I am not so lost in lexicography as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven. -- Dr. Johnson
Our modern sympathies necessarily make the joke an impossibility, for modern man, in thinking too highly of himself, and too lowly of Truth, has created a farcical philosophy free of farce, which believes in nothing, and proclaims only solemnities. Our lack of Truth in our philosophy has created men of timid spirit, men who, not knowing what is true, are far too fearful of stating anything with any sort of objectivity, and the result is a philosophy free of paradox, a philosophy free of irony and wit, a philosophy free of jokes. For a joke is undeniably objective; it cannot be refuted by rebuttal or defended by any declamation; it rests on the grounded assumption that Truth is unchanging and constant, that Truth will be Truth, no matter where my own arguments ends up, no matter what my audience perceives me to believe. So modern man, entirely scared of Truth, either resolves to make no objective statements about anything whatsoever, or in fear of saying something untruthful, says what everybody has already heard a thousand times over, and he states this in the same dry and dull fashion in which it has been said for centuries.
If our modern sympathies do lead us to accept paradox, they do so by way of the culture wars. Perhaps the greatest joke in our society is radical feminism. The belief that, by clamoring for more power, they will thus be more powerful is actually the worst possible route one could take in pursuing of power. For the paradox lies in a simple truth: those who are perceived to be less powerful are actually the most powerful tyrants our world will encounter.
How many men have grown weak in the knees at the sight of their newborn, who having done nothing, demands food, care, and unending attention at their beck and call? And not only do these beautiful kings and queens receive their wishes, they are loved unconditionally. Tyrants really have very little power compared to children, and the grandest of radical feminists our country has encountered is last among the long line of lowly mothers who have shaped an upcoming generation with more persuasive appeal than many a prophet.
The issues I have today with modern writers is often that they fall into one of two categories. Either they are too modest to believe in any type of truth, so they write objectively what they are not so sure can exist objectively; or they are too timid in saying something that may not be completely true -- that may be paradoxical -- and so in fear of being untrue, they resolve to write timidly. The first camp is what I call the secular academic, and the second is what I call many modern Christian writers. If you read a humanities textbook today, you will learn you can't believe anything, but you may be moved to do so; if you step into a modern Christian bookstore, you may know what to believe, but you will not be moved to do so. Wit exists in our generation to promote skepticism, but Truth is often best presented with wit, and it is a shame Christians have left off even attempting wit and paradox in their writing.
Over the past month or so, I have been working on a project which involves me studying the prose styles of two writers: Samuel Johnson and GK Chesterton. Both of these men saw an extraordinary value in humorous writing; they followed the tradition of rhetoric which went back to the Greeks, a tradition which argued that making someone laugh was a great way of persuading them. But jokes are often not found in modern writing because they cause a writer to either be so grounded in Truth that he actually believes something to be true; or it causes a man to be so grounded in Truth that stating it as a joke does not harm it; he is not overly cautious about being truthful or overly timid about being blasphemous. He is not so concerned that his metaphors be so rigid that they conform as closely to Truth as possible; it is more important that the underling Truth remains constant. When I said above that babies are more powerful than tyrants, I did not mean they could accomplish more or even lift more, but what I did mean was closer to the Truth, for babies and children, constrained as they are, are more free than the tyrant, for the tyrant is forever bound to his depraved will, but a child's innocence and wonder makes him more free than the worst of tyrants, for true freedom lies not in anarchy but in submission and duty.
It occurred recently that I found myself in an awkward position. I am often surrounded by worldviews which both clash with my own as well as common sense. A man must hold fast to Truth in such situations, and at times that Truth must come out of his mouth. It happened within a lively discussion on words and their power, that our group began to conclude that words retained a special power to construct "meaning" and "truth." It is not, so goes the thought-process, "meaning" and "truth" which are represented in constructed words, as has been believed for centuries; it is words, which contain no inherent meaning, that create a perception of truth and meaning, truth and meaning that find their relevance only in the common acceptance of society. The natural result of this absurdity is the conclusion that in giving words so much power, we actually strip their power completely. If a word essentially could mean anything, it is the same as a word meaning everything, it is the same as a word meaning nothing. If a word is not inherently tied to concepts of things, language is truly nothing but vague onomatopoeia, and the natural course of conversation should devolve into meaningless grunts and gestures; the result, I confess, would be welcomed in regards to conversations like the above.
Now, no one is ever arguing that words are not constructed, but what is now being argued in institutions of higher education is that now the things and concepts are also constructed. The obvious problem with this lies in determining which constructed entity came first. A friend of mine wittily states that his favorite social construction is the building, and I will use that as an example. Stating that both words and the concepts they refer to are constructed is like saying the building is constructed by the man and the man is constructed by the building. It is stating that a word like "woman" is constructed by the concept of woman, and that the concept of woman is also constructed by the simple fact that we name that concept "woman." It denies any sort of objective grounding on which we can rest our feet. If the idea of womanhood only exists because society calls it "womanhood," so too do elephants only exist because we call them "elephants." But you can call a woman any number of things; what you cannot do is change the underlying concept of what a woman actually is.
As the conversation continued along illogical lines, I eventually gave in, proclaiming the above thoughts and concluding that whether you call a computer an "apple," it still remains a computer. It does not turn into an apple, and at the end of the day a woman is still a woman. Of course, little did I know that the last place on earth any person ought to make objective statements is among English majors. Perhaps that is the true paradox of our age -- that a branch of academia which has fought so long for the meaning of words, has now completely devolved into a small society of people who cannot say with any force or courage that a cat is a cat. But instead, the modern English major is content to spin around in circles debating not only the "true" meaning of "cat" but also whether or not the concept of "cat" can objectively exist. If English programs are seen as impractical today, I would have us step outside our socially-constructed circle and see why: for the world sees us doing nothing but staring into the sky and spinning in circles.
Sam Snow (theficklefarce.com)
written with a bold sense of meaning
April 13, 2014
"'Pysche' a White Persian Cat'"
By Francis Sartorius I
Oil on Canvas, 1787