“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you,” we Catholics in the English-speaking world said for forty years, muffling the brave words of the centurion to Jesus. Thankfully the true words of the Mass – such as “come under my roof” – have been mostly restored to us. We still have a gray lectionary, and such old poems as once graced our hymnals have been renovated, resulting in incoherence, insipidity, emasculation, bad grammar, and loss of Scriptural allusion. How long, O Lord, how long?
No one asks the waiter for the Insipid Menu. People read good books and bad books, but nobody seeks out the insipid. Nobody hungers for intellectual tilapia. It may be all they can apprehend, but I think that’s mostly a result of bad education; even children, after all, should enter with wonder into the good old folk tales, rich in wolves, beanstalks, witches, and truth.
Yet we continue to serve boiled tilapia and tofu. Consider these sentences from a book that was once beloved by young and old:
The widow she cried over me, and called me a poor lost lamb, and she called me a lot of other names, too, but she never meant no harm by it. She put me in them new clothes again, and I couldn’t do nothing but sweat and sweat, and feel all cramped up. Well, then, the old thing commenced again. The widow rung a bell for supper, and you had to come to time. When you got to the table you couldn’t go right to eating, but you had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though there warn’t really anything the matter with them.
Now consider the same, “enculturated” to meet the half-wits halfway:
The widow cried when I came back. She called me a poor lost lamb and a lot of other names, but she didn’t mean any harm. She made me wear those new clothes, which made me sweat and feel cooped up all over again. Then all the fuss over rules started up again. For example, whenever the widow rang the supper bell, you had to drop what you were doing and come to the table. When you sat down to eat, you had to wait for her to bow her head and pray, even though there wasn’t anything wrong with the food.
That’s from a site run by Spark Notes, under the tag “No Fear Mark Twain.” There can hardly be more damning evidence of how inept our schools are, and how the family home has ceased to be a place of education, than that schoolchildren should be considered incapable of reading Huckleberry Finn.
Be that as it may, what is lost in that translation? All the wit, for one. Huck says there wasn’t anything really wrong with the food, and we catch that hint of a generous concession; take it all in all, he finds the food not so bad. Huck says that the widow “grumbled a little over the victuals,” and we can hear the old lady muttering the grace in a low and demonstrably reverential voice, a mannerism that doesn’t make any sense to Huck, and that is an object of some gentle satire. That’s all gone.
The vividness of human experience is lost. Huck, the essential boy to the marrow of his bones, can’t stand the new and heavy clothes he has to wear. They make him “sweat and sweat and feel all cramped up.” The second “sweat” is essential. He sweats and then he sweats some more, with no relief in sight. He feels “cramped,” not “cooped” as the translator has put it with characteristic dullness and insensibility to the physical meanings of words.
The boy is lost: that distinct human person with his unmistakable voice. He does not speak to us in translation. He isn’t even present to us. Huckleberry Finn, beginning a sentence with the words “for example”? What’s next, have him talk about “learning objectives” and “critical thinking” and “regularly administered assessments”?
Why do I bring this up? The Church has two thousand years of greatness in her possession: literature, music, the arts, philosophy, theology; and then there is Scripture, whose doors a child can enter with ease, but whose inner courts are filled with wonders that the cleverest among us can only begin to apprehend. Yet in our schools and parishes we hardly avail ourselves of any of it. We have “translated” it into the language of No Fear Catholicism.
When I was a young man and read Augustine’s Confessions for the first time, I was astonished that people seventeen centuries ago did not read the first verse of Genesis, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” as if it referred merely to the ground under our feet and the sky over our heads.
I was astonished to find an analysis of unformed matter that sounds very much like what some modern physicists have to say about the manner in which fundamental particles exist. God made the world “in measure, weight, and number,” said Augustine, quoting the book of Wisdom – a mathematical verse that would inspire Christian architects, poets, composers, and artists for more than a thousand years to come. I had known nothing of all that.
If the child reads that dreadful reduction of Mark Twain, one thing is sure. He will never read the real novel. You cannot swim in a reduction of the ocean. You have to fling out your arms against the real thing.
Let us not raise yet another generation of young people who think that they have swum in the ocean because they have splashed in a bathtub with a rubber duck. Catholics – roll out the big guns. Let beauty stride forth bold and brash. Put the fear back into the faith, that good fear, that awe and reverence that stir the blood and nerve the arm.
*Image: The Widow Douglas teaching Huck by E.W. Kemble, 1885. Twain personally chose Kemble to illustrate the first edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The University of Virginia has a website in which all Kemble’s illustrations may be viewed.