I’ve taught Arabic language for years. One of the things students appreciate about Arabic is that the pronunciation of any text follows exactly from the pronunciation of the letters in front of you. No wasted letters, and no surprises. Whatever is on the page gets pronounced, every letter of it. No ‘ph’ is sometimes pronounced ‘f’ as in ‘telephone’. Why not just use an ‘f’? And no silent ‘e’ at the end of words either. Everything that is present is said and always said the same way.
I was trying to explain the silent ‘e’ to an Arab friend who had just started studying English. “Why use letters you don’t say?” he asked, “It doesn’t make sense.” I totally appreciate his frustration. In the end I had to agree and suggest he just memorize the weirdness and live with it. From his perspective, though, letters are meant to be spoken, pronounced, said. That’s what they’re there for.
I don’t know why thinking about this led me to a meditation upon divine transcendence and apophaticism. I think it was the concept of the ‘silence’ involved in that final ‘e’. There it is, but unspoken. It is present in its silence, a silence which is presence, not absence. Somehow that got me wondering about the silent ‘e’ as an analogy of apophatic silence. Remember — this is just an analogy. Try to enjoy it a bit before dismembering it. I know God is not a letter, and not just one thing in an inventory of things that comprise the whole. Still, part of the job of analogies is that they, hopefully, simulate the unknown and unfamiliar in terms we can conceive; here, a kind of appreciation for that transcendence which is ineffable or speechless though its effects are everywhere evident and felt by virtue of its presence, not its absence — like the silent ‘e’ at the end of a word.
‘Sin’ and ‘Sine’ (in trigonometry). ‘Cap’ and ‘Cape’. ‘Cub’ and ‘Cube’. You’re reading these words so you’re visualizing them. The analogy doesn’t work in that mode. Think ‘audibly’. Say the words. It’s then that you experience the felt effects of silence. A silence which is present in its effects. There the ‘e’ is the whole time, unspoken but yet said in everything else that is said. Even the very meaningfulness of what is said is shaped by this silence. We know this ‘e’ is present from how we say what is said, not in saying it (viz., the ‘e’). It is present in the pronunciation of all else. Analogously, apophatic silence in theology is the silence of that which cannot be said in and of itself but which does not on account of this silence become the negation of what is said. Rather, it becomes the rule of the meaningfulness of all that is said. This is a different way of saying what we alluded to in reference to Marion’s “saturated phenomenon.” It’s a bit like saying God is the silent ‘e’ at the end of life itself. Not at the end of our life in the sense of our death, but in the sense that life is properly said (lived, enjoyed and known) through what cannot itself be reduced to speech.