Commenter Winston Scrooge deplores the tone of this blog, and more especially this author (here). His point is serious, his argument thoughtful, and his tone altogether free of the bilious acerbity that, he says, too often taints my posts. His argument has theological aspects that I will not tackle here, although the direction I would take is suggested in the comment I left at his site (and to which he has responded with his accustomed liberality and generosity of spirit). Here I limit myself to what he says and suggests about the proper limits of Christian rhetoric, and set for myself the task of defending acerbity.
Citing important lines from the fifth chapter of Galatians, Scrooge suggests that that they imply a necessary sweetness in the “fruits of the spirit,” and that from this a mild and mellow rhetorical style will necessarily follow. To this I would say that St. Paul does not impress me as an author who is mild or mellow, and that this want of rhetorical polish is something of which he himself is aware. He occasionally rises to poetic passages of blissful beauty, but just as often swoops down with philippics that verily drip with acerbity.
The sword of acerbity is not, apparently, denied to the Christian apologist. This does not mean that every apologist must wade into battle slashing away with the Blade of Bile, only that to do so is no dishonor to the cause of Christ. Indeed, the seemingly widespread feeling that we cannot wield the Blade of Bile strikes me as a very sore and altogether needless handicap that we have imposed upon ourselves. (Here you may mutter “Boromir,” if you like.)
As I have made clear in several earlier posts, I have crossed the rhetorical Rubicon with the army of the so-called alt-right. This means that I agree with their assessment that conservatives and Christians of the recent past have been what Sam Francis called “beautiful losers,” men whose highest hope was to see the epitaph “Gentlemen” carved on their tombstones. I admire many of these men to this day, but see very clearly that they lost a bar-fight because they were determined to fight by Queensbury Rules. (Here you may mutter “Judas,” if you like.)
I am very far from dead to this accusation of being Judas/Boromir, but am not yet convinced that acerbity is the Ring of Power. It is, I submit, something more like the army of the Dead who lived under the Dwimorberg. It is a power of which we may make use, although we would do well to beware of falling under its spell and let it use us.
To cross the rhetorical Rubicon, you must take in the significance of Marshall McLuhan’s thesis that “the medium is the message” (1). His immediate focus was, of course, new communication technologies such as television, but his more general observation was that the “content” of a message is largely controlled by the “medium” or mode of communication. This word “medium” is by no means limited to the things we most immediately think of when we hear the words “communication technologies”—things like printing presses, radios, or the internet. As anyone who has read Plato’s Phaedrus knows, rhetoric is a communication technology.
“Oratory,” Socrates says, “is the art of enchanting the soul, and therefore he who would be an orator has to learn the differences of human souls.” In this knowledge he will then “proceed to divide speeches into their different classes.” If he is to be a successful orator, he will know “when he should make use of pithy sayings, pathetic appeals, aggravated effects, and all the other figures of speech,” and it is only when he possesses this knowledge of “the times and seasons of all these things” that he can be called “a consummate master of his art” (2).
I am, needless to say, very far from being a consummate master of anything at all; but I take to heart Plato’s notion that every figure of speech has its time and season. Moreover, I assert that, so far as traditional Christians are concerned, the time and season of acerbity is now! If ever there were a time when the Blade of Bile should be drawn, that time is now!
My models in this enterprise are Alice Thomas Ellis, Maurice Cowling, and Evelyn Waugh. As Richard Ingram wrote in the introduction to a collection of Ellis’s columns, she did not “present a smiling face,” and yet in spite of this was “unfailingly cheerful and amusing.” She was sour, but not soured, if you see what I mean. I lack Ellis’s wit and flair, but would not refuse “Sour but Unsoured” as my literary motto. To my mind, this mix of acerbity and cheerful detachment is at the very heart of Christian irony.
Cowling described his approach to writing as “a mixture of politeness and negative bloodiness which is the antidote to liberal virtue” (3). One must read Cowling to fully apprehend what this means, but he writes that this mix, so similar to that of Ellis, is the figure of speech with which to “manifest resentment,” express “cultural distaste,” and “blow up the consensus” (4). It is not, in other words, the mild and mellow language of “beautiful losers” who aspire to have the epitaph “Gentlemen” engraved on their tombstones. It is the acerbic language of a wily fighter who aspires to read the epitaph “Good Riddance” engraved on the tombstone of his rivals.
From Waugh, I learned the Christian uses of the grotesque, the sordid, the outlandish, and the not-altogether-fair. I learned that Christian portraiture does not make use of the airbrush, and is not above penciling in the occasional mustache.
Reading Winston Scrooge’s post, I at first though he was simply accusing me, and the Orthosphere generally, of being too gloomy—of being Puddleglums, if you like. What he actually argues is more serious than that, but the character of Puddleglum is relevant to what I am trying to say here. Readers of the Silver Chair will recall the scene in Underland where the Witch uses the smoke from a green powder and the thrumming of a lute to enchant Prince Rilian, Puddleglum, Scrub, and Jill (chapter 12).
“The Prince and the two children were standing with their heads hung down, their cheeks flushed, their eyes half closed; the strength all gone from them; the enchantment almost complete.”
At this desperate moment, Puddleglum, “desperately gathering his strength,” walks over to the fire and snuffs it out with his foot. The “sweet heavy smell” of the smoldering powder at once begins to dissipate, replaced by the smell of “burnt Marshwiggle,” which we are told “is not at all an enchanting smell.”
Nasty fellow, you might say. Rather rude, in fact.
But I would answer that in using his foot, Puddleglum shows that he understood “the times and seasons of all things.” He understood that the time and season of courtesy had passed.
He did not say, “This fair Green Lady is regrettably a Witch who makes use of stupefying drugs and mesmerizing music, but I am a beautiful looser who will one day rest beneath a tombstone in the graveyard of Undertown, on which others will read the epitaph ‘Gentleman.’”
When he stomped out that vile fire, Puddleglum crossed the rhetorical Rubicon; and in doing so he of course emboldened Prince Rilian to draw his avenging Blade of Bile.
(1) Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (1964)
(2) Jowett, The Dialogues of Plato, four vols. (1911), vol. 1, p. 577.
(3) Maurice Colwing, Mill and Liberalism, second edition (1990), p. xli.
(4) Maurice Cowling, Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England, three vols. (1980, 1985, 2001), vol. 2, p. xix; Mill, pp. xv, xxi.