Umberto Eco and the Mormon Church

The book is Umberto Eco’s The Search for the Perfect Language (Blackwell: Oxford and Cambridge, 1995. Trans. by James Fentress).

I haven’t finished it yet but Eco, a linguist, philosopher, and novelist, has presented a comprehensive psychology regarding the intellectual underpinnings of scholarly Europe, especially during Renaissance period. This work has confirmed what D. Michael Quinn was exposing in Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Signature Books: Salt Lake City, 1987), specifically, that Joseph Smith was under a heavy occult and Cabbalistic influences that included classic Renaissance occult encyclopedias from Europe and the use of divination and sacred talismans inscribed with Hebrew over Roman dieties.

A few notes:

All of the early church fathers, from Origen to Augustine firmly believed and promoted the idea that Hebrew was the “primordial” language, before Babel, and surviving among the elect after Babel. (15, 74)

Beginning before the Renaissance, European scholars revived an obscure mysticism, called Kaballa, which taught several techniques of uncovering or “deciphering” the hidden meaning of Hebrew words and texts, which involved chants, divinition, cipher wheels, anagrams, or whatever tortured process produced a result that could be construed to make hidden divine sense. This revival was aided by the dispersal of Jews from Spain in 1492. (45-90)

Almost all scholars up until the end of the Renaissance ascribed to some form of Kabbalistic practice or divination. The Ars Combinitoria of Raymond Lull was a good example, a wheel in Latin that used nine principles to near-infinitely arrange themselves as a proto-logical way to persuade anyone the proper reasoning based on the eternal categories (he called them “proofs”).

Talismans in Hebrew, God’s language, were widespread throughout the Renaissance. Based on the assumptions of Kabbalistic influences, “astral magic was practised through words and other signs, because there was a language by which human beings could command the stars. Such miracles can be performed by ‘talismans’, that is, images which might guarantee safe recovery, health or physical prowess.” (118)

“To use this sacred tongue (Hebrew) as an acting force, rather than as a means of communciation, it was not even necessary to understand it. Some, of course, had studied Hebrew grammar in order to discover the revelations therein; for others, however, Hebrew was all the more sacred and efficacious for remaining incomprehensible. The less it was penetrable, the brighter its aura of ‘mana’ shone, and the more its dictates escaped human intelligence, the more they became clear and ineluctable to supernatural agents…Such a language no longer even had to be the original Hebrew. All it needed to do was seem like it. And thus, during the Renaissance, the world of both black and white magic became populated with a vast array of more or less Semitic-sounding names, such as the clutch of angels’ names which Pico released into a Renaissance culture already abundantly muddled by the vagaries of both Latin transliteration and the innocence of the printers–Hasmalim, Aralis, Thesphsraim…” (123)

European scholars finally dropped the magic pretenses and began to question whether language was just another human convention, and not a divine artifact. Greek made a comeback based on a superior logical corpus of writing discovered in Arab libraries, which forcefully lacked any mystical significance. During this time, every major European power tried to promote their language as “closest” to the primordial one before Babel. Eco alludes that this eventually gave rise to Nazi Aryan sentiments.

Note: Eco does not mention this specifically, but it is evident throughout the book of the apparent insanity that the very idea of language brought about when combined with religious text. My own feeling here is that humans undergo a stage where language “is” consciousness, and words and text have more reality than the phenomena that language describes. That’s how a creationist can ascribe more veracity to a set of words in Genesis than to the fossil record itself. Faith in words is such a powerful impulse when it is through these words that one lives the majority of experience.