Two Tongues Behind These Teeth: reading scripture beyond mastery

Sometimes it’s easier to begin with words that are not mine, but belong to another–foreign, in a sense. Outside (foris), on the other side of the door (fores), coming from a far and distant land. In a quotation, the outside becomes my own, or, from the opposite side, perhaps I am forced to walk through the door. But neither option interests me here. I am seeking something else, something that is neither inside nor outside, neither the air coming in nor passing out. The words I want to quote are words that can never become my own; I can never bring them in, nor can I ever fully exit into them. They have a different master.


To quote words that are still being spoken, no, that are still addressing, no, confronting, interrupting my own speech. I can never begin, or each beginning is just a stutter, a gasp of breath as I prepare my monologue, only to be silenced before the first word passes through my lips. The momentum cut short–silence! Listen to me! The shout muffles my exhale and hinders my speech. I am not mute, only speechless, but it is uncomfortable nonetheless.

A confession: the interruption is probably only vexing because I think I have the right to speak and to be heard. To get a word in edge wise, to have to insert my voice in a gap, to make a claim with my posture because my voice cannot be heard are not skills I have had to learn. I presume from the beginning to be a master over the words. I was born into that position, and it has always been cultivated. Gifted and Talented, Honors, AP, a B.A. with a thesis, a Masters degree. As a small boy I sat in the back of the class, ignoring the teacher–with her permission–to work at my own, accelerated pace. I have been reared to think that my voice ought to rise above the rest, and so, I take a deep breath, as I have been prodigiously prepared to do, and start to form the first word in my mouth, with my jaw pulled back and my lips parted to say what I have been taught to say–I–when, from somewhere beyond me, a shout–listen to me!

These words I cannot quote because they are addressed to me. I cannot bring them in, I cannot analyze them, I cannot exercise control. They are a command that renders me powerless. Whose tongue is trying to enter my mouth? Note: my mouth.

It is not with a word, a shibboleth, that we will manage to pass. Tongue in our mouths, we must change tongues, another tongue must come into our mouths, and into our bodies another body (Cixous, __Stigmata__, 107).

A living tongue in my mouth, a tongue that silences me and claims my speech–my mouth is no longer my own, and yet, do I not have the same tongue? A single mouth occupied by a foreign tongue, a tongue from outside that now dwells behind the wall, behind my teeth. A tongue that claims my own tongue, that has the power to render me mute, that does render me mute (or, what amounts to the same thing, for Paul, that blinds his eyes), and yet, commands me to speak. My words are still my own, and yet, strangely, they have been taken away from me.

Part of me wants to claim that I am brought into a kind of liminal existence (ex-sistere), between two tongues, but that is too easy. And false. I still have my same tongue, and, after all, we can never stand (sistere) in the pause between each breath. But now, with my tongue, or, in fact, my tongue itself, is claimed by another tongue, brought under its authority and freed–yes, freed–to do what it could not do on its own, that is, to respond.

For Christ’s sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him (Phil 2:8-9). Or perhaps Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant (2 Cor 3:5-6). And again, I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me (2 Cor 12:9). I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified…My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God (1 Cor 2:1-5). And most clearly: we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor. 4:5).

It is not a matter of being silenced, of possessing a new tongue, but of being freed from attempting to master this other tongue. The one who speaks to me does not ask me to drop my own language, to abandon my tongue, but claims my very words for his and her own purpose (presuming you are willing, as I am, to refer to the Spirit in the feminine). My speech and my proclamation are not an exhibition of my mastery, Paul declares, but were hollowed out and made weak so that Christ’s power would be manifest.

I take this to be a hermeneutical principle. As Karl Barth puts it (yes, again with Karl Barth), Scripture itself is a really truly living, acting and speaking subject which only as such can be truly heard and received by the Church and in the Church (CD I/2, 672). Scripture is not a dead voice. I cannot imprison it in a forgotten past or absorb it into my own poetic or mystical or ethical present. It stands outside of me, yet within me. I neither go out nor absorb–I am wounded by it: stigma stings, pierces, makes holes, separates with pinched marks and in the same movement distinguishes–re-marks–inscribes, writes. Stigma wounds and spurs, stimulates (Cixous, p. xiii). I have suffered the loss of all things. Which means, as Paul makes clear, freedom, life, joy, salvation: wounded so the power of Christ may dwell in me.

It would be foolish to make concrete proposals here–as if, after all of this, we could list off a series of hermeneutic principles. I do not mean that there are no principles, but only that the principles come later, to help us when we tire of the voice and want to find new ways to claim those words as our possession. They help us resist the urge to rip that foreign tongue out of our mouths. The fact that we–confession, that I–so quickly want to find some stabilizing principles reveals just how uncomfortable I am when I discover that I am not the master. But fortunately, Scripture resists all of my attempts to bring it under control, for it does not claim to exist for itself but to point away from itself. It points away to the one who brings freedom and joy to all those he wounds–a new name and a new life to those rendered incapable of mastery (and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him, Gen 32:25).

It seems fitting to give the final word to someone else, and so I will quote a passage I have quoted before, but to which I keep returning:

Writing is a passageway, the entrance, the exit, the dwelling place of the other in me–the other that I am and am not, that I don’t know how to be, but that I feel passing, that makes me live–that tears me apart, disturbs me, changes me, who?–a feminine one, a masculine one, some?–several, some unknown, which is indeed what gives me the desire to know and from which all life soars. This peopling gives neither rest nor security, always disturbs the relationship to “reality,” produces an uncertainty that gets in the way of the subject’s socialization. It is distressing, it wears you out; and for men, this permeability, this nonexclusion is a threat, something intolerable (Cixous, Sorties, in __The Newly Born Woman__, 86).
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