25 June 2016

A note on doggerel and nonsense inspired by Charles Wesley

Responding to a recent article in which I mentioned that my late mother used to sing hymns, a friend of mine very kindly wrote a note about hymns.  I am a Buddhist and not at all conversant with things associated with the Christian faith. I was grateful for the information. This is what was written:

"Do you know that the RC church was not really 'hymn' prone. They had chants and liturgies. Their hymns were a mixture of praise not only of God but of the Holy Mother of God-Mary. The Vatican occasionally equates her with Jesus himself. The Protestants broke away from that- we revere Mary, the Holy Mother, but don’t worship her.  Hymn writing really came into its own with the advent of the Methodist church-you can say that Methodism was born in song. And the most prolific writer of hymns was Charles Wesley the co-founder of the Methodist Church, in 1779.His preface to his collection of hymns is delightful. I loved this bit-'Many gentlemen have done my brother and me (though not mentioning our names!) the honour of reprinting many of our hymns. They are welcome to do so as long as they print them just as they are. I desire that they do not try to mend them; because they cannot. Let them stand just as they are, take them for better or worse.  So that we may not be held accountable for the nonsense or doggerel of other men!'”

The hymn-history fascinated me.  Church history, on the other hand, is like any other ‘history’ prone to multiple interpretations in accordance with faith and ideological predilection.  What really struck me was Wesley’s request about keeping lyrics intact.  These days such things don’t come as requests but with warnings that are pregnant in copyright assertion.  Wesley’s request was to my mind both innocent as well as philosophical. 

Lyric-tinkering can be both good and bad.  T.S. Eliot dedicated his much celebrated poem ‘The Wasteland’ to Ezra Pound.  Eliot called him ‘the better craftsman’.  That’s ‘with permission’ of course.  There are people who can add value to a lyric or anything else, with or without the permission of whoever came up with the original articulation.  It is a delicate thing and utterly subjective too.  One might strive for enhancement and believe to have achieved the same when in fact what results could be perversion and rob something of the original.  Time passes and people die.  The dead cannot make claims.  They might ‘will’ authority on friend of family but time is long and the longer the time, the weaker the strength of ‘rights’ and greater the possibility of ‘loopholing’.  The Wesleys are now out of the picture and lyric-purity can only be pleaded, not obtained as right and protected by law. 

The Wesley Principle, if I may call it that, is something that all human beings have to deal with.  Our words don’t belong to us and that’s the hardest thing to acknowledge and live with.  We deal with it temporarily by seeking legal cover against plagiarism, quite forgetting that we’ve all had our fill from other people’s wells, and in the end find them reconfigured and even thrown back at us like so many grenades. 

It’s not just words of course.  Everything upon which we inscribe ‘MINE’ is appropriated one way or another. This is not surprising since ‘I’ is such an untenable proposition.  The water that makes such a big proportion of who we are, did not belong to us a few days ago and will not be with us a few days from now.  Our thoughts are not ours.  Our cells die.  We came from dust and to dust we go.  In the long span of time, our lives are finger-snap moments, destined to be forgotten. 

The other pertinent thought that the Wesleyan comment provoked was about interpretive authority.   Teachers are very (too?) often held accountable to the nonsense and doggerel of their followers, especially (sadly) when they choose to interpret without any caveat-insertion regarding frailty the ‘word’ of the ‘Master’.  I doubt if teacher would mind, if they are around to see where their words have gone and what levels of frill and ‘unclothedness’ they’ve been made to acquire.  What is worrisome is that interpreter often (sadly) will use the name of the teacher to justify project. 

The problem is that even if words are printed ‘as they are’, there are no bounds to interpretive freedom.  The same words can be taken to mean a range of different things.  This is why people who worship the same god or pledge allegiance to the same teacher find that apart from teacher-commonality, they are very different sets of individuals.  This is why we speak of ‘denomination’.  This is true of all faiths, whether they are religious or otherwise.  

In the end, it comes down to the particular individual.  At some point faith-assertion, symbolic allegiance and congregation (for all their obvious wholesome benefits to collectives) gives way to a within-struggle.  We have to come to terms with the word and how we read it.  In the end it is not about what the word is or who said it first, but what we make of it.  Some may say ‘defer to faith’ and I have no doubt this can give peace, but that decision itself is a product of a consideration of an information compound, coloured by culture and habit perhaps. 

We return, again and again, to the compelling, overwhelming and yet empowering realization that what we know is of miniscule dimensions compared with the sum total of human knowledge, which in turn is a grain of sand compared to the infinite nature of collective human ignorance.  Theoretically, one can argue that someday we will know all there is to know, by incremental gathering, collation, analysis and extrapolation.  Perhaps.  That does not help the individual of the here and now though. 

I don’t know where to go, but I do find solace in the Charter on Free Inquiry as expounded to the Kalamas by Siddhartha Gauthama.  In the very least it helps protect me from the pitfalls of my own interpretive tendencies. 

This morning I would like to end with one thought, inspired (even in its ‘nonsensicality’ and ‘doggerality’) by the words of my friend: perhaps we should worry more about the nonsense and doggerel that we produce than about being made accountable for the nonsense and doggerel of others who wear the words we weave. 

This article was first published in the Daily News (June 24, 2011).  The lady whose words prompted this note is no more.  I re-post as a tribute to her memory.  Go well Saji Cumaraswamy.  

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene