Sunday, January 31, 2010

`When Speaker and Hearer Commune'

Had you asked last week what I knew about Ralph McInerny, I would have answered with the titles of two books: A First Glance at St. Thomas Aquinas: A Handbook for Peeping Thomists (1990) and The Question of Christian Ethics (1993). I had no idea of the life out of which these books emerged, nor of the staggering number of other books McInerny had produced. After learning of his death (here and here), I pulled A First Glance off the shelf and enjoyed this again:
“Not all philosophers are helpful. Only a handful are. Most philosophers are pretty bad. You have to study them to know that, which is annoying, or you can take my word for it, which is dangerous and unwise. I may be one of the bad ones myself.”

Immediately you know you’re not reading Hegel or Derrida, both of whom are “pretty bad.” McInerny continues:

“If you are going to choose a philosopher to read you might be guided by the fact that only a few philosophers have followers today. There are Kantians, perhaps there are Hegelians, God knows there are Marxists if only in universities and in Central America. There are Platonists and Aristotelians. There are Thomists. The list could be added to but it would still be a short one. Your choice is thereby made easier. (I am assuming that you do not want to be a mere scholar.)”

When was the last time you laughed while reading an introduction to the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas? McInerny must have been wonderful company but I missed my chance. I visited the Notre Dame campus only once, almost 40 years ago, in the company of the professor with whom I was studying analytic philosophy. We were there to hear John Searle speak on Speech Acts, a book we had read together. Campus security escorted us, drunk and disorderly, out of the building before we could hear Searle’s lecture.

In 2005, at age 76, McInerny published his only volume of poetry, The Soul of Wit. I don’t yet have a copy but online I’ve discovered one of his poems, “Effable” – not a word you often hear, unlike its opposite, “ineffable.” Dictionaries call it “archaic” and “obsolete” but I prefer the sound of “effable” to “utterable” or “expressible.” Here it is:

“Where are words when not yet spoken:
on the tongue,
in the mind,
perhaps in air,
Their meanings, more elusive
still, unbreathed await
though I have heard
in the beginning was the word.”

“Mutes and dentals shape the air
that tongue addresses to the ear:
speech is the mystery we hear.
Animals are dumb,
their braying, chirp, and bark
a mere semblance of speech,
lacking that shared spark
when speaker and hearer commune
like hands that meet at noon.”

“When speaker and hearer commune” – the blessed reciprocity of writing and reading, of speech as an act of communion. In “The Writing Life,” an essay he published four years ago, McInerny adapts the idea to the working of a professional writer:

“…what any writer does, return again and again to the original aspiration that came to him when young. It is the writing, producing a well-made story, that counts. All the rest is gravy.”

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