The second story I’d like to begin with is geared toward Beatles fans, of which I am one. Paul McCartney turned 80 years old June 18. He recently published a two-volume work entitled: The Lyrics: 1956-Present, by Penguin Books. In it, he tells the background and the inspiration for 154 of his songs.
I recently listened to a podcast interview between the publisher and Paul McCartney. When Paul was asked about the major influences on his lyrics, he pointed to his education. He attended the Liverpool Institute for Boys, a 7-12 public school in Liverpool. He related the books he read in school, works like the epic poems of Homer and Virgil, which he read in the early grades. He mentioned authors such as Shakespeare and Milton, and particularly “The Miller’s Tale“ from the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. He said he laughed all the way through the tale for its outrageous humor. In the upper grades he read Dickens, Dylan Thomas, and Lewis Carroll, whose description of the Walrus was the inspiration for the song, “I am the Walrus“ on the White Album. Providentially, Paul met John Lennon at a church festival when he was 15 and, I guess the rest is history.
Whether you are a Beatles fan or not, the lyrics, words and melodies of those songs, absolutely captured the imagination of a whole generation. They spoke to millions around the world, people of all languages. Paul McCartney also studied Latin, German and Spanish at the Liverpool Institute for Boys. The Beatles made their debut on the world stage in Hamburg, Germany, where they sang many of their songs in German! The point is, “words matter.” The nature and power of language can never be underestimated.
These two stories illustrate that whether you are a university professor or a rock and roll star, a good grasp of language and familiarity with great literature can take you a long way.
We all know the nursery rhyme: “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall/ Humpty Dumpty had a great fall/ all the king’s horses and all the king’s men/ couldn’t put Humpty together again.” It’s a kindergarten classic.
Humpty began his career 300 years ago as the name on a cannon in the English Civil War. His work as a talking egg in the fairytale industry came much later. His importance for us in this session is his co-starring role, with Alice, in Lewis Carroll’s strange children’s story, “Through the Looking Glass,“ published in 1871.
In that book, Humpty says, in a rather nasty tone, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” Put simply: Humpty, and Humpty alone, decides whatever his words mean. It’s the kind of self-assertion that marks Humpty Dumpty as one of the most prophetic political and educational theorists of the modern era. Here’s why.
Words are the basis of thought, belief, and action. A rich vocabulary expands our subtlety and precision not just in our verbal expression, but also in our thought. Thus – when properly used – language builds up the dignity of our species.
To the degree that a word accurately reflects reality – words like unborn child, man and woman, male and female – it tells the truth. And as Jesus himself once said, “the truth will make you free.” Not always comfortable, or happy. But truly liberated, and always free….
The ferocity of verbal abuse, physical violence, and irrational hatred unleashed by otherwise “progressive” people with the downfall of Roe is instructive. Roe v Wade was a badly reasoned decision that invented a “right” to abortion, unrelated to the Constitution or democratic process. But we now live in an environment where emotion substitutes for logic; where people have lost the skills of careful reasoning and cultural memory; where there’s your truth, and Ann’s truth, and Bill’s truth, and my truth. Which really means that there’s no truth at all; just the naked will to power….
The above comes from a talk given by Bishop James Conley of Nebraska to the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and printed in the July 22 Southern Nebraska Register.