Entering the void: through Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee

From stone, A single stone.  Column.  Carved on one stone, the labor of figures.  The labor of tongues.  Inscribed to stone.  The labour of voices.

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee, [1982]: University of California Press (2001), p161.

‘Inscribed to stone. The labor of voices.’ Prayer stones – such as this Korean columnar stone bearing an inscribed prayer to Amita-bul (below) – could be described as having the labour of voices, the labour of tongues, inscribed on their surface. The carved ‘figures’ are the words, sounds or syllables of the prayer represented in visual form. These prayers – when spoken, chanted, sung or repeated – become the labour of tongues and voices. The stone inscription codifies, records and fixes that labour in the labour of the carving and represents the labour of the chanting that perhaps accompanies the inscription process. In this way the stone becomes a symbol and reminder of the prayer, and also carryies the prayer’s vibration in its elemental form – both through the carved symbols and through the voices that have prayed or chanted over it. Tibetan ‘mani stones’, often depicting the seed syllables of the Avalokiteshvara mantra, ‘Om mani padme hum‘, bear the inscription of a prayer that is repeated over and over in songlike chanting day after day by devotees.

The passage from Dictee quoted above, then, could be suggestive of a prayer stone. In particular, the Korean prayer stone is a ‘single stone’ in the shape of a ‘column’. However, the full stop between these words in the quotation opens out the word ‘column’ so that, while it remains proximal to the words ‘single stone’ and therefore acts to modify that phrase by telling us more about the single stone as a column, it also stands in distinction from the words that pertain to the stone. As such, the word ‘Column’ can be further modified by the next phrase following its own full stop ‘Carved on one stone’, so that the word ‘column’ acts upon both the description of the ‘single stone’ and the description of the ‘labor of figures’ that is ‘carved on one stone’. This suggests the text may be referring to a Korean prayer stone with a vertical carving inscribed on its surface. In the image below, it is not only the stone that is columnar, but also its inscription. This distinguishes it from the mani stones, which are often (but not always) flat and rounded with the inscription running horizontally from left to right.

A stone prayer to Amita-bul (The Buddha of the Western Paradise) with the Baekryeonam Hermitage grounds behind it. Image from Koreabridge.net / Dale’s Korean Temple Adventures

The repetition of mantra, such as the Om mani padme hum carved onto Tibetan mani stones, is a spiritual practice designed to bring the practitioner into a meditative state of awareness in which the experience of separation between self and other may be transcended and an experience of non-separation, or oneness, may be realised. The various dictionary definitions of mantra – including ‘a word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation’ and ‘a Vedic hymn’ – suggest something of what it might be, but fail to capture the experience that mantra repetition can elicit. Mantra may be recited as japji (spoken repetition) or kirtan (sung or chanted repetition). The prayers carved onto the prayer stones are the same mantras that are recited by practitioners. The ultimate purpose of mantra repetition is to move the practitioner from an ordinary state of worldly awareness – characterised by separation (or alienation) between self and other / subject and object – to a state of awareness in which there is no separation. To enter this awareness is to enter the void.

The Void: the space between self and other. The silence between sounds. Mantra can help to shift our perception of the void, from an empty space of nothingness between two somethings, to the resonant field that is constantly connecting, inhabiting, affecting and comprising those seemingly separate things. From an absence to a presence. From inert to active. From the visibility of our separation to the invisible web of interconnection. Within the void, there is no alienation, all is One.  It is where I locate the utopian.

In Dictee, Cha doesn’t just give a description of something that could be a Korean prayer stone. She uses language’s materiality to activate and energise the Void. In so doing, we – as readers – are invited into that void, into the generative space between things in which possibility dwells. Inside that multitudinous silence is the chance to enter into a utopian relationship of non-separation, or non-alienation.

“In tones, the inscriptions resonate the atmosphere of the column, repeating over the same sounds, distinct words. Other melodies, whole, suspended between song and speech in still the silence.”

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee, [1982]: University of California Press (2001), p162.

This passage from Dictee demonstrates a critical formal intervention into language use that opens up a space of multiplicity and possibility. Cha’s frequent use of spaces between component parts of words generates spaces of multiplicity and proliferation where meaning might otherwise remain closed.  In other words: the space between two words, or between two parts of the same word, can no longer be viewed as inert and empty. By activating those spaces, Cha invites us as readers to be active, too. And she invites us into a reading relationship of non-alienation.

‘In tones, the inscriptions resonate the atmosphere of the column’: Here, the inscriptions on the stone actually resonate (vibrate) the column itself. The inscription of the mantra is enough to energise the vibration of the stone. Mantra is evoked through the reference to repetition, and to the ambiguity between ‘sounds’ and ‘distinct words’, and further in the rhythmic melodies that are ‘suspended between song and speech’. When mantra are chanted, the words become sounds become song.

Cha is doing something far more interesting than describing here, though. The way she uses language constitutes an attempt to perform the function of mantra: that is, to do what mantra does. She makes space active, energising the silence between two words, inviting us into the possibilities of the Void, and meeting us there in non-separation.

In the passage above, the space between the two syllables of ‘In tones’ generates multiple possibilities for reading the word, or words.  The two words written, in tones, constitute a preposition followed by a noun, each of which can have various interpretations. To say that something is ‘in tones’ is to suggest that it is expressed through the medium (‘in’) of a musical or vocal system of sounds modulated by pitch, quality and strength (‘tones’). This suggestion accords with the predominant vocabulary of the quotation, such as ‘resonate’ and ‘sounds’, suggesting that the ‘tones’ here are sonic rather than, say, a visual system of colour gradations painted on the surface.  Further, we can carry the description of the prayer stone into this reading, so that the ‘tones’ can be identified as mantra.

The auditory tones are simultaneously both ‘sounds’ and ‘distinct words’, blurring the distinction between the possible meanings of ‘tones’ as either musical or vocal.  Here the ‘melodies’ are ‘suspended between song and speech’, energising both the potential meanings of sonic tones.  In addition to this doubling of meaning is the further possibility of reading the two separate words as the single word ‘Intones’, a verb meaning to chant, sing or recite.  In this sense, the resonant inscriptions are specifically being chanted, sung or recited as words or sounds by an agent who is an active participant in their sounding.  That is, the mantra inscribed on the stone is also being chanted, sung or recited.

In this reading, it is both the inscribed words and sounds themselves that resonate (like mantra), and the chant of an intoner making the words and sounds resonate. 

A similar reading could be given of the words/word ‘in still’ in the second sentence.  As two words, ‘in still’ suggests that the melodies are in (preposition) the still (adjective) silence. Here, ‘in’ can suggest both ‘within’ and ‘as part of’, that is, the sound itself is vibrating within, or is part of the composition of, the stillness of the silence. The seed syllable ‘Om’, the foundational mantra of many chanting practices, is said to be composed of four sounds: ‘a-u-m+silence’. The silence and the sound co-exist simultaneously, resonating within each other, as distinct yet inseparable elements of the single mantric syllable. Om energises – and is energised by – the silence that both contains it and is contained within it.

As a single word, ‘instill’ is a verb originating from the Latin instillare from in ‘into’ + stillare ‘drop’, defined as ‘gradually but firmly establish[ing] (an idea or attitude) in a person’s mind’ (OED). To instill, as to gradually but firmly establish, suggests here that the melodies themselves instill (create or establish) the silence; moreover, that this is a gradual process. Every Bhakti Yogi – or anyone who has participated in the practice of Kirtan (repetitive chanting of mantra with melodic accompaniment) – will know the sense in which the repetition of sounds and syllables as mantra sung to a rhythmic melody can create an entry point for the practitioner to pass into the stillness of silence within the continuous chanting.

Cha’s use of typographical spacing here is a formal intervention that opens out a single word to multiple possibilities. The reader’s necessary participation in the creation of meaning from these fragments places one into the spaces created by Cha’s language, allowing the position of the chanter/speaker to be occupied, variously and simultaneously, by both the writer and the reader. In allowing multiple interpretations to co-exist, Cha refuses to impose authorial dominance over her reader. Leaving the reading open to multiplicity, instead of closing down its possibilities by directing us towards a single intention as to how these words should be read, means that space is opened for readers to participate in the writing of this text: to co-create meaning from its component materials.

Further, in energising the multiple possibilities latent in the space between the word or words, Cha calls attention to the Void as generative, debunking the myth that the spaces in between things are empty and inert, and invites us as readers to enter.

Cha’s energising the Void between these words performs the very possibility of non-separation, or non-alienation, which I identify as Utopian. In energising the spaces between the word/words ‘In tones’ and the word/words ‘in still’ Cha makes it possible to read either two distinct and separate words (‘in’ + ‘tones’, ‘in’ + ‘still’ separated by space) or one single word comprising two parts (‘in tones’, ‘in still’). The space in between these words is not inert, empty or redundant. By calling attention to the work performed by this space in energising the words it contains and connects, Cha invites us to participate in the possibility that the Void is active, generative, present. Ultimately, here, the work of the Void is to contain the paradox that things may be experienced as both separate and non-separate; to be a dwelling place for multiple possibilities to co-exist simultaneously, even where those possibilities appear to be contradictory.

Readers are not directed to one single interpretation about which word is right, or which word was intended, but are invited to participate in the paradox that both possibilities are present. These words can be seen as both separate and non-separate.

‘In’ and ‘tones’ can be seen as self-contained, independent, individual and distinct words in and of themselves. Separate: like self and other, writer and reader. They can also be read together as a single word, ‘Intones’, energised by the generative space between its component parts. Separated by space, connected by the void. Neither interpretation eclipses nor eliminates the other. Neither is dominant. Both exist, and their co-existence proliferates – rather than reduces – the possibilities for interpretation.

Mantra repetition similarly invites us into a resonant space in which we are paradoxically both distinct and unified. Separate and non-separate. Unique, individual vibrations within a resonant field.

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