Essays in Idleness


Of music & politics

What Beethoven has in common with Napoleon (and Robespierre for that matter), is the high idealism, the megalomania. He also shares, with Napoleon at least, the almost superhuman talent, skill, artistry. In Beethoven’s case it was for music, in Napoleon’s, for gratuitously invading and conquering European countries. Not until Hitler would another of the “greats” occupy so much lebensraum; and Hitler had less style. Unless, of course, we count Russia as part of Europe, as Vladimir Putin has been reminding us lately. But he is only now getting on his roll.

Today’s incomprehensible Essay will continue to jumble music and politics. It is thus a continuation of my note last week when, still in Lent, I was “editing” my collection of compact discs. It was an exercise I could recommend to anyone, combining the virtues of philosophy and knitting. One emerges, it is true, with fewer CDs, but a clearer idea of one’s taste in music, and by analogy one’s attitude to many other things.

There is also the aspect of conversation with the dead. I do not refer to the innumerable dead white males who composed most of this music: one converses with them whenever the music is played. Instead, I think for instance of arguments with my father, going back to my childhood. These were happy, often gleeful arguments, I should mention; we both enjoyed a lively disputation. He loved big bands, and his collection of jazz records reflected this fact. Even then, I loved trios, quartets, quintets; nothing larger than a nonet. He gloried in Broadway. To his Gershwin I opposed the Duke. To his Sarah I opposed Ella. Against Oscar Peterson I championed Art Tatum. When he brought home an LP of Erroll Garner it came close to war. I’ll never forget the day I discovered the use of the word “sentimental”: such a wonderful half-brick to throw in an argument. (A half-brick travels better than a whole one.) Though we shared a dreadful weakness for any French chanteuse.

And that came before Bach versus Beethoven. My papa adored the cascading wetness of the Romantic Era; I the joyful dryness of the Baroque. And from the Baroque my instinct was to turn backwards, and towards the “early music revival” then gathering steam. But meanwhile I learnt to play Bach provocatively loud; the organ music especially. Helmut Walcha was my man on the august keyboard; Karl Richter through the cantatas. My poor mother came home from shopping one day to a fugue threatening the house foundations, and went to turn it down, swivelling to declare: “Why can’t you be a normal child and listen to rock music?”

Now, as Baudelaire said of Delacroix and Ingres, “Let us love them both.” Up to a point, Lord Copper. (I actually prefer Delacroix, in defiance of all my artistic principles.) Indeed, my father once quietly conceded that Ella Fitzgerald was greater even than Sarah Vaughan; he had just been trying to goad me. (I reciprocally conceded the greatness of Sarah.) Yet the moment I was appeased, he insisted on Nelson Riddle’s orchestra behind her. Oh dear, oh dear. (And then he described my interest in the instrumental balladry of John Coltrane as “sick, sick, sick.”)

There is a place for tutti strumenti, and for the forty-part Mass; for the military march, though I think it should be dancing. (Leave that sort of thing to Purcell!) For that matter, I am not always against invading a small, defenceless European country, though the thing should be done with economy of means. Still, as a general rule, I counsel the peace which passeth all understanding, over vast Napoleonic armies. To my mind the chorale of the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven is unquestionably exhilarating. It is also evil, and if I had some tiny fraction of Beethoven’s talent I would rewrite his entire symphonic oeuvre as string quartets, for I long to apply the same genial wit the man himself exhibited in recasting British and Irish folk songs and anthems. (His version of “God Save the King,” for three voices, two strings, and the drawing room pianoforte, is exquisite beyond words.)

My Commentariat let me down on last week’s thread, with a couple of choice exceptions. There may not be enough music buffs among them. I was delighted as ever to watch Mrs Pepall shake her fist on behalf of her darling Ludwig, however. Another lady mentioned her meditative appreciation of Chopin and piano Brahms, and regretted that, on my instruction, she would now have to put them away and listen exclusively to chant. While I am loth to discourage obedience in a woman, I must tell her I share her regard for Chopin, especially, and though symphonic Brahms gets under my fingernails, I once fell nearly in love with a Chinese girl playing one of his fantasias in a piano shop during a lunch break in Hong Kong. She played him like Mozart. “My secret,” she explained, “is to play everything like Mozart.” Her taste was, “Mozart, and everything that is like Mozart.” Buck-toothed and knock-kneed she may have been, but how could any man withstand such charm?

The suggestion from the delightfully named Winston Orcutt, that I might throw away my Schubert, was not well received. I must have thirty discs of his lieder, and given the cash might acquire more. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau has been, all my life that I can remember, my picture of a lyric baritone, and I have generally ranked operatic voices by how they perform in that repertoire. The word “perform” is rather ugly and unCatholic. I should apologize for it: for there is something in Schubert that goes back to the Middle Ages, a timeless intimate quality that recalls me to Dufay, uplifting the profane. Schubert is an angel.

I mention this by way of vindicating my editorial principles, in deciding which discs I need not listen to again. (They go out in the world, where someone else may want them.) It was not thumbs down on any particular composer, though nearly so on some. It was rather the continuation, of if you will, escalation, of a life-long rebellion against rebellion; against dissonance taken to the point of bad habit; against cleverness and smartass with insufficient humour; against the profane pursued as an end in itself; against overstatement and histrionics whenas it begins to take itself seriously. (I am, after all, a man who still loves Rossini and opera buffa.) Against the Enlightenment, and the Reformation, and all things as that. Against sublimity conceived in the “humanistic” spirit. Against every musician with a progressive agenda, from the moment he stoops to indulging it. Against great crashing sounds, and the musical equivalent of Total War.

Conversely, in this Easter Week after the purgation, how precious seems each disc that remains, as I recover the principle of preservation. What, I sometimes ask myself, if this disc contained the last trace in this world of, for example, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater? What if an angel had entrusted me to preserve it? How terrible if a composition of such beauty were lost, or even drowned out; trampled under foot of our vast contemporary Napoleonic armies of the deaf and blind.

My opposition to “democracy” must be viewed in this light: not only government, but music mired in the filth of mankind self-exalting — everywhere defeating the still small voice and “freeing” itself from God.


Even today, I daresay, the mall shoppers — post-Protestants, “recovering Catholics,” secular humans, and so forth — have some general idea what Easter is about. The eggs are a nice symbolic touch. And hot cross buns seem still to be available in the upmarket groceterias. Indeed, they were yesterday, when I was laying in provisions for recovery from Lent, and I am munching one as I try to concoct, in the very early morning of this Day, some sort of Easter Message from the High Doganate. (Perhaps I should have thought of it before.)

But I have myself been losing the thread, of hot cross buns, as I realize upon a little reflection. They were an English custom, associated with Good Friday. They were what you got to eat that day: one hot cross bun. By an old convention, they were to be baked one at a time; as I understand, there were anciently rules and regulations. The baker who sold them on other than the prescribed days was liable to have his whole stock confiscated, and distributed among the poor. (Bravo!) This was some time ago, however. The law may well be still on the books, in England, but I doubt that it has been enforced, these last few centuries. Hot cross buns were anyway baked mostly at home, as a matter not of state, but of family tradition. The custom spread, with the British Empire, and so was thoroughly Canadianized. I have a memory from my littlehood of laying the shortcrust pastry (made sinfully, with lard) for a cross. It could not have been in my own home, however.


I fasten upon the bun, in the knowledge that it is something very small. Last Easter, under the title, “Come running,” and in the audiophonic company of J.S. Bach, I fastened on the small with the large of the Resurrection. His Easter Oratorio begins — breathlessly — with the running of Peter and John to the empty tomb. Mary Magdalene has tipped them off: something has happened. The body is gone. Bach musically depicts the apostles, running. Peter slips; John overtakes him. It is John who arrives first; then halts. But it is Peter, arriving, who does not hesitate, who walks right in. There is such depth of symbolism in this, for Holy Church.

But it was Mary Magdalene who had discovered the tomb was empty in the first place, because she had come to attend to it, with no particular expectation of anything, and only that very womanly sense of her own unrewardable duty. And it was Mary who remained, still weeping, when John and Peter went away.

It was she, Mary, peering into the hollow through her tears, who then discerned the angels sitting at head and foot where the body of Jesus was supposed to be. It was they, who asked why she was weeping. (“Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.”) It was to a man she mistook for the gardener that she turned, when he asked her the same question, and she asked him in return if he had removed the body, and if so where he had taken it. For she did not recognize, in that first moment, the Resurrected Christ.

Until he said, “Mary.”

To which she replied, Rabboni.

These small details come from the Gospel of John. Long have I been convinced, but as I grow older become more convinced, that the Gospel which is acknowledged to be most theologically profound, is also, paradoxically, the most factual. The archaeologists have largely confirmed this by now, but to the attentive reader there was all along an exceptionally clear “ring of truth” throughout Saint John’s exposition. Which is not to belittle the synoptic gospels, nor doubt the peculiar value in each. For each in its way captures telling details, the small things which fix the large in the human understanding.

The Life of Christ, the Death and Resurrection, are a narrative, to be sure, but the authors of these gospels are not biographers. Their chronologies are vague, accidental, and their omissions frustrating from the angle of “human interest.” (It is because I have been an editor, that I tell you these accounts have not been “recensed.”) Writing as and when they did, the “storyline” is almost taken for granted. They write to witness, not to storytell. Matthew, it is true, has the habits of a bureaucrat, Mark is more street smart, Luke is courtly. Our appreciation of the respective “points of view” has been diminished by generations of scholars, determined to believe in phantoms, to “get behind the texts” by postulating some evolutionary development of them, on the basis of no evidence whatever. John, to my mind, utterly defeats this patient exercise in fatuity.

There is Christ, or there is no Christ. Significant details are presented in the gospels, of the small that enunciates the large; more is enunciated in the Tradition which attests the canonicity of those Gospels. What we find on further modern inquiry — what I found, as a hack journalist, walking the old roads of Palestine to the archaeological sites, and reading what I could of the current literature (I wrote an account filling a newspaper section of the Ottawa Citizen a few years ago) — is that the account of Tradition holds up extremely well. I don’t think the issue is “accept it or reject it” any more. To the candid mind it is either deal with it, or ignore it. The way of our world is, ignore it and move on.

The way of our world is to move on, mindlessly, towards extinction. It is, as I am reminded every day and every hour, the world of ADD. The initials of course stand for “analogue-digital-digital.” Or alternatively, “attention deficit disorder.” Something big might happen, but unless it is communicated to us in terms comprehensible to our hand-held devices, it is unlikely that we will take any notice. Hence the “New Evangelism.”

Have you heard the news?

There are two, and I should think, only two ways to respond to what has happened. One is to go on cultivating ADD. And the other is to reply, Rabboni.

The false note

Perhaps I should be telling a priest instead of a general audience, but I broke down this morning and did something bad.

You see, I had been weeding my inventory of recorded music, through Lent — decimating it at first, in the strict sense, with about every tenth disc going on the trash pile of history (or more precisely, to a used CD store). More: novemating, octimating, septimating, sextimating, quintimating, finally quadrimating or even tertimating my collection of CDs, too much of which was acquired irresponsibly, back in the day when I was filthy stinking rich, and more dissolute even than I am now. Symphonies, operas, histrionic performances — the whole “Romantic Era” had to be cleared out. … (Why?) … Because I can’t stand it any more.

It’s not just Wagner, whom I have always loathed; but every composition in which old Ludwig Van is shaking his fist, or Brahms is going programmatic. It was all a mistake, cloning those violins, building those immense orchestras, those Mormonesque tabernacle choirs; fronted by those gesticulating übermenschen, playing with the volume, and breaking up an unholy dulcet smoothness with these infernal crashing sounds. I have come to despise grandiosity in music, whether it is outwardly sacred or profane. For two centuries now, in an alarming way, the profane has been invading the sacred. Conversely, a false, gnostic, “humanist” spirituality has been invading the profane. Verily, to my mind, most of the XIXth century has to go, and everything in the XXth that followed from it. Because it is loud, ruthless, rebellious, and noisome.

Necessarily, I play snippets as I go along, rather as one glances through a rifle scope, to be sure one has the right target. For one needs to remind oneself why one wants to be rid of things, to increase the pleasure of waving adieu. Ah, the sinless delight of purgation!

But then, as I was going through composers, about to the end of the letter R, I came to “Ryba”: Jakub Jan Ryba, the Czech, 1765-1815. I found one disc only of this gentleman’s works, recorded by a small orchestra and choir of blameless madrigalists in Prague. It contained two settings for the Mass, in a style I would describe as àpres-baroque. The first alone is famous. It is known as Hej, mistře! — which, to those shamefully unacquainted with Czech, does not translate “Hey mister!” but rather: “Hail, Master!” It is plainly a Christmas, not a Lenten Mass. Indeed, they play it at Christmas in Czecho the way we do Handel’s Messiah here, or intone Dickens’s mawkish reflections on Scrooge. Ryba’s Kyrie sounds like a Gloria. The Gloria sounds like a Gloria. The Gradual sounds like a Gloria. The Credo, Offertorium, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnes Dei, — they all sound like Glorias. And there is a recessional attached, a final choral exposition, which sounds very much like a Gloria.

I listened to the whole thing; aware, throughout, that it is not Christmas. I couldn’t stop myself. I was totally uplifted. (“Faith is not feeling.”) And at what is, seasonally and liturgically, nearly the worst moment possible. It was appalling behaviour on my part. Bless me, general audience, for I have sinned.

True, a priest had given me a dispensation to drink a glass of whisky, even in Lent, at such moment as might seem advisable for medicinal purposes, in view of my affairs. Whisky is better than lithium, he conceded. But I doubt we are allowed to substitute dispensations by analogy.

It has been “a good Lent,” otherwise, if you know what I mean. No stone left unturned in this spiritual mansion. Now back to the narrow path, which should consist of silence, the darkness, and from out of the darkness, chant.

Last lines

How often — and especially when I was editor of a soi-disant “literary” magazine — have I read a nearly passable poem that was ruined by its last line. This exposed the rest of the composition. With practice, one could see it coming: the cumbersome set-up for the long-anticipated punch line, often itself flubbed. Vers libre slips naturally into this joke format. It appeals to the poet because, it doesn’t have to be funny. Standard prose rhythms are also acceptable, with the addition of a few unnatural pauses, leading to a commonplace that was often thought, and e’er so ill-expressed.  With one poet, I used to argue that his stature as a great Canadian worthy of the governess-general’s ordure and every other public prize of our exalted democracy would be enhanced if he would only re-issue his collected poetical works with all the last lines excised.

He was on to me, however. He had received all those prizes already. He pointed out that the prizes are for the sentiments expressed in the last lines. And having friends on the prize committee who would agree with them.

There are innumerable contemporary accredited academic philosophers who would appear much deeper, to me, if they would cancel their last chapters. These would be the chapters in which the purpose of all the preceding incomprehensible jargon is plainly revealed, by the insertion of a few tawdry clichés. At least take out the last paragraph, which can only enable the reader to omit reading the preceding book. For that is the paragraph that gives the whole story away: of how the man got tenure. Spare us that.

But the man who had followed this advice would hardly have gotten past the tenure committee.

One could be ambitious, and consult dictionaries of quotations for the famous last words of famous people: little tags placed on the ends of lives that leave us wondering if they were truly worth living. All those decades of hard-earned human experience ending in … a lame tweet? … Of course you need more light, Wolfgang. You probably need more oxygen, too.

Perhaps I should do it myself in these essays. Go back through them and delete the endings. When I wrote for newspapers I would often find a sub-editor had performed this service for me. He’d remove the last sentence to make the column fit the space. Sometimes not the whole sentence, just what came after the comma. This must have happened to me a dozen times before I learnt always to write a little short of the word-count, leaving the frustrated sub-editor with a line to fill, in which he could write, “Mr Warren’s column appears Wednesdays and Saturdays.” Or if that wasn’t enough, he could add, “And Sundays.”

Reading Charles Krauthammer’s column this morning, I was inspired to write the above. He does what the Canadian poets do, but with flair. A fellow obnoxious rightwing lunatic like me will be nodding all the way through, agreeing with everything he says — yes, I thought today, the leftists are becoming more and more totalitarian. Yes, this example; and yes, that example; and yes, the other example, too. Well said, Charlie, I totally agree. He adds, this morning, “Long a staple of academia, the totalitarian impulse is spreading. What to do? Defend the dissenters, even if — perhaps, especially if — you disagree with their policy.”

Good man, and a commendable liberal impulse, in the fine old sense of that word. Voltaire would smile, and look at his pocket watch. Talleyrand would wonder at the indiscretion. But then Krauthammer adds:

“It is — it was? — the American way.”

Oh please. You’ve spoilt it. All these small and simple truths, ending in a flourish of … bosh. It was never the American way. That’s not how a democracy ever worked. It works by consensus. The people may or may not have a few opinions, but they wait for the consensus to form in their immediate environment, and then everyone against it shuts up. That is, and has been, the American way, from the income tax to gay marriage. Also the Canadian way (but more so), the British (but with sly humour), the French (while eating), the German (to a fault), the Swedish (beyond it), but — God bless them, it is not the Italian way. No, the Italians don’t care what they say. They don’t even know what a consensus is in that country.

Let me conclude by mentioning that I really like Italians.


Júdica me, Deus, et discérne causam meam de gente non sancta: ab hómine iníquo et dolóso éripe me: quia tu es Deus meus et fortitúdo mea.

“Judge me, O God, and distinguish my cause from the nation that is not holy.” Deliver me from the unjust and deceitful. …

I took the quotes off the extension, to make it more personal. This is a disordered impulse on my part. I take things much too personally. It is God on whose strength we call, and to Whom we make our appeal: that Lord who vouchsafed to David the Psalmist: “The assembly of the wicked have inclosed me, they pierced my hands and my feet.”

How on earth, I remember thinking — in a moment of wavering during my atheistical youth, whenas I was reading “the Bible as literature” — how on earth did the author of Psalm XXII fall upon that little detail of poetic imagery, centuries before the Romans had introduced their method of crucifixion to the Palestine on which Christ descended?

The same Cross appears in the most unlikely places. In the girders that fell from the World Trade Centre, for instance, right at the top of the pile. But a cross may fall anywhere, as my sceptical mind will constantly remind me: one stick falls over another on the sidewalk every day.

A lady of my long acquaintance, who was another “secular humanist” once upon a time, happened to be working as an archaeologist in Egypt, carefully exhuming skeletons from graves of the first couple of centuries after Christ. She was dusting the remains of a mother and child, who had been buried together. She found that the mother had been wearing a crucifix. This riveted her attention in a non-archaeological way. Those were not sticks. She recalled her first, unconsidered, even wild, hysterical, irrational thought, on catching sight of that crucifix in a land no longer Christian: “She is one of us!”

By now, decades later, Carol (to give her name) is a faithful Mass attender, and a fine Mariolator, who sings “early music” in choirs. And every bit as mischievous as she ever was, though turned (mostly) to good ends. Had you met her in earlier life, you would not have predicted this; especially not the Marian part. But then, if you’d met Saint Paul in earlier life, you would not have predicted his evolution, either. Things happen. Sometimes they are quite discreet. Sometimes, as in my own case (or in Paul’s, though we have nothing else in common), it is over the head with a fry pan. It is best not even to try the art of prognostication.

In my rambles about the Greater Parkdale Area, and in the course of a little existence in which I sometimes feel “inclosed,” I try to remember such details, details. Spring seems finally to have arrived in the Great North; yesterday the temperature shot up to 50 degrees (Fahrenheit; no French Revolutionists in the High Doganate, except one biography of Talleyrand at the moment). One walks some distance, through unpleasant streets, and slightly more pleasant back alleys, but even in the parks and ravines one encounters “the people.” Often, in observing them, I find myself inclined to uncharitable inductions and deductions. But who can guess at their destinies?

We do not know where we are going ourselves. We know less about the others. Judgements are necessary at every juncture, if it is only to judge which route through High Park is less likely to sink us ankle-deep in the muck of the spring runoff. Prudential judgements cannot be avoided, when dealing with people of any sort. Christ never asked us to be complete idiots. But it is a nice point, worth stressing, that these are temporal judgements: calculations about circumstances as they now stand, not as they will be in futurity. Christ warned about the Judgements of the heart, which are judgements about the destinations of people. Moreover He suggested the danger in such pathetic attempts at definitive Judgement is not to those others. It is to oneself.

Meat, sweets, alcohol, “shopping,” are easy to give up, in comparison to uncharity. Now that we have entered the Passiontide, Lent becomes more serious. We have walked some distance, perhaps, but now we begin to come into an apprehension of that Cross, just where it was originally posted, right in the heart of our world, at the crossroads of history. It will be waiting for us: for each owes a death. Lent becomes the more purposeful in sight of Heaven’s Gate in Jerusalem Wall. Saint Stephen’s Gate, through which Our Lord rode, on the donkey. The palms that will be thrown at his feet. The flattery He will receive, which is the flip side of the nails that will fix Him. And fix each of us in our turn, for death is ever drawing nearer.

That is where we are heading. To the Golden Gate. To the Cross of that Friday which is called Good. To the Good Death, should we be so graced. That is where we go in this world, wherever we may think we are going. We and our fellow pilgrims: none of whom quite know the way, even those blessed with the map provided by Holy Church. The one we don’t consult very often. The one that is covered with reminders of the penitence that is constantly required. And that, verily, evil should be consistently avoided.

But this does not mean charity can be omitted. We must look on our fellows and do some Good. This might begin with looking into their faces, and acknowledging when they look into ours. It does not matter in the least if they are Christian, they are on the same road. We have been solemnly instructed to avoid harming our neighbour, whatever the temptation might be. We should take that instruction at face value. But we have also been solemnly instructed to love, and we must learn to love. Or we will arrive — knee, waist, shoulder, head — covered with the sins of omission.

Libertine atheism

Several readers have noticed how little I’ve had to say about our current Pope, whether here or elsewhere. But you know me, always trying to avoid controversy. “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing.” Today, thanks to a correspondent in Virginia, getting at the latest Sandro Magister post before I could, I have something nice to say. It follows from the meeting last week in Rome of Pope Francis with the President of one of those unfortunate American republics, which lie to the south of us. (There is one I can get glimpses of, just across the Lake, from up here in the High Doganate.) You know the gentleman, surely. He has been on TV. He was the one with the big grin: that wide, painted, danse-macabre grin he was wearing while he stood beside our Pope for the photo-op in Rome. The Pope, for his part, was glowering.

The two faces, in juxtaposition, seemed plainly to suggest their respective positions on contraception, abortion, and the vicious attacks on religious freedom over here in the New World — most recently through the provisions of something called “Obamacare,” designed to put every faithful Christian on the spot, with fines and other punishments unless he agrees to make a public sacrifice of his own conscience, and worship at the shrine of Belial.

This is not how the matter was presented in the pages of the New York Times, however. On the other hand, elsewhere in that paper I noticed that even they begin to characterize their President and his administration as enemies of liberty — at least, liberty of the press. They are on the cusp of noticing that their President is, to put this as nicely as I can, often less than candid about his actual agenda.

Just between us, I expect politicians to lie. That is their trade, after all, and many have devoted decades to the mastery of this art of “circumlocution,” which contains many little techniques of deceit, and is in turn part of the larger art of mass suckering, or “democracy.” The master of this art can tell a very big lie, that is aggregated from small, factually checkable statements, or uncheckable statements that will pass glibly. The art is in the selection of his “talking points,” and in omitting the connectives, the reasoning, that takes him from point to point. As a student of rhetoric, I can admire a talented sophist, simply as a craftsman. He is, like an old-fashioned circus magician, able to distract his audience in key moments, to perform his tricks. He can turn even the sceptics into a cheering section. They all go off and vote for him, now he has shown that he can deliver an endless supply of rabbits, or anything else they may require.

However, the President in question lies without the slightest air of plausibility. I consider that poor workmanship. He does it again and again, with or without the help of his teleprompter; and except for the humourless types at Fox News, nobody calls him on it. He secured victory in the last election by having the tax department methodically neutralize organizations that had delivered crushing electoral rebukes to his party in the previous mid-terms. Very well, corruption goes with the territory. Any political party in a “democracy” may try that sort of thing, by way of clinging to power. The experts love a winner, and will smile on their success.

My outrage is instead directed to his public statements afterwards; about that and other matters including Benghazi, where knowing lies were told, in something of a panic, to keep the matter off the political agenda until the election was over. Once again, that is what politicians do, when they have the means to do it. And lies like that are limited, not systemic; they are only meant to serve in the absence of any more subtle deceit. Later, they can be retracted. But when later, the acts are fully exposed — and no acknowledgement is made of the fact of exposure — my rant begins.

As I say, corruption I expect. And I expect them to try to get away with it. But when they are caught, mere decency requires a little show of contrition. This did not occur.

The same comment, really, for contraception, abortion, infanticide, and innumerable other crimes — fornication, adultery, sodomy, bestiality — and whatever else Phil Robertson mentioned in the alligator swamp. I know these things happen. I am sometimes prepared to look the other way. I will allow that, in some cases, the consequences of having a law are worse than the consequences of not having a law; that we should “live and let live,” tolerate the tolerable, so long as it does not spread. But the argument that these are not wrongs, not “sins” both by revelation and reason — which, in principle, ought to be discouraged — goes beyond me.

Sin in secrecy is perfectly comprehensible. But when it ceases to be secret, and is flaunted without shame, well: “Houston, we have a problem.”

To Sandro Magister I send the curious reader for the best account yet of how the current Pope may, indeed, be Catholic. [Link.] At the most basic, viscerally intentional level, he, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis, seems to know exactly what he is dealing with, when he is meeting with men of worldly power; who have sold their souls to the devil to obtain it; whose dishonesty extends even to denying that crimes are crimes. I am relieved to learn that Francis is a “disciple” of such a thinker as Alberto Methol Ferré, whose description of contemporary “libertine atheism” is so astute. For the prospect of the Church herself making concessions to Belial is of concern to me.

Doing wrong is common enough. We’ve been doing that since Adam. But denying that wrong is wrong — that is where we pass from the human into the metaphysical realm of evil.

The catfish chronicles

Up here in the High Doganate, where we have been rather ill this week, to the point of seeking medical attention, Lent proceeds apace. With illness comes a form of writer’s block: not a failure to write, but instead, a failure to write anything remotely publishable. If one has been a hack journalist through too much of one’s life, there can be no such thing as “writer’s block” in the strict sense. The internal switch may be toggled to “blather” at any time, so long as the fingers can type. Attention is dangerous: they are the pieces I write at full attention that get me in trouble. Too much passion in them, and the views are all wrong. I’d still be employable today, if I had not strayed from half-attention. I have no discipline. At any moment I may suddenly focus, in a most gratuitous way. As periodical editors often warned, this is unbecoming in a journalist. Better stick to email, when the fit is on, with old and forgiving friends, who have seen these fevers before and know that they will pass.

Alas, this happened once even when I was cast as a food columnist, surrounded by the grocery adverts in a Wednesday consumer section, and accompanied by other food columnists with beats such as “Healthy Eating,” “Vegetarian Delights,” “The Organic Chef,” “Wine for Wellness,” “The Whole Earth Gourmet,” and so forth. The editor thought I could do no mischief there. I don’t know what got in me to write an essay entitled, “Why Vegetarianism is Morally Wrong,” and conclude with a Serbian sheep’s head recipe. But there you go. There was a violent attack on tofu; a mean-spirited lunge against muffin eaters; an idyllic aside on the importance of smoking in the kitchen (all the great chefs were smokers, and I touched on the symbolism of the ash that drops here and there into the finest dishes).

I persisted in this vein, and in a little time all the other columnists were threatening to quit, and the supermarket chains to withdraw their advertising. My last piece was on the advantages of wine drunk in immoderation, on the old Greek scheme, in celebration of Bacchus. It included my memoir of a long and happy weekend from my youth. Alas, it never appeared.

Meanwhile, one of the office feministas and commies — a self-appointed legislator of newspaper mores — had made a big storm over an innocent piece I had written, in appreciation of “White Trash Cookery.” She had read only the first “graf,” and thought I would be taking a kick at the welfare customers. Had she got to the second paragraph, she might have noticed my invocation of Ernest Matthew Mickler. For it was the cuisine of those pigmentally unenhanced, and materially impoverished, along Hurricane Alley, up the U.S. south-east coast, by which I was enthused. They use “oleo” (margarine) for their cooking oil, as the French use butter. Too, they interpret the contents of tins as raw ingredients, on the analogy of vegetables. The black people, in those parts, had had the wit to move a little inland, isolating the whites along the low-lying shores in a form of (breezy) island culture. But the latter had acquired from the blacks, in transit, a genius for adaptation, and a taste for hot spicing. It was a fascinating story; nothing to do with our wretched urban underclasses. “You must learn to read, Janice,” was my only defence.

You put your faith in Thomas Jefferson, or you put your faith in God. (See Leo XIII on this point.) Curiously enough, it was the subject of one of my food columns. Technically, it was justified, for there was a book of recipes from Monticello, generated, I think, by some of those Daughters of the American Revolution. A copy had fallen into my lap, and I was pretending to review it. I ran out of space before getting to that, however, owing to a lengthy digression. I have always preferred the Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire — “For Queen and Country,” with a prayer, and a badge. Unfortunately, they have been in recession. But they were noble, well-dressed, proper ladies, and the Children of the Empire Junior Branch always neatly turned out and well-behaved. For dignity, and serene authority, I would pit a chapter matron of the IODE against a Dowager Empress of China. But I did allow that Jefferson had been an ardent opponent of the demonic metric system, which continues to spread havoc and confusion through kitchens across America to this day. For the envoi, I gave hints on the lush rotis to be had from the island of Nevis, birthplace of Jefferson’s rival, my esteemed Alexander Hamilton.


I, for my part, as a United Empire Loyalist, put my faith in God, with a tender regard for the British monarchy, and a passing lament for the late Secretary of the Treasury, the revolutionist who, uniquely among those “Founding Fathers,” seemed almost fully to grasp the actual limitations of political action. (Would he had understood pistols as well.) Unfortunately it would take a book or more to explain that Hamilton is to be remembered not as the advocate of central banks, nor federal bureaucracies to any other purpose, but as the sworn enemy of worldly idealism, to say nothing of the cheap political posturing that invariably accompanies it, with sufficient wisdom to see where “enlightenment” can only lead. He was, to his credit, instinctively a monarchist, too. He was an “if/then” man, not a political dreamer. All he wanted was some sound money. And grilled beef; he was a tyrant for grilled beef. That was what to put in his roti.

Too, as I was reminded this week by a piece in Forbes magazine (the column of a certain Thomas Del Beccaro), he opposed any Bill of Rights, whether federal or state. That makes anyone a hero in my cookery book. All such Bills are sophistical, and invite legalistic twisting. Hamilton understood: he was British like that. A written Bill of Rights turns the corner, from everything is legal unless the law says no, to nothing is legal unless the law says yes. A government without the power to abrogate freedoms has no business guaranteeing them. So render it powerless; only a fool trusts a keeper with his freedom. From the moment such a guarantee is declared, verily, our liberties are now under siege. The USA Constitution descended upon a people who had enjoyed unparalleled individual freedom for a century and a half, under the British Crown. In response to the puling, demagogic oratory of colonial politicians, they exchanged this for a system that could ultimately deliver Obamacare. (So did we, incidentally: pshaw on “democracy.”)

What we need is to abrogate all the Bills and Charters, and restore the (mediaeval) Common Law — to uphold the rights of the defenceless Little Man against the Monster State, and all other organized powers contriving to oppress him. But that is not all we need, for outside of Lent, we might also hanker for a grilled beef roti. And with plenty of scotch bonnet in the sauce.


This week’s principal culinary accomplishment, up here in the High Doganate, was a catfish curry. Unfortunately it was made at half attention, I doubt that I could reconstruct the receipt. But, you know: coriander, fennel, cumin, chillies. Lots of garlic and ginger. Fresh, if you can find them, lemon grass and curry leaves, and those wonderful “rampe” or pandan or screw-pine leaves that I found even in Parkdale, ground up in oil in a bottle from Sri Lanka. Goes with yellowed rice: ghee and ground onions, more leaves, turmeric root, cinnamon, cloves, cardamoms, and whatever else I put in.

Oh, and coconut milk. How could I forget about the coconut milk.

Not everyone likes catfish, I am told; they go into fits about “bottom feeders,” and of course, some of them die. But what can you do? Cars kill more, and even though nobody eats them. So, if you are the neurotic type, say an Ave before you dig in. To me, catfish are wholly admirable creatures, like goats. They feed on the underwater grasses, but also on anything else they can find. They can be insolent, like goats, or like some of my favourite women. We call them pla mong in Siamese. (The catfish.) Slithery and scale-less; also easy to gut. Catch them with nets: they’re too smart to take hooks. I love their droll expressions, as if they’ve been listening to heretic eels all day and they’ve had enough. They should put one on tabloid TV, to chew the riparian cud with one of those angry white males. Let the fish tell us what he thinks really happened to Flight 370.

They were so plentiful in the rivers and klongs, the poor people ate them for a staple. (The catfish. In Siam.)

“There is fish in the stream, and rice in the fields,” as we say (in Siam). Except, during the monsoon, when there is rice in the stream and fish in the fields.

I cannot say enough for catfish (also, pan-fried, or roasted on the fire).

Do you know that they go quite crazy for Wonder Bread?  There is a colony of them, that swim under Little Irene’s Swamp House, up there by Penetanguishene, where I have house-sat from time to time. You get your Wonder Bread from the grocery shelves at the local gas station. Since it is not suitable for human consumption, you break it up and toss bits on the water. Great convulsions of catfish thrash joyously as it lands. Some will leap, and even squiggle a few inches onto a mudbank to fetch a piece. I have spent hours, fattening them in this way, and feeling happy, and at peace, like a catfish on one of his more philosophical days.

Four quatrains

We (and I still sometimes use this plural to indicate, “all of my personae, considered as a choir”) were asked only yesterday, by a gentleman who had previously been asking about Stefan Zweig, to describe the degree of our aloofness from current events. He (the emailer, not Herr Zweig, who has been dead these last seventy years) is, I suspect, vexed by this question himself. I know him as a man who has been somehow mixed up in high counsel to the American Republican party. And like me, he seems to realize that the Americans have a two-party system: the Democratic Statists versus the Republican Statists. (Up here in the far north we have five or more Statist parties.) That, to my mind, is what “democracy” has always been about: competitive statism.

But, ho, I am ignoring his question:

“Do you consider yourself to be in exile, imposed or self-imposed? I mean in temporal affairs, not the exile from the divine that is this life.”

The glib answer, supported by a Russian proverb (“A man can do most good where he was born”), is no, I cannot be an exile because I live in the same city wherein I was born. (It is also where one can do the most damage.) True, I was whisked away by my gypsy parents at a tender age, and several times having returned later I went off again, vowing never to come back, but here I am once again in the Greater Parkdale Area, enduring the general decline.

Yet even temporally, the question is a good one. By chance, several other correspondents (for I have a Commentariat ye know not of) have asked me recently some similar question. It must be in the air. To what extent do we even care what is going on around us? Granted, we could anyway do little about it, for if we devoted our entire lives to meddling in some way, what could we expect to achieve? I have friends of long standing who have tried this, and are only now beginning to give up; who have tilted against the proposition, “What profiteth a man if he gain the whole world, but forfeit his own soul?” And unlike Saint Thomas More’s interlocutor, they didn’t even get Wales.

One of my correspondents, a lady from the Canadian far east, posed or rather insinuated the question in terms of “reality” or “realism.” That is to say, look at the world as it is, and discard every illusion that might be employed in romanticizing what you see there. That still leaves plenty of room for meddling. We could, as Voltaire said, when he was playing Cicero in opposition to Leibniz, “cultivate our garden.” Some exiles are able to do that. But can one be a proper exile with such property as a garden? Or if, as Cicero, we get carried away, and add a house to shelter our library, too?

There is a paradox, which I propose to stare down. As I’ve written before, I hope without originality, almost everyone is an exile today. T.S. Eliot (in his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, 1948) observed the tendency of modern education (which includes media) to adulterate and degrade everything it touches, concluding, in a bad mood, that we were “destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanized caravans.” And we are there now: for even those who occupy houses must be, should they wish to continue earning a living, ready to move at short notice.

The “exile” in such circumstances is more likely to be the person who refuses to move. By this refusal he makes greater and greater distance from his neighbours. But then, the modern state can expropriate anybody: we no longer enjoy the reliable protection of e.g. the Common Law; and our human rights have been, such as they were, collectivized. (This, too, is among the inevitable, barbarizing products of “democracy,” as all other kinds of totalitarianism.)

We have been re-interpreted as “human resources,” when once upon a time we were human beings. Another correspondent, in Ottawa, who actually works with computers, notes that really she works for them; and that in every working environment of which she is aware, the people are subsidiary to the machinery. We are exiled, thus, from our own nature.

And we are exiles whether we want to be or not, so the question may now be moot. Any attempt to answer it is playing with illusion. True, in a certain sense, we were always so, for at any moment any of us might involuntarily “push off” and die. But again, we were not considering the question from the transcendental angle, only in worldly terms, and those terms have been changing, “progressively” as it were. My parents, and even more my grandparents, did not consider themselves to be exiles, even when forced by external circumstances to change houses. They still felt a certain continuity within the society around them, and a quite personal belonging to it. Do I?

As we used to say in hippie days, “Reality is for people who can’t handle drugs.” … Well, as may be discerned from my last Idlepost, some of us weren’t hippies then, have become more like hippies now. (Was gentle reader ever a hippie?) … I continue to resist medication, however.

From the towering height of sixty years, I see that “realities” have come and gone. The fair certainties of merely half a century ago have evaporated during my lifetime — reasonable certainties, for instance, about what was right and what was wrong — and there is no foreseeable prospect of restoration. Which is not to say the world was not in a fine mess a half-century ago; but the sands of atomization have become much finer and more readily shifted by every passing breeze. Who is not an exile in a “culture” which does not recognize, for instance, the sanctity of human life? Or the indissoluble nature of families? I have lived to see the terms “father,” “mother,” “brother,” “sister,” “uncle,” “aunt,” and so forth, methodically and retroactively stripped from all provincial legislation; and in parallel, the creation by the same “reforming” legislators of new human sexes. Who will bother warning of the cliff? We are already in the free fall of a demonstrable insanity.


Which puts me in mind of the quatrains of my youth. Friedrich Hölderlin, for instance, wrote in his madness (if gentle reader will accept translation, and tolerate my old-fashioned habit of quoting from memory):

The lines of life are various, they diverge and cease,
Like footpaths to the mountain’s utmost ends:
What here we are, elsewhere a God amends.
With harmony, eternal recompense and peace.

Good, but perhaps too fatalistic, especially in a poet who once glorified Greece. On the other hand, I have been assured that every Zen Buddhist Japanese, when travelling, carries in his heart:

Really there is no East, no West.
Where then is the North, and the South?
Illusion makes the world close in;
Enlightenment opens it on every side.

At least, I assume it is the other hand, and that the author of the Japanese quatrain was sane. I prefer the Buddhist “Enlightenment” to the French; I believe it leaves fewer corpses. It also provides the exile with a remedy against the homesickness that may sometimes afflict him. But when it comes to this, there remains a quatrain by Li Po, known, apparently, to every waiter in a Chinese restaurant:

Above my bed there is pale moonlight,
So that it seems like frost on the ground.
Lifting my head, I see the bright moon;
Lowering my head, I dream that I’m home.

He was a real exile, and my far eastern correspondent immediately replied with his verses on “Madly Singing in the Mountains,” written after his banishment to Hsun-yang. (It was worse for Po Chü-i: he was removed from Hsun-yang and sent to Chung-chou.) Li Po observes that his mad singing attracts the curiosity of monkeys and birds, and that by removal to a remote location he is freed of the embarrassment of becoming a laughing-stock to his fellow humans. This returns us by way of Szechuan to the West, by the open road, and to a poet I have mentioned before, Michael Roberts. It is yet another quatrain long carried in my own heart:

Coming out of the mountains of a summer evening,
Travelling alone;
Coming out of the mountains

Roberts was an earnest man who, as I explained in that old Idlepost, devoted earnest attention to the fate of worldlings in books with such titles as, The Estate of Man. He died young, alas, but as the economic, political, social, and environmental “problems” he identified from the world of the ‘thirties were exactly the same as they are today, minus the debilitating complexities we have added, I don’t see that his living longer would have been much use.

Exiles from Heaven we most certainly are, but from this terminal ward of a planet we can escape in only one way. To reply to the question as directly as I can, I would therefore quote my own motto, taken from the preamble to the Salon de 1846, by Charles Baudelaire, addressed affectionately “aux bourgeois“:

Vous pouvez vivre trois jours sans pain; — sans poésie, jamais!

Labour law

Recently I attended the wake of an old friend, a certain Randall Telford, who was so unwise as to predecease me. He was a labour lawyer, and usefully so from my point of view, for he brought a charge of “constructive dismissal” on my behalf before a former employer, so nicely that it never went to court, and ended in pints all round. After which he failed to send me a bill. And when I asked after it, he said that paperwork bored him, and that he made too much money anyway, would I be so kind to forget about it.

Randy was a bad Catholic (by his own admission), and to be perfectly frank, a bad poet. On the other hand he was a first-rate motorcyclist, and a contant reader of fine literature. He was also a rather gifted “mate” — from the old school of male companionship, that dates back even before tree-hugging. He taught law, too, in some kind of college, to innumerable pretty young female admirers, and indulged many other agreeable hobbies, including a recent one of growing his hair, a beard, and dressing like an ageing hippie. He hadn’t been a hippie in youth; it was “ageing hippie” that appealed to him. It has begun to appeal to me, too, though the term I prefer is “rubby-dubby.”

Much else was mentioned by an interminable succession of perfectly charming eulogists at his send-off. I think I’d sat through thirteen of them when the em-cee mentioned just five more left until the buffet, and I resolved to brave the winter for an extended smoking session. None of these mawkish elocutions had, however, mentioned Randy’s membership in a secret society to which I also belong. It is informally called the “Borborygmatic Society,” but at formal gatherings, “The Old Fart’s Club.” One is inducted by invitation only, and has no right to refuse. Resignations are also neither permitted, nor advisable. The society consists chiefly of lawyers and effete literary types. We quietly control everything you never hear about in the media. Please never mention the existence of this society to another living soul.

Alas, Randy was one of those health freaks, given to jogging and jumping and eating his salad and not smoking and hardly ever drinking to excess. He was a few years younger than I: none of those people ever makes it to sixty. I wish I could have made him see sense.

Requiescat in pace. The only reason I mention him is from grief, and to justify my headline. For as Randy once said, labour law is the most boring subject ever devised by man. It attracts its practitioners for no reason at all. Nothing could deter a reader more effectively than putting a title like “Labour law” over the top of it. He recommended that tactic, for hiding the most extraordinary revelations in plain sight. Dear Randy. Ave atque vale!


A priest writes, apropos my column today over at Catholic Thing, that he is still waiting for a papal social encyclical that expounds II Thessalonians 3:10-12. He is not expecting it any time soon, however.

Gentle reader will recall what Saint Paul had to say:

“When we were with you, we gave this command: that any man unwilling to work should not eat, either. For we hear that some of you are meddlesome enough, but doing no work at all. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and earn their own keep.”

News & the weather

On a sour note of feigned optimism, I post this upon the vernal equinox, a cold blustery miserable overcast day in Parkdale, under plausible threat of blowing snow, after the coldest winter in memory. Spring is not yet in sight. But one must take the longer view, in which these parts were for millennia under more than a mile of ice — so that life on the surface would be the colder for the altitude — and note that the accumulation towards the next glaciation remains quite modest. For all we know the summer may still take it away. Eventually a summer may come which fails to do so, and at the first of those we’ll start moving south. (Our agent Barraco Bammer has done a fine job of Canadianizing the territory we shall eventually occupy.) No one in his right mind up here at this latitude ever feared global warming. Which isn’t to say a plurality are not in their right minds. But the sales pitch for further massive public globalwarmalarm and environmentalcase funding has been undermined.

Simple, but irrefutable, is my own theory of climate change. The Weather Fairies were monitoring the hockey stick diagram and other spuriosities and shams from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, various third-rate redbrick universities, the London Met Office, &c. Human hubris has long irritated them, and that was the last straw. They decided to punish us so unambiguously that no intelligent person could pretend it was “chance.” We may not be in the cusp of a new Ice Age — no such thing is humanly predictable — but take note when the Weather Fairies tell you to chill out.

My other concern, just now, is that sooner or later interest rates must rise. This comes from inattention to the Economy Fairies, with whom we should never toy, for they can become spiteful quicker and on less cause than the Weather Fairies. Everything I know about USA and the West tells me the mild recovery is fake, that the stock prices are illusory, that it all hangs on very cheap money, and that government accounts everywhere seriously understate the aggregate debt. Add a few points to the interest rate, which the Economy Fairies could do in a blink, and the game is up. It could only be played for so long, and I can’t see bottom when it is over. (But then, bottom is usually what we don’t see.) The most worrying part is their delayed action. This most likely means the Economy Fairies have moved beyond routine spite, and are saving for a bigger catastrophe.

I have consulted several reasonably successful investors on this, asking for the upside. None could provide one. Their suggestions range from purchasing shares in gold and silver mines, to stocking up on tinned food. There was also some advice on guns and ammo. This would not be for self-defence, alone. Hunting skills will also be important in the new economy.

Which takes us to the loss, this week, of two of my favourite living people. One was Clarissa Dickson Wright, an advocate of the hunt, indeed a magnificent woman who consciously sacrificed her media career, once she had stored up enough eating money, by outraging every right-thinking, gliberal person in the United Kingdom, right across the field of political incorrectitude. Dead now, at the tender age of sixty-six. (Her health had been impaired by the quinine in the tonic water she poured to excess into her harmless gin.)

I met her many years ago in her cookery bookstore in the Grassmarket in Edinburgh: it was love at first sight. A woman of formidable girth, and heroic appetite, she could drink even Scotsmen under the table. She had, too, one of the sharpest minds of her generation, and easily the sharpest in the British media. A life-long indifference to nonsense had led her from one adventure through another, including the inheritance and purposeful dissolution of a large fortune. Her work on behalf of red meat, butter and cream, as one of the “Two Fat Ladies” — along with her devoutly Catholic colleague Jennifer Paterson, also of sainted memory — will stand as one of the two great accomplishments of the BBC. (The other was of course Monty Python.) I imagine them ascending Mount Purgatory together in Miss Paterson’s motorcycle with double-wide sidecar. “Fat, loud, outspoken,” according to one of the more respectful obituaries, they were both examples of what I adoringly call “insolent women.” (An essay on this topic may follow, in due course.)

Meanwhile, in India, and at the tender age of ninety-nine, we have lost a delightful opponent of the hunt, in Khushwant Singh. He was as vociferous against the shikaar, or princely pursuit of big game, as Ms Dickson Wright was champion to the fox hunt. His column in the Hindustan Times, entitled, “With Malice Towards One and All,” will be missed up here in the High Doganate. He kept it up to the eve of his death; it was always entertaining. I had also the honour of meeting this man in passing, and found him as most vicious satirists, a kindly and empathetic soul.

His books are all readable, for all are light and slight, especially his celebrated two-volume History of the Sikhs, in which the scholarship is almost indetectable. Khushwant (my apology for this familiarity, but India is over-supplied with Singhs) was an agnostic, and nearly a vegetarian. He subscribed to the ancient subcontinental notion of Ahimsa: that we should not kill people or animals gratuitously, and should by preference go about most tasks in a non-violent way. But then he supported “euthanasia”: in the Jainist or Eskimo manner, i.e. oldies who have become a burden should find a way to push off. Fortunately, except a bit of wheezing, he never found himself in that situation, and remained a profit centre to his extended family. Verily, all of his views were mistaken, on everything, so far as I could make out; he even supported Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency.” But notwithstanding, what a lovely man.

The day after

Well, I can come out of the High Doganate now, I think St Patrick’s Day is over. Toronto, or as I prefer to call it, the Greater Parkdale Area, was once well supplied with essentially peaceable, law-abiding bona fide Irish immigrants who went to their jobs in the morning, and to Mass on Sundays if not other days, and you knew where you stood with them. Owing to the passage of several asteroids, they have been replaced by a new species of surely fake Irish, wearing silly hats and putting green dye in their beer on the 17th of March, and while the great majority of these are entirely non-violent, you’d best not go near a pub that day. Any pub: for on that day even Outer Mongolians seem to think they are Irish, and behave according to some unedifying national stereotype. Best to stay home, and drink tea, and read Dostoevsky.

A correspondent kindly favoured me with a collection of Irish sayings for yesterday’s occasion, which I of course deeply mulled. In reply I offered this quick batch of Scots proverbs:

He has a hole aneath his nose.   

A penny hained’s a penny clear, and a preen a-day’s a groat a-year.
It’s past joking when the head’s aff.
Twa blacks winna mak a white.
Sodgers, fire, and water soon mak room for themsels.
God help the rich folk, for the poor can beg.

The first step to virtue is to love it in anither.
Nae man can thrive unless his wife will let him.
An idle brain is the deil’s smiddy. …

Gentle reader is requested to memorize them. All will prove pertinent to the disquisition ahead.

Only the first of these came from my mama (may she rest in peace), the rest from perusing the Scots literature, such as it is. And I have a cheat: a book of Scottish Proverbs (compiled by Andrew Henderson about 1805, rev. James Donald; Glasgow, 1882) with which, should battle ensue, any number of additional may be pressed into combat. (“Another for Hector,” as they say.)


We were discussing marriage the other day, from the sacramental angle, as it has been disintegrating in Ireland, Scotland, England, America, across the European continent, and elsewhere. To a Catholic mind, the sacrament stands apex to a wide range of human experience — that between a man and a woman — but the human experience in itself comes to something, and has been worked with, in itself, by every known culture and through all religious traditions. It can be considered, as Thomas Aquinas would consider it, in its philosophical as well as its theological aspect, by the light of the human reason, with which we were by our Creator endowed.

Why do so many marriages fail, once the social and religious pressure that used to help hold them together is withdrawn? For if the full problem is to be properly addressed, it must be considered, too, from this low angle.

My late wise mama, from whom I should have been taking notes, once provided the formula: “Never get married because you want to be together. Only get married because you can’t be apart.”

The advice was of course not original to her. It had belonged to many generations, in the free countries, among their free classes, where marriages were not strictly arranged. But from my own generation down, it seems to me that it is now omitted. It is often nevertheless understood, and what seems like “luck” may operate, but the idea in itself is not consciously taught, not driven into the young until they cannot forget it. The alternative idea, rather scientistic in the sense that it honours “experiment” as an end in itself, is that we should home in by trial and error. Sometimes we are invited to be fully rational: very poor advice indeed for the young, when they are hormonally challenged.

By now, among those young who are consciously Catholic, there is some unintended additional confusion. I will have my wrists slapped here for resisting what is now received as almost catechetical instruction. The young are exhorted to pray on the matter, a practice of which I wholeheartedly approve. Christ, and Mother Mary our Queen of Hearts, most certainly come into the judgement, and can be reached by earnest prayer. But their operation cannot be confined to the prayer stall. It must be put into service in the rough and tumble of everyday life. The mistake is to assume that marriages can be “arranged,” by miraculous cosmic forces — when these will only ever be discerned in retrospect, not in prospect.

Hence, to my mind, the high failure rate, even in marriages between “traditionalists.” They have put too much emphasis on the abstractly and externally “divine,” not enough on what is divine within, or in terms of, the human; on “rules” in the plural beyond rule in the singular. They are not living in a culture wherein “arranged marriages” are easily sustained. They should look every seemingly heaven-sent gift-horse in the mouth. They must instead go out in the rough and tumble and find mates for themselves. Or better, let the heavenly forces secretly find them, while they are not actively looking.

We are given to recall a very simple moral rule: so simple that anyone can remember it, and in any situation. It is the crucial rule, from which all lesser rules in this subject are derived. In a word, it is chastity. My own quite unCatholic mama would have affirmed this. The prospectively married couple are fatally blocked from discovering whether they might actually be compatible — through all the ages and stages of man — from the moment their “relationship” has turned sexual. And if this happens on the second date, they may never know each other at all: since first dates are, by surviving custom, given over to projecting illusions.

This has incidentally to do with why the Church must hold the line on contraception, as Paul VI did so courageously, even against the mockery that would be offered to him back in 1968. He had thought it through, not only from the divine angle, but from the human. That is what makes Humanae Vitae such a profound document: as I realized on carefully reading it, long, long, before I became a Catholic myself.

Almost any young, hormonally loaded couple can imagine themselves inseparable for a moment, while they are in bed. It is rather the aspect of friendship, within marriage, that they will overlook. And to make this more complex: the friendship that can exist between a man and a woman is itself different in kind from “friendship” in the generic; for it is in itself more in the nature of eros than amicitia, or rather, the two are mysteriously fused. It goes deeper than animal copulation; raising even that to a level that is not merely animal any more. Which is why, incidentally, the Church has always allowed marriage between those of years so ripe, that child-bearing can no longer come into the expectation. And why she has also smiled upon “natural family planning,” which unlike the artificial kind, involves conscious restraints between two persons, who have become one flesh.


On the other hand, I think the Church has always looked suspiciously, and rightly so, on the cult of “the single.” The world does contain natural bachelors and old maids, of no special religious calling, just as it contains other less mentionable kinds of loners. Luck, including bad luck, may come into this, too. “No one ever asked me,” was the response I used to get when, as a boy, I queried certain old ladies. The alternative reply would be given by the ancient photograph of a young man in uniform, atop the piano. “He died in the War.”

Christ can work with anything, but that does not make all stations equal.

There is, both in secular feminist life, and in traditional religious, today, a specific cult of single women. That is, the state of singularity dressed up as a quasi-religious calling. I specify the sex, for I have found nothing similar among men, who for whatever reason seldom ideologize or theologize their single status. My guess is that this is undermining marriage to a greater degree than anyone realizes. A great show is made of the spiritual opportunities available to those who live alone. But if there were a religious calling, I doubt that it would be to contemporary single life.

There is danger in being too much alone, which some may try carefully to avoid through church and acquaintance. Family life is full of distraction, but it is also full of spiritual opportunities not available to single persons; in a sense monastic life is also familial in nature. The aspect of Christian marriage: that intimacy founded not only between two united in mutual regard, but in the aspiration in each to get the other into heaven, is lost on our contemporaries; the daily mutual spiritual direction, even more lost: the masculine and feminine spirituality which balance and even mutually correct. As well, there is discipline in family life, from responsibilities that go beyond one person; for that person is required to put spouse and children and perhaps the surviving oldies ahead of himself. I think the Church has always looked upon those who are decisively “single” as self-indulgent, even self-obsessed; as laws unto themselves under no vows or regular external observation. And today, even if she had consistently good spiritual directors, she would not have enough to go round.

But “not wanting to be alone” is a very poor excuse for a “relationship.” However mild, it is a form of fear. Whereas, love is active, directed, positive, even in its most intimate stillness. We know that from prayer; it is also true “in life.” We are between Scylla and Charybdis here.


“Most men struggle more with being alone than women do,” according to one of my sage informants, a single woman now entering middle age.

There’s a fine essay topic, in itself. It is probably true, with the usual one-in-five exceptions. Speaking as the thumb in this digital arrangement — the male who finds himself living singly after the usual catastrophes of the post-modern era, and coping for all that reasonably well — I think of two things I knowingly sought, for having seen in my own parents, but did not find. One was the intimacy that could only exist between a man and a woman; the other the inspiration that comes to a man from the love of a woman. Both have been subtly marked as acts of selfishness on the part of the man: his need to love, and his need to be loved. In my sons’ world, both have been “moralized” by some version of the feminist ideology nearly out of existence, and I watch the young men wither from it.

Many are actually called to the celibate life, in both sexes, and I think in present circumstances the Church has great difficulty accommodating them; and they have difficulty accommodating themselves. Do women handle this better than men? Probably. But from the little I know, most are involuntary members of this class: for most truly wanted children.

It is probably easier for a man to find a woman than for a woman to find a man, under present circumstances: or so I am assured by many women. For a woman cannot be a woman with the post-modern male: he has had the “paternalism” — the good husband qualities — kicked out of him before he has even grown up, and so he stays not-grown-up forever. He is a Lothario, a “playboy,” and given his failure at that, more usually just a pornography addict. The women in turn become more masculine not only from the dictates of feminism, but from what those dictates have done to the men. Women are now stuck playing by men’s rules in “the economy,” with which only a power-hungry few feel comfortable; and as I’ve been told by more than one female corporation executive, who may never be married, it is wives these successful working women want, not husbands: someone to take care of “home.”

“Home” is here a very large concept. It includes that sense of place, also overlooked in the rush of our economic and social “progress.” It includes many, many other things, which are now disparaged. We live in urban caravans, always ready to move. As a person who has actually “travelled the world,” and therefore feels homesick for quite a few places, I can only triangulate to the original condition, and see it in old photographs of a certain farm near Louisbourg in Cape Breton — where my mama’s people once settled, and to which they were rooted for a century-and-a-half. (Nothing left of that now but a collection of fading tombstones overgrown by woods.)

Against this, we pose the attraction of working nine-to-five, which is I think no one’s natural calling — male or female.

Christ is Christ and this earth is transient. We will all be dead soon enough. But I do feel wistful for what has been lost, and desolate for the terrible spiritual cost of what has been lost, and could take centuries to recover. In particular, that outwardly recognized hierarchy of Love, which made among other things the Church more sustainable.


Barely three centuries have passed since English travellers in Ireland noticed the wearing of “shamroges” in “vulgar superstitious” displays of patriotism on the 17th of March. These, along with “excess in liquor,” and other inducements to debauchery, are recorded with finely jaundiced Protestant sobriety. The notion that the saint had used a trefoil grass (there is some dispute over the sprigs of which clover species) to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity, is apparently more recent than that. The accretion of folk customs and beliefs about the 5th-century Saint Patrick began, it seems, within a century of his death, with the marvel-laden hagiography of Muirchu; by now he appears a creature of legend. The Disney touch was added in America.

However, we have two documents from Patrick’s own hand, that stand up to any reasonable critical inquiry as contemporary with him. And they ring in a voice that is unmistakeably that of a real man. The first is his Confession, rather in the spirit of Augustine’s though very much shorter; the second his Letter of exhortation “to the soldiers of Coroticus,” evidently a Pictish or Scottish warlord with fallen Christians in his train. What breathes throughout these two documents is precisely the Catholicism that has been taught down to this day, infused with scriptural and creedal references that any Catholic should recognize.

“Patrick the sinner, verily, unlearned: and I am a bishop, appointed by God through His Church, in Ireland. I most certainly deem that I have received what I am from God. And so do I live, here, among the barbarians, a stranger and an exile, for the love of God. He shall be witness that this is so. It is not that I want to speak so harshly and so roughly, but I am compelled. …”

So the Letter begins, of this late Roman from Britannia, called to become one of the three major patrons of Ireland (along with Saint Brigid of Kildare, and Saint Columba the Abbot), among the many Irish apostles. Through his own words we may form a picture of his tasks, and a glimpse of his real accomplishment in the conversion of thousands, on an island now distant in time. But his words are vivid, and that island draws close: that Ireland which becomes a nursery of saints and missionaries for the conversion of western Europe. It was done through men and women, utterly convinced of the truth in what they carried, and prepared to witness that truth to death.

The spirit of parading nationalism and chauvinism is as alien to the character of Patrick, as our times are alien to his. The world was nevertheless the world, and the ruthless play of power was as much in vogue. The distinction between a king and a pirate was a subtle one, as the distinction between a citizen and a slave. It is so today, though we are more blinded to it by our material comforts. The task of Patrick was to free the inhabitants of that island from the ancient despotic rule of heathenism: to show them whose sons they were. He did this through his own person: the person quoted, above. He was a true bishop, whether or not the first in the succession of Armagh.

I think our task for this day should be to forget Ireland, and remember Saint Patrick.

Biblical exegesis

One of the most useful passages in the Bible is in Saint Peter’s second general Epistle (3:16, if I may be so pedantic). There are quite a few parallel passages, but in this his second “encyclical,” our first Pope says explicitly that there are passages in Scripture hard to understand. The ignorant and the unstable are inclined to twist these, and it is sad because they do it to their own destruction. It seems a fair remark to me, for I have often seen this happen, and as an ignorant and unstable person myself, to say nothing of immodest, I have sometimes felt I knew better than the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church could know through twenty centuries of careful exposition. In other words, I still have Protestant tendencies: though I find with age they are fading away.

“I don’t know” is a good answer, especially when it is the truth. This is more often than one might at first suspect, for in what appeared straightforward questions of Biblical exegesis, I have often discovered that I were a fool. So is everyone dependent upon translations, and too, those who believe they know the original tongues quite well, for each contained traps enough for their native speakers. Language provides a gloss on experience, but often the gloss is on closer examination less clear than the experience to which it refers. Trying to reconstruct the experience from the gloss — or as we might say, the full reality of Christ from the Scriptures — may require more than the linguistic and archaeological knowledge supplied even through our drive-in post-secondary institutions.

I was thinking this when some members of my Commentariat were discussing the passage, “And I say to thee, that thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The question was about what the gates of hell would be doing — surely they will not be attacking anyone. For what it’s worth, my first two cents would have been to observe that πύλης could mean “gates” quite literally, but in the Greek of that age meant also by extension some power or authority. Also, that in my Peshitta, or Aramaic version of the Scriptures (and Aramaic was, apparently, the language in which Jesus was originally speaking), the verb equivalent to the Greek κατισχύσουσιν which suggests “prevail,” comes through to English better as “withstand,” so that the whole clause may be translated, “the doors of Sheol may not shut upon it.” Now, the Greek verb was itself future, indicative, and active. We would thus indeed be discussing what happens to the gate, and not what the gate will be doing.

The whole passage, somewhat mysterious by the time it is rendered into English, and perhaps a little philosophical and abstract at the edges of the Greek, becomes crystal clear in the Aramaic. Or so I am given to understand: for I am frankly unable even to give taxi directions in that language.

Scripture may be twisted, but the Church cannot be stopped. And Christ, whose Church she is, may go anywhere He pleases, even into Hell, as he demonstrated. This — and please correct if I am wrong — is consistent with what the Church has taught through all the intervening centuries: that there is a hole in the Enemy’s defences. Verily, the Enemy’s defence is finally one big hole; but now I am going a little beyond Scripture, into scholastic territory.

Sometimes we may find that the hole has even wormed into our Church. But I wouldn’t panic: holes have a tendency to close over time. They lack structural integrity. And it is best to avoid arguing with a hole, or otherwise jumping in. For in Christ’s mysterious words, “Resist ye not evil.” By doing good instead, we fill the ground around and assist the hole in collapsing. On the better days, true Authority arrives with the plug.


The paragraphs above were not inspired by Scripture nor Tradition, incidentally, but by a couple of heretical (Mormon) missionaries who got into my building, ignoring the warning against solicitors at the front door. They have just been seen off by my magnificent superintendress, aptly named “Angelina,” who revels in her title as “the Scottish harridan.” (And did she put the fear of God into them!) My task was simply to keep them talking until Angelina arrived. Biblical exegesis was the trap.