OK, then what else would we call it?

OK, then what else would we call it? September 10, 2015

“We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy.
Some people know this, and some do not.”
— Wendell Berry

This is a central theme in everything the great Kentucky poet/farmer/essayist/novelist Wendell Berry has ever written. In the quote above, from his essay on “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” Berry uses the word “holy.” That’s a religious word — a sectarian word Berry employs in that essay, which is addressed to, and an indictment of, a sectarian audience.

He’s using their word because he is, after all, one of them. But still he’s not using their word in quite the way they’re used to using it. As such, one could argue that he’s using it incorrectly. Or, alternatively, one could argue that they are.

Much of the time, when writing for a less specifically sectarian audience, Berry uses a different, less specifically sectarian word. Quite often in his dangerous essay collections — Home Economics, Standing by Words, What Are People For?, The Art of the Commonplace, Another Turn of the Crank, etc. — the word that Berry uses is “sacred.”

Standing22What, exactly, does he mean by that? Well, we could turn to sacred text of The Dictionary and recite the various denotations that it lists in an attempt to contain the various meanings that various people have meant when employing that word. And most of the denotations listed there will be congruent with, or in some way present within, the meaning of the word as found in Berry’s essays and poems and novels. But we’ll also encounter several ideas there that quite clearly contradict whatever it is Berry is trying to say.

“Holy,” any good Sunday school student can tell you, means “set apart.” And several of the dictionary denotations for the word “sacred” are variations on that same idea. But that idea seems to be rather the opposite of whatever it is Wendell Berry means when he writes, in the poem “Given,” that “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” (“Place” is another word that conveys a central theme of Berry’s for which a list of dictionary denotations will be of little use.)

For Wendell Berry, “sacred” means something like “priceless” — or, rather, what “priceless” seems like it ought to mean if it hadn’t become a paradoxical term that serves as its own contradiction. For Berry, to say that something is sacred is to say that its value exists beyond the ability of commerce or markets or money to quantify. That which is sacred is not for sale, at any price.

Again, this is congruent with most of the denotations a dictionary will provide to delimit the word, but it doesn’t quite strictly adhere to any one of them precisely. We could say, then, that Berry is wrong — that he’s using the word incorrectly or idiosyncratically, and that he isn’t justified in his insistence that this is, or ought to be, what that word means.*

If we say that, though, we raise another question: What would be the “correct” word for what Berry is describing and ascribing in using the word “sacred”?

This quality of being literally priceless** — of being beyond the realm of sale — is a recognizable concept and, as such, whether or not that concept corresponds to anything actual, it requires a term, a word that allows us to refer to it. It’s possible to come up with phrases that might serve as a substitute. We could describe it as something like “intrinsically valuable beyond any price,” maybe. But that’s not how language is supposed to work. Language finds words for things. Here is a thing that requires a word. If Berry’s word — “sacred” — will not do, then what word should we be using?***

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* All of which is to say, obviously, yes, I do read the comments here.

I’ll concede that the prior post is a bit too authoritative sounding — “The word means this and only this. Not that.” Which races past the supportable substance of what I was trying to argue there, ironically mirroring what Krauss does with that same word. He defines it one way, limiting it only to that particular definition, in order to dismiss it. I define it differently, limiting it only to that particular definition, in order to defend it. And thus we wind up in something like the same hole.

But I’m still convinced that “sacred” is, at best, only technically accurate as a term for what Krauss is really meaning to describe and denounce. I’m still convinced that what he means is dogma. Some denotations of “dogma” roughly correspond with some denotations of “sacred,” but they’re really not interchangeable synonyms. (There’s no such thing as a synonym.)

** I couldn’t resist pairing those two words as both share the same quality of near-perfect ambiguity. Both can mean what one would deduce them to mean from their etymology and structure, but in actual usage, both usually mean the opposite of that.

*** Regardless of whether or not I can convince you that “sacred” is a good word for this concept, or that this concept is one of the acceptable meanings of the word “sacred,” let me also make one other related point: This idea of beyond-any-price is a story-generating machine.

Here’s the story — here are 10,000 stories: Your hero needs money for something important. Your hero can get the money, but only in exchange for something just as important. The question shouldn’t be as simple as “Will our hero sell out — exchanging their integrity/principles/soul for financial gain?” That’s a morality play, not a story. To make it a story, the dilemma has to be balanced — the need for the money that would come from “selling out” has to be of equivalent stakes. The cost of not selling-out needs to entail  the loss of something just as invaluable and inviolable and, in a word, sacred.


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