Of lunatics and vocabulary

I recently finished reading Rebecca West’s classic 1940 tome Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, chronicling her travels through what was then Yugoslavia along with pretty much everything she learned about the history of that region. There are many, many things I could comment on in that book, and maybe I will in the coming days, but one thing I find sticking with me is her distinction between “idiots” and “lunatics.” When West learns that the King of Yugoslavia has been assassinated and reacts with horror, her nurse assumes she must have known the man personally. West comments:

Her question made me remember that the word “idiot” comes from a Greek root meaning private person. Idiocy is the female defect: intent on their private lives, women follow their fate through a darkness deep as that cast by malformed cells in the brain. It is no worse than the male defect, which is lunacy: they are so obsessed by public affairs that they see the world as by moonlight, which shows the outlines of every object but not the details indicative of their nature.

I could observe that the last eighty years have brought us to the point where women are as apt to be lunatics as men, and where the prevalence and penetration of public media into daily life makes it difficult for anyone to be an idiot, however hard they may try: think of the elderly shut-in who does little all day but watch television and thus has an opinion on every damned thing that happens in the world. A hundred years ago she would have been an idiot; now she is, at best, a kind of lunato-idiot hybrid, kept from full lunacy by her incapacity for action. But set that aside.

What’s really interesting to me about this distinction is simply that West makes it. Here are two words apt to be used almost interchangeably by way of dismissing their object, which become, thanks to this combination of etymology and poetry, useful tools for distinguishing among similar concepts, yet endowed with the power of metaphor to prevent those distinctions from growing too narrow. What words ought to be, I think. Much later in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon West observes that women’s idiocy has often been the only thing to save civilization from men’s lunacy, and the words are both shorthand and illustration, at once zipping up an argument and unpacking it. Beautiful.

This reminds me of one of my pet peeves, which is the interchangeability of all the various words we have to praise a thing, the words we trot out when “good” isn’t enough. All come from different roots, and considered etymologically ought surely to mean different things, or at least to shade meaning differently. Excellent is fairly clinical: to excel, to exceed, to stand outside the usual and the expected. Wonderful ought to mean full of wonders, a thing to be wondered at, a mystery. Fantastic suggests fantasy, a thing that surely cannot be real. Fabulous also suggests untruth, but more pointedly: a fabulist is a liar. A thing truly awesome ought to bring us to our knees in an attitude almost of worship. And so on.

The Lord is not a shepherd

A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., on April 26, 2015.

John 10:11-18
Psalm 23

I was determined that I was not going to stand up here and talk about sheep, but in thinking about today’s readings I kept being pulled back to the image of them—the shepherd, the flock, the pasture, the sheep. I have to admit I’m just not crazy about that image. It isn’t that I don’t like sheep. I do like sheep. I’ve toyed with the idea of having sheep some day. They’re relatively easy to manage, and they’re good for multiple purposes throughout their life cycles: they give wool, they give meat, some breeds even give milk. They can live off of relatively poor land. They can be integrated fairly easily into a multi-purpose farm and a household economy. And lambing season, if you don’t mind being kept up at night, is a glorious thing. Wendell Berry, one of a dwindling number of literal “good shepherds” the western world has left in this age of industrialized agriculture who also gives us his own eloquent descriptions of the experience, has this to say about keeping sheep:

The old shepherd comes to another
lambing time, and he gives thanks.
He has longed ever more strongly
as the weeks and months went by
for the new lives the ewes have carried
in their bellies through the winter cold.
Now in the gray mornings of barely
spring he goes to see at last
what the night has revealed. 1

Berry is a Christian, which I think shows through pretty clearly in his poetry—not that he is actively trying to convert anyone, but that he never strays very far from the image of rebirth. The care he takes for his sheep is the sort of care we’d want from our own Good Shepherd, but Berry’s is a very human shepherd—a humble one, who “gives thanks” for a lambing time that he, far from controlling in the manner of an industrial foreman or a software engineer, takes as a holy mystery.

  1. Wendell Berry, “VI” (2011), This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems (Counterpoint, 2013), p.365.