Sense and Nonsense: On Never Reaching Canada

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My nephews, Steve and Mike, who introduced me to Mad magazine when they were respectively about three and two, sometimes protest when these columns become too metaphysical. Actually, they do not use the word metaphysical. The word they use is heavy. I tell them it is not my fault that they do not get the subtlety of their uncle’s humor. They reply that my metaphysics are more effective when written in the style of Mad. I tell them that I do not read Mad for the style but for the metaphysics, one of the few sane journals around in an otherwise bleak world. At first, they thought I was kidding, but over the years they begin to suspect that old issues of Mad have a status with me only a little lower than Aristotle or Saint Paul.

This morning at breakfast, speaking of mad things in an otherwise mad world, Father Martin Casey gave me a little clipping that he said was from his sister, a nun in Mobile, Alabama, entitled “Fractured History.” It was one of those amusing collections from history teachers about how students respond to tests. The first one, evidently from a Biblical history test, read: “Pharaoh forced the Hebrew slaves to make bread without straw. Afterward, Moses went up to Mount Cyanide to get the Ten Commandments. He died before he ever reached Canada.”

The humor here consists in a few simple, if you will, errors—bread instead of bricks, Cyanide instead of Sinai, Canada instead of Canaan. If someone did not know the original account of the Exodus, did not know who Moses was, he might think he was reading a perfectly straight-forward account, particularly if he did not know what cyanide was. I suppose any normally intelligent reader would wonder just why bread was made with straw in the first place. Someone might wonder, too, why this Mr. Moses, once safely through the Red Sea, wanted to head to Canada, especially since it is beginning to look like there might not even be a Canada, what with all this constitutional strife up there.

On the same day I learned that Moses never reached Canada, another friend wrote, “Maybe it’s true, what Malcolm Muggeridge said in Chronicles of Wasted Time: ‘Everything is true except the facts.’ ” I never noticed this remarkable sentence, and I have one of the volumes of Chronicles of Wasted Time—a title, I believe, that comes from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I love to chronicle wasted time, something my nephews’ father claims is the story of my life. That is what I am doing here, of course. But Muggeridge could put his finger on the truth: Everything is true but the facts.

What is amusing about this sarcastic remark of Muggeridge is its paradox. We expect to hear, “nothing is true but the facts.” Yet, here we have Muggeridge coming to the heart of modern thought, to the suspicion that the modern mind does not want to be ruled by the inconvenient facts, the embarrassing facts, the glorious facts. This relation of the mind to facts—the conformity of the mind to reality, as Saint Thomas put it—would mean, of course, that we are not dependent on ourselves alone, but open to a truth we do not make.

Someone complimented George Marlin by observing he could remember, amidst a vast array of other things, a 1956 Mad magazine in which some baseball fanatic could not remember the birthdays of his own children but could remember the weight of Walter Johnson in 1907. Well, since Mad is, as I suggested in the beginning, one of my perennial sources of metaphysical insight, let me cite from a 1965 Polyunsaturated Mad, with its cover of Alfred E. Neuman as a pirate.

Here is the Mad “Introduction” to a skit called “Football ‘in Depth’ “—remember this is 1964 and the election referred to was that between Goldwater and Johnson.

The latest trend in TV coverage is known as “In Depth’ reporting. Those who followed the 1964 Political conventions know what that means… armies of “Anchor Men,” “Floor Men,” “Local Color Men,” and “That’s-The-Story-As-It-Looks-From-Here Men” interviewing everyone in sight to get the “Full Story.’ Because this type of coverage proved successful, it won’t be long before unimaginative network big-wigs decide to turn these squads of reporters loose in other areas of television. F’rinstance, Mad now presents a preview of what to expect in one of the many areas that does not need this type of coverage, and so will probably get it. Mainly, here is FOOTBALL “IN DEPTH.”

Today, we cannot help reading this passage without a certain amount of consternation, for that deluge of “in depth” reporting is exactly what happened, not least in football. Only now for every “Anchor Man,” we have a “Floor Woman.” All the “in depth” interviewing will necessarily be by reporters selected according to some magic formula of race and gender and, increasingly, alternate sexual orientation, as it is called.

Of course, the other First Amendment category, religion, is not calculated in any of this. The variety of viewpoints expressed follows some sort of politically correct agenda. That Mad sensed all of this trendiness in the air in 1964 is not “fractured history” but downright prophecy! Did some big “unimaginative” TV executive steal this idea from Mad? Did Mad sue? Do they know this in Canada?

“Everything is true but the facts.” If we can undermine the precarious solidity of facts, we can free ourselves from their obligations, their tyranny. Once free of the facts, we cannot be criticized for our world, the world we create on the basis of any facts, the single things that are not true. Once we arrive at this point, all we need is political power to refashion the world on the basis of our “truth.” We can, in our own minds, be sincere and noble because we are bravely forging ahead in a world with no facts only “truths,” our truths, authentically held. No “facts” can touch us.

This is “what to expect in one of the many areas that do not need this type of coverage, and so will probably get it….”

The ten commandments that were given on Mount Sinai were given as facts, facts about the kind of being we are. The cyanide that the Dutch doctors now give to patients who want to die is a fact. That man needs bricks but does not live by bread alone are facts. That Moses never reached Canaan nor Canada is a fact. That the modern world is full of political “promised lands” that are “true” but contrary to the facts of Sinai is also a fact, a fact of current political life. These latter are the sorts of “truths” that we do not need but that are regularly thrown into the world. There are some lands, increasingly both our own and Canada, that are “true” in this ironical sense of Muggeridge, that conform their civic life not to what is but to the wills of their elites and politicians, yes even of their people. It is better that we do not reach such lands.

Still, I wonder what Walter Johnson did weigh in 1907—a fact. I wonder whether Canada will survive, whether Dutch doctors will eventually kill us all. The things we do not need, like “in depth” football, “in depth” coverage of our wars, we get. The things we do need, like the Ten Commandments, are no longer “our” truths. This is why the Dutch doctors can administer cyanide, or whatever, with the approval of a Catholic Prime Minister. They possess “truths” that are not facts.

By

The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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