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Words Transcend Walls in “Unknown Language”

Our review of "Unknown Language" by Hildegard von Bingen and Huw Lemmey.

It’s easy to become caught up in the conventions of realist literary fiction as representative of fiction itself. After all, it’s a reign that has stretched from Balzac to the present day, and the modern strain of American cinematic fiction only reinforces this understanding. But the expanse of work situated in and against realism doesn’t diminish the wholly original gleam of Unknown Language, from Hildegard von Bingen and Huw Lemmey. Unknown Language is one of the most unique books I’ve read this year, from its composition and narrative down to its very aim. A sort of Christian Siddhartha, Unknown Language is a journey into faith and self-reliance, steeped in spirituality but free from constraint.

Hildegard von Bingen, credited as one of the authors of the book, was a German abbess and is now recognized as a Catholic Saint, known for her vast musical compositions and her role in Christian mysticism. She claimed to have visions that showed her God’s will, wrote a large body of music and plays, and created a language whose name has been borrowed to be the title of this book, and the name of the publisher, Ignota Books. Hildegard and her work has seen something of a resurgence in recent years. She’s of particular interest to feminist theologians and scholars, as through the composition and performance of her music, the written descriptions of the visions she saw, as well as through running the monastery she was the abbess of, she was arguably the first Benedictine nun to preach.

Like Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse’s novel of philosophical fiction whose narrative builds off the life and teachings of the Buddha as a way of conveying spiritual ideas, Unknown Language crafts a narrative around Hildegard von Bingen and her Christian mysticism. However, unlike the well-documented tenets of Buddhism and even the life of the Buddha himself, Hildegard von Bingen’s ideas are far less widespread, despite her extensive canon of produced work.

Unknown Language consists of three sections. Opening the book is a series of poetic fragments by Bhanu Kapil, describing a far future where Hildegard’s teaching is rediscovered by a character known as Pinky Agarwalia. These fragments are deeply evocative of a world beyond the page. In the end of the book, poet Alice Sprawls writes on the interpretation, significance, and life of Hildegard von Bingen, in the form of a lecture transcript delivered by “Dr. A. Sprawls at the first Speculative Mysticism conference.” Sprawls’ writing serves as useful context for the narrative it follows, detailing Hildegard’s admission to Benedictine monastic life, ascension to abbess, and the process by which she became perhaps the first woman in the Benedictine order to describe her own religious experiences.

Lemmey’s narrative, which makes up the majority of the book, follows a woman working as a low-level clerk in an unnamed city. The vocabulary used by the narrator defies classification and remains difficult to pin down. Ostensibly, the setting is contemporary, referencing cars and SIM cards and other modern conveniences, though you wouldn’t know that from the language. The narrator (who is, if not Hildegard herself, at least deeply connected to her) writes of Christianity and faith using a vocabulary far removed from our time. Together, these give the book a timeless, allegorical feel.

The narrator describes a series of visions, one of which being holy beasts on the horizon, ready to tear apart the city. This vision comes true soon enough, as the city descends into chaos after being taken over by angels who turn the city into a site of divine judgment and retribution. The angels in the novel don’t take the cherubic form of your Aunt’s porcelain collection, but rather the order of the almighty contained are that of the eldritch horrors of the old testament; all fire and wings and eyes. In fact, despite her piety, the holy occupation that befalls the city and the narrator isn’t a salvation, but instead a sort of ceaseless damnation.

Fearing the coming judgment for her role in the administration, and following a terrifying interrogation by an angel, the narrator decides to flee the city walls. Her journey takes her from rural abode into the pastoral. It’s not just a progression from city to country, however; as the city walls fall farther into the distance, so too do the conventions that came with it, until civilization as we know it is left behind. Eventually she reaches a forest, and this far out, language itself falls away; when she finds a group of refugees to fall in with, she notes that they communicate primarily through a series of grunts.

Among this group is a woman the narrator takes an interest in. At first, the narrator counts the differences between the woman and herself, whom she notes would have been someone her department (the health administration) in the city would have dealt with. While it’s clear the intent here, I found these comments by the narrator, and the exposition of the woman’s story, to be one of the few weaknesses of the work. For a story about escaping judgment, they feel oddly pejorative rather than descriptive, and I wonder if the differences between the pair could’ve been handled with a bit more care.

Of course, this interest blossoms into love, and the two branch off from the group with only each other to rely on, looking for safety beyond the wall. Even between these lovers, language is something that has to be re-learned, re-built. At first halting, gradually their communication builds into true understanding. 

Unknown Language really is unlike any other book I’ve read this year. It merges poetry, prose, and essayic writing into a book much greater than the sum of its parts. Each section alone offers something that resonates beyond the page, and in concert they all feel necessary towards conveying Hildegard von Bingen’s expansive impact. The book is stirring and evocative, even for someone like me with little connection to the Christian mythos. But Unknown Language‘s true strength is in creation. Like Hildegard von Bingen herself, Unknown Language imagines a new mode of being, a way of life outside of the confines of contemporary society. By introducing a new vocabulary, it offers access to an expanse beyond its covers.

FICTION
Unknown Language
By Hildegard von Bingen and Huw Lemmey
Ignota Books
September 17, 2020

Editor’s Note: Unknown Language is available globally from Ignota Books starting September 17th, and in the US through a distributor on December 15th.

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