Post 191

Nose in the Air: Reflections on a Paragraph Gone Wrong

I don’t know if you read “Crisis” magazine, but in January, the wife of FearlessOne sent me a link to something written by Fr. George W. Rutler, which was posted on the Crisis website. I wasn’t familiar with the magazine and I didn’t realize the article was written by a priest (until 30 seconds ago).

The article is called, “A Misplaced Grief: The Vatican and David Bowie.” Here’s the link.

It’s not a good article – not at all.

In it, Fr. Rutler gets so much of everything so terribly wrong.

It would take me a very long time to counter all of the errors in his article, so I’ll pick and choose, as long as you know that I could have said much more. I’ve already written to FearlessOne’s wife telling her that the article wasn’t any good and why, but I have more time on my hands this Sunday morning so I’ll hold my nose and go back to review it.

Here’s the first paragraph. I will sully the pristine pages of my blog by reprinting what he wrote:

In proof of Chesterton’s dictum that if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly, I pound away at the piano playing the easier Chopin Nocturnes and I grind on my violin with a confidence only an amateur can flaunt. So I am not innocent of music. I appreciate the emotive post-war French singers, and have a soft spot for the idiomatic form called “Doo-Wop” and its highly skilled harmonization and lyricism, along with some of the more whimsical Motown singers. But the world of rock and roll is to me a bewilderment, to the amazement of the same coterie who find it hard to believe that I have never had a cellular phone. It is a fact in witness to which I am willing to swear on a Douai Bible, that I have never been able to listen to an entire rock and roll song. This is not to say that I lack curiosity. In the South Pacific, I have listened to tunes on the aboriginal eucalyptus didgeridoo and the Polynesian nose flute, but what has developed as rock and roll music and metastasized into more raucous forms, remains an anthropological enigma and I leave restaurants and public gatherings where they are played.

(Excuse me while I gag.)


I’m back.

So Fr. Rutler begins his attack on David Bowie and the Church’s praise of Bowie with a description of himself. He tells us, in an adjective-heavy paragraph, a lot about his own preferences and his own leisure activities. I think he views himself as the gold standard.

Man. I just detest his self-absorbed style of writing where every sentence is as contorted and detail-packed as possible.

It reminds me of those who think it’s not okay to write the word “said.” (They also snub their nose at the words “good” and “nice.”) So they have these really cumbersome and thick sentences which are so unnatural. When you read their articles or posts, you’ll find that people do not just “say” things; people “remark” and people “exclaim” and people “interject” and people “recall” and people “observe.” You’re so distracted by reading how people said things that you can barely pay attention to what they said.

It can be exasperating to read such self-conscious stuff — a real slog. (Please, writer-dear, go take your thesaurus and do some origami with them pages.)

I don’t know how long it took Fr. Rutler to assemble his tortured first paragraph, but it’s very unpleasant. I suspect that it got worse and worse, the more he worked it.

Here’s a breakdown, with commentary:

The Normal Way Fr. Rutler’s Way Commentary
(Chesterton said…) “In proof of Chesterton’s dictum that…” Many people quote Chesterton because it sounds fancy. They think it makes them sound smart. Usually they do it the way Fr. Rutler did; they paraphrase and can’t identify the location of the quotation because they didn’t actually read G.K.’s stuff.
(I play the piano) “…I pound away at the piano…” Okay, that’s nice.
A lot of people know how to play the piano.
(I play pieces by Chopin) “…playing the easier Chopin Nocturnes…” The use of the word “the” here is a subtle way of showing you that he’s familiar with Chopin’s stuff and that it is really quite a nothing to mention – almost in passing – something that everyone is of course quite familiar with.  He’s SO much in the world of Chopin that he BARELY notices that you aren’t.  It’s like saying “I collect some of the later-issued Portuguese stamps.” It’s fine to talk this way if you’re on a forum for lovers of something specific (they’ll enjoy the detail, perhaps), but he knows perfectly well that his readers aren’t familiar with Chopin’s works, and in particular, they really don’t connect with “…the easier Chopin Nocturnes.”  Most readers can’t tell the difference between Chopin and Mozart, and Fr. Rutler knows it.  He’s rubbing it in here and I find that highly ick.
(I play the violin) “…I grind away on my violin…” Once again, that’s nice. Many people play the violin too.
(…even though I am an amateur) “…with a confidence only an amateur can flaunt” (humility)
(I know about music OR
I’m a musical person OR
I enjoy music)
“So I am not innocent of music.” Uh, okay.
Good for you? There’s a sort of ‘humour’ here which is VERY self-conscious. It’s a variation on a theme where someone is admitting, in a roundabout and mildly euphemistic way, that they know too much about something that they shouldn’t know anything at all about. For example, if a priest were to nudge-nudge wink-wink say to you, “I am not innocent of women,” then you’d know that 1) he talks weird, and 2) he’s not feeling at all repentant and in fact is rather pleased with himself, and 3) maybe he was never meant to be priest. There’s a slight glibness built into the phrase.

So here Fr. Rutler is using a phrase which wasn’t all that great in the first place and adding his personal amusing-to-him twist.


Moving on …

(And I like some of the French singers from the 1940s) “I appreciate the emotive post-war French singers…” Oh puh-leeze.
Cough cough. Gag.

And here there’s the same problem with the use of “the.” And really, who nowadays throws in references to “the post-war era”? That sounds like something a history prof might say. Mind you, I have a feeling that this is the look he’s going for here.

(I like) “…I have a soft spot for…” This is a way of ‘stooping down’ to the level of something else. The idea here is that you have standards, but you’re ready to relax them for something which would otherwise be a little beneath you. You are being rather indulgent and tolerant; it turns out that you aren’t entirely firm and unyielding. You have a little mercy, in the midst of all that brilliant exactness, is the idea.
(Doo-Wop music) “…the idiomatic form called “Doo-Wop” and its highly skilled harmonization and lyricism…” (Gag)
He approaches “Doo-Wop” with white gloves. He puts it in quotations to show you that he is unaccustomed to talking in such a doo-woppity way. But don’t you dare laugh, because he lets you know that he has detected its “highly-skilled harmonization” and “lyricism.”

Um, okay. That’s nice.

(I like some Motown singers too) “…along with some of the more whimsical Motown singers…” Of course, a true connoisseur can distinguish between the regular singers and the ‘more whimsical’ ones.


(I don’t understand rock music.) “…but the world of rock and roll is to me a bewilderment…” Notice that he won’t call it “rock music.” He’s not on a first-name basis with it. So he shows you his distance by referring to it, each and every time, with the full name: “rock and roll.”

And man, I really dislike this snobby word sequence. Instead of saying “I am bewildered by the world of rock and roll,” which is bad enough, he writes that the world is “to me” a bewilderment.

Oh puh-leeze, Father Rutler!

(My friends OR my acquaintances) “…the coterie…” A coterie is “a small group of people with shared interests or tastes, especially one that is exclusive of other people.”

The dictionary gives an example: “a coterie of friends and advisers.”

The synonym are: clique, set, circle, inner circle, crowd, in-crowd.

Are priests supposed to have coteries?

I thought they were there to tend to the laity.

(I have never had a
cell phone)
“…I have never had a
cellular phone…”
The man opts for the full three-syllable version of the word. It is, once again, a method of demonstrating his distance from this for-the-masses modern technology.

(Now I don’t own one either, but it’s not because I haven’t tried. I had one long before you did, I bet. They were the flip-open kind then. I never used it, because I’d forget to recharge it and I’d leave it in the trunk of my car. When I called to cancel my subscription, the upseller-let’s-fit-you-with-a-new-plan man couldn’t find any suitable packages for those whose history of use for each month was zero, zero, zero, zero … So he let me go.)

(I would be willing to swear…) “…It is a fact in witness to which I am willing to swear…” You must be kidding, Father.

“In witness to which” ?

Honestly, Father, do you REALLY have to write like this?

Who ya tryin’ to impress, hey?

Or shall I say, “Whom are you trying to impress?”

I’m all in favour of good grammar but COME ON!

(…on a bible) “…on a Douai Bible…” Wikipedia says: The DouayRheims Bible (pronounced /ˌduːeɪ/ or /ˌdaʊ.eɪ ˈriːmz/) (also known as the RheimsDouai Bible or Douai Bible, and abbreviated as DR and DV) is a translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into English made by members of the English College, Douai, in the service of the Catholic Church. The New Testament portion was published in Reims, France, in 1582, in one volume with extensive commentary and notes. The Old Testament portion was published (blah blah blah…)

Alright then.

(I am curious) “This is is not to say that I lack curiosity” Good to know, I guess?
(In Hawaii?) “In the South Pacific…” Fr. Rutler doesn’t say, like a normal person, that he went to Hawaii. That would sound rather, well, ordinary. But I betcha that’s where he heard a Polynesian nose flute.

No, he doesn’t tell us where he went. He does it differently.


Why not? I’ll tell you. It’s because it sounds altogether more exotic and mysterious if you instead casually refer — as if in passing — to the time you were “in the South Pacific.”


(The world isn’t that big a place nowadays. The airplane has been invented and is frequently used. People travel. It’s not that big a deal.)

I’m not sure anybody cares that you went to some hot beachy place where the women had bikini tops and exposed fleshy bellies. As for the nose flute – well, that’s your own unfortunate past.

I think a nose is a rather gross way to make music. If you want to talk about ‘anthropological enigmas,’ Father Rutler, then I’d say it’s pretty weird to fasten objects to just any place on our body that can expel air.

Besides, it looks stupid.

(Hey Bozo, what’s that thing on your nozo?)

But if that’s the side you’re on, then alright.

I’ll be over there listening to “rock and roll.”

(a didgeridoo) “…the aboriginal eucalyptus didgeridoo…” He provides the four-syllable substance that it was made out of.
(a nose flute) “…the Polynesian nose flute…” Another four-syllable word.

Yeah, I can see why you’d want to add some syllables.

There’s something not quite upscale about NOSE FLUTE.

What did you say? 

Nose what?




Nose flu?

No!  Nose, FLUTE



No flute?


What?  A flute?

Yes!  Yes!  Flute!  Flute!

A nose flute!


A flute for the nose?

Yes!  Thats it!



For the nose?  A flute?

Yes, its – well, its just great!

Are you okay?


Are you sure?

Yes!  Yes, I am — 

Really?  Maybe you have a cold or something.


Yeah, like you know, a flu, a touch of the nose flu

Would you like a Kleenex?

Uh, no, thats okay, Im fine.  Ive got my nose flute here; Ill just go blow that

Yeah.  (Kind of gross.)

(Rock music has branched off into other types of harsh and loud music) “…what has developed as rock and roll music and metastasized into more raucous forms…” The word “metastasized” means change, but because it is normally associated with cancer, it’s got a very negative flavour, which is what he wants.
The word “raucous” means disturbingly harsh and loud.
(Is a confusing human phenomenon) “…remains an anthropological enigma…” For a man who began by paraphrasing Chesterton, Fr. Rutler has most certainly departed from his views. Chesterton was very much a champion of the common man and the types of things that were enjoyed by the average person for entertainment (penny dreadfuls, mystery stories, singing, dancing, etc). Chesterton did not disdain normal interests. As for the field called anthropology, he certainly had no respect for its goofy theories which speculated about human conduct in the past. He would view Fr. Rutler’s phrase “anthropological enigma” as a useless and puffed-up waste of syllables.

I find the phrase both confusing and snobby, as if he views this segment of humanity (or this aspect of human culture) as a real oddity, the way you might view the behaviour of some being which is not altogether civilized. I may be getting this wrong (as I say, it’s confusing), but his use of the word anthropological is creating this type of mood and association.

(I leave restaurants and public places where they are played) “…and I leave restaurants and public gatherings where they are played.” (Whew, he’s gone.
Crank up the tunes.)

Now as I have previously said, I understand how it feels to dislike music that’s playing when it’s not what you want to hear.
I get it.
But the thing is that Fr. Rutler is doing it on principle, to avoid breaking a personal track record. He wants to be able to keep threatening to swear on a Douai Bible.

And let’s explore that last point. Let me take up this thread about swearing on (not-just-any) bible.

What exactly is Fr. Rutler prepared to swear about?

Ah yes.

He’s prepared to swear on a book of Scripture that

he hasn’t heard a whole rock song.


What did you say, Father?

What did you say?

“It is a fact in witness to which I am willing to swear on a Douai Bible, that I have never been able to listen to an entire rock and roll song.”

Ah yes.

Who has asked you to swear on a bible, Father Rutler?

Let me check.

Ah yes.


But that doesn’t stop him – he’s volunteering.

Does anybody see a problem here?

I do.

I see a problem with him just Throwing That In There.

I see a big problem.

The bible isn’t something you mention as a way of emphasizing that you are saying what’s true. And in particular, it isn’t something you toss into your sentence to prove you really do detest rock music.

You are using something which is important and sacred to prove something which is trivial and utterly inconsequential.

Who cares whether you are capable or incapable of listening to an entire rock song?

(And on that topic, his claim is so ridiculous! Father, do you really want us to believe that you are INCAPABLE of listening to the remainder of a rock song that is coming out of an overhead sound system? You lie. You are entirely able to listen to such a thing. When they are played in restaurants, they are not deafeningly loud. And besides, the songs are only about 3 minutes long — by the time you have lived through the first thirty seconds, you have only about two and a half minutes left to survive. Clench your menu and grit your teeth if you have to, but trust me, you’ll make it.

What do you really think would happen to you if you didn’t flee from the restaurant or “public gathering” place? (And what’s with the word ‘public’? Do you sometimes tolerate it when you are at a private gathering?)

What would happen?
Would you melt?
Would you disintegrate?
Would you implode?
Would you explode?

Watch your words. If you are really getting ready to make an oath, then modify what you say. Write that you have never listened to an entire rock song in a public gathering place, if that is true — if your parents raised you in an igloo and never took you somewhere that such music was playing. But don’t write that you “have never been able to listen.” Alternatively, write that you really do not want to listen to an entire rock song. Don’t imply that the good God has designed a human being whose brain is wired such that he cannot tolerate such an easy thing.)

But anyway, if anyone were to take a strong interest in your musical preferences, I would advise you not to talk about swearing on bibles, of any kind.

You know better.

You’re a priest — a Catholic priest.

You are a priest before you are a writer. You are a priest before you are an author or a blogger.

So don’t get carried away when you write, and start grabbing (even figuratively) Catholic sacred things to make your points.

And please don’t tell me you wrote that way just for the sake of humour, or just for the sake of an interesting touch. It’s not good enough.

It’s an excuse that won’t fly; it doesn’t get off the ground.

As for me, on the other hand, I think I will fly.

I’ll stop for now, is what I mean. I’m past 3000 words and I’ve got other things to do.

I will resume to finish off Rutler’s article, but for now

Let’s dance

Put on your red shoes and dance the blues

Let’s dance to the song
They’re playin’ on the radio