Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

Pentecost

Were you a mediaeval villein, you would be getting a week off, now. There are so many ways in which the life of a mediaeval villein was better than that of a twenty-first century wage slave.

It seems odd to get a holiday because the Paschaltide is over, but there you go. In the Middle Ages, when work was for men, there were lots of holidays. Today, when men are for work, there are only a few. The wheels of industry keep turning. And the days are long, too. Imagine, having to work seven or eight hours continuously, with only a short break for lunch. But I have friends who must do this, and spend another three “commuting,” and they do it five days a week. Can you believe it?

A lot of things are worse now than they used to be, and people are right to fear change.

“All change is for the worse, including change for the better.” I think Frederick William Faber said that, but the Internet isn’t helping me.

In a similar spirit, the commendable Deacon Scheer pointed to an interpretive error in one of my recent Idleposts, on “Victoria Day.” It is not we who honour a sovereign with such a birthday gesture, he explained, on behalf of Elizabeth, on behalf of our national birth-mother, Victoria. Rather, she favours us:

“From time out of mind,” he wrote, “in lands near and far, the sovereign (virtually all sovereigns, in fact) granted the people a holiday from the subsistence-farming that nearly every society was, until we learned to eat chemicals instead of food. As passports were once permission to leave, not authority to enter, so the holiday marked today was in its origin a national ‘hall pass from the principal’ to be off larking about. And it also was an occasion of thanksgiving for the stability that a living governor permitted, as contrasted with wars of succession. (For governors, even despots, are preferred to anarchy. See Declaration of Independence: ‘Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.’)”

I stand corrected.

*

I am not sure precisely when the Church originated, in historical time, and I’m not sure I need to understand it. But it was some time over the last few weeks. Those who date it from the Last Supper (i.e. the first Mass) are unanswerable, but so are those who date it from the Ascension and the Pentecost. At this moment we stand bereft of Christ, who has returned to Heaven; but not without the promise we have seen fulfilled. The Holy Spirit has descended upon us, and will be with us until Christ comes again. Then, as now, we are living in the End Time.

If I might re-phrase Winston Churchill, as I am wont to do, “Now this is not the beginning. Let alone the end of the beginning. But it is, perhaps, the beginning of the end.”

Thus reversed, we may perhaps glimpse our paradoxical situation. We look to a future, a very distant future, where there is … nothing. For time began and in the end time ends. In earthly terms, those who live for the future live for Death. It is an odd way to live, yet as we were reminded from Ireland yesterday, this is only one of the ways in which men of the West now embrace sterility and futility; that “Culture of Death.”

To be dead, and to leave no successors, and no record except the evaporating one, of having indulged one’s earthly desires, with, or more commonly without, much pleasure. The other beasts of Earth do as much. But they seem to enjoy it more, and have more foresight, with respect to progeny.

Our current idea of Life has become strictly bounded by time. Some gnostic idea of an afterlife is still entertained (as likely by nominal Catholics as by the nominal “Nones” as the statisticians now call them), but it is iron-cast in temporal terms. No serious effort is directed to looking beyond time as, among the beasts of this world, only humans can do. In the future, we will all be dead, as Lord Keynes said. (And true enough, he died, leaving us debt-ridden by his “progressive” economic prescriptions.)

Futurity is not like that at all. What is beyond time, is beyond time. It was previously, is now, and will continue to be — beyond time. And we are in time, only for this moment.

A moment bounded by the timeless on every side. And a moment within which we discern the rushing of the Spirit, the babble of tongues, the displacement of persons, the direction to ends beyond human understanding. And with this comes a simple instruction, understood at least by some:

Go and tell the world that nothing changes.

Aer lingus

It would seem that the Lemming Party has swept Ireland this morning. From early returns the referendum count appears two-to-one in favour of “gay marriage.” In Dublin, it’s much higher than that; perhaps I am not surprised.

Upon calling up the Irish Independent to check for results first thing, what did I get? My laptop screen filled with a demand that I participate in a referendum on my “smartphone.” None of the questions made sense to me. For I do not own a smartphone, and have no intention of acquiring one. Or it may be more correct to say, as people do of their dogs today, “I am not a smartphone guardian.” Unless we are beyond that now. Many of my friends are married to their smartphones, in a manner of speaking: the two are never apart. Though really it is more like civil unions. (An old-fashioned person, I am against “sexting” with your smartphone.) To my mind, they are living in sin. Should they be allowed to marry their smartphones? I think not, but can’t come up with a media-plausible argument. Should smartphones be allowed to marry each other? I vote no.

My position on leprechauns is not for publication.

Cue now my Chief Irish Correspondent, a veterinarian somewhere in the west of that country (I shan’t be more precise than that), who mentions in email that he is girding himself for the tide of “gay” gloating, this morning. He adds that he must hide all his Bibles. I didn’t know what else to suggest. Fill spray guns with holy water?

Some days ago, I read a piece by my colleague Austin Ruse (beloved by me for the phrase, “The ugly claws and bared teeth of the pelvic Left”), over at Crisis “magazine.” He said he would not be surprised if the Irish voted “no” to “gay marriage” after saying “yes” to all the pollsters. This because people tell other people what they think the others want to hear. But I thought, I won’t be surprised if Ruse is surprised, after all. This because, we’re beyond that now.

Beyond hypocrisy, in a manner of speaking. People now think what they think others want them to think. And, “democracy” provides them with a way to prove this.

We have, as it were, “progressed” beyond the point when people would tell pollsters one thing, and then do another. They’re not hypocrites like that any more. They aren’t hiding anything. Verily, nothing left to hide. Not in Ireland. Nor, anywhere.

From Dublin, the new spirit is running across the island. I picture, in the far west, those magnificent cliffs.

There was an article in the Irish Examiner on lemmings, recently. It was a defence of lemmings. Apparently they are not as stupid as Walt Disney made out, in some 1958 wildlife documentary, entitled White Wilderness, that won an Oscar and many other prizes. His director needed footage of lemmings leaping, en masse, off a cliff into the sea. But it was hard to find, because lemmings don’t actually do that. At least, not voluntarily.

But this was a big budget film. The makers contrived to have some hundreds of lemmings trapped in a cliffless location, near Hudson Bay, then flown to a cliff in a sea-less location, near Calgary. Technicians constructed a turntable to fling them off the cliff, past their carefully placed cameras.

So now gentle reader has learnt something about lemmings, and something about the media. And perhaps, too, something about the Irish, captured by the media, en masse, and delivered to the metaphorical cliffs. Then asked a simple modern polling question:

“Why go to Hell in a handcart, when you can fly?”

Against bombing

There is a paper somewhere (darned if I can find it) from the British Society of Antiquaries (I think) that surveys the district around the archaeological site of Çatalhöyük. This is a pair of Neolithic mounds which rise above the plain of Konya, south-east of the city that now goes by that name — the ancient Iconium, in Anatolia, now part of “Turkey.” Excavations that began in the late 1950s established that it was, about nine thousand years ago, a metropolis by Neolithic standards: perhaps one, perhaps two thousand households on either side of a long-dried riverbed. It was a city before there were cities, or rather, well before we have evidence of any other town that size.

It is a fascinating layout. As I am reminded from wikipaediations, there were no streets or other open public spaces. All the elements of much later urbanity were present, but materially “internalized.” The whole town was a honeycomb maze, and entrances to houses were down ladders from the roofs. In hundreds of excavated rooms, the remains were found of very smooth plaster walls, and sharply squared timbers. In the larger rooms, the most extraordinary murals, figurines, and other works of art. In the smaller rooms, quite sophisticated domestic arrangements including well-appointed and ventilated kitchens, and raised platforms on which the inhabitants apparently sat and slept. Their dead were buried, with ceremony, beneath where they had lived.

The go-to archaeologist is currently Ian Hodder of Cambridge, a pioneer of “post-processualism,” which is the usual mess of post-modern, neo-Marxist theoretical blather, and multicultural “subjectivity,” with big corporate sponsorships and glitz publicity. This makes old-fashioned “processual” facts hard to extract, but patience is sometimes rewarded.

In my view, which dominates these Idleposts, this “proto-city” was not necessarily significant in its time (which ranged over perhaps eighteen centuries). Its significance to us is that we found it, and that it helped explode many preconceived ideas about life in the Stone Age. There are innumerable large and small “tells” or mounds through the Middle East, which the Daesh will not think of blowing up, until they are properly excavated. The truth is that our knowledge of human “prehistory” is extremely sketchy, and often proved wrong; and that vast quantities of archaeological material still lie where they settled, for later generations to retrieve.

And, hooo, I have just found an abstract of that district survey on the Internet, which proves I had not imagined the whole thing. It began in 1995, over a ground six or seven miles square, to the north-east of Çatalhöyük. There were topographical maps and satellite photos and yet, simply by walking about for a couple of months, decently-trained (i.e. old-fashioned) British archaeologists were able to spot eight new tells. In the next couple of seasons, expanding the area of survey, and now using satellite imagery expertly from a ground-based perspective, some seventy-four new sites were located, with samples showing many of them to be multi-period. And so forth, through 2002.

Satellites are helpful, and low-level aerial photography exploiting angles and shadowing is more helpful still, but what makes the difference is feet on the ground. These latter include human brains, which are mounted atop each pair of walking stalks (minus those blown off by landmines). These process information in a way no computer is now, or will ever be able to do: questions of judgement which in their nature cannot be reduced to algorithms.

And this, in turn, is my argument against bombing, as a strategy to deal with the Daesh and other baddies — who, nevertheless, need killin’, at various locations through the same Middle East. It applies not only to massive or saturation bombing campaigns, in which non-combatants are exterminated by the hundreds, and thousands, and hundreds of thousands, but also and particularly to the drone attacks which the high-tech-idolizing idiots around the White House now favour. These latter depend on the sort of algorithms that have resulted in the annihilation of many wedding parties, and other defenceless people who happen by ill-luck to fit the current programming criteria. It is a monstrous, an unambiguously evil way to conduct war, which is nevertheless attractive in the post-modern West because, for the perpetrators, it is sanitized and casualty-free — and thus compatible with the smug self-satisfaction of our liberal and progressive elites.

That each drone attack provides an effective recruitment post for the Daesh — now operating within the morally-vacated spaces of our North American high schools and universities, as in our prisons — is something that passes bat-like over those gloaming, “enlightened” heads.

*

Indeed, by way of afterthought, I am inclined to draw a parallel between the “progressive” Church of Nice, which does spiritual warfare on the analogy of drones and algorithms; and the “traditional” Church of Nasty, which does it on the analogy of quaint mediaeval mano-a-mano, and therefore acknowledges the existence of pain in individuals, as opposed to classes. But this analogy will require a few minutes of contemplation.

Palmyra

The little things are what I first notice in the news. This morning, for instance, that the U.S. government is fast-tracking the shipment of anti-tank missiles to the government of (some of) Iraq. This, we can only suppose, so that Baghdad’s shrinking army may try to destroy some of the U.S.-supplied tanks and other heavy equipment, as well as the light equipment, that their soldiers abandoned to the Daesh in their hasty retreat from Ramadi; as well as all the equipment lost during their many previous hasty retreats. But will the same soldiers run before firing them, this time? I should think so.

There are also bigger things, such as the Syrian army’s surrender of Palmyra to the same Daesh. Some journalists speculate that these Sunni Islamic psychotics may blow up the archaeological remains of this ancient “Venice of the sands.” As they have done the same with all other pre-Islamic, and non-Sunni monuments that have fallen into their hands, I will admit the possibility. They will also, once again, massacre the defenceless, &c.

Total, I’d say, is the stupidity, incompetence, and all-round dysfunctionality of President Obama, his executive, and his State Department. Whether in responding to events in “Iraq and Syria,” or Libya, or Yemen, or in Baltimore for that matter, or to a train accident, or to anything, we can depend on all administrative spokesmen to utter mendacious absurdities including easily demonstrated lies, then follow up with action that is dramatically counter-productive. And yet they continue to enjoy the unflinching support of their clientele, both in the progressive elites, and the electoral underclasses.

With one exception. I note that a State Department spokesman is quoted thus, on Palmyra this morning:

“You’d have to be delusional not to take something like this and say, What went wrong? How do you fix it? And how do we correct course from here?”

This frank acknowledgement that Obama’s policies have been “delusional” is a welcome first step. There are foreign ministries across Europe that could benefit from a like candour. For some reason, our foreign department in Ottawa — so far as it is staffed by Stephen Harper’s political hacks — more or less understands the situation. They know, for instance, that Israel is our friend, and that Iran is our enemy. I can’t really account for this. Expect Harper to be voted out later this year.

All the above by way of supplementing what I wrote Tuesday under the title, “Ramadi.” I should have mentioned it then.

While there are urgent measures all Western governments should be taking, by way of armed ground intervention in the Middle East, the next best response would be to do nothing. For doing nothing would be a radical improvement on what they are doing now. The United States has become, through layered delusions, the leading supplier of hideously powerful (and expensive) weapons to the Sunni Islamist Internationale; and through negotiations with Iran, the chief inspiration for the current regional arms race. Too, the administration has been consistently unhelpful, to the point of sabotage, when regional allies (especially Israel, Egypt, Jordan) have tried to cover for its mistakes.

“Nothing” beats catastrophic error, every time. It can even provide a positive: an opportunity for the politicians to stare at their mess, and ask for advice, ideally from people whose track record isn’t consistently zero, as everyone Obama and company now consult. In this case, perhaps a chance to recall some of the demonized “neocons” from the previous administration — men who could actually read Arabic, Persian, and Turkish.

But here we run up against one of the “problems of democracy” to which I sometimes allude. In nine of ten cases, overall, “nothing” is the best thing a government can do, and in the tenth case, the best alternative to doing what is counter-productive. But the dynamic of democracy (with its drumbeat media) is such, that nothing is the one thing no government can do.

Making war better

Gentle reader may have noticed that I said nothing yesterday — nothing at all — about “just war theory,” nor provided so much as a passing and whimsical Catholic justification of a foreign policy that would necessarily involve killing people (Islamist terrorists, to fine the point).

By a happy coincidence, George Weigel was supplying this missing dimension at the same moment, at National Review (here). He gives fifty years to a frankly pacifist “Catholic” view of war, which he traces to the Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes — in which the pregnant phrase “mente omnino nova” proposes new thinking on an old but arguably “evolving” topic.

As Weigel hints (and I will caricature), it invites contrary interpretations. Either it is taken to mean that conditions of war in this world have changed so much since the Middle Ages, through the introduction of “total war,” that we’d better review how the old Augustinian realism applies to it. Or, the phrase might suggest that the old Augustinian realism was itself wrong at start, and that a different “attitude” was necessary all along.

Liberals in the Church take the latter for granted: that what we always needed was a hip, psychologizing, and morally exhibitionist approach to evil on a massive scale. The bad guys should be told to stop being mean and hurting us; good guys should be reminded that they have faults, too. The world needs to be taught that “peace is better than war,” … as if the world didn’t already know that.

While I do not wish to psychologize the Fathers of Vatican II, I suspect it was the former they meant to assert, and that a purposeful mistranslation of the phrase has advanced misunderstanding. This because, I do not believe these Fathers were men of sub-normal intelligence. War we will have always with us. And evil, ditto, so long as the world wags: there are times when it threatens to get out of hand, and must be stopped.

Decent men, not only Catholics, have known this for a very long time. When your Hitler annexes half of your Poland you see that appeasement has run its course. Similarly in other situations: the very idea of law, both natural and positive, is to draw a few lines. We may debate where they are, who has crossed them and why, but only in the nicer cases.

To my Augustinian and realist mind, “total war” did in fact present an intellectual challenge. I was uncomfortable with annihilating non-combatants by the hundred thousand, on the “eye for an eye” principle; as too, about drafting millions to feed the front lines. A certain amount of “collateral damage” I am usually willing to accept, but not intentional massacre. And those weren’t the only head-scratchers.

Let us consider nuclear weapons for a paragraph. I don’t like to see them dropped on cities; I think that is very bad form. (But then, the “conventional” fire-storming of Tokyo killed more than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined; and it was a situation in which “showmanship” counted.) I might, however, advocate their use in excavating well-fortified bunkers. Had one been available on the 20th of July 1944, for instance — and had Lieut.-Col. Stauffenberg kindly tipped us off — I would not have hesitated to drop it on the Wolfsschanze. And this, even if it meant irradiating a beautiful section of the Masurian woods.

I believe this a Catholic position. No weapon can be condemned categorically; the question is how we propose to use it. There were caves in Afghanistan into which I would have pumped poison gas, without compunction. I can think of some good places to lay mines. And I would remind “liberal Catholics” that winning the war is an important part of “just war theory.” Indeed, I find their attitude to war downright puritan.

We should look for the most economical means to a good end (destruction of an identified evil), consistent with irreproachably good behaviour; not for a way to let evil win. Sun Tzu is the more Catholic military strategist, in my humble but possibly Sinophile opinion; Clausewitz less so (though he is often misrepresented as advocating what he is merely describing).

Now, it happens that for Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and a few other places, the American military has been developing and using weapons rather more accurate than those we employed in the World Wars. The kind of focus that was practicable in the better sort of mediaeval battles is gradually becoming so again. We should, for instance, have directed more praise to the admirable way in which the Rumsfeld Pentagon went about e.g. their Iraqi blitz, minimizing casualties even at the expense of assuming greater risks.

Like everything else, war requires craftsmanship, and the long Catholic commitment to art should be reflected in our critique of it. Let us work harder on making it attractive.

Ramadi

“If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

This is a principle the Daesh (“IS,” “ISIS,” &c) understand, but we in the West have forgotten. Now, I should think there is a dispute between us on what “doing right” might consist of. Eliminating all the Christians, Yazidis, Shia and other non-Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere, is not on our agenda; but it is on theirs. Our interest is restricted to eliminating the Daesh, with the complicating factor that we must also contain the Ayatollahs of Iran (ideally by removing them), and eliminating their proxies: Hezbollah, and for realpolitikal purposes, Hamas.

This is pure speculation on my part, but it seems that international, fanatic Sunni Islam is consolidating under the leadership of the Daesh on one side; and that international, fanatic Shia Islam has already consolidated under the patronage of Iran’s ayatollahs. One’s first instinct is let the two at each other, on the analogy of Hitler and Stalin. That this leaves too many million defenceless hostages to fate, may perhaps be seen. Beyond this, we soon discover that we have become hostages to fate ourselves, as our own enemies link (Russia and China come into this eventually), and the world descends into unimaginably destructive war.

It is useless to complain that the black-flag hordes who took Ramadi, while “Western-trained” Iraqi troops ran away (leaving yet another fortune in U.S.-supplied weapons) — are barbaric savages. It has been said before, and a time comes when something must be done about them. Bombing, it should be evident by now, cannot be the full answer. Nor does it make much sense, as in Yemen, to wink as the Saudi air force goes to work, with its comparative indifference to what we sometimes call “collateral damage.”

Note that, in the case of Iraq generally, and Ramadi as of this morning, the “proxy” on whom we depend is now our even-worse enemy, Iran.

Removing bad guys is a task that requires a variety of co-ordinated military methods. This naturally includes feet on the ground — the more against a millipedal opponent. To restrict efforts to the aerial (plus the occasional high-profile commando hit-job) is fey. To announce in advance that one’s efforts will be thus restricted is to intend failure.

Some years ago, as hack newspaper pundit, I supported allied intervention in Afghanistan, then Iraq. I would have supported it in Iran, too, had the offer been on the table. I’ve confessed before my regret that I did not spell my position out more candidly: in particular, my opposition to almost everything that came after the initial, rather impressive, invasions — except insofar as the plans involved keeping an allied military presence in theatre (a few discreet action-ready bases here and there). I was appalled by the ridiculous and profligate “nation-building” exercises under President Bush, and more by the “cut and run” that followed under Obama. All we needed were governments unambiguously on our side, and the means to sustain them.

My preference for Western intervention stands. For in the world as it actually works (apart from “theory”), peace requires order. There was, to my mind, a “sweet point,” soon after the American-led conquest of Iraq, when this object had been obtained. It had only to be maintained, thereafter. That is to say, not only had the Taliban been neutralized in Afghanistan, and Saddam’s Ba’ath in Iraq, but every other government in the region, including Iran’s and Gaddafi’s Libya, had become suddenly quite respectful of, and co-operative with, the United States of America.

Bush Dubya had, I think to start with, the right idea. One says, “If you do this, we will do that.” And then, if one is not obeyed, one does that, unfailingly. (Obama’s threats are pointless, because no one believes them.) This was easier when we had at least de facto governments in all capitals except Mogadishu. The instruction was: that they would suppress their terrorists, and conduct a government responsive to occasional Western requests. Or, we would do it for them. In superpowering terms, this was a modest instruction.

That it nevertheless smells of old-fashioned Imperialism, I allow. But gentle reader knows that I am old-fashioned. (You may call me a “neocon,” too; I have a thick skin.) Through the history of the world, civilized cultures have had to deal with uncivilized outliers at their frontiers, and it is best done quietly and ruthlessly. This is because every alternative is worse.

Publicity is not required. Indeed, it should be avoided, as much as possible. For people who live in bourgeois safety, far from the realities of conflict at those frontiers, have not the stomach for what is necessary. I don’t think most people could bear to watch open-heart surgery, either. Vietnam was lost, thanks to publicity, and ditto Afghanistan and Iraq. Even under the rah-rah conditions of press cheerleading through the World Wars, the problem of “too much information” frequently presented itself.

Let the histories be written, as accurately as possible, and with full access to the official records — after, and not during, the events. (That was the British way, and it worked.)

I had a little conversation once with the late admired American jurisprude, Robert Bork, just as the Bush administration was setting up logistically to “do Iraq.” He had been reading the New York Times, and was deeply pessimistic. He had no doubt that the U.S. military could perform its task, but could also see that the U.S. media were setting up, to “do another Vietnam.” He feared Bush did not realize how brief would be the American popular commitment to any foreign war; that, “He’d better get it over quickly.”

So let me blame Bush, for having made the presidency of Obama possible. We are in a position now where we have no stomach for the fight, nor any reasonable way to avoid it. We are not dealing with people we can negotiate with. Moreover, given our retreat, and the nature of the enemy since emerging, not even plausible threats will work. We will need once again Western leaders who — like Bush and Blair — make their threats stick.

All this must be admitted, too, as we look again at a regional situation that seriously threatens the peace of the whole world, in coming at least mentally to terms with it. For the stability we briefly created has been lost.

I do not see any practical alternative to doing the job ourselves. Our proxies in most regional states are useless. Either we do the job, or it is not done.

Fudge

Look, it is Victoria Day again, up here in the off-white North. Or it might be: you can’t know with these three-day weekends, which day is supposed to count. Our political masters shift everything to the Monday, the way the “spirit of Vatican II” shifts to the nearest Sunday — or elsewhere, as the case may be. That way, no one will take their obligations seriously. But in secular terms, today is definitely the bank holiday, and that’s what really counts.

Fire-works and fire-crackers we still get: a fine demonstration of loyalty to the Crown, on the surface, though I wonder inwardly if the multiculturalists out there are consciously celebrating Her Late Majesty, whose birthday was actually May 24th. I like to imagine her tiny person, enhanced with hoop-skirt and calash, sitting as upon the marble throne within the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta, Bengal. We have a Victoria Memorial Square here in the Greater Parkdale Area, but it converges, incongruously, on a monument to our heroes from the War of 1812, some of whose remains are buried nearby. Her Late Majesty was not even born then.

Whereas, Curzon’s magnificently odd memorial, in what is now misspelt “Kolkata,” remains a tourist magnet after all these years. Note, it is a twentieth-century monument, and as so few others were built that solid, our distant descendants will dig it up and take it for typical of our times. Just as they will find the landfill to which we consign all the used packaging from around here, and conclude from its location that the Greater Parkdale Area was in Michigan.

One crore, five lakhs of silver rupees: that’s what it cost to build that absurd parody of the Taj Mahal, on what was once Hooghly swamp, and at a time when the capital of British India was anyway being transferred to Delhi. Paid for largely by the voluntary subscriptions of Her Late Majesty’s long-mourning admirers, among the princes and peoples of the great Subcontinent. I cannot think of a more worthy cause.

Back here in Canada, I associate the day with fudge-making. My mommy and I used to make it together in a house along Edith Street in Georgetown, Ontario — from a recipe I surely still have filed away, and ought to have looked up. Let me say my mother’s recipes were infallible. One had only to follow her instructions exactly. But this is something I have ever been loathe to do. That is because I am a “creative” person. I like to experiment.

Yesterday, for instance, I tried to recall the principles of fudge-making, after a lapse of one half-century or so. As people love to collect recipes, here is how mine progressed:

*

Into a stove pot of convenient size, spill:

— All the cocoa powder that won’t fit in your storage tin.
— All the coconut milk powder, ditto.
— A few spoon-twirls of buckwheat honey.
— Enough water to compound the above into a thickish paste.

Keep adding water till you think, “Enough!” Heat to boiling while stirring merrily. Then stop stirring, and turn the heat down slightly. Wait until it looks right, and feels hot enough when you stick your finger in. (A candy thermometer would be useful, but hey.)

Then take it off the stove and add:

— As much bourbon whiskey as you will part with.
— A slurp of the rum in which a vanilla pod was steeping.
— Soft butter (lots).
— Your last four prunes, all chopped up.
— Generous pinch of kosher salt.
— No hashish at all.

Beat this, savagely, until the shine comes off. Beat it more, gratuitously. … Aha, just recollected, should have used a wooden spoon.

Pour into oblong baking dish greased with coconut oil. (A square one would be better.) You may lick the pot while you’re waiting for it to cool.

*

Perhaps I should mention that this essay in fudge-making was a total failure: worse than some of my Idleposts. Tastes interesting, but not what I expected. The texture is all wrong: soft, but not like icing. More a syrupy goo with lumps of a more gritty nature. I think I created a chemical concoction of sufficient complexity that only God could sort it out. My mommy, for her part, would have been appalled.

And would have recalled one of her adages, which, as the others, applies to life more generally. “Fudge is easy to make, dear,” she would say. “But it is even easier to mess up.”

Time’s arrow, time’s cycle

One of the things I love about the old missals — like the Saint Andrew one I swear by, my copy dutifully revised to 1962 so that it matches the current Extraordinary Form of the Mass — is the brief introductions for the Sundays and other Feasts. They “set the stage” for the liturgy, like a theatre programme, and provide preparatory hints. Together with the parallel translations of every single liturgical passage, they leave persons who whine that they can’t understand the Mass in Latin with no excuse at all.

Today, for instance, upon this Sunday after Ascension, I am provided, before the Mass even starts, with nine Bible readings on the witness of the Holy Spirit, including six from the Book of Acts. Then on brotherly charity, “to confine ourselves to a few essential texts,” twenty biblical passages are suggested, “including the splendid chapter 13 of I Corinthians,” and a cross-reference to the liturgy for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost. And then, seven more excerpts from Acts are suggested, which undergird the day’s Mass, and add depth and comprehension to both the Epistle (which is from I Peter) and the Gospel (from Saint John).

While being exposed to Protestant or post-Protestant environments, in my childhood, I often heard that Catholics never read the Bible, and I suppose there is some truth in it: that unobservant Catholics often don’t. Though I should think unobservant Protestants also tend to be unobservant.

No need to pick on them, however, to make the essential point: that in “traditional” (i.e. genuine) Catholic worship, the Mass serves as a kind of moving eye, through the whole scriptural heritage, casting light into its parts through the turning seasons. This does not exclude the consecutive reading of scripture, from Genesis through Apocalypse, on the usual chronological terms, following the arrow of time.

Instead, it adds a specifically divine, extra-temporal dimension to that reading, through the use of time in a grand circuit: beginning where we end, and ending at the beginning, and unfolding from any point at all.

The Lord who calls us is not confined to this arrow of time, calling us as much from past and future as from the present moment. And there are moments when we can see that His creation is not strictly linear, either. It is full of anticipations that cannot be explained otherwise than by prevision or foresight. Too, it is full of musical repetitions, often in a new key.

We, little humans, though endowed with minds that work most comfortably, and must work logically, in a linear way, are sometimes vividly aware of an extra-temporal dimension, upon which the present moment also depends. (Not everything that exists can be charted, and for that matter the consecutive time dimension is itself quite invisible, and unplumbable.) We are not without the ability to grasp some non-linear things, including that which is not illogical, but non-logical, because (for example) metaphorical.

For logic I have great respect, but wisdom works on non-logical principles, perhaps supra-logical, and I have even greater respect for wisdom.

A chicken, as I discovered in childhood, can be made to follow a line of feedgrain with its chicken-snout, wherever it leads: even to disaster. My finches and finchesses at breakfast this morning — on the balconata of the High Doganate — show themselves more philosophical and prudent. I left a line of seed along the ledge to an open window, with me on the inside, typing away. They were happy to follow it, almost to the edge of the open window. But then, after mutual consultations, they flew off.

Now, I’m not saying that finches are more Catholic than chickens; only better endowed with good sense. But these are “purple” (i.e. raspberry-splashed) finches, and when the males gather, they do rather resemble Roman Cardinals in conclave.

Losing the appearances

Some science writer on ye Internet performed, yesterday, the dirty trick of pulling out an old Scientific American (here). It was from 2005, and featured fifty technological “breakthroughs,” organized into seventeen “trends,” which the editors imagined to be harbingers of the future in which we now sit, a decade later. She was curious to know how these predictions had “panned out.” I’ve given the link, so gentle reader may see for himself just how badly the magazine batted: in baseball terms, pretty close to seventeen consecutive strike-outs.

In defence of Scientific American, let me say it has not always been a tranch of worthless, unreliable, often mendacious pulp. When young I subscribed to it, and old copies from the ’sixties and ’seventies were still available to me through the parental attic, until a few years ago. It did not then indulge in this sort of eye-popper journalism, as I know from having returned to its pages several times. Articles from half a century ago, written usually by genuine experts working in each field (and not by “popular science writers”), from their direct experience, do not seem so pathetically “dated” — so cravenly reflective of passing fads — as those you will find in any current number.

An important exception should be noted. The front article — in the position where a short story or other fictional item would be placed in the traditional magazine format — was even then, almost invariably, a spray of liberal-sociological hogwash. But after passing over that, one would generally find, decades later, two or three articles of enduring interest, routinely presenting historical background that does not date. In the 1980s, the publishers realized that there was no longer an intelligent general audience for science, and that the editorial focus would have to be redirected to caressing half-educated, smartass twits. That is now a highly competitive market.

Yet the real issue goes much deeper, and back much farther in time. Pierre Duhem, the French physicist, major contributor to thermodynamics and physical chemistry, historian of science, and inquirer into scientific methods (1861–1916), expounded it in his attacks on the Cartesian method, exemplified in the works of the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell.

In Duhem’s critique, Maxwell’s approach to science was recklessly bold and unsystematic. He depended almost entirely on mathematical “models,” entirely abstracted from the phenomena he described. Worst, he made no effort to connect his observations and discoveries to the received body of knowledge inherited from the past. In a word, he was “post-modern.”

What we see today, in for instance the garbage science of “climate change,” and in the sort of techie futurism that pop science supplies, is the effect of more than a century of impacting what we might call “Maxwell’s silver hammer” on everything empirical science encounters. And as Duhem shows, it is older still, for it goes back to Descartes’ dramatic breach with the organic continuities. (A large part of Duhem’s life work, actively suppressed by the French academy of his day, and still characteristically neglected, consisted in demonstrating that the origins of the seventeenth-century scientific revolution lay overlooked, well back in the Middle Ages.)

Science today claims to know things it does not and cannot know; claims not to know things it does most certainly know; and there is no health in it. It lives in a future that does not now and will never exist: a “postulated future.” It depends upon levels of gullibility only possible to maintain through over-specialization and half-education. And because of this, it has become dangerous, even demonic. (One of my correspondents calls this “the age of deferred consequences.”)

Yet the growth of classical science remains not only possible, but actual in the background. This is because the more accomplished scientists, regardless of what they think of themselves, are in fact closet Aristotelians. That is to say, they adhere to a body of knowledge that is founded on broad but careful observation, kept constantly in a self-consistent, holistic view. They are building an edifice which is not detached from the larger considerations; which is not mindlessly free of context. For there is a continuum through physics and metaphysics that fully deserves the title of “natural philosophy.” Man is capable of it, and should not reduce himself to an impulsive child, playing whimsically with lethal toys.

The Vimy problem

“Lord, please don’t make me do that. Nevertheless, according to Thy will.”

This is not among my favourite prayers, but I fear it could join the most frequent. Without going into sordid detail, I, along with who knows how many other practising Catholics — and our separated brethren, too — face a world that is becoming increasingly unfriendly. But this against a background history that was never all that friendly, anyway.

Here I am referring not only to specific opponents, but to the world itself, “structurally” as it were. “Man’s gotta do what man’s gotta do” many times daily, at some modest level, starting with getting up in the morning. (Newman somewhere observed, that getting straight out of bed without dawdling is the beginning of holiness.)

Every soldier must mull the call into battle. That trumpet is not attractive to all. Careful examination of my grandfather’s diary — he went up Vimy Ridge, &c — left me in awe of his generation. The thought that, “Whether or not I happen to make it, we are going to take the top from Jerry,” survives as a campaign medal. Does it survive in our hearts?

My own existence owes to his luck, so that I begin to appreciate his implicitly anti-Darwinian perspective. For it is: whether or not “I and my descendants” make it.

He was a simple Methodist farmboy, neither philosopher nor theologian. Bit of an artist, though. He did not always consider questions in the round. Considering them thus does not always contribute to courage, however. Perhaps one of the most acute failings, of my own bourgeois-hippie generation, was thinking in philosophical and theological terms — when we had no more of the equipment for it than did grandpa’s generation.

In light of what I wrote yesterday here, and for today, over at Catholic Thing — about the serious stress my co-religionists are and will be facing — I return to the Vimy problem. God is tooting on our horn, and we will just have to go up that hill. Jerry’s at the top, and he shouldn’t be there.

In jubilatione

It is the day of the Ascension of Our Lord, or it is, wherever the day has not been transferred to the nearest Sunday, &c, &c. What was done to the Rogation Days preceding, the Vigil, and so forth, I really don’t want to know. That is something faithful Catholics must endure, in the Novus Ordo. (By obligation, I attend it when I have no other choice.) In one sense, this suffering is apt: the whole Church is doing penance, year-round, even in the Mass, for the horrible evils that we allowed to be done to her.

In the midst of which, we are called to be joyful. In our midst, the Holy Spirit remains, and Christ will not abandon His Church. I cannot doubt this, and so I do not.

This major Christian feast — solemnly observed through the centuries — is now treated as any other weekday commemoration, to be bounced whimsically around the Calendar. But it was hardly placed upon this Thursday, the fortieth day of Easter, the tenth before the Pentecost, so casually. It is pivotal within the Christian understanding of Christ’s mission, in relation to both. It is the day on which Our Lord took leave of us, returning to Heaven. Death had not sent Him away; death He had defeated.

This Ascent was in preparation for us: to sit at “the right hand of God,” which is where we must rise to be with Him. He waits for us; for those who are faithful. And in the interim, between His going and His return — as He promised, there has come, the Holy Spirit to abide with us. This happened, in time; it continues to happen, beyond time, and through it. The old liturgy receives, and also enacts, and also celebrates, and also explains — quite literally, and too, quite mystically.

Lex orandi, lex credendi.

I am feeling burnt out this morning, having already composed my fortnightly piece for Catholic Thing, which will appear tomorrow. It touches upon the Pew Poll, published a few days ago, about religious affiliations in the USA. It is extremely thorough: thirty-five thousand people were interviewed, and asked fairly telling questions. It makes the accelerated de-Christianization of North America very plain. In particular, in shows that “mainstream” Catholic observance is, currently, collapsing fastest. In seven years, the number of those identifying as Catholics has dropped by one-eighth. When we break this down into generations, we may see half of the rest will soon be gone, too, as the last generation which called itself “Christian” without thinking, has stopped not only thinking, but breathing, too.

For any worldly hope we must look to the remnant who thought their Catholicism through. I am in no doubt the small minority of “traditionalists” will prosper, regardless of persecutions that may be visited upon them, by a rapidly increasing non-Christian population that interprets Christian belief as an affront to “progress,” “science,” and its own degenerate mores.

Turn to the news, as I did after filing, and I see what is being done in Rome. Well, gentle reader could do this for himself; I recommend against it. I have not the energy, this morning, even to list the liberal-progressive bandwagons which the Holy See is now clambering aboard, in a vain display of very worldly sanctimony. In the midst of our crisis, this latest betrayal of our faith. And yet, Christ warned us: put not thy faith in men.

And yet, Christ Ascended, as our pledge, bidding us follow. In joy:

— Ascendit Deus in jubilatione, alleluia.

— Et Dominus in voce tubae, alleluia.

A whole mind

Among the greatest achievements of the great Catholic controversialist, Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621; Saint, Bishop, Confessor, Doctor of the Church; feast today in Old Mass), was in the conclaves of 1605, when he twice talked his fellow Cardinals out of electing him Pope. Others have done it once. But with the quick demise of Leo XI, Bellarmine became the only papabile in history (so far as I am aware) to do it all over again a few weeks later. This showed not only, perhaps, rare self-knowledge, but also considerable energy.

He was indeed the founder of the faculty of Controversial Theology, at what became the Gregorian university at Rome — a discipline he invented expressly for the purpose of methodically refuting Protestant theological and doctrinal assertions, in all their kaleidoscopic variety.

As an Anglican, young and eager, decades ago, perhaps my favourite divine was Lancelot Andrewes (1555–1626). His Preces Privatae (edited once by John Henry Newman) provided the boilerplate for my own private prayers. He was the organizing genius behind the King James Version of the Bible, whose tastes established its immortally “catholic” style. His sermons, too, enthralled me for his ability to turn from high learning to racy street language and back again, in successive clauses. The Elizabethans generally could do that sort of thing (Shakespeare thrives on such delicious toggles, between the coarse and the refined), but it seemed to me then that the Bishop of Winchester (Andrewes) had exceeded all others in his gift for making these sometimes humorous, often shocking gearshifts, resonate with sanctity.

My acquaintance with Bellarmine was through Andrewes. There was a great controversy between them, over the Oath of Allegiance (1606) that King James put before those of his subjects still Catholic, and which in good conscience many found impossible to take. Published in the backwash from the “Gunpowder Plot,” it appeared to offer English Catholics tolerance and safety, on the condition that they would recognize the Protestant King’s high authority, and abjure violence, insurrection, or tumult. To more modern eyes, this seems a real deal: “Let us live and let live. … Swear that you won’t try to overthrow me, and I swear that I won’t try to kill you.”

But it was not so simple as post-modern eyes see. In the course of the seven affirmations demanded of his subjects, King James was laying down the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings (since mutated into the Divine Right of Elected Politicians). No Catholic can accept that; many dissenting Protestants were uncomfortable with it, too; and the controversy over this English Oath of Allegiance was joined across Europe, for many years.

It seemed to me, struggling through an epistolary debate largely untranslated from Latin, that Andrewes had got the better of Bellarmine, in a close-run thing. (But I was biased.) Later I became the more impressed with Bellarmine when I realized that, like a chess master simultaneously playing a hundred opponents, he was meanwhile arguing with a large number of the most formidable Protestants on many other boards. Too, that Andrewes had jumped into the ring on tag wrestling principles, along with several other leading English ecclesiastics, after Bellarmine had wasted (the learned) King James himself, in a previous round. Too, Andrewes himself is profoundly respectful of Bellarmine, and does not dare to take cheap shots. The two men seemed to bring out the best in each other.

I doubt all these impressions would stand if, now a Papist, and of riper years, I returned to that scene. I also doubt the question, “Who won?” is in itself coherent. On balance, I think God was winning. For from both sides an attempt was being made, I think generously, to get at the truth: to formulate a position that could be universally acceptable, and thus might indeed win peace, without submission to moral compromise.

At this distance, I think the debate worth revisiting because every question touching the “separation of Church and State” is on the table, and each is pursued (by both sides) in dimensions since neglected. It is the more enthralling because the participants have implicitly agreed to appeal to man’s conscience. Previously they had thought of it more as a contest between their respective armies.

That a King, or other secular ruler, has an authority or legitimacy that is in some sense divinely sanctioned, Catholics would have to agree. This is affirmed even within Christ’s “give unto Caesar,” when properly understood. But it is affirmed, throughout Catholic teaching — ancient, mediaeval, and modern — with a very important qualification. When the State claims an authority even over conscience; and more particularly, when it claims the right to form that conscience in defiance of Holy Church; and even more particularly, when it establishes an alternative religion (whether that be “Anglican” as then or, as today, “Secular Humanist”) — it has lost its legitimacy, its right to be obeyed. For the demand now is no longer “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” rather, “give unto Caesar what is God’s.” This becomes a martyrdom issue.

No King (and no State in Christendom) has the “divine right” to do any such thing. King James’s essential claim, to a spiritual authority within his own realm, must be rejected.

A moment’s thought will reveal innumerable parallels today, within the Church, as well as from outside. Let me mention just one: the claim of German bishops to doctrinal competence on divorce and remarriage, within Germany. This immediately involves a claim to a “divine right,” which cannot be diffused.

It will be further seen that the controversy, in its own day, went to the heart of the Protestant Reformation. Saint Robert Bellarmine’s role, from his first experience of teaching at the Catholic university of Louvain in Flanders, was to clarify the Catholic position for the benefit not only of the other side, but of the many Catholic priests who had acquired, through contemporary fashions, quite Protestant attitudes.

U.S. Americans, defending their own Constitution, should be aware that many of the arguments of Jefferson and Madison against the “divine right of George III” were in fact lifted from Bellarmine; and that for many other Founding Fathers, the whole idea of the USA was Bellarminian: to dethrone one version of this “divine right” without, via “democracy,” setting another up in its place. In other words, the actual authors of that Constitution held views directly opposed to the liberal-progressives who interpret it in American law courts today; and were, with respect to natural law, quaintly “catholic.”

I have touched quickly and in a dangerously summary way on only one aspect of Bellarmine himself. His mind was very broad and very deep, and his works will repay very close study. I wish that I had ever found the time, for even on the basis of a glancing acquaintance I have come to realize how much is there.

Notwithstanding, I doubt he was among “the greatest Popes we never had.” More than anything I think I would defend this extraordinary Jesuit for the insight he showed in declining, or more precisely, avoiding, the papacy itself. His Jesuit mission was on the front lines of intellectual and spiritual controversy. He was a catechist for all the ages. But the role of a Pope is different in kind. It is, surely, to defend the faith from any alteration, but with a serenity that omits any personal agenda. Indeed, I long thought (before 2013), that it was a mark of the profound wisdom of the Roman Church that no Jesuit had ever been seated upon the Throne of Peter. For at their best — which they are far from, today — the Jesuits are an order established to serve the Vicar of Christ, only. (You don’t make cops into judges.)

In his retirement from the world, in his seventies, Bellarmine did however write several remarkably serene tracts, including spiritual masterpieces which began with, The Ascent of the Mind to God. Written consciously in the tradition of the early seventh-century Saint John Climacus, and the thirteenth-century Saint Bonaventure, it provides what I think is not only an intellectual, but a mystical key to the entire Counter-Reformation, in whose wake we still bob.

It takes deadly seriously the primary commandment of Jesus Christ: that we love God, not negatively but positively, with our whole heart, our whole soul, and with our whole mind.

Of a maple sapling

In some ways, I will miss this planet (when my spaceship comes, and it is time to go). Not so much the people as the places and things.

(I’m assuming the people also move along.)

There was a moment, early this morning, when this thought came back to me, in a narrow urban laneway (among the garages, behind the houses) when the rising sun, shining briefly under overcast, caught an especially apt arrangement of leaves on a maple sapling, struggling for city space. The floral painting that could represent it is well beyond my powers; the effect was of something woven, like damask. The leaves themselves looked the part of young, shall we say callow, in vegetable nature’s terms. Yet something in the quality of morning light made them seem, suddenly, very ancient.

Now, maples (and I intend no patriotic jingo today) have been around, give or take, seventy million years, judging from the earliest known Acer fossil, found near here in eastern North America. But they truly flourished in the Miocene, perhaps fifty million years later, if we judge by volume. Or if we judge by eye, they are still going strong, in more than a hundred species.

You know me, I tend to be sceptical of evolutionist claims. I do not doubt the fossils look like maples, in bark and leaf, and some as if they fell yesterday, into strata aeons down. But the Design Angels love to play tricks, and will often make things look the same that are genetically very far apart. I join them in giggling at the theoreticians.

This little guy was an Acer saccharum, I think — a sugar maple. Though this being the city, and the pollution-loving Norways moving in, I’m sure I’ll be told I was dreaming. They (both sugars and Norways) have so much to say for themselves, in their richly understated way, especially when turned red in the autumn; but also in the spring when they subtly flower; or in the north woods, where the sugars meet with the birch to dance, dance, dance in the breeze. And their syrup is of course to die for, developed in His pantries by God’s most accomplished Culinary Angels to slide over melting butter on those divine buckwheat hotcakes.

But this is all beside the quality of the light, reflected from those shy young unfurléd leaves this morning, revealed to Lord Sol from the shade.

We cannot provide a “meaning” for such moments, that string together as beads through our lives. So many other “incidents” like that come back vividly to haunt us: time somehow worming out of time.

The young sugar maple himself offered no comment — none, at least, that I could hear — except to capture in a gesture the is-ness, the remarkable is-ness, of things down here.