Essays in Idleness



Humanism, without foundation in sincere religious faith — whether Christian, or Jewish, or (sometimes) Islamic — will soon reflect the values of the Devil. This is a thought that has occurred often while reading, especially in the eighteenth century, when the ground was laid among intellectual elites for the more populist apostasy of the nineteenth century. By small increments, over a hundred years, even the most reasonable thinkers are detaching political thought and philosophy from its religious moorings in the tradition of the West — as if it were possible for a body to flourish and respire, without heart or lungs, but by brain and nerves only.

It is a long history: this destruction of the West, and of Christendom. It is necessarily so, for there was so much civilization to destroy; and still some of it is visible in ruins that remain inhabited.

Here I am not thinking of the French Revolution, or similar irruptions of fanatic violence. I am thinking instead of Lockes and Humes, Kants and Hegels, or even of what I was reading in the wee hours of summer cool this morning: an obscure English poet named William Diaper, writing a paraphrase of Oppian. It is an inverted Arcadian phantasy in which the mermen and fishes take the place of piping shepherds and their keep — or that is what plays over the surface of the witty couplets in a zoological catalogue of the underwater creatures, their loves and their fears and their fund of death. Diaper’s Nereides, read previously, set the taste for “piscatory eclogues.” He is a “water poet,” out of his boat and sinking in the deep.

Thus have I sung, how scaly Nations rove,
What Food they seek, what Pastures they approve;
How all the busy Wantons of the Seas
Soft Loves repeat, and form the new Increase. …

Diaper, a poor Anglican curate, rural and obscure in his own lifetime; a reliable Tory from the age of Queen Anne who never made court in London, but nevertheless shared in the eclipse of Tories after her demise — is a writer to whom we may turn to glean the first moments in what is called “the peace of the Augustans” — a strain in English literature which lies under “the Enlightenment,” and flows the other way. He died, fairly young, in 1717, happily before evidence of industry had begun to mar the English landscape, and to pollute the English streams.

He is subterranean, or submarine. His channel, like a buried river, resurfaces in pools, throughout the century, in gentle idyllic Thomson and the like, in Collins and Gray, in George Crabbe, finally gushing up through Wordsworth. He is small, but only because near the source. He has nothing to do with great thinkers and actors.

Why do I mention him? Gratuitously, for a start, for rivers must start somewhere; but also, I suppose, from what is implicit in his verses: and in the lines I quoted.

To our contemporary, “modern” mind, Nature might be a means towards the understanding of God, and could be studied by artists and scientists to that end. This argument is often tried, by our more desperate proselytizers: to seek God’s will through the supposed paradise of Nature. “The Heavens shew forth the glory of God, and the firmament declareth the work of His hands,” or so we might quote the Psalmist. But we will get him backwards.

To Diaper, as in the Psalms, it is through God that we can begin to know Nature. The precedence of God is fixed, in the mind that is, by heritage, Christian. The “peace” (the one that passeth all understanding, but extends to the Tory distaste for war) is communicated through the very animation of Nature, in her often telling beauty, by Nature’s God. It is that way around. It is not the other way.

Reverse this, and the beauty begins to disappear. Everything is for a use, and even the pursuit of God becomes “useful” — to some other end, such as restoring civilization. As even in Rome today, God becomes something that must be “applied” — not something lived, experienced and worshipped; not the final end in Himself. And once we are there — once we have taken for granted that God as everything else can be used for our purpose — it is, “Devil take the hindmost.” But he takes the foremost first.

Chronicles of expectoration

The little archerfish, which spits jets of water, can be taught to recognize a specific human face and spit at it, according to a scientific report (wonky link, here). It helps when the face is presented in black-and-white, apparently.

Little humans can also be taught to do this. Indeed, modern politics were built upon the discovery that with enough repetition, a person can be taught to spit at anything.

“Boo, boo, bad man!” … I am quoting my late mother at a time when I was three years of age. For some reason I recall it. I do not remember, however, to whose face she was responding. Perhaps it was the one that belonged to Adlai Stevenson. I do remember that she preferred Eisenhower (though as a non-American was ineligible to vote).

Ambon damselfish can be even more personal. They can recognize each other’s faces. They may all look the same to us, but we have not their facility with light in the ultraviolet range. Seen in that, each damselfish has facial spots. It is dead easy to tell one from another. Were gentle reader an ambon damselfish, and another one was giving him grief, he could simply avoid the idiot’s company. As you would be only four inches long, and living in a coral reef, there would be plenty of places to dart in and hide. (Bad luck if the niche were occupied, already, by something that eats ambon damselfish.) I don’t think damselfish can spit, at least not as dramatically as archerfish, but I’m sure they have other ways to express their disapproval. Or trapped, perhaps, they smile and say they’re on their way to a meeting. (Can damselfish smile? Must check this.)

There is no aquarium, up here in the High Doganate at the moment, but I did keep goldfish as a child; and tried putting minnows in with them once. (Foolish experiment. Tadpoles did not thrive, either.) Alas, I had not the wit to check if my goldfish preferred Kennedy or Nixon. (Surely they would have supported Goldwater.)

See the picture and spit. Look at another and convey indifference. But what if the poor fish is presented with only two pictures, and wants to spit at both?

Mistah Kurtz — he dead

“Clear sky this morning. A nice Lake breeze.”

I often think this would make a good column, or rather, a sufficient column to get the Comments going. By the third comment, someone would attack Pope Francis; or Trump, or Obama, or Hillary, or Justin; and we’d be off to the races. (See my venture this morning at Catholic Thing, here.)

Another possible column would be the Conrad epigraph before T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” which I now use for my title. Or for that matter, the second epigraph, “A penny for the Old Guy,” might turn readers’ attention to my PayPal link.

To be fair, one may learn a lot from Comments, directly or (more often) indirectly. This morning it was a reference to Dr Paul Kurtz, self-appointed doyen of the Secular Humanists, former perfesser in the State University of New York (about which the less said the better). On checking his entry in the Wicked Paedia, I learn that he died in 2012. This was on the 20th of October, if anyone wants to celebrate it.

Somehow I missed that news, and here we are forty-five moons later, in a world where someone else must be the doyen of the Secular Humanists. But there is another sense in which we may think of all human decease as occurring in a simultaneity of death and resurrection, on the Day of Judgement. In that view, the story remains topical.


The original Mistah Kurtz (in Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness) was an ivory trader, somewhere up the River Congo. As the beuk seems to have been assigned to everyone who attended a North American college through the baby boom, and later, I needn’t reprise the plot. I don’t think Conrad himself ever thought it such an important work. The question of why it was found so significant by the mediocrities in American academia would make the better doctoral thesis, I should think; but then we might stray into sociology, which gives mediocrity a bad name.

When I came to the novella myself, entirely of my own volition — I have 98.6 degrees, but only in Fahrenheit — I was fascinated chiefly by such information as it could provide on the history of the ivory trade. I have always loved ivory, though not always approved the uses to which it is put.

Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against rhinoceros horn, the casks of hornbills, walrus morse, the ribs of dugongs, narwhal spikes, hippopotamus canines, the dental extensions of wild boars and sperm whales, or any tusks, horns, or antlers. All are suitable materials for art. And I will admit that Plaster of Paris presents the longitudinal lines along which an artist may carve to advantage, although it is inconveniently flammable. But the ivory from elephant tusks is best; and as the Chinese discovered, by the Sung dynasty, the elephants from Central and East Africa concede an ivory more noble even than those of India and South-east Asia.

The colouring is sublime: creamier than the Indian; or from where Mistah Kurtz was harvesting in the jungles, a brown above that of any pigment soil. A rose tint appears from out of the bamboo forests; and as I am given to understand, the tusks from farther west in Africa, which at first glance seem too brightly white again, develop with age chromatic values of engaging subtlety.

The working of ivory takes great skill. The dental enamel must be removed with care, and the obdurate rind sawed through with stiff blades thoughtfully lubricated. The Chinese at Suchou, the Japanese at Nara, found that a complex regime of heating and cooling could be employed to prevent any sort of cracking.

Having no personal experience of this craft, I will not presume further to describe: it is enough to say that elephant ivory makes the finest imaginable scrimshaw, and should be delivered into the hands of the most capable artists as a treasure of great price. Unfortunately, such artists may be as extinct as some magnificent elephant species. (The fossil ivory of mammoths draws our attention to a terrible loss.)

Yet we must not exclude revivals.

It follows that the cultivation of elephants for their tusks (as sheep for their wool, or deer for their hides, or goats for their milk and meat) should itself be conducted with skill and refinement. I am persuaded by some accounts that the poachers who now dominate the trade, thanks to what governments have arbitrarily made illegal, show little propensity to connoisseurship.

Lately I was utterly appalled to read that the Kenyan government is again burning ivory captured from the poachers. The scene was the more ludicrous because ivory does not easily burn. It takes jet oil and a week to reduce one of these ivory pyramids to ashes. It is political theatre that, far from reducing the demand, increases the price of illegal ivory, thus inspiring poachers to ever more heroic efforts against species whose numbers are running low. (The USA authorities now pulverize the ivory instead. On the instigation of the infernal United Nations, most of the countries of this world have now joined in these incomprehensible acts of destruction.)

But there is no room for gloom. The finest of all ivories is yet to be seen. In the face of all the world’s disorder, we must diligently pray, eventually to see it.

Disputed question

Should beer be allowed in tins? It is a question of concern in the High Doganate just now, with some lads coming over tomorrow night. With my eye to ethnicity, I obtained some tins from the local licker store. One of the brands was Swedish: mislabelled to my mind as a bière forte. It made me think only of Archbishop Forte, the one who rewrites Synod documents. Not a happy association.

A Swedish palaeographer was among my guests. (Now the blighter has cancelled.) I’m sure he could have warned me, against anything that comes out of Vimmerby. They haven’t had monks there in centuries. On tasting I find this beverage to be soapy and oily and bland, with a shy (but not affectionate) mule-kick at the end. I had laid in several of those tins. Guess I will have to drink them myself. But I was looking forward to making the Swede drink them.

It tasted tinny, too, but this is because I began sipping it from the tin. Of course it tastes tinny, with your tongue and lips on the metal. The aluminum is lined, as I understand; it cannot taste tinny poured into a large, properly glazed, ceramic mug. (Thick white porcelain is ideal, Imperial pint size or larger.) A glass bottle, straight from a dark fridge, might be preferable for the direct imbiber, but only because glass is so chemically neutral.

Too, I can tout glass bottles because the opening at the top is small. The opening at the top of a mug is much wider. Anything that slows my beer consumption is to be commended. “Sip, taste, appreciate, swallow,” was what my papa said to do. Not: “suck and swallow.”

Now, the problem with bottles, as opposed to tins, or barrels, is light. Beer bottles are traditionally dark for a reason. The ultraviolet murders a beer, and can do so quickly. One may discover this for oneself by drinking on some tropical beach, while acquiring a sunburn. By the bottom of the glass the beer is not only warmer. It tastes different: it is “skunked.” Not by the heat but by the light, according to my (frankly inadequate) chemical understanding.

This makes tins better than bottles for the storage of beer. And barrels better than tins, if they are the right sort of barrels. But I have limited this discussion to tins.

Aluminum is light in weight, eminently recyclable, and charitable in the sense that you put the empties out in Parkdale and the rubby-dubs fetch them from the trash. I think they may get a dime for each tin, and they are lighter to carry than glass bottles. So remember: the more you drink, the more charitable you are; and tins instead of bottles show regard for the poor.

(I’m a bit vague on whether the recycle award is cancelled if you crush them.)


I see Mrs Klingon has won New Joisey and Californicata, and with the help of all her “superdelegates” has now clinched the Natted States Democrat nomination. (Did you know that she is a woman?) In view of my remarks yesterday, I feel some sort of congratulation is in order. We might think of her as the last of the old-school politicians, whose forte was lying and hypocrisy. Much worse will follow, surely. A time will come when we’ll look back on America’s Weimar period with nostalgia.

Appreciate what you have while you still have it, that’s what I say. Look not to the future, for the future is Unknown. God made it that way, to accommodate our freedom, to preserve our sanity, should we so wish.

The decline of requirements

Hitler (one cannot mention him without the subliterates mouthing, “Reductio ad Hitlerum!” — not realizing that they are quoting Leo Strauss) was the great enabler. He gave cover to all lesser evils, including the greater of the lesser ones; and thereby retired all the prattling politicians from the Age of Hypocrisy, which he closed. Now all the baddies seemed good, by comparison, and everyone needed a baddie of his own, or they would get one assigned from Berlin.

The Age of Hypocrisy re-opened, of course, with Hitler’s death, when political discourse again softened. (Hypocrisy is the padding on the madhouse walls.) But for a twelve-year run in Germany, and shorter periods wherever their shadow fell, Hitler’s Nazis erased hypocrisy.

This is what Karl Kraus meant, when he said that the Nazis had left him speechless. For decades he had exposed the lies and deceitful posturing not only of politicians in the German-speaking world, but among their immense supporting cast of journalists and fashion-seeking intellectuals. He was the greater-than-Orwell who strode to the defence of the German language, when it was wickedly abused. He identified the new “smelly little orthodoxies” as they crawled from under the rocks of Western Civ — the squalid, unexamined premisses that led by increments to the slaughterhouse of Total War. He was not, even slightly, a revolutionist; he had no argument against anyone’s wealth or status, even his own. Rather, through savage satirical humour, with language untranslatably precise, impinging constantly upon the poetic, he undressed the false.

He had seen the First World War coming, in the malice spreading through the language; in the smugness that fogged perception; in the lies that people told each other, to preserve their amour-propre; in the jingo that lurked beneath the genteel. After, he saw worse.

Popular perceptions of him are wrong. As we learn from the vast and fatiguing biography of Edward Timms (it fills time that could be spent learning German), Kraus hardly stopped writing as the Second World War approached. Timms thought he gave up hope; I think Kraus merely ceased to be heard, by anyone. All his warnings had been ignored; everything he feared was being realized. (The people get so bored with prophets.) But Kraus had, I think, diligently turned his guns to the rear, to attack speech that was now no longer posturing, but explicit and crude. (The Nazis, even when speaking figuratively, chose euphemisms that any moron could decode.) But subtle precision is no use against a blunderbuss, which in the end only bigger weapons can destroy.

My sense is that we are once again coming to the end of lies and hypocrisy. The political class has delivered us once more, by increments. Trump and Sanders say things that are plain; in Europe, too, we have candidates who mean what they say. What they say is blather, and frequently unhinged, and not lying but indifferent to fact. It is sincere, however. “The people are angry,” and the new class of politician will play to that anger. It is a matter beyond any passing question of public policy. The people are angry about everything the “old politics” delivered, with their help. They want punishment, they want action. It is no elite rebellion: they want what is coming good and hard.

Trump and company are no Hitlers. This is what I mean by, “Hitler has them covered.” They are functioning today in an environment that parallels The Thirties in its de-moralization (note the hyphen), but is farther advanced. So many things then were still unthinkable, outside Party ranks in Germany and Russia. Now we are living in a time when the value of a human life can be more easily disregarded; in which survival depends on sentimentality alone. (As my friend Denyse O’Leary puts it, “On the eve of euthanasia, we are all the foetus now.”) Human decency has been “redefined,” and all the classical “rights” inverted. (Read the swinish Comment threads on almost any website.)

“Pause, take stock, think through what you are doing.” … What, today, would be the prospect for a politician who said such a thing? … Who said, “We must consider the likely consequences of every legislative action, including each ‘no brainer’ with what’s left of our brains. If there is something to fix, we must fix it carefully.”

For that is not the yammer people want from politicians: no more of this shuffling and avoidance. No more “say one thing and do another.” No more trying to hold the fort together, until the cavalry arrives. The cavalry has arrived!

The traditional restraints on malicious imbecility have been systematically removed; and this time it will take much less than a Hitler.

The greatest?

Was he greater than Aristotle the Stagyrite, greater than Saint Thomas Aquinas? Greater than Homer or Dante or Shakespeare?

No, but he was greater than Sonny Liston and George Foreman and Joe Frazier and, though I hate to admit this, greater even than George Chuvalo. Though Chuvalo went fifteen rounds with him, twice, and that ought to count for something. Chuvalo also decked four class heavyweight boxers on a single night (26 April 1956), each within four rounds; and would have been at least the British Empire champ had that cissy, Henry Cooper, ever agreed to fight him.

But Chuvalo (“Boom-boom Čuvalo” to you Toronto Croatians) ain’t dead yet, and Muhammad Ali is. He was the diamond in the golden age of boxing; he was (and I quote him as the primary authority), “the double greatest, … the boldest, the prettiest, the most superior, most scientific, most skilfullest fighter in the ring.” …

“I wrestled with an alligator. I tussled with a whale. I handcuffed lightning, I thrown thunder in jail.”

He calculated that he had taken 29,000 punches in the ring (maybe less than Chuvalo), and it is said against boxing that this isn’t healthy. Boxers often die young, and before that, punch-drunkenness may become a permanent condition. Is this worth it for a game? For a few unforgettable moments? … Yes.

I ha’ seen them mid the clouds on the heather.
Lo! they pause not for love nor for sorrow,
Yet their eyes are as the eyes of a maid to her lover,
When the white hart breaks his cover
And the white wind breaks the morn.

Another fighter (Ezra Pound) glossed these tropes: “’Tis the white stag, Fame, we’re a-hunting. Bid the world’s hounds come to horn!”

Boxing, as stag-hunting, is a gracious sport. “A lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up.” (Again, I am quoting Ali.) It has been in the Olympics since 688 BC; and man-to-man combat was known before that. Men can understand it, if they are men, and some women, too: this match in which draws should never happen. And there are rules — there have always been rules. And the man who breaks them is a cad, a worm, beneath human dignity.

Muhammad Ali never broke the rules.

The modern ironist will be quick to add, “He never had to.” (The modern ironist is a cad, a worm.)

Ali was a gentleman, and a fair man. I remember his remark when he was busted for refusing the draft, back about 1970: “They did what they thought was right. I did what I thought was right.” And in the end, they had not the guts to gaol him.

He was an inspiration to the black race, but only because he was an inspiration to the human race.

And of course, he was the poet, of so many fine and memorable couplets:

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee — his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.”


Artes serviles

[Slightly expanded in the peace of Sunday morning.]


There is no truth in the allegation that I’m against all liberals. I am, for instance, in favour of the liberal arts. Thanks to the other liberals, however, our “systems of education” have collapsed, along with our broken families, to a level where the term must have little meaning. The distinction between the artes liberales and the artes serviles becomes lost on people who, as Josef Pieper indicates (passim), make only a distinction between “work” and “spare time.” This is to favour the artes serviles.

Servile work is done for some other purpose than the work itself. It is what the gentlemen have been doing downstairs, and are doing again for the sixth time in the last decade: digging up the street. They may no longer remember why they are doing it — the task began with the problem of burst pipes in winter, but was complicated by efforts to fix that, which involved extreme forms of municipal incompetence, abetted by arbitrary union rules. Still, the workmen expect to be paid, and that seems reason enough for them to keep digging.

I have mentioned before, have I not, that modernity can be conceived as an immense make-work project, in which the work to be done is constantly increasing at a rate much faster than the work that can be accomplished, all of which will need re-doing anyway.

Perhaps gentle reader has detected the unconscious adaptation of my prose rhythms, to the cacophony of jack-hammers, pavement saws, and the infernal back-up alarms now installed by law on machinery that moves as often backwards as forwards. Or perhaps he has noticed logical slips, explicable from the fact that I am being driven nuts by week after week after week of this, starting every morning at seven o’clock. I have come to imagine Hell as a vast, ultra-modern, construction site.

It is true, with equipment like this, the Egyptians could have built a million pyramids. But soon they would have run out of space, and in order to maintain full employment (one of the economic policies in Hell), devoted themselves instead to replacing their pyramids. At which point, the quality of pyramids would necessarily decline, from the knowledge that each is going to be demolished by the next shift of pyramid workers.

There was a city lot still occupied by a gas station, when I first moved into Parkdale, more than ten years ago. It is presently cleared for car parking, but a small billboard announces the next building scheme. In the time I’ve been walking through this neighbourhood, there have been two other buildings on that site: first a line of cheap, single-storey retail shops, that nobody wanted to rent; then a 24-hour “convenience” store, that nobody found convenient. Both evocative of brick lavatories.

Much servile work is to a good purpose. Agriculture is important, I insist, although it is now despised as a vocation; and has been fully mechanized, to disturb all peace. I am also a secret fan of textiles, though I hardly approve of current mass production, mostly imported from far, far away. And I’m not, in principle, against building houses, or even roads, cobbled in the Roman fashion. All these things can be made well, or poorly. My preferential option is for beautiful, and well.

Even the most necessary labour, to a purpose outside of itself, is vitiated if there are no gestures of liberality. These tend to sneak in wherever bureaucratic code standards are whimsically relaxed, and the strictest requirements of cash are neglected. (Codes are designed to identify, and thereby universalize, the lowest acceptable standard.) The mischievous thought, “Let us make this better than we need to make it,” insinuates itself. (We might call this the Bridge over the River Kwai principle.) Let us make it as if the fate of our souls depends upon it. (Because our fate does so depend: “God sees every sleazy little short-cut you take,” as my papa once explained.)

God, in the form of that son of a carpenter, Jesus the Christ, calls us to be perfect. This means everything we make should be perfect in its kind, within the natural limitations of our stupidity and awkwardness.


Heidegger says somewhere that “truth is freedom,” and as ever with that man there is something in it, though not much. Mostly he talks piffle, but some of it sounds grand.

So let me use that to segue back to those artes liberales.

Our mediaeval predecessors, and the classical ones who predeceased them, built curricula around the notion that man is of value, qua man. We should aspire to raise his condition, even in plainly practical ways. If not all men, at least some could be taught there are arts above the servile; that there is more to “spare time” than, say, circuses, or football games, designed for the couch tubers, from their desperate need to be entertained in the moments when they are not working, or sleeping, or copulating, or gorging on junk food. There should be things done not only at a pitch above sating crude appetites and killing time, but to ends that are in their nature mysterious, and thus involve contemplation.

Drawing is like that. One draws and paints, or at least I have done, not for the industrial purpose of “making art” — which is a potentially servile activity, and would anyway require more talent than I seem to have at my disposal. Rather I do it by way of teaching myself to see. Through this exercise I discover how little I saw, before trying to draw it, not only in the works of real artists, but in the other scenes arranged moment by moment right before my eyes. Only in the effort to transcribe, or better, represent it, do I begin to notice what is there. (All the best photographers can draw, incidentally.)

It is so with music, too, for those who try to sing, or play upon some instrument — as opposed to listening passively, at less than half-attention, to the musical equivalent of filth. Chesterton says anything worth doing is worth doing badly, and I will agree, with the qualification stated above: that it is the best we can do. Love requires no less of our “hobbies”: for there is that pixie of aspiration, deeply implanted in the human breast. We long to find or to make what is worthy; to be lifted — as opposed to dumped, in the mire of our depravities.

We are Homo Ludens, man at play. This begins in earliest childhood (before birth), and continues ever after in that spirit of mimesis, or let us add the Platonic diegesis (story-telling) — the spirit of “imitation” (weak, inadequate English word). It is a process by which we discover what is “useful” only by the occasional accident; in the main it directs our attention to what is good, beautiful, and true — to the “poetics” in command of all Creation, in all directions beyond human reach, and thus everywhere apparent to those who look; to every man who would “see” with his whole being.

“Spare time” is wasted on the contemporary man, who is taught from the start only to consume, and to work only towards fulfilling the requirements of consumption; to seek the pleasures of the fatted beast. He is taught to condemn whatever is useless or irrelevant to this cause; to be a pig in pursuit of acorns. And this is true even when e.g. he tires of acorns, and in his human complexity, turns to sexual and other perversions instead. His only “right” is to consume. He is clocked, statisticized, and shivved towards this end, and our entire moral, aesthetic, and metaphysical order is bent to the requirements of production and consumption. This makes him utterly servile.

I am trying to encourage a slave revolt.

Of mercy & forgiveness

Perusing, once again, what remains of the family archive (still not satisfactorily filed, years after the demise of my parents), with a particular view across Gaelic Cape Breton, and the Hebridean isles from which those ancestors came — who did not think themselves Scottish at all, but only “Scotch” in some North American context — I became enwrapped in a long sentence, which threatened to sprout more thistles here and there, among the innumerable subsidiary clauses. … Aye, thistles, man. … Too, I became a little more aware of what might be described as a genetic disorder, shared generally by the “Celtic” peoples, from Shetlands and Orkneys to Galicia.

“Celtic” is of course a creation of the modern academic mind, which keeps tidier files than I do. There never was, in fact, such a race or people. They were just a bunch of mongrels driven west, ever west, until they came against The Ocean — while the more settling tribes established their European lebensraum.

Also, perhaps, they flit north, and east, but let us put those refugees out of sight and mind, as most were made extinct. For I refer expressly to “the people of the fiddle,” who, when delivered to the New World (invariably by some persecution), instinctively found the least arable land, and scattered up anything that resembled mountains. We find them still today not only in “the highlands” of Cape Breton, but right down the Appalachian cordillera, where they dug in as “hillbillies” and such. They remain the ethnic backbone of our English-speaking armies, ever eager to sign up.

It is a proud ancestry. I have previously written in praise of the Zomians — the peoples of that alpine orogeny that spreads from Afghoon across the roof of Asia. They are much the same type, it seems to me, driven to the least habitable realms by the expansion of this “civilization” thing, which never appealed to them. (It besets them on both sides, in the case of Asia, which began as two reasonably flat continents, impacting together.) They are people unaccustomed to following orders, or even hearing them, above the din of battle; the consternation of all the neatly drilled; people whose own immigration policy is, by tradition, to kill all intruders. (Yes, my dear reader, Trump is one of us.) They have many virtues, to be sure; and the vices corresponding.

There is a special section in Hell — “The Isles” it is probably called — consisting entirely of my Celtic or Gaelic or Dalriadic or even Pictish ancestors, to say nothing of the Northmen, from the days when they were sailing and marching about the farthest reaches of Europe, putting each other in their respective glens. Perhaps it was their historical experience that made them such a touchy lot. Perhaps it was their freedom from literacy, among other chains that shackle the lowland dwellers. The literates record their histories, then forget them. The illiterates never forgive nor forget.

Here and there they spilt into lowlands themselves (as green Ireland in the first Christian centuries), and became civilized in spite of themselves, sending their missionaries into still-pagan Europe for the redemption of all humble peasant souls. Egypt, then Ireland, were the lights that came on, with the little lights that flickered in the two Romes (Rome and Constantinople), wiring gradually together along all the travelled roads. But that is another story.

This morning I write after a dream in which I committed a rather messy murder — though not without cause, I insist, gentle reader — write, of those soi-disant “Celts,” whose grievances were nursed over centuries, millennia. But now they have all been taught to read and write, and to accept their pogey, so that they swim in the waters of Lethe, with only the occasional crocodile irruption of the ancient foiled pride and cussedness.

Gaelic (or anything Goidelic or Brythonic) is lost, and for a very simple reason. Once one sees it written down, one loses heart. One doubts that anyone could ever have spoken it aloud. Every word of this “mouth music” looks plainly unpronounceable; and proves unpronounceable to those unprepared from birth to speak it, not only from the centre of the mouth, like an Englishman, but from both sides, and every other part of the anatomy. (Compare: desert Arabic.)

Reading a few passages from yellowing letters, and recalling a few more from the lips of the deceased, I fix on this unforgiving quality. And more positively, upon the joy in it, deliciously conveyed in so many Gaelic phrases, sadly lost upon our lazy modern ears.

“The Isles of the Unblest.” … I think I visited them in my dream, and found them peopled by ancestral sprites, fighting through eternity among themselves, for a little more of the clan territory that must soon be surrendered again. Each disfigured by the accumulation of his hideous injuries. Left by the Devil, to rule themselves, since he isn’t masculine enough to tame them. I imagine it the happiest region in Hell; as the field of a perfect human liberty, exulting in perpetual gore.


The French have this wonderful word, amour-propre, so much better than our English “self-love.” It comes, with its edge, from La Rochefoucauld, his urbane and scintillating Maxims in the seventeenth century. It is the arch-flatterer, “more artful than the most artful of mankind.” In parallel, it comes from Blaise Pascal, who observes that Christianity is the only cure. Then it comes again through Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the “enlightened” eighteenth century, who thought the primitive savages incapable of amour-propre, because they lacked the gilt-framed mirrors of sophisticated society, in which their pride might be reflected. He imagines it the source of all corruption; and with some authority, for he was himself among the most corrupt of men — this Rousseau who taught us all to “blame society.”

Really there is nothing new under the sun, and the concept comes much earlier from Saint Augustine of Hippo who in his City of God calls it in Latin, amor sui, and puts it about the centre of his review of human tawdriness. That, in turn, is how it came to Pascal: via the French Augustinians, with whom Pascal was in thick, about the time he was writing his Lettres provinciales. One might add, contre Rousseau (and perhaps with Joseph de Maistre) that it goes back farther, to Adam and Eve.

Ye devill appeals to Eve’s amour-propre. She then appeals to Adam’s. That’s how this whole wretched mess got started. Note that this couple predeceased all Rousseau’s noble savages, and that the field anthropologists have since discovered that the primitive tribal types are a lot like us. Which is to say, bad, in many colourful ways, and quite invariably self-regarding.

I cannot prove that Pascal (and Augustine) are right, to a gallery of liberal theoreticians, but then, I do not seem to have such an audience listening at the moment. The pope does, however, and I suppose that’s why he gave a slew of medals the other day to such as Richard Gere, George Clooney, Salma Hayek, and who knows what other movie stars were named after I stopped reading. Surely it was a satirical attempt to show what posturing clowns they all are; though I fear the satire may have been unintentional.

Among the chief theories, embodied today in Hollywood capitalism, is that the amour-propre of celebrities is a creative force that can be harnessed to advance philanthropic causes. One might question whether the causes in question are actually philanthropic, or even benign in the manner of a good brain tumour, but that would be to dwell upon details, details.

My own theory is often the opposite. I hold that hardly anything good is accomplished in this world by the people who manoeuvre to take credit for it. (Hence my general anathema upon politicians, including the ecclesiastical ones.) Moreover, the much good actually done is not generally publicized. And this in itself is a good thing, because if people found out who was behind it, their punishment would be doubled.

Verily, this is why Holy Church has been, since the first centuries, very suspicious of claims made on behalf of “saints,” and went to the trouble of appointing Advocati Diaboli (“devil’s advocates”) to get at the truth about them, before rather than after canonization. (The term for this office has since been suppressed by the prim.)

I firmly believe that it is possible to do good in this world, because I have seen it done. But only by men (including women, and wow, how many women) who did not seek the credit, nor could even be driven by the prospect of feeling good about themselves. It happens, but I think, only by God’s grace.


One of the great things about my privileged life — I get to live in the High Doganate — is the library up here. The resident at a loss what to do — how, for instance, to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them — may reach blindly for a book, let it fall open at some page, and start reading. Soon he is a-raft on the sea of someone else’s troubles, and these are often preferable to one’s own; even when, as in the biography of Lavoisier I started reading, they end with “death in the afternoon,” strapped on that ultimate logic-chopping device, the guillotine.

As my little sister says, knowing you are going to die tomorrow afternoon is not so great an inconvenience as people think. (She learnt “always look on the bright side” from our mother.) “No need for all this heavy weather,” she told me once. “You can still do stuff in the morning.”

The book in question, published 1952, came into the High Doganate with a clump on “the history of science” that seemed to need rescuing from the local Salvation Army. It will now return there.

My mistake was to begin reading about page one. Had I dipped in later, my patience might not have been tried so quickly. For the book begins (as it ends) with a little hymn to Science and Progress. Did gentle reader know that science has changed, and is changing the way we live? That it is doing so faster and faster every day? That Newton came before Lavoisier, and Darwin after? Or that these gentlemen had nothing to do with one another, apart from being lionized as revolutionaries of Science? All but this last point are conveyed.

It was surprising how much I did not know about Lavoisier; and of how little importance it was. He is Saint George killing the dragon of Phlogiston in this account. Father of modern chemistry, &c. Student of heat and respiration; improver of gunpowder; hyper-efficient tax collector in the bureaucracy of the French Old Regime; academician; weekend geologist; dreamer in agriculture and economics; aristocratic gardener whose works around his Château de Frechines might plausibly be described as an experimental farm; social climber and assiduous self-promoter, whose fame could not hide him from the glinting blades of Robespierre.

A very clever man was our Lavoisier, the more charming the farther one got away from him (often I read between the lines); whose pleasure, once he took offices in the Arsenal at Paris, with a budget to do largely as he pleased, was to conduct violent experiments on anything that was lying around. His revolution in chemistry consisted of quantifying it all.

When a child, I had the evil of Phlogiston brought to my attention. It was, not from the Dark Ages as popularly supposed, but only from the end of the seventeenth century, the prevailing “settled science” on the combustible principle in the air, and other substances. It was pure theory, and surprisingly easy to kick over with a few methodical tests; notwithstanding the scientific establishment of the day kicked, screamed, and desperately resisted every attempt to displace it. Lavoisier (and Priestley in England) burnt or blew up one thing and another until Lavoisier had discovered and named Oxygen.

And so we advanced from Phlogiston to Oxygen, and incidentally to ascending in hot air balloons. Good show!

Everything interesting in Lavoisier’s career is passed over, in the course of “teaching the controversy.” What emerges, at least for me, from the author’s secular hagiography, is the dramatic irony in his subject’s fate. Here is one of the grandest limousine liberals in our interminable modern history: who, in the end, the real “liberals” put up against the wet stony wall in their dungeon. Science was their god from the beginning, and for as long as it could be used to undermine religious belief. But once in power they decided that empirical inquiries were an irrelevance and a bore.

Who needs Truth, when you have Power?

And all his life poor Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier overlooked, with such brilliance, the actual consequences of what he was advancing — with the best will in the world, thoroughly admixed with the combustible principle of Vanity.

Teach the controversy

Controversy continues to swirl around my habit of calling my finches “purple.” A consensus is emerging among semi-perfessional birders that they cannot be. Bird Dog, at Maggie’s Farm (here), is the latest to “call me” on this. Purple finches are piney-wood avians, he insists. Those must be common-garden house finches who address me from my balconata railing, here in inner-city Parkdale.

Perhaps I am naïve, but I take them at their word. They say they are purple finches, so that’s what I report. Besides, there could be legal issues. They might be “trans” purple finches. In which case, my calling them house finches could get me a visit from the Mounties, under our young Liberal government’s latest experiment in criminal law. One can now get two years in the slammer, up here, for failing to acknowledge any creature’s personal choice of identities.

It is possible I misheard them, however. Sometimes they speak a singular metallic weet, whose meaning is clear enough. But usually it is a “bubbly continuous warble” (Andy Bezener, Birds of Ontario) — resembling Hindi, but with no English nouns inserted to help one determine the subject. I thought they said, Carpodacus purpureus. Perhaps it was, Carpodacus mexicanus, instead. Definitely, Carpodacus, and not, Loxia, for they sure don’t look like crossbills to me.

And then there is the fact that they lack the (slightly vulgar) body streaks, that I would expect to see on a house finch, whether male or female. And the lads seem to lack the brown hat. And the colouring, on those males, strikes me as a more graciously distributed matte raspberry; the red on a house finch would be more chesty and alarming and, … you know, burgundy.

The ladies, especially, know how to dress. There is that ermine mottle on their undersides, and it seems to me, that delicious dusk cheek. And they are less saucy than one would expect of the (sometimes frankly shrewish) house finch dames; they are lady-like and classy. I would swear, though not necessarily in a court of law, that their tails are slightly notched, too.

A visitor to the High Doganate said no, the tails are square, and besides, they can’t be purple finches. I told him purple finches have been recorded by the bird club in the woods of nearby High Park. He told me they stay there. They don’t do balconies. But this, I declared, is a distinguished balconata.

We all know the house finch is one of those “introduced” species, from the extreme Southwest, released in number by bird-dealers in New York City a century ago in anticipation of a police raid; that they took to urban life like many other questionable immigrants; and spread quickly from one town to another. That they displaced the native purple finches to the sticks, and have so pushed and shoved even the house sparrows (illegal immigrants of a previous generation), that we now have more than a billion of them, in dense congregations.

Did I say “illegal”? … Sorry. … The Eurasian house sparrows were imported in the 1850s to control the insects afflicting our cereal crops. But, ha! Turned out they were vegetarian — indeed trash vegetarians, who moved right into the slums. So that our melodious song sparrows felt obliged, street by street, to move elsewhere. These “Mexican” house finches have the same reputation. (Maybe Trump should have a go at them.)

My finches are not like that, at all. They are delicate, cultured birds who, as I say, can sing in Latin (as well as Hindi). They are not in the least aggressive. Well, sometimes they will note that the seed dish is empty — but softly, musically, regretfully. Surely they are finches of the “purple” class.

Mysterious ways

“It is one thing to pray for discernment, but quite something else to announce being in receipt of it.”

I quote Maureen Mullarkey, one of my living heroines, whose essays and blog (here) are a constant source of furious uplift. As the Naga peppers from the Chittagong Hills, I suppose there are people who don’t like them. The magazine First Things, for instance, decided that she was too hot to swallow. But I like edge, spice, taste, point, and Scoville heat units. And Mrs Mullarkey is a public provider.

By that sentence, from a recent post, she has put her finger in the correct eye. Within the Catholic Church today, and wherever the Christian religion is experiencing an exceptionally squalid late decadence, the belief that “the Holy Spirit” is telling us to do this or that, is alive and twisting. The notion that, for instance, we must respect the pope, not for his holy office, but because he is the receiver of divine messages, is superstitious, for a start. Popes, like emperors, may have no clothes, and the little boy who alludes to the fact should be judged on the evidence.

We owe respect, and obedience to the office. The man himself must earn it, as most previous popes have done, by teaching the Faith, unaltered. If he is serving warmed-over Zeitgeist from the political Left, for instance, or playing little subversive games with sound bites and footnotes, he must be held to account. Error must be corrected.

Now, to be fair to the current custodian of the Throne of Peter, he is not in the habit of claiming a hotline to heaven, in a direct way. The claim tends to be made on his behalf by his court jesters. I refer to men like Victor Manuel Fernández (see my Thing column yesterday, here), his appalling, blowhard adviser (and see the quotes therein); a man now exposed as the pope’s “ghost-writer.”

The “ghost” in this case is very far from requiring a capital G.

For Catholics in the trenches, or along the pews, the challenge cannot be to swallow the latest novelties from Rome. As Catholics, we can know that what is not in accord with Scripture and Tradition cannot possibly be in accord with the Holy Spirit. The challenge is rather to endure until the nonsense is over.

“Whatever they do in the Vatican, I’m staying Catholic.”

This exhilarating line comes from an old Czech drinking buddy, from the days when the Bugnini liturgical “reforms” were emptying our chapels. It is a more plausible expression of the Spirit than many others I have heard.

We are not dealing with a religion that “evolves”; rather with a Revelation immortal and unchanging, that we may come to “discern” more or less. At this historical moment, our hold is weakening. Therefore each, in his own life, must strive to make it stronger; to carry it forward in our very lives, and communicate it as well as we can, person to person: cor ad cor loquitur.

Mrs Mullarkey cites Paul, “How unsearchable are His judgements and unscrutable His ways,” echoing Isaiah:

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.”

This is something we can know.

Conservative indifference

The phenomenon to which I will devote today’s squib has been known to me from childhood. It has a place, but not in my heart. I do not necessarily refer to “conservatism” in its political form. It is an attitude mostly indifferent to politics, as it is to most other things. By its nature it is hard to stir up. (When finally stirred, it gets pretty ugly.) To use it as a party label was clever, in principle: for the idea of doing nothing, and keeping things the same, was often a good one, in the past. Unfortunately, the label did not come into use until the nineteenth century, which is to say, much too late. To use it as a slogan, in the twentieth-century Anglosphere fashion, is downright obtuse. Why would we want to conserve or preserve all this wicked modern nonsense?

Pressed, I cannot remember ever having admitted to “conservatism.” In decades past I called myself “a Tory.” Pressed further for a definition I would quote the opening of Praeterita, by John Ruskin: “I am, and my father was before me, a violent Tory of the old school — the school of Walter Scott, and Homer.” This wasn’t precisely true, but had the right flavour. Later, I found the term “reactionary” would serve.

In my generation, the mutation of the notion of “conservation” into the notion of “environmentalism” revealed the tragic flaw. The soi-disant “conservatives” allowed this to happen. They thought somehow the revolutionists had adopted their ideas, when in fact they had appropriated them for their own “progressive” cause. The love of nature was quickly transformed into interminable agitprop about “endangered species.”

John Stuart Mill famously explained that he did not think conservatives were stupid. He only thought stupid people tend to be conservative; and of course he was right.

The great majority are, and have always been conservative. This includes people on the Left. They do not actually like any of the “progress” they have been advancing, by their votes and their drudgery. They are as apt to moan about “bureaucracy” as anyone on the Right. But they are conservatively committed to playing along. Really they’d be happier as mild heretics in the Middle Ages, lacking as they do the spunk to get themselves burnt at any stake. The air was fresher then, and the instructions on how to live were not only simpler, but harder to defy. They might have found peace, in those circumstances.

When it comes to “lifestyle,” I cannot detect much difference between conservatives of the Left, and conservatives of the Right. Both lazily buy into every consumer convenience, and to the general convenience of consumerism. It is not hypocrisy. Some energy is needed for that. It is just indolence. Our ancestors would have bought in, too; and when you think of it, they did: over several generations. We are the result of our ancestors’ “progressive” lethargy, of mind and body.

No, gentle reader, “I am not a conservative,” as many have tried to claim before me. At least I aspire to be a lupine, implacable reactionary. I want everything associated with “modernity” destroyed — starting with the earth-moving machinery that is digging up my street yet again, as I write. I want the ice cream truck with its amplified jingle to be, likewise, rusting in some bush. Though I think, to be practical, we should start with “post-modernity,” and work methodically backwards from there.

Since the year of my birth, as I understand, the biomass of the lumpenproletariat (i.e. the conservatives) has more than doubled. I am a pro-life Catholic, and can hardly object. Over the same period the lumpen mass of machinery (chiefly cars) has increased perhaps tenfold. No reason to panic: it is made of iron mostly, and will quickly degrade. If we want to save the Earth, I think, keep the people, but get rid of the cars. And this can be achieved not by banning them — which would be controversial — but by merely neglecting the roads. Most become unmotorable within a decade or so.

And so on: through a strategy of “heroic neglect.”

In judo, as in most martial arts, we learn to use the enemy’s otherwise intimidating weight to our advantage. (“Asymmetric warfare”: learn how it works.) The trick is to exploit the conservatism of the masses. Being human, they are dim, and easy to sucker and con. That is the great secret of democracy. The revolutionists have done a much better job of this than have the reactionaries, over the last few hundred years, and the task for us is to master their tricks. The best one is to bring the whole weight of the lumpengeist down on their heads — the way they have been doing to us.

We must master the genius of dullness. We must, as in many successful societies before, put dullness once again at the service of high art. We must rebuild civilization on conservative indifference.

How we do this, I have no idea, but the principle of the thing seems clear enough.