Sunday, December 16, 2007

Richard Mitchell on Clergymen

I'm not speaking to you right now because I'm too busy enjoying the essays in Richard Mitchell's The Leaning Tower Of Babel. Mitchell is one of those wiseacres who knows grammar and openly insults everyone who doesn't know it. Books by such people are a dirty pleasure, as you well know, for you undoubtedly have a copy of Eats, Shoots & Leaves on your coffee table.

If people like Mitchell took the time to write fiction of an audacity and literary quality equal to that of their essays, they could probably displace not only the gibberish-spouters who win the aplomb of elite critics but also the hacks who fill the bestseller racks.

Mitchell spends much of his time railing against psychobabble and intentionally opaque nonsense, which in some fields pass for scholarly prose. We have all at one time or another seen instances of this kind of writing. I see it coming from postmodern anthropologists. I have also heard psychobabble from English professors who want to pretend their topics of discussion are more complex and technical than they actually are. I greatly suspect that anyone who stoops to using the term "psychosexual" has nothing important to say, especially if he's talking about fairy tales.

I bring this up because at one point in this fine volume, Mitchell aims his guns at clergymen who use psychobabble to discuss religious issues, particularly (one hopes, exclusively) matters of church organization. After quoting some gibberish from one such clergyman, Mitchell gives commentary, which I now quote at some length.

Well, we don't really care how clergypersons think and write, since we are not required by law to drop money into their collection plates. But we are fascinated by the fact that Pierce's prose, both in style and content, is an exact replica of the mindless maunderings we get from our educationists, who do make off with great bundles of legalized swag. Somehow, though, it all makes sense.

After all, the schools have for decades been gradually transforming themselves into insipid and semi-secular churches, preaching the pale pieties of social adjustment instead of teaching difficult discipline. At the same time, the churches have been transforming themselves into insipid and semi-secular schools, teaching the pale pieties of social adjustment instead of preaching difficult doctrine. Both have found more profit in peer-interaction perception than in precepts, and readier rewards in guidance and relating than in stern standards. No more teacher's dirty looks, lest creativity flag, and, lest self-esteem be disenhanced, no more sinners in the hands of an angry God. The principal can say with the pastor, "My brother Esau is a hairy man, but I am a smooth man."

And smooth they are, and featureless. We never hear in their words the ring of a human voice, but merely the drone of ritual incantation in something not quite language. They are full of high sentence indeed, deferential, glad to be of use, politic, cautious, but not meticulous. They are Milton's "blind mouths." Should Socrates appear among them, proposing the examined life, or Jesus, saying, "Thou fool! This very night shall thy self-esteem be required of thee," they would be glad to interface and share concerns in a type of problem-solving variety of an arrangement, elaborating and supporting the issue and suggesting various alternatives and solutions.

They, who were to have been the salt of the earth, the zest of life's best endeavors, are become a tepid mess of pottage. Wherewith, indeed, shall they be salted? [pp. 91-92, emphasis in original]
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