Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

Ugly & truly ugly

I am a man obsessed, and wouldn’t be if I didn’t have something to blame in myself — a phenomenon of the human psyche which helps explain why so many women in the pro-life movement once had abortions. It becomes the King Charles’s Head of all their opposition to the manners and mores of the age; not always to the advantage of the movement. But nothing can be bigger as they look around. In my case, the current obsession is instead about Donald Trump; who afflicts my imagination as a Trump Tower, installed at the edge of my mediaeval village. I was a craven Pragmatist once, and look at what it got me.

Read this (here), and you probably need not read my Idlepost today. It was ping’d to me by Kouba the Czech, another old reader of the National Review. The author says that, as a “social conservative” who found himself working in the Tea Party movement, he has finally and definitively gagged. The piece is about the concept of “allies.”

Those who have indulged in politics — and I gag easily so haven’t indulged much — will know about this concept. You put up with behaviour in your allies that you would condemn in anyone else. “For the good of the cause,” you try to make excuses. Or else you become so hardened, that you do not bother to excuse.

Most people fear ostracism — I rather like it myself, but then I am weird. They cannot bear to be “called out” for breaking ranks. So they don’t, no matter the provocation. Wait until you have lost the election to turn on your leaders with that reptile lash. Meanwhile, fair or foul to get them elected.

But this is on the personal level; on the political, the genuine reactionaries of the Right — the so-called “social conservatives” — have for half a century agreed to make common cause with both the economic libertines, and with the sleazier sort who borrow their rhetoric until the primaries are over.

Against sleaze, there is no remedy but Dettol. Against the “fiscal conservatives but social liberals” there is nothing but the memory that an ally is not a friend. He will drop you the moment he no longer needs you; but if you are wise you will drop him first.

“We” — I refer to the kind of people who read Idleposts and things — should have known better. Which is to say, I should have known better myself, whenever in past years I silently agreed to bite my tongue, for the sake of some party cause.

For as Blake said, in an aphorism I have seized for my motto collection: “Always be willing to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.”

Trump (did I mention him already?) is now the uncontested party standard-bearer in the USA — that “proto-fascist grotesque with zero political experience and poor impulse control,” as Ross Douthat describes him. But let me tell you what I think.

There is no point in discussing his policies or his promises, for those “evolve” quickly. (Populism has never been constrained by principles.) Even the capitalist types will find he is an invoice. I look at a man of dramatic vulgarity, whose life has been invested in “triumphs of the will” — in crass enterprises on which he puts his own face by way of branding. A man who makes megalos look modest. He brings out the worst in his supporters, as I have been reading in email: a brownshirt nastiness towards any dissenter. Were I some Republican in the polity to the south, I would sit on my hands through the next election.

Or perhaps I would be inspired, as a fool, to help in the creation of some Third Party, with the word “Christian” somewhere in its name, and no prospect better than electing a few congressmen from the backwoods here and there — who might mouth off against most government legislation, and toss spanners into all the political machines, while getting themselves thoroughly hated — not only in DC town. It would be the party of “pox on both your houses.” For “let us be clear,” as Obama Soebarkah (who is clear about nothing) likes to say. An unChristian America is not an America worth preserving; it has nothing left but geography.

They tried that in Europe, after the last World War: all those “Christian Democrats,” resolved to restore the old Europe, and decency in public life, who still survive in name only. Power turned them all into “professional politicians.”

Hidden things

To revert to one’s own childhood is to creep back in history only a little way. Better to leap and bound through the centuries, with the help of a mature education. Though as condescending gliberals like to say, each journey begins with little baby steps. To my mind, which is not gliberal I pray (“Pharisee! Pharisee!”) — childhood was not a little baby step, but a formative experience.

We need to keep alive, even through senility, the childhood of the world; for in the light of Eternity we will still be young in another million years. The awe and wonder, with which we all began, must somehow be renewed or recovered. With this, an unfolding sense of simultaneity in Time, as we proceed like snails, inscribing our route through all dimensions; perhaps drawing our own faces.

Upon the arrival of spring, as too the other seasons, my memory reverts to seasons past. Gardens have been in my mind much lately, and the gardens of my childhood uppermost. The miracle of them comes back to me, with the shade of an old gardener. This was under the mangos and darbelas (which flower in the rains); the bottle-squat baobabs and shimmering tamarinds; the purpled bauhinias and the undulating palms of the gardens and borders around “Nedous Hotel.” … Demolished, destroyed, nearly half a century ago, in obedience to the Rupee God.

And the sausage tree (Kigelia pinnata, from Africa; fruit sausages hanging from it). And the goldars (with the macaques in them), over a wall where I was never supposed to go.

Let us call this invisible man Muncie, for that was his name. I think he was the head gardener, tall in his turban; a friend of all children. He would give you the tour; he would put you to work, even if you were a white pasty-faced boy, with freckles. Like an august member of the British royal family, he would talk to his trees (but in Urdu); and they, keeping still, would listen, resuming their growth as he turned away. One might even overhear what he had told them. (“Shukria, shukria.”)

I say “invisible” because I think only children could see him. To adults he faded into the garden itself, a figure who called no attention to himself. He was always working.

The notion of that City of Gardens I touched on in a Thingpost the other day (here); of gardens, and the converging emblematic garden.

In the country we have farms; in the city we have gardens; or so it used to be. In the country we had gardens, too, but they melted into farms. In the city they melted into brick and joinery, shaded avenues and wandering lanes. For so it once was. From the gate of Eden we were told: each must now cultivate his garden.

Muncie showed me once two leaves. They were from the same deciduous tree, perhaps a badam or almond. He was a collector of colours. Instead of a photograph he had the thing itself. The older leaf was from the previous season: an unforgettable pinkish red. The fresh one was a waxen green. The two colours complemented strikingly: perfectly selected “from Allah’s palette.” Yet no one would ever notice, until across time they were brought together.

To see it whole, through all seasons, might be to see the tree that God sees. We only see a moment, a part of the unfolding. Perhaps that was what Muncie was explaining: for I think he was a holy man.

Titles

As a special bonus today, in addition to the usual short Idlepost you are reading, I have recast the supplication on the “Pay!” page (here), so that it now includes its own special offer. It is also a little longer, which gives everyone who goes there more to read.

An expert in epistolary marketing (which he called something else) once told me that it is important to make appeals for money long and vacuous (not the terms he used). They must also be grave, earnest, and deadly serious, resisting every temptation to lightness or humour. (“Never make a joke at a cashpoint,” he told me again and again.) The “mailer” must also address the interests of the subject, to the exclusion of one’s own self-regarding interest in getting his money. (“Don’t tell me about your grass seed, tell me about my lawn!” he’d imagine the reader of the mailer imploring.) Ambiguity should be avoided, notwithstanding the convolutions, and a “unique selling point” constantly repeated until it is driven home. There should be no question what the recipient should do (i.e. reach for his wallet), and in addition to a plenitude of carrots, there should be somewhere a flourish of sticks. Flattery for the reader should be inserted here and there. And, never omit the Free Special Offer.

If the gentleman be reading this, in Malta today, I hope he will see how much I learnt from him, back in our magazine days.

Let me add, to those who complain that the titles I offer do not seem to come with plausible estates, that one may easily obtain the addresses of many suitable castles and ancient manorial houses, right across Olde England. These have been occupied by liberals and progressives since about the time of Henry VIII (along with parish churches, chapels, chantries, shrines, hermitages, abbeys, cathedrals, and so forth).

As the young daughter of a dear Catholic friend put the matter, upon being told that e.g. Westminster Abbey is now in the custody of Phyletists and Erastians: “Why don’t we storm it and take it back?”

My advertisement is to be ignored by several gentle readers, who have already contributed more than their share to this little enterprise.

That means you, Lord Jowls: you have enough titles already.

Mind over matter

During the Paris massacres last November, I saw video imagery of a lady clinging to a window ledge. She was trying to avoid, on the one hand, being shot by the terrorists inside the Bataclan theatre, and on the other, falling to her death. I note that she was pregnant, a condition that would tend to increase a woman’s weight, and make her tire more quickly. I am guessing she had no specialized athletic training. Yet she held on for a long time. Eventually she was pulled back into the building. My information is that she survived the ordeal.

How long can gentle reader cling to a window ledge? My guess would be, longer if he were several storeys up, than if the ground were a foot beneath his toes. Scientific tests may be conducted on the latter, but even with the advance of eugenic liberalism, there are objections to experiments that will kill people.

Likewise, there is difficulty testing miracles, for to do that one must reproduce events which, for various reasons, are not reproducible. Science is about what always happens, not what sometimes happens; yet when something odd does happen, the scientists are still curious about how it was done. They are, after all, our (global) village explainers, and as in other branches of entertainment, the show must go on.

A piece I saw on the BBC website looks, in the usual glib media manner, into “superhuman” feats of strength. Women, especially those protecting children, seem disproportionately represented in such anecdotes. Some, for instance, have been able to lift cars, and other objects beneath which little bodies find themselves pinned. The weight exceeds the maximum any professional weightlifter has ever essayed. But they try anyway, and sometimes succeed. We learn, as ever from BBC Science, that the labcoats are still working on it.

The physiological effects of faith are often discussed, without knowledge of what we are discussing.

In extraordinary circumstances, people can do extraordinary things. I know this at first hand, from e.g. the experience of clinging to a rockface when I was quite young, as the result of what I had judged, wrongly, to be an easy scramble. I survived because I was suddenly able to see microscopic irregularities in the texture of the rock, and wriggle like a spider up the last five feet of this poorly-selected climb. It wasn’t a test of strength, primarily, but of perception, and the utilization of skills I had never obtained by training. (I also acquired a fear of heights for which past experience had not prepared me.)

Miracles are not my topic, today; only faith. Saints, in particular, do many remarkable things, often before many witnesses. Non-saints can do them, too, when the issue is life or death. A mother’s love for a child, yea even an unborn child, can inspire “miraculous” behaviour. I think there is a parallel in some battle scenes I’ve heard about, where the inspiration is to save a comrade: true love in another form.

“I knew that I could do it, because I knew that I could do it, so I didn’t have to think.” The line is remembered from an incident in Vietnam, some decades ago. It strikes me in retrospect as a confession of faith. Some agency within takes over, because it has been asked to take over.

The scientists may be right. If a human being has been proved capable of performing some act, then human beings must be capable of it. We have large unexplored inner reserves, of strength and perception and motor skill.

I take miracles for granted, but also for granted that God was not such an awkward designer that He could not intervene in nature without breaking His own rules. Creative foresight would have been employed to anticipate all circumstances. Grasp that, I think, and any potential conflict between “science” and “theology” disappears.

Faith can move mountains, or at least cling to ledges, and lift cars. And we could do it ourselves if, like the Saints, or like certain pregnant mothers, we developed the faculty. “Do this O Lord,” one requests, not because one can’t in theory do it, but because one doesn’t know how.

Suppressing the erotic

One of the grimmest activities in this world is that of “sex” (i.e. copulation) without eroticism. This would pertain to all sterile forms of the exercise, which is the crown of modern commerce and advertising. It is true, much disease is spread along with the depravity, but the real costs are steeply higher. For we are dealing with a profound denial: a refusal to acknowledge the breadth and depth of the human domain; a determination to live only in one sordid corner. This reduces us to parity with the other animals — the rats, for instance — a demotion that should be pointedly avoided.

For a man, it turns a woman from a mystery, into a cheap puzzle. I daresay less, the other way around. When we come to the genital interactions of any supplementary sexes, which fanciful human minds are capable of projecting — I don’t want to know.

I learn, from a question asked me in a public place, that the world is now “debating” who may use which toilets in North Carolina. The progressives, with support from major American corporations, demand that men be given access to the ladies’ plumbing chambers throughout that State. But not all males: only those who would have been characterized as “perverts” by almost everyone, everywhere, before this generation. Progressive women must pretend to be pleased; the rest are being taught to stay quiet.

The issue is nothing like “the last straw”; only another stick in the bundle of progressive theatrics. To my mind it cannot be understood except in the context of a far larger public campaign to suppress the erotic. This becomes clear when one realizes that it is the latest strange twist in the long ideological descent from the puritan iconoclasm of the Reformation — a kind of “permanent revolution” to reverse the Catholic sacramentalism of the Middle Ages. In the absence of creative capacity, this necessarily involves the institution of new, parody sacraments, like the old ones but turned upside down: “rights” for “rites” as it were.

Ultimately, this goes back to the rebellion of Lucifer; but I must try to limit the historical overview.

The project to de-eroticize “sex” (in both the current and former usages of this word), was implicit in feminism and the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s. Copulation has since drawn level with barbells and jogging: something you gotta do to get your endorphin high. The usual liberal inversion of terms has masked this operation; e.g. the habit of describing pornography as “erotic literature.” This is false on both counts, for there is nothing erotic about pornography; and in so far as it may contain written words as well as ghastly pictures, lubricity cancels every literary effect. Currently we are surrounded by cynical tradesmen in this worthless “art.”

Why do they bother to attack Eros? Because it is godly, an aspect of Divine Love; the thing itself, in relation to the Creation. The degradation of Love, to synonymy with “sex,” was the underlying, and undermining, purpose of that sexual revolution. It has so succeeded that the words are now used interchangeably in the mass media.

Yet the effect is temporary. It is another bold assault on ein feste Burg, which in the end must fail — for God will not be mocked.

Genuine eroticism has slipped for now beyond reach of our mass culture. It is the reason most marriages end in divorce, whether or not legally notarized; why children are almost invariably “planned,” with the use of de-eroticizing technology; why the old are now encouraged to die.

It is the reason musical appreciation has decayed, so that there are men today who can hear the Prelude and Fugue in A-minor, and not know that it resounds with the leaping spiritual eroticism at the heart of all Creation.

Saint’s day

Saint Catherine of Siena and I share a birthday, as I like to mention at least once a year. In my own case it was a birth into creaturedom, in hers the heavenly natale. We may lack much else in common — I fear the admiration goes only one way — but at a crude level we are both scrappers, and both on record for criticizing popes. Her own remarks were more excoriating; she had a gift for getting right to the point, which one reads not only in her hundreds of dictated letters, but also in her spiritual masterpiece, The Dialogue of Divine Providence, and in the Prayers transcribed at the end of her relatively short earthly life. (About as long as that of Jesus.)

But the “heat” from Caterina di Giacomo di Benincasa (as she was known at the start) was a blaze of love I find unimaginable, though I have tried to imagine. Her relationship with Jesus Christ was extremely intimate: read her account of His foreskin as her “wedding ring”; or rather, don’t read it until you have thrown off the cloak of post-modern priggishness.

Her way of living, including the disconcerting habit of taking Christ’s commands as given, was a scandal sometimes even to her own generation, consisting as it did of humans like us who like to avoid directness, and would rather delegate their acts of mercy.

“The admonishment of sinners” is the act of mercy least appreciated in our age; and probably, too, in Catherine’s. In my own condition, I would shudder to receive a letter from her. In her own time, Princes of the Church shuddered to receive her letters. (She also went to Avignon herself.) As I said, she gets right to the point.

I like to beat around it for a while. I like to avoid direct confrontation. I would rather take a walk — go shadow-boxing — and remember eventually that I am in no position to mount a high horse.

But Saint Catherine of Siena was a knight in this respect; and put the fear of God into the Devil’s yes men. It is to the credit of her age that so many recognized the authority with which this frail young woman was speaking; who, after their initial shock, were inclined simply to obey, and thus change history. Who understood she was speaking for her Husband.

May she from Heaven pray for me, on my little birthday; and pray for all of us worldlings, so easily lost and confused.

Wednesday morning

Well that’s it then, the last Super Tuesday for which I’ll stir myself to check the news. We’ve lost, as we usually lose. More precisely, we’re down ten goals with minutes to go, and I feel confident in my prediction. Trump has won. The current practice is to find someone to blame for this, other than ourselves; but really the whole team stinks, and their fans were just watching. To persist in the hockey metaphor, they should have been throwing their octopuses on the ice from the end of the first period.

I refer, of course, to Team Conservative, which took the battering from this glitzy goon, who didn’t need a “ground game” for his strategy was viral. The great majority of Americans, like a larger majority of Canadians, will actually vote for a Clinton or a Trump; even for a Trudeau. Who cares which huckster they choose? A gentleman like Cruz, who employs reason, and tries to complete his passes (ice hockey again) has no chance with such opponents. They aren’t playing the same game. They are playing instead some game in which winning (let’s switch to American football) is not the most important thing. It is the only thing.

No advice to Ted Cruz this morning. I have it on good induction that he does not read these Idleposts, and that will be my retaliation.

Guvmints come and go, not only in “democracies.” Replacing them by violence instead of elections appeals to me at this moment, but in the longer view, legitimate inheritance is best.

There is a photograph of our Queen, taken by Annie Leibovitz for her ninetieth birthday last week, showing her serene, and surrounded by a selection of her great-grandchildren, all properly washed. (Try here.) It broadcasts civilization, right down to the Hogarth touches (the one on her lap has Her Majesty’s spectacles, and the one to the left has her purse).

Now, I mention this to a constitutional purpose, but not the usual Loyalist one from up here in the Monarchy of the Far North — that the United Statists were wrong to rebel. (As my ancestors explained: “I choose one tyrant three thousand miles away, over three thousand tyrants one mile away.”)

Rather, I should like to advertise that our Canadian sovereign — for Elizabeth is she — has just the right amount of power, over me. It is limited by the fact that she does not know me (another non-reader, I’m afraid), and does not care if I live or die, provided that she isn’t obliged to endure the funeral. Better, she has no need to bother me with paperwork, in the meantime. I therefore hold her up as an example of good government: the very best.

Rather than ask if we continue to be worthy of her — the Jamaicans, for instance, like to flirt with republicanism, but a recent poll showed the great majority there would rather return to colonial status — we should give our attention to the rest of the executive. Are they necessary?

We need a military, to be sure, given the ways of this world; and police and prisons for the most obnoxious; but any competent caudillo can supply that, and the best caudillo is force of habit. (“Unalterable custom.”) I’m sure the Queen can appoint generals and admirals of a higher grade than any prime minister, wet behind the ears; could choose able and superbly-dressed men, to sit in her Star Chamber; and plumed servants to perfect her ceremonial. It is the rest of the bureaucracy we could do without.

So now the Yankees will get Trumpcare or Clintoncare on top of Obamacare, and a phalanx of other new jackboot “good intentions” by which to prove they can’t govern themselves. The common man will get farther and farther from taking responsibility for his own acts. Ridiculous suggestions will be put interminably to the vote.

I used to sign off, “bring back Franco,” but am reliably informed the man is dead. So let us instead restore the Queen to her proper office, or rather strip the ugly accretions from around it; say adieu to the tyranny of relativist politicians; continue to suffer their impositions, of course; but wherever life still happens to be permitted, get on with it.

Pied-de-vent

“To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”

The line is from the front poem (“A Brief for the Defence”) in the late Jack Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven, and was brought to my attention by an Idlepost reader. It distils a point I made yesterday, against the adepts of “progress,” and would go well with a beer chaser.

Of this poet, Jack Gilbert, I should say too little. I’ll have to read him now, I suppose. I had successfully avoided him till yesterday (though I knew vaguely who he was), and now I see from the Internet sources, and a few of his pieces electronically purloined, that he was some sort of reprobate, like the rest of us. But let us read one poem at a time, and then verse by verse:

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil. …

That, I would say, showed genuine inspiration, and a sudden, stumbling, theological depth. The line-breaks expose an astute argument, and the shameless didacticism could also be praised. For what I already take as his little foibles, and what looks like narrowness of range, Gilbert has taken poetry seriously. This is seldom done today, when poets so easily satisfy themselves with near approaches to cleverness, choose only among the popular vices, and flee beauty. They desperately jiggle for anyone’s attention; they position themselves for academic advancement; it does not occur to them to say, “Listen, for this is important.”

Turned another way, we omit the Gloria. We look only for where the Gloria is not, and flinch if by accident we see it.

Our world is rather ugly in certain respects, but as I saw from my balconata this evening, in a moment of cloud-break from an overcast day, there is indisputable backlight from Heaven. And on the streets this morning, a most happy scene, with a mother and a child.

We do not want to be always scolding, but sometimes showing the way. But if we must scold, we should scold the scolds, whose fingers are pointed incessantly downwards.

Wattle-and-daub

Having been called, in the very recent past, a “wattle-and-daub conservative” (and really, gentle reader, I prefer “reactionary” for my noun), I was put to the pain of responding.

My first reply was, naturally, “Yes, if we understand the framing is of oak, and the daub capillaried by the finest horse hair.”

My second was to explain the history of wattle-and-daub.

Properly mixed, by a correct recipe (including the purest bullock dung available), and adeptly applied to a basketry of willow or acacia, itself set into grooves in the wood, and then patiently cured, this is among the finest and most durable building materials. And when the exposed oak is allowed to breathe (not tarred, which seals in moisture), the well-maintained timber-frame building will outlast as many generations as one can supply with responsible descendants.

Now, here is the interesting thing, which I have learnt as I have grown.

In youth, I was told that, like everything else in our built environment, wattle-and-daub had “evolved” from earlier and more primitive practices, starting for instance from the sun-dried mud hut, and progressing through the admixture of hay, &c. And that it had in turn “evolved” into our modern building materials and techniques.

That was a lie.

Consult an archaeologist if you do not believe me, gentle reader. Across Eurasia, and beyond, the spade-wielders have discovered wattle-and-daub remains of extraordinary antiquity: decisively pre-dating the alternatives. It becomes obvious that the simpler frame fillings were selected in the absence of better materials; or that the builders were trying to cut corners.

As anything, poorly composed wattle-and-daub will soon disintegrate. Unlike the reactionary, who seeks excellence in every kind, the progressive mind fixates upon what is badly done, and unworthy, hoping finally to attribute mistakes to God. The instinct of Darwinism — the cosmological creed of the Enemy — is to see everything as a lesson in progress, from the more primitive to the more sophisticated creature, or method. He sneers at wattle-and-daub; he praises e.g. industrial drywall.

My father and I discussed this matter at length during my childhood. He was an industrial designer who, more honest than his contemporaries, could be made to admit that the “economic,” mass-produced item was never as good as the product it replaced. It was just quicker and cheaper to manufacture, once economies of scale had been conceded.

Yet even in mass production there is better and worse — in materials and design and habits of work. Papa preferred the better (and would decline much-needed contracts in the moment he discerned that his patron lacked moral dignity). In the end we agreed that even the best-made things in our environment were, almost invariably, the best of a botch.

The “almost” is an acknowledgement that one cannot make jet aeroplanes of wattle-and-daub. Side-stepping the question whether one should ever make them, I note this exception proves the rule. For those who make jet aeroplanes are compelled, from fear of ruinous lawsuits, to observe extremely high standards of craftsmanship and precision, whatever their machines. The human mind and hand is conscientiously involved at every stage.

But that is to distract us from wattle-and-daub, or rather the moral of this modest post.

There are right ways of doing things, and wrong ways of doing things, and the proponents of the wrong ways are anathema. Those who preach cut corners — and consistently prefer the new to the old only because it is newer — must be condemned.

Four centuries later

As dead white males go, Shakespeare has got to be in the top ten. He has outlasted not only his rivals on the stage, but one after another of subsequent generations, and even in the rain of our own time, he is still running strong. Four hundred years from his death, on his fifty-second birthday, after a drinking bout with old buddies in a Stratford inn, he is perhaps the oldest profane author still widely read. This may be partly because he is still force-fed to the poor young geese in our secondary schools. Most remember him with bitterness, on that account, but a few notice that he is rather good, and peek back when teacher’s eyes are turned. Members of the drama club will be most likely to form a permanent attachment, as Shakespeare was an actor, but more, the playwright who is every actor’s best friend.

This shows through in translations, from what I can see. The poetry, which is often intense, cannot be successfully imitated in any other language; but the theatrical movement can be reproduced. From travelling companies through Germany, in the seventeenth century, to those crossing rural India in the twentieth, the plays have somehow “worked” on audiences that are not only culturally “other,” but don’t speak a word of English. Something seems to be happening, in every Shakespeare play, and even without a drumbeat of preparation, people respond to it. Something of extraordinary power is happening, and they just have to watch.

Which explains, in turn, why “the Bard” (I hate this term) could experiment so wildly with the language in his later plays. The earliest ones are strictly respectful of English syntax, and obedient with English grammar and vocabulary. The later ones break all the rules. Shakespeare knew he could hold an audience spellbound, whether they could follow his verbiage or not. He earned a freedom no subsequent poet in English till the twentieth century would dare to imitate; whenupon, those who tried, failed.

Yet he is a poet, a disciplined poet, and a thinker, too; and was a man of very broad if chaotic reading, as we are still discovering. His Latin was superb (he went to a first-rate grammar school), and what he comprehended from the Roman poets, Ovid especially, was of a higher quality than dribbling academics can imagine. His thefts from Plutarch are always astute, but also from Livy. What he learnt from the ancient comedians, however, was nothing on what he could teach them.

To call him “the Bard” is to subscribe to the common, ignorant view that he was a “noble savage,” an untutored force of nature. The French, in their formality, are mostly responsible for this error of the Enlightenment; it was among the many things Voltaire got wrong, as the insidious depth of the master dramatist undermined his poppet classicism.

Shakespeare meditated deeply on English history, and on history at large. He went beyond presenting it in narrative form. Like a documentary filmmaker, he takes what he needs from the historical record, discards the rest, and changes anything that does not fit his programme. It does not follow that he misunderstood his sources.

This is also his strategy in the Comedies and the Tragedies, never paying for a plot when he can steal one. For the world is full of plots, and one is like another. The world is full of mud and rock, but the master mason can shape and lay them. The master sculptor permits the stone to speak.

He did not have a theory of history, or a theory of anything else — a mediaeval mind does not think in “theories” — but a profound sense of how the world works, and of the contending spirits animating it. He summons spirits, and strange to say they come.

It is a great mystery when a poet or musician or artist, out of nothing we can see, reveals melodies, harmonies, rhythms, patterns, images, that cannot be forgotten. Shakespeare, unusually a poet of both eye and ear, simultaneously operates as painter and composer. Blind or deaf, he will lead us towards the heart of things. For also, in so many passages of his superlative opera of the senses, we touch. There is a delicacy that calls by “the tender inward of thy hand,” to vivid sudden revelations of the horror and beauty in all human scenes. Blindfold, we can trust he knows his way.

He was not of his age but for all ages, as Ben Jonson declared at the head of the First Folio. By this he does not speak of the future alone. Shakespeare is pre-eminently our poet of the past, lingering upon what is lost, or being lost, beyond salvage. He has among English writers the most exquisite knowledge of the transience of life. He is writing in an age, and to a society, swept by an unprecedented revolution. Yet he is not part of it.

For England he is the lingering ghost of the Middle Ages. The failure to see this is wilfully obtuse. His recusant native Arden is evoked, in fine botanical detail, as that lost paradise. It is an older and wiser England — that not of political ardour but of monasteries and quiet — which glows in his nostalgia. Nothing could be more Catholic, for England, than these lines (opening Sonnet 73), in which startled, we realize her banished Church is singing:

That time of yeeare thou maist in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few doe hange
Upon those boughes which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d quiers, where late the sweet birds sang. …

Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes died on the eve of Saint George’s, William Shakespeare on the day itself, in both cases precisely four hundred years ago. Curiously enough, if gentle reader will consult his perpetual calendar he will find that was also a Friday and a Saturday; and thanks to the Muslims (with their lunar calendars) I see it was at the full moon, too. Altogether, a very bad start to the weekend, back there in 1616.

We will consider Mr Shakespeare, not for the first time, on his fatal day tomorrow. Today, the obituary must be for that Spanish gentleman.

In a parallel existence, I have been teaching “Catholic novels” to brilliant young seminarians more familiar with Aristotle, perhaps, and the sacrae Scripturae. These are all modern works, and Cervantes has been called the author of “the first modern novel.” This assertion could be challenged. (Go ahead.) In fact the man was writing, more than a century after modernity began, in the form of a late mediaeval romance. But he was having fun with it, as all should be aware, and turning it against itself as satire.

His novel sometimes brings tears to my eyes, because it is noble. This is the paradox of satire, morally the purest literary genre, and thus to be found embedded within all the great works. One cannot write satire without an awareness of what the virtues are, to which the vices correspond. One dare not write it hypocritically. I always feel safe in the company of the satirical, so far as they are genuinely droll, and not merely cynical parodists.

The first thing to know about Don Quixote is that it is two books. Indeed, a decade passed between them. The second depends on a reading of the first, and follows another quixotic campaign, but with the protagonist now aware that he is a celebrity, whose fame was established in the earlier novel and many illicit and mediocre sequels (which Cervantes gleefully owns). The author has in fact performed a joke on his public, putting them in the same position as his knight errant, having himself created the new legends to which they are now addicted. His Quixote will end this second novel sane; his readers now under a confused enchantment.

Incidents throughout are famous; there are awkward summaries to be found on the Internet, which spoil everything, but hey, that is what the Internet is for. Most, as we know, end with the mad knight and his sidekick getting beaten up. In this sense, both novels can be classed as “picaresques.” In every story, however, the ludicrous denouement is the consequence of our hero’s having tried to do the right thing, in circumstances that had been, unfortunately, completely mistaken.

The earthy Sancho Panza sees through many of his lord’s hallucinations, but is nevertheless along for the ride, expecting it will somehow turn out to his advantage. He is the prole in all ages, and I do not think his author had so high an opinion of his “common sense” as English readers assume.

The trick beneath the satire is that Don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, who himself lived in many ways an heroic and quixotic life (present at Lepanto for three gunshot wounds; took his lumps at Corfu, and at Navarino, too; and at Tunis, and at La Goulette; captured by pirates and held at Algiers, &c), himself believed there are noble things. Various declarations of his, including one memorable after Lepanto, made clear his attachment to the Christian Faith. The world, to his eyes, might be a farce, and the ambitions of men might all be foolish, and yet strange to say, we are rising.

His genius, for the fullest appreciation of which I would guess a reader must master Golden Age Spanish, is to convey this without seeming to try. Alonso Quixano, the minor hidalgo who has dressed himself up as Don Quixote de la Mancha, is a good man. Were he not mad, he would be an ornament to any society. One comes to love him in the way God might, for all the knight’s little foibles, and the catastrophes that result from them.

For there are noble standards, transcending this world. And one has to be somewhat mad to perceive them. Alas, humans that we are, we tend to get the wrong end of each stick as it is passed to us.

And this is because we are all idiot romantics.

Don Quixote has of course many other dimensions — nothing stands up to more than four centuries of reading without the kaleidoscopic quality — but I think all Cervantes’ work follows from this premiss: the backlight of Heaven in this fallen world. (Yes, I omitted the verb.)

The author, too, of the pastoral Galatea, of the sublime Exemplary Novels, and of the Persiles just completed at his death (which haunted our English Jacobean drama, but has failed to be engaged with since), Cervantes invented the modern novel (if he did) entirely by accident. In this writer we encounter a rich and untwisted philosophical mind, nurtured alike in battle and in the forced leisure of confinement.

English-speaking people sometimes like Don Quixote, but seem culturally unable to take it seriously. Which is why, I think, they miss much of the humour. If they could take it seriously they might find it a key to a Spanish civilization much higher than ours, which flourished once not only in Castilla, but in the viceroyalties of New Spain, New Granada, and Peru, centuries before our prim-browed puritans made their best efforts at Harvard and Yale. It is a key worth turning.

Morning thoughts

Awakening from an extravagant dream this morning, I found a new collective noun in my head. It was, “an affliction of bishops.” The dream, gentle reader will surmise, was something about synods.

We have survived much through the last twenty centuries or so. We will survive more.

*

To Mass, and the celebration today of Saint Anselm, among the greatest Archbishops of Canterbury, along with Augustine the original “Apostle to the English,” and of course the assassinated Thomas à Becket. (All Romans, and two of them Italian.)

Anselm was everything we seek in a bishop, though seldom get, because we do not pray hard enough. He was a man of deep learning, a philosophical and theological genius, a talented administrator, a simple pastor, and an obvious saint. He had also the guts to stand up to kings, and was twice exiled from England for his rock-like opposition to legislative depravities we’d think nothing of today. Twice, too, he was restored to office, because he was too large to ignore.

For it wasn’t just Henry the VIIIth. Previous English kings had tried their luck, in appropriating to themselves what belonged to Christ and His Church, only.

“Nothing in this earth is dearer to Christ,” Anselm said, “than the freedom of His Church.”

Let no Christian forget that, in this world that swelters from political arrogance. Saint Anselm of Canterbury pray for us.

Hardwater tea

A great number of things are not going to change, no matter what the hopey-changelings decide. I touched on one of them yesterday. We may project some “ideal” system of education that will turn everybody into intellectuals, who read difficult books right through; who with standardized, methodical training can become “anything they want to be.” But the “common man” may not take to it; notwithstanding his own vague goal of self-improvement. He may endure college for the meal ticket; but not as a means to discovery and wisdom. Give him a challenging book to read, and no prospect of a test, and he will get to about page six.

Verily, we have tried to do this, since the last World War, in North America: to put anyone who thinks it might be to his advantage through college. The politicians are still promising to let more in, or to cover the debts of the last lot who took their advice. But not one in ten university students today benefit from higher education. They have neither the equipment nor the calling for mental work, so that standards must be constantly lowered to accommodate them. And that is before remembering that most of our universities have been taken over by the whacko Left, who think in vicious slogans, and whose only interests are in recruitment and brain-washing.

I do not think that the social teaching of the Church is founded upon rot about human nature. Men are of much different capacities, and their callings are as many as there are men; they are not interchangeable. No scheme of social engineering, and especially not universal schooling, will answer to men’s inmost needs. It can only try to turn the man into what he is not; help him to aspire to things beyond his reach, and to neglect what is within it.

“Germany is a nation of aristocrats,” said a gentleman who was once in the habit of annoying me. He was of German ancestry, yet did not seem to have absorbed lessons of his own national history. His German ethnicity I could not hold against him: jingo nationalism has no national home. My point to him was that the great majority of people everywhere are called to humble stations, and contentment lies in the root of happiness.

National myths — beliefs in “exceptionalism” — are all essentially contrary to Christian teaching, and pitted against it. The people of one nation are not intrinsically better than those of another. They improve or worsen by cultural traits, which are beyond the remit of the nation state, and its calculating politicians. They do not belong in a national machine, premissed on some abstract “equality,” but by nature to a family and a landscape and an inevitably hierarchical order. No one is abstractly “free”; the nature of each is instead “subdued to what it works in, like the dyer’s hand.”

I am not condemning the common man, nor despairing of human nature. I am merely pointing out that our “systems of education,” directed from central bureaucracies by liberal-progressive goons — “engineers of human souls,” like Stalin — is advanced and promoted by manipulation of human weakness, to the end of their own mercenary gain, power, and prestige. For this reason it is entirely politicized.

On the contrary, I believe the overwhelming majority of men (a term which includes women, incidentally) are quite capable of horse sense, and a certain basic decency. But they are also weak, through sin, often unexamined. The function of mass advertising — the primary tool of modern innovation, whether in the service of politics or commerce — is to tamper with them: to arouse and exploit envy, pride, greed, wrath, gluttony, lust, and sloth, by the “scientific” mastery of temptation. It is to lead people astray from their own real interests.

Each is endowed with an immortal soul, and the lowest wage slave is as likely, or more, than the chiefest executive to find Heaven. We know this from Christian teaching, which through the centuries has been pitched at a level that the simplest could understand, and has sought to free men from the very sins the advertiser is trying to encourage. It was thus the opposite of populist.

Christianity is about how things are, not about how things can be altered.

My political observation is that the great majority, except perhaps among the hardier folk in the mountains, do not care much for civic freedom, and never did. It is not a comfortable thing. They want to be taken care of; they want someone looking out for them; they want to feel part of something; they would like to avoid hard work and intelligent thinking.

All these are legitimate desires, in their proper contexts. But a man with the rat cunning of, say, a Trump, or an Obama, knows how to exploit these desires, with sparkledust dreams and empty promises. Those who care little for freedom they enslave.

The “mass man” of our post-modernity is not different from a European peasant of, say, the thirteenth century, except that he is told more lies, and is lost in their maze. Through cynical flattery, he believes ridiculous lies even about himself, such as that he is his own Maker. It was from the beginning a purpose of the Church to free him from exploitation, by revealing the emptiness of what the world offers. Our treasure lies elsewhere.

*

There is a very good article by Sandro Magister today (here). He touches upon something I would, if I could, broadly expand upon: the spiritual catastrophe that follows when the Church herself turns from her otherworldly mission, to false, pseudo-mystical abstractions about “the people,” and to hyping very worldly political causes. It has helped me clarify in my own mind the spontaneous revulsion I felt when first told, from the Throne of Peter, that, “The word ‘people’ is not a logical category, it is a mystical category.” For this is not what Christ taught at all.

God is God and man is man. The man has a face, and we must not lie to him.