WORDS, TENGRISM, AND WITTGENSTEIN

-A personal reflection by David Parry

Words are not as they seem. They neither yield to linguistic analysis, nor allow an uninitiated mind to unravel their secrets. A staggering fact haunting Tamburlaine the Great (died 1405), ultimately frustrating Abai (1845-1904), although stimulating my colleague Sultan Raev (born 1958) in his theatrical productions. Perhaps this is why I have always dreamed of unpacking the word “Tengri”. An exploration (possibly), making me the firstEuropean to delve into Central Asian Spiritualism.

Indeed, my mind’s eye already watches me dance with regional shamen to interpret the agitated sounds inside a beehive. Or recite tribal songs along with the Bards of Kirghizia and, thereby, share the memories of ancient hero’s from ages past. Undoubtedly, when indulging in such reveries, I can almost feel my drum beating alongside those of young warriors on the endless and anxious steppes. After all, there is so much more to the lexical item “Tengrism” than the simple “animism” or “totemism” belonging to a primitive past. So very much more than merely the primal runes of preindustrialized Turkic clans bereft of a continuous civilization.

Unbelievably more, I suspect, than the type of Paganism, which nonetheless evolved
into esoteric knowledge concerning the Breath of breaths – an old Sufi phrase. So conjectured, Tengrism, is akin to a spiritual vocabulary, a lifestyle preserving deep ancestral wisdoms as well as a type of sensual mysticism characteristic of Turkic cultures at their zenith.

Of course, dictionaries attempt to define Tengrism, albeit in a pedestrian sense. Enclosed in their academic covers, these volumes speak of populist views contending Tengriism is a nationalist religion. Described alternatively, they argue this religious ideology is an attempt to discover meaning through harmonious collaborations with our surrounding environment. It is a stance that modern Tengriist devotees are said to embody as poets and wrestlers. Men who understand that by living an upright and respectful life, a human being will keep his world in balance, whilst maximizing personal power.

Undoubtedly, other sources claim Tengrism was the underlying philosophy of ancient Turkic States like Göktürk Khaganate, Avar Khaganate, Western Turkic Khaganate, and Eastern Tourkia. One may additionally read in Irk Bitig, that Tengri is Türük Tängrisi (the God of Turks). An epithet revived in contemporary times amid intellectuals advocating the political necessity of a clearly Turkic “language consciousness” within Tatarstan, Buryatia and Kazakhstan. So observed, in decades subsequent to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Tengrist concepts obviously held their ground in Sakha, Khakassia and Tuva, along with other micro Turkic populations in Siberia.

All of this is reminiscent, at least to me, of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s (1889-1951), thoughts concerning context and tradition. A position meticulously detailed in The Blue and Brown Books, wherein traces of Wittgenstein’s linguistic radicalization into an independent, highly reflective, and truly analytical thinker, become apparent. Especially, it should be stressed, on issues like grammar, rulefollowing, and private language. Above dispute, his evolved discernments claim language has a wide range of purposes, each defining a specific “language-game”. In themselves, such “games” include a picturing of facts, despite extending to our sense of self, prayer, soul, poetry, cursing, and ceremonial enactments. Their potential range is endless, because even paradox insinuates a reality beyond itself.

Astonishingly, in these latter stages of his inquiries, Wittgenstein abjectly refused to reduce language into a utilitarian functionality orsingle pattern. Conversely, he discovers significance underneath every type of expression in its own terms. For instance, Sect. 43 Philosophical Investigations says, “For a large class of cases though not for all – in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” Herein Wittgenstein is not offering a general theory that “meaning is use,” as he is sometimes interpreted as doing.

Neither does Wittgenstein forget to warn us against rival views, whereby the meaning of a word is directly related to some object it names – inferring the meaning of a word could be disassembled, locked away, or stolen. Undoubted nonsense! Nor is he positing that the meaning of a word is merely a psychological feeling – hinting every user of a word could mean something slightly different by it, or have a vaguely different feeling – making communication tantamount to impossible. Rather, Wittgenstein is suggesting that knowing the meaning of a word can involve grasping many things: to what objects the word refers (if any), whether it is slang or not, what part of speech it occupies, whether it carries subtle overtones, (and, if so, what kind they are), and so on.To know all this – or to know enough of these associations to get by – is to know the usage. Consequently, a “general knowing” of the use means knowing the meaning.

By extension, for Wittgenstein, as one comes to comprehend the nature of the language-game being played within an already given, agreed, situation, philosophical perplexity disappears. Contrarily to wondering what a word represents for a language user, any fair-minded observer will expect to uncover “family resemblances” in its usage among a vast number of possible applications for each word. What is more, these “forms of life” shape our experience. Unarguably then, these inherited structures allow us to orientate ourselves within a given context. So if a camel could speak, Wittgenstein would maintain, none of us would be able to really understand it.

One might realise with the course of time “bleat” meant “wolf”, while “bleat, bleat” means “injured wolf”, yet we would not understand camel politics, ethics, aesthetic tastes and such like – if camels enjoy these things. One could never honestly say, “I know what you mean” to a camel, due to the fact understanding someone else involves structural empathy. It demands the kind of intimate familiarity one simply does not have with camels, as well as, sadly, the vast majority of other human beings. At the end of the day, therefore, Wittgenstein would approve of the idea that spoken language is the icing on an extremely fancy cake. Our gestures, surroundings, beliefs and expressions, animating the essential confines of an active language game: a culture, a tradition, a form of life.

As a case in point, if a portrait by Thomas Gainsburough (1727-1788) means something, it must mean something to someone. Its meaning is not merely being an objective property of the picture – similar to its size and shape. The same goes for any mental picture. The things one does and says, the way one behaves, our interactions with a given, consanguineous, communicationcontinuum, all mould our individual and collective meaning. To conclude, any overview of Wittgenstein, or Tengrism for that matter, inevitably suffers from divergent social timelines and other textual torments.

Overall, it is hard to know where to stop, let alone what to edit. For the sake of clarity, this confided, my association with Wittgenstein started as a shared joy in letters. Without question, both Wittgenstein and I love language. Equally, we accept its primacy in human affairs. As such, it endlessly saddens me that Wittgenstein is so often marginalised or misunderstood, especially within the arena of experimental and theological arts. Unarguably, there are notable exceptions, like Fergus Kerr (born 1931) – even though they appear hampered by the majority of Wittgenstein “scholars” who themselves wield a cognitive blunderbuss bequeathed to them by cowardly university faculties eager to denude Wittgenstein’s message – a weapon shooting everywhere, but ultimately hitting nothing.

Turning – as they are desperately trying to – Wittgenstein’s work into an instrument of disenchantment and a cause for concern amongst those groups who prize the best of our human endowments – the sanctity and grace of spiritual Tradition. However, Wittgenstein is an unsuspected ally and friend – particularly, perhaps, towards Tengrists. When all is said and done, he is a much more “conservative” man this is often realised, never “a secular mole who lives in a hole”, nor a mystic feared of grappling with the world. Facts making him, maybe, the rarest of philosophical commodities. Instead, he wants to proclaim from the rooftops that we are the way we live – whether wrestlers, poets, adherents of Tengri, Sufi’s, or Spiritualists.

Allowing me, in turn, to shamelessly declare analytic Art is the greatest religion. And Tengrism is pure Art. A remark Wittgenstein would have applauded, along with a questing attitude towards Turkic cultures that will inevitably take his work outside the narrow confines of Eurocentric academia into Central Asian fields awaiting the crosspollination of vocabularies.

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