Sense and Nonsense: What to Say of a Great Thing

My editor called up the other day from the deep recesses of downtown South Bend to remind me that my column for the present issue of Crisis was due. At first I thought of doing something on Nietzsche, or Allan Bloom, or Josef Pieper, if for no other reason than that their books were sitting on my desk. However, I have a kind of catch-all shelf, perhaps my favorite, devoted to sundry things like The World of Wodehouse Clergy, Don Quixote, Lost in the Cosmos, Main— Travelled Roads, Pride and Prejudice, Life on the Mississippi, and, to my utter surprise, a Penguin edition of The Portable Dorothy Parker, which I did not know I owned.

Naturally, I took Dorothy Parker off the shelves, as it were. On opening it, I found an unopened letter. Since it is not like me to leave unopened letters just stranded in books (I love letters, in fact), I was astonished to discover that this particular book had been given to me for my birthday last January.

Need I remind you that neglecting a birthday gift, and such a dear one, for almost nine months, gives one pause, especially during a semester when Cicero’s famous essay on “Old Age” is on my required reading list for freshmen. Besides, I really think that this world is made up mostly of unanticipated gifts. Likewise, I believe that the only real response to a gift, however belated, is some form of thanksgiving. So this is my effort, much in arrears.

Dorothy Parker died in 1967. She was famous for lines that went like this:

Helen of Troy had a wandering glance;

Sappho’s restriction was only the sky;

Ninon was ever the chatter of France;

But oh, what a good girl am I!

That was from a poem entitled, “Words of Comfort to Be Scratched on a Mirror.”

Another of Miss Parker’s poems was called “A Pig’s-Eye View of Literature,” still another just “Theory.” Here is a poem aptly called, “Philosophy,” in case you ever wondered about this esoteric subject:

If I should labor through daylight and dark,

Consecrate, Valoroous, Serious, True,

Then in the world, I may blazon my mark;

And what if I don’t, and what if I do?

Needless to say, this anxious thought has been often broached by the philosophers and the theorists, and, more especially, by those who wonder what exactly it is they do, or don’t, as the case may be.

Dorothy Parker also did a lot of book reviews. In 1929, she reviewed a collection of Ring Lardner short stories. She remembered that one of Lardner’s most famous stories, “Golden Honeymoon” was turned down by “the noted editor of a famous weekly.” In Miss Parker’s view, this act should put that editor in the “select little band” that would include the publisher who “rejected” Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which, as I say, I have on my shelves near to where Dorothy Parker was laying unthanked.

In her comments on Lardner, Dorothy Parker remarked, “It is difficult to review these spare and beautiful stories; it would be difficult to review the Gettysburg Address. What more are you going to say of a great thing than it is great?” Deborah Schultz, my friend who gave me Dorothy Parker, frequently talks about “higher order concerns,” a phrase which, I think, is very apt, especially in reflecting on Miss Parker’s question, what more can we say of a great thing other than that it is great?

Here, I suspect, we are already amidst the highest things. We are beyond justice, beyond fairness even. We live in a world in which the highest things we have, our praise, our understanding, are not adequate or sufficient to respond to what we are first given. Thanks is designed to acknowledge the fact that we ought to try to do what we can. This is no mean thing, for thanks takes precisely nothing away from us. We are loathe, often, to deal in things of the spirit.

Yet this world is not made of justice, as Thomas Aquinas reminded us. What was it Miss Parker quipped in “Thought for a Sunshiny Morning”?

It costs me never a stab nor squirm

To tread by chance upon a worm.

“Aha, my little dear,” I say,

“Your clan will pay me back one day.”

This is what we inquire of the great thing that stamped upon the worm, “What if I don’t, and what if I do?” And of Helen, and of Sappho, and of Ninon, and of all those who tread upon worms, this is theory and this is philosophy: Remember to give thanks for your gifts, and all else will be given to you, even if you don’t find Dorothy Parker on our shelves for three seasons after your last birthday.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    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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