Monday, December 27, 2004


Then there is the verb "to cleave." I'm told that the sense of "to split" comes from Old English cleofan, while the sense of "to cling" comes from Old English clifian. I wouldn't know; I still remember cleofan, from my former life as a student of Old English poetry, but I don't off-hand remember ever seeing clifian in any text. Of course it's rare in Modern English, too. Fossilized in the wedding vow, or maybe it would have disappeared altogether by now.

Or maybe not. Both verbs run to flesh. The only common sense of the first is also all-but-fossilized, in the combination "meat-cleaver." And the uppermost sense of cleaving in "forsaking all others, and cleaving only unto him" is fleshly.

There may be a perception behind the stubborn survival of these two apparently contradictory meanings in a single verb. On the one hand, a sense of intercourse as wounding; on the other hand a sense of grafting. Things cleave together not because they're glued or tied but because they are cut open, and the raw surfaces brought together then try to heal together.

The People of the Book begin as herdsmen, and the glaring fact about herdsmen is that they slaughter and eat creatures they have tended and cared for from birth. Hunters kill animals that are strangers and (more or less) equals. Herdsmen kill their own trusting dependents. This treachery, I sometimes think -- especially at this time of year, when my tolerance of revealed religion is worn very thin -- informs the whole subsequent history and psychology of their relationship with God the Father. The Lord is my shepherd; but even the best good shepherd fully intends to cut the throats of his flock, in the end. In my mind's eye I always see a solemn, dark-eyed child watching her loving father in the slaughteryard with his bloody cleaver, trying to make sense of what she sees.

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