Essays in Idleness


The dispossessed

Time makes refugees of us all, and orphans. It was the discovery that animated Marcel Proust, and many others — “You can’t go home again” — and is the motive force, I believe, behind most novels and many long poems. The writer has become a stranger in a strange land. At length he may discover that, as Gershom son of Moses, he was born into this strangeness, and carries name and badge. The longing to return — even to Pharaoh’s Egypt — resonates beneath the Book of Exodus. One is proceeding to a home that one has never seen — a promised land, but incomprehensible.

Even the slave, escaped, along the old underground railroad, would feel a cold shudder in transport to the North, and recall the warmth of his old plantation life, that was at least filled with the familiar. And in his mind, the haunt of old beloved faces he will never see again. Who knows what lies ahead, among these strangers? But there is no turning back.

The poster image of the refugee burnt into imagination — of the woman in kerchief, forging forward, with babe swaddled in one arm, pulling an older child along with the other — is a figure of sentiment, but real through all the layers of propaganda. The husband dead, or if he still lives, emasculated in the course of events. Driven from home, by monstrous politics, abandoned to an unknown fate —

Disenfranchised, widowed and orphaned
By an historical mistake:

Europe was crawling with these through and after her twentieth-century wars, and one of the attractions of Louis-Ferdinand Céline is the sharpness of his depictions — the smashed landscapes of roofless walls, the busted boxcars, the broken roads and rails to nowhere; perpetrators and victims, often one and the same. He shows humanity in scenes from which all sweetness and light has been extracted, the dark humour in our monkey cage. He was a deeply religious atheist, in his misanthropy the chronicler of crucified mankind. I find enfolded in his shadows the glimmer of a liberating Catholic truth.

For we who live in bourgeois comfort cannot go home again, either. The world is laid waste behind us, too; all the past is wreckage. This has become the less poignant in our high-tech urban world, under constant reconstruction, even without a war. All that was quaint or lovable is scheduled for demolition, and one finds yet another old familiar row of shops and houses replaced by glass and steel. Blank transparent walls, and people, “wired” or now wirelessly fixed to the machine.

In a corner of my building there are two children, whom I have watched grow through thirteen years (the older is now fourteen). Not the free-range children of my own childhood, but raised like chickens in a coop. Yet with coloured chalks they drew faces, and the grid for hopscotch on the sidewalk outside, and I have heard their childish laughter in the halls. They will move away, and remember this some day, with all the nostalgia from that further displacement; and think back on this, perhaps, from old age. For all of this, too, will pass.

Where are we going, refugees and orphans, in a world ever ceasing to be our own? Where is the hope in a life from which finally everything will be taken, as memory itself withdraws in the encroaching darkness? How shall we, with all our human longing for a home, find our way to a place of belonging, that will not crumble around the next turn?

War, war, our world is all war. And unless our sight is fixed upon the Heaven, there can be no peace.

On science

The first thing to know about Science is, that it doesn’t exist. By this I don’t mean that it doesn’t exist in the way unicorns do not exist; rather, it doesn’t exist in a more fundamental way. For any child can know what a unicorn looks like, or can know once the thing is drawn for him. Whereas, no one can ever know what Science is, no matter how much explaining. It will always, and necessarily, be gummy wool and bafflegab; and it will always be sold to some disreputable purpose.

Which is not to say that sciences, in the plural, don’t exist. They are innumerable, legion, and many if not most are perfectly legitimate, within their respective boundaries. But each has its own history, and follows its own rules, and must be glimpsed in the totality of that historical existence if we are to avoid speaking nonsense about it.

“Poetics,” for instance, is (or, are) among these sciences, but in the absence of real languages and real poetry it becomes the kind of gummy wool and bafflegab that is taught in our universities today. Like all the other sciences it is essentially applied. If there is nothing to which it can be applied, then it is tosh some tenured fool is putting over. “Literary theory” is almost all like that: done by people who could not read with attention to save their lives.

At the other extreme, mathematics exist, but again note the plural. Too, that maths are not sciences. They (keep noting plurals) come closest to the gods, in their abstraction from material realities, and thereby form a kind of unity, in opposition to the sciences. Maths are never messy, the way sciences always are.

Now if, like me, gentle reader likes to embrace heroes, and one of them is, say, Archimedes of Syracuse, or Apollonius of the Conic Sections, or Euclid for that matter, you will perhaps have noticed something “backward” about them. These stunningly ingenious Greeks did not think arithmetically, the way we do. Rather they thought geometrically. And thus they never fall into the swamp of statistics, where the modern scientistical scientists live. Rather they live where the unicorns dance, and the Houyhnhnms reason, on the solid ground of the Arcadian uplands, where the shepherds pipe, in the clean air, and the wool is fairly free of vegetative gunge, muck, sand, grease, suint, urine stains and dung locks.

Let me refer again to a name I mentioned recently, that of Michael Polanyi (1891–1976), who did a superb job of disentangling sciences from “Science”; though my own master in this regard was the Scotsman, Arthur David Ritchie (1891–1967), and the book I recommend, should you ever find it, is Studies in the History and Methods of the Sciences (Edinburgh, 1958). As he says near the outset:

“I have spoken of the sciences in the plural, not only because they are manifestly plural but even more because singular Science is the sacred cow of twentieth century idolatry, from which the worshipper procures his magical milk (sweet or sour) and other magical bovine products.”

One of which is “Scientific Method” — which doesn’t exist, and could never exist and, as Ritchie said, can be advanced only in the absence of that fine old Athenian (and later, Edinbourgeois) sense of the ridiculous.

Consider, if thou wilt: “One difference between religion and science is that science assumes humankind does not know the answers to many of life’s biggest questions. Religion, however, assumes that the important stuff is already known.”

This was my inspiration for this morning’s Idlepost. It comes from Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuvah Noah Harari, currently perched high in the New York Times bestseller list, and teeming with similar fatuities and clichés. He and his ilk assume “religion” has no answers, then assume “Science” has a few.

Only if God does not exist are they safe in their assumptions. For then reality does not exist, either, and nothing actually matters, so you may utter any unconscionable blather that comes unbidden into your wee head.

A thought for Bastille Day

Several correspondents have recently asked me to supply them with reactionary “talking points.” (Have I not been doing so?) They take me at my own estimation, as a “reactionary” — then ask what “policies” go with that. They think maybe we should start a Reactionary Party, and contest the next election. I think, how weak. For even if we did such a thing, and won the next election, we might lose the one after. Having proudly accomplished nothing in four years, beyond quietly undoing the work of previous governments, we’d be replaced by a pack of “doers” again. All would be lost.

For the first principle of reaction is Truth, and that is in its nature unchanging. (The same may be said for Beauty, and Goodness.) If something is true, it is always true, and vice-ah verse-ah, by tautology. If something is false, it remains false. A government grounded in truth cannot change. It deals with nothing but passing accidents (as much in the philosophical as in the material sense), and with those always in the same way. A reactionary government would be perfectly predictable at all times, at least to its friends. To its “progressive” enemies, perfectly unpredictable, for they would never understand it. Surely it would never agree to be elected.

While it is probably better for one’s soul to lose an election, than to win, one’s supporters are likely to think one selfish for taking such a view. They don’t care about your soul. They want to win. In other words, they are not true reactionaries.

There are anyway hardly enough reactionaries to fill all the chairs in the High Doganate, or all the offices in the Borborygmatic Club (a secret society to which I belong). So the threat of corruption is not imminent. Nevertheless, a sudden tide of applicants persuades me that one can never be too careful.

Have there been any reactionary governments in the past? Oh yes, plenty. Arguably, we had one running Egypt for three thousand years. (Alas, even there, some brief interruptions.) Absolute monarchies tend to be reactionary, which is why I am well disposed to them. The hereditary principle weeds for ambition. All change is for the worse, including change for the better, from an absolute monarch’s point of view. This is what makes him the opposite of a tyrant. The best sort of ruler promises nothing, and delivers on his promise every time. The worst sort of tyrant has “plans.”

I am for government of laws, not men. Monarchy is compatible with that. The law itself should prevent the monarch from doing anything that requires imagination. By “absolute” I only mean to distinguish from “constitutional” monarchy, for in this latter the king is merely prevented from doing anything himself, so that someone else can make a hash instead. It is just more zoocracy, or government by politicians.

But the best sort of society I can imagine is one in which there are no politics at all. Nobody even thinks of such a thing, it is so long since anything changed. Criminals are hanged in due course, and the rude are inhibited by custom. Life goes on, and each selects his own path, to Heaven or to Hell, in a voluntary way, without the slightest government assistance. The State would be all but invisible (except on parade days), leaving the Church with the monopoly on dropping hints. (The symbol of the State has always been the hangman; but in a well-ordered society he is merely a backstop.)

“That government is best which governs least,” said Henry David Thoreau. Well, yes and no. The statement is used to champion weak government. But I am for a government that is unbreakably strong.

Chinese sages understood this, too, including the mystical Lao Tzu and those old Tories, Confucius and Mencius: that it takes tremendous power to do nothing. Voting whittles that power away.

An aside on acting

It is an old saw among actors, that those who star in films are not actors.

The point is easily proved. An actor performs on a stage before an audience. The audience varies from night to night. So, in the course of nature, must the performance of the actor.

If, for instance, the audience throw tomatoes, his performance will be adjusted. Not, “is likely to be,” but, will be adjusted — on that and subsequent evenings. And this will also happen if the audience is entirely docile. Weirdly, it will happen in response to wild applause, for actors are strange fish and crooked timber. They might even try to render exactly the same performance, but they are human and will certainly fail.

And let me specify that what I have just said of actors, applies to actresses, too. Maybe double.

Not so film stars; and this regardless of their sex, or these days, their “gender.” Go to a movie on two consecutive nights, and you will not see the slightest variation. And this, even if the audience threw rocks at the screen, the first night. The screen itself might be the worse for wear, or old celluloid a bit choppy from attacks on the projectionist, but the acting doesn’t change. It will be as flat as the scenery behind it. The whole thing is anyway just a smear of moving patches, plus a soundtrack of loud noise.

Do not doubt what I am telling you, gentle reader. I have mixed with actors, even backstage. I have written lines for them, and watched the variations. I may not hang out with actors, very often, but only because they are crazy people, less stable than musicians. And because, like Doctor Johnson, I find the actresses too attractive.

(As a stagehand in England, many years ago, I found myself surrounded by naked ones. They were members of a chorus line, quickly changing costumes between “vaudeville” scenes, at the old Victoria Palace. I for my part was stretched on a psychiatrist’s chaise longue: the prop from a previous skit. I was reading an ancient folio of The Rules and Exercises of Holy Living (1650), with its companion, Holy Dying (1651), from the London Library, gallantly pretending to be otherwise-gendered. But one of these nude snuck stealthily up behind, seized the book from my hands, then read most of its long title out to the other girls, in an exaggerated Oxonian accent. They almost missed their next cue in consequence, and their mocking laughter must have passed through the curtains. Yes, backstage in a theatre can be a dangerous place.)

Now, in a film, the scenes are shot a few seconds at a time. The “actor” who cannot remember his five-word line may have a placard held to help him. He may have thirty goes until he gets it right. There is no art to this. The actresses are as likely to undress before the cameras as behind them. Their make-up is quite odd. They must endure close-ups and other perturbations of their spiritual poise. Verily, none of this resembles acting.

Too, they are paid excessive amounts, for playing the same part in movie after movie.

That Brague again

I don’t know about you, gentle reader, but I would rather read this exquisite essay by Rémi Brague (here, over at First Things), than anything I could write today. Indeed, I would surrender my bus seat to Brague almost any day. I think I flagged him before in an Idlepost, for his essay on the question, “Are non-theocratic regimes possible?” (The answer is of course, no.) That was back in the days when I was bantering with a Commentariat, and let me toss this link in (here), for good measure. (My policy is never to provide links. Another policy is to ignore my policies.)

Near the start, Brague lets fly something profoundly true. The Catholic Church created Europe. But that is not the aphorism. Instead: the Catholic Church does not need Europe. She particularly does not need the European culture. That is because she does not need anyone’s culture. She creates cultures without thinking or intending. She can inhabit cultures she did not create. As I say, read Brague, he’s good at explaining.

A similar thought has been afflicting me recently, on my mysterious walks; a suspicion that I have been wrongly attributing an effect to a cause. It touched on those “Middle Ages” — a term that is quite meaningless, so that everyone thinks he knows what it means, and no two people have the same understanding. For a thousand years is not a thing. It is instead only a stretch of time, with things in it, that come and go. Chartres, by contrast, is a thing. A thing that could be gone tomorrow.

The Catholic Church, for instance, was not formed in the Middle Ages, as everyone must know. She came before. But neither did she “develop” in the Middle Ages. She isn’t temporal like that. She merely converses with temporal things. As Joan of Arc said, “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.”

This is true, and lies behind what Rémi Brague is saying; and what Joseph Ratzinger was saying, too, at the Paris talk Brague recalls. The “creativity” of the historical West — or more largely of “Christendom,” if you will — is not the product of a culture. It is the product of a Christian attitude to culture, which happens to be unique among the religions of the world.

Now, Western Man, even in his current rather degenerate form, is the creation of the Church in the Middle Ages. In that sense, we might say they’re not over yet. The thing may be scratched to hell, but we’re still working from the same cultural template; still babbling with the same (much obscured) vocabulary; still following habits of mind and feeling that were settled many centuries ago. Hence the desire of some of us to fix and restore it — to make it clean and beautiful again. But of course, it can’t be restored. It is beyond fixing.

The creation was unconscious. The relation of Christians to ancient Greece, or to Jerusalem for that matter, was different in kind from the Roman or Islamic formative relations. Ditto our relation to our own distinctive past. There was and is, as it were, a continuous non-continuity.

The “cultural materials” of our past were chastely appropriated. I say “chastely” because no ownership was claimed. Chastely, these materials were transformed. But Christians did not invest, even in the culture they were creating.

To misparaphrase Saint Joan: “About Culture and Religion, I simply know they’re not the same thing, and we shouldn’t confuse them.”

For we might all be Cultural Christians today. But only a tiny minority are Christians.

Or have it Brague’s way: To hell with Christian culture, let’s sing.


Drawing to conclusions

“This is the day of the Valour of Ignorance. It has been pathetic during the making of this book to discover how the mighty are put down and the mediocre are exalted in our midst. Ignorance is rampant; incompetence glorified. Every one has a message, few have knowledge. Doubtless with time all will be well, but it is almost certain that scarce an American of this pushing, advertising generation will be remembered. Notoriety and cash are all of America today. The little men who draw, or steal, are backed up by little men who write, with an itch for new things, the things of the moment that come and go in a moment. Nothing lasts, nothing is permanent. Everything is undermined. …”

My quote for the day is lifted from a manual on pen draughtsmanship that once belonged to my grandfather, Harry Roy Warren — whose steady hands, and steady eye as a dip-pen draughtsman (cartographer and illuminator) I recall with envy and pride. The book resurfaced in a flea market on the weekend, and I have it back. The passage is the opening of a “Postscript to Preface” which continues through a few giant pages, and concludes, “Thanksgiving Day, 1920.” The writer is Joseph Pennell, N.A., illustrator, etcher, lithographer, colourist, and incidentally friend and biographer of Whistler. His wife, Elizabeth Robins Pennell, orphan child of a Catholic convent, was also accomplished in the draughting and authorial lines. (Mr Pennell was a Quaker.)

His remarks on Prohibition are among the gems: he holds it responsible for more societal degeneration than the entire nineteenth century, and blames the spirit of “temperance” for the rise of golf. He notes that from the very moment they gave up drink, Mahometan civilization dried up.

The tone reminds me happily of Grandpa, who had similar views, though perhaps more radical, for Grandpa was under the impression that nothing of artistic value had been made for at least four centuries in the West, and rather longer elsewhere. Which was no reason not to do one’s best.

I am tempted to transcribe the whole essay: it is surely out of copyright by now. Perhaps the whole book, but the illustrations (in line, wood engraving, photogravure, &c) are the best part.

Perhaps a footnote is required for that title, The Valour of Ignorance. It was by Homer Lea (1909). Much derided by the (Wilsonian) liberals and progressives of its day, and for decades after, it was perhaps the most prescient tract on “applied multiculturalism” ever published. It correctly anticipated Pearl Harbour by decades; might even have given the Japanese the idea. It circulated the notion of cultural idiocy, and civilizational foibles that though worse now, are hardly new. The author, hunched and deformed, less than five feet high even by the tailor’s tape, had failed to graduate from West Point. (Such men are invariably geniuses, who become adventurers in China, if not Greece.) Though dead in 1912, Lea also predicted the aggressions of Kaiser, Hitler, Stalin, and so forth.

Verily, one of Pennell’s berations is of salesmen who claim that one may learn drawing from a book. He makes clear bright and early that for that one needs some natural ability (including the capacity for obedience), and a competent drawing master. All a book can do is give you something to look at.

I am, I suppose, a connoisseur of Reactionaries — religious and irreligious alike — so that I can appreciate both Gobineau and de Maistre; Nietzsche and (see Saturday) Baudelaire. They point our only way forward. It just happens to be backwards.

Dear Grandpa: another of his books I once retrieved was The Spiritual and Ascetic Letters of Savonarola (Mowbray’s Devotional Library, circa 1904). What a Methodist from rural Ontario was doing with the works of the arch-firebrand Dominican friar of quattrocento Florence is a topic on which I delight to meditate. For Grandpa was also a Freemason. But he rolled his own cigarettes (for more than seven decades), and liked his whisky neat.

Perhaps Reaction runs in my family; as madness in so many others.

Culture of fear

My heading is, as too often, inspired by a morning squint through the news. The phrase came up a couple of times; I had seen it before. I gather Trumpf’s gauleiters have been trying to isolate the leakers of (often fake) state secrets, from deep within the vast Washington bureaucracy. This, preparatory to firing and prosecuting them. A “culture of fear” has been thereby created, I suppose because the great majority of bureaucrats are Smug Left, and on the side of the leakers. Most would not themselves leak, however: they have not the cojones. Nevertheless they feel a “chilling effect,” according to the usual Smug Left media. Good news: I’m all for refrigerating these people.

One of the more important functions of civilization, is to create a “culture of fear” among criminal malefactors, and have upon their actions a “chilling effect.”

Gentle readers have been sending me links to the protests in Hamburg, for the G-20 meetings. Frankly I consider such meetings no use, except as excuse for a bibulous party. It is as Bergson said of philosophical congresses: the only reason to attend is to look in the faces of the authors of contorted prose. One glance, and you see it had no meaning at all; that they’ve been wasting your time.

And why give the sick seedy anarchists of Europe a place to congregate? Except for the purpose of performing a cull? But the Hamburg police have made few arrests. And even when they detain someone, they are so dainty about it. What are truncheons for?

I think of Baudelaire’s remarks on the street anarchists of Paris in 1846:

“You whose casual curiosity has drawn you into the thick of a street riot, have you felt the same joy as I, at the sight of some worthy custodian of the public slumbers, be he policeman or municipal guard, cudgelling a republican? And like me, you will have said in your heart: Whack on, whack a bit harder, whack again, oh! officer dear to my heart, for in this ultimate cudgelling I adore thee, and see thee as Jupiter, great dispenser of justice. The man thou cudgellest is an enemy of roses and scents, a fanatic of utility; he is an enemy of Watteau, of Raphael, an arch enemy of luxury, of literature and the fine arts; a sworn iconoclast; a butcher of Venus and Apollo!”

Now many of these Hamburg demonstrators are sweet: I mean those slathered in clay, depicting zombies, striking poses for the cameras and the mavens of fashion design. They would not hurt a fly, and reciprocally, our policy should be catch and release.

But what of those who throw petrol bombs, swing axes, smash windows, loot? To say nothing of their very foul language. I’ve been wondering what to do, and after long cogitation have a proposal to inculcate a “culture of fear,” that will have a “chilling effect” on that sort of behaviour.

We could tell the police to shoot them.

False humility

From my Thing column this morning (here) I excised, for want of space, and because it would distract from my main argument, a little divagation into “false humility.” It is among the contemporary forms of “virtue signalling” that most annoy me. Women do it more than men, but effeminate men also do it, and I have often thought both might benefit from public correction. They make a show of taking the inferior station, the lesser role, the slighter task, by way of showing that although lower than the gods, they are better than their “equals.” Hidden, or unhidden in each gesture, is a comment on the others: “I am humble therefore you are arrogant.” It is a subtle form of deprecation, that has enduring moral and spiritual consequences.

The example I gave — it has bugged me for years — is women who say, “I am more like Martha,” as if Martha were more humble. This from allusion to the passage in Saint Luke, where Jesus is entertained by the two sisters, Mary and Martha, in the house of Lazarus at Bethany. Mary takes her place at Christ’s feet, Martha is doing all the work in the kitchen. Surely gentle reader knows the rest. Martha complains that Mary is not helping, and earns the slapdown from Jesus that has informed the hundred generations of Catholics since that the vita contemplativa is to be preferred to the vita activa.

Today, this is beyond us.

Yes, we can see that Martha has her little foibles — she is a whiner, for instance — but she does get the lunch made, and the wine up from the cellar. Or whatever the arrangements were that day. My mind runs so quickly to the bodegón by the young Velazquez, that I have conflated Martha with the sullen maid of the painter’s foreground, mortaring the ingredients for a fine aioli to go with those handsome fish, while resenting an instruction from her mistress.

Somewhere in the Reformation, or perhaps through Vasari’s Lives, the weight of tradition uncomfortably shifted. We began to appreciate the worth of work, not to the ends of work but as a balance against the demand for “faith alone.” We began to think better of Martha, until this thought mutated into the horrors of the Industrial Revolution. The vita contemplativa became a dispensable afterthought. By now we vex ourselves over unemployment statistics, as if working for a living were an end in itself. But no, as Saint Paul saith, it is a means only to the end of eating. The emphasis should instead be on the compulsion; you do your work or you don’t eat. But man does not live for bread alone.

In the posturing of which I write, Martha is taken for the humbler soul, at the price of embracing her insinuation that Mary is showy and indulgent. And this when, as Jesus counter-insinuates, the reality is the opposite. For it is Mary who is looking up; Martha only looks sideways.

We see this in the Church today. Cardinals like Sarah, and Burke, are attacked with this sort of reasoning — mocked as dandies because e.g. they have dressed properly to celebrate the Mass; or dwelt upon actual biblical teaching, and abiding points of liturgy and doctrine, instead of hopping with the liberal and progressive agenda. We can’t imagine them having “dressed up” to any other purpose than personal ostentation. We despise them for persistently looking up, like Mary.

Even the very Protestant Oswald Chambers’s “My Utmost for His Highest” has been turned upside down, and shaken. We want Mary brought down to Martha’s level. We want a Christ who will take his lunch, then “move on.”

Some attitudinizing

Human beings are a rum lot (I am speaking generally, there have been a few exceptions), and it is hard to get anything good from them.

This is not an original observation; it is or ought to be a platitude; and here I call attention to the final corollary of Warren’s Iron Law of Paradox, which I call the Paradoxical Law of Irony. The paradox of paradoxes is that some things are not paradoxical, rather quite straightforward, and the man like me always looking for a paradox must paradoxically discern where the platitudes apply. Here, for instance.

Since mentioning Hugh the Primate, in my last Idlepost, and being mentally on the road among the Goliardic poets (a rum lot, generally), let me again revert to the “twelfth century renaissance.” One learns something of a society through its statutes, and by old scholars like Rashdall, and Haskins, I was introduced to the punctilios in mediaeval university towns.

Much attention is given to student behaviour, and from Leipzig, for example, I recall the carefully stepped fines that begin for threatening your professor with a missile. The fine increases if you throw and miss; doubles if you hit him; and further costs may be assessed, depending on the nature of his injuries. For this and for other infractions, it is useful to have things spelt out, so the student on a tight budget may know what he can afford.

It is not so on the modern campus, from what I can see. The penalty for any sort of slated wrongdoing — uttering an unwanted pronoun, for instance — is absolute. As now in the Canadian Criminal Code, there are no subtle gradations; it seems we must go to gaol for anything we do. And nebulous emotional factors (such as “hatred”) are bruited; there is nothing objective about it. As an author, I’d like to be able to shop for the degree of political incorrectness that suits me.

Moreover, I’m appalled by totalitarianism. For what lies not only under the surface, but upon it in plain view, is this notion that human beings must be “good” absolutely, and at all times. We can be good, sometimes, but it takes much training — ars longa, vita brevis, as they say. There is a ladder of good behaviour which must be gradually ascended from the raw savage state in which we are born; just as there are stages in our progression from baby gibberish to the higher linguistic functions.

I do not doubt that discipline is required, nor from my experience (if only of myself) that much of this discipline must be externally imposed. Religion, in the broadest sense (from religio), must be acquired, and in all societies there is social pressure. No one is “born Catholic,” nor born post-modern for that matter; one is steered or “socialized” into something passable, from something that is not. (The word “progress” is misleading, when it proposes inevitable movement towards an undefined goal; I prefer such terms as ascent and descent, rise and fall.)

My contemporaries, especially the so-called “conservatives,” seem to think the contest is between dictatorship and freedom. But this is true only at the extremes. Instead, the question for today has become: Which way is up?

Without hair, without skin

The early summer is a season for nostalgia, and though I claim to be a man of the thirteenth century, I find myself dwelling in the twelfth — with Hugh Primas, the French poet, who shared the coffee with me on balconata this morning. The surname is something ludicrous he appended to himself, like a silly hat. He was first among none, except perhaps a little batch of poets on the road; an ordained secular, but rather dodgy Catholic; a Kerouac of the 1140s.

Those were the days, when France in all her cathedral splendour was poor and suffered famines somewhere almost every year. A major function of the Church in cities was caring for the homeless — blundering in from the countryside, wherever crops had failed. But caring also for the learned, the wandering scholars, making their pilgrimages to the college centres of Chartres, Reims, Tours, Paris, Bourges, or to the famous letter-writing school at Orléans, rich with discussion of poetic theory.

News travelled the roads in those days as this, including the scandals that the poets satirized. The virtues of humility and obedience were everywhere promoted, and flouted, too; justice and honesty available, ditto — but always at a price, chiefly to their dispensers. They had spineless bishops, just as we do; the rich had trophy wives, as faithless as ours; they had smug “beautiful people,” with stalkers; there were homosexual subcultures, only half in the closet; and sexual crimes in the highest places; they had corrupt self-serving bureaucrats, and simoniac clergy; they had disaffected youff. People drank a lot. You don’t need newspapers for this: it was all in the poems, and in poets like Hugh, and others liquidly bilingual in chant-musical Latin and the manfully accentuated vulgar tongues.

They had everything to make ourselves at home in the 1140s — even some indoor plumbing, after a fashion, and the midday racket of commerce in the towns. But along with the background poverty — a bit like India from the hippie traveller days — they had also breathtaking visions of Christ, and heroic aspirations to Heaven, that we don’t much see any more.

I think that I might settle for the poverty alone, for food to the hungry tastes better than to the full, and life is more vivid in the heat and cold. In my rather free and inept paraphrase:

Poor cloak, without hair, without skin,
Be my guard against storm and north wind,
My shield against the piercing cold,
Let the two of us make our stand, bold …

But the cloak replies, that with nor fur nor wool, it cannot stop a javelin.

(“We are using our own skins for wallpaper and we cannot win,” as John Berryman used to say, in the days when he was still grinning sometimes.)

Coffee with Hugh Primas, and Peter of Blois, brought together in one tome of the Dumbarton Oaks series by the Harvard University Press (2010). That series of delicious brown books, properly stitched on smooth cream paper, makes up for a lot of nonsense at Harvard, and may I recommend that my wealthier gentle readers go buy them all before the winter sets in. (Then please, send the change to me.)

Happy Dominion Day!

Marvellous scene when I woke this morning: Mimico, across the Humber Bay, deleted by fog. The mists had settled in brilliant ways, to edit out everything else built since 1967, if not 1867. What a joyous pot of coffee on my balconata.

On political pugilism

Further to yesterday’s Idlepost, and by way of reply to several correspondents, yes, the news is crazy-making. One could go mad if one were to take it seriously. I can remember myself, from some half-forgotten time when I was playing journalist, in some side-plot of an ill-constructed play, going perilously close to insane in response to the odd news “lede.” I would take my desk copy of Roget’s Thesaurus and hurl it against a wall. Almost always, it was Roget’s. I hated that book. Finally I dropped my battered copy in a public bin, with the Coke tins and candy wrappers. For that is where it belonged. Next, I turned on Fowler’s Modern English Usage.

I shall give an example from today’s newscasts, of the sort of thing that used to get me going. It is the “story” of Trump’s tweet against two low-information broadcasters, whom we shall call Joe and Mika. I think they are lovers, as well as co-hosts. What he said about Joe was rude, but Joe is a boy, and one may say anything one wants against boys. But he made a remark about Mika, too, which I found rather ungallant. Something about still bleeding from a facelift. Of course we must remember that all humour is in bad taste, but Churchill could do these things more elegantly.

Still, it wasn’t the tweet that turned my crank. It was instead the media response to it.

Twitter is anyway full of foul; and I first observed that Trump is exceptionally crass, long before he ran for public office. I have never expected better of him, and as we say, pessimists are never disappointed. Rather I’ve noticed that he uses his indecencies to clever effect. For he is intentionally driving his opponents crazy; counting on them always to take the bait. This works better for him than any other tactic. Take his Twitter account away, and the Democrats would soon have him cornered. Instead they stay too angry to land a telling punch.

Today, I just smile at the antinomian craftsmanship.

I used to like boxing, when I was a kid, including the first-round knockouts in which Trump specializes. Liston versus Patterson, 1962 and ’63. Clay versus Liston, ’64. In the latter case the media had predicted a one-round outcome, but said it would go the other way. Liston, whose manager had been a mob hit-man, learnt boxing in the Missouri State Penitentiary, and never played cat-and-mouse. Imagine his surprise when Cassius Clay connected. The young lad had sparkling reflexes, on very quick feet, and was secretly more ruthless than the evil-eyed thug who’d come the hard way from Arkansas. It was all in the stars Hillary Clinton was seeing the night of the big match. I meant, Sonny Liston, who thought so little of Clay, that he was drinking the night before Clay flattened him. For Clay combined arrogance with a devilish sense of humour — and “we all know” funny people are ineffectual.

What might have driven me crazy in the old days was not Trump’s tweet, but seeing it at the top of the BBC World News, and played for all it isn’t worth by the various other “commie” networks. Their humourless malice against Trump is like Liston’s against Clay: something they don’t bother to hide. But malice is not the same as ruthlessness. The ruthless strategize; the malicious merely lunge.

Why object? The media are playing right into Trump’s fist. I score another knock-out, and guess that in the murky subconscious of the American mind, poor Joe and Mika will be bleeding for the rest of their lives. Be kind to them, they’re finished.

The age of smear

There is, according to a Jewish essayist, whose principal work is included in our biblical canon, nothing new under the Sun. This is worth bearing in mind, for when I describe our times as “the age of smear,” I do not mean to suggest that smearing has not been a feature of politics in all times and places; only that former generations were acquainted with a wider variety of techniques. The occasional positive argument would be introduced, then clinched or refuted. The British parliamentary arrangement assumes this to be possible, and the concept of a “loyal opposition” proposes gentlemen capable of goodwill, or even noble intention. The rules do not carry this assumption beyond reason. A Member of Parliament cannot be sued for what he says on the floor of the chamber — hence taunts daring him to say it outside. But meanwhile the Speaker may shut him up, and has a duty to do so promptly.

Under the American system, where the Speaker is openly partisan, the relation is more vexed. Often it is the Speaker who needs shutting up. But the notion of civilized debate did cross the Atlantic, if not in the Mayflower, then in some later vessel.

Glancing at the news, I see there is a new book by Sharyl Attkisson, an old-fashioned journalist in that she states her “facts” in ways that may be checkable. I have not read the book, entitled, The Smear, and won’t (at my age, I thirst more for poetry), but from an excerpt I see her thesis is that the reduction of politics to smear campaigns dates from the early ’nineties of the last century, when the Clintons went to work pre-emptively smearing the various women with whom Bill had fornicated, and those who knew too much about Hillary’s sleazy real estate deals, in anticipation of Bill’s run for the presidency. (A smear is incidentally not a smear if true, as our libel laws still formally acknowledge.)

While I’m in favour of putting “facts” before the public, which the news media ignore or suppress, the subtitle, How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote, strikes me as long-winded. The hint of conspiracy might err on the side of extravagance. From my own experience of mainstream journalism, the implicit bias of an established social and professional class is sufficient to the evidence, and we should sometimes avoid attributing to malice what stupidity can adequately explain.

This is called Hanlon’s razor, a variation on William of Occam’s; neither always apply. Humans are malicious beings, and pure stupidity is fairly rare. My analogy would be to demonic possession. It is true the victim is no longer entirely responsible for his acts, but he did invite the devils in to start with. Or like drunken misbehaviour. One should learn not to drink more than one can handle, as journalists should learn not to report more than they can know.

Or less than they are wise to. It emerges for instance that Messrs CNN knew perfectly well that their Trump/Russia covfefe was, in the word of one of them, “bullshit,” but ran with it anyway to please their rabidly Trump-hating audience. He and his allies reply with aggressive, equally smearing tweets. The swamp grows and is full of alligators (and illegal immigrant Burmese pythons, I gather).

But my point would not be to endorse that half or more of the story that Mrs Attkisson reports. It would instead be to observe that no good comes from obsessive smearing, unless gentle reader considers violence a good thing.

Alas, the loss of our “Judaeo-Christian heritage” involves the loss of other things.