Essays in Idleness


Against scheduling

Oh, dear. Yesterday once again I filed a longish Idlepost which I returned to in the night, making it longer still in the hope of clarity. Gentle readers complain whenever I do this. It is not in the spirit of idleness, after all, and I’m sure my beloved Kenko, author of the original Tsurezuregusa (“Essays in Idleness,” or more exactly, “The With-nothing-better-to-do Book”), is sneering at me from his Buddhist heaven. Neither is daily posting, for that matter, consistent with this spirit, though it is quite consistent with the demands of contemporary blogging.

Yoshida no Kaneyoshi (the original name of that fourteenth-century Japanese recluse) had a better plan. He would splash down some thought with his brush on whatever paper came to hand, then paste it on the wall of his cottage in the mountains. His “essays” were in no particular order. After his death, this wallpaper was transcribed, starting from a doorpost.

I have his book, here, which I personally rebound (many years ago): an English translation by Donald Keene, with many useful explanatory notes.

“How could anyone have removed all the hollyhock leaves, when it was sad enough that they should wither of themselves?”

What a fine sentiment I discover upon reopening it.

For the rest, I do not know which to quote, I should like to quote them all. But that would not be in the correct spirit. It is enough to read one or two at a sitting. Better yet, not to read but to remember, and paraphrase even when the book is in your hand:

“Although I am now free of entanglements, there are some things I’d be sorry to give up. The beauty of the sky.”

Such admirable dicta are varied with good anecdotes and short memoirs. These include excellent advice Kenko recalls from great experts and high priests. For example, he quotes a backgammon champion on how to win at that game. “Do not try to win, you will lose.” Instead, in each move, study the board and, “try to lose more slowly.”

Or from the High Priest, Honen, on how to get to Heaven:

“Sometimes as I am saying the nembutsu I am seized by drowsiness and I neglect my devotions. How can I overcome this obstacle?” he is asked.

The priest replies, “Say the nembutsu as long as you are awake.”

Another of his penitents is uncertain that he will go to Heaven, and is told that it is indeed quite uncertain. But then the priest adds: “Even if you have doubts, you will go to Heaven, provided that you say the nembutsu.”

I love Kenko’s contradictions, for example his diatribe one day against men who get married; and on another, his defence of fatherhood, since only men with children can have any feelings. Too, he provides an invigorating catalogue of things that are insufferable in social life, each of which has parallels in the Greater Parkdale Area. This includes his exasperation with people who may go to Hell, because they are always playing backgammon.

He condemns the “Four Great Crimes” as well (fornication, theft, murder, false witness), but more gently.


Though now I live up here in the mountains — or more precisely, up here in the High Doganate — I am not yet free of worldly entanglements. There are rough days, for instance, when I simply have to make enough money to buy food and pay rent. It is most inconvenient. I would rather have a large pension, but there is none in view.

I began writing my own Tsurezuregusa every day, about four hundred and fifty Idleposts ago. They are not very good, as I am reminded whenever I look over old ones. There would be more than seven hundred of these postings altogether by now — about the length of The Tale of Genji, or of, À la recherche du temps perdu — had I not quietly deleted a few dozen of the worst. (Compare Kenko, who covered his walls with only two hundred and forty-three.) Mendicant that I am, kind donors have sent me gifts in the proportion of nearly three cents per word. I notice, however, that this is declining.

I will continue writing my pieces, almost every day, because I have nothing better to do. But I think “every day” is too ambitious. I should skip some days, without explanation, especially during Lent.

Gödel & Lemaître

My Chief Irish Veterinary Correspondent put it most succinctly: “Didn’t Gödel drive a stake through the heart of the concept of a ‘Theory of Everything’?” (See yesterday.) This is also my understanding: that the Austrian logician demonstrated in his two “incompleteness theorems,” published in 1931, why no such thing can work. But we are dealing today with the kind of zombie that doesn’t notice when a stake has been driven through its heart.

Let me try briefly to review both ends of that sharp stick.

Gödel’s first theorem proved that any formal system of axioms subtle and complex enough to describe even so apparently straightforward a thing as a set of numbers must contain at least one “undecidable” statement, such that even if we are certain that statement is true, the system can’t prove it. It must therefore be logically “incomplete.”

And his second theorem was like unto it:

No one can prove, from inside any formal system, that it is self-consistent. Not, “some day,” not, “maybe we missed something,” not, “give us more time” — but can’t, won’t, jamais de la vie — and in the way you can’t be a man and a teapot at the same time.

Or put this another way (and there are many, many other ways to put it). Any logical account we may want to give of the totality of our wee, finite Universe (and we know darn well it is finite, today) requires a view from outside our Universe, that is indispensable to fully understand it.

Or consider: there will always be things that one knows to be true, but cannot be strictly proved, in logic; which rise, as it were, above the rational, in an ultimately demonstrable way; which present some (often beautiful) paradox.

It follows that the mathematician, the scientist, even the engineer and technologist, and everybody else, must work on blind faith, even within their own trades. And what is reasonable is not always rational: merely consistent with reason. Blind spots must necessarily remain, for us finite creatures. What we know by common sense is thus affirmed at the highest available rational level: that we cannot know everything.

True, Gödel’s “proofs” require some brains to understand. But they also take some brains to misunderstand: to defy something that comes down, in the end, to the Law of Non-Contradiction. You cannot have your cake and eat it, too; you cannot be both A and not-A. Not even God can contradict this Law of Non-Contradiction, and anyway wouldn’t try. He never contradicts Himself because (unlike other gods) He never has to.

It was this theological insight that made Christianity the guide to empirical science: that God is self-consistent, that His deeds will always finally make sense; that although God is far beyond human reason, He has from every direction left a trail of divine light.

And note this paradox: that the condition for the nurture and mastery and growth of empirical science, was blind faith. That, among other things, God is no trickster. He is immanent, and transcendent, but distinct from his own Creation — all such things as we can know, by faith.

So to explain the Universe, the set of all sets, no matter how big it happens to be — and even if it includes a bubble bath of “multiverses” — we must step outside the Whole Thing. And this would be necessary, no matter which bubble we might happen to be locked inside.

Gödel also developed, unsurprisingly, a version of Anselm’s cosmological argument for the existence of God, expressed in slam-dunk post-Euclidean logic, that was theist like Leibniz and not polytheist like Spinoza. And yes, he was extremely familiar with Kant’s naïve attempt at refutation. (Kant, who never read mediaeval philosophy, did not actually understand Anselm’s argument, let alone the improvement on it by Thomas Aquinas.)

I’m acquainted with raw, drooling ignorance in myself. I’m surprised to find it institutionalized today, and frequently enforced, though perhaps only because I am at heart a man of the thirteenth century (like Gödel, 1906–78), and thus perhaps too easily repugned of smug atheist fools.

Einstein, incidentally, once said he only worked at Princeton so he could have the opportunity to take walks with Gödel. They often went on long ones.


Now let us return over the sea, to the (once) Catholic University of Louvain, in Belgium, and to Monsignor Georges Lemaître (1894–1966). About the same time the young Gödel was formulating his incompleteness theorems as a doctoral dissertation at Vienna, or a few years before, Lemaître was playing with Einstein’s field equations of relativity, and realizing a funny little thing. The Universe is not static. It is expanding. He did everything for which Edwin Hubble is now credited by the pop science writers, except, he did it before Hubble. And then he did an even better thing: he accounted for it.

Lemaître is the true and only author of the “Big Bang” hypothesis, which in wake of yesterday’s “gravity wave” announcement is once more confirmed to be at the heart of all astrophysics. The priest himself called it the hypothesis of the Cosmic Egg: that our universe began as a “primaeval atom”: an extremely small fraction of the radius of a proton which, oddly enough, blew out to its present, rather larger size.

For this he was ignored, or mocked. The expression “Big Bang” was itself coined by the atheist Fred Hoyle to make fun of it, and has stuck because it still appeals to the craving of materialists for a static Universe, infinite in scale. They can’t handle something that began; there must be something before that “just happened,” to no good end, for no good reason, in the infinite regression of a hall of mirrors. They must absolutely insist on the meaninglessness of it all; a succession of nothings. For otherwise they must face down the very God that they have been avoiding.

But that Cosmic Egg was quite a something; quite a nuanced, profound something; and rather consequential, as we have come to see. For it carried the possibility of our own biological existence.

The primaeval atom; the egg; the Seed, as I think of it myself, implanted in the soil of the Holy Spirit. Which burst forth in a million stars; in a million million million of them. I can understand this in a way consistent with both reason and faith; I cannot understand it in a way consistent with a long yawn. As Einstein said (to much subsequent ridicule), “God does not play dice with the universe.” The Maker of that Seed knew what He was doing; this certainly is what Georges Lemaître understood.

I’ve mentioned Lemaître in Idleposts before (there’s a search function in this website, y’know); he is perhaps my biggest modern scientific hero, after Pierre Duhem. As other truly penetrating intellects, he cannot be properly appreciated by the post-modern mind, which accepts only Prometheans as heroes — i.e. men who seem to stand against God in rebellion; tricksters angling to steal His fire, and repeat the sin of Adam. Whereas, Lemaître merely served God, with real distinction.

The hypothesis of the Cosmic Egg found the light of day in the same year of grace 1931 (as Gödel’s key publication). And like Gödel, Lemaître stood modestly, yet also bravely athwart the crass metaphysical assumptions of “modernity.” It wasn’t his egg that was so provocative, in itself. Rather, it was what the egg said.

It said that our Universe is finite. Generations of the cleverest scientific minds had taken material infinitude for granted. It was necessary to all their thinking: an infinite amount of space and time in which anything we see could have gradually “evolved,” like Darwin’s beasts, by pure happenstance at their infinite leisure.

Cut the time-line short and we are dealing with “miracles” instead — with things that happen not slowly but suddenly, while casually ignoring all our human expectations. And these not small things, either.

Well, sometimes you just have to tough it out. There is currently no way home to an infinite Universe, and no way foreseeable. The “multiverse” conjecture does not get us there, it only displaces the question — kicks it a little farther down the road. Human reason can run, but it cannot hide: sooner or later it is staring once again at the inescapable, ineluctable, Fact of God.

Einstein himself was at first scandalized, by Lemaître’s hypothesis, when Eddington (who’d been among Lemaître’s teachers, and thought him the brightest student he’d ever had) brought it to his attention. “Your math is correct, but your physics is abominable,” Einstein told the priest.

But within a couple of years he had come around, and realized that his own unspoken assumption of a static, infinite Universe was unsustainable. Indeed he came to call that Cosmic Egg “the most beautiful thing” he’d ever seen. Other fine minds likewise came around, though as I recall, by the 1960s, some were still fighting, still defending the body that was dead in the cosmic water.

Since the 1990s, we have known that the Universe is not only expanding, but accelerating outward. It is icing on old Lemaître’s cake. We have also come to realize there are irregularities in the rate at which the stars recede; that there are mysterious Great Attractors scattered here and there through intergalactic space. Indeed, yesterday’s formal announcement of the demonstration of “gravity waves” lets us hope for insights into these irregularities.

Beyond those we continue to find, Horatio, that there are “more things in Heaven and Earth.” Our choice is to take this with awe; or with the deathly grin of those whose faith is not in God, but in their glib, sorry, mechanistic contraptions — in a scientism that real science continues to kick away.

Gravity waves

As the theoretical physicists have set up so impressive a cheering section for themselves (see today’s announcement in media, passim), I will save my throat for some other hurrah. The first detection of “gravity waves” by the academy, tending to confirm an hypothesis of Einstein’s from one hundred years ago (that he later disavowed), required many billions-worth in gear from the taxpayers of several countries, and several decades of dedicated work by a small army of the exquisitely trained.

The happy result is a confirmation of several assumptions on which physicists had already been working through much of that last century; plus, I should think, Nobel prizes all round; and extraordinary hype for further big spending on scientific research. Already, for instance, the Italians have announced that they will get back in action with their own interferometer (the “Virgo” with arms nearly two miles in length), and I daresay everyone will now want to have one. A wonderful way to pile-on each national debt.

The accomplishment has been compared to Galileo’s first sighting of the moons of Jupiter through a 30-power telescope in early January, 1610. It was a prototype of the modern refractor. He does not tell us in his book, The Starry Messenger, how much the instrument cost him, but he did spend years mastering the optician’s art, grinding away.

Spy-glasses were all the rage in the Europe of his generation, and Galileo deserved praise for his patience in improving on them. Soon we could see the phases of Venus, and the rings of Saturn, and confirm a shy hypothesis of Copernicus from one century before (that repeated one from the Alexandrians, nearly two thousand years before that). Indeed, I noticed that the observing run on the Americans’ pair of upgraded “LIGO” interferometers was actually completed on 12th January. That would be the 406th anniversary of the completion of Galileo’s first observing run.

With the detection of gravity waves, we may soon be able to see previously invisible astrophysical objects and stellar remnants; to have another go in the field of “dark matter”; eventually, to see with gravity waves into formative moments of the universe (towards 13.8 billion years ago) still impenetrable through waves of radio or light. Let me not suggest we will have no fun.

Part of this fun will consist of watching large areas of “alternative” conjectural physics fade into extinction. Between what was announced today, and the nailing of the Higgs’ boson four years ago, the Standard Model of physics stands quite secure. Conversely, the truly arcane speculations of the really cool physicists through the last few decades look time-worn and pointless. I used sometimes to dine with certain particle physicists (“stringers,” more precisely) of huge self-regard. I think back on their arrogance, in passing.

At both the quantum end, and now the macroscopic end, unconjectural physics is back in vogue. Strike three has come from new mathematics to prove that there is no way to predict the more remarkable and consequential behaviour of sub-atomic particles, for which the axioms of mathematics could be any use. (See here, for instance.) “They will do what they do do and there’s no doing anything about it.”

Each new discovery is hailed as the “holy grail” of physics, but an impending Theory of Everything, long touted, remains not finitely, but infinitely beyond us. In the end, all we can do is observe, and act only in our tiny temporal spaces. There is so much more only dead men can know.

Notwithstanding, our view today of the signature of two irrefutably black holes, each equivalent to many times the mass of our Sun, spinning about each other many times a second at something approaching to the speed of light, then merging to release a gravitational radiation in a “dark flash” brighter than all the light in the universe, for a quarter second in time, does provide a moment of perspective. To God, that would be the twinkle of a firefly.

On leaving town

A common mistake is to explain oneself, when one has not been asked to do so; or asked, but not by those who care to hear the answer.

“Never complain, never explain,” as Benjamin Disraeli explained, and Churchill would quote, smiling knavishly. Of course both meant never in the sense of, “seldom.” For there are times when one had better explain oneself: to the policeman, the jury, the wife, or whomever; to those entitled to respect. Yet even to them, elaboration may not be required. “Guilty as charged” might be sufficient. From this, a penance will follow naturally.

Wearing ashes will do for the rest; the better when they will find it incomprehensible.

“Judgement is of the Lord, and not of the children in the playground,” as my father once patiently explained, after I had made a fool of myself, in the yard of Saint Anthony’s. He was quoting my grandfather, as I came to understand. (Grandpa had been quoting some older authorities.) “Take yer lumps,” would be a paraphrase. I have not yet mastered this advice myself, but can see that it is wise. So much of the power of “political correctness” comes from this wincing action, to which human beings are inclined: to explain what doesn’t need explaining. Let one’s statement stand, without explication, so long as it was heartfelt and true. Let the critic worm resume his furrow.

Or saith the divine, through the daemon of Blake: “Always be willing to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.”

“Shake the dust off your feet,” was Christ’s own instruction, recalled by Paul and Barnabas when parting from Pisidian Antioch; and we may imagine they had cause to clap their sandals together, many times more. “Amen I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that town.”

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: this is a side of Christ’s teaching that seems particularly lost on many who claim to hear Him today. He was not a “nice” Saviour. Except in appeal to the Father, He offered no forgiveness to those who did not ask, no mercy to those who did not want it. He was not, as now described even in Rome, the prophet of free lunch.

We owe our explanations to Him; and likewise our penitence. Not to the mob.

Contra mundum

“Flapjack Tuesday” has been a day for maple syrup, these last few centuries in the Canadas, up here. “Mardi Gras,” or “Shrove Tuesday” — the last day, before Lent — is assumed to require some exuberance. The pancakes were, by tradition, made to use up the household supplies of eggs, milk, butter; last year’s syrup, and other non-Lenten things. Sausages come to mind; and alcohol, in its various permutations.

Dairy was going off the menu, should the point not yet be grasped. “Abstinence,” to our Catholic ancestors down the centuries, was more like what we’d call a hard fast; a “fast” was total. In these northern climes, Lent fell conveniently towards the end of the winter — when we were running out of everything, anyway. And the contrast, the vivid truth in the notion, “Drink for tomorrow we die!” — is lost on an age of homogeneity, with neither feasts nor fasts, but blueberries from Chile. Our days and weeks and years go by in one continuous upbeat blur, until each, alone, comes to his disaster.

At the Quebec winter carnival, they still wear sometimes the old ceintures fléchées — the colourful woollen “arrow sashes,” in memory of the habitants, long gone under the asphalt of a mammonized city. It was worn by the men of all classes, in styles by region, not rank: Charlevoix, L’Assomption, Acadienne. It pulled one’s coat together, against the bitter cold; it stiffened one’s back for heavy labour. It was made by the ladies: in bright gorgeous patterns, by a method of finger weaving the Indians had taught them.

Knot it tightly to one side, and know that you are loved, and relied on!

But they are ours to remember, who understood Ash Wednesday. Who knelt so timid before the Cross; and waited so humbly to be shriven; the women with their clutches of young, the burly men with caps in their hands. Ours to remember them that prayed, and I believe pray still, for the wayward children of children of children riding the asphalt here below.

Today, the Church for our weakness asks little. (The State asks far, far more.) And now I have grown so old (past sixty!) that I am canonically exempted from any penitential diet.

Little is expected of anyone. A friend, who became convinced of Roman ecclesiological claims, “after a life on the lam from Jesus,” complains of how little. “Please turn up for Mass sometimes, and drop a fiver in the basket.” And in return, a smileyface heaven will be yours to share, with the pornographers and the psychos, because “everyone is beautiful in his own way.”

To be shriven is to make one’s Confession, be assigned one’s Penance, then in the name of Christ, Absolved. To be freed of the weight of one’s sins. People who have wrestled with their souls in darkness, and dwelt in anguish under this weight, today are most likely to receive in their churches a quick collective gumdrop mercy. Heavily they come, and sadly walk away.

The churches (Protestant and Catholic alike) emptied out when they ceased to expect much of people. They were full, back when they made demands, of those whose lives were materially more demanding than ours have ever been — pitted, as once, directly against nature. And the churches will start filling again, when the demands resume. For I will tell gentle reader a great secret I have learnt from a long course of empirical observation. All men need Christ.

They do not come to Him as an “option.” A tiny few seem almost born into His arms; many more because they are defeated, and all other options have expired. And those do not come to have their heads patted.

Bind them with the sash, with the ceinture fléchée; with the toughest Love, against the winter storm. Inflame their hearts for the battle, and set their minds to the Victory against: the world, the flesh, and the devil.

The Fire Monkey chronicles

Well, perhaps it has started. In Vellore, south India, we learn that a man was struck dead by a meteorite on Saturday. He was a bus driver; for all we know, a rude one. Two gardeners and a student were also injured in the strike: already we discern a pattern. Officials of the Tamil Nadu government found the crater (5 feet in diameter, 2 in depth), and have recovered from it a charred stone, of some 180 grains, more or less. That would be the weight of an old silver rupee. It was glassy black, and had pockmarks — like a meteor. The size, its likely speed, and the damage fit together nicely: windows blown or cracked to a modest distance; dead leaves ignited. These officials expressed willingness to pay out one lakh of current paper rupees to the family of the deceased, as a kind of prize. Then less, proportionately, to the injured bystanders.

“Scientists,” so-called, doubt the story. They claim long odds against anyone getting hit by a meteor (“astronomical”), and insist no one had been previously so impacted in recorded history. Besides, they need those meteors themselves, for their own fond accounts of how the world came to be.

But Indian authorities reply, the scientific claims are reckless. An American woman was hit by a meteor at Sylacauga, Alabama, in November 1954. They have a back number of the National Geographic to prove it.

I shall be checking Drudge and the Times of India for further such reports, against a list of likely targets — e.g. trolley drivers in the Greater Parkdale Area; cab drivers and passengers alike; horn-blowers attempting to make heretical left turns in rush-hour traffic; errant cheesemongers in the Kensington Market; talk-show radio hosts, and so on. One expects thunderbolts, usually; but these are times when more may be required.

For it is my suspicion that things have gone too far; that we have reached a point where unambiguously cosmic interventions may be necessary. And my beloved Hilaire Belloc — a sound theological mind if anyone ever had one — did suggest that one of the pleasures of Heaven will be throwing rocks at the damned. It is a topic on which I have sometimes meditated.


A good modern mind will not see the humour here; just as he will be unable to see any of the humour in Rabelais, or in the preceding Catholic generations, back through Middle and Dark Ages — when people were often laughing, at things the modern mind has since ruled to be, “Not Funny.” For as our children are taught to think, so compassionately, today: “Oh, the poor fellow, how he hurts: all suffering is evil!”

To the victim, yes, I should think pain is evil; one might even say, pain and death are evils in themselves; but not always to the contextual observer. Rather, I am convinced that a cheap sentimental “compassion,” broadcast especially in literature and art, was among the most destructive contrivances of “The Enlightenment” — designed to make us wince at pain alone, and thus purposefully aimed at all objective moral judgement.

By strict contrast, to your mediaeval mind, or your genuinely Catholic one in all times and places, suffering has a use. That would certainly include one’s own suffering. Compassion, or “empathy” in its updated, mind-reading form, is to be engaged for the Good, and not to undermine it; satire keeps it from wandering off course. Thus, the frustration and thwartment of real evil, however brutal the means to that end, is held to have a lighter side. (So many of the oldest of the old Christian jokes mock the Devil hisself, for his little miscalculations.)

The traditional Catholic stands frequently accused of indulging “black,” or, shall we say, “sick” humour. Such as the kind spontaneously expressed by the four well-raised daughters of a household dear to me, when they discovered that the hole in the fuselage of a (safely landed) Somali airliner was created by a terrorist who managed to blow only himself out of the plane. Their response was to roll on the floor laughing. It was a classic Rabelaisian skit, in addition to being factually true.

Now, we could go into the deep argument for the necessary existence of Hell, via Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas. (Or, check out Socrates at the end of the Gorgias.) Impenitent immortal commitment to evil requires its equal and opposite, in the balance of things. And of course, Our Lord warns repeatedly of Hell in Scripture. It is not Catholic to correct Him. But a meteor could strike me before I go to the trouble of digging out all the references today. Suffice to say, the modern mind thinks sentimentally about things that are not, in their nature, sentimental. But might just possibly be funny, as the angle of reason is slightly flexed.

I have many times been called to account for snickering out of place. One does not, for instance, make a joke, even about the demise of a Saddam Hussein, or an Osama bin Laden, if one is a good liberal. It is in the poorest possible taste. (As Malcolm Muggeridge once explained, humour is by definition in bad taste.)

“No one must ever make light of a death,” the trolls advise, with their stern judgemental faces. On the other hand, when Margaret Thatcher dies of natural causes, they lighten right up. (See this excellent psychological study of the liberal mind and character in action: here.)


The Chinese Hell, or Dìyù, is much like ours in its architecture, having eighteen levels (a pair for each circle in Dante’s). The punishments get worse as one goes down: this much is in common between folk animist, Taoist, and Buddhist accounts, which vary slightly in their particulars. In all, the tortures are pretty gruesome. Not even at the top level could one wish to be.

Indeed, the modern liberal mind is unique, in doubting the existence of Hell and Heaven. For they are known, so far as I can see, to all cultures. The differences of view on fine points of layout, or on the quickest routes up and down, are quibbles in light of such general agreement.

By way of shout-out to my Chinese friends, I mention this today on their New Year’s. The year of the Fire Monkey is upon us, for a fact. Watch where ye go, while ye can, says the Monkey; and when ye can no longer, don’t bother to dodge. For we have what is coming to us, in a universe that will be proved Just, exactly; to incredible units of astronomical accuracy.

Resting bitch face

“Scientists,” as they like to call themselves, have reached a new frontier: the computer analysis of what is now called in our urban dictionaries, “resting bitch face,” or “RBF.” (See here, or here.) This is the phenomenon, common to royalty, Hollywood stars, and all the columnists in The Guardian newspaper, of a face that broadcasts “bitch” from any distance, when in fact it is only at rest, or perhaps trying to communicate emotional serenity. Such a breakthrough!

In their moments off trying to prove Darwinism, breed monstrous human-animal hybrids, extend the reach of “social media,” and assemble new weapons of mass destruction, the scientists have discovered a means to monitor 500 points on a photographic portrait and then, by applying whatever algorithms, find the statistical correlative to what most people can see at one glance. They intended, I think, an attack on Her Majesty the Queen, in her “we are not amused” moments; but Kristen Stewart, Victoria Beckham, and Kanye West are among the collateral damage. This last seems to have made “the list” thanks to software designed to eliminate “gender bias,” which is apparently exhibited even by machines.

Now curiously enough, independently of pop culture and “science,” I began noticing the phenomenon myself in early childhood. Naively, I attributed it to the old notion that, “the face is the mirror of the soul.” Since, I have developed my observation into a method for identifying liberals, and other deeply unhappy people, even before they start talking. I cannot afford new computer apparatus, so will stick with my instincts.

I suppose the scientists will now propose plastic surgery to correct what Nature fully intended, through her kit-bag of warnings. Technology is the great Corrector, in this respect. The world wags on.


Let me add, to the piece I wrote for Catholic Thing today (here), that were it continued for a few more thousand words, I might make several other points touching on our contemporary lawlessness, both sacred and profane. But as Father Hunwicke says, I type with only one finger, and it is getting tired. (Well actually I type with three, and sometimes use my thumb on the space bar, which is why my pieces often come out longer.)

Disrespect for the law grows from many causes, but one of terrible effect is the quantity of legislation. When I last checked, for instance, a few years ago, the Obamacare arrangements had filled 20,202 pages. Since, by executive order and the like, this has grown considerably, and of course, this not-quite-randomly selected Act and its attachments comprise only a miniscule portion of current USA law overall. I am unaware of page counts for Canadian legislation and orders-in-council (the federal and provincial Gazettes congest with them, every day). In comparison, the Ten Commandments of Moses were easier to remember; and note that Jesus boiled those down to Two.

As I learnt to my cost some years ago, after I criticized a previous Liberal government in perhaps too harsh and public a way, the Income Tax Code is a kind of star-gate, and once one’s file is transferred for audit from Scarborough, Ontario to, say, the notorious office in Saint John’s, Newfoundland, the [omitted] can get you in a million ways; and any appeal to the Tax Court will cost you another million. (Received a letter this week to suggest they are coming for me again, and my only pleasure is that it must cost them a hundred barrels for every pint of blood they can hope to suck from me.)

The modern citizen is a trained wuss when it comes to such things. He will take any tyranny for granted, so long as it comes with the “democracy” label. He has been taking it for a long time, as for instance through the income tax department, which, long before my personal experience of its sick, sadistic ways, I opposed in principle. The department was created not only to pick our pockets, but to give the State access to our most intimate private lives, together with a presumption of guilt in all investigations. The receipts are then applied to leverage debt-based expenditure to purposes themselves, far more often than not, intrinsically evil.

Against this background, it is hardly surprising that the bigger economic players, who can afford whole accounting departments to find existing loopholes, and lobbyists to fetch more when they are wanted, consider themselves to be above criticism if their lawyers can argue they have stayed within the law. But these arguments are useless, should the political powers take a dislike to them. For the government always has larger accounting and legal departments; and when it comes to “lawyering” they hold all the cards.

I laugh, for instance, when anyone proposes a comprehensible “flat tax.” The codes and regulations are immensely complex by design and intention. The purpose was explained to me by a successful businessman once, with whom I happened to be allied, briefly. He said, that whenever he negotiates a contract, he instructs his lawyers to make it hard to understand, by inserting and then insisting upon a myriad of petty little clauses, all of which will appear to be irrelevant. Indeed, he said, all of them may be, but in aggregate they are bound to provide the “wiggle room” should later he decide to welch upon the deal — “legally,” as he put it.

Am I cynical and misanthropic on matters like these? I would think so.

Centralization of human authority in the modern Nanny State is, in its nature, totalitarian. We have governments in control of huge populations, passing the equivalent of municipal by-laws, that apply to the whole country. And these with the full power of police and army to enforce them should any question arise. This is obviously a recipe from Kafka. (Not Barbara; Franz.)

These laws of man make mockery of the Law of Heaven.

But God will have to deal with it, I am too small.

Backhand compliment

My standards for politicians are low. This has finally naught to do with my general objections to “democracy.” My standards for courtiers are low, too; and I’ve found most kings and even some queens disappointing — while allowing that someone must rule. My experience of life is that human beings make a hash of most things they touch, and my belief is that if it weren’t for Divine Grace, our whole race would have extinguished itself, long ago.

Only against this background can I say how impressed I have been with the evaporating field of candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve watched some of the televised “debates” (which I’d rather call “vaudevilles”), and have some idea from where most of the candidates are coming. Donald Trump is an exception: the man who received more than half of nationwide media attention for more than six months, got one-quarter of the Iowa caucus vote, which was I thought at least twenty-five times what he had earned. I only hope U.S. Americans are now half as tired of this coarse, malevolent buffoon as I am.

But by my standards, the rest of the field (including candidates now dropped out) are impressive. I do not remember a previous nomination campaign in which as many as a dozen candidates were each worth considering. The contrast with the Democratic Party race, which could be caricatured as the Witch versus the Commie, is staggering: two candidates whom no fully sane and intelligent person would dream of keeping in public life.

With Trump happily absent from the last vaudeville, the strength of the field became more apparent. Except Trump, I could not see a single candidate who would offer nothing of value to a national executive. Even such an inexperienced candidate as Carson, for instance, would be in his element at, say, Health and Human Services, if only for the task of dismantling it in a wise, merciful, and orderly way; Fiorina might, ditto, competently close down the Department of Education, or drain some other unnecessary bureaucratic quagmire. Governors Bush, Christie, Huckabee, Jindal, Kasich, Perry, Walker, all struck me as serious and accomplished men, with real experience of the issues on which they touched; Graham, Paul, Santorum, as principled, thoughtful, and determined. Cruz and Rubio are sterling — though again remembering my modest expectations. I never expect gold.

Lord Grenville’s “ministry of all the talents” (1806) came to mind. Although the term could be used facetiously (and was), it did succeed in e.g. formally abolishing the slave trade, and some other ambitious but achievable tasks, before disintegrating, as a consequence of having crossed too many party or factional lines. Churchill’s wartime cabinet had something of the same qualities, and held together until the end of the Second World War while British independence was at stake.

For the very reason the Democrats now offer only a constantly expanding moral, intellectual, and fiscal black hole, there would be some prospect of holding a contrary administration together, for perhaps one full term; long enough to reverse a few trends. Paradoxically Cruz, who is not a “team player,” but commands both horse-sense and logical capacity, might make the best choreographer; Rubio might prove (like Grenville) too cautious and accommodating, at a time when major decisions must be made and not retreated from, to avoid a form of national collapse.

The fact a man (or woman) wants to be president should disqualify him, of course; but as there is no prospect of return to the original Electoral College, envisioned by the American Founding Fathers, the responsibility to eliminate quacks, demagogues, criminals, careerists, the unteachably stupid, and the insane, falls on the public at large. As those Founders realized, “the people” would make an extremely unreliable “safety net,” for the preservation of their own liberties. Men of some character and understanding would be indispensable.

Oddly enough, the USA does seem to have some. Could they be raised to a view above personal ambition, and put to work as a phalanx? Probably not, but the idea is intriguing.

The neoconical hat

Among my proudest moments have been those when some fellow redneck (I presume; he is usually anonymous) has called me a “Jew-lover.” I would hope there is some truth in the allegation. Invariably the assailant strikes me as “a bear of little brain,” but great anger, incapable of reasoned thought, and out to give rednecks a bad name. Not that I value human reason so highly.

“Neocon” is a term that fluctuates in meaning; by now a creature entirely of context. The first self-announced “neo-conservatives” were unmistakably Jews, such as the elder Kristol, the elder Podhoretz, beloved Gertrude Himmelfarb and so forth. It was all in a family, and that family happened to be Jewish. I have myself written for the now venerable Commentary magazine, which began liberal but wised up in the ’sixties, as “liberalism” itself began to merge with demonic forces. Even before that generation, there was a history of Jewish socialists who, after throwing up on Stalin, realized that for all its self-advertised flaws, the Natted States Merica was still the land of the brave and home of the basically decent. … Back then. …

Generation Three served in the Reagan White House, then the Bush one, and finally the other Bush one, all mixed in with Cold War Christians. As we moved along from the Soviets to the Islamists, the Jews proved especially useful. Such “neocon” poster boys as Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle, were representative of a small Jewish coterie in the Pentagon: maybe six or seven, I think I met them all. I discovered them during the Gulf Wars, to be excellent sources of checkable information on what was actually happening in the Middle East. Uniquely among members of the “Baby Bush” administration, they could speak Arabic, Persian, Turkish; were men of high culture themselves, and had travelled extensively in the region. They’d been schooled by Bernard Lewis, and before him by such as Leo Strauss. They were smart cookies, and in point of fact, they did not recommend any of the measures that turned the Iraq invasion into a counter-productive farce. They merely became the fall-guys for the people who had made all the mistakes these “neocons” had tirelessly warned against.

Jeanne Kirkpatrick, George P. Schultz, John Bolton: I toss in such names in the hope that gentle reader will notice I am reducing a long and complicated history to a few short grafs. In this one I want to emphasize the C&W graduates (the letters stand for “Cold” and “War”). The Jewish component became entirely integrated with this “all-American” WASP policy school; as the Jews in Germany before that Hitler fellow were entirely integrated within perfectly Aryan, Weimar German political and intellectual life. But the Nazis, who disliked the whole egghead class, singled them out for scapegoats.

Scoop Jackson, and D. Patrick Moynihan: most certainly not Jews, and not even Republicans. Each name corresponds to a long and admirable tradition within the Democratic Party that was, in the first instance, internationalist, and in the second, sceptical of the Nanny State. It is four decades since they had any influence at all, within that party, but they still have descendants we might weave into this narrative of an America which, like Britain before her, was the world’s policeman, sometime advocate of motherhood and apple pie, and chief salesman for human mobility and free trade. (Globalization is now into its fourth century.)

The term “neocon” is thus, to a remarkable degree, lacking in precision. Anyone who uses it as a generalized term of abuse gets my red neck up immediately; though I do understand it is sought for shorthand, to declare opposition to both of the old Anglo-Saxon planks: interventionism abroad; and the levelling of trade barriers — through which, latterly, American blue-collar jobs have been exported to places like China and Bangladesh. Thanks to the apparent unsuccess of such policies (the real causes of failure are seldom intelligently discussed), the old patriots for “the American Way” can be painted as traitors today, and cast as a superannuated “Establishment.” But this Whig Establishment, if it once existed, died off years ago. Obama, Trump, Sanders are three examples of what we find trampling on its imaginary grave. Worse may soon be coming.

As a very young man in the footsteps of my father — gung-ho on Vietnam, and a “1950s liberal” — I was not a “neo” anything. Gradually my worldview has receded to that of the European thirteenth century, which I don’t find represented by any of the current political parties. (Perhaps I should start one.) My loyalty to “the West” is only a knee-jerk extension of my loyalty to Christendom — which rekindles whenever the sun catches upon a shard of its broken stained glass. I am a “neocon” only in the sense that I remain gung-ho against the Saracens, and am for clearing highwaymen off the open roads — for sake of pilgrimage even more than for trade. I am aware, however, that circumstances have somewhat changed, over the last eight centuries; to my mind, almost entirely for the worse.

Notwithstanding, we must deal, today, with today’s prudential matters. There are costs associated with each proposal for action; and costs, along with alarm bells ringing, for taking no action at all. If, for instance, USA ceases to be present when wanted as a superpower, who or what takes its place? (This is not a rhetorical question.) If we don’t like “globalization” and all that it infers, how are we going to eat? How do we propose to rebuild from the bottom, after everything we lean on comes down from the top? Or more essentially, can we have any candour on political, diplomatic, and economic questions? Or must we, for the sake of political correctness, and electoral tact, be sucked down into a miasmatic bog of lies?

Those dismissed as “neocons” often have the virtue of addressing such questions; even the ethical questions, in their arguably desiccated way. Their critics are — at least to a backward mind like mine — too fanciful, blind, deaf, and credulous.

Strange gift

Today, the fortieth and last of Christmas, is once again “Candlemas.” It commemorates the presentation of the child Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem, along with the sacrifice of Joseph and Mary, who could not afford a lamb. The feast also commemorates the conclusion of the forty-day cycle for the purification of a mother, according to Hebraic custom. A poor Jewish couple with their firstborn, acting according to ancient Mosaic law; greeted by Anne, and by the prophetic Simeon, who utters the Nunc Dimittis:

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”

I was an Anglican too many years to abandon this splendid English rendering of the Scripture, the third of Saint Luke’s great canticles (after the Magnificat and the Benedictus). The Latin is good and the Greek is better. The poetry of the words is fully necessary. They are intended to convey the poignancy of the scene, in the face of this old man, who has recognized his Messiah, to the amazement of the child’s own parents.

It was from this canticle that the Greeks named the feast, Hypapante, referring to this moment of recognition by the Old, of the New. Tired and waiting for death, standing himself at the junction of worlds, the eyes of Simeon see that nothing will be the same. The Messiah has come, and the whole course of history that must follow flickers in the old man’s eyes, still bound in the breath of a moment to this blessed Earth, and the dimension of Time. It is the canticle I read over my own father’s grave, as we committed him, dust to dust.

There is, I am sure, theological significance in each of the events that combine to be celebrated within Candlemas — in the procession and the blessing of the candles. The fulfilment of that ancient law, drawn from the pages of Leviticus, is again before us.

I like to think on the two turtle doves: the gift to the Temple that this couple, Joseph and Mary, could actually afford. The simplicity of it, alongside the incomprehensible gift of Jesus.

Christ has come to fulfil the laws of Moses, and the Law behind all law. It makes no sense that He should be here, that He should arrive in this human form, in the arms of this young mother. The ancient imagination demanded that a Saviour come in timpani and trumpets. Here is this small child, and these impoverished parents, with their brace of pigeons in a stick cage. They stand at the intersection of all Time.

The Author of all we know, has sent so personal a Gift, by such messengers, as the fulfilment of His promise to Abraham. I find this astonishing; indeed, too preposterous not to be true. That He is presenting Himself, helpless at the Temple, in fulfilment of an ancient vow. I find it very odd. For what does this gesture suggest?

The humility of a Lover.


The numbers are inevitably disputed — whether it was “tens of thousands” as reported in the back pages of such liberal media as reported it at all, or towards one million as reported by observers — at least there were enough Christians in Rome to pack the Circus Maximus, and similar venues across Italy. They came out Saturday for that country’s “Family Day,” as previously the Christians came out — a million or two — from across France, to express their opposition to a government measure to “redefine marriage.” These latest oppose the “Cirinnà” legislation now going before the Italian Senate.

Italy, as Ireland and several other once overwhelmingly Catholic countries in Europe, lags slightly behind the fore-edge of the post-sexual revolution. I write “post-” because in more progressive countries — Canada for instance — the very fact that there are two sexes, and all that follows from it, is now being “revised” in positive law. The “liberal” media, in Italy as everywhere, are scandalized by backwardness — by any slowness in this overturning of the laws of God and Man and Nature. By rote, they attribute the delays to “the lingering influence of the Roman Catholic Church” (a phrase noticed in New York Times, Le Monde, La Repubblica, &c).

Only one Italian bishop turned up, from what I can see: Genoa’s Angelo Bagnasco, God bless him. The current pope ignored the event entirely, did not mention it in his daily homily, and made plain he had better things to do. He had earlier cut a meeting with Bagnasco after being told that this Benedict-appointed president of the Italian Episcopal Conference would in fact attend the rally. Italy has hundreds of bishops; that only one could be seen on such a day speaks many volumes of silence and disgrace. So again, God bless Bagnasco — brave Christian and true Catholic who, like my beloved Cardinal Burke, and others, would rather be punished than sell out. (Are such men the “lingering influence” the reporters were talking about?)

Yet as in the third century, humble clergy were there to identify with the old Faith. The crowd, from what I can see through pictures, included many simple parish priests, and religious in their habits. They still stand loyally with the sheep when the princes of their Church disappear. God bless and keep each in his or her station, who has made vows, “till death.”

Like the huge pro-life marches, in Washington and around the world, the rally in Italy was outwardly joyous — a “family event.” I am impressed because, even in the bitter experience of betrayal, these gathered Christians do not contort their faces, do not wave obscene placards, or utter such bile as we are used to hearing from their opponents. They celebrate the great and holy cause they represent.

In 2007, such demonstrations succeeded in halting a previous Italian government attempt to desecrate the institution of marriage. We will see what happens now. It is to the credit of Italy that she has held out a little longer than other countries; but optimism would be naïve.

The crowds are naïve. I find them invigorating. Even in the face of “political reality” they hope their enemies can be converted and transformed. And even within countries that have returned to the vilest forms of paganism (child sacrifice!) there are still millions — millions upon millions of Europeans and Americans — who have not given up. They are the “lingering influence.”

Let us be naïve, with them. Let us in the worst moments remember, that so long as this world shall continue, all trends are reversible.

Signs of the times

Often I wonder how it was that I managed to stay out of the Catholic Church, until the age of fifty. I suppose it was much the way my ancestors stayed out, for centuries. They found Christianity fairly obvious, back then, but the claims of Rome less so. Or even if they saw the claims, still could make excuses. Notwithstanding, one thing leads to another.

In my view (that so prevails at this website) it is the “mystical” aspect of Christianity that so repelled them, and attracts me. This is what filled the monasteries both East and West, and works also to retrieve people over the bridge of Evangelicalism. In quite different ways, Calvinism and Lutheranism and State Anglicanism and their various mainstream disestablished Episcopal, Baptist, Congregational, and Methodist successors (I’m sorry if I’ve left anyone out) worked to undermine it — through iconoclasm, rationalism, nationalism, and so forth. But that is some vast topic, which revisionist historians like Eamon Duffy have only begun to survey.

Little people like me have been pulled to Rome, modern historically, partly because the common war on Rome faltered, with the collapse of mainstream Protestant congregations. Most of course drifted away to post-Christian hedonism and fey atheism (“agnosticism”), or to the myriad pseudo-religious consumer cults. A revived New Age gnosticism, too, became popular, often masquerading as Buddhism. (Not the Buddhists’ fault, they assure me.) Today the old Puritan impulse, where it survives or is rekindled, pulls towards radical Islam. (The old Scots Presbyters were much like the Taliban.) It is a bewildering disintegration, out there, but also inside the Roman Church, “in the spirit of Vatican II,” where mainstream Protestantism is making its last stand.

Gentle reader must know all this already, however.

My point is only that there are those moments at the fulcrum, where one in effect has no religion at all, and nothing to listen to, except the Holy Spirit. This puts him in great danger of falling into a very traditional and orthodox Roman Catholicism, that will leave all his respectable Protestant ancestors spinning in their graves.


There is already too much autobiography in these Idleposts, I will try to suppress a full chronology today, but when I look back I see that opportunities and motives “to pope” were there almost continuously from early childhood forward, along with little revelations. But rather than read, as it were, these “signs of the times,” I found some way to deflect or ignore them.

Here I am using the quoted phrase in a slightly unusual way. I am not thinking of such a thing as an event in a chronological sequence, or “narrative”; nor as the moral of a story, supplied at the end; though I’m not excluding those aspects entirely. Rather I am thinking of a moment “outside time,” though of course it must have intersected with time, for the “event” had a temporal location, and I am nothing if not temporal myself. Art, great art and poetry, captures and communicates such moments, or translates a divine mystical form into something less mystically human and tangible.

(All great art is essentially religious.)


It is the year of grace 1972. I am nineteen, and waking in a little attic room, as self-imagined poet in a garret. The sun is rising on a warm midsummer day, and outside the window is that morning light, and thick ivy. Sparrows are chirping in that ivy, a flock in the leaves chatting merrily all at once. This was a sign of the times.

Suddenly the world seemed very ancient, and very new. It came into my head as my eyes were opening, and the light streaking above the floorboards, that I was reclining in Paradise. There are sparrows like this in Paradise, I thought. (I was unquestionably an atheist at the time.) Not ancient, specifically, nor new, but immortal, I thought. I had a theological idea. This moment on Earth is itself immortal, in the sense that it is meant to be, but also in the sense that it is undeniable. The world will pass away, but the memory of this event will not pass, as it were, “in the mind of God.” The sparrows on the leaves are immortal, every note they have uttered “just so.” They hatched, they spawned, they will die; but forever, they will have been. They cannot be effaced, from having been; they will always have been, just here, in the immensity. No tyrant, no accident, can take them away.

This led to a little logical quandary. If this is so, I thought, in a budding scholastic way, the arrow of time must be an illusion. But it can only be so, because it is not an illusion. For it was something not imagined and “abstract” but constructed from the indisputably real and corporally present. For now I do not mean the moment itself — the short space occupied within a single second — but each and every living sparrow, each growing leaf, and every particle of dust floating in the air. All were unmistakably real, and each will always have been, here, in the co-ordinates of this moment. I could “prove” this, easily to myself, because I was here, too.

Perhaps these things are hard to describe.

“Nothing is lost.” That was the “moral,” if you will, that I took from that moment, and as I say, it was “a sign of the times,” vouchsafed to me by the Heaven, by the Grace of God, as I now realize. Yet no empire had crumbled, and the sky had not turned red.

So many people, even in my inbox, are almost in a state of despair about “the way things are going.” It would sound glib to say, “Don’t worry about it.” The Biblical expression is less glib. It is voiced as an angelic command: “Fear not.”


Or a little later in time, when I found myself lying in a hospital bed, in a lung ward (this was before I took up smoking), with old men around me, all terminal cases with lung cancer, and I had watched one die earlier in the evening right across from me — paradoxically, of a heart attack. (I rang the buzzer; staff got there quick; but he was dead already.) This man had spent the whole of the previous night curling into a fetal position, and calling for his mother. (He was ninety years old.) This was memorable.

And the old Welsh coal miner in the bed next to mine (also about ninety), who was down to one half of one lung, and in terrible pain — but stoic, smiling, joking, “unkillable” — a member of God’s own working class.

Perhaps I should explain that my own case wasn’t terminal, at all. I had only a tube stuck in my chest, above a collapsed lung. (Say after me, “spontaneous pneumothorax.”) They’d stuck me, rather literally, in that terminal ward, because it had the right equipment, and there was a shortage of beds at Westminster Hospital. Or, seen from another angle, God had stuck me in there to watch old men die.

I was still an atheist; but a firm believer in “the Bible as Literature.” I had borrowed a King James Bible from a (very pretty, born-again) young nurse, only for something to read. I needed magnificent literature, I did not need a paperback, at that time, lying in that ward. I was near to panic, the darkness was encroaching, I was in physical torment myself, and felt the closing in of “the valley of the shadow of death.” Verily, I was beginning to understand what terror feels like.

Purely for distraction I reached (painfully) for the Good Book. It fell open at one of the young nurse’s bookmarks: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, …”

Though the earth be removed. Though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea. Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled. Though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof.


This was a sign of the times.