Friday, April 05, 2013

`The Mere Magic of Words'

How pleasing it is when the words seem to appear on the screen without effort, as though moved from the mind by telekinesis, an experience sometimes accompanied by a seductive conviction of mastery. That’s how Hollywood portrays the triumphant writer, happily banging away at the keyboard, and that’s precisely when I start getting worried. Eloquence is intoxicating, like the manic phase of a bipolar disorder. I have to withdraw and, whether metaphorically or otherwise, take out the trash. Writing is rooted in this tension – momentum and course correction. In his great monograph on Aquinas (1933), Chesterton contrasts the “Dumb Ox” with St. Augustine:    

“There is no thinker who is so unmistakably thinking about things and not being misled by the indirect influence of words…Here he differs sharply, for instance, from Saint Augustine, who was, among other things, a wit. He was also a sort of prose poet, with a power over words in their atmospheric and emotional aspect; so that his books abound with beautiful passages that rise in the memory like strains of music; the illi in vos saeviant; or the unforgettable cry, `Late I have loved thee, O Ancient Beauty!’” 

For these reasons, among others, Augustine’s Confessions will always have more readers than Aquinas’ Summa. The former is a life; the latter, a manual, dense with reasoning. Chesterton continues: 

“It is true that there is little or nothing of this kind in Saint Thomas; but if he was without the higher uses of the mere magic of words, he was also free from that abuse of it, by mere sentimentalists or self-centred artists, which can become merely morbid and a very black magic indeed. And truly it is by some such comparison with the purely introspective intellectual that we may find a hint about the real nature of the thing I describe, or rather fail to describe; I mean the elemental and primitive poetry that shines through all his thoughts.” 

Readers and writers alike are blind to the “elemental and primitive poetry” of rigorous prose, with its attentiveness to the real. But it is a species of poetry, as is any disciplined deployment of language. Take a look at a well-written field guide or Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Explaining why he chose to begin writing in French, Samuel Beckett is supposed to have said of English: “You couldn’t help writing poetry in it.” English tempted him into self-indulgent virtuosity, as in his early books, More Pricks Than Kicks and Murphy. French helped curb his virtuosity. The monolingual among us must rely on humbler disciplines.


George said...

Aquinas's great hymn Pange Lingua forms part of many Holy Thursday services--not always in Latin, to be sure. It repays a close look, which will show that he was aware of the "magic of words", but putting them to use in a hymn that is closely reasoned theologically.

Jonathan Chant said...

Lovely post. And great to have a link to Lincoln's speech.

Thanks for posting.

Don said...

I just read Chesterton's book on Aquinas last month, and found it curious. The writer, not his topic, is very much front and center in the book, and to what I found an annoying degree. It had the feel of a finger wagging lecture, and that's not what I was used to with Chesterton.