Category Archives: Commonplaces

Miscellaneous quotations I want to keep track of


During Margaret’s and my walk to Knockbrex Beach, I fell to reciting The Hunting of the Snark (for a reason I can’t recall). Because my memory isn’t what it once was, I resolved to make a good e-edition of it once I got back to high-bandwidth connectivity — but I (re)discovered this morning the University of Adelaide ebooks site, which includes the Snark and exemplifies several aspects of a point I’ve been making over and over to whoever will listen. Well done, Adelaide!



‘If the literal sense of these Scriptures is absurd, and apparently contrary to reason, then we should be obliged not to interpret them according to the letter, but to look out for a looser meaning.’ — John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, 4:337.

Any Source?

I was about to quote John Kenneth Galbraith as having said (or written) ‘You can always get closer to the truth in fiction than you can in nonfiction’ — which I read somewhere and wrote down — but I can’t find the source online. Does it ring a bell, anyone?

Cranmer’s Prologue to the Great Bible

For the whole cornucopia of reasons that you can readily enough recite — academic, Anglican, biblical scholar, theoretician, typographer, preacher, reader of Henrician/Elizabethan literature, partisan of the non-verbal elements of communication — I have long been fascinated with Thomas Cranmer’s writings on biblical interpretation. One favourite of mine, his Prologue to the Great Bible, has brought me back, time and again. I wanted to be able to show students what the early printed versions of the preface looked like. Many people casually assume that “typeset, printed works” equals “uniformity of content”, but reading the Prologue in its various editions reminds you that the print revolution was accompanied by a long interval of textual fluidity. Even within the same edition, words are spelled differently, punctuation marks are inserted almost randomly, and sentences meander for indefinite durations.
It’s great!
So this weekend, partly for students and partly for myself, I finally whipped up a version of the Prologue that I can use for classes or for reference. The project was made much easier — nay, possible — by Jeff Lee’s having designed and offered to the public the typefaces JSL Blackletter (which I used for the Prologue itself) and JSL Ancient (which I used for the regularised English version). I then set the blackletter and regularised versions on opposite pages, and made a PDF of the result. This version doesn’t correspond precisely to any one edition of the Prologue; there are scans of the Prologue to do that work. Instead, it compiles an eclectic text according to the conventions of abbreviation and expansion, typography and spelling, that the Prologue itself displays in its various editions. Unless I’ve made a mistake, nothing in this does not appear in one or another edition of the Prologue, so it might as well be the result of a sixteenth-century printer preparing an A5 edition for digital distribution (and if I have made a mistake, well, I’ll go back and correct it forthwith).
Now, back to work that’s more obviously productive for my day job.

On Knowing Greek and Hebrew

”Do I understand Greek and Hebrew? Otherwise, how can I undertake, as every Minister does, not only to explain books which are written therein but to defend them against all opponents? Am I not at the mercy of everyone who does understand, or even pretends to understand, the original? For which way can I confute his pretense? Do I understand the language of the Old Testament? critically? at all? Can I read into English one of David’s Psalms, or even the first chapter of Genesis? Do I understand the language of the New Testament? Am I a critical master of it? Have I enough of it even to read into English the first chapter of St. Luke? If not, how many years did I spend at school? How many at the University? And what was I doing all those years? Ought not shame to cover my face?”
John Wesley, “An Address to the Clergy,” in Works X:491.
Hat tip to Michael Bird, who passes the compliment on to Ken Schenck in a broken link

Bracciolini vs Valla

“This profane man hates Holy Scripture so much that he claims much in it is not written correctly!” (Bracciolini, Opera 1:199, cited in Henning Graf Reventlow, History of BIblical Interpretation Volume 3, p. 16)
Valla responds, “What, then, is… Holy Scripture. Is not everything an interpretation of the Old and New Testaments? It is even multifaceted and diverse and highly contradictory one to another.” (Antidotum, no further source, cited in Reventlow, p. 16)

From Kermode

   “It seemed necessary to examine specimens washed in by the flood [of French structuralist and semiological critical theory], and it was during those years that I chaired, at University College London, a seminar dedicated to that and to similar enterprises. No other phase of my academic life has given me so much pleasure and instruction. We were quite informal, but did a lot of work, some of which was eventually published; but that was not our primary aim. The constitution of the group changed over the years, and we had many visitors, including some novelists — I remember the late B. S. Johnson as particularly co-operative. Among the participants who were in one way or another exponents of la nouvelle critique were Christine Brooke-Rose, Jonathan Culler, the late Veronica Forrest-Thompson, Stephen Heath, Jay Kaiser, Annette Lavers, Christopher Norris, Shlomith Rimmon, Anita Van Vactor, and, on one notable occasion the late Roland Barthes himself; the opposition was in the hands of various no less formidable discussants, Barbara Hardy for one. Not the least of the qualifications of these and many other friends of the group was a willingness to express lively disagreement without rancour; another was to examine one’s own prejudices as well as others’ and to preserve a tone of good humour in the midst of the most serious, even the most fierce, exchanges. In those days I suppose I imagined that there was nothing unusual in this combination of opposition and civility, but I have seen very little of the kind since 1974, and can only hope that the lack is local and not general.” (The Art of Telling, p. 3)
   “The seminar came to an end in 1974, without ever (so far as I remember) taking on Derrida or deconstructionism. Although, as I have suggested, I gained much by it, I was never tempted to declare myself a structuralist, or a post-structuralist, or even a narratologist or poetician. There are doubtless many reasons for this resistance, not all of them creditable. One was, simply, inertia; I was too old, and by formation too much of an historian, to be comfortable with all the implications of structuralism; I was a diachronic sort of person, who indeed once published a book called Continuities. A good part of the pleasure I derived from my profession had come from finding out what texts seemed to be saying as it were voluntarily, and in conveying this information to others; and I should have felt uneasy to join a party whose sole business it was to elicit what they were saying in spite of themselves. Since I have put the matter so crudely I should add that I do not share the comfortable opinion of the English academic (and, it seems, journalistic) establishment that the critics of the new persuasion are self evidently absurd; or, more seriously, that they are unprincipled; or, when their arguments seem persuasive, that they are, like the forces of Monostatos and the Queen of the Night, wickedly threatening the citadels of Imagination or indeed Humanity, as alarmed academics sometimes claim.” (The Art of Telling, p. 5)


I frequently catch myself combing through Google search results to find this lecture by Timothy Radcliffe, O.P. The former Master General of the Dominican Order has a fine, encouraging take on what it means to be a university — but the paragraph I’m usually looking for reads,

When I was a young Dominican student we still sometimes practiced a version of the medieval disputatio. This was a form of debating central to the life of the thirteenth century university, and it embodies a vision of what a university should be about. It does not seem to have been practiced often by the Inquisition, but it represents an ideal which has something to offer us. In the disputatio the aim was not so much to demonstrate that your opponent was utterly and in every way wrong, and to be derided and dismissed as a fool. Instead you had to show the limited sense in which he was right. If someone were to assert that “Yale Department of Religious Studies is better than the Theology Faculty of Oxford,” I might reply in making a distinction: “That Yale is better as far as sociological analysis I accept; that it is better in every way I deny.” The aim was, through disagreement and mutual criticism, to arrive at a common truth, that was able to accommodate what was true in each position.

So now I’ll be able simply to search my own blog to find it more rapidly.

Remembering Ramsey

Bp. Pierre noted a remarkable story about Archbishop Michael Ramsey, which reminded me of an anecdote I can’t verify from the web — so I figured I’d blog it, to see if anyone corrects me.
As the story goes, the archbishop was visiting Nashotah House, where someone asked him the liturgical protocols for an archepiscopal visitation, to which Lord Ramsey (as I recall, allegedly, etc.) replied: “When I kneel, everyone kneels; when I stand up, everyone stands up; and if I’m very confused, I put my hat on.”

Plus Ça Change

There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilised and free countries than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman has, in these realms, the power of compelling audiences to sit silent, and be tormented. No one but a preaching clergyman can revel in platitudes, truisms, and untruisms, and yet receive, as his undisputed privilege, the same respectful demeanour as though words of impassioned eloquence, or persuasive logic, fell from his lips. Let a professor of law or physic find his place in a lecture-room, and there pour forth jejune words and useless empty phrases, and he will pour them forth to empty benches. Let a barrister attempt to talk without talking well, and he will talk but seldom. A judge’s charge need be listened to per force by none but the jury, prisoner, and gaoler. A member of parliament can be coughed down or counted out. Town-councillors can be tabooed. But no one can rid himself of the preaching clergyman. He is the bore of the age, the old man whom we Sindbads cannot shake off, the nightmare that disturbs our Sunday’s rest, the incubus that overloads our religion and makes God’s service distasteful. We are not forced into church! No: but we desire more than that. We desire not to be forced to stay away. We desire, nay, we are resolute, to enjoy the comfort of public worship; but we desire also that we may do so without an amount of tedium which ordinary human nature cannot endure with patience; that we may be able to leave the house of God without that anxious longing for escape, which is the common consequence of common sermons.
— Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers, Chapter VI

What He Said

I say a Church which allows people to serve at her altars not holding a doctrine which may be said to be a doctrine of this Church, is cruel to them, if she perpetually requires them to say what they do not believe; and therefore, while it would be hard for me to accept, in deed I would oppose to the utmost of my power anything which should throw the slightest doubt upon [this doctrine], I for one should be prepared to refer to this Committee on the Revision of the Rubrics, provided such a commission should be appointed, the consideration of some means whereby the Bishop of the Diocese, or the ecclesiastical authority of the Diocese, should have the power to protect and to defend real and true conscientious scruples wherever they might be.
James DeKoven “The Canon on Ritual, and the Holy Eucharist,” an address to the General Convention in 1874 (on baptismal regeneration — but applicable, it seems to me — much more broadly, and not by any means unilaterally)

Quotation Day

I was watching episodes from the first season of House last night, and one exchange particularly caught my attention.

Cuddy: “How is it you always know you’re right?”
House: “I don’t. I just find it hard to operate on the opposite assumption.” (emended per Pippa)
    House, M.D. Season 1, Episode 2, “Paternity”

People often press me on my approach to interpretation, supposing that my advocacy of differential hermeneutics implies that I must experience besetting doubt concerning the correctness of my own interpretive judgments (or that I’m inconsistent if I don’t allow that any old interpretation might be as right as my own). Contrariwise, I can all the more firmly hold fast to my own reasoned judgments if I allow full weight to the reasoning and intelligence behind different readings; it doesn’t weaken my own conclusions if I don’t imply that my interlocutors are dunces and simpletons.

And from Paul Krugman’s column in the Times:
The pay system on Wall Street lavishly rewards the appearance of profit, even if that appearance later turns out to have been an illusion.

Krugman gets at what I was ruminating about the other day relative to illusion and (self-)deception in conjunction with contemporary US culture. The fantasy of limitless acquisition goes hand-in-hand with the fantasy of immortality. The two actually support one another; the more stuff to which we lay claim, the less vulnerable to contingency we appear. The malignant irony involves not just the unveiling scene, when these Charles Foster Kane discover that their fabulous empires haven’t brought them what they want — even more, it involves the millions or billions of people whose lives have been impoverished to fuel the desperately delusional regime of greed, and whom the treasure-holders pass over in their haste to relieve the misery of the suddenly formerly-wealthy (thus doubly depriving them of a penurious share of Lazarus’ riches). As Krugman notes, “the vast riches achieved by those who managed other people’s money have had a corrupting effect on our society as a whole.”

Writ Large

I haven’t read All the Sad Young Literary Men, and I’m not confident that I’ll get around to it eventually, but in Scott McLemee’s column/podcast about the book and its author, he quotes the following paragraph:

The trouble is that when you’re young you don’t know enough; you are constantly being lied to, in a hundred ways, so your ideas of what the world is like are jumbled; when you imagine the life you want for yourself, you imagine things that don’t exist. If I could have gone back and explained to my younger self what the real options were, what the real consequences for certain decisions were going to be, my younger self would have known what to choose. But at the time I didn’t know; and now, when I knew, my mind was too filled up with useless auxiliary information, and beholden to special interests, and I was confused.

So (as best I apprehend this), when you’re young, you don’t have sufficient experience of the world to assay truth from folly or deception, and when you’re older, you have made enough wrong decisions that you’re enmeshed in errors that you started into when you were too young to know better.
This all seems plausible enough to me, but I wonder about the note of betrayal in the lament. Whence came the idea that we have the prerogative to expect a higher degree of certainty? I admit that just now I’m scoring pretty high on the “affected by unforeseeable contingencies” scale, but I believe I recall making this sort of point in various public venues well before this winter. The illusion that we have, or ought to have, a determinative role in how our lives play out cripples our capacity to thrive in circumstances we didn’t choose and don’t control. Sulking, fulminating, agonizing over how things should have been misses the point, because our particular (always conflicting, always divergent) visions of “ought to be” pertain to how things actually go only sporadically. If we stake everything, anything, on controlling our own destinies, we gamble on a giant lottery with contingencies compared to which our aspirations and willpower are but paltry things.
(I hope I’m listening well to what I just wrote.)
Now, speaking theologically, there’s much more to be said about sin, grace, alienation, hope, theosis, and so on. On the terms of everyday secular discourse, though, the poignance of a character discovering how much more complicated it all has been all along, and perhaps not even registering how misplaced his expectations were, struck a note that reminded me of other times I’ve inveighed against illusions of control.