When Buildings Stopped Talking to God

by Justin E. H. Smith

The peace of God is higher than all our reason.

Having recently read Sheldon Pollock's astoundingly good book, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India, I've been thinking a good deal about his distinction between the process of 'literization', on the one hand, and that of 'literarization' on the other. I don't have the book with me, and I don't want to misrepresent his account, but as I recall according to him in South Asia it was very common to find Sanskrit inscriptions on monuments in regions where it took several subsequent centuries for a proper Sanskrit literature to appear: epic poems and so on. Inscriptions on buildings and monuments may thus be seen as a first stage of literate civilization (with, I suppose –independently of Pollock– other strands of full literacy, such as record-keeping, and the use of units of measurement, developing in other spheres of the same society).

One problematic aspect of the spread of Sanskrit inscriptions, which eventually extended through much of Southeast Asia, even as far as the island of Java in Indonesia, is that often they appeared completely independently of any subsequent process of Sanskrit literarization. In Cambodia, in particular, Sanskrit inscriptions were abundant for several centuries, even though the rest of the culture remained entirely Khmer (though with a high percentage of Sanskrit loan-words in the Khmer language). An intepretative problem consequently arose among Indologists in the 20th century as to what these inscriptions were for. If I recall correctly, Pollock challenges what had been until then the prevailing view, that these were inscriptions for the gods, that their being written was not conceived as a communication of information to fellow humans, but was conceived somewhat more like an inscriptional equivalent of prayer. (Of course, much writing until the modern period had this character. Scandinavian runes are an obvious example; a survival of this sort of writing can be seen in the 'prayer notes' that Jews place in the Western Wall of Old Jerusalem.)

Now this is as close as I am ever going to get to holding forth on what is called the 'philosophy of architecture' –a subject for which I've always disavowed any interest–, but it seems to me that beyond inscriptions there are a number of ways in which early monuments were made to speak to the gods through hidden messages, through built-in elements that could not be seen from the outside, but that nonetheless were held to charge the construction with a different sort of spirit than any externally identical, mere arrangement of stones could have. The most obvious example of this is the insertion of sacrificed bodies between building stones, a common Mesoamerican practice: bodies which would eventually turn to skeletons, invisible to all who enter, even if they know the bones are there, and they know that the gods know.

Even when human sacrifice is impermissible or rare, the interment of the dead between the stones of houses has been a common practice, and for the remains of royalty the practice continued until very recently, with numerous historical examples on display at tourist-ready castles throughout Europe. Archaeologists working throughout Eurasia often take the form of corpse-disposal –either between the stones of houses, or beyond the bounds of the community, out in a field or grove somewhere– as a basic distinction between two different ways of organizing society. One incorporates the spirits of the dead into its architecture –a form of reincarnation, even if the entities being incarnated are not the familar candidates from, e.g., Greek and Indian metempsychosis–, the other just wants to get rid of the dead.

JewishMuseumBerlinTunnels Who was this for? It was not a written message, and it is not clear that it was meant to bring about propitiation of the gods (though in the Mesoamerican case it seems that this is in fact what it was for, at least in part). But it was meant to charge buildings, anyway, with a spirit that no one today expects them to have, not even the most high-flying, conceptual architects, not even Daniel Libeskind with the Jewish Museum of Berlin, for which one supposes everyone but Libeskind himself needs to take the audioguide option in order to understand what every little angle and every pillar and material is meant to represent.

In spite of his best intentions, the resulting edifice feels more like a play-room in reverse, a sombre activities zone, much less powerful or transformative than a simple slab over a mass grave, commemmorating what's underneath. It's the bones that make the difference, that make the site sacred. A conceptual un-fun-house like Libeskind's museum isn't talking to God. Maybe that's the point: that it can't, that it has to remain merely conceptual –it can only engage all' unsre Vernunft without any hope of attaining to der Friede Gottes— in order not in turn to implicate itself in the violence it is supposed to be abhorring.

We have veered to speak of buildings with unseen corpses that serve as hidden, unwritten messages, that charge the buildings with a sort of life and place them within a sociocosmic context that includes the gods. There are also corpses with unseen written messages: Etruscan mummies, for example, are wrapped in strips of cloth covered in text, but the text faces inward, towards the corpse, so that it can only be read if it is unwrapped, which is never supposed to happen. Again, an example –not architectural this time, but strictly funereal– of inscriptions not meant to be read by humans. It is difficult to make sense of this today, because we suppose we are the only beings in the cosmos that know how to read, the only beings for whom inscriptions are worth the trouble. The invocational or magical character of writing is as foreign to us as the sacralization of buildings by hidden bones or unreadable text.

This is just a blog post, written from memory in a hotel room, without footnotes or any apparatus that deserves to be called scholarly in any way. It arises simply from some reflexions of mine that have been triggered during my walk today around the old-town of Hannover. In Lower Saxony it is very common to see Stockwerk houses (I forget the English term: I have in mind houses built with thick slabs of wood, vertical, horizontal, and diagonal, and with concrete in between the slabs) with plattdeutsch or archaic German phrases carved or painted into the wood, phrases that may be lines of prayer, but more generally are expressions of folk piety, such as the contrast between peace in God and the finiteness of our rational faculty. If pressed, one could only say that these inscriptions are for God and for mortals at the same time. They are there to remind the people to be pious, and to assure God, on the presumption that he is paying attention, that these houses are inhabited by pious people.

It seems to me most pious writing is like this. When I think about it –and I admit I am no Cambodianist– it's hard to understand what an inscription intended for a god alone would be like. Even if the inscription contains no practical information, even if it addresses a god as thou, even if the vulgar are meant to feel in reading it that they are reading something they aren't meant to read, still, it seems, inscriptions are for people. Addressed to God or the gods, perhaps, but meant to be noticed by mortals.

IMG_0833 But maybe my saying this has to do with the fact that I was born in a very different sort of historical era than the one that first gave us the Stockwerk inscriptions: a historical era that now sought to project a very different sort of message on the façades of its buildings. The image to the right, for example, which I assume is a renovated building from the late 19th century, announces that it is a business partner of the Liebig Bouillon Company. It is safe, to say the least, to assume that this is a message intended for mortals, and not for the gods.

There are countless ways of describing the famous disenchantment of the modern world, first diagnosed by Max Weber and bemoaned by many after him. But perhaps it is best understood through illustration, and perhaps the best illustration of it is in the façades of buildings: the modern world is characterized by the fact that the inscriptions on buildings are meant to project industry rather than piety; not only are they not meant directly for God, they aren't even supposed to be noticed by God par hasard. Hell, what God?

It's hard to imagine what the future's counterparts to today's Indologists, trying to make sense of ancient Cambodian Sanskrit monuments, will for their part make of the shift from piety to commerce in our buildings' inscriptions. It might not be all that easy for them to detect the shift as we suppose. From a certain cultural distance, a building's reference to extract of meat might not immediately appear as prima facie non-religious, as contrasting directly with the folk piety of preceding centuries. Perhaps they will assume that a cult of animal sacrifice reemerged within the history of Christianity.

One striking similarity of our modern inscriptions –'advertisements', they're called– to the Sanskrit inscriptions described by Pollock is that they often seem to be of no place. It is said that the Sanskrit cultural sphere differed from, say, the Roman Empire, in that in the South Asian case there was no center to which all roads led; the center could be reproduced anywhere the same cultural symbols were projected (thus the Mekong River derives its name from a Khmer transformation of the Sanskrit for 'Mother Ganges'; it made no difference that it was not actually the same river, and it was not perceived as a copy or derivative, but rather as a full-fledged instance).

And similarly, are we not at the center of the action today wherever brand name snacks and clothes are advertised, sold, and consumed? Wasn't that the whole function of Coca-Cola, for example, during the era of the Pax Americana: to convince any third-world peasant who might see an ad for it in town and who might hope to possess a bottle of it that he was in some sense already in America, and that this was far better than whatever cheap knock-offs the Soviets could hope to offer? How could there be a successful third-world International within the cultural-geographical space of Coke?

In any case there will be a lot of interpretive work to be done, and making sense of the messages of capitalism, who they are really for and what they really mean, could in retrospect offer up a mystery as great as that of the Cambodian monuments.

For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.

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