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Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy on Speech, part 1

Here are notes from our latest discussion on Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and speech. This
represents the first part of our discussion. Rather than document and footnote ERH’s
specific words, I am writing free style, seeking to capture the essence of the discussion
and his ideas rather than a more academic synopsis.

Speech and Death

We are born under the shadow of death. Death threatens to extinguish the future for us
and for all of our kind. All our achievements, ideas, hopes and dreams dissipate at death.

With a conscious realization of impending death, we need something or someone to stand

between us and the immediacy of death. Jesus reverses the equation by becoming the
sacrifice for others.

His sacrifice, his action, his surrender to death results in life. By the Spirit, the natural
belief that life ends in death is reversed. Death precedes life.

The future is the power of the Spirit calling us through death into life. This call, this
breath, this inspiration is the foundation of vital speech.

Vital speech is the power of the Spirit leading into the future. Thus vital speech is the
declaration that risks to speech in the face of death.

Instead of speaking the articulate word in the face of death, our culture is endangered by
ignoring or trying to hide from death and thus yielding to death. We assume peace is
natural. We assume the future is assured. We assume our prosperity is never-ending. But
one look at history reveals that civilization can suddenly descend into chaos and death at
any moment. Just think of some recent world history like Rwanda to see the chaos of
death looming over the world.

If we think only uneducated, savage men can descend to such chaos so quickly, we need
only think back to WWI and WWII to see civilized, Christian men leave the Christian era
and enter into the chaos of death and destruction.

Thus vital speech is the “in-spired” word declared in the face of death that leads us from
death to life.

The Four-Fold Speech of the Spirit

The cross of reality intersects time and space forming inner and outer (space) as well as
backward and forward (time). We can understand vital speech in this four-fold way.

Future (Inspiration)
The Spirit or the Thou (in Buber’s language) calls me by naming me. The name is the
power of the future calling me into being. Thus Abram is called Abraham; Jacob is called
Israel; Hosea is called Joshua.
This proper address, this call, this name inspires me. Just as I breathe in each moment to
sustain every organ in my body so I can move forward into the future, I breathe in, I
inspire, I am spirited: breathed upon from the future.

Inner (Resonation)
Addressed by the Thou, I awaken. The “I” comes into awareness by means of address. I
am named; I am called. The breath, pneuma, spirit fills me. The vital speech resonates
within me. The vital speech moves me to tears, to laughter, to anger, to feel.

This is not the passionless speech of Greek philosophy: this is the fire of the Hebrew
prophet. It is a fire shut up in my bones.

Like the song of a bard, the resonating word awakens me in a way beyond understanding,
beyond simple reason, beyond abstractions and ideas. The vital speech pierces my heart
with love.

Backward (Remembrance)
Even as the vital speech resonates through me, I realize I am a part of something bigger
than myself. My existence does not begin with me.

I am named not simply as a person but as a person who is part of a people. I come from a
people. The call from the future, leads me to the past as I remember, I listen, I enter into
the stories of the community.

To reduce my existence to the saying, “I think therefore I am” is to make me a-historical.

But I am not a-historical. I am born within a context. I live within a story that reaches
backward long before me and reaches forward long after me.

Remembering is listening backward. As I listen, I gain orientation. I realize where I stand.

The ground upon which I walk I did not create. The stories from the past have shaped me.

Outward (Translation)
Gaining orientation from the stories of the past and the call of the future, I speak; I act; I
enter into the history. I connect my father’s generation and my son’s generation in my

I translate the vital word into this hour. Speaking and acting, I embody the word in a
particular way. Thus vital speech connects the universal and the particular within me in
the midst of my translated/articulated word.

I enter history. The word of faith becomes the declaration of love in the face of death. The
future is realized through my sacrifice, my risk, my life given for others.

There are four directions of vital speech with four manifestations and four pronouns.
From the future I hear the address (name) of inspiration declared by the Thou.
The vital speech resonates inside me, awakening the I.
Remembering the past, I join the community as we.
I translate (speak-act) the vital word outside as He.

Hearing not seeing

Vital speaking is not seeing what I see, but hearing what is to be heard. The world may be
in chaos, vengeance may be the norm, and death may darken every corner. But the vital
speaker bears the power of the Spirit. Breathing in the name, the call of the future, the
speaker does not weaken under the darkness that is seen but hears a word of love that
conquers death.

Oriented by the past and the future, the vital speaker translates the declaration of love into
this moment. This declaration is not like the safe discourse of reason and debate in the
classroom, but rather it is the daring song of the lover who risks it all for the sake of the
beloved, or the cry of the warrior who faces death to safe his people.

So the vital speaker is listening and speaking in four ways:

This is the power of listening to the future. Abraham is called out. The rabbis call his
“lech lecha” because he is called to “go ye forth.” He is called to out from among his
people and create the future. So the first act of listening is listening for our name.

The inspired word enters us and must resound through us. When I listen to Mozart, I do
not try and understand the music. I let it resound within me and feel it from within. Thus
resonate is the act is listening through speaker’s voice. As I listen to Mozart, I feel the
world through him.

The resonated ear yields to the sound and breaks down the wall between speaker and
listener. How does an instrument carry sound? It does not oppose the musician. The
violinist draws the bows across the strings, and sound resonates through the wood.

Like the wood, I yield to the inspired word allowing it to sound forth within me. I must
have ears to hear before I speak.

Listening backward is listening to the sounds of the past. I train my ears to hear the
voices of my fathers. In stories and ceremonies, I listen for the epochs and movements
across time.

Remembering is much more than recalling. It is listening with the whole body, so it is a
listening that is re-enacting. The children of Israel listen to the story of Egypt through
festivals and meals. As they eat and drink and talk, they are remembering—listening to
ancient rhythms.
The rhythms of the past enter into the listener in the present. So the disciples eat the bread
and drink the wine to remember Jesus’ body broken and the blood shed. As they
remember, the Jesus’ body and blood are made present within them.

To translate is to reverse the curse of Babel. Translation yields to the uniting word in the
particular moment. If I am speaking to a German, I do not speak Chinese. I listen to the
hearer, so that I may speak the language of the hearer.

As I speak-act-think, I translate through word in a particular way on two levels. One, the
word is made particular through me. I speak with certain cadences and rhythms. Two, I
speak to a particular hearer. I listen so that I may speak the living, fluid word in the
present moment (present person and context) with power to create the future.

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