Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road. This book of fiction, perhaps prophecy, follows several days of the journey of a man and his son over the burned and devastated terrain of our planet. Their quest is for food.
McCarthy’s use of language is razor-sharp and spare. His words slice cleanly and deeply into the ashen surroundings which the man and boy know are all they will ever know. Occasionally, however, we are able to recognize how very finely honed is the knife of McCarthy’s word-crafting skills, as he reaches into time for that one word that will speak his intent. This paragraph, seven lines of hauntingly fluid evocation of the emptiness the pair must face, describes the man’s walking alone onto a road:
The black shape of it running from dark to dark. Then a distant low rumble. Not thunder. You could feel it under your feet. A sound without cognate and so without description. Something imponderable shifting out there in the dark. The earth itself contracting with the cold. It did not come again. What time of year? What age the child? … The silence. The salitter drying from the earth. The mudstained shapes of flooded cities burned to the waterline. At a crossroads a ground set with dolmen stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering. No sound but the wind.[P220]
Search for the word; it will not be found in dictionaries or in recent literature. Search more, though- this is the reader’s quest for spiritual food- and only when I found it did I know how hungry I had been for it.
Salitter seems only to have occurred, used in this way, in the writings of Jakob Boehme, a 17th century German Christian mystic. Here is enough of what he says about it, to begin to understand the exquisite choice made by McCarthy in using the word:
“What is in Paradise is made of the celestial Salitter..[it] is clear, resplendent..The forces of the celestial Salitter give rise to celestial fruits flowers, and vegetation.” (1.)
Salitter, as used by Boehme, as used by McCarthy, is the essence of God. It is the essence of God which is “drying from the earth” in this apocalyptic novel. It is the end of the Earth for humanity, and also the abandonment of the Earth by what had been divine.
As humans seeking to know, then understand, then communicate, we are all bound by the language we know. Our language is our always-personal set of metaphors which we grasp at, and sometimes are successful in doing so, in order to describe whatever-it-is that we are perceiving that we need to share. Often, we feel frustrated in being able to convey the depths of meaning, or wonder, or urgency about a particular subject because we don’t have the words we want in the repertoire of words we know. We feel sometimes like the painter who wants to paint a wildflower field, but has only her fingertips and must smear a wildflower field instead. Some things demand a precision in description beyond the impressionistic display of colors.
I have watched ocean tides, purple thistle blossoms, my dogs’ trust, and babies’ laughter. I have heard cicada songs, whispered confessions, Gregorian chants, and the squeaking of bamboo growing. I have held the hands of dying people in my own and tasted tears of both heartache and joy. I have ached to describe the commonalities in all of these things; I have crumpled pages of text in my inability to convey to my own satisfaction, the relatedness of all things beautiful, the essence of goodness which permeates all that is.
I will use it very sparingly and with respect for those who probably do not yet know it, but salitter is one of those words which give me great satisfaction. It means what I have wanted some particular word to mean for many years. It is both transcendent and specific and, for some persons, who might want to know exactly what it is I am describing, and whose curiosity will take them beyond the easy sources of definition, salitter will be revelatory.
Then, should that ever happen, I will have been able to pass on the gift given to me by McCarthy.
1. Further definition of the term as used by Boehme may be found here, in Boehme: An Intellectual Biography of the Seventeenth Century Philosopher and Mystic, by Andrew Weeks, SUNY Press, 1991.
~Further gratitude to Miranda McLeod and Joshua Weber 🙂