Monday, December 13, 2010

The Purely Preposterous Plight of the Present

“Preposterous” is a satisfying word. It of course comes from the Latin “prae,” meaning “before,” and “posterus,” meaning “later” or “next.” In other words, it means “putting first what should come later” or, literally, “disordered” (think: the cart before the horse).

When the New Testament says, “So the last shall be first, and the first last,” it is making a statement that is, in its original, literal sense, preposterous. The New Testament Jesus issued quite a few preposterous propositions. Even for us nonbelievers, it is one of his charms.

Other religions, too, seem to find enlightenment in the preposterous. Zen koans are often preposterous. Here is a favorite of mine:

A monk asked Tozan when he was weighing some flax, "What is Buddha?"
Tozan said: "This flax weighs three pounds."

That’s the whole koan. The (apparent?) non sequitur here is delightful. In fact, “non sequitur,” which means “does not follow,” is a nice variation on the idea of the “posterus” not properly following the “prae.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “preposterous” first appeared in English in 1533, in a translation of a work by the Dutch Renaissance theologian Erasmus (portrait below), who wrote, “Is not thy relygyon preposterous & out of ordre?”

Since Erasmus, the word “preposterous” has come to have a more general meaning: irrational, absurd, or contrary to common sense.

Ours is a preposterous time in history. Well, to be accurate, that could be said about any time in history. In any case, one finds oneself today shouting at the tv set, about every three minutes during the evening news, “Is not thy ___________________ preposterous and out of order?!” You can fill in the blank with your favorite arena of preposterousness: politics, religion, economic theory, the NCAA bowl system. . . .

Here, for example, are some of the current events that have recently had me yelling “Preposterous!” at the television:

  • Conservatives’ claiming that to save the poor and middle class, the rich should be allowed to keep more money.
  • Liberals' claiming that the first black president, who championed the most extensive health-care reform in history, who made Hillary Clinton his Secretary of State, and whose middle name is Hussein, for heaven's sake, is too Republican.
  • The State Department’s telling its workers—even those who haven’t even yet applied for jobs there—that they, whose mission and careers are being most affected by the classified cables recently released by WikiLeaks, must not read them, even though everyone else in the world can.
  • The Chinese government’s claiming that the Nobel Peace Prize is a bad thing.
  • Marine generals’ claiming that putting an end to “Don’t ask, don’t tell” will hurt recruiting efforts and damage the morale of marines who have proven themselves willing to sacrifice everything (but not their homophobia?) to defend their country.
  • Some people’s claiming that my living with a woman without being married to her, or that my gay friend being allowed to marry his boyfriend, somehow endangers their heterosexual marriage.
  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s claiming that adding consumer protections, so that people actually know what they are buying, will hurt business.

I could go on. Please add your own favorite preposterousness in a comment box below.

1 comment:

  1. How about Morgan Stephenson getting a speeding ticket for running in a park in Nashville? In this same park its okay to carry a gun (just don't run with it.)