Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

Saturday night thought

“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at quarter past nine.”

The quote, and its variants, have been attributed to Faulkner, Maugham, and whichever hack comes to mind as the esprit du jour. I expect it will be traced to a little-read passage in the table talk of Virgil.

My own (wormlike) witlessness can be attributed to the hard fact that, I am often busy at nine-fifteen. Or perhaps there was some other reason why, at whatever time, I found myself staring at a blank page, or glancing down my handlist of a thousand topics, or at titles inscribed on a thousand book spines, without anything genial coming to mind. So it has been today, gentle reader — who, were he desperate for David Warren Thought, could have consulted the Catholic Thing (here).

But at this late hour a promising question arrives, from a remote place in the Canadas:

“Mr Warren, I have been trying to articulate a definition of Toryism for myself. Newman called it loyalty to persons; Enoch Powell said it is the belief that power is immanent in institutions; Walter Bagehot said that it constitutes enjoyment (i.e. of institutions and traditions); and Samuel Johnson (the original Idler) said a Tory is one who adheres to the ancient constitution and to the Apostolic Church. You in turn have called it the political expression of a religious view of life; without faith it becomes conservatism; without memory it becomes progressive conservatism. Could you furnish me with another definition of Toryism, your own?”

What is there to add?

Having thought on this while reheating a portion of mushroom pizza, for my supper up here in the High Doganate, I have decided to reply:

“Put not your faith in Toryism, but in Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.”

Before the beginning

The advice of a solid old Anglican priest — back when the Anglicans had a use for solids — was to retain one’s balance. “Don’t try to do everything at once,” he said, after my conversion on that bridge over Thames. In particular, “Don’t try to believe everything at once. It is bigger than you, you shan’t be able to do it.” And, “Never abandon your scepticism. If it doesn’t make sense to you, leave it and get back to it later.” And, “The trick to walking, whether you are a babe or very drunk, is: one step at a time. Those who get ahead of themselves tend to fall over.”

We do not offer catechism class in this anti-blog. At least, not officially. To understand the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, requires participation first of all. Be there in the Mass. It is hard to learn anything when one is perpetually absent, and the teaching in this case as in all other cases begins not in some textbook or theological primer, but by interaction with the Thing Itself. That is where the beauty of it is displayed: the incomprehensible beauty. Unless, alas, it is obscured or shadowed in the pro-forma of the postmodern ritual, when it dissevers mind from feeling.

But it is hard to obscure the inner truth, I think, when the Epistle for today — the passage from the eighth chapter of Proverbs which sings prevenient grace (“a Dei per dominum Christum Iesum praeveniente gratia,” as the Trent Council explained) — is followed, and inwardly digested. The attributes of Wisdom that the Church has applied to Our Lady may be found in the Old Testament, as much as in the New.

Dominus possedit me in initio viarum suarum, antequam quidquam faceret a principio: “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of His ways, before He made anything, before the beginning. …”

I teach “EngLit,” sometimes, and “poetics,” sort-of. In plays, such as Shakespeare’s, the speakers are well-marked. In open verse, including his Sonnets, there is often a big question. Who is speaking? It could, it might, be the author himself. Or it could be someone, or something other. The better one listens, the clearer it will be. If they were nothing more, the Prophets of the Hebrews offer a training in this vital dimension of poetry. In this remarkably prophetic passage, within the Proverbs, the question is brought to our attention in a spectacular way: Who is speaking here? Who is she?

To begin with the formal dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception, is to begin to miss the point. For as we learn from today’s epistle: we can understand nothing unless we begin before the beginning. (Which perhaps helps us to explain why we seldom understand anything at all.)

Long, long, long before the formal definition of Pius IX, belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary was common, in the East as in the West. This, too, was a beginning before the beginning, and a correction to those who imagine that popes, or any other men, make doctrine. They only defend it, when it is challenged. (And to define is to defend.) This is what happened, in 1854. But that is not the origin of something which, though logically necessary to the Christian theology, sinks beneath the necessity of reason into the profundity of faith.

Our task is to understand God in Christ; that, God Is That He Is, and not another. It is to the Mother of God we fly. We will not understand the Son without the Mother; nor conversely the Fiat without the Fiat Lux, the Fiat Panis.

All of us in this class are beginners.

In convertendo

A correspondent in Brazil replied to my Idlepost last night by, as we say, “blowing up the trumpets in Zion.” He sang back one of the Songs of Ascent:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
     we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
     our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
     “the Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
     and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, Lord,
     like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
     will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
     carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
     carrying the sheaves with them.

This canticum graduum needs little commentary, because it explains itself. Picture the Hebrews singing, in their ancient pilgrimages, mounting the hill to Jerusalem, and the steps to the Temple. Bear, too, in mind, the idea of restoration, as in this instance Zion was restored, and the people Israel delivered from their captivity.

We deal here with an aspect, or dare I say a reality, of the Christian teaching that is overlooked: that of victory and deliverance, by the grace of God. We do not hope to be “tolerated,” and left to our own business alone, as my friend Bruno Galli Cicconi explains. Our Lord, creator of the universe, is not looking for some special dispensation.

Quite apart from the liturgy, I associate the “gradual canticles” with Advent, and the long march rising, towards the shepherds, and above them the angels on high. The whole sequence (Hebrew CXX to CXXXIV) speaks to me of this rising, this announcement, this restoration of the Kingdom, from our “vale of tears.”

Cicconi: “May the sacrifice of the Vendeans not have been in vain, because the whole world has forgotten what was perpetrated there, but the Lord forgets nothing.”

Encore une fois

It is among the tenets of our faith that zombies can be cured. And there are a lot of zombies in France, according to the political sociologists. These are the people from the more traditional regions, which long resisted the Revolution and the lashings of laïcité that followed through nine or ten more generations. From materials sent me by a concerned priest, I learn that they are now called “Catholic zombies.” This because, while among the walking, spiritually dead, who no longer attend the Mass, or otherwise engage with the living Church, they still have basically Catholic attitudes. Many were even baptized, once upon a time. Which is to say: they are a bunch of terrifying reactionaries, who don’t kill their babies and think marriage should be cross-sexual. (Sometimes a million or two of these zombies march on Paris.)

Verily, it is the teaching of our Church that anyone can be saved, even Hitler. Though truth to tell, it may be too late for him. A religion which holds that the dead rise will have a natural affinity for zombies. Though I’m not sure I would want to take that theological observation too far. Rather, I would rephrase it to say, once a Catholic always a Catholic, even if a Catholic who is bound for Hell. It does not follow he will get there, however; for as Father Brown put it:

“I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

This may strike my non-co-religionists as abstruse. But they may always read G. K. Chesterton for themselves. (Or Brideshead Revisited, wherein it was famously quoted.)

Indeed, I would say it of the whole of Western Civ, and cite myself as an example. For my people took their leave of Catholicism five centuries ago. A very long thread, to be sure. But look, I am back.

Verily, we live in a zombie civilization, which seems sometimes to have severed itself from its origins in Our Lord Jesus Christ, and yet is at the present day still hacking and thwacking at the invisible thread. And why? Because secretly it knows itself to be still attached — that it is still Western, and even Roman in the strangest freaky ways. The zealotry, the frenzy of the progressives, who never can believe they have freed themselves, so that they “move on” from one outrage to another, is curiously the best evidence for this. Little things — even a little thing like Trump — can drive them to hysteria. They thought all that was buried; they thought they’d put the stake through it. They thought they were on the right side of l’histoire.

And there it is, trailing with ghastly wounds and swaddling gauze — the undead, vestigial Christianity.

The stuff to which I was referred (here, for starters), wanders along this line. The mere rise (from retirement) of the politician, François Fillon — self-declared Thatcherite, but also notoriously practising Catholic — was the occasion for this delightfully shrieking headline in the progressive daily, Liberation:

“Help, Jesus has returned!”

But of course, they overstate the political significance. The zombies are for the most part still zombies; only some of them are cured. Patience, patience. They make only a blip in the demographics; enough perhaps to turn an election or two, but not and never enough to “change history.” Here today and gone in the next newspaper headline. Put not thy faith in demography.

Instead, consider what would be the effect if, instead of merely voting their frustrations, they returned by the millions to Holy Church. It has happened before in the chronicles of nations, and Lord, I would like to see it again.

On a question of taste

It has been observed, in some book I was perusing which I can recommend to no one, that in the old Roman literature, the views on gardening are only those of a literate male elite, and that moreover, they have more to say on the “male discourse” about gardens than about “women’s lived experience in them.” … Well, I’ll be.

Perhaps the academic authoress understates her case. To the pagan Roman eye, I should think, a woman in a garden was more part of the scenery, than part of the conversation. Rather, her place was in the kitchen.

Not that I take this view myself. My gardens are Edenic; I am a Christian and an Augustinian and, as I proceed from the antediluvian to the historical, the garden I imagine is the one in Milan where Augustine met God. (Women he had met before.)

I daresay members of the “literate female elite” mucked about in Roman gardens, too, though we do not seem to have inherited any of their manuscripts. Only the “mansplaining.” For male-hating harpies I can imagine that’s a source of real irritation, and that the advice, “suck it up, buttercup” will never be taken well.

Well, Homer touches on gardens (ah, Nausicaä!), and I think the ancient Persians had more to say, and the Babylonians and Egyptians and Indusians and Chinese — though all oppressively male. What interests me here is not “gender studies,” however, but the Roman aesthetics. In my view, perhaps subject to modification, their gardens must have been rather ugly and awkwardly contrived, until they fell into delicious ruin.

Those Romans spoke most suggestively, it seems to me (the caudillo of this website), of the garden not as paradisal retreat, but as “art for art’s sake” — illusion for the sake of illusion. I find implicit, especially in old Pliny, the dangerous idea of an enveloping illusion — the aspiration towards a “virtual reality.”

In Virgil’s Georgics, on the other hand, I feel this encroachment being subtly resisted. In Horace, subtly satirized as he glances upon the garden of his patron, Maecenas. (In Seneca the Younger, it was satirized less cautiously.) That, and worse, the gardens of the Emperors, and others among the Roman nouveaux riches, contained many California touches, including oversized swimming pools and necropoli worthy of Evelyn Waugh’s flourishes in The Loved One.

If I am not mistaken (and I often am) our modern, Western conception of an enveloping illusion begins with those Roman writers on gardening — with Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia, and his adopted nephew Pliny in his Letters, too; with Columella before them, and even back to Cato the Censor, and that polymath, Varro; all, to my over-sensitive mind, conveying a notion of “escape” that is suspiciously worldly.

But forward, leaping the centuries, we come to Rutilius Taurus Æmilianus Palladius who, when the Roman Empire was winding down, wrote a most useful treatise in twelve books corresponding to the months of the year — in prose but breaking into elegiacs at the mention of trees. (I love the works of Late Antiquity, more than those of Late Postmodernity.)

And very useful it was, this last, through subsequent Darkish Ages, and into the Middling ones, too, as we find it still copied and circulating in e.g. mediaeval England. One may read it in Middle English (here), and in doing so gain partial entry to a surprisingly refined and sophisticated agricultural environment, with rural hicks far from the clod-busting oafs we suppose them to have been.

But that was the Rome for all ages; the cornucopian Rome; the Rome that is living still and always, from an Empire that was the boilerplate for Christendom.

There is decadence here, but it works in the reverse of our usual chronological assumption of a descent into decadence. The earlier writers — the more dignified and grave — are also the more infected with the desire to spiritualize their materialism. It is the more fully pagan Rome — Petronius, the somewhat sick arbiter of elegance, wrote near the prime, not near the fall, of Roman urbanity — that aspires to the trompe-l’œil, to the showy opulence, to the show-and-tell of Hollywood and Palm Springs. (I use California only as a placard, for while it is being fancifully exceeded by the stage-hands of Dubai and Red China, it remains for us the Disneyland par excellence.)

Not only in our cybernetic fantasia, but in the concrete world of our metastasizing glitz, we express a desire for enveloping illusion. It is the flip side of the old Roman, stoical gravitas: the desire for a Garden the opposite of Eden, where we may construct our own reality-denying “safe space” — apart from an inquisitive God.

In the words of the late Scottish philosophical gardener, Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006), “Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.”

On the speed of mercy

Father Mark A. Pilon’s piece in The Thing this morning (here) gives an unusually frank account of the mess Holy Church is now passing through, which (Warren opining now) may yet prove a blessing. Sometimes war offers the only way forward; or in this case, the “moral equivalent” thereto. There are acts — there could be acts even by a pope — that must be confronted and corrected. Surrender is not an option, when one has Christ’s own Church to defend, whether the enemy be from without or within.

In his refusal to reply to the Dubia of the happily-dubbed “Four Cardinals” — Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke, Carlo Caffarra, and Joachim Meisner — all learned, sober, and impressive men — Pope Francis has displayed a shocking insolence, a caudillo hauteur. His very job, as pontiff, is to uphold the teaching of Holy Church, never more needed than in a time like this, when it is taken frivolously. It is to end confusion. In the five questions addressed to him – straightfoward, concise, and each answerable with a yea or a nay — he was requested to do that. These questions were not only about divorce and communion. They drew attention to five distinct points in Amoris Laetitia, at which a grave contradiction could be construed between what the pope was teaching, and what the Church has always taught.

On that marriage question alone, it is worth reading with attention Ross Douthat’s comments in (of all places) the New York Times (here). Douthat shows, with admirable precision, the consequences of Bergoglio’s doctrinal adventure for Catholic life, and thus, in the souls of a thousand million living people.

From the beginning of his pontificate, it is now clear to many, whose trust he has squandered, Bergoglio intended what amounts to sabotage; to rekindle the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” that Pope Benedict so eloquently condemned; to undermine the courageous work of Saint John Paul, to restate for our age Catholic moral teaching in his Familiaris Consortio and other writings. We cannot simply ignore the consistency with which he has insulted reliable Catholic teachers, and the longsuffering Catholic faithful — in his words, in his flighty and irresponsible gestures, in his persistent appointment of craven liberal mediocrities to vital Church offices. He has been described, aptly, as a papal wrecking ball.

The justification for the cardinals’ action in these circumstances has been stated (here, most accessibly).

A pope serves the Church, and not vice versa. He is servant of her servants. He is charged to defend the Faith, not to revise it. Beyond the specific issues, in which Bergoglio has toyed so coyly with doctrine and law, he has set an appalling precedent for his successors. It cannot be allowed to stand.

Yet all this may prove, in the long view which Christians strive to maintain, a blessing in disguise. We are coming to a juncture in which a glib, smarmy, and false account of Catholic Truth is widely accepted — even within the Church, where it is expressed in a slapdash liturgy. The parallels with the Arian crisis of the fourth century become ever more striking (see here).

It may take a few more decades to extinguish the Hydra-head modernist heresies. Without intending, I think our current pope draws the reckoning nearer.

Our Lord is not indifferent to the fate of His Church, and we may be surprised by what Flannery O’Connor called “the terrible speed of mercy.” (Not the fake mercy of laxity, but the divine action, which includes the admonishment of sinners.)

A path will emerge; may have emerged already.

A path will emerge

As I have perhaps mentioned before, somewhere or other — I write a lot, you know — there is a saying among the drivers of Delhi three-wheelers that deeply appeals to me. I have cited it in my headline.

Some context is necessary to understand this saying. Gentle reader must place himself imaginatively on the bench behind the driver of one of these frail, motorized rickshaws (as these). He is going around one of New Delhi’s innumerable traffic circles (worse than Washington, I think), along with many other tuk-tuks, cars, proper taxis, little trucks, buses, bicycles, big trucks, motorcycles, and possibly farm animals. Or rather, he is hopelessly caught in their jam, with an appointment to get to, that is gradually receding into the fog of history.

The more enveloping and immediate fog is of intense petrol fumes and of smoke discharging, into which is mixed the rich tropical scents of rotting fruit and vegetables, and other odours unhappier to describe. The sides of the little cart are open. The temperature is in three figures of Fahrenheit. It is also quite humid, and there is no breeze. One is wearing a tie, which one might mistake for a garrote vil.

But one’s driver is serene. He has, to understate the case, been here before. He reassures his apparently distraught Western passenger that the destination — some several miles away — is nearly in view. “A path will emerge,” he observes, sagely.

I recall being myself once in the position of this passenger, approaching one of the Shajahanabad gates, through which, if we ever passed, the streets would become much narrower, and twisting. But I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. Instead, I noticed, with growing alarm, that two Delhi transit buses — whose diesel exhaust I was now tasting — were closing in upon each other, from our either side. It struck me that their drivers were mounted so high that they would not see us. I pictured the mangled metal in which we would die. Perhaps my alarm was communicated.

“A path will emerge,” repeated my tuk-tuk charioteer, Krishna to my Arjuna.

I queried him on the likelihood of our being crushed.

His philosophical serenity undisturbed, he added, “Death is a kind of path.”

It takes some work, some hard-earned life experience, to attain such a degree of fatalism. I had yet to climb that mountain. I still have not climbed, these last twenty years, to the upper reaches, in which the truth, in its seeming inevitability, comes in view above the clouds, and one may accept the Gloria. My mind instead craves more oxygen. But if you can’t breathe, you can’t breathe — what could be simpler than that?

Actually, gentle reader, I draughted for today a long and rather stern post, touching upon the behaviour of our Holy Father, who, to my mind, is leading our Church into the equivalent of the space between converging Delhi buses. And this, on perhaps a dozen levels, which I was attempting to enumerate. But the same information can be had from elsewhere, so why add my vexation to it? Hardly for the first time in the history of this anti-blog, I deleted my disconsolating words.

Let us consider the matter from a different perspective.

A path will emerge.

In defence of economic backwardness

[Have, truth to tell, slightly extended this since first posted.]

*

The last generation of Communists in power, in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, suffered from a debilitating foible. They did not themselves believe in the ideology they were preaching. Their efforts were thus directed to getting around the realities their forebears had not anticipated. They thus became their own enemies, working against their own unworkable socialist principles, and in the course of their tireless if frazzled ministrations, the Berlin Wall came down.

Capitalism suffers from the same problem today. The principles of Adam Smith are not seriously believed by any of its nominal advocates. They are not even known. Nor could they be, for like Marx, Smith is not even read. I have derived pleasure, on many occasions, from pointing out to some ideological enthusiast for Capitalism, that its supposed author was refulgently opposed to joint-stock companies. Which is to say, to the form of business ownership that controls — oh, I don’t know. Ninety-five percent of the so-called “private sector” economy today?

I observed that, apart from any consideration of morality (and he was, after all, only an amateur economist, but a professional Perfesser of Moral Philosophy), Smith believed that joint-stock companies were inefficient, because essentially bureaucratic. This is inevitable when ownership is separated from management. “Growth,” or Bigness, subtly replaces profit (both mercenary and non-mercenary) as the principal aspiration.

The perfessers today believe in “the evolution of Capitalism.” I don’t believe in evolution at all. I think, for instance, that “the hidden hand,” also known as “the law of supply and demand,” is absolutely static, like all the other “laws” that seem to govern our universe. Anything that happens to be true in economics, as in any other branch of scientia, was always true and will be true ever, in the world to which we are accustomed, regardless of the language used to describe. What “evolves” is rather our hallucinatory rhetoric, whether towards or away from the plain facts of life.

Within a nice Smithian economic order there could be no mega-mergers and buyouts; there could be no “megas” for that matter; companies would rather be born, live, and die, on the human scale; with economic decision-making leading up by an irresistible subsidiarity from living, twitching, irrefutable “consumers” (or “customers as we used to call them), uncontaminated by ubiquitous “lifestyle” advertising, or other wicked goads. Companies would by necessity fully adapt to the specific needs of their localities. There could be partnerships, and inheritances; exports and imports for sure; but no “free market” in stocks, of the kind we associate with Capitalism today.

For that matter, there would be no paper money (Smith despised it), let alone electronic — designed, as such things always are, to disguise debt. The moral hazard implicit in most modern, conventional business practices would be flagged and could be prosecuted under common law; as opposed to the cat’s cradle of universalized “rules and regulations,” imposed on the small by negotiation between big government, big business, big labour, and … big media. We could dismiss “limited liability,” too, leaving owners fully accountable for their delictions, derelictions, misdemeanors, and crimes.

And of course, we would all be poorer, by any abandoned statistical measure; and much happier, too, for having extricated ourselves from the global rat-race of “creative destruction,” leading only to Hell. For yes, if one thinks them through, Smithian economics are inherently conservationist, or as they say today, “ecological.” You work with what you have, rather than with what you can “leverage.”

Often I have read these moderns mocking mediaeval ideas about usury, about their notions of supply and demand, et cetera. But as a man of the thirteenth century, I feel perfectly at home in The Wealth of Nations (1776). Florentine double-entry bookkeeping is fine with me; whereas credit cards are an abomination. There is real solid wealth, denominated in real solid things, which neither appear nor disappear overnight; and then, there is the “wealth of numbers.” Presently, it is public policy to pursue the wealth of abstract, manipulable numbers. This includes wild swinging speculation on anything that happens to be real and solid.

*

An old friend of mine, among my bosses in late ’seventies Bangkok — Antoine van Agtmael, genuinely admired and loved — was the genius who invented the expression “emerging markets,” to replace that downer, “developing countries.” (Which in turn had been the euphemism for “backward countries.”) It was by such creative hocus-pocus that attitudes towards “Third World” investment were dramatically changed, in the era of Thatcher and Reagan. A man of indomitably good intentions; charitable, selfless, and a brilliant merchant banker; a little leftish in his social and cultural outlook — I give Antoine’s phrase as an example of the sort of poetry that changes the world. I took pride, once, in editing a book of his astute investment “case studies.”

Thirty-six years have passed, since in my youth and naiveté I was draughting a book of my own on what is still called “development economics.” (I was a business journalist in Asia then, who did a little teaching on the side.) It seemed to me that “free enterprise” should be encouraged; that “government intervention” should be discouraged; but that the aesthetic, moral, and spiritual order in one ancient “developing country” after another was being undermined by the success, as also by the frequent failures, not only of foreign but of domestic investors. This bugged me because, like my father before me (who had worked and taught westernizing subjects in this same Third World), my well-intended efforts on behalf of “progress” were ruining everything they touched; everything I loved.

My attempt to explain this, if only to myself, ended in abject failure to answer my central question: “Why does Capitalist success make the world ugly and its people sad?”

Only now do I begin to glimpse an answer; and that part of it could be expressed in the imperative, “Let us abandon Capitalism, and go back to Adam Smith.”

Funny old world chronicles

A piece of legislation passed our provincial legislature, yesterday. Should gentle reader be curious, and patient, he may begin exhuming details himself (here, for instance).

We are not in Kansas any more. They are not even in Kansas any more, even in Kansas,  as I am reminded by another current news item, about a “sperm donor” taken to court for child support, but let off. For reasons likely beyond his comprehension, and certainly beyond mine, the man is off the hook for a large bill, accrued since the lesbian couple in possession of his child split up. So the state must play “father” to the actual mother. In fact, the man came out at least 50$ ahead, paid in 2009 for each of his acts of masturbation, arranged through Craigslist. He may further profit from his legal expenses, made the draw for a “GoFundMe” Internet campaign. I look at the photo of his face with the news report. He could be the poster-boy for fatherhood today.

That case is now presented in liberal media as an example of discrimination against lesbians — on the argument that the mother wouldn’t have gone after the sperm-donor had her non-mother “partner” been a man, and thus automatically on the hook (in the State of Kansas). We are now far advanced into Cloud Cuckooland.

As the Ontario legislation shows, it is not a “simple” matter of parenthood being redefined — so that, for instance, a child in Ontario may now have up to four parents at any given moment, to none of whom he need be biologically related. His whole existence is now contractual. His fate is that of chattel before courts that will adjudicate between the “rights” of these various impermanent masters. Laws once designed to protect the child have now been so “reformed,” that he could be a pork belly. He has no mother and father any more. Like a dog, he has only owners. (See also here.)

But something else interests me. It is the way this Bill 28 was passed — by all three parties in the legislature, unanimously, without audible debate. It was rushed through, with derisory media attention. The leader of the only party that might have opposed it — Patrick Brown of the “Progressive Conservatives” — told his members to vote for the bill, or be absent from the legislature. This is the same Patrick Brown previously condemned in liberal media for being a dark “social conservative,” beyond the reach of sunlight. When all along he was an unprincipled wimp, rat, and sell-out.

Of the dozen or so “Conservative” members “from the sticks” who were unambiguously opposed: all, without exception, agreed to disappear for the sake of “party unity.” The considerable number of voters who elected them (almost invariably by larger margins than their more progressive colleagues), and the large numbers present as minorities in other Ontario ridings, were thus deprived of a voice, on an issue of tremendous importance to them. Moreover they were smeared, as a group, for “bigotry,” “sexism,” “homophobia,” &c — implicitly by the party leader who also came to office by their votes. And all for defending old-fashioned motherhood and apple pie.

Why? Why did they agree to take this? In what sort of “democracy” does the opposition agree to be smeared, ignored, and then shut down?

I can hardly blame the politicians. They are filth, but I know that already. Rather I’m inclined to quote Kate McMillan, sweet mistress of the lively Saskatchewan blog, Small Dead Animals. As she likes to say:

“Not Showing Up To Riot Is A Failed Conservative Policy.”

On the transience of things

Anything worth making will be hard to make; anything worth expressing will be hard to express; anything worth thinking will be hard to think. That is how things are, and will continue to be, even in an environment that could be said almost to cultivate the glib and the fatuous. Our condition is terminal, but that means more than one thing.

A friend in Washington (the city beside Georgetown) has been reading Pierre Manent, The City of Man (trans. LePain, 1998), and quotes from a chapter ending:

“The imagination, for its part, no longer seeks to embrace as in the past the Being which is ‘greater than which nothing can be conceived’, nor even the lesser divinities. …”

I had been trying to think of a way to present this displacement of imagination itself, which results, among other effects, in the destruction of all poetry and art. (And their replacement with “fact-checking.”)

In my Sunday musings, wandering around town — not to the ravines and lakeside but through the centre of the city; then later back to the High Doganate where I was sorting old photographs to pass on to my sister — I was struggling with a big, rather old-fashioned idea. It is that people grow old and die.

Too, I had been playing with “memory and imagination” (in Augustine and Shakespeare) in the heads of my young seminary charges. That is a large and difficult topic in itself, and this is to be read as a small and glancing blow.

Now, I continue to be amazed by this idea, about the passage of time. Photos, for instance, revive vivid memories from, say, forty and fifty years ago. And what was so commonplace then, so often boring, is now gone forever. It has become mysterious, fascinating to the philosophical mind: how can these things have been? How could I not have known, at the time, that the everyday was so exotic?

But we are charmed, and then return to another everyday. We have been briefly entertained, as by a TV documentary.

These pictures present faces one once knew well, but far away in another country. (And “the past is a foreign country,” anyway.) One adds forty or fifty years to the face of each remembered person, or death to those a little older. Yet in the pictures they are all young and blythe, and I can remember being among them, “as if it were yesterday.” Those times are now forever lost to our living sight: though not from God’s omniscience.

Each, let me add, went in his own way, yet there is a commonality. I can imagine going back to an old neighbourhood — now as a traveller from the future — and finding it physically not much changed. One’s heart beats: one wants to run up and knock at a door, at all the doors — “I, Tiresias.” But then one’s heart breaks. For behind each door, a shock of non-recognition. Those people don’t live here any more. The neighbourhood that appeared unchanged is verily changed beyond recognition. It is another place now. No one knows who you are.

The idea is quite a simple one: all is lost, so that in a few more years, even these pictures will mean nothing to anybody. Unless they happen to be “quaint,” in some collectable way. But the idea in itself — of our inevitable extinction — is more immediately lost, unless it can be articulated. It is not fact-checkable, in any given moment. It requires poetry, to keep it alive in our souls.

We feel nostalgia, for people and places and things, but we have lost the ability to be “Japanese” about it: to begin to grasp the incredible poignancy of our condition, and bring it into our lives as a constant, so that it applies to our present, too. To live, as it were, on the cusp of eternity. This is what our ancestors could do, who took such stilted photographs, but painted such wonderful portraits. Or rather I am thinking of the ancestors of those still fairly modern ancestors, who had seen such things as photographs, and had their imaginations impaired by them.

Even a collodion required only a mechanical skill, and could represent only a surface, from which breath and movement, touch and scent, sound and response had been stripped away. (No wonder the sitters look like stuffed corpses.)

In the presence of passing life, representing itself triumphantly, men could once begin to grasp the transience in all worldly things, implicit in the movement of the seasons. They could not wish to change the unchangeable. And their dead were laid out in their own parlours, and kissed by the children who must come to terms: not consigned to the professionals in some “funeral home.” And then they were remembered in stories, in relics, in prayers. Nothing is as deadly as a photograph.

This is different in kind from nostalgic fact-checking in old photo albums. We have, in effect, horizontalized a vertical, in the flatland we now occupy. We think, only along this horizontal plane. It pins us to the earth, and prevents our rising.

Advent Sunday

Once again “the rousing time” is upon us, in the beginning of a new liturgical year. This phrase of the late Jesuit, Father Delp — butchered by the Nazis in early 1945 — has fixed in my mind among the explanations for Advent. (See here. And here, for that matter.) God is sowing now; one day He will harvest again. Now is a time to be shaken awake, to “smell the coffee” as we say. The faithful priest adduced three figures: 1. The man crying in the wilderness. 2. The herald angel. 3. Our Lady.

For some reason I attended the first Mass this morning — a Novus Ordo Low Mass — then went off rambling. For no reason, except that I was feeling empty, having nowhere in particular to go. Or perhaps it was nostalgia, for there came to mind moments from decades ago, when I was adolescent and travelling alone, hungry and cold, penniless and friendless, in the heart of another impersonal city. And all these many years later, I felt that coldness again, that desolation, that longing for the warmth of a home, somewhere; anywhere. (How many refugees have known this; and with it, illness.)

In the course of the later morning and afternoon I saw four altercations involving the insane. In the third of these events, the madman was confronting people on a subway platform, while shrieking obscenities, which he alternated with an extraordinary deep bearish growl. And curiously, he was commanding the very people he was assaulting to, “Leave me alone!” All around were instinctively braced against the sudden shove onto the tracks. (City folk get used to this.) Yet as the train rocketed into the station, the man went harmlessly limp. Then darted into a car, to threaten more passengers, as they tried in their Torontoist way to ignore him. He was among the most obvious candidates for exorcism I have seen, even on the TTC.

And then another “incident,” from another demonically inhabited man, at the other end of my ride. And another clump of fellow Torontonians, trying not to “engage.” All with smart phones to help them.

From that and several lesser things, my sense is reinforced, that the conurban world is breaking down around us. But it will take its course. It is the ever-inflating price we pay for “progress”; for the “freedom” that consists of opening all our ancestral cages, and letting our inner wild frolic about.

Too, I think that God remains Immanent, as well as Transcendent.

The finest thing I saw today — a memory to which I will cling — happened at Yonge and Bloor. This is the epicentre of Toronto’s “Uptown,” with skyscrapers ascended or ascending on all four of its corners, deleting scenes beloved from old days, and replacing them with the standardized, windswept glitz. Two men were crossing this intersection, one young, one old. The latter was blind, and with his blind stick, lifted as useless in the big city throb. The former, evidently his son — from the family resemblance between them — was guiding his dad by the other arm.

I was drawn short by the look on these faces. For there was in each a perfect trust. The old man’s face without anxiety; the young man’s, alert to danger, yet serene in a perfect affection. His face told the chance examiner that his father was the most precious thing in the world. His father’s said as much of his son. An anomaly, perhaps, in our broken city, but how unutterably normal.

An animal love, and an angelic love, combined in both body-and-soul “combos” — a two, within two, within two, within one, passing through the streets. A sign of the times, it seemed to me; of this rousing time, as the Nativity approaches.

Pass the cigars

Oh look! Fidel Castro is dead.

Nil nisi bonum, I can hear my gentlest readers thinking. Speak “naught but good” of the dead (for at least a few days). As the Romans could tell you — even their mortuary assistants — this is just good manners. And wise tactics, should one happen to be surrounded by the dead man’s admirers (as one always is on the Internet, today). I’m in favour of good manners, to a point — passed by Castro more than sixty years ago. He was, from his early manhood, a hardened Communist thug. With that bearded “charisma.”

Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro — among Castro’s spiritual heirs — is quoted by the BBC: “Revolutionaries of the world must follow his legacy.” For once I agree: they should all drop dead.

One could enter into a long recitation of Fidel Castro’s monstrous crimes; itemize from the scroll of the coldly murdered; the imprisoned and tortured; the exiled, at the risk of their lives; nod to a whole people enslaved, their whole lives on the Cuban plantation. One might spend the morning contending with the coolies of political fashion in the West, who have embraced so many real monsters; yet go hog wild over a little waterboarding. Or with media that instinctively applaud the crushing of media and free speech in foreign countries, provided only that the perpetrators claim to serve the progressive cause, on what we might call “the left side of history.”

But no, not today. Today we have something to celebrate.

On rigidity

Anything clearly thought can be clearly expressed, according to several of my former teachers. To be clear, I don’t think that’s always true, though I fear it might be, and would not wish to align myself with the naysayers, or with the mad.

My clear idea of the starling that has alighted on my balconata railing strikes me as impossible to convey. Perhaps, had I the talent, he could be drawn or painted. (From his chattering I take him for a male.) And the starling himself has been perfectly expressed in his own actions — conveying an avian personality that does not depend upon specific predictable gestures. Even when he surprises me by a sudden motion, he remains a starling for all that. Apart from, even beyond physical constraints, he embodies a “starlingness,” a sturnidism, a staer (should we wish to retreat into Anglo-Saxon) that he has individuated. I mean this seriously, for another starling has joined him, and the two changed places without fooling me.

And now they are off, bolt straight in flight, and it appears their paired rapidly beating wings are coordinated. They are like synchronized swimmers of the air, they can synchronize, too, within their murmurations, when they fly by their thousands, by their tens of thousands, dipping and rising as a mass, turning and wheeling without instruction, opening and closing their fleeting ranks, breaking and rejoining, scattering and convolving in their aerial topologies — one then many, many then one. And low in the fields beneath them, one may hear then feel the wind with which they brush, as they mix and blend in the inverted bowl of the sky, now near, now far above. Who could describe the intricacy of this mysterious ballet?

Yet by sound and sight in the mind’s attention, it can all be clearly seen and thought.

To be plain, it depends what plane of clarity we seek. There are “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” — each telling and crisp, in Wallace Stevens’ poem — but countless angles of sight within a murmuration of starlings. And we must count them all together, when they are not apart.

But here’s the ontological question: Do the starlings exist?

Once we have a handle on that — on what I count for fundamental sanity — we have some hope of grasping that a thing cannot be, and not be, at the same time. We may know, for instance, that one and one is two, even though two drops may combine into one after the fact (as in a marriage).

There are questions that can be resolved with a yea or nay, as the Four Cardinals recently proposed, giving five examples clear and undisputed for two thousand years, now so utterly slurred in Amoris Laetitia that every priest may have his own “take” on it, like a media pundit. They ask our current pope to clarify; he makes an insulting show of not hearing them. To him black is not necessarily black, white is not necessarily white; and he knows better than all the wise before him. He is above replying to these “rigid” men (whose learning is transparently greater than his own). Instead, as he tells us, he consults “the Spirit.” I begin to wonder, which spirit he has “discerned.”

To me, for all the complexity of this world, every starling is or is not; and though I cannot count them, God can. And specific deeds in specific contexts are permitted or are not permitted — to every Catholic, at any time. We may sin, but we have not the luxury of “updating” our definition of the sin, or otherwise tampering with what Christ has taught, inconvenient as we may sometimes find it. And the mission of every pope, from wherever he came, is to clarify the doctrine, when it is confused, and uphold it, unaltered, against all comers. (That is why, by tradition, popes wore blood-red shoes.)

“For amen I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall not pass of the law.”

Let us make no foolish mistake. Christ was rigid.