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John Wilson

On Eloquence

The doom-and-gloom squad is at it again. No one is reading anymore, they tell us. Not reading books, not reading magazines, not even cereal boxes. What medicine is prescribed? One popular remedy is to get everyone in a particular "community" reading One Book.

If I told you—really told you—how much I loathe such campaigns, you'd think I was cracked. Ucchh. The mere thought fills me with bile. One Book? An unholy union of  groupthink and state-of-the-art marketing, overlaid with a frosting of pure kitsch.

But if a reporter or a Christian radio person called me today and asked, What book should all Thinking Evangelicals be reading, what book should be distributed at the next convention or forum or summit? (for instance, the midwinter gathering of my own denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, or the latest confab of the emerging Emergents, even if they disdain the "evangelical" label, or Gabe Lyons' Fermi Project), I would propose a little book by Denis Donoghue, just published by Yale University Press, On Eloquence.

Donoghue is a literary critic, wide-ranging, "distinguished," as they say. His book Warrenpoint, about his Catholic boyhood and youth in Ireland and his police sergeant father, is one of the finest memoirs I've read in the past quarter-century. (I've wondered if this book was one small influence among many others that led our daughter Mary to Rome.) Published by Knopf in 1990, it is available second-hand via Amazon for prices starting at 21 cents.

Edward Said talked about "late style." Donoghue's last several books—Speaking of Beauty, American Classics, and now On Eloquence—fit that rubric. They are powerfully idiosyncratic, enormously learned, allusive, at once concentrated and ruminative. In fact, they are eloquent:

Eloquence does not vex its own creation. Delighting in difference, it opposes—but without argument—the otherwise omnivorous culture of the same. We value it as a sign of such freedom as we are likely to enjoy.

In the same vein Donoghue speaks of "the exuberance with which a word, a phrase, or a line of verse presents itself as if it had broken free from its setting and declared its independence," offering then a selection of instances from his "failing memory." (His book is a jewel box of marvelous quotations.) There is a blessed superfluity to eloquence.

Very well, you say, but why on earth would you recommend this highfalutin stuff to any larger circle of readers? Donoghue himself points the way: "It has occurred to me, during the past several years as a teacher of English, Irish, and American literature at New York University, that the qualities of writing I care about are increasingly hard to expound." He finds among his students—students who have chosen to study literature—and in "departments of English" more generally a suspicion of or indifference toward the merely "aesthetic" and a preoccupation with moralizing. At the same time, like many academics of his generation, he laments "the premature concentration, even in general education, on the knowledge and capacities necessary for professional careers."

What's interesting, for our purposes, is that in addressing this indifference to eloquence, Donoghue helps us—if we pay attention—to recognize a pervasive tendency in evangelicalism: an overweening earnestness. There is, of course, a time to be earnest, and much that is good in the evangelical tradition reflects this imperative. But how dreary, how deadly, when earnestness loses all sense of proportion.

Donoghue might remark, with some irony, that this earnest outlook appeals to an impeccable authority:

The most forceful rejection of eloquence I am aware of is Christ's: "Get thee behind me, Satan," an admonition extended in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 4 and 5) to an ethic recommending the plain style, plain dealing, humility, truth, and justice.

He adds: "Since the Gospels and Paul's epistles—though not solely because of them—it has become harder to make the case for eloquence." Certainly some of the good evangelicals I grew up among thought so.

And yet is it really so hard to make the case for eloquence on Christian terms? What could be more eloquent, more blessedly superfluous, than Creation itself? All those beetles, those unseen creatures of the deep, those galaxies upon galaxies—all unnecessary. Shakespeare was unnecessary. My new grandson Gus is unnecessary.

Donoghue tells us that he once "thought of compiling an anthology, a commonplace book, in which every chosen item would drive readers into an altitudo of pleasure—to think that there could be such eloquence, sentences, cadences, in what seems otherwise an ordinary world." But don't we respond to the eloquence he celebrates precisely because there is no "ordinary" world? Our world is fallen, yet the gratuitous goodness of Creation persists, and the restoration of all things is promised.

Among evangelicals, suspicion of eloquence is in part an inheritance from the Reformation, still potent after five centuries. In a piece for Books & Culture some years ago ("Flagitious Corruptions," March/April 2000), I referred to that splendid book Christ and Architecture: Building Presbyterian/Reformed Churches (Eerdmans, 1965), quoting the caption that accompanied a photo of a church interior:

Note the honest use of concrete block as the interior surfacing, the honest use of precast beams and precast slabs of the roof. There is no attempt here to cover this basic material with older, more acceptable, materials. The materials are honest. At the same time note the use of concrete for the pulpit, font and organ support. There is no pretense; these materials are doing the job well without camouflage of any sort.

Striking, isn't it, how this valorizing of the "honest" rhymes with talk about "honesty" that was in the air in 1965 in circles far removed from church architecture.

If eloquence is associated with "pretense" and all that implies, it is also suspect because it lacks weight. You can't eat it. It won't save souls, prevent global warming, reduce the spread of AIDS or the incidence of abortion.

Yes, all true, and this is why eloquence is precious. "Eloquence, as distinct from rhetoric, has no aim: it is a play of words or other expressive means. It is a gift to be enjoyed in appreciation and practice." Those earnest folk who scorn frivolity should recognize that their argument is with God himself. He has given us this world, with all its wonders and perplexities.

Eloquence consistently directs us beyond itself to that which eludes and exceeds expression and indeed understanding. Donoghue quotes Diderot: "The word is not the thing, but a flash in the light of which one perceives it." In this respect eloquence is akin to music, and Donoghue has a chapter entitled "Song Without Words." I'd love to sit in on a seminar or a reading group in which the two texts were On Eloquence and Jeremy Begbie's Resounding Truth or Theology, Music and Time. Undervaluing music, or treating it with punishing austerity, goes hand-in-hand with undervaluing eloquence.

Let us forswear false dichotomies. We are not faced with a choice between savoring eloquence and serving our brothers and sisters, or between eloquence and truth:

"The fire that stirs about her when she stirs." "Inns are not residences." "But the snows and summer grieve and dream." "A bracelet of bright hair about the bone." "Did he who made the Lamb make thee?" "Twice no one dies." "On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins." "Dear incomprehension, it's thanks to you I'll be myself, in the end."

Donoghue says of this string of quotations that what they "have in common in my mind is their irreducibility: each has a context which in some cases I have forgotten, but each seems to be surrounded by empty space. Each exists in an eternal present moment." This is as good a description as I know of the indescribable awareness of Being, that irreducible gift.

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