Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Soon, Whenever....

            A theoretical advantage of the electronic revolution, and especially of the Internet,  is that it creates the conditions for instant global debate of a rapid-fire kind, in which the intellectual thrust and parry of the old Dominican theological faculties or the Oxford Union in its heyday is thrown open to the whole wide world—at warp speed.  Thus some obscure person named Hilary Rosen gains fame and infamy in the same instant with a single four-second sentence about Ann Romney uttered on national television; but within an hour Ms. Romney has riposted with the Tweet heard round the Echo Chamber.  So Google is now prepared to lead you to “about” 75,100,000 places you can find some electrons dedicated to the episode.

            The phenomenon, however, seems to be selective.  The intellectual ferment effected by “Gladly Lerne” seems to work at the rate of a fine old brandy, if not that of the construction of Salisbury Cathedral.  A couple of months ago I wrote a little essay about optimism and pessimism viewed from the macro-historical point of perspective.  The general question raised was the following.  Are we better off than we were—not four years ago, but four aeons?  It attracted zero public comments, but slowly a few private emails drifted in, and I sense a need to defend pessimism.

            I believe that it was Chesterton who remarked that the doctrine of Original Sin is unique among the dogmas of Christian theology is that it is empirically demonstrable.   Any medievalist is likely to engage at some point or another with Saint Augustine; but I only appreciated the full extent of the man’s genius when I became a father.   According to the Romantic Wordsworth “… trailing clouds of glory do we come/  From God, who is our home”: but the poet doesn’t mention the booming thunder in the clouds.  Look dispassionately at any newborn infant and you will see the pure distillate of egoism, its very quintessence.  It is three in the morning.  The baby wants to be fed, so the baby yells bloody murder.

            The screaming child gives no thought, none, to its mother’s exhaustion.  The father’s need for restorative sleep sufficient for the successful execution of his arduous work has never entered the child’s mind.  The baby knows only the immediacy of its own desire.   To expect to find in the situation the slightest suggestion of the postponement of gratification would be absurd.  The postponement of gratification is the product of socialization and coercion that free spirits like the Wife of Bath, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the gurus of modern educational theory have ever lamented.  Medieval political theorists, drawing on Aristotle as well as Augustine, saw in the necessary coercions (the criminal law, marriage, and whipping schoolboys for instance) sad memorials to a debased human nature. 

            We recognize the single-mindedness of infantile desire when we accuse others of “acting like a baby”, a form of behavior widely practiced by babes of all ages.  Certainly anyone long associated with a college campus will have seen many “demonstrations” at which a “student leader” in brief political liturgy shouts out two questions to assembled fellow “activists,” to which the crowd bellows in prescribed reply.
            Q: “Whadda we want?”
            A:  “Justice!/Disinvestment!/Free condoms!/Whatever!” [pick one ad libitum]
            Q:  “When do we want it?”
            A: “NOW!”

            But the distance between the vehemence with which the human race demands instant gratification and the lethargy with which it achieves useful aims is evident in a few revelatory facts of linguistic history.  Latin mane meant “the morning”, and especially “first thing in the morning,” but already in classical time it had begun its slide of procrastination seen in its Germanic (morgen, morrow, etc.) and Romance (demain, mañana, etc.) relatives, where it refers to the day after.  Forget Poor Richard’s Almanack; the principle by which people really live is “Never put off until tomorrow what you can put off until the day after tomorrow”.   There is by no means anything essentially Hispanic about the “mañana mentality.”  At least in Spanish one meaning of mañana remains “morning”.  In English morrow (without its prefatory to) simply withered on the vine of innate human indolence.

            That isn’t all.  In Old English the adverb sóna meant “immediately,” “right now”.  By Chaucer’s time a few centuries later there was definite slippage.  The word soon had taken on the rather indefinite if still hopeful meaning we tend to look for in it today.  Yet few things are less convincing than the telephone message from the contractor who tells you that his men will be by to complete the job “soon”.  It isn’t exactly a lie.  Describe it as the creative exploitation of rapid semantic development.

from the Christian Science Monitor

            An even more flagrant display of adverbial decay is evidenced by presently.  This word manifestly has to mean in the present, now, as opposed to in the past or in the future.  The chances are eight to three, however, that the next time you are sitting in a waiting room and the receptionist tells you that Whoever It Is will be with you “presently,” you will still have time for a couple of games of chess.  I have a lot more to say on this subject, and I’ll return to it presently.