Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Triple Standard

In the past few weeks, my daily reading has been guided by what I call my "triple standard" (the term just popped into my head). This is a resolution to read a bit of Irish language material, a bit of poetry (especially long poetry), and a bit of Scripture every day. It's actually not that hard and I've usually fulfilled this aspiration by noon.

I'm endlessly fascinated by the idea of going against the tide. "Fascinated" isn't even a strong enough word; electrified, transported, captivated, might be better words. There is something about going against the tide, or walking uphill, or fighting against superior odds, that seems to me like a sort of primordial drama. After all-- as I have said in my posts on contrarianism-- every single moment of life is a victory against the inertia of death. Every heartbeat is a sort of contrarianism. (I've sometimes wondered if growing up hearing stories of the 1916 Rising also influenced me in this. Irish people of a certain background grew up thinking that execution by firing squad was the happiest possible ending to a life.)

So, in these three literary pursuits, it's "going against the tide" more than anything else that motivates me.

Catholics are notorious for their reluctance to read the Bible. As is well know, it was a sin punishable by excommunication for a layman to even open the Bible until the Second Vatican Council. The reluctance has lingered. Whereas Baptists and Presbyterians can rattle off chapter and verse from Scripture, Catholics prefer to read Thomas Merton or G.K. Chesterton.

OK, that's an exaggeration, but there's an element of truth to it. The Bible is a difficult book to read. It's repetitive, laden with genealogies and lists of rules, and dense. This is especially true of the Old Testament, and it's mostly the Old Testament I struggle with. I'm fairly familiar with the New Testament, but there are whole tracts of the Old Testament which are more or less terra incognita to me.

And yet, this very denseness and difficulty is part of the appeal. The Bible has always captured my imagination, even when I was non-believer. A line from the Bible seems more potent than any amount of words from most other sources. I recently mentioned my trip to Kingston-upon-Hull in Yorkshire, some ten years ago. I visited an enormous aquarium, which contained a bewildering variety of marine life. And yet the thing that struck me most were the words over the entrance: "And the spirit of the Lord moved over the waters." Even at the time, this struck me as extraordinary. When I used the word "potent" earlier, the association with liquor was entirely appropriate. I think of Scripture as fire water. In fact, I think the same of poetry.

Here's another example of the potency of Scripture: many years ago, I was watching the classic horror film From Beyond the Grave, with my father. One scene, set in a bedroom, shows the framed text: "The wages of sin are death". "But the gift of God is eternal life" said my father. I was impressed at the way the Scriptural quotation gave the scene such gravitas. And it works the other way, too: when I read the Bible, or hear it read, the fact that so many lines and passages are familiar from quotation and allusion gives it an added power, as though it is the cradle of our entire culture.

Another thing that impels me towards the Bible is a sadness and shame at the loss of Scriptural knowledge in our culture. You only have to read a little to notice this. In fact, I think the decline is ongoing. I remember reading this joke in a recently-published kid's joke book when I was a boy: "Jenkins, who knocked down the walls of Jericho?" "I don't know, sir, but it wasn't me".

I suppose I can say that I want to read more Scripture to push against secularisation, I want to read more Irish to push against globalisation, and I want to read more poetry to push against rationalisation.

Of my "personal traditions", poetry is older than everything except horror. I've been an evangelical poetry lover since my teens, and I've resented the tyranny of prose for much of that time. As I return to reading poetry in a disciplined way, this old feeling revives. We should always be somewhat ashamed of prose. Poetry is literature; prose is good enough for instruction and entertainment. Honestly, is a novel much better than a game show as a form of diversion? What annoys me especially is novels (especially detective and thriller novels) that take their titles from poems. That kind of putting on airs is odious.

Admittedly I'm being provocative here, but that doesn't mean I'm kidding. And I could expand my argument to a more general level. My whole traditionalist conservative outlook is really nothing more than the desire to make society less prosaic and more poetic.

As for the Irish language, I wrote a lot about that last year. I want to be able to say legitimately that Irish is a part of my daily life. Every now and again, I feel such a wave of indignation at its decline that I feel like refusing to ever use English again. I realise even as I feel it that I will do no such thing. Irish is one of those causes that can't be given up, no matter how impossible its revival seems. Perhaps the tide of history will change some day.

In any case, my triple standard gives me a pleasant feeling of pushing against the tide, on three fronts, every day.


  1. I used to think that having enormous aquariums everywhere was unfortunate,a sign of globalization; an indication that, as people are travelling much more, there's actually a lot less to see that everywhere else doesn't have too. After all wasn't there one in Dingle also?
    But.... Just recently I reread a 90s brochure from the Dingle aquarium, which we didn't want to dispose of, as we're unlikely to get our hands on another one. It mentioned having a displays on the life of St Brendan, also Irish shipwrecks. I'm sure it's changed much since, but it's worth noting that you can preserve a uniqueness in spite of everything.

  2. That's certainly true. But sight-seeing isn't really my criterion for globalisation or specialness anyway-- it's everyday life.