I once wrote a short story for workshop that involved, I believe, the narrator dismissing any approach to grief informed by the Kabbalah as guilty of a kind of heretical dualism. It wasn’t this-worldly enough. Afterward, a classmate stopped me and said, “You know, for all your complaints, you do start sounding awfully Kabbalistic when you talk about language.” It was one of those remarks that made me stop. Certainly with respect to that story—and more than I’d like with respect to myself—she was right.
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It may be, to use Kierkegaard’s distinction, that doubts about the past tense of the verb are ‘aesthetic.’ The status of the future of the verb is at the core of existence. It shapes the meaning we carry of the meaning of life, and of our personal place in that meaning.
I recall the shock I experienced as a young child when I first realized that statements could be made about the far future, and that these were, in some sense, licit. I remember a moment by an open window when the thought that I was standing in an ordinary place and ‘now’ could say sentences about the weather and those trees fifty years on, filled me with a sense of physical awe. Future tenses, future subjunctives in particular, seemed to me possessed of a literal magical force. –George Steiner, After Babel (p. 145)
I wish that I had more of a comment than the urge to continue further block-quoting; for my sake more than yours, I’ve been trying lately to formulate something coherent on Steiner. Instead, I have only the personal:
Much of my sympathy with Steiner comes from my own experiences with languages. His claims tend to “feel” right before I take the time to puzzle out whether they are. Tenses are no exception. The future tense of Yiddish is grammatically simple, but the reason I managed to grasp the concept in only a few minutes is that it is, essentially, the same as the English simple future. Latin was more complicated, but (certainly when my Latin wasn’t as rusty as it is now) I felt confident saying that I had a firm, student’s grasp of its futures.
This has never been the case with Greek. I can conjugate into and out of its myriad future nuances, but to claim I ever began to understand them is a lie. Future conditionals I have finally gotten straight on the level of formula (after nearly six years!) but I cannot satisfactorily describe the distinctions among the vivid, more vivid, and less vivid constructions. I’ve also never heard a description that was satisfactory. There is something embedded into the future tenses of Greek that reminds me, whenever I see them, that I will always be embedded in that “jumpy beat of American English” (as Roth had it), no matter how much I sometimes try to be a Hellene.
And, similarly, nothing makes the Bible itself feel a part of some past so deep we cannot imagine it as that remarkable flattened (yet remarkably expressive) perfected-incomplete tense dualism of ancient Hebrew. That I am closer to the rabbis than the prophets or patriarchs should come as no surprise—but when the language itself stands, accusing, with Isaiah, the gulf seems that much wider.
But the past tenses are different. Greek and Latin in their bracketed and deepening series of pasts are not only comprehensible, but strike me as the way past and past tense ought to be understood. I find myself immeasurably frustrated by the simple, almost foreshortened, past tense of Yiddish. The mame loshn is, in this regard, wholly alien. And, unlike Steiner and Kierkegaard, I’m not certain that the past tense is merely aesthetic—that it has no connection to how one ought to understand the future tenses and futurity.