The Lion and the Ball: On the Secret of Language

To conclude his discussion of an essay by a ninth-century Iraqi writer, “The Guarding of the Secret and the Holding of the Tongue,” Daniel Heller-Roazen concedes, “Al-Jāḥiẓ, to be sure, limits his reflections to matters that one can conceal, and that one ought, for this reason, to keep under lock and key. On the subject of the repository of all human secrets, which no one owns,

the author holds his tongue. At the risk of peering into that guarded common coffer and imagining something where there is nothing, one can, however, pose this question: might language guard something of its own, hidden in everything that is said? Might there be a cryptic thing in speech, distinct from the many matters that one can also store in it? […] The secret of language would be neither of something nor of someone. No skill of speech, therefore, could master it. Yet it would be discernible to the ear and to the eye, even as it accompanied all the motions of the tongue and pen, not least the one that brings them, at the crucial moment, to a halt.[1]

The early ‘Abbāsid essayist “limits his reflections to matters that one can conceal,” but “on the subject of the repository of all human secrets, which no one owns”—in a word, language—“the author holds his tongue.” How is one to characterize that act of discretion? What, in its very reserve, will it have disclosed?

According to the seventeenth-century Chinese critic Jin Shengtan, writing is successful when, “first fixing one’s attention on a point, one turns the paintbrush all around this point while letting it evolve continuously.”[2] The late Ming writer offers an image in illustration.

This entirely resembles the lion that rolls the ball at the circus. It is only the ball that matters, but it allows the lion to use all of his agility. In an instant, everyone in the arena watching the lion is dazzled. But the lion is not directly concerned: the people stare at the lion, but he stares at the ball. What is thus whirling around is the lion, but what makes him whirl around in every direction is always the ball.[3]

That around which every such motion turns, no less than that whose position, as its accompaniment, limns each continuously evolving movement, might the “point” central to all eloquence in the remark of the Chinese critic suggest the darkling figure of that “cryptic thing” exposed, in language, by all the subtlety of that protective tact to which the Iraqi essayist had not fail to hold? Perhaps no more, on one pass, than this side of an instant’s dazzling brush with it.



[1] Daniel Heller-Roazen, The Secrets of al-Jāḥiẓ / Die Geheimnisse des al-Jāḥiẓ (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2012), 11.

[2] Jin Shengtan, quoted in François Jullien, Detour and Access: Strategies of Meaning in China and Greece, trans. Sophie Hawkes (New York: Zone Books, 2000), 336.

[3] Jullien, Detour and Access, 336.



Michael Munro is author of the open access chapbooks, The Communism of Thought (Punctum Books, 2014), and And Memory (Alice Blue Books, 2014).

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