There’s a great dendro-ontologico-onomastical shaggy-dog story in this week’s TLS, a piece by one Abraham Socher on ‘Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem and the stones of Sinai’. My previous discussions about the naming and being of trees have tended to hover around the question of what happens when we (as we inhabitants of language habitually do) mistake something for something else. Such mistakes are easily made, especially in this age of mechanical reproduction of works of art.
The article doesn’t appear to be up on the TLS website, so no link yet, but here’s a brief summary. Benjamin, who liked to give his ideas at least an aura (if you will) of Kabbalistic thinking, wrote in an ‘Epistemo-Critical Prologue’ to his Origin of German Tragic Drama of his conviction that the philosopher’s task must be to ‘restore, by representation, the primacy of the symbolic character of the word’. (Again, the idea, frequent in mystical – and rationalist – writers throughout the centuries, that the symbolic or ‘secondary’ sense of a word actually precedes its proper sense.) He related a story about the stones found at the foot of Mount Sinai, which ‘have impressed upon them the pattern of a tree whose peculiar nature consists in the fact that it reproduces itself immediately on every single piece of stone that has broken off from a stone block, and this into infinity.’
Trees impressed in stones! What a fine parable for the truth of the great book of nature, what a compelling proof for the existence of an Adamic language of essences! Only… that’s not quite what it was.
Socher demonstrates that Benjamin wholly misunderstood the stones of Sinai: not only were they a phenomenon with an entirely natural explanation, they had even been understood in such naturalistic terms by the philosophers of Jewish mysticism. (Benjamin, it seems, had got the story from the eighteenth-century philosopher Salomon Maimon.) Apparently, you can still go to the foot of Mount Sinai and find such dendrite stones.
What to make of all this? Well, on the one hand, it seems to be another example of the human mind over-intellectualizing natural phenomena (‘A thrush, because I’d been wrong,/ Burst rightly into song’). At the same time, though, this seems to me to be moving towards some truth about language and myth.
Language seeks resemblances between things, imperfectly replicates the truths it finds, and engraves those truths on the world around it. Arab and Jewish thinkers of the middle ages, Socher tells us, had linked the phenomenon of the stones with the etymological tradition that makes ‘Sinai’ mean ‘tree’. The markings on the stones are not actually fossilized trees, but ‘pseudo-fossils’. It’s not too much of a stretch to link them with the pseudo-etymologies that have been so productive in the language arts, mistaken ways of understanding the world that have histories and truths of their own.
It also tells us something about the origins of myths. Myth-making is not the preserve of pre-scientific cultures guilty of fundamentally misreading phenomena that resist easy conceptualization. Myths can arise from modern misinterpretations of the interpretations pre-modern thinkers put on the natural world. Modern myth-making is still possible: but it is not, perhaps, so much a matter of deriving fantastical explanations directly from the worlds of nature and human interaction; instead, it can be a case of mistaking past ways of conceptualizing the world as being fundamentally different from our own. There is a danger (and, to be sure, an indirect benefit) in being too ready to believe in the otherness of past and alien cultures, in striving at all costs to understand pre-modern thinkers ‘on their own terms’, on what we might imagine those terms to be: magical thinking, mysticism, and pre-scientific irrationalism. After all, euhemeristic rationalism is almost as old as (literary) classical myth itself. We might, in our earnest attempts to restore and revivify older ways of conceptualizing the world, move away from the hard-won truths of tradition, and ourselves create mutant strains of thought, hybrid ideas that would be unrecognizable even to the minds whose originators we imagine they were.
Many of the greatest and most novel ideas in the history of human intellectual endeavour perhaps originated precisely in this way: in a wrong-headed overestimation of the differences between our own ways of thinking and the mentalities of the past.