Why do English speakers like Chinese Tattoos, Latin Masses, and Italian Operas?

Anson Cameron writes a very funny column in The Age on how it comes to be that everything seems to be more profound when it appears in a language we can’t understand. The conclusion of this article isn’t right and nor is the argumentation but it is asks the right questions, or, at least, observes an important phenomenon.

Why emblazon yourself with signs you can’t read? Why wed in a lingo you don’t speak? Why do things sound so good in another language? Why does gobbledegook like a Latin Mass or a Gregorian chant speak to a congregation with a resonance not even Shakespeare can match? Indeed, as we drift further and further from the linguistic idiom in which Shakespeare wrote, and each generation finds him murkier and murkier, might it be that he becomes a greater playwright still?

My own view of the liturgical issue is informed by Pickstock’s After Writing: the understanding we seek is of a kind that requires communication beyond mere cognition; it requires access to transcendent meaning, and, here, our vernacular can only get in the way.

13 Replies to “Why do English speakers like Chinese Tattoos, Latin Masses, and Italian Operas?”

  1. I personally don't see how an unknown language communicates any meaning, transcendent or otherwise. Perhaps something comes through from the tone of voice, or the style or mood of the musical setting, but not from the words themselves. Unless we're sure we can sign up most parishioners for Latin seminars, I think efforts are best spent on good vernacular chant in order to get everyone into the stream of meaning and be able to pray it.

  2. Scott:
    Mysteries are ineffable. Gregorian chant, following St Augustine, will use melismas to utter musical sounds about what essentially cannot be spoken using words. The Trinity in Gregorian alleluias is one example.

  3. I haven't read Pickstock, but I think I agree with her conclusions.

    Using an unfamiliar yet familiar (if we hear it at least from time to time) language is almost symbolic of our need to "get beyond" where we are and look to something inviting but unfamiliar.

    And many years experience has shown me that total familiarity with language is no guarantee of comprehension, anyway.

  4. Although I try to understand the meaning of latin prayers as much as I can, the sacredness of the language and her beauty are sufficient for me now. The effect of the veil is also very helpful in singing in Latin, because if I truly knew everything what I sing, I'm afraid that I would be too overwhelemd to sing, just like seeing the complete glory of God, from which we are protected on this earth.

  5. Scott, then I wouldn't attend an Italian or French language Opera until I "understood" Italian or French. You've got to be kidding. Complain to John XXIII and the Council Fathers for their "insensitivity."

  6. Do we really understand every word of Shakespeare? I attended a production of Richard III 19 years ago and it was a life-changing experience. I can assure you that I didn't understand every word but I was moved nonetheless. An insistence on understanding every word strikes me as Calvinistic and puritanical.

  7. "I personally don't see how an unknown language communicates any meaning, transcendent or otherwise."

    Has changing the language of the Mass to make it more attractive to people induced more and more people to attend Mass? Or has it made it yet another touchy-feely Protestant style service where attendance depends upon the personal charisma of the celebrant.

    With the church in the state it is in, many are driven away by just that.

  8. No, I am not kidding. I put forth a point of view to add to the discussion. I didn't say anything about understanding every word nor making anything touchy-feely. I contributed a particular point of view about the language of liturgy.

    And the expression is spelled "Hear! Hear!", not "Here, Here," which makes no sense.

  9. Scott, it appears you are rejecting Sacrosanctum Concilium which REQUIRES that the Faithful learn to chant,in Latin, that parts of the Mass proper to them. Your "point of view" contradicts the pivotal liturgical document of Vatican II. Are you aware of that? Do you care?

  10. If everybody always had to have perfect clarity, advertisers and book designers would stick to plain vanilla fonts. And they don't.

    Heck, if what we wanted out of music was perfect clarity, we'd just spend all our time singing scales. Melodies are just wiggly diversions from the point, from this sort of absolute clarity POV.

  11. I am sure that he was making a gesture, pointing to a pile of pulp OF missalletes heaped up and burning, and saying, "Here, here!" to the sister in response to her question, said in humble resignation:

    "Where should I put my guitar and bongo drums?"

    Behind her waiting patiently to present what are to become their burnt offerings are hordes of people lined up and bearing clown costumes, a Barney costume, those lovely, huge leering puppet costumes…

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