On Raiding the Inarticulate

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.  And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.  And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious.  But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying.  The rest is not our business.
T.S. Eliot
The Four Quartets—East Coker

The beginning of June marks the start of GOVERNINGWorks’s third month. The retirement of Associate Justice David Souter and the nomination of Federal Circuit Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor as Justice Souter’s replacement are among the noteworthy events to have occurred since GOVERNINGWorks began publication.

In addition to having to endure the divided and divisive political maneuvering it would seem we now must expect with a Supreme Court nomination, the politics of biography attends Judge Sotomayor. Her personal story is impressive. Her intermittent comments on the role elements of her biography play in her decision-making have added fuel to questions already arising about President Barack H. Obama’s use of “empathy” as a factor in his choice and the relationship of a nominee’s biography, jurisprudence and suitability to serve on the Supreme Court.

Biography is important. It is not destiny.

Hermeneutics—the study of interpretation, especially of Biblical texts—was the single most important challenge I faced in seminary. When I entered seminary, I began the study of religion, theology, history and law in a new way. I had studied these subjects in college. Seminary offered new breadth and depth, including Hermeneutics.

As a seminarian, my teachers (and the line of scholars and religious extending back in time) understood (“presupposed,” is the hermeneutical phrase) that I was to search myself along with books before me. I was expected (and taught) to question my faith and my life as I questioned the texts before me and the facts related to them.

Hermeneutics did not dominate my studies. I was not required to declaim my biography on entering the classroom, researching and writing and engaging my colleagues. I was not expected to generate a specific and unchanging answer to any specific or dispositive question. There is no necessary or static answer to the question of how biography, faith, understanding and action relate.

Rather, I was expected consciously to investigate and articulate factors relevant to belief, understanding and action.  Hermes, the son of Zeus and Maia, is the messenger, the interpreter. (Interestingly, he is also the god merchants, thieves and oratory. Make of that what you will.) Hermes flits among the gods and humanity interpreting what the gods are on about. But Hermes does not fix how or what we believe, understand or do. That is up to us.

Starting in 1993, Vanity Fair magazine began running The Proust Questionnaire. It “has its origins in a parlor game popularized (though not devised) by Marcel Proust, the French essayist and novelist, who believed that, in answering these questions, an individual reveals his or her true nature.” My answers are as follows:

What is your idea of perfect happiness?


What is your greatest fear?

  Ceaseless physical pain

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?


What is the trait you most deplore in others?


Which living person do you most admire?

  My wife
  Andreas Gursky

What is your greatest extravagance?

  Selvedge denim

What is your current state of mind?


What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

  Life without regret

On what occasion do you lie?

  When asked on what occasions I lie

What do you most dislike about your appearance?


Which living person do you most despise?

  Robert Mugabe
  Omar Hassan al-Bashir

What is the quality you most like in a man?

  A personality consisting in perspicacity, clarity, humor & discretion

What is the quality you most like in a woman?

  A personality consisting in perspicacity, clarity, humor & discretion

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

  “I would argue…”

What or who is the greatest love of your life?

  Music (what)
  My wife (who)

When and where were you happiest?

  Paris, March 2004

Which talent would you most like to have?

  The ability to play the piano

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

  The inability to play the piano

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

  My life with my wife

If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?

  A concert pianist (person)
  An elm tree (thing)

Where would you most like to live?

  Where I am  

What is your most treasured possession?

  My fountain pen & my pocket US Constitution—gifts from my wife

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?


What is your favorite occupation?

  Writing & making coffee

What is your most marked characteristic?


What do you most value in your friends?

  A personality consisting in perspicacity, clarity, humor & discretion

Who are your favorite writers?

  Irenaeus of Lyon
  Augustine of Hippo
  Peter Abelard
  Theresa of Avila
  Thomas Jefferson
  James Madison
  Alexander Hamilton
  Abraham Lincoln
  W. Somerset Maugham
  Rainer Maria von Rilke
  E.M. Forster
  Sinclair Lewis
  T.S. Eliot
  Robert H. Jackson
  Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
  Richard Wright
  Tennessee Williams
  Paul Celan
  James Baldwin
  Harper Lee
  Richard A. Norris

Who is your hero of fiction?

  Larry Darrel
  Atticus Finch

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

  I admire rather than identify with historical figures

Who are your heroes in real life?

  Augustine of Hippo
  Abraham Lincoln

What are your favorite names?


What is it that you most dislike?


What is your greatest regret?

  Wasted time & effort

How would you like to die?

  Peacefully & before infirmity

What is your motto?

  The agglomeration of:  
  Sapientia non est numerus
  Only connect
  Hell is other people