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by Ken Myers

Sound thinking

Blest be the ties of language that bind us

Marion Montgomery on the precious gift of words

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

Blest be the ties of language that bind us

Literature professor Marion Montgomery (1925–2011) was a guest on Volume 39 of the Journal talking about his book, The Truth of Things. (A portion of that 1999 interview was released as a Friday Feature in January 2024, and an excerpt from the book is here.) The focus of his ambling and wide-ranging talk was how higher education has lost its way. A clue to Montgomery’s personality might be gleaned from the fact that for many years, a plaque on the wall of his office declared: “For God so loved the world that he didn’t send a committee.”

In 1987, Montgomery gave the Younts Lectures at Erskine College. The text for those talks was published in 1990 by Louisiana University Press with the title Liberal Arts and Community: The Feeding of the Larger Body. Excerpts are provided below.

“And so I come to my principal theme and song: the decisive importance of words rightly taken to any perfection of one’s heart and mind. A refrain to that song: Through the concert of heart and mind tuned by true words, we may move beyond our individual, separate aspirations and become aware that we hold humanity in common; so then we have a common — that is, a community — responsibility to words. We begin to understand, for instance, what St. Paul means when he says that we are members one of another. It is through words, through the signs we make one to another, that we discover ourselves bound one to another in a community larger than our private selves, larger than our lives taken only individually and independent of other lives. To realize this importance in our words may lead us to examine more closely such a word as I have just used, a word I wish to use with as much resonant wisdom as I can summon. The word I mean is bound.

“To bind; to be bound: a richly suggestive term, since we use it so variously. Within the variety of use lie all the hazard and joy of our becoming, all the prospect of our becoming what it is allowed that we may become. The moment we begin to look closely at our words, we see not only deeper into the words themselves, that community gift that is ours for the taking; we also begin to see more deeply into ourselves, into our possibilities. My temptation here is to dwell too long on this chosen word, so rich it is. There are others we must come to, and so we must touch on it but lightly.

“To begin, we remember that old Southern hymn that says ‘I’m bound for the Promised Land.’ That line is thick with the history of our journey westward: the ancient passage out of Egypt into Canaan, all the way through time and space down to those wayfarers who settled New England with their own settled conviction of having come to a New Canaan. With a slight shift in the syntax, we discover the word bound is more complex than its apparent form, the letters and segments of words that make a word. If I say ‘I am bound by the Promised Land,’ more is changed than a prepositional phrase. The verb bound itself suddenly changes its burden. When we take refuge in the dictionary, what we discover is that, despite the literal identity of the verb in each sentence, to be bound by and to be bound for are quite different ideas, the verbs themselves having quite different histories. To be bound for home and to be bound by home say radically different things about one’s relation to home, to those with ears to hear. It is just such radical differences that give the foreign student difficulty with our language — as we should have similar difficulties with his native language. There is a particular blessing in being born into a language, whatever language it is. But what most troubles me is that we increasingly abuse this native gift; even a recourse to the dictionary we tend to object to — it is a seeming imposition upon us, the more so when we have through carelessness abandoned the heritage of the language given us. That abandonment, charged to you as students by your diligent teachers, is actually a failure to be laid at the feet of all our community who meet in that language, your teachers (I include myself) no less than parents or neighbors. One comes to have ears to hear from long listening, from reflecting on the depths in such sounds, where meaning settles and accumulates. Meaning is to be summoned out of that sound to be used by the mind in quieting the heart’s restlessness. Developing one’s ear and tongue to value meaning is what we call education. But one becomes educated, not only in a concert of his own mind and heart through words, but through that larger concert of members in the body of community, one’s teachers and parents and neighbors and media gurus and politicoes. Because most of these do not, in fact, accept the responsibility for words as the community’s inheritance, it makes your own responsibility the more difficult, makes it even more a responsibility, one with a moral obligation attached by your very act of professing to be a student.

“To bind. There is that other old hymn that says ‘Blest be the tie that binds.’ We say, in self-justification, ‘I am bound to do thus and so.’ Or we say judgmentally, ‘It was bound to happen to her, to him.’ We bind stalks of wheat — or used too. We know, at any rate, that superglue binds metal or wood. In New Zealand (September 1986) a prisoner used superglue to bind his hand with his visiting wife’s, so that they could stay together. (A hospital staff parted them.) We feel ourselves bound in love to our family, to our hometown, to certain ideas — and less solubly than by superglue. We even get into a bind when we have not done those things which we ought to done — have not finished the last act of Hamlet or done the algebra or history assignment. Sometimes, when we have done those things we ought not to have done, we may even in extremities be bound over by a grand jury, bound for more concrete bonds than we might wish.

“When we discover such profuse presences in what seems but one simple little group of letters, our heart abounds with anxiety or joy, for we know that words do indeed touch realities, especially the realities of our own relation to a world larger than the self. We may long for some bound to the risks that words put us to. We may be tempted to put off all restraint, free ourselves of the bonds of minded words, and be content with drumbeats on the loud stereo. We say, ‘Let who will bind himself to the education of the mind and heart; I shall feel my way through the pulse in my wrist.’ Still, we feel compelled to say this, to use words and justifying abandoning our responsibility for words. So long as we do so, all is not lost. On the other hand, responding to sound without meaning, the stereo drumbeat, will make of us only an extension of pulse, living by impulse. . . .

“Without words a great silence falls on our hearts and minds, the silence of death itself as we pass backward through the stages of our life to animal and then perhaps into automaton existence. To refuse the engagement with words is a gradual suicide of mind. To choose silence over the struggle with words in this manner is to choose an unearned silence; at its best, such as silence leaves us in the panic of isolation from all else but our own flickering, guttering consciousness. Eventually it leads to a separation of consciousness itself into parts in an endless interior dialogue of the fragmented self. Without words, the world is empty; without words, we discover ourselves empty and try to force our existence by dividing our self so that it may at least converse with itself. Psychiatrists might, indeed, remark the desert soul in such division and go beyond the merely biochemical imbalances that occupy that discipline in the moment. . . .

“When I speak of a language as permeated by tradition, bearing a presence of the past in this moment when we use language, I mean as always language in an inclusive sense. Language is not only words but all our cultural statements: our architecture, institutions, even our machines, from electric fans to word processors — all that language you spend your first two or three years discovering in liberal arts courses in art, literature, history, social studies, physics. By language I mean all those common artifacts, including ideas engraved in the mind no less than statues in public places — all those artifacts that orient us in a present moment. Now all these presences the past can be denied only by a blind faith in a mystical present, a faith that the present is somehow freed of the past. It is assumed that such a denial must lead inevitably to a glorious future. Whenever anyone speaks to you in a dismissive way about ‘glorious traditions,’ intending by irony or sarcasm to dismiss tradition through a sweeping tone, you may be confident he is worshipfully tuned to some ‘glorious future,’ a dream world in whose service he would entrap your mind by illusion. . . .

“As each citizen of community must be responsible for his particular gifts so that he may become an ordinate member of community, so — and even more so, in the nature of his gifts — must the student be responsible for the ordering of mind and heart; he must be, so that he may receive wisely and well those guests both invited and uninvited who are eager and more than eager to attend him. Education is the preparing of the mind for the presence of our common inheritance, the accumulated and accumulating knowledge of the truth of things. Each according to his gifts, but each with the responsibility for those gifts. . . .

“My continuing argument is that the academy has as its chief responsibility the stewardship of mind through words; its responsibility to words is paramount, since it is through words that we maintain a community beyond the circumstances of time and place. We maintain a communion of members through communication, communication being the most popular word at this moment of history, in which moment the thing the word names is most elusive. Embodied in a community of rational souls, we are members one of another. But the embodying instrument is words. Words mean some thing or things. Because of an abuse of them, we may take it that they mean something quite other than what they themselves insist on saying. Welfare applicant or college president, each has a responsibility to certain precisions. Nor is it an acceptable appeal to say, as student or teacher or president, ‘But you know what I mean.’ Individually and in concert, we are obligated to hold our signs — our words — as the firmest possession and proof available of our humanity. We know this, whether this truth be shown by the child in a moment of panic or delight crying out ‘Mama!’ or by the logician perfecting his syllogism, whether by the chemist or neurologist or particle physicist who must, more demandingly than others of us, depend on signs to approach realities beyond the senses and beyond the machines that attempt to enlarge and refine the senses in his attempt to measure reality.

“If words — signs — are so crucial in these ways, we must make a final admission. Though words are the primary concern of the academic community — from kindergarten to post-doctoral research — they are the community’s responsibility as well. That responsibility cannot be transferred by quit claim deed to the academy, with the expectation of a continuing profit to community. Language is in the keep of mothers and fathers and grandparents, through their relations with the world as various as to dogs and cats and children and professors and college presidents. It is a responsibility not only for our own words as we use them, but a responsibility to actively oversee the use of words by those to whom a professional responsibility has been delegated. If we delegate that responsibility, and then abandon the responsibility to see what the delegated agent makes of his authority, we allow that agent to establish a professional concern in the matter which may prove in the event something less than a truly professional concern. How reluctant the ordinary citizen is to say that a professional educator’s words are used to convey nonsense. But nonsense requires only common sense to detect it, as a rule; it requires no doctorate in education or science to see in what measure words fit the truth of things in the tendency of a particular mind’s use of words, even a highly specialized mind.”

— from Marion Montgomery, Liberal Arts and Community: The Feeding of the Larger Body (Louisiana State University Press, 1990)