Saturday, July 09, 2016

A Good Week for Humor

If you grew up as an American Catholic in the 1970s and ’80s, as I did, you are almost certainly familiar with the hymn Make Me a Channel of Your Peace, a classic example of music which is really not all that bad per se, but has suffered, and made others to suffer, from massive overplay. Of course, since it was the ’70s and ’80s, it was never mentioned in my church that it was based a prayer attributed to St Francis, but actually written in the early 20th century. By the time I first visited Assisi, I had learned much more about the state of things than was ever taught in catechism class; I was not surprised at all, therefore, to learn that a line was left out of the hymn: “(Grant that) where there is error, that I may bring Truth.”

I learned this week in foro privato that the composer of the hymn, Sebastian Temple, also made an album called “The Universe is Singing - 12 Songs in the Spirit of Teilhard de Chardin”, which really has to be heard to be believed.

Now, I readily confess that I couldn’t make it all that far into this. I did listen to enough to find myself perplexed at how this is “in the spirit of Teilhard,” since the words and sentences, while ridiculous, are perfectly intelligible, unlike de Chardin’s gibberish.

This put me in mind of an excellent review of Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man by Sir Peter Medawar, cited many years ago in an article by the redoubtable Diogenes. Medawar’s essay deserves to be reproduced in full in the next edition of The Oxford Book of Crushing Reviews.
(Teilhard) can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself. The Phenomenon of Man cannot be read without a feeling of suffocation, a gasping and flailing around for sense. There is an argument in it, to be sure --- a feeble argument, abominably expressed --- and this I shall expound in due course; but consider first the style, because it is the style that creates the illusion of content, and which is a cause as well as merely a symptom of Teilhard’s alarming apocalyptic seizures.
The Phenomenon of Man stands square in the tradition of Naturphilosophie, a philosophical indoor pastime of German origin which does not seem even by accident (though there is a great deal of it) to have contributed anything of permanent value to the storehouse of human thought. French is not a language that lends itself naturally to the opaque and ponderous idiom of nature-philosophy, and Teilhard has according resorted to the use of that tipsy, euphoristic prose-poetry which is one of the more tiresome manifestations of the French spirit. ...
It is written in an all but totally unintelligible style, and this is construed as prima-facie evidence of profundity. (At present this applies only to works of French authorship; in later Victorian and Edwardian times the same deference was thought due to Germans, with equally little reason.) ...It is because Teilhard has such wonderful deep thoughts that he’s so difficult to follow --- really it’s beyond my poor brain but doesn’t that just show how profound and important it must be?
A friend of mine pointed out that the Church was still showing such deference to Germans in the 20th century in the person of Karl Rahner, whose brother Hugo used to joke that when he was done with his own projects, he would devote some time to translating his brother’s works into German.

By pure coincidence, Ben happened to continue the week’s humorous theme in a Jesuit vein by discovering the best Twitter account ever, Dr Dialogue S.J. As is also the case with the mighty Eye of the Tiber, many people have taken a while to catch on to the fact that is actually a parody. That means you’re doing it right, sir; keep up the good work, and dear readers, if you tweet, please follow and encourage him!

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