The Writerly Catholic on Mr. Buckley’s Catholic Writerliness

The thought that rushed to mind as soon as First Things Editor Joseph Bottum began his speech had to do with the striking differences in style between the speakers at the Portsmouth Institute’s conference on William F. Buckley, Jr.
Fr. Rutler spoke from a prepared text as a transcendent intellectual with years of experience speaking in public, attempting to convey the practical application of abstractions to religious followers. His style was measured — the computer rendering of his speech patterns shows the expression of a thought followed by a pause, as if he has constructed his speech like a work of music, with beats and measures ordered so as to better convey the theme.
Maggie Gallagher speaks like the columnist and activist that she is. There is a point to be made and evidence to be marshaled in its service, and having become thoroughly comfortable with the material, she embarks on her talk with no script, ready to adjust as her audience requires. When the listeners respond with inadequate evidence of familiarity with the origins of conservative fusionism, she is prepared to devote some minutes in summary. If a particular point seems to have more or less resonance than expected, she dwells or moves along as appropriate.
Joseph Bottum strikes me as a writerly speaker. I thought of audio that I’ve heard of William Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech. Writers — some writers, at least, among whom I number — hear their texts in their heads, and for them, speechifying is not much different than the recitation of poetry. If a sentence seems rushed, it’s the downward arc to something poignant. A mumbled phrase is akin to a passing note. The musical parallel comes from the Romantic period; the feel of the thing is what’s being conveyed, because its intellectual theme is inextricable from the images and emotions in which it is saturated. That, of course, does not substitute for intellectual content, and Mr. Bottum in no way attempted such an exchange.

  • A wonderful description of the young Bill Buckley: stream, download (1 min, 48 sec)
  • Making a critical point about the money’s role in Buckley’s career, specifically with reference to God and Man at Yale, namely that it brought notice to uniquely compelling content that could then flourish: stream, download(35 sec)
  • On the perspectives of different generations of Catholic writers, with Buckley illustrating an inclination to assume his faith and write about other things while standing on its foundation: stream, download (3 min, 22 sec)
  • Answering a question on the drift of Catholic institutions (i.e., colleges) from the Catholic Church, suggesting that, at some point, the bishops will have to pull the trigger and threaten to declare the institutions to be no longer Catholic: stream, download (1 min, 11 sec)
  • Addressing a question about simply moving on and supporting smaller, more faithfully Catholic institutions by suggesting that it would be better to get religious institutions off the path of drift, because the metaphysical assumptions on which Catholicism is based are worth preserving (because they happen to be true): stream, download (1 min, 36 sec)
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Cynthia Nebergall
Cynthia Nebergall
11 years ago

Dear Justin,
There was much worth noting and blogging in what Father Rutler, Maggie Gallagher, and Joseph Bottum said. With respect to style I offer these observations: the music in Father Rutler’s speech was his deep affection for William F. Buckley; as you noted, Maggie Gallagher did not prepare remarks; Joseph Bottum’s speech was terrific – I thought he might receive a standing ovation – and I heard no mumbled phrases or rushed sentences.
Cheers,
Cyndi

Justin Katz
11 years ago

Just to clarify: I meant stylistic mumbles and rushing. Like a stage actor might convey mumbles and rushed sentences, but he audience still picks up the words. My point was that it was a deliberate component of the performance (how the writer hears his own work).

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