most people didn’t understand the Hebrew either! Why would they preach and sing in a language that nobody really understood? Then I remembered this lecture and I stopped trying to understand and I just started listening.
Hebrew is very phlegm-y, for lack of a better word, with many sounds from the back of the throat. At first, the words felt ugly and harsh. But as the night went on, I found myself nodding and clapping and singing along with the rest of the crowd. Then I finally got it. It wasn’t about the words at all. It was about the tradition it continued, and the sense of community it brought. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know what I was saying. I knew that it was lifting words of love and encouragement into the sky. Sometimes, it isn’t about the specific language, it’s about the power of the voice.