Sense and Nonsense: The Last ‘Nonsense’ in Print

On learning that September 2007 was to be the last print edition of Crisis Magazine, I proposed a final column titled “The Last ‘Nonsense’ in Print.” I was tempted to title it “The Last Schall ‘Nonsense’ in Print.” It occurred to me that such a title would suggest that the addition of “Schall” to “nonsense,” in my case, is redundant. One does well to anticipate the workings of the minds of readers and friends.

This particular column ran in the old San Francisco Monitor for years. The Monitor ceased publication about the time that Michael Novak and Ralph Mclnerny decided to launch Crisis. The column has thus appeared monthly for a quarter of a century since that time.

I have always enjoyed short essays. Ignatius Press published a collection of mine titled Idylls and Rambles: Lighter Christian Essays. My only hassle with Crisis editors was over the length of an essay. When Scott Walter was editor, I could write longer essays. I attribute this tolerance, naturally, to his wisdom. But, gradually, Crisis has reduced allotted space first to 800 words, then to some 675, all the while leaving enough blank space on a page to allow one more never-to-be-heard thought. Actually, it is not a bad discipline to confine oneself to fewer, but (it is hoped) more precise and pithy, words.

The title of this column comes from someplace in Chesterton, who ever contrasted sanity and insanity, sense and nonsense. The word “nonsense” has the connotation of amusement and lightsomeness. Chesterton was once accused of not being serious because he was also funny, but he saw no reason why what was true could not also be funny. The opposite of funny is “not-funny,” not “truth.”

This “sense” of “nonsense” has always been the spirit of these columns. It partakes of the Christian paradox that the truth of revelation will often be seen as either “foolishness” or “scandal,” as St. Paul warned us. Still, I never wanted to deny that many very common opinions were, in fact, not sensible: They made no sense against a standard of truth. When one circles the truth, one also circles joy and delight.

Joseph Pieper, writing of Aquinas, said that the “article,” the response in which Aquinas stated what he held about some topic, was ever quite short. Aquinas’s articles are always in systematic form and in a definite location in his thought. They corresponded to the reality he is investigating. The English essay, of which Belloc was the greatest practitioner, was looser in content, following its French background as an “effort,” a proposal that did not claim any other truth but what an author proposed. I have always conceived columns as bearing hints both of Aquinas’s article and the English essay, all of which bear hints of Chesterton’s humor.

The online column will lack a certain solidity, tangibility. Everyone, by now, is used to printing out on his computer something that he finds online. I believe many previous Crisis issues are already online. Today, we first write online before we ever produce something in print. Printing is the last thing we do, not the first. Yet seeing one’s words “in print” is one thing, someone reading them another. A writer never knows really if anyone reads what he writes, nor when someone might read what he writes. It happens that someone will write a letter to me about something I had written 20 or so years ago. Printed pages just sit there waiting to be read.

I suppose online material is in the same condition. In both cases, huge amounts of material are out there to be read by someone, sometime. Old copies of Crisis Magazine, I fondly hope, will become collector’s items. One imagines a chance soul purchasing an old copy of Crisis and, on coming across a “Sense and Nonsense” column, saying to himself, “You know, in spite of it all, this ‘nonsense’ still makes sense, even in print.”

James V. Schall

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James Vincent Schall, S.J. is an American Jesuit Roman Catholic priest, teacher, writer, and philosopher. He was, most recently, Professor of Political Philosophy in the Department of Government at Georgetown University.

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