Among the depenguined

“The older I grow, the less I know,” strikes me as a useful slogan, though like most it may need some serious qualification. For until one starts losing one’s marbles, one can actually know more than one once did. But this qualification reinforces the thesis.

When I was young, I thought I could know everything. Now I know better. This is what I was getting at in a recent post on “depenguinification” (here), hurled against smooth translations of ancient and bewildering texts — which, in a short passage of time, themselves become bewildering in an unrelated way. Yet in their season (my example was pulp paperback translations of the classics, and the blurbs attached to sell them) they are able to convince innocent readers that, with a minimum of effort and pain, they have “been there, done that.”

The column was unpopular with several readers, for reasons most succinctly expressed by a (much treasured, Protestant) correspondent in St John’s:

“If you consider how few of us can read Latin, and Greek, and Aramaic, and Hebrew, you might want to give further thought to your column ‘Depenguinification’. Except for a blessed few of us, we rely upon translation for our knowledge of Holy Scripture.”

Oddly, I had anticipated this objection; and welcome it because I think it retrieves one of the principles of the Reformation, which I may now directly contradict.

In their demand for a scriptural language “understanded by the people,” the Protestants laid the foundations for our populist post-modernity. Let everyone be his own Bible interpreter. Let no priestly mystificators stand in their way. (Only the Lairds with their yellow sticks.) By the Lollards forward, in the English-speaking world, we have been offered translations that make the Scriptures “accessible to all.”

In Scotland, the Presbyterians took this so far as to create the planet’s first majority literate society. From what I like to call the Madrasas of Caledonia, the example shone, so that by the nineteenth century everyone from otherworldly Catholics to violent Communists took the value of universal literacy for granted. As a man of the thirteenth century, I oppose it, in the same way I oppose simplified spelling schemes, and the Westminster Catechism, Form, and Directory. I am not, and do not think I could become — even under intense Facebook pressure — a window-smashing Roundhead.

To my reconstructed mediaeval mind, Priestcraft can never be abandoned. Scripture and Tradition are interdependent, and the Christian religion is essentially sacramental. This it must be in descent from our crucified Founder, and in our imitation of Him. He provided us with a religion — verily, a Church — that is rationally comprehensible, but not mechanical, formulaic, “rationalist.” Wisdom itself (or “herself,” as I might write, in honour of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom), eludes such Procrustean devices.

Unlike my Scotch ancestors, I am not a legislator, and do not aspire to be. I only make suggestions, which gentle reader may take or leave. One of them must be that the way to absorb Scripture is by the incremental effect of a lifetime attending Mass, and attending to the liturgy through all seasons of fast and festival. (The homilies one may take or leave.) For those who can also read with some attention, but with no Latin and less Greek, there are e.g. Latin Missals available with modern-language cribs. But these are a means, not an end, to understanding.

Before we decide that we understand the Psalms, for instance, there are a thousand pages of commentary on them by Augustine to consider. (He who, unlike his feisty contemporary Jerome, was unaccomplished in Greek or Hebrew.) And so much else, including so much never translated, that the acquisition of Latin, for instance, might be viewed as a shortcut.

(As Saint Jerome could tell us, the translation of inflected Greek into inflected, Greek-absorbing Latin, can go with the grain. Translation into a staccato, uninflected language must frequently cut across it.)

Alternatively, we might care to admit that the King James Version, or the Douay-Rheims, or any of the sad succession of penguinish recent versions, only give us a view through binoculars. It may sometimes be a beautiful, poetic view, and “true” insofar as poetic beauty is a carrier of truth. But there are deserts, swamps, forests to traverse. And hooo, will we need guides.

Hence my thought for today’s Feast of Saint Andrew: “Pray for us, that we may be among the depenguined.”