Essays in Idleness


The life of Bree-an

Hardly do I ever see films, big screen or small, so when I do, I am often quite affected. In my piece over at Catholic Thing today (here), I mentioned one I saw last week, from 1973 (here). It is entitled, Catholics, and is by the late talented novelist, Brian (pronounced, Bree-an) Moore. He wrote screenplay as well as the underlying novella, and from my email I already see that plenty people of a certain age remember it. A nice hand also to the directors and actors — now all but the youngest, dead — for a made-for-TV movie so memorable.

As it is still in my head, I am still wondering why it should haunt me. I can think of three reasons: the simple explanation of the Sacrifice of the Mass by the character Father Manus (played by the late Cyril Cusack), for the benefit of a sophisticated young idiot from Rome; the imagery of the ruined, re-inhabited Abbey (shot on Sherkin Island, in County Cork); and the fact that we are once again passing through a “conflict” in which the Catholic faith is under a focused and hugely destructive attack, from Rome itself. This gives the film a frisson of the prognostick.

On the surface it seems as if its purpose had been to help crush the hopes of Catholic “traditionalists,” back in the day; to show that, deary me, their days were numbered. In the “spirit of Vatican II” it imagines the “spirit of Vatican IV” — the inevitable push forward against the sentimental pull of the past. The past might be pretty; and progress might be ugly, but it will win out.

The Abbot himself in this remote “Muck Abbey” privately reveals that he is an atheist. He is a stoic, who, lacking all conviction, but by stolid, personal, Nietzschean will — plus good cheer, and a joking disposition — views his job as that of a foreman. This is psychologically implausible; which is to say, a dramatic lie. No man, eschewing divine grace, nor alternatively the strange energy of the devil, could have lasted for decades in such a job. Not when he has been intimately surrounded by unambiguously faithful monks, equally inured to the hard life. He would have cracked, or converted.

Yet the Abbot, who in this instance bends to the times, is cast as a noble and heroic figure; his faithful monks, however sympathetically portrayed, are cast as naïve victims of superstition. Through forty-five years, we learn, they never noticed that their Abbot never prays. Nor do they suspect, now. … Please!

(More brilliant casting, by the way. For the Trevor Howard who played this role was, it turns out through his Wiki profile, a man who concocted an heroic war record for himself, when in fact he had dodged military service. But only after his death was this discovered.)

Our attention is centred on the fate of the Latin Mass. That is the foreground issue; the real issue is mentioned only in passing. Rome, in the film, after Vatican IV, has denounced belief in miracles — including the Real Presence in which we find the central miracle of the Incarnation. Visitor and Abbot have contrived to sweep that off the table; and the sweet, but rather dithering monk who takes it up (that Father Manus), invites our knowing condescension. His tougher fellow, who insists upon the miraculous — quoting Augustine to clinch his point — is presented as a charmless zealot. Others, deeply upset by what is happening, come across as mentally unstable.

Psychological implausibilities are more damaging than material implausibilities, in drama; and so one cannot be surprised that Brian Moore was reduced to a trick ending.

The dramatic flavour of the film (I never read the novella, and am not moved to do so now), is in the juxtaposition of the smart, professional, yoga-mastering jetsetter from Rome (well represented by the young Martin Sheen), and the bleak, isolated, fisherman surroundings. He who is used to speak power to truth, has come to the one place in the world where he may be outnumbered; and with the lie that is the premiss of the film. It is by the visuals, and the soundtrack of the old Irish voices, that we are placed under enchantment; the script is merely clever. Moore, himself the professional lapsed Catholic, by depicting a confrontation over the Latin in the Mass, deflects from the issue on which it depends.

For if one does not oneself believe, or more precisely, stake one’s soul on the Real Presence, one cannot understand a real Catholic. It does not matter how powerful the thing may be as “a symbol.” If the Real Presence is not really present, the whole Catholic Church is hogwash, and her purported Founder was a snake-oil salesman. Scientology, or Wicca, would make as good a hobby.

It does not matter how thoroughly one was once immersed in a Catholic “culture”; or how much nostalgia one feels for it. It does not matter how talented a writer is, how well-informed, or even how fair in presenting the “debate” from all sides. It does not matter if the cinema is filled, or even the church, by paying customers.

The real deficiency of the late author, that professional Irishman, Brian Moore, may be seen in the deflection: his trying to write “meaningfully” about a place where he is only a tourist. Or if he claimed more, a fraud and a poseur.

On further thought, nor is the Latin Mass the secondary issue. Rather more immediately it is the credentials of this cocky Inquisitor from Rome, whose papers are those of the men who sent him. For if, after two thousand years, in the founding commission of Our Lord, they claim the right to revise their orders — they have no authority. They become tourists in their own Church, and when they claim more, imposters.

Death of a smoker

Helmut Schmidt was a highly unusual politician: “intelligent, honest, candid, decent,” as described by old colleagues in Germany; and a smoker, as everyone noticed. This last was important. He smoked everywhere, paying no attention to Nicht Rauchen signs, right up to the day before yesterday. (Literally.) It was part of his charm, a way to signal that he did not care for anyone’s opinion. It was not the occasional cigarette; witnesses, including television audiences, calculated that he lit another every seven minutes.

When the EU threatened to ban his brand, two years ago, he went out and bought two hundred cartons. (At the rate indicated, he must have smoked them all by now.)

If I have one criticism of the man (former Bundeskanzler, who died Tuesday, age ninety-six), it is that he smoked menthol cigarettes. I do not like them. But he was a generous man, who kept non-menthol packs, too, which he distributed to visitors in his office, from a giant candy bowl loaded with all brands. He would force them on people, and make them feel self-conscious if they were not smoking with him.

The Germans are notoriously a disciplined, rule-bound people. But they hate themselves for it, and they loved Helmut Schmidt. There were polls to show, right up to his death, that he remained the country’s most popular politician, even if few wanted him back in office again. They always wanted to hear, however, what he had to say. And to watch the way he said it: like a captain. He could enchant foreign audiences, too, but especially German ones, by being so un-German. But of course he was from Hamburg, the ancient Free and Hanseatic City, which is full of un-German types.

His manner was commendable. People would come to him with some policy matter they thought he must urgently address, and he would say, “That doesn’t interest me.” Then change the subject to something more amenable.

From what I gather, he was miscast as the equivalent of a prime minister. He would have been entirely acceptable as a kind of “constitutional” Holy Roman Emperor; powerless, but constantly telling the merely departmental figures what’s what. It is unfortunate that the office has lapsed; I think Schmidt would have enjoyed it.

The next best thing was writing for Die Zeit. This wonderful post-war German institution is a fat, weekly broadsheet. When displaced from federal office he bought a stake in it, and held court from there as one of the co-editors. Since adolescence, when I could almost read German, I have been trying to follow it. The articles are long, both serious and light, and the attitude is like Schmidt’s: Social Democrat, technically, but against almost everything the Left stands for. And a shameless bastion of pro-Americanism.

Schmidt, older readers may recall, was the Bundeskanzler (I almost wrote Reichskanzler, OMG), who, in defiance of millions of Leftist hooligans in the streets, invited the Americans to put fresh nuclear missiles in silos all across West Germany — at a time when the Soviets were getting too pushy. Ah, the old Cold War: how we miss it. He was the man who refused to negotiate with the Baader-Meinhof gang, and when they hijacked a Lufthansa plane to Mogadishu, sent commandos to rescue all the passengers, and bring the terrorists home in body bags. This is how it should be done.

He was also a persistent architect of Ostpolitik (in continuity with Willy Brandt); and a proponent of “Europe.” His reasons, in every case, were the common ones: e.g. a statesman should try to avoid war. And yes, he had served in the Wehrmacht (having joined the Hitler-Jugend at age fourteen, like all the other kids). Indeed he had served on the bloody Eastern Front; he had some inkling what war is like, along with his Iron Cross. Too, on the Western Front, where he was captured and interned in a British POW camp; and wherein he became something of an Anglophile, and a thoughtful politician.

Showing strength is one aspect of maintaining the peace; arranging alternatives to war is another. We could argue the fine points; not today.

A “progressive,” I suppose, but according to the tenets of another generation; the German equivalent of my father, in some ways, who was a “liberal” in the 1950s sense, which is to say, free markets and total opposition to Communism. Who wanted a “social safety net” for the hard cases, but hardly a Kafkaesque welfare state for all. Too, a form of “open-minded” tolerance for what the kids get up to; but nothing like what we tolerate today.

His wife Hannelore, or “Loki,” to whom he was very happily married for sixty-eight years, was another of those: an “environmentalist” but of an earlier generation that stressed conservancy, and public education. Her (and their) notion was that, the more people know about nature, the safer it will be from depredation. It was not, vegans in jackboots. The two were inseparable as a political team. She was a chain-smoker, too. Sad to say, she died young, at age ninety-one.

After which, in his own nineties, Helmut scandalously took a mistress. (He was lovable, what can one say?)

Armistice Day

An army moves on its stomach; though it is hard to find in the historical record an army that enjoyed this much. The culinary standards among officers is usually low; those imposed upon their men often lower. It must be sufficient in bulk and nutrition to carry them along; it must not, at least not intentionally, inspire mutiny. Something between prison and monastic will pass among men who are genuinely hungry (I’m not sure which is lower); the presentation is, traditionally, in metal bowls.

For it must be served in less than Michelin-star environments. War is not a picnic, it has been said. I have had the experience of trying to cook in the presence of squalling children; I can imagine that incoming mortars provide their own distraction from le haute cuisine.

But the circumstances of a field kitchen are not necessarily grim. Dried herbs and spices are light to transport, and wherever one happens to be on campaign, there are the natural fresh stocks of that country. These, by convention, may be appropriated. (Wellington, when told that Napoleon’s men did not pay for what they took from their own French peasants, gallantly said, he was sure they would have paid had they thought of it.)

Moreover, as old soldiers will recall, and the readers of their diaries and memoirs in their absence, most days are not that exciting. There is plenty of time to think about food. There are long, seemingly interminable periods of boredom and waiting with nothing to look at except the sky; interspersed with short periods of pant-shitting terror.

Suppose, for a moment, a little imagination on the part of quartermasters and cooks; and semi-intelligent commanders, bent on showing a bit of style. There could be rivalry between regimental kitchens, or between galleys in Her Majesty’s fleets. Food could be made an inducement for recruiting, and raise morale, incrementally, at the front.

The idea is not original to me.

In the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale — that extraordinary nurse and angel, who haunts my dreams, walking with her lamp — procured the help of an adoring Alexis Soyer. (At the time he was London’s leading hotel chef, and kitchen god of the Reform Club.) She wanted him to advise her on the organization of field hospital kitchens. On his own dime, he travelled to the front. They made sick bays the place to eat: almost worth getting wounded for. Soyer applied his broad mind to analyzing the limitations of field cookery, under enemy fire, then turning each limitation into a strength. (See his, Culinary Campaign in the Crimea, 1857; reissued 1995).

Soyer is among my maximal culinary heroes. The portable field stove he invented was (with minor modifications) still in use during the Gulf War. So, to this day, are some of the logistic principles he had developed previously in his private campaign to deliver food to the poor Irish, during their Great Hunger. He was, to my mind, quite possibly a saint; though with his little foibles, like all the other ones. (See also his biography, Relish, by Ruth Cowen, 2007.)

Morale is, after all, not a small thing in the conduct of a war, or any other large, destructive venture. A hot meal served in defiance of the cold wet conditions in the hideous trench is more than welcome in itself. It tells the soldier there are others, risking their lives for him, as he risks his life for them: Solidarity! And the Psalmist, too, may be invoked, for, “Thou preparest a table before me, in the presence of mine enemies.”

Alas, the background tradition of food service, at least in British armies, has been that of the Scots — those bold, hardy warriors sweeping down through Northumberland in the fourteenth century, on horses and ponies, without baggage carts. In Froissart’s Chronicles we read of their diet: underdone meat from rustled local cattle, oatmeal cakes, and river water. To be fair, the provisions for the Khan’s Mongols was less luxurious than that.

Perhaps that is the way it has to be. I can still remember my grandfather grumbling about the dinners, half a century after the Great War. (My father, flying Spitfires in the Second, was less of a complainer.)

So in remembering the men, and women who served, we might adjust our eating today, by deferring breakfast. Lunch could be delivered in a tin can: a little tough stewing beef and a lot of barley, in a thin broth with a slab of stale bread, sans beurre. Especially in commemoration of those for whom this meal was their last — this side of paradise.

It is a day for platitudes, and old platitudes are best:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Democracy versus God

It is possible I spend too much time on the Internet. And if you are reading this, my gentle, it is possible that you do, too. I must make these posts shorter for both of our sakes. The problem being, that as a typical post-modern, I think I have so much to say, and the medium makes it possible to blather. And then there are the links!

This, for instance, stolen from the website of another self-styled hack. It is a passage transcribed from one of Étienne Gilson’s public lectures in the early 1950s, and let it be said that a man in the Deep South who signs himself N.W. Flitcraft, found it first. (He is here.) Gilson has been one of my own “heroes,” or guiding lights, these last few decades:

“If our school system exists, not in view of a chosen minority, but in view of all, its average level should answer the average level of the population as a whole. Hence the unavoidable consequence that the best gifted among the pupils will be discriminated against. Nor should we imagine that creative minds will multiply in direct proportion to the growth of the school population. The reverse is much more likely to happen. In aristocratic societies, genius has often found access to higher culture, even under adverse circumstances; in democratic societies, it will have no higher culture to which to gain access. Since equality in ignorance is easier to achieve than equality in learning, each and every teacher will have to equalize his class at the bottom level rather than at the top one, and the whole school system will spontaneously obey the same law. It is anti-democratic to teach all children what only some of them are able to learn. Nay, it is anti-democratic to teach what all children can learn by means of methods which only a minority of pupils are able to follow. Since, as has been said, democracy stands for equality, democratic societies have a duty to teach only what is accessible to all and to see to it that it be made accessible to all. The overwhelming weight of their school population is therefore bound to lower the centre of gravity in their school systems. The first peril for democracies, therefore, is to consider it their duty, in order to educate all citizens, to teach each of them less and less and in a less and less intelligent way.”

Pause, gentle, then read that through again, until committed to memory. I cannot think of a better single-paragraph explanation of how John Dewey’s “democratic vistas” sent us all to hell. Verily, I wish I’d been armed with that when asked, some forty-six years ago, why I was leaving school with only a Grade X education (plus, to be fair to me, nearly one full term of Grade XI). It explains everything, in less than three hundred words.

Up here in the northern urban bush, the magnificently focused institution Gilson founded and animated, “PIMS” (the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, on the formerly Catholic campus of St Michael’s College), is in course of remodelling. A well-informed friend tells me that the current plan is to de-Christianize it, and collapse what remains of its once superb academic standards, by turning it into some kind of “centre for the study of Abrahamic religions.” The very term gives the story away: for “Abrahamic religions” is used to refer to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, by people who know nothing about any of them. It is as much a source of local grief, as PIMS was once an international beacon of inspiration.

At every level, our society has been idiotized, in fulfilment of the democratic ideal. As I am reminded by each and every remark, from all candidates in televised political debates, we are now living in Flatworld.

God created, and continues to create, men and women of extraordinary diversity, in natural interests, native motor abilities, and the potential for what the Greeks called “genius.” That is to say, not simply brains, but what can be done with the brain you were provided.

I have noticed from my own teaching experience that, the smaller the class, the harder on a teacher. This is because the needs of individuals can better be discerned. The hardest teaching is under the old, indeed mediaeval, tutoring system: the one-to-one that used to be standard in places like Oxford and Cambridge, which continued to distinguish them from the drive-in, red-brick, fake universities. For at that “tutorial” level, student and teacher are both fully exposed, each to the strengths and limitations of another, non-abstract, human mind. It becomes impossible to “go through the motions.”

And it is like this, ultimately, in the tutoring of Christ Our Saviour. Every one of His students is a difficult case; the smart ones usually the most difficult. And so, likewise, with parent and child; with master and apprentice. It is so, by analogy, wherever men try to teach one another. The sermons and parables, the public lectures, are only the beginning of it. Then comes a process of discovery: “Which part of this do you not understand?”

Compare: the ideal of the “lowest common denominator,” appropriate perhaps for the management of pigs and cattle, on a large industrial farm. But evil when applied to human beings.

On vexation

Oh look! … Some clever person (or persons) has found a new way to spam my website. … I thought I’d confuted him (or them) when I disabled all Comments, many moons ago. But I was secretly still receiving “trackbacks,” so I could see when my pieces were “linked” from other sites. … Now I am receiving innumerable false links, designed I think to trick me into visiting places that aren’t at all nice, where I can be “cookied” to death. … Or some other game whose “misrules” I will soon enough discover. …

Ah well, as they say. …

Most, if not all “conservative” and (“traditional”) Catholic bloggers receive such attentions, as I have learnt from casual conversations with a representative sampling of them. This is part of the general experience of resisting the demonic. When I was a columnist in the “mainstream press” I had the similar pleasure of being bombarded not only with hate-mail, but frequent, frivolous, formal “complaints,” designed to tie me up (together with my bosses) in various bureaucratic complaints procedures, patiently (or sometimes, impatiently) responding to each one.

Likewise, the last time the Liberals were in power, up here in Cà nada, I and the small handful of other token rightwing hacks found that we had been “randomly selected” for extremely malicious tax audits. Now, alas, that Party is back in power.

And there are other such experiences, too tedious to continue listing. What they tell me is that, as Saint Paul saith, we are up against not trolls, merely, nor uncivil servants, but “principalities and powers”; against, to put it warmly, demons in human flesh and dress. Or more reasonably, not demons, per se, but men who have pledged fealty to demons. As opposed to, say, those with only “another point of view” — which, if they had, they’d be able to articulate.

Saint Paul also counsels that we reply calmly, that we fear them not, that we get about our business, fixing what we can, while humbly requesting God’s help for what is beyond our powers. I should perhaps try (harder) to deal with such attacks as if they were inanimate; as if they were only “mechanical problems” — bugs, as opposed to ghosts, in the machine. To God we leave the task of fixing them “at source.” We wouldn’t want to be running interference against the divine plan.

For the time being, while we remain on earth, we may take them as a penance for our own many sins; and as wonderful opportunities to assist in the conversion of our worst enemies, by praying for them, and returning good for evil. Never forgetting, that among the goods we may be able, charitably, to provide, is the appropriate punishment for each crime. (Such as garroting, perhaps; or disembowelment.)

So long as we keep it calm, and impersonal. …


It is the Octave of All Souls, of special though private significance to me. Let us pray for All Souls, not Saints — that God will open our eyes, before he shuts them forever. We are blind in our furies; to see requires composure.

That is why artists must be chaste; and in the case of the more talented, celibate, like priests or nuns. It is a dreadful feature of the (post?) modern world, that vows of celibacy should be confined to religious, only. Soldiers, too, would be, ideally, like armed monks, or rather, canons. Many scholars would benefit from celibate lives, to help them focus on the minutest details, and live on very modest means; as well, school marms and librarians. And cricketers, too, ought to be as artists; though I would not extend this suggestion to rugby, or ice hockey, where the game creates its own eunuchs. Fishers of men should all be celibate; fishers of fish, and fishmongers, should, however, take wives and have children. According to me.

In Hamlet, which I found myself teaching this morning, the question whether Hamlet himself had been strictly abstinent arose, this being germane to the understanding of the play. Princes should not, by custom, refrain from sex past the age when they are married; though who, any longer, does what he is told, by God or man? Not, I fear, the graduates of our Wittenbergs.

Hamlet’s view of women, or should we specify, of Gertrude and Ophelia, affects a certain disgust with the female libido, though his notorious remark, “get thee to a nunnery,” has been interpreted many ways. He seems to take a better view of homicide, as through the course of the play he fulfils the requirements for a serial killer. Yet, flights of angels might well sing him to his rest. (The play should be read more closely, for most of what is said about it, especially by the experts, is tosh.)

On the Octave of All Souls we view men and, yairs, women, too, from the aspect of their graves. Where they lie chastely.

Among my favourite words in that play is “straight.” The “crowner” (i.e. coroner) has ruled that Ophelia’s body be laid in the church-yard, and to “make her grave straight.” This, for those not up on Christian mortuary practices (as modern Shakespeare scholars seem not to be), means the body is to be laid west-to-east, with the stone at the foot, and the head to the east: parallel, as it were, with the church, whose “head” points east, liturgically. (Note that most modern grave-diggers make a lio of this, by putting the head beneath where the stone is going, or placing the stone so that it will obstruct the deceased’s eastern view. Perhaps we need a Synod to correct this.)

He (the coroner) has ruled, in other words, that Ophelia’s death was not a suicide — the ultimate, because unforgivable, Christian sin. Though perhaps he has ruled with less than perfect certainty, this world being as it is, and the girl having concluded her earthly life quite mad (with reasons enough). The Church having taught that madness attenuates volition, you see.

As a friend once told me, in jest I should think, the purpose of life, as our contemporaries seem to live it, is to produce an attractive corpse. Whereas, this Shakespeare observes, from his knowledge founded in the late mediaeval past, it doesn’t really matter what you look like in the end, consequent as it may have been on your failure to eat healthy, drink in moderation, observe non-smoking, and work out at the gym.

The purpose is rather to be laid straight. In such a way, the graveyards can be an inspiration to us, the stones all oriented in the proper liturgical direction. And generation, after generation, carrying the candles, lighting the path.

Sin is to be avoided, wherever and whenever it can be; and it can actually be avoided, once we know what it is. But not vexation: this comes with the script. Our Lord promised as much; and lets the play happen.

Remember we again, today, all of our ancestors, laid straight in hope of the life everlasting, as we in our turn must hope to die, in a state of grace. And pray again, that they have not “gone west” to the everlasting bonfire. For the Road itself goes east, ever east, to meet the Sun of Justice.

Fleeting & endured

There is always a possibility that the sky is not falling. That is among the reasons we pray. Not that the Lord will prevent the sky from falling; for it might be part of His overall plan. Rather that we may remain in a state of grace, if the sky is falling; or in the equally testing event that it is not falling, today.

Much, I suspect, of my own anxiety at present is caused by insufficient attention to Church history. “Traditionalists” (i.e. the Catholic faithful), already set on edge by an unending stream of (often crass) verbal abuse from our supreme pontiff, mixed with occasional flattery for heretics, imagine that in such circumstances the end must be near. We hear our worst enemies cheering him on. The cover of the current Spectator magazine, showing the pope riding a huge wrecking ball (here), expresses a sentiment shared among, for instance, many of my own gentle readers. And, too, people like me.

But “traditionalists” should be the first to realize that bad things happen, and have often happened, within or to the Church. And they continue to happen, one darn thing following another, until, as I was trying yesterday to suggest, the wreckers finally demolish themselves. “Be patient, fast and pray,” is the wisdom of ages. (I am still trying to acquire it.)

“Creative destruction” is what the liberals often think they are doing. (“Making a lio” is apparently the Argentine expression.) As they do not, and ultimately, cannot build anything to replace what they are wrecking, or rather, anything of durable worth or value, the adjective is just a lie. “Unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it.”

Moreover, in this case, the liberals have a more formidable than their usual opponents. For as we have seen, through the centuries, that Church, when wrecked, has an uncanny ability to reassemble herself. (It was among the endowments of her Founder.) Sometimes I can understand their frustration, trying to kill something they hate, that just won’t die.

In my walks around the Greater Parkdale Area, which have taken place over a few decades now, I notice the fate of buildings. Beautiful old buildings, or at least quaint, which had become beloved landmarks within each neighbourhood of the city, are replaced by “functional.” For some mysterious reason, in a row of twenty mediocre buildings, but one quietly outstanding, the developers will target that one first.

Their pleasure is fleeting; our sadness is endured.

Half a century of observation tells me this is not the sad coincidence that may at first seem. Rather, to the mind that is ugly, the outstanding building is an affront. Consciously, or perhaps unconsciously, it is singled out for the new McDonalds. Or the finest sprawling sandstone mansion is selected, for the site of a dreary new apartment block, or other rental building.

But live long enough, and one will watch these, too, come down, as the functions quickly change. I think of a certain “professional building” I had often the misfortune to walk by, still taking it for “new” after thirty years. Imagine my delight, the other day, to find it is now an asphalt parking lot. A rare case of architectural improvement.

I allude, by analogy, to the fate of the viciously ugly ICEL liturgies, from the cultural nadir of our Church, themselves now replaced in the “reform of the reform” by new “functional” texts, under what is arguably a slightly improved building code. One turns from an opponent, to a fan of demolition.

At Bathurst Station, on the Bloor subway line, an experiment was made. The place was attracting too many loiterers of the low life, and their drug dealers. So the transit management, having read the professional literature of crowd control, piped in classical music — mostly Bach and Mozart chestnuts — and this quickly drove all the reprobates away. Then they switched to excruciating squealing sounds, to drive out the pigeons. (And the reprobates returned.)

Here I am reaching for the old Latin maxim that, de gustibus non est disputandum. There is a vague schoolboy notion that it came from Horace, but had it, he would have been droll. It may have been meant as droll from the beginning, for even the pagan Romans knew that beauty is not, really, in the eye of the beholder. Like the sacred, it is carried by divine commandment, heard or unheard, seen or unseen, heard seen and loved, or heard seen and hated.

Beauty itself can repel the evil, as it attracts the good. And it is vice versa with the ugly, don’t you know.

“Unless the Lord build the house,” it is going to be ugly. But in that we repose an occasion for mild hope. For it is not going to last long, either.

The self-defeaters

The Devil is prone to a little tactical flaw. He overplays his hand. Those who emulate the Devil tend to share this foible. One thinks of Ludendorff, for instance, who lost the First World War for the Germans. Then set them up to lose the Second one, too.

How many battles in history have been lost, when a general became a little overconfident. Let us say he has the defenders’ command in view. With all his concentrated forces, he will overleap, or overpower, a single soft and worn position, to achieve checkmate. All his freshest soldiers will gather around this one, ever weakening point. For days, weeks (from Synod to Synod) his shelling continues, until he can be sure the defenders — however numerous they once were — are exhausted, if not extinct.

They refuse to be mesmerized, however. They continue to suspect a trick, a surprise. Surely the Devil is planning a sudden thrust from another location. The defenders therefore hang in: stupidly, one might say, for all they do is absorb the blows. They do not ask the rest of their front line to supply reinforcements; shrug even when the wing commanders offer them. No, they are just going to take their lumps.

Finally comes the thrust: just where it was signalled all along. The shelling stops; the Enemy races forward; the position is breached. With nothing left to plug this hole in their middle, the defenders would seem to have cracked. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

But what’s this?

The Enemy has, after all, been neglecting the rest of the line. Remember, he stripped it to reinforce his vanguard. On the cry, the outlying defenders mindlessly advance. They meet only token opposition. In the very moment their middle is collapsing, the defenders’ wings begin to swing around.

They (the Prussians, the Kasperites, whoever) have walked into a trap that they never suspected; and this because it was never laid. It is a trap the Enemy created and sprang — on himself. Suddenly it is not his opponent, but he, who is surrounded. He was focused, he was cocky, he was arrogant, and ruthless, and now — he is done.

All the enemy bayonets are stabbing forward — into the aether. But from both wings Saint Michael has come round, and ho! We are unloading all this holy ordnance into their backsides.

My most optimistic view of the Battle over Communion is that the Enemy has once again made this mistake. He’s put everything into a single, definitive breach in Church doctrine, on the assumption that after that hole is made, everything else goes down it. And it does, but not quite in the way the Enemy expected. What follows instead is Saint Michael aroused — whose strength remained in all the scattered positions.

The Kasperites spent years shelling this one carefully selected position (communion for adulterers) in the expectation that when it fell, Rome would be theirs. They even have the pope of their own choosing: one obviously beholden to them. The defence of Church doctrine seems about to expire, ignominiously.

But no, the battle is not over yet. It may well look rather grim. Until nearly the end of the First World War, it appeared that the Germans were winning; not only to us but to them.

Ah, Ludendorff; perhaps I am unfair to him. He certainly creamed the Russians at Tannenberg. He was the very Devil, and hardly in disguise.

“I repudiate Christianity as not appropriate to the German character,” the Prussian commander once said.

As G.K. Chesterton parodied: “I deny the existence of the Solar System, as unsuited to the Chestertonian temperament.”

Deny what you will, it is very large, and in the moment when the breach is made and boasted, the rest of it comes round to hit you in the ass. We may think it is going rather poorly for us, right at the centre of our beleaguered front. But that is to forget about Saint Michael.

You know: that holy angel of angels, hidden in plain view. The one to whom only “traditionalists” pray.

Lead us in battle.


POSTSCRIPTUM. I have removed a parenthesis from the above in which I toyed with the dangerous notion that the “St Gallen Mafia” forced Pope Benedict XVI to resign. We had the word of the latter that this was not so, as I was promptly reminded by a couple of readers; and as I now discover, even a hint from him of a mystical affirmation. I took my remark down immediately on their suggestion, but then my machine fritz’d, and I was only able to make it disappear these many hours later. … Mea culpa.

More could be said, but to no good purpose. … More should be said on one vital point: that in retiring from the papacy to a cell of prayer, the Pope Emeritus did not “give up.” We do not appreciate today the significance of such prayer.

Penny for the old Guy

It was never clear to me, when I lived in England many years ago, what one was supposed to make of the 5th of November. The Gunpowder Plot was discovered on this date in 1605. It was a spirited, Catholic attempt at terrorism, the plan being to blow up King and Parliament together at the State Opening of the latter. It was pursued in an intelligent and practical way. The conspirators were able to rent cellar space beneath the House of Lords. Gradually it was filled with barrels of gunpowder. Unfortunately, for them, someone tipped off the authorities. Fawkes was found with his barrels, in flagrante delicto as it were; and so the plot unravelled. … Ah well.

They would all be there: not only His Majesty, but his whole Privy Council; with all the Lords — including the bishops of the Protestant church, and the top drawer of the Protestant aristocracy. Plus the membership of the House of Commons, if we are counting small change. Think of it!

A fine and brave soldier with much experience in the Low Countries, was our Guy Fawkes — or “Guido,” as he called himself. He had fought illustriously for the Spanish in what was ceasing to be the Spanish Netherlands. A dashing gentleman, of electric red hair, flowing beard, and magnificent moustache. Very tall. Dressed as a dandy, even on campaign. A man “pleasant of approach and cheerful of manner” — a convert, and an ornament to the Catholic cause. He was learned, too, and highly articulate; and did I mention fearless? But while he could talk a blue streak, he preferred the life of action.

With a dear old friend whom I should perhaps not name, I found myself discussing once a plan to overthrow the government. There were several of us reactionaries, drinking together, and whining about the political order. Perhaps I shouldn’t mention what country we were in, either. Suffice to say, one of our complaints was about the low level of military expenditure. Someone (perhaps it was I) joked that the only building in the country visibly secured was the Defence Ministry. Full not of soldiers but of wet bureaucrats.

“Now seriously, gentlemen,” the dear old friend proposed, at the end of a general belly laugh. “What will we need to perform a coup d’état?”

Solemnly he began taking notes.

Well, enough of that conversation. I am simply trying to imagine the moment when Fawkes, John Catesby, the Wintours, Percy, Keyes, Bates, Tresham, Digby and the lads — drinking the health not of the Protestant King but of his potentially Catholic nine-year-old daughter — switched from fantasy to planning. It was one of those great banana-peel moments, of which history is replete, and at which, from this distance, one has to giggle. Just think: had they succeeded, we would have had an Elizabeth II in the early seventeenth century, for at least a few weeks; and who knows what after that. With luck, we might never have had “the Whig view of history.”

The English, I found, back in the day, like the Japanese: another insular people. They are inscrutable. We think we might understand them because we speak a version of their language, but really, no one does. Not even themselves. But there are moments when one catches a glimpse into the soul of the nation that gave the world Parliamentary Democracy.

And they present themselves as cool and collected, as organized and understated, as imperturbable: the picture of sangfroid. The unpoetic legislators of common sense, and inventors of “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.” What an extraordinary Constitution they developed, over the course of many hundred years. There were moments when it was even working. But I’d swear the most joyous moment in their secular calendar is “Bonfire Night,” when they think how much they would themselves enjoy blowing it all up.

That, I believe, is the meaning of the 5th of November, in England. It is a moment of indulgence in the counter-factual; in the pleasure of tipping a table, long carefully set. It took centuries for them to damp down their inner Irish; and as I notice from London news today, it is still imperfectly suppressed.

Thirty-six barrels, if I am not mistaken. Enough to reduce the ancient warren about the Palace of Westminster to rubble. A memorable shoot-out at Holbeche House (in Staffordshire, I think), when the rest of the conspirators were run to ground. Survivors of that were in turn, of course, hanged drawn and quartered. (Fair cop, I suppose.) Except Fawkes himself, who managed to break his neck, instead, tumbling from the scaffold in a last, good old college try to escape the executioner’s ministrations.

Ah well.

Whose poor?

[This item somewhat revised and extended overnight. My thanks to
correspondents who find the many holes in my daily Emmentaler.]


“It is plain to Us and to everyone that the majority of the poor, through no fault of their own, are in a condition of misery and wretchedness which calls for prompt and effective remedy. The traditional workmen’s guilds were abolished in the last century; no form of protection took their place; in its laws and institutions the State disowned the ancestral faith; hence, by degrees, we have reached a time when working men, isolated and unprotected, have been delivered over to the brutality of employers and the unchecked greed of competition. To make this worse, rapacious usury, condemned by the Church again and again, is practised still by covetous men who have changed its guise but not its nature. The giving of employment and the conduct of trade have passed so generally into the hands of a few that a small body of excessively rich men have laid on the teeming multitudes of poor a yoke which for practical purposes is the yoke of slavery.”

The statement above does not come from some half-crazed, half-Marxist, Jesuit incendiary in Latin America. Rather it was written by Pope Leo XIII, one hundred and twenty-six years ago. This makes it quite recent in the history of the Church. But if one checks back to Gregory of Nazianzen, for instance — his “Verses Against the Rich,” in the fourth century — one finds many parallel sentiments. Likewise if one consults Saint Isidore of Seville, “on the oppressors of the poor,” in the seventh century; Saint Peter Damian in the eleventh, “on the love of money”; my beloved Saint Catherine of Siena in the fourteenth, “on riches and poverty”; Bossuet in the seventeenth, “on the dignity of the poor”; and so forth. Trust me: I have references up here in the High Doganate for all the other centuries, too.

While the vulgarity of the phrase inclines me to violence, “the preferential option for the poor” is not a new thing in Holy Church. Our instinct has been to take their part, from the beginning — to an extent apparently greater than Jesus did. Indeed, I would be prepared to argue from the Gospels that Our Lord didn’t give a darn about the poor, in the sense of “low income.”

“You will always have them with you,” was His almost flippant remark, when Judas was putting up the long face on their behalf — for his own devious purposes. In one of those offensively hip post-modern translations, the remark could be paraphrased: “They’ll live.” He would not be tricked by Judas’ cunning, into putting the lesser above the higher good.

The Church in this world, more visibly than her Founder, is an institution traversing Time. She confronts the temporal in her passing — deals with facts and things that change over the generations; and then change back. The description of economic conditions by Leo XIII seems quaint to us now; that which Gregory Nazianzen described seems quainter, perhaps. And this is because we have missed their point.

Pope Leo went on to condemn socialists more viscerally than he had the robber barons of his generation. These political operators were exploiting the poor to advance a cause in which their little property could be impounded by the State; and their little freedom, taken. He saw, clearly, the monstrous evil of State power. Leftists and other demoniacs who had and have since infiltrated the Church, quote Rerum Novarum selectively. One must read the whole encyclical, attentively and thoughtfully, to fend against their lies and misrepresentations; as well as to discover that the Church carries no brief for robber barons.

For the tract does not look upon “the poor” in purely material terms — as some jumble of “low income,” with “poor access,” suffering “inequality.” The Church, until quite recently, did not present man as an economic unit or cypher; as an atom in the masses. The human dignity she espoused always involved independence, for the individual and his family. She takes man in the light of his Creator, not in the wording of some humanly-contrived “social contract” — man as man, and not as an abstraction.

But this is a complex matter; we are not seeking Utopia, but in consequence of original sin, making the best of a bad hash. Only within that earthly context does the Church make her public demands; and not for one political or economic system over another, but for some decency within the system, whatever it may be. (Over the centuries she has dealt with every kind of political order, and there is nothing new under the Sun.)

A man should have the serenity that comes from living in his own home; should not depend entirely on some boss for his livelihood, and daily permissions; nor be entangled from adolescence in debt, nor constantly huzza’d by tempters. He should never be treated as cattle, or chattel, or “demographic target.” He should not be deflected from the life of pilgrim, sub specie aeternitatis; nor deprived of the freedom to make his own way.

Vastly more could be said about the “social teaching” of the Church, as it has been thought through over twenty centuries. Her interest has been in the whole range of human goods; and for the whole man in opposition to the worldly powers that try to control him, and appropriate his labour; to reduce him to a beast of burden, however comfortably stalled. She has thus been against big business and big government, in all of their protean forms; against raw power and thus against raw wealth.

She has opposed wealth, not in itself for its legitimate uses (cathedrals cost money), but as an instrument of power and oppression; she has opposed the corruptions that lead to quick wealth, and assist the cunning in their manipulation of the weak and meek. She has sought to feed the actually hungry, to nurse the actually sick, to teach the ignorant, to rescue the stranded, to visit the imprisoned, and comfort the oppressed; to provide without charge what is urgently needed, and come to emergency aid — in explicitly Christian missions of mercy. And these although each is a secondary, to her primary daily mission, in the administration of the Sacraments.

But “income inequality” was never her concern; nor any other vague, abstract, and ideological, social or ecological “issues.”

At least, not until recently.


POSTSCRIPTUM. For additional clarity, a carpenter we know, off in the sticks, pings in this quote from Caritas in Veritate, the encyclical by our beloved Benedict XVI:

“In the list of areas where the pernicious effects of sin are evident, the economy has been included for some time now. We have a clear proof of this at the present time. The conviction that man is self-sufficient and can successfully eliminate the evil present in history by his own action alone has led him to confuse happiness and salvation with immanent forms of material prosperity and social action. Then, the conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from ‘influences’ of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way. In the long term, these convictions have led to economic, social, and political systems that trample upon personal and social freedom, and are therefore unable to deliver the justice that they promise.”

Of polls & proggies

My head is buzzing with the latest polls, to which gentle readers have directed my attention; and one I found this morning on my own, while checking the BBC to catch up on terror strikes and other horrors. I don’t think polls are useful, in the sense of practically good; but this does not mean I don’t think polls are accurate. Rather, they feed into something called “democracy” — an immensely destructive, de-civilizing force.

One learns that something like eight in ten nominal Catholics in America now think physician-assisted suicide is a fine idea. In this they reflect the general population, which is often consulted on the same. Physicians, not necessarily Catholic, are among the least likely to hold this view — less than half of them agree, it seems — but what does that matter? Once medicine has been fully “socialized,” they can be more or less told what to do.

Another email informant assures me that more than six in ten of my (nominal) co-religionists think the divorced and remarried (which is to say, people Christ specifically identified as adulterers) should be offered communion if and when they queue for it in church. But this is perhaps a little misleading, and not so pointed as first appears, for they also think anyone should be offered communion, on the analogy of aspirin when their heads ache.

Anyone? … I suppose they still mean any human; that they still draw a line somewhere. But as we have seen, when it is not defended, that line shifts.

The beloved British blogger, Father Ray Blake (see here, often), who must this morning warn readers that his post contains irony, recently patched, for National Cat Day (add it to your missals for 29th October), a sweet calendar picture of four cute, fluffy, expectant-looking kittens, sitting on a log.

“Look at these kittens,” Father writes in his caption. “Would you deny them the Eucharist?”

It was from the Beeb I learnt that four in ten Britons do not think Jesus was “a real person.” It does not follow they are monophysites, however. Another four in ten think He was resurrected; we are not told if there is overlap. But from other replies to poll questions, posed in a survey commissioned by the Church of England and others, one might gather that the primary mission of modern, public-sector education — that of inculcating idiocy in the masses — is now complete on both sides of the Atlantic.

I could go on. Oh yes, gentle reader, I could go on. The recent election of the Trudeau child in Canada makes any further polling in this country unnecessary. As outgoing prime minister Stephen Harper said in his concession speech, “the people are always right.” From decades past I know that he, too, is capable of irony.

The term “proggies” is supplied by yet another correspondent. I gather it is short for “progressives.” He explains, in light of yesterday’s effusion, that the work of broken homes is invariably completed by the auto-formation of addictive “behaviours” (I dislike this plural), of which serial murder would be just one. Sex, crack, and money, are three more. He cites for his example a musician who, while suffering more than one terminal disease, continued performing — only to collapse and be hospitalized — because of what seemed an addiction to approval. Once out of the hospital, it was on to the next town to repeat the cycle.

I added the term to this morning’s title, for euphony.

Also, to indicate that I do not think human stupidity is quite so simple or passive as may first appear. There is often something quite wilful in it. For as I have seen so poignantly illustrated among my fellows in Parkdale, here, such addictions are not confined to rock musicians. They are the background reality of post-modern life. The human metabolism is itself “adapted” (Darwinian allusion) to stupidity by various forms of dependence, or in the broadest sense, substance abuse. It is not a small matter to take their substances away. They will not mourn quietly.

Moreover, as my correspondent adds: thanks largely to liberalism, the whole modern world is oriented to the perfection of the addict’s delivery systems. This is expressed, statistically, as GDP, and worshipped in itself as our chief social good. To be fair, public education is only one of the delivery systems, for moral, intellectual, and spiritual Error.

This is why it will take something more than “better education” to resist the trend towards universal, abject, wilful stupidity. It will also take something more than the (now almost purely) secular idea of “mercy” or “forgiveness,” broadcast from Rome.

Should I happen to be elected the next pope (taking the name Pius II the Second), I would be inclined to declare a Year of Catechism, full of fasting and comprecation — directed not only to telling Catholics and the curious what the Church teaches (like it or not), and what the Church does not teach. For it strikes me, something more than conventional pedagogy will be required. Something really scary.

I think, in commemoration of Saint Jonathan Swift of the Ordinariate, I would be tempted to unleash a great and terrible wave of irony upon them.

On true mercy

“Stop me before I kill more,” was the famous line left on a victim’s apartment wall by the Lipstick Killer. This was in Chicagoland, back in the 1940s. Or rather, the message was, “For heavens sake catch me before I kill more I cannot control myself”; but I prefer the crisper, edited version.

It is some time since I looked into the case of William Heirens (1928–2012), the gentleman who, for at least three grisly murders, was arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for sixty-five years. Nevertheless, I remember it in outline. Alas, the cops made such a bungle of everything they touched at the scene of each crime, and were so fiendish in their methods of interrogation, as to cast doubt on the confession they extracted from the man. Later, he tried his luck (unsuccessfully) by retracting it. The police evidence would fail on multiple technicalities, today. The contemporary press added details, sewn from whole cloth. They provided a Jekyll and Hyde retelling, and various other gratuitous psycho-thriller story lines, to enthrall their bug-eyed readers.

The cops probably had the right man, however. His own defence attorneys thought he was guilty, and (corruptly) helped the prosecutors get a conviction. In what seems to have been a farce of a trial, in which the police compounded the mess they had made, a compromise was hashed out, in which Heirens was put away in gaol “forever,” but not sent to the electric chair.

He was an interesting case; the perfect antinomian, had it not been for such traces of conscience as the lipstick message. Not a cold-blooded killer, as it were, but an idealistic one: perversely attracted to crime as “a calling.”

The product of a broken home, like most criminals, Heirens had begun wandering the streets to stay away from his feuding parents. Neither showed much interest in him, or what he got up to. He stole plenty, but never benefited from his crimes. He sold nothing he took, took nothing that he wanted, and often hid his loot where he could not retrieve it.

Caught young, he was sent to a reformatory run by Benedictine monks. They discovered that he could pass academic tests at the genius level, so on release at age sixteen he was waived through high school and sent as a student to the University of Chicago. He was, by one account, quite popular, especially with the girls: a first rate ballroom dancer, and when he wanted to be, a charmer.

Formal learning bored him, however, and soon he was off marauding again. He had a flair for this, avoiding easy marks. I’ve met such people, including one some decades ago who burgled a refrigerator. He didn’t need one, but was excited by the challenge. It was all a game. He had started as a book-thief, culminating in the theft of a complete encyclopaedia. He could not help boasting of his skill and prowess. I wonder, today, what he did next; he thought hot-wiring cars would be too easy. (I tried to turn him in, but failed for want of evidence.)

By age eighteen, Heirens’s remarkable criminal career was over (thanks to his final arrest), but till then he was blossoming as an infernal artist, taking on ever more daring and ambitious schemes.

Doubts cast on his commission of the three murders (and suspicions of several more), began with their nature. They did not look like the acts of an interrupted burglar; no valuables had been taken when he left each scene, apparently at leisure. But they were not sex crimes, or otherwise conventionally psychopathic, even though Heirans was discovered to have the works of Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his small but impressive home library. For again: it seemed all of his increasingly monstrous crimes were committed as ends in themselves; as “art for art’s sake.”

A kind of Raskolnikov in this respect. He thinks the moral law does not apply to him, only to other, lesser souls. He is above it, a “special case,” a Napoleon not bound by any received rules. Like Raskolnikov, he might decide that he is serving some higher cause; yet also like Raskolnikov, he cannot settle on a higher cause to serve.

My curiosity about the Lipstock Killer was aroused by that line, “Stop me before I kill more.” As a friend suggested, it is the cri de coeur of the modern liberal. He does things to see if he can get away with them, and when he finds that he can (individually or collectively) he tries to get away with something bigger. Yet he is an “altruist,” in the sense that he isn’t doing anything for himself. He is snobbishly above crass, material self-interest.

Often — given a society increasingly unable to recognize evil acts as objectively disordered — he succeeds. He has some real and growing impact on other people’s lives, for he is objectively inverting their moral order. He expects pushback; expects to fail, eventually. But this never seems to happen. It is as the Lipstick Killer scrawled: he cannot help himself. A tiny remaining glint of conscience perceives his ultimate destination: Hell. Secretly, he wants someone to care enough to stop him before he arrives there.

And this, not for the sake of his future victims, but for his own sake.

We misunderstand this mindset, because we assume it has some conscious end in view. Surely, Hell cannot be a conscious destination. I have found in my own conversations, that the liberal, however smart, can articulate no final end. It is as if the answer doesn’t matter; he has never really thought about it; about what the consequences would be if he actually got everything he wanted. He finds that an irritating question; it is beneath his intelligence, to identify some arbitrary point at which he would be satisfied. There is no such point, for a “progressive.” The next day he would have to “move on.”

Similarly, when I compare liberal demands of the 1960s, with those of today, I can account for them in no other way. It is like a Sisyphean pushing of the envelope. We have already surpassed the wildest dreams of the social and political idealists of that time, half a century ago. Disaster has followed each of the liberal advances; and yet the resistance of society to what I call “criminal idealism” is less and less.

It is important to note that a Lipstick Killer, or liberal, can never be happy. I mean by this that he will never derive pleasure from his accomplishments. Instead, each makes him more bitter, and leaves him with more scores to settle, against the people who failed to stop him. As the writing on the wall explained, he actually wants to be stopped, by some maternal, or better, “patriarchal” authority. But like his own parents, they always let him down.

Perhaps some amateur psychologist, such as myself, could say it all started with his parents, who couldn’t be bothered to restrain the lad, their attention having been entirely absorbed in their own “issues.” The kid is just a nuisance: let him find his own way.

It is — not always, of course, but usually — the unhappy childhood that makes the liberal. He campaigns with such passion to destroy the “traditional family,” and replace it with something strange, partly because he resents his own upbringing; and partly from the instinctive desire to replenish liberal ranks. For busted families mean more unhappy, disoriented children, who will grow up demanding political action; or at least, more crime to afflict the contented and well-adjusted, who characteristically resist “change.” It’s not about the money; it’s about the pain. The ideal of “equality” is to spread it around.

But we should care; and as the Catholic Church has so long taught, it is not only for our own sake, but for the sake of the liberal’s own soul. True mercy requires that he be stopped.

All Hallows’ Eve

In a dream I was dreaming, of a recent morning before first light, there were children with lanterns wandering the streets. The dream was already fading, when I came to write it down, but there remained several indelible touches. Chiefmost was my surprise, upon descending (as the eye of some camera or some bird) from a height into the streams of them. It was like Hallowe’en, with children of all sizes, the larger holding the smaller on their hips, or leading them by hand. And somehow I knew that every one of them was an orphan.

The children were dressed as priests and deacons, monks and canons, nuns and religious sisters. As I looked about, I spotted a wee bishop under his great mitre, an abbot standing in his oversized sandals, an abbess, a prioress; and many more, from curious eastern or perhaps ancient orders. And some were in sheepskins, and some in rags; a shepherd leading a little lamb; some dressed as brides, some dressed as grooms; some carrying tools, as carpenters or masons; and one a feudal lord, followed by his retainers, each with a cross. And they were carrying, too, many kinds of lanterns, and some of them staffs, and bells, sacks or purses; and one of them preceding a little group, swinging a censer. But all were children, come to beg alms.

They turned, it seemed, through every street, and in the manner of a dream I was both among them, and watching the sea of lanterns, from afar. On the ground, I could see them treading before me, and around me. Try as I did I could not see the faces, uncannily shrouded in some way. I wanted to ask, “Who are you?” and “Who are you?” I wanted to hug the sweet little souls, but a voice was telling me, don’t touch them.

By many dark houses they walked, but at some there were adults, standing on their steps and porches, or in their open doorways. And when a child approached, each grown man or woman bowed, deeply and gravely. At which the child would solemnly bless him, and then be on his way.


The model for my dream was of course Hallowe’en, and the figures in the costumes like Hallowe’en kids, and yet the scene was not merry as I remember Hallowe’en from my own childhood. What I recall was a mediaeval spectacle, of sorts, in which the roles of children and adults were reversed, and there was a joke in which everyone was sharing, while pretending to long faces. It was ghosts and goblins and witches and sprites, portrayed with an innocence that can still be glimpsed, in some of the safer neighbourhoods. (Taking children round Parkdale is too much of a risk.)

Something different has however emerged today, to replace that innocence. The new mock-spiritual Hallowe’en is like the new city, in its childlessness.

A sign posted by the door of a house in Toronto’s liberal, upmarket Annex district, explained this evolution to me, a few years back. The house was decorated for a Hallowe’en party, which was apparently for grown-ups only. The sign told children not to ring, because no candy would be offered. “Please respect our privacy,” it concluded.


No mock-spiritual event can be entirely without content: for even the elimination of religion is, by its nature, a religious act. Eternity remains eternity, even while vigil is transformed into feast. Our stance towards the eternal is expressed in symbols, which have meaning even when no longer understood.

From the start of modern, “American” Hallowe’en, the jack-o’-lantern was the reigning symbol. It originated in Irish folklore, and came to our shores with the poor immigrants. The tale is of quick-witted, drunken Jack, invited by the Devil to climb a tree, who first carves a cross in the bark so the Devil cannot get him. He’ll not go to Hell, but after a life of “sin, drink, and mendacity” he’ll not be getting into Heaven either. Dead, he is first refused there, then sent to the other place. But spotting Jack at the Gates of Hell, the Devil hurls a lighted coal at him, from the infernal fires. He was cold, our Jack, but being Irish and clever, he hollows out a rutabaga (the original for our pumpkin), placing the coal inside to keep it from blowing out. With this he to this day wanders about the cosmos, looking for a place to call home.

Lonely we may be, through all eternity, but I’m not sure we still rise to Jack’s condition. Would we be worth a missile of hot coal?

Gentle reader may find a few more details in Dante, on the fate of souls that not even the Devil can be bothered to entertain.


My dream, I might mention, ended in terror. As I was waking the curtain of night pulled away, and light was shed on the nocturnal vision. These were not living children, I was somehow told, but rather the souls of the dead, walking in the costumage of holy saints. They were the spirits of all those little folk, massacred in the abortion clinics, restored mysteriously to flesh. And back from limbo they had come, prowling the city, in search of their own faces.

And so I had been watching their processions through the city, to the homes of their mothers and their fathers, asking only to be recognized as their own.

On four hundred million

Red Chinese statistics are worthless, as intelligent statisticians know. The stupid rely on them anyway, arguing that nothing else is available. This is a typical manoeuvre of modern scientism: taking worthless information at face value, then constructing elaborate fantasies upon it. They call the result, “settled science”; then chastise the sceptics because they can produce no better statistics. In this way, any form of basic human intelligence can be condemned as “anti-scientific.”

The Communists have, eight or nine times since the Maoist revolution, completely “reformed” their statistical methodologies, starting again each time effectively from scratch. Therefore to compare their statistics over time, in order to extract trends, is, to write plainly, compulsively insane. And yet it is not clear whether false statistics are any less useful than true statistics. Which is my odd way of saying, neither is any use at all. They are just numbers. Whereas, in reality, every living person has a face and a name.

Bear this in mind, when considering the statistic I am about to provide; but not before I belabour gentle reader with further asides.

According to news reports, the Communists have just changed their “one child policy.” The source, so far as I can trace, is an item in Xinhua, their official news agency. It appeared yesterday. The totalitarian government will now allow all their female serfs to bear two (2) live children if they want. This should, by statistical principle, substantially reduce the number whose birth is prevented by contraception, abortion, and infanticide. Given known cultural propensities, it might proportionally increase, in particular, the number of female babies who escape murder.

To this day, China reporters rely, almost invariably, on their official handouts. They may, themselves, suspect they are all lies, but the modern journalist is comfortable with lies, so long as he can source them. I would want a great deal of further information before believing what they are handing on.

For one thing: this is news they have reported before, having been conned by the same sort of press releases, which seem instead to have announced only changes in the list of exceptions to that “one child policy.” This is China, after all, where in a sense nothing can be true, for like the statistics, the history itself may be rewritten day to day. Where do you start, when the past is no more predictable than the future? You start by lying.

Notwithstanding, the evidence that there has been a “one child policy” is overwhelming. And however it was actually imposed, upon whom, where, and by means of what punishments, it can be reasonably stated that, since the policy was originally announced in 1978, if not before, and as a consequence of its provisions, a very large number of Chinese children who would have enjoyed the light of day, have not.

Which takes us finally to today’s statistic. I have seen many estimates of the number of children whose birth or infancy was prevented. The lowest I have seen is four hundred million. As an old-fashioned hack, with a distaste for lying, and therefore seeking at least the possibility of truth, I would have expressed this as, “in the order of hundreds of millions.” And this in the hope that at least I was not contributing to the establishment of “four hundred million” as a journalistic cliché. Because such clichés are anodyne, helping to eliminate the pain of moral thinking. But let us grant that the (almost certainly false) number is in that plausible range.


It is a good question how to express this number in Roman numerals. I’ve never got the hang of them, over one million or so. I suspect the pagan Romans themselves, to their credit, never got the hang of them either. A million is CCCCIƆƆƆƆ, so I suppose one could copy that four hundred times. Alternatively, simply write M, four hundred thousand times, which for typographical reasons, I am loath to do. Each M equals one thousand babies. Or there is a trick with superscribed double bars, used as million multipliers, or other symbolic devices, reducing this to CD (which is four hundred) plus the selected graffito.

But the Romans, generally, did not go there. Their preference was to leave very high numbers to the gods. They nevertheless proceeded on Domesday principles, for tax gathering, and to get some idea (district by district) of quantities of people in relation to livestock, crops, supplies of honey, butter, wool, or what have you. (Bureaucracy is not a modern invention.) Yet grand totals did not much interest them (as they did, to their shame, the Emperors of China); and even with the souls of engineers, they instinctively recoiled from treating people as numbers.

As did the Hebrews, whose God — He is ours, too, incidentally — took a dark view of headcounts, even, perhaps especially, when done for “purely administrative” purposes. Gentle reader may recall, for instance, the plague that followed King David’s pioneering essay in modern statistical analysis. Too, that even before he started, his census-taker, Joab, was wary of proceeding. He would do as ordered, up to a point, but let David know that he doubted the wisdom of counting all those heads. (See I Paralipomenon in your Douay Bibles, or I Chronicles in your KJVs; about the 21st chapter.)

Satan puts many ideas into the heads of our rulers, as surely we all realize by now. The destruction of children is surely among them. The destruction of children and others by class is surely a great evil; and the collection of statistics for manipulation, by class (starting from the notion of military conscription), is what we are to guess Satan had in mind, when putting his innovative census idea into the head of King David.

The modern mind, inured to statistics, cannot get itself around this. It cannot find a “problem” with counting, per se. It is slow to grasp that the problem is instead with why we are counting. Whose purposes are we serving? What evils advancing? Do we not trust God?

Our daily number, four hundred million, which may or may not approximate to the truth, is like other large numbers, hard to comprehend. Or rather, quite impossible, for the man of eight fingers and only two thumbs. Even a millipede would have trouble with it. Other large numbers come to mind: “six million” for instance, or “one million a year,” if gentle reader smoaks my allusions.

God, I often think, does not do numbers. He leaves them to do themselves. He alone might number the hairs on your head, but I cannot imagine how He would find the number interesting. Nature may count, to give us two and not three nostrils, but seldom does she seem obsessed with exact numbers, over a dozen or so. (The millipedes are an exception: she always counts the legs.) Above this, like the Romans, or this hack, she seems content merely with orders of numbers. Which indeed is what we are dealing with here, though perhaps unnecessarily.

And God might know the exact number, of Chinese souls missing from the current account. But I do not think the number would interest Him, any more than the number of hairs missing from the bald spot on a Jesuit monsignor. For in my understanding, in general, God does not do headcounts. He does names, hearts, and immortal faces. And each means the whole world, to Him.