Entry from November 5, 2009

In Laurent Cantet’s great film, La Classe, which came out in America last spring, the hapless inner-city school teacher played by François Bégaudeau — who also wrote the book on which the film was based — attempted to ingratiate himself with a class of naughty teenagers, who are contemptuous of his authority, by admitting that no one but a snob would ever use the subjunctive mood nowadays. Whereupon, the kids pretend not to know what a “snob” is! It’s a reminder of the extent to which grammar, manners, authority and social cohesion go together but also of the impoverishment of intellectual life that results when, for the sake of egalitarianism, we dumb down the usable language and so voluntarily deprive ourselves of the means of thinking, or understanding, a whole mood’s worth of thoughts.

Take that wonderfully and hilariously nonsensical bumper sticker, “God bless the whole world — no exceptions.” Grammatically and historically, the “God bless” formula is an example of the “optative,” a sub-class of the subjunctive. What it really means is “May God bless. . .” and, therefore, “I hope that God blesses. . .” It is a polite way of expressing a wish that someone — or, in this case, Someone — will do something. Today in French you would use the conditional. But without the knowledge of the English optative, the bumper-sticker’s writer supposes it to be an imperative. The speaker is not humbly supplicating God but imperiously ordering Him, which is ridiculous. For the writer, this is probably a matter of no great moment. Like the rest of the culture, he will long since have grown used to the idea that God, if He exists at all, is only there to be bullied by his creatures and told what he can and cannot do with His world. But that is itself both cause and consequence of the death of the optative.

There are other consequences. Writing in The Times of London last week, Melanie Reid simply assumed the “right to die” and thought it a great shame that the assisted suicide clinic, Dignitas, is beginning to be an embarrassment to the Swiss government because of its attraction of “death tourists” from other European countries seeking to end their own lives. “The people we should really feel sorry for,” writes Ms Reid, “are those for whom the Dignitas clinic offers comfort.”

The restrictions, or closure, will impact most of all on those struggling with constant pain or a decreasing loss of motor skills, who in the long wastes of the night take comfort from the fact that Switzerland is only a flight away. They are the people who know that if things become too unbearable next week they can act. For them, knowing that there is a way out, even if they don’t take it, brings relief. And what black irony it is, in a world where one can buy a thousand brands of fridge, or order a zillion differing specifications on a new car, that any organised choice about how to end our lives is being removed from us? Just the most important consumer decision of the lot, the ultimate act of autonomy, denied to us, that’s all.

It appears that the language of “rights” and “consumer choice” is all that we have left with which to speak even of matters of life and death, which may be yet another of the pernicious legacies of the “pro-choice” movement. But this language is as hopelessly inappropriate for the purpose as ordering God to bless people.

Not coincidentally, both linguistic faux pas involve a fundamental failure to understand the divine economy and how its workings are different from the human one. To Ms Reid, it is unthinkable that anyone should be deprived of “the ultimate act of autonomy,” whereas those from whom we have inherited our understanding of the relationship between God and man knew that such autonomy is incompatible with the very concept of the Will of God, which Christians are enjoined to pray, in another subjunctive-optative construction, might be done. Prayer itself is a function of the optative, and a recognition that man proposes but God disposes. Without this very basic cultural knowledge, we are led into a wilderness of absurdity from which a right understanding of our own language and its potentialities, if not of religious truth itself, might have saved us.

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