Saturday, December 28, 2013

Words Alone are Certain Good

W.B. Yeats wrote:

THE woods of Arcady are dead,
And over is their antique joy;
Of old the world on dreaming fed;
Grey Truth is now her painted toy;
Yet still she turns her restless head:
But O, sick children of the world,
Of all the many changing things
In dreary dancing past us whirled,
To the cracked tune that Chronos sings,
Words alone are certain good.

I first read those lines as a seventeen-year-old for whom poetry-- the reading of it, and the writing of it-- was the most important thing in the world, a religion rather than a hobby. I accepted their truth passionately and they became one of my mottoes. (I always had a ton of mottoes at any one time.)

Now, they seem ridiculous to me on a rational level. Words alone are certain good? What about sunlight, laughter, sea-spray, a full moon, humility, the crinkle of silver paper, cinema? What kind of life-hating asceticism posits a medium of communication as the only good?

I've always had this leaning. I have to admit (to my shame) that when I first read about the church-wrecking thugs of the English Reformation, I found something to admire in them. Yes (something deep inside me said), whitewash over all the murals! Smash the stained glass! Break the statues! More glory to the Word of God, to the written word (even if I wasn't so sure it was the word of God at all). I thought it was a positive thing for a culture to draw away from those other ways of representation and concentrate upon writing. I was proud of Ireland for being a country so intensely devoted to the written word (and, before that, to the spoken word.)

Now I see the stupidity of this attitude. Now, I see the church-wrecking thugs of the English Reformation to have been nothing but the purest vandals and yahoos. And I see that the intensified focus upon the Bible which came in with the English Reformation-- which was, indeed, something real-- was ultimately transitory, since the Bible cannot be understood in a vacuum, and Bible study alone cannot replace the lived worship of sacrament and devotion. As St. Augustine said: "I would not believe in the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me".

My sympathy with the iconoclasts was rooted in a reaction that has caused people to reject some element of Catholicism's intricate mysteries and magisterial teaching again and again-- the craving (latent in every human breasts, and often overwhelming) for simplification. So much about Catholicism offends that puritanical attitude within us-- an attitude which is, I think, partly aesthetic-- which hankers for simple and elegant explanations, and simple theories, and simple ways of looking at the world.

I had an email debate, lasting more than a year, with a fellow Catholic who was also a proponent of the free market. He simply waved aside the Church's social teaching and insisted it was not binding upon the faithful. Now, I am always wary of describing my own part in a debate, since people always seem to portray themselves as having crushed every one of their opponent's arguments and left him grasping hopelessly for words. I won't claim that I won this debate (although I thought I did-- but then, I thought I was right in the first place, so I would think that, wouldn't I?)

But what was extraordinary was the sheer passion that my opponent had invested in his beliefs. He was really getting worked up about the matter and the debate descended into sharp exchanges on more than one occasion. (I am happy to say that we are on good terms again, now, though it only happened through letting the matter drop and resuming our correspondence later without either of us mentioning it.)

The other thing that struck me about his side of the debate was the frequency with which he returned to this argument-- "Capitalism is based upon the idea of contract, freely entered into. Nobody would enter into a contract unless it was to their advantage. Therefore, every act of capitalism is to the benefit of both parties, by definition. Everybody wins, nobody loses."

Now, I hope the flaws in that argument jump out at the reader. But that doesn't mean that I don't acknowledge its tremendous strength. Like all fallacies, it contains a big dollop of truth. I am not a cheerleader for capitalism, but that is the truly great thing about capitalism, for all its drawbacks-- that, all things being equal, you have to please the customer to survive.

But I only mention the debate at all as an illustration. I became convinced that my friend was under the sway of this idea-- that it had seized his imagination, with its sheer simplicity and apparent ability to explain all economic behaviour, its promise of simply cutting through so many Gordian knots like the proverbial knife through hot butter.

I need hardly go on to list all the other ideological monomanias that might be motivated by this urge for simplification. I often think that, though Occam's razor-- that is, the preference of a simple explanation over a complex one-- might be a valid principle when it comes to science and physics, the very opposite principle should apply when it comes to all-embracing theories of the human condition and of human society-- and still more, when it comes to sacred things.

But even that is something of a diversion. What I really meant to write about in this post was that, as I lay in bed this morning, I found Yeats's words coming to my mind and couldn't help seeing a nugget of truth in them-- at least, for me. Words alone are certain good. I felt the emphasis upon the "certain". I've been having a wonderful Christmas, but this morning I found myself suffering that strange dizziness I always feel when I haven't written or read much in a few days.

I have come to agree with Samuel Johnson when he wrote, "I am not yet so lost in lexicography as to forget that words are the daughters of men, and things are the sons of heaven". And yet, raw reality has this disadvantage over writing, and reading-- it is fuzzy, and blurry, and shimmering, and impossible to really seize hold of with both hands. Indeed, life would be a mean business if it was not so mercurial and overflowing and elusive. But a few days of all reality, and of little writing or reading, leaves me feeling cruelly disorientated, and craving the straightforwardness of words on a page.

And now that I have taken a deep pull on my inhaler, I can go back to my Christmas, which has (as I say) been wonderful. It has so far included midnight Mass in the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, a church which manages to be grand and compact at the same time. It included a strangely pleasant spell waiting at the boarding gate in JFK airport and watching the customers in a bar right beside it, and looking at the Christmas Eve Mass coverage on the bar television (subtitles handily included, as it was inaudible). Nobody was watching it, but it made me happy that it was on.

It included all the joys of my first married Christmas with Michelle, which seem too manifold and too private to chronicle in detail. But I can't help sharing my excitement about a couple of the Christmas gifts that my dear wife generously gave me. (Yeah, I know Christmas is not about gifts, but these were amazing gifts.)

One is an unbreakable set of metal rosary beads, as supplied to US soldiers by Catholic chaplains (and based on a design by the US Army in World War Two). I have gone through so many rosary beads it's ridiculous, and I find its next to impossible to get a good strong set. You can get a big set, but it's no more likely to be strong. I hope to have these beads to the day I die.

As I hope to have the second gift I can't help mentioning-- a Nativity scene snow globe that captured my heart the moment I saw it. I love snowglobes, and this is the greatest snowglobe I've ever seen. It's nice and big-- my palm would not fit around the globe itself. It's glass rather than plastic. It's set upon a serious-looking pedestal. And the figures are very artistically rendered. (How often have you shuddered at a bad representation of Our Lady?) It shows the manger, Our Lady, St. Joseph, Our infant Lord, a rather happy-looking cow, and a boyish shepherd on his knees.

Its absolutely wonderful, and when Michelle was buying it, a few people in the shop said: "If you decide you don't want it, we'll have it." Sure they would have!

Well, that's me for now. I hope you are all having a wonderful Christmas. Let's keep the twelve days alive!


  1. I'm glad you're having a good Christmas. I hope the both of you have a Happy New Year.

  2. Thanks, Antaine, and Happy New Year to you too!