Language in the Latter Days

by Jessica Wilbanks

A hundred years ago the world was ending in the same way it seems to be ending now. In Paris and London crowds thronged the streets, chanting against their enemies. Artists picked up blacks and reds and blues and painted apocalyptic landscapes, and nation rose up against nation until the whole world was caught in the sticky web of war. Young people saw visions of rivers of blood swallowing up the countryside, and the elderly dreamed of a battle that could wash away everything evil in the world. Winston Churchill wrote to his wife, “Everything tends toward catastrophe and collapse. I am interested, geared up, and happy. . . . The preparations have a hideous fascination for me.” That was in the summer of 1914, when soldiers still smelled like spit-shined boots and brand-new canvas rucksacks—before mustard gas, before the machine gun, before lice and disease, before the casualties numbered half a million at the Battle of the Marne alone.

In those last days before the end of the world even the most straitlaced philosophers started hearing the voice of God. Ludwig von Wittgenstein was twenty-five years old when the war began, a touchy aristocrat living by himself on a fjord in a small Norwegian village, dividing his time between solving logic puzzles and whistling. It wouldn’t last. By the time he was twenty-six he was stationed on a cramped gunboat on the Vistula River, guarding Poland’s border from Russian advances. At first he resisted his lot, writing letters home about his stupid shipmates and counting the days until the war was over. But gradually he learned to love the long nights he spent on the bridge of the Goplana, alone in all kinds of weather, manning the searchlight while reading and sketching out philosophical propositions. Perhaps there was something in his altered circumstance that appealed to his particular temperament. Before the war he had written to a friend, “Deep inside me there’s a perpetual seething, like the bottom of a geyser, and I keep hoping that things will come to an eruption once and for all, so that I can turn into a different person.”

***

I know something about latter-day fever. When I was a girl back in the Cold War days, I squirmed beside my parents in a converted gymnasium-cum-sanctuary, watching big-eyed as our pastor paced the edge of the threadbare stage. He spoke about a time when the Lord cleaved close to men and walked among them, speaking to them in their own language, often rattling them up a bit before they could hear him. A burning bush. A staff softening into a snake. A fleece wet by morning on the dry ground. A dead man walking. But then the centuries rolled by and the voice of the Lord seemed to fade.

Pastor Jim stopped at the edge of the altar, gripping his microphone and cocking his head at one of the elders. “Was God just tired of talking?” he asked. “Had the Lord said enough?”

“No, brothers and sisters,” he answered in a quiet voice, pulling his eyeglasses off and blotting his forehead with a stained handkerchief. “The Lord had plenty to say. But we stopped listening and fell to sin instead. We had eyes, but we did not see; we had ears, but we did not hear.”

Our pastor paged through his Bible and called out Scriptures, arguing that we were in the season of Pentecost, close to the great and terrible end. He read of the hidden manna and the white garments and the new names, the lake of fire and the solitary eagle, the locusts and the bottomless pit. He said that just before the coming trials and tribulations, before the sun turned to darkness and the moon to blood, the righteous would be carried up into the air. And then he reminded us that no one knew the day or hour of the Lord’s return. We would only know the end was coming from the signs we were given. Nation would rise up against nation and there would be war and rumors of war. Pastor Jim counseled us to follow the example of the five wise virgins from the book of Matthew, who kept their lamps full of oil because the bridegroom could return at any moment. If our lamps flickered out and we forgot the Lord’s commandments, we would be barred from the wedding feast.

We knew we wouldn’t have long to wait. All the signs were there—plagues were spreading in the northern cities, earthquakes rattled Central America and Asia, the United Nations was gaining power, and a red heifer had been born in Jerusalem. As promised, the Lord was already equipping his faithful for the last days. Young men were seeing visions, old men were dreaming dreams, and God himself was blessing his people with the gift of strange tongues. Some of us already had that gift. My father’s prayer language was guttural and vaguely Arabic, and my mother’s was higher-toned and melodic. After Pastor Jim’s sermon that day, while he prayed that the Lord would pour his spirit on the people, I lifted my hands to the sky and prayed fast and furious, hoping that God would bless me with a latter-day language of my own.

That evening, I put on my rosebud-patterned flannel pajamas and looked up at the lacy canopy over my bed, thinking of famines and earthquakes. I imagined that I’d be a teenager when the Lord returned, and wondered if I would have my first kiss before I was raptured up to meet the Lord in the clouds. I wasn’t sure how I’d fare in the last days. I wondered if I’d be strong enough to keep the faith.

***

Later that fall, as his army struggled to subdue Russia, Wittgenstein took a day of leave and ambled around Poland, stumbling upon a bookshop that seemed to sell only postcards. Among all those miniature paintings of Polish landscapes was one single book: Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief, in which the great novelist painstakingly distilled Jesus’s teachings into lecture form, slicing out all the miracles and horrors. Gone are the loaves and the fishes, the water and the wine, the resurrection, the Lord’s return, and the weeping and gnashing of teeth. In Tolstoy’s gospels, Jesus doesn’t tell his followers that they’ll be tortured and killed during the end of days. Instead, he explains that God lives within the hearts of those who love one another. He says that while there will be great lawlessness and war in the future, it will be followed by a reign of peace—an end to evil and temptation. The Jesus in Tolstoy’s gospels teaches his disciples to live his message now, in the present moment, rather than waiting for the messiah to descend from heaven in a chariot of fire.

It was a message tailor made for a philosopher at war. Wittgenstein had given up religion as a child and had been known to bully Christians, but night after night, as the gunboat rocked in the waves, he read that slim volume until he knew whole passages by heart and became known to his crewmates as the man with the Gospels. He would later tell his friends that the book had kept him alive. As the fighting raged on for three more years, Wittgenstein kept seeking comfort in both God and philosophy. Gradually his work became an odd hybrid of mysticism, ethics, and philosophical reflection. He believed he had created a new way of doing philosophy, one that did not limit itself to logic alone, but also said something about the essence of the world. By the time the war ended, there was a sheaf of papers with a set of numbered propositions tucked into his rucksack. The first postured that there was indeed a world, and it was made up of facts rather than objects. The last spoke to the limits of what can and should be said, and thus the limits of logic and philosophy. The last lines of the manuscript read: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”

When it was finally published, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus would turn philosophy on its head, but by then Wittgenstein had given up his ambitions. He dreamed instead of becoming a priest, so he could spend his days teaching Bible stories to children. When a monastery rejected his application, he gave up his fortune and took a job as a primary teacher in a remote village in Austria. His family and friends protested, saying that using an intellect like his to teach children was like using a precision instrument to open crates. His friend Bertrand Russell wrote, “He has become a complete mystic . . . but I think (though he wouldn’t agree) that what he likes best about mysticism is its power to make him stop thinking.”

***

The Pentecostal faith of my childhood was born ten years before the nineteenth century rolled over, from a great optimism and a great impatience. The optimism came from the feeling that something could still be done to redeem the world before the Lord’s return, to save those who still needed to be saved. The impatience came from the fact that time was short, that any day the promised smoke and fire and vapor would swallow up the faithful and heathen alike. Circuit riders tore through the country preaching fire and brimstone, reminding the people of God’s power to heal the sick and raise the dead. Behind the words of their sermons a staccato rhythm pulsed, an ever-quickening drumbeat that tapped out the time left until the end of the world.

In rural Missouri, a milk-fed seventeen-year-old girl named Jennie Glassey left her family in their seats at a camp meeting and raced up the aisle to claim her share of the kingdom. She repeated the words to a black-bearded traveling preacher’s salvation prayer, and then she threw off her future like a too-tight corset and pledged herself to the service of God until the end of time. Jennie’s family probably thought her newfound faith would wind down to a slow, steady hum, but days later God himself appeared at her bedside and told her to spread his message in the mission fields of West Africa. At first she resisted the Lord’s call, saying that she was just a girl without means who couldn’t speak any African languages. And then the Lord promised her that he would pave the way before her and grant her the ability to speak in foreign tongues.

Jennie obeyed, leaving her parent’s farm and following the traveling preacher and his wife to St. Louis. Four days after her baptism, Jennie fell into a trance in which an angel presented her with a heavenly scroll, marked with strange characters that she had never seen before. She told reporters that the angel first read the book of Psalms and then the entire Bible aloud in the Croo language. She followed along in her Scottish brogue, riffing and rolling between tricky syllables, until that tongue seemed as natural as English.

Later that summer, Jennie stood up in front of a raucous crowd at a faith-healing camp meeting and gave her testimony. After demonstrating the many languages the Lord had given her—Khoominar and Housa, as well as German, French, and Latin—she told of her plans to travel as a missionary to Africa. When someone asked how she would finance her trip, she tossed her auburn hair and replied that she didn’t have any money, but she was confident that the promises of God were sufficient, and she would not starve.

“Wonderful if true,” the headlines read as far away as Atlanta, “Ignorant girl acquires the gift of tongues.” As Jennie set off for Sierra Leone by way of Liverpool, her story crackled across the Atlantic, and the Spirit continued to spread. At midnight on the first day of the new millennium, a farmer’s daughter in Kansas City lifted her voice to the heavens and got the promised gift. A halo appeared around her head, and for three days she could speak only in Chinese. A preacher named Charles Parham spread her story far and wide, and then in 1906, days after the San Francisco earthquake, a revival broke out in a storefront church in Los Angeles. Hundreds of faithful packed into a tiny wood-frame church on Azusa Street, where William Seymour, the son of a slave, presided over the congregation and a woman who had never before had a talent for piano played beautiful melodies while singing in those mystical tongues that Jennie Glassey first claimed.

Liverpool was only meant to be the first stop on Jennie Glassey’s journey to Sierra Leone, but when she and her companions arrived in that sprawling port city, they ran out of money and were taken in by a sympathetic evangelist. For three long years they saved and scrounged, never giving up hope. Jennie wrote cheerful letters back to the states telling of new evidence of the Lord’s faithfulness. She claimed to receive thirteen new teeth at the hand of the Lord, as well as more languages, and according to her companions she even acquired a sudden and mysterious talent for needlework and instrumental music. But when a representative from a church mission group arrived in Liverpool to investigate her claims of miraculous languages, Jennie kept her mouth closed. She wrote later that when the missionary instructed her to speak in tongues, she felt an unseen force surrounding her, compelling her to be silent.

Jennie Glassey kept her lamp filled until the end of her life, though the bridegroom tarried far longer than expected and she never made it to Africa. She and her fellow missionaries ended up in Palestine instead, but when they arrived it turned out the Palestinian people couldn’t understand a word they said. Her companions headed back to America in shame, but Jennie spent another fourteen years as a missionary, roaming the deserts and spreading the word of the Lord with the help of a native woman who served as her interpreter. God, who could do all things, had given Jennie thirteen new languages with which to speak, but in the end it seemed that he had given her the wrong ones.

***

At a house party in Houston several years ago I met a poet named Max with a long white beard. When we found out that we both grew up breathing the fumes of the apocalypse, we retreated to the rickety back porch with our beers and split a pack of American Spirits. We told each other stories of the days when we thought we’d be carried out of the calendar at any minute, into a realm outside of time and language. Max talked about a time when he was eight years old and the school bus dropped him off in front of his suburban home outside of Houston. He opened the door, threw off his backpack, and began calling out to his mother and brother and sister, but the house was quiet and still. His mother’s purse was in its usual spot on the dining room table, the cereal bowls still filled the sink, and his brother’s and sister’s toys littered the floor. He walked to the front of the house and saw that his mother’s station wagon was still in the driveway, and that’s when his heart started hammering. He raced through the bedrooms, opening closets and looking under beds, hollering names into the basement and laundry room, and then with a sickening realization he knew exactly what had happened. The trumpet had blown, and he had not heard it. His family had floated up to heaven to meet the Lord in the sky, and he had been left behind to face the end of the world alone.

By the time his mother came home from a neighbor’s house with his brother and sister in tow, he was rocking on the floor, inconsolable, tears running down his face and snot plugging up his nose. Max was in his forties when he told me the story, but the beer in his right hand still shook a little when he talked about it.

I never got as close to the end of the world as Max did. All through the nineties the evangelists made dire predictions, but the years came and went to no ill effect. By New Year’s Eve 1999, I had long ago walked away from the church, but my parents stayed faithful and were more nervous than usual in the face of the millennium. In their farmhouse in southern Maryland they stockpiled canned vegetables, turkey chili, and batteries, just in case the news anchors and evangelists were right and the computers failed us, but for reasons none of us quite remember, they decided to ring in the New Year at a Comfort Suites. My six-year-old brother Joshua entertained himself on the forty-minute drive by planning for how we would make it back home when the world ground to a close at midnight.

“The elevators won’t work, so we’ll take the stairs,” he explained. “If the stairs are all clogged up or there’s a fire, then we’ll tie sheets together and climb out the window, Dad first . . .”

My thirteen-year-old brother Sam encouraged him, creating new obstacles for Joshua to wrap his mind around: gangs of thieves in the streets, live electrical wires threading across the roadways, no gas to be found for miles. Joshua faced these imagined challenges with panache. We were a chosen people, and we would make it home.

When we arrived at the hotel we saw that the staff had kindly placed a Y2K survival kit just outside the doors of our rooms. Inside the paper gift bag was a Xeroxed map of the hotel exits, a small keychain flashlight, and two bottles of water, which Sam drank minutes after we arrived. At 9:00 p.m. we ordered pizzas and a two-liter bottle of ginger ale, at 10:00 p.m. my father nodded off on one of the floral polyester bedspreads, and by 11:30 p.m. Sam was flipping through the networks. Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve had been cancelled in favor of a twenty-four-hour millennium command center. Behind a wall of clocks on the ABC news stage sat a tired-looking Peter Jennings, who cut to Connie Chung in Las Vegas or Barbara Walters in Paris every chance he got. One of the news anchors mentioned Jerry Falwell’s prediction that Y2K was God’s instrument to humble the nation in order to spark a worldwide revival, after which the righteous would finally be taken up. My mother eyed our survival kit and set her jaw.

As midnight approached, the camera panned to a screaming crowd in Times Square. Dick Clark advised us we were wise to stay at home, because the moment the ball dropped there would be utter pandemonium. Joshua bounced around the room as the multicolored ball of light slipped slowly down the pole and the countdown began. When the ball fell, pandemonium broke out, just as Dick Clark had predicted, but it was a familiar sort, set to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.”

Joshua ran over to peek behind the draped window. He expected gunshots, fireworks, burning and looting, but all he saw was an empty parking lot. Unable to hide his disappointment, he ran into the hallway and tried the elevator, and the doors popped open as they always did. When he slumped back into the room, my mother poured him some lukewarm ginger ale and served up another slice of pepperoni pizza, and Sam found some cartoons on TV. Meanwhile, my father continued to snore. He’d wake up to a world that was just like the one he’d closed his eyes to a few hours before. There was no bridegroom, no lake of fire, no trials and tribulations. Not yet anyway.

***

Ten years before he watched the world rumble to war a second time, Wittgenstein gave a strange speech to a roomful of students in Cambridge who called themselves the Heretic Society. He was in his forties then and a quieter man, slight with a severe face, a lined forehead, a mop of unruly black hair, and penetrating eyes. He had given up teaching children years ago, much to his family’s delight, and continued rattling the cages of philosophy.

That lecture in Cambridge was the only speech in which Wittgenstein addressed an audience of non-philosophers, and in it he talked not of logical precepts, but rather of the limits of language. Speaking plainly yet forcefully, he stated that words were merely vessels, capable only of conveying natural meaning and expressing facts. They could say nothing about the supernatural, just as a teacup can hold only a cup’s worth of water. All that we could say about the miraculous, Wittgenstein said, is simply nonsense. Our words cannot hold the supernatural, and so in the presence of the supernatural, it is better to say nothing at all.

Looking out at those earnest young faces, he said, “My whole tendency . . . the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language.”

He said, “This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless . . . [it] does not add to our knowledge in any sense.”

And then he said of that tendency, “I personally cannot help respecting it deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.”

***

What do you do when the world won’t end, when there’s no eruption, when you just keep waking up to yet another day in which the sun stays bright in the sky? For decades my parents have watched and waited, keeping their lamps full, even though the bridegroom has never appeared on the horizon. When I visit them in their ramshackle farmhouse in southern Maryland, ancient cans of peas and carrots still line the upstairs hallway by my mother’s bedroom, leftover from all the preparations my parents made the last time we came close to the end.

We are well past the turn of the century now. The evangelists I remember from my childhood have already passed out of this world and into whatever comes next, and there’s no one trumpeting the end of days in quite the same key. I’m in my thirties now, and for the most part I’ve turned away from that latter-day thinking. I no longer have an urge to kick off the future and be raptured away from the realm of logic and language, to meet the Lord in the clouds. Instead, I’ve adjusted to a future that looks a lot like the past. I go on ripping the days off my desktop calendar, buying a new one every January with confidence that I’ll still be tearing the pages off come December.

Most of my days are spent in a sunny room, patiently thumping meaning onto a pixelated screen with a set of plastic keys and springs, wrestling with words for hours at a time until my given language feels less like a cage and more like a temple. I do my best to follow Wittgenstein’s advice, speaking only of what can be spoken about clearly, and leaving the unsayable alone. When the light starts fading around eight o’clock, I pull on sneakers and make my way to the running track that cuts through my neighborhood, pushing my body across the gravel and churning my legs until the sound of rushing blood is all I hear. Or I prop my body onto a cushion and follow the thread of my breath into a reservoir of stillness deep inside of me, where no words are necessary.

It’s only occasionally, late at night, that an age-old seething wakes me up. I come to with a gasp, my arms and legs knotted up among my sheets and blankets. Fragments of red and black dreams are tattooed behind my eyelids, and the echo of horse hooves still vibrate in the back of my skull. My heart races past my brain, and I lie there trembling, willing my breath to even out, reminding myself that I don’t believe in the apocalypse anymore. After a while I sit up in bed, find my glasses, and press a button on my phone so I can see the time. The hours go by in a dusky haze, and I lie there for a while watching the fan blades above my bed chase each other in slow, shadowy circles. My panic subsides, and my mind fills up with the usual stuff of peacetime: stray worries about love and work and money. After a while that bores me, and by the time the first blue light seeps through the blinds, I’m usually tired enough to sleep.

NOTES:

  1. Quotes from Churchill are taken from Churchill by Himself.
  2. Quotes from Wittgenstein are taken from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and “Lecture on Ethics” from Philosophical Investigations.
  3. Sources for Jennie’s Glassey’s story include Gary McGee’s Miracles, Missions, and American Pentecostalism and “Wonderful If True: How an Ignorant Negro Girl Acquired the Gift of Tongues,” The Atlanta Journal Constitution, 7 September 1895.