Essays in Idleness


A mood

A score of years, at least, has passed since I had my last glimpse of Richard J. Needham. This was in the old Harvey’s hamburger franchise (since bulldozed) opposite Varsity Stadium along Bloor Street. It was where we met for our dinner dates, at his insistence.

Needham was once a celebrated columnist in the Globe & Mail (once an important Canadian newspaper). It was he who renamed it the Mop & Pail. The Wicked Paedia entry on him says, “humour columnist,” which is a euphemism for any writer of serious intention appearing in the mass media. His heyday had been in the 1960s, when Richard Doyle (the last of the Globe‘s talented and courageous editors) had saved him from immolation by a staff mob. He did this by moving Needham’s works from city news to the lower right corner of what was then unquestionably Canada’s most distinguished editorial page.

According to highly probable legend, Needham had been caught, as a reporter, making up news stories from scratch: ludicrous, satirical stories in which every name, title, place, and institution had been invented. At least one of these creations had made it into print, under a stone-faced headline. The entire editorial horseshoe was calling for his head. Doyle observed that the man had been miscast as a factual reporter, when he was an imaginative and entertaining essayist. Rather than fire him, the answer was to promote and move him to the more exalted slot. A man who, as most great journalists, had no college education, Doyle was widely and well read. He was thus acquainted with the higher journalistic traditions.

The droll and refined George Bain, who presented himself occasionally as a hayseed from Saskatchewan in his sometimes versified and ridiculously lyrical “Letters from Lilac”; or wandered into considerations on fine food and wine; or provided telling vignettes from forgotten history — anchored the lower left corner on that page which, with its op-ed, maintained literary standards unimaginable today. Bain was by designation the chief commentator on national, or as we used to say, Dominion affairs; the doyen of the country’s most august Ottawa bureau. The op-ed often carried essays, including quite scrurrilous ones, by major cultural figures. Letters from readers aspired to the old Times of London calibre; and as only those with something penetrating to say, and some wit to express it, were published, it was a delight to read them. (The now long-defunct Ottawa Journal was then the principal competition, for editorial-page class; but there was some to be found in most major broadsheets. Today there is none, anywhere.)

I was briefly in a Canadian high school at the end of the ‘sixties, when I was reading those pages with close attention, and Needham and Bain became heroes to me, and to my delectation for their very conceits. I’d distrust my own juvenile judgement, had I not gone back much later to look over them again. Such writing, well-informed about the world and not just the affairs of municipal departments, was what had made me think that journalism could be worthwhile as a trade; too, the reason why my first full-time job, at age sixteen, was obtained as a copy boy on that newspaper.

Needham was already a model to me, and the honour of meeting him and even fetching him coffee is unforgotten. Once abroad in that newsroom, I found that he, along with that editor, Doyle (“Dietrich Doppelganger” in Needham’s published allusions), were among the few who could actually find time to talk to an earnest sixteen-year-old about matters of importance, and provide some thoughtful guidance. I noticed that the mediocrities on staff were always too busy, and anyway too self-important.

Needham’s columns were often cast in the form of comic tales, often traditional folk tales re-cast in modern urban environments. Other columns, under the continuing title “A Writer’s Notebook,” consisted entirely of aphorisms and asides. His “beat” was modern man, and human freedom; the modern woman and her unhappiness, owing to the decline of men; the ages of man, from infancy to codgerdom; the raw philosophical questions. It would be too simple to call him a libertarian or an anarchist; he was radically opposed to falsehood, and allergic to all schemes of social organization, and a connoisseur of personal eccentricity and aloofness.

After each night’s shift I would leave a sheet of my own proposed aphorisms, anonymously, in Mr Needham’s mail box. Upon guessing I was the source of them, he summoned me into companionship. Though he posed in his columns as rogue and reprobate, and tried modestly to dress the part (kept bottles of whisky in his office from which he never actually drank; pretended to be paying a tart as his secretary), I discovered that he was secretly respectable, patriarchal, an attentive husband and father, utterly reliable and fastidious on the finest conventional points of honour, and many other paradoxes. Accused by feminists of misogyny, for instance, he had perhaps as high a regard for women as I have ever encountered in a man. Marked by leftists as a shill for the established economic order, his contempt for large corporations went vastly beyond theirs. (It was just that his contempt for “government” went farther.) And old as he was becoming, he was an inspiration chiefly to the young, and the genuinely sceptical in all walks of life. Dismissed as “the first hippie,” he was at close quarters quite the opposite to that; rather a disciplined old soldier. Indeed he was a pioneer of sneering at hippie conformity.

By the later ‘seventies (when I wasn’t around in Canada) he was being hounded out of the Globe by the swelling progressive faction within, alternatively mocked and demonized as “a dinosaur.” They were almost rid of him when they realized that he sold a lot of papers, and would have to be brought back and “phased out” more carefully. Finally, with the installation of an entirely new generation in the editorial suite, the Globe had editors willing to get rid of him regardless of cost. After years of fighting to hold his trench, he gave up and went away. By this time he must have been the last journalist on the Globe of any substance or integrity, and his own audience was finally drying up.

That was when I began meeting him for hamburgers at Harvey’s. I had founded a magazine entitled The Idler at the end of 1984, specifically to supply what had gone missing from Canadian journalism — the intelligence and the style. He noticed it immediately, and sent letters of encouragement. I was determined to land him as a regular contributor to the magazine. He made polite excuses about being old and senile, belied by the sharpness of every uttered sentence. I persisted in my begging, from meal to meal. He seemed flattered, and remained affectionate, but finally gave me his definitive response. It was an unforgettable tirade, touching upon his whole later experience of Canadian journalism, and the encroaching sleaziness of all our public life. It concluded:

“I have nothing to say to this city any more. Nothing!

There was real fire and brimstone in the declamation; I could give up my begging. Needham’s only concession was that, “Those who remain curious about my views on contemporary life, may read my silence.”

It is not good to end in bitterness. It is not Christian, and so far as I could tell, Needham was never a Christian. He was an old Stoic. Christ for him was another Socrates; the parables were astute but the “mythology” was expendable. I had, both before and after my own Christian conversion, asked him about such things. The more direct my question, the more evasively he replied. On the Church, and churches, from bishops to televangelists, he did have clear opinions, along the lines of, “pigsties of self-seeking hypocrisy.” His pleasures were simple, and founded in people and in nature. There were no “invisibles” to him. He had never craved power. A pigeon in the park was worth feeding, the more if there was a sign that read, “Do not feed the pigeons.” Truth and love were fleeting, but worth clinging to, as he did to wife and family. Nevertheless, in the memorable words of his own proposed death notice, left years before in the obituary files at the Globe: “Richard J. Needham’s tiresome and repetitious column will not appear today, because he is dead.”

Call it a mood: one which can be maintained by the true Stoic over decades. I can easily understand it, especially at this moment, having been in a mood like that this past week or two, with nothing whatever to say to my own tiny shrinking public, or to the world at large, beyond, “Go to hell.” But of course this won’t do. If one is a writer one must never agree to shut up; not so long as there is one more reader. Force the smug, “enlightened” bastards to silence you.

“Faith is not feeling,” as a correspondent reminded us a fortnight ago. It is not a good mood. It is not a bad mood, or any kind of mood. Hope is not a virtue that requires circumstances that are hopeful. Nor, especially in this season of Lent, is Charity an option. It is instead the right kind of defiance. In the words even of the pre-Christian, but more than stoical Wallace Stevens: “Place honey on the altars and die, you lovers that are bitter at heart.”

A dinosaur for Lent

For the moment, at least, it appears this website is functioning again, which I mention for the benefit of my Commentariat. They may resume fire.

The season of Lent has interposed since my last effusion. Several readers had wondered if I’d fall silent for the duration of it. I will not, especially as I have been reminded by recent attacks that keeping this website may not be a pleasure. Generally, in the last few years, I have been more often punished than rewarded for what I have written; writing itself, or at least, writing honestly, becomes the ordeal. Silence, in the current “media environment,” might by contrast be the real pleasure. So giving up writing for Lent would be a cheat. Better to give up the meats and sweets, the snicker and licker.

For Lent this year, I should like to call gentle reader’s attention to a wonderful passage in the works of Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704), that French bishop and theologian and magnificent dinosaur from the Antediluvian, before the French Enlightenment, when very much less “modern” sentimental nonsense and “feeling” had attached to the Catholic faith; when it was often much sharper and cleaner.

He is quoted at the end of an excellent piece by his translator, Christopher O. Blum, which appeared on the Catholic Thing website, upon Ash Wednesday. And here is what Bishop Bossuet had to say in his own Meditations on Lent:


“And you, whoever you may be, to whom Divine Providence should bring this book, be you great or small, poor or rich, wise or ignorant, priest or layman, monk or nun: go now to the foot of the altar and contemplate Jesus there, in the sacrament where he hides.

“Remain there in silence. Say nothing to him. Look upon him and wait for him to speak to you in the depths of your heart.

“I have died, he says, and my life is hidden in God until I appear in my glory to judge the world.

“Hide yourself in God with me, and do not think of appearing until I appear. If you are alone, I will be your companion. If you are weak, I will be your strength. If you are poor, I will be your treasure. If you are hungry, I will be your food. If you are afflicted, I will be your consolation and your joy. If you are bored, I will be your delight. If you are falling, I will hold you up.

Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. (Rev. 3:20)

“I do not wish for a third: none other but you and me. …

“So may it be, O Lord, who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen.”

Act of war

Old cold warriors never die, we just fade away in obscure weblogs. My way of understanding events in and around Ukraine, as elsewhere — my premises in reasoning from them — may be seriously dated. Nevertheless, I think they are correct.

Let me begin with my allergy to fine-tooth political moralizing. I am perfectly aware that no encounter between nations can be simplified to good versus evil. The rhetorical choice between good guys and bad guys is shorthand for bad guys and worse; and where we find good friends we invariably find friends of those friends who are distasteful. When people repeat the Putin propaganda that there are fascists and ultra-nationalists in Ukraine’s pro-western camps, I reply, “So what?” Given the stench of so many of his own supporters, the accusation is rich.

Similarly, the suggestion that the overthrow of Putin’s stooge, Yanukovych, was not done with strict democratic propriety, is moot. Russia is not the judge of Ukrainian constitutional proprieties. The fact that Yanukovych has run to Moscow for protection makes the question of his legitimacy plain. He no longer has any.

I hate nationalism, and for that matter I am not happy with the Treaties of Westphalia (1648), by which the modern nation state was established and legitimized. But through the last four centuries, that is what we have been working with in trying to maintain the peace of the world. The current boundaries of Ukraine were negotiated within the strictures of international law, and their violation by Russian troops is an act of war. The intrusion of Russian thugs in considerable numbers to seize Ukrainian government facilities and abet public demonstrations calling for Russian intervention is an outrage. It is worse than that: it is typical of the old KGB tactics in which Putin was trained.

Eastern Ukraine may be largely Russian-speaking, but it voted by a substantial margin to join Ukraine and not Russia in 1991. There has since been no significant separatist movement. The arrangements to concede naval bases to Russia in Crimea, and turn over all the old Soviet nuclear armoury on Ukrainian soil to Russia, were negotiated in the years following, culminating in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. By this the Russian state gave solemn assurances that it would not in future challenge Ukrainian sovereignty within the recognized frontiers. Putin is in violation of those agreements; again, an unambiguous act of war.

Russian citizens within Ukraine are free to leave. They were not being threatened, and they do not require armed Russian protection. Any Russian evacuation of them would require the permission and cooperation of Ukrainian authorities. If there is an anti-American demonstration in Canada, the United States Army does not reserve the right to invade to protect U.S. citizens. The absurdity of this and similar arguments emanating from Putin and his captive Upper House should be evident to persons of reasonable intelligence.

Ukraine is a mess, but it is a Ukrainian mess. The country has in no way threatened Russia, had no interest in abrogating any treaties with Russia, and gave no other pretext for Russian intervention. The notion that she is within the Russian “sphere of influence,” and therefore Russian “interests” are at stake, is morally and intellectually obtuse. She is a sovereign country, entitled to choose her own allies.

To pose the question as “Putin or Obama?” — to play sophistical games in which the corruption of politicians and society in the West is juxtaposed with a rosy (and very ignorant) account of Putin’s and Russia’s virtues — is an old and silly game. (“Chamberlain or Hitler?” — what kind of question is that?) Another is to draw cheap comparisons to American interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chile or wherever. These are red herrings. We are discussing Ukraine, where the circumstances are abundantly clear; we may discuss other questions on other occasions.

In principle, Putin must be stopped, now and not later when his power is further enhanced. In practice, Ukraine has not the military power to defend herself against Russian aggression, and the western nations with which an obvious majority of her citizens wish to be allied have long since allowed the impregnable position we held in 1991 to bleed away. Our leaders have not the starch for confrontation, let alone the preparation; our peoples are decadent and complacent. And as I was writing even fifteen years ago, as he came to power, we have in Putin exactly the character of a man who exploits such softness — a true enemy of peace and civilization.

My prayers now go especially to Ukraine’s Christians. All six of the country’s major communions stand with the Kiev government against this Russian arrogance; priests from all six stood shoulder to shoulder in blessing the maidan demonstrators in Kiev. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church had been the main target of Yanukovych’s persecutions — a testimony to her Christian fidelity — and as a fellow Catholic I am especially proud of the behaviour of her priests and people.

In the end, all upon this earth is transient. Christ is King and will prevail.


One hundred years after the events of 1914, we watch events in Ukraine unfolding — with grief, with a heavy heart. Nothing has been learnt in all that time; there is no mistake that will not be repeated, by both aggressors and defenders. Men who live for power, and rule through force, cannot be taught to care for the consequences of the abuse of power; men who resist them are never prepared for the ruthlessness with which they will seize their opportunities.

As a pundit, writing years ago about Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, I made comparisons that struck my readers as absurd. For instance, I compared Putin’s outlook to that of Bismarck, the embodiment of the old militarist spirit of Prussia; the man who made himself the pragmatic “brain of the operation.” I suggested then that Putin would prove a statesman of cold, even psychotic ruthlessness; that he had a larger view than any competing statesman of the possibilities of his situation. Though a product of the KGB, he was not a Communist. He was intelligent enough to see that the Party ideology was dead, and he would abandon it decisively. He remained nevertheless a statist and a dirigiste, whose task would be the recovery of Russia as a world power — as a hegemonic power. The lost Soviet empire would be re-assembled as a new Russian empire, formed in the image of himself.

Those who think with the aid of little ideological clichés and slogans, such as “democracy,” “free markets,” “rule of law,” “civil society” and the like, are defenceless against a statesman like Putin. He understands all four, and more, in a perfectly cynical way. For all the monstrous, extra-legal manoeuvres he has done to see off his domestic opponents, he has kept a cool and steady course. By means of low taxes and a surprisingly “open” regulatory regime — it works more like a nimble protection racket than a lumbering bureaucracy — he has done wonders for the Russian economy. By focusing the interest of the state on gas and oil, he has built a more formidable economic autocracy than his socialist predecessors knew how to do. He has also worked assiduously to rebuild the armed forces: not only with budget but with discipline and some technological flair. As Europe and America continued to disarm, and to sink in the mire of debt and welfare, Putin kept his attention on the live issue of power alone.

He accepted his humiliation in the Ukraine in 2004 — when the Orange Revolution seemed to displace all that remained of the old Soviet order in that “client state,” and his man Viktor Yanukovych was first chased from the presidency in Kiev. Putin did not have, then, the options that he does now. He has always played a longer game, and his patient manipulation was naturally supported by the deep corruption in Ukraine’s post-Soviet political and economic order. Ukraine became more and more a basket case, till finally she is utterly dependent on outside aid. She could get it from the West or the East. The West can’t deliver — we seem unable even to put together the paltry 20 billion the country needs to avoid immediate foreclosure. Putin’s East has all its ducks lined up.

Putin’s challenge now is to reclaim this “Little Russia” for his “Greater Russia,” without actually provoking a world war. In Western politicians like Barack Obama and the clowns of the EU, he has his ideal “negotiating partners.” They will keep drawing their “lines in the sand” a few steps behind where he has already trodden. He showed what he could do in Georgia, unhindered by naïve and inept western politicians. I would guess that his plan is now to start with Crimea, and continue — remorselessly bleeding Ukraine until the whole of it faints into Big Russia’s welcoming arms. In this respect it will have been a textbook KGB takeover operation, with action coordinated throughout, both under and over the table.

He is entirely committed. Putin’s own power base in Russia depends, like that of any tyrant, on visible success: on his personal prestige and the fear, cowardice, and silence of his domestic opponents. He has intentionally stirred Russian ethnic and national chauvinism — this is his powerful “democratic” card — and the Russian people will support him, though only so long as he is winning. He is hardly going to change course now. His opponents at home and abroad must realize changing that course requires, and has always required, rendering Putin powerless; he will hardly concede anything voluntarily. The diplomats trying to reach his foreign ministry on the phone are wasting their time. President Obama himself wasted ninety precious minutes of long distance, reminding Putin (whose English is excellent) of his own inconsequentiality.

So far, so comprehensible. But the world is not comprehensible to men, and Putin is now playing at an order of risk where the consequences of the small and unexpected, of little oversights and miscalculations, can be very, very large. This is just what the Prussian inheritors of Bismarck’s ambitions did one hundred years ago, in their arrogance, plunging all Europe into “the war to end all wars.”

Feast of St David

Really there is no truth in the allegation, made privately to me by a woman who may have known me too long, that I am, like Louis-Ferdinand Céline, fatally attracted to ballerinas. It would be more accurate to call them coryphées.

The cat can look at the queen, as my mother used to say, and I will surely look in admiration upon she who rises to the station of ballerina — a term which, gentle reader should know, is parallel with diva in the opera. It is not a job description. It is an acknowledgement of genius and high art. The job description in English is merely, “ballet dancer.” At the top you have your prima, then your first soloists, then your second soloists — in our own (estimable) National Ballet. Eventually you come down to the corps de ballet, the footsoldiers of the outfit. (There are male dancers, too. Let us just ignore them.)

The coryphée, to my understanding, is somewhere between the soloists and the corps de ballet. At worst she may perform as a drill sergeant for the latter. In the gymnastic, athletic, almost football atmosphere of contemporary ballet, this is what it looks like. A cruelly limited popular repertoire focuses the attention on the play-by-play, as in any spectator sport. And this is the age of feminism, when our leading ladies of the dance present as tom-boys. I hardly ever go to the ballet any more; I used to when there was still some possibility of enchantment. But today the eternal feminine, the spookily erotic, has been replaced by “sex appeal” — the slab of meat laid out on the high-class butcher’s counter. Or shrink-wrapped by photography for the masses. I don’t like that.

Old-fashioned ballet was shapes and patterns and musical progressions; the new stuff is more like football, plus sex, right there on the field.

But it is true, all my life, or at least since I can remember (for even as a boy), I’ve been enchanted by coryphées. (Please do not say I am shallow; of course I am shallow, for I am a boy.)

An amateur of this business might call them “pretty girls.” There is more to it than that, however. Graceful movement comes into it: not so much a defiance of gravity, as a studied indifference to it. There was a time when mothers, in every known culture, taught their daughters how to walk; taught them how to bear a bowl or platter to the table; how to lift a vase of flowers. Perhaps no one today will know what I am talking about. But if I make any feminist good and angry, I will at least have accomplished something.

A prima ballerina assoluta I have never wanted, never needed: those you have to share with the world. My own aspiration never rose above a coryphée.

Céline as something else

I would not have read through the novels of Louis-Ferdinand Céline had I not found them entertaining. They are supposed to be “difficult”; they are so only until one gets the hang of the technique and style. It is the opposite of Proustian (and Céline hated Proust with all his demonic passion, called him “the Homer of the perverts”), yet I love Proust and have lived with pleasure in his own “alternative universe.” But then, my idea of entertainment marks me out as something of a non-participant in my own generation. I do not “couch-potato” well; even at my advanced age I suffer from too much energy. I want a participant sport. My natural attraction is to “difficult” authors, because I get my thrills from wrestling with them, and a pleasure that is different in kind from, say, receiving a sun tan.

Read him ideally in the original French, but failing that in the earlier translations. (This is a tip not only for Céline.) The flavour leeches out over time; a contemporary translator cannot help catching things that are in the air of his period; a later translator must think everything through; and as Céline said, “There’s no tyrant like a brain.”

Ralph Manheim was a fine chameleon of a translator, of modern lit from German and French into American English, and his versions of Céline’s triumphant final trilogy of novels (Castle to Castle, North, Rigadoon) are wonderful and should remain definitive, just as they are redolent of the late ‘fifties and early ‘sixties. On the other hand, Manheim’s 1966 re-translation of Mort à crédit, from 1936, is too clean, too “thoughtful.” I much prefer the nearly contemporary version by John Marks which appeared under the much better English title, Death on the Instalment Plan. Marks takes more liberties with the text, but gets the pulse of it. His translation benefits tremendously from having been done pre-War; anything after that War may be subverted by anachronism.

For everything published in the 1930s was written before Auschwitz. The reader after Auschwitz will not be able to keep it out of mind, yet if he does not try, he will misread everything — not only big things, but little things. “The War” for those writing intra-war, is the Great War, the shadow of which still darkens and highlights everything from its own angle. And perhaps more significantly, the pre-War for them is the world before 1914: a world almost unimaginably displaced from the “pre-War” of a later generation.

This is indeed much of what Céline is getting at, as chronicler of his age — a chronicler who has nothing but contempt for “the masses,” and the mass history that is laid down with a slather of “great events.” He is intensely personal, and history for him is intensely personal. It is written in pain, by souls who have been thrust into Hell.

I mentioned in my last post what seemed to me a significant fact: that Céline’s horrid anti-Semitic tracts began appearing shortly after he’d had his heart broken by a Jewish girl. To our way of thinking, this fact must be rejected, and I notice all interpreters looking the other way. For how could he be so petty? Surely a little personal misfortune in love could not be so great a trigger. We are trained to think big. Little things like one single human’s birth, life, and death do not count with us: after all, mere people die by the millions; are so many aborted foetuses in the hospital bins. Yet I think that little event was a trigger in Céline, for bigger things; just as the murder of a well-dressed man in Sarajevo touched off a much wider explosion. Neither “justice” nor “proportion” is the issue here.

In this post, let me mention Céline’s persistent habit of dating the collapse of Western Civ to some moment in October 1914. Many things happened in the course of 1914: the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand occurred in June; the serious fighting began in August. But it was on the 25th of October that Céline himself was grievously wounded, during an action which incidentally earned him the médaille militaire, and had him cited for bravery all across France. That is the date he chooses as the boundary between “then” and “now” — when he is himself “invalided” or as he also put it, “invalidated” out of the conflict. The world before was the world before; the world after he summarizes later in the single word, “Stalingrad.”

Gentle reader must fully take this in, should he wish to make any sense of an author who makes no concessions whatever to the “objectivity” we require for our own mental peace. Céline does not care for your mental peace. He has permanently lost his own. As he puts it, “People don’t deserve the restraint we show by not going into delirium in front of them.”

He has been “victimized,” and the world he depicts is of his fellow victims: the little people. The closest he comes to making a speech is when he expounds little home truths to them:

“I tell you, little man, life’s fall guys, beaten, fleeced, sweated from time immemorial, I warn you, that when the princes of this world start loving you, it means they’re going to grind you up into battle sausage.”

Or when he explains:

“In olden times the fanatical fashion was: Long live Jesus! Burn the heretics! … But heretics, after all, were few and voluntary. Whereas today, under the flags of Europe, …”

Or when he gives his advice to the lovelorn:

“Love is like liquor, the drunker and more impotent you are, the stronger and smarter you think yourself, and the surer you are of your rights.”

Or when he provides tips on how to get out of a fix. For when the executioner has you staring at the blade of his guillotine, it is time to shout:

“Hey, you lazy bastard! Don’t you have anyone sharpening that thing?”

Céline is with the victims. But that, too, will be misleading to our post-modern reader who has come to understand victimhood as a mass phenomenon, as a political position; or if reduced to the personal level, as a way to extract money and retribution through the courts by means of malicious posturing and lies. These are not real victims, but the exploiters of the Left-progressive “system” for the bureaucratic arbitration of victimhood — of a “system” imposed, for all practical purposes, by agents of Satan.

In a parallel way, “indignation” has been whored by the Leftists (and their mirrors on the Right). The very possibility of “righteousness,” therefore “righteous indignation,” has been whored: for us, individual righteousness can only be self-righteousness, for righteousness has been put to work in the streets by our liberal and progressive pimps.

And I say this with some warmth, not only because it is true, but because it will give the reader some insight into the world this Céline is describing; this Céline who absolutely refuses surrender to anybody’s stinking party line, and is therefore easily labelled as “a fascist.”

This same Céline who writes vile and vicious things in pamphlets, and shouts obscenities in his sleep at night; but in his private waking life would not hurt a fly. And who, during the War, in France, refused to play the game of a Sartre or Picasso, both of whom lived well and comfortably under the Nazis and then manoeuvred to pose as heroes of the Resistance after. Céline had no idea how to be a whore; not that he was good, but because it wasn’t in his repertoire.

He identifies exclusively with those “on the run,” and in his last magnificent trilogy, with those on the run who can enjoy no one’s sympathy; on those with whom he is running himself, from castle to castle, ever north, away from the “liberators,” in a fine rigadon (it is the name of a Baroque dance). Running, gloriously and without excuse, through the smashed remains of the old Europe — itself appearing now to be nothing more than a knocked-down Hollywood set. The reality he describes is poetic beyond words.

Those who specialize in condemnation, may surely condemn Céline for many sins. I would not myself volunteer to advance his cause for Catholic sainthood.

Our Canadian sage, George Grant, tried to defend him by suggesting that Céline’s vision — which he once naughtily (and brilliantly) associated with Simone Weil’s — was also to be associated with a Platonic conception of justice and the Good. With characteristic unctuousness, the Canadian professoriat dismissed this as eccentric and naïve. I have read a couple of papers in which essentially Marxist professors diminished Grant, and by extension Céline, for advancing an “art” of precisely the kind that must be censured and censored by the wise elders enforcing Plato’s immaculately sterile Good. Needless to say they knew nothing of Grant, Céline, or Plato. (Or, nothing but a few “facts,” which put them on a level with journalists.)

Céline wears his vices on his chest, instead of the médaille militaire. My only defence could be, that they are necessary to his virtues, and that for the reader, they must be borne together, because in some deep sense they are married — they “cannot be apart.” He provides the vantage to see a tremendous truth about our times, which no other vantage could supply; and in doing so perhaps Céline himself provides a poignant illustration of why God might permit evil in this world.

Finally, to complete my own perfessorial instructions, Céline like any author worth the time, should be read through, chronologically. He will train the reader in how to read him as he goes along; stock us up with what we need to know along the way. And while a few paragraph’s worth of author biography, or better, naked chronology in the French style, may be essential orientation from the start, stay well away from long, later author biographies. They will fill your head with prejudices, misdirections, and stupidities. Céline is to be read on Céline’s terms, not on those of some filthy self-serving bourgeois.

Céline as moral agent

The most disturbing thing about Louis-Ferdinand Céline was not the monstrous aspect, in his writings, but an odd saintly quality in his private life. This was most evident in his private practice as a medical doctor in the Paris slums; but there seem hints of it in almost every passing anecdote I have heard about him. Life and work can never be disconnected, though neither should they be wantonly confused.

Céline’s apparently fascist and certainly anti-Semitic rancour remains on the record, in pamphlets he wrote before the Second World War, and mildly diffused through the novels. The pamphlets would be easy to dismiss as incomprehensible and insane; except they were comprehensible, and Céline was not insane. Madness is his conceit, and his confusions are everywhere affectations. For instance, in his tirades he persistently names as Jews people who quite obviously were not even slightly Jewish. There is a monstrously intentional humour in this: he is being droll at a very high level of malignity.

These pamphlets, which his later wife and widow tried to keep out of print, could I think have been easily republished if in every place that Céline wrote some variation on les juifs, an editor substituted some like variation on almost any obscene common noun. Or alternatively, “the Swiss” might be substituted by the bowdlerizer; or as Baudelaire preferred, “Belgians.” It wouldn’t change the sense; but it would lower the temperature, whereas Céline was always trying to raise it, writing as he was about Hell. Indeed, one might say the intensity of his anti-Semitism spoils an otherwise perfect misanthropy: puts a wart even in that, as it were.

Actually read those horrid pamphlets, and you will find that Céline’s definition of a Jew is fairly broad. He includes, for instance, all communists, and all capitalists; all English and American writers, and without exception, all members of the Anglo-Saxon upper classes. He also includes the Catholic Church, and all the popes from Peter forward (a list in which he includes “Karl Marx”), and the Jesuit order earns a special distinction. Also, all Freemasons are counted in, and all homosexuals. Also, without distinction, everyone who is black, or Asian. As I recall, somewhere he mentioned being Jewish himself. Had I been around in 1936, I’m sure he would have included me. And in his Bagatelles pour un massacre (wonderful title, incidentally) he does not exclude any of these from the impending slaughter.

Perhaps it is worth noting, as a biographical aside, that shortly before Céline wrote it, the (literally) Jewish ballerina who was his mistress, ran off with some rich American. Having myself once been dumped by a Jewish ballerina (again, literally), who also ran off with a rich man, I can empathise with the guy to a point, though not quite so far as proposing to exterminate most if not all of the human race. (Well, I say that now, decades later, but if you’d asked me at the time it would have been touch and go.)

There is no defending anti-Semitism, gutter racialism of any other kind, or the knowing publication of inflammatory material tending to incite the democratic mob. Whether or not illegal, this is morally wrong. It is further to Céline’s shame that his infamous pamphlets sold far better than his famous novels: that he had profited handsomely until they were banned (first by the free French authorities, who took a couple of years to get around to it; and then by the Nazi occupation authorities, who re-banned them quite promptly, because of all the rude language).

Monstrous, sick, dark humour, and no respect for authority: that is exactly Céline’s routine through his novels, from the beginning when Voyage au bout de la nuit first appeared: sick, dark humour wandering purposely and brilliantly over the line not of good taste (all genuine humour does that), but of a more basic decency — and to rub it in, for an apparently moral purpose.

It is this “prophetic” quality — a quality present in all great satirical writing — which explains, too, not merely the absence of sentimentality, but a revulsion against it. He will tell things as they really are and not as they might wish to appear; he will suck all the “niceness” out of our lungs. He will tell a story as it really happens in its disjointed way — abrasively not smoothly. And he will put everything into the language of the street — but “transposed” in some carefully disjointed musical sense. All the “Beats” and other frauds copied him, or copied one feature or another; only Céline knew what he was doing, in combining these dimensions and choreographing the full range of effects.

The Céline of real life is related to the author, but certainly not the same. Quite apart from the bohemian (but not dissolute) habits, the man does give an important clue to the author. He is far from unsentimental, towards his cats, dogs, parrots, as we see in almost every photograph of him in a domestic situation. Many hateful people prefer animals to men, and vegetarianism is often a symptom of this moral disorder. But Céline is as affectionate towards the poor and desperate he treats as a doctor — invariably refusing to be paid, even by people who could afford to pay something. He is ever going far out of his way to visit and sit vigil with the dying. It is not just the money: we know there were many patients who would only come to him, who only trusted him, and would court death rather than visit another doctor. It is this instinctive quality of mercy which I believe they detected in him that was in turn the key to his gift as an observer. For if we return to the novels, we see that the obscurely pitiful details he so frequently records are just those that would be noticed by the most empathetic observer. But with the sentiment extracted, to increase the horror.

It is interesting that the dissertation, for his medical degree, was on Ignaz Semmelweis (1818–1865), the Hungarian obstetric doctor (son of a German Jewish grocer, most likely) who made himself a pariah in the respectable medical community of his day. This he did in the course of deducing the cause of very high mortality from puerperal fever among new mothers in hospitals across Europe. The puzzle was that women giving birth at home with midwives, or even in the streets without them, had much, much lower mortality rates. And the explanation was that doctors in maternity hospitals were not properly washing their hands, even when delivering babies after performing autopsies. A generation before Louis Pasteur proposed his germ theory, Semmelweis proposed handwashing in a lime solution that would eliminate the “contagion” and save countless lives. For his trouble and persistence he was not merely professionally ostracized but finally driven into a mental asylum, where a guard murdered him.

The dissertation, written eight years before his first novel, is in itself a fine piece of narrative, full of unmistakeably Célinean personal flourishes, and with a moral object unusual for an aspiring medicine man. Céline argues that, from beginning to end, the extraordinary achievement of Semmelweis could be purchased only at the price of his personal misery.  “Nothing is free in this world. Everything must be expiated, the good and the bad alike, paid for sooner or later. The good is necessarily much more expensive.”

And it was his highly unprofessional emotional distress at the fate of these poor dying mothers that made Semmelweis the obsessive he became — so utterly obsessive that, even without sound science, and without the slightest deference to his professional superiors, or any other view to his own personal advancement, he finally tracked down the cause and the effect.

It is further interesting that Céline himself — who had made a good marriage that would, along with his genius, guarantee his rise to the top of his profession — began to abandon social respectability in the course of studying this hero. Then after the shocking divorce, he actively sought opportunities to participate in public health projects in colonial Africa and elsewhere overseas. He was, throughout his private life, in effect a medical missionary.

The money for this cause (usually small, and repeatedly impounded by his enemies) came mostly from his writing: the exact opposite of William Carlos Williams and other doctors who have taken to poetry as a hobby and recreation from their well-paid medical day jobs.

Signs & wonders

A lady in Canada’s far east, who shares my taste in Spanish mystics, writes something so apposite to and summarizing of my recent apocalyptic effusions (here and at the Catholic Thing), that I will just quote her:

“As far as signs and portents, … it is once again St John of the Cross who grounded me  as I was finding my way back to the Church. He said God gave us our intelligence for a reason, and we should not be petitioning Him for signs and wonders, not that God does not sometimes give them, but we can so easily misinterpret them. So it is best to leave them alone or take them to a spiritual adviser or let God clarify them in His way and time. …

“One other good thing St John taught me is that faith is not feeling.”


Our difficulty begins with failing to perceive that even as things stand, there is nothing mundane. Nature herself is consistently miraculous, to eyes not jaded or gauzed; and the student of history should also be aware that no human chronicle develops along predictable lines. Were it not for Grace, we would all long since have been annihilated. Or rather, we would never have been.

Our task is to work with what we have; with what God has given us, already. We have enough to be getting on with. Even when what we face is death, we have enough to be getting on with; death is something to get on with.


My apologies to gentle reader for silence prolonged these last few days. Just as I was getting into stride for some new quotidian irruption of my blather, some (figurative) truck hit me. Nothing to be concerned about; I’ll live. Routine, routine is important. We cannot have idleness without routine.


And yes, if anyone noticed, after three months’ experiment, I dropped my Twitter feed.



With each passing day, I find myself more willing to consider a shocking, unexpected, counter-intuitive possibility. Gentle reader must indulge me on this point. Incredible as this may seem, reckless as I may sound, we should review the matter calmly. The evidence, for all we know, may be all around us. Consider, for example, this uncanny fact. Everyone is anticipating the end of days. Everyone — from the most materialist environmentalists to the most spiritualist collectors of “signs of the times” — and throughout the media, and even among the Commentariat on this website — everyone, including the present writer, is using apocalyptic language, rather casually. The weather forecasters have been using it through this winter, on both sides of the Atlantic. Specific schemes, derived from or inspired by biblical prophesy, are a commonplace among the Catholic devotes with whom I pray; and right across the Christian spectrum from most Evangelical and farthest Western to most Orthodox and farthest Eastern, it presents as at least a mild fever. We find some version of this resounding through Islam, too, and still farther to the East; likewise across Africa and the Americas, where catastrophes seem most often to occur. Those who look at the rapidity of change around them, the nature of the change, and its direction — although they may disagree entirely on each item of evidence — seem alike convinced of the conclusion, that the end of our world is at hand.

That is why I think it might not be. For in my experience, if there is a large majority for any point of view, we can know with near certainty that it is either false, or trite. (“The earth is round” is an example of a view that has been universally held, for some thousands of years by almost all educated persons, and it is, I confess,  true enough; but it is also quite trite.)

Now to be fair to the purveyors of amateur eschatology, much of what they say is understated. For instance, just today I was reading a prediction that the United States would collapse and disintegrate by the end of fiscal 2015. But so what? We have seen innumerable other countries collapse and disintegrate over the centuries; that can hardly be the standard for the end of the world. And as for little things, like raising the world’s sea level by a few hundred metres — yawn. (So we move uphill; downhill if it lowers.)

Up here in the High Doganate, we maintain Augustinian views on prophecy, on biblical interpretation, and especially on the apocalyptic writings. A minority of our personae are superstitious by disposition (the majority almost too sceptical); not one persona is a biblical literalist, except with respect to those Bible passages which offer factual report, or wherein the hairsplitting appears to be intentional. However, which passages those might be may also be subject to some dispute. A general rule in discussions among my personae is: do not feign certainty of things you do not know, and could not possibly know except on authority. Also: consult the authorities, sometimes. Also: do not obsess on matters that cannot be necessary to salvation.

I’m sure that is all perfectly clear.

Augustine, and by extension I would say the whole Catholic Church, is what we call “amillennialist.” That is, he wasn’t mesmerized by such an expression as “a thousand years,” and did not immediately enter it on his abacus. He could remember how the expression had been used in, say, II Peter — “One day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” — and how indeed anticipated in the Psalms and elsewhere. More broadly, he has no inclination to play number games, or engage in other forms of calculation which become inevitable when symbols are interpreted as counters instead. He could see a larger structure of apocalyptic teaching running through the length of the Bible, that was not pitched entirely beyond human understanding, and would be dangerous to take beyond. And thus he put the highly symbolic Apocalypse of Saint John in its rightful place at the tail (and thinnest) end. As a literary master himself, he could understand not only what a symbol is, but also, what is a “conceit.”

The world began (as Christians and Jews always knew, through many centuries when scientists did not also know it). Therefore, it will end. We could deduce each from the other revelation. Necessarily, it begins and ends in a certain way. It began when God began it, and it will end, as each of us will end in respect to this world, and within an easily foreseeable period:

“Thou who hast foretold that Thou wilt come to judgement in a day when we look not for Thee, and at an hour when we are unaware: make us prepared every day and every hour to be ready for thine advent; and save us.”

When people look through news events, or even social trends to descry patterns of prognostic prophecy, I lose interest in what they are saying. This on the basis of a theological hunch. How is it possible that God would require us to be keeping up with newspapers and websites, in order to discern “the signs of the times”? I do not myself think we can discern even “the points of the compass” by such means. I am moreover increasingly aware, from my readings in history, that while not all generations are equal, all have been perceptibly going to Hell; and that a plausible argument could have foretold the End Time, in every recorded moment.


There is a rather deeper objection to be made, not only to End Time calculations, but to every other form of what I call “Catholic fortune-telling,” and “the spirituality of the Ouija board.” (How many young ladies have grown tired of hearing me use such expressions!)

It is my view that Our Lord and Our Lady, alike, do not prattle. That they do not play Twenty Questions, or other parlour games. That they give no replies to questionnaires or surveys, do no interviews, and will not engage in chit-chat on the weather. The miracles we have seen, through Scripture and through history, were not especially subtle. Each seems to have come as a surprise. If you were there, you saw it; if you weren’t you did not.

And I am not being irreverent, incidentally. Those who think our relationship with the divine can be set on such a level of familiarity are the irreverent ones.

A Christian is surrounded at all times by little coincidences that wink at him, and to which he may prayerfully wink back; the world itself seems designed to be “knowing” in that way. But on my understanding it would be unlike God, or any of the angelic forces working for Him, to suggest action should be taken on the basis of a nice coincidence or three. For if it were, we would be saying that the Creator of the Universe made us to be easy dupes; that He created an order of things in which credulity trumps faith.

And, that is the very thing that separates the Catholic Christian faith (which is taken to include her Hebrew antecedents) from the Oriental mystery cults she unambiguously rejected. It is at the heart of our differences over the nature of human destiny — for by the same mental action we reject the fatalism of all gnostic cults, and replace it with the triumphant theological virtue of Hope. Our whole idea of human freedom arrived with Christ as something revolutionary. It had been formed in the detachment of the ancient Hebrews from the idolatries of other ancient peoples — as Christ taught, Christ was always there — but was brought into blazing clarity by Christ, at a certain demonstrable moment in history, with demonstrable consequences throughout this world.

Much else could be said, but here is enough excitement. At the core level of Judaeo-Christian teaching — breaking the chains of fatalism — we were freed from our bondage to ancient gods and goddesses, witches, goblins, spooks, and idols; and we were beckoned to rise and walk in a sunlight that provides, indeed confirms, the light of a reason also naturally endowed. The Catholic Christian teaching is self-consistent. Odd and peculiar as it may first appear, I believe it finally makes sense, in the course of providing the most articulate, and also moving account of human freedom and destiny. I wouldn’t have joined up if it didn’t.


Mother Teresa of Calcutta comes into my view. Those who have studied her life — among the most famous and accessible of the last century — will be aware that most of it was lived in spiritual desolation. As an intelligent and well-educated young woman she had a calling to become a nun and go abroad (at first from Albania to Ireland), was sceptical of its validity, sought advice from intelligent Catholic religious, and tested it very carefully. (She was an extremely intelligent woman, in the plainest worldly sense: I can report that at first hand.) Everything she did for the long remainder of her life was premised on that one personal revelation.

As a character she was gentle as mercy, and hard as nails. She prayed, and prayed for answers to her prayers, in a condition of sincerity few have mastered. She asked repeatedly and explicitly for signs, and for instructions, to direct her through all the many hard passages and decisions she ever had to make. As she herself directly reported, she never received answers. Apparently, God had so high an opinion of her judgement, that He left her to make decisions for herself.

This I contrast with certain young ladies, and young men much like them in being rather girlish, whom I count as my sisters and brothers in daily prayer. They are not in any common sense bad people; rather they are often among the kindest and most thoughtful, especially among the young. But they have bought into nonsense, and sooner or later it must cost them.

I’m thinking of one in particular with whom I had awkward dealings some years ago. She seemed to receive (by her own ebullient reckonings) the equivalent of emails from Our Lady, twenty times a day, along with numerous forwards through myriad saints from the Persons of the Trinity, and divine assignations for Harlequin romance. Had I been her spiritual director (an unwelcome task, for she’d drop them as a high school princess dumps boyfriends), I would have instructed her to give up entirely on petitionary prayer for the duration of Lent, or maybe never again to say a novena.

An extreme case, but I became aware of many lesser cases, and a contagion in the Church, curiously more afflicting the traditional end, where sanity is under extra pressure. The ways of the old pagan world are being smuggled back in, as cute pets, and dolled up in sweet Traddy costume. (Well, there is worse to see at the non-traditional end.)

I think it is a mistake to leap to any conclusion — including that most rare apprehension of a truly miraculous “gift from God” — without serious contemplation, and patient testing, which requires time. (And the question is not only whether the gift is real, but what does it mean, and what does it require by way of thank you; divine gifts need opening very carefully.) The Church herself has always believed in testing, and one might add, paid a premium over any other institution for her lapses.

A truly Catholic life is in constant formation, and re-formation: and to be sure Christ must work both from without and within. We are creatures now operating in time, and need time and discernment to take His most genuine and precious teachings in. To my mind, we should pray in a spirit quite opposite to throwing the dice, or flipping a coin, or begging for the lottery number; we should never expect to receive quick answers to anything at all. On the contrary, we should expect to work for them. For the answers will emerge, over time, and in ways that can actually be tested — in our lives, and often through painful experience when getting it wrong. The answers are not delivered by Fedex, as it were. (It is more like the questions that arrive in that way.) If they did, human beings would have no freedom, nor Hell nor Purgatory nor Heaven any serious meaning; and there would be no real and teaching drama in our lives.

But I am no priest. Gentle reader should consult the great manuals of Christian instruction, written by the attested saints, and form his judgement from those. The limit of my claim is to have dipped into some of them, and found similar warnings scattered all through: sober cautions against the human propensity to leap, to believe what we want to believe, to accept just those answers we were looking for, to seek instant gratification at every turn, and take persistently the easy way out — all methods to evade personal responsibility and commitment.

And if this is the case in our own tiny lives, how much more must it be when it comes to discernment of events vastly beyond the scope of our personal capacity to see, let alone comprehend. Therefore let us attend to our business, and leave God to His.

Breeding instructions, revisited

Samastipur is a small city and railway junction in the north Indian state of Bihar. Forty-two years have passed since I switched trains at that station. I had been rolling for seventeen hours northwest from Howrah (across the Hoogly River from Calcutta). Certainly in those days, probably in these, you don’t travel third class on the Indian railways unless you lack common sense, or a few spare rupees; but I was young and looking for thrills. The ride had been nearly intolerable: not fewer than three hundred people (many with bedding and all their possessions) in and on top of a car that had bench-pews and racks for perhaps one hundred. There was no glass in the windows, and yet the air temperature remained above that of the human body. The smell was as if those bodies were decomposing, as we shunted through the evening, and the long night, and the morning of the next day — never faster, I think, than thirty miles per hour, and often so slow I was tempted to jump off and run alongside. I have never enjoyed tea so much as I did on the platform at Samastipur; the name of which, on my ticket, became deeply incised in my memory. But within a few minutes, and a single cup, I had to board another train.

This one lacked even third-class carriages. It instead consisted chiefly of open cattle-cars, with raised planks for seating. The passengers would be under the baking sun, but at least now there would be breezes, and it did not rain. I was in one corner of the car, fully surrounded by an extended family, in the act of migrating from one part of India to another. The mothers (I soon realized they were sisters) had about a dozen children between them, and the older of the two (perhaps thirty, looking forty), was quite pregnant. There were also a grandmother and two timid-looking husbands.

For the next eight hours we rolled towards Raxaul, on the Nepalese frontier. I did not share a language with these people, who tried to address me in their musical Bengali, then included me in their glances after giving up on speech. While clearly allowing that I came from another planet, they adopted me for the duration of their trip. When they produced chapatis and fishpaste out of a battered tin container, I was casually offered my share; and one of the little boys fell asleep on my lap. They were ragged people, there were lice in the boy’s hair; they were ludicrously poor, and I the pampered child of Canadian parents (who could wire home for money if I ever really needed it). For only these few hours, we lived, this extended family and I, in a state of equality.

It may be a principle of education that there is nothing to be learned in any other state — not merely of equality, but of being reduced to it. Read your Aristotle on the social relations between teacher and pupil, the “eros” of the thing as it were, and this all makes sense. The teacher should belong to a lower class than his charges. And though it may be my addition, I think perhaps his task is to bring them down to his level. Rising, by chance, to a higher station, one learns nothing: as we may see all around us in the evidence of an economy’s “rising boats,” or for that matter, in the graduates of our highly unionized public schools.

This by way of explaining what I learnt on that cattle-car. It was something which contradicted everything I, as a product of the post-industrial West, had expected about human nature. Without ever having been told in so many words, I had come to believe that people who live in poverty and squalor must be miserable and in some sense, oppressed. And surely the pressure and uncertainty of migration would make this all the more oppressive. Let me concede this may well be the case, for the migrant or refugee who is alone. Yet these people were profoundly contented and — I shall never deny this — profoundly free. They were — all of them, but especially that serene, pregnant woman, at the centre of them all — quite possibly the happiest people I had ever met, to my tender age of eighteen. They seemed to exist perfectly for each other.

When last telling this (now, too, some years ago), I was in the course of reviewing the annual report of the United Nations’ population control programme. I have forgotten what euphemism they were using then, for eliminating the unwanted babies, and won’t bother to look up what it is now. The point I’d wished to make was that the woman — the pregnant one who sat, quite distinctly in the place of honour, in the middle of this extended family on the cattle-car, being transported across the fields of Bihar — was the very person the “international experts” were trying to reach with their gospel of liberation through contraception and abortion. And throughout the West, progressive-minded people could believe, without even thinking, that it would have been better for her had her children never been born. As alike, all the middle-class, “third-world” functionaries of international agencies, whose own minds are entirely westernized, and whose feelings towards the poor of their own countries shift back and forth between shame and condescension.

I have the old press release here (from 1990): “Unless women have control over their own lives and fertility, family planning goals will not be reached, and environmental damage will hit danger level. … But there are major obstacles that stand between women and their human rights.”

It would be impossible, in the course of mere argument, to show how much freight was carried by that glib statement, how many assumptions it made, and how poisonous they were. Nor was it, like some inscription from ancient Carthage, an artefact of some lost age. The same views are still pressed by the same agencies — if anything with more glibness, presumption, and poison in them today. Nevertheless I will mention the first half-dozen outrageously false assertions that come to mind:

They assumed that this pregnant Bengali woman had no control over her life, which was a lie.

They assumed that she did not want her children, which was a damnable lie.

They assumed that these children prevented her from fulfilling her destiny, when they were her destiny.

They alleged that she, and her family, were a threat to the environment, when they were as near to harmless as humans can be.

They implied that she was inferior to the emancipated women of the modern, eugenic West, when she was not inferior; that her children were inferior, and thus not worth the pain.

They concluded that obstacles stood in the way of her liberation, when those obstacles were part of her very identity as a living human being.

Looking back, from my present vantage, I still see with vividness that beautiful woman’s face; still remember the light and joy in it. And while I did not then, today I think of Mary Mother of God, and her Yes to God’s creation. But then as now: let God decide which of us is not worth having.

Love defeating time

My own parents’ wedding was today (in 1948). Though both are now dead, they were able to share sixty anniversaries. It is as if I attended the wedding itself, my mama told me the whole story so many times: such a rich farce, and such a glorious love anthem.

They weren’t intending to get married on Valentine’s Day; they thought that would be cheesy. But the day got selected for them by “events.” The fact was, my father-to-be in a tuberculosis sanatorium. My mother-to-be had given up much better prospects, much much better prospects, and a life unfolding in another province, to run to his side. They needed to get out of the hospital for one night — by way of the chapel, with a chaplain on call, and a few witnesses lined up for an almost military operation. The problem was the man in charge, at Christie Street. He had to wink, to allow the escape. Fortunately, it was discovered he was an old sentimentalist, and so Valentine’s Day was the ticket. The dear old git contrived to have his staff look the other way, and off they ran to the chapel.

Sixty wedding anniversaries is a lot. I saw quite a few of them, as their son. In light of the world, as it has fallen out, I am in retrospect amazed by what I saw. They were always lovers, and in a serenity not known to contemporary “relationships.” But also with a fierce passion unknown. I cannot forget my embarrassment, to stumble upon them once in their kitchen. They were a couple of wrinkled oldies — octogenarians at the time — and they were kissing like a couple of love-struck teenagers.

Nor forget the last anniversary. By this time things had got worse. They were now in a nursing home, but still together. (Another administrative miracle had had to be performed, to get them in there together.) It was their sixtieth anniversary, and both very feeble, and on top of this my father had lost almost all his marbles. But character is the last thing to go, and he never flagged as a Troubadour.

My mama lost it, couldn’t bear it any more. Papa only sat there, gently smiling, with this look of unearthly benignity on his face. He could not form sentences, he’d lose the thread after two words. He was dying; a pneumonia would soon carry him away.

Mama shrieked, “Jim! I have been talking to you all morning! I’ve been telling you everything, and you just sit there and don’t answer!”

And in reply, he managed suddenly to put a whole sentence together:

“It will be okay, Florrie.”


On the comments thread of the penultimate post, our Chief Argentine Correspondent kindly attached his Spanish translation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet CXVI, as a lively refutation of the argument made through an Urdu ghazal. This pleased me. By some perfectly commonplace coincidence, I had just read elsewhere a passing line on the nature of “true love” — to the effect that it “evolves.” And, had sat upon the impulse to type the very same sonnet back, in its original English, by way of my own comment on love “evolving.”

In my first draft of this post I devoted a couple thousand words to a commentary on that sonnet, but got no farther than line four. That is now deleted. Valentine’s is not the day for the lucubrations of a tweed-jacket quasi-English perfesser, who thinks too much.

Gentle reader is instructed to find that sonnet in his Shakespeare, and instead read it very carefully; with a school commentary, if necessary, for it contains at least one Elizabethan idiom that might seriously mislead a modern reader; and word-play from the old Catholic (and Anglican) marriage rite that might otherwise pass over his head.

Shakespeare makes clear that his subject matter is “true love,” and that he is not being clever. Indeed he has pointedly foregone cleverness of posture, to make a statement unambiguous: “Love defeats time.” Of his character Hotspur (in I Henry IV) he said that, “Life is time’s fool”; but here he is saying, absolutely, and explicitly, “Love is not time’s fool.” He does not mean this “figuratively.” He means it actually, and I believe him, because I have seen it with my own eyes.

Corned mutton

There was a crisis in Toronto eighteen years ago. Few were privy to the story. I may have been the only journalist fully aware of it at the time. For many weeks, perhaps several months, the city was entirely without a commercial supply of corned mutton. I had searched everywhere: through all the shops in Kensington Market, to St Lawrence, and far beyond; resorted even to a telephone. The degree of this crisis may be conveyed in a contemporary note (which fell out of a book, up here in the High Doganate). It was the handwritten original for a fax transmission:

“Oh Fraser, what are we to do? I have just used the last corner of the last tin of corned mutton from Australia in making a celery-and-mutton soup, and the beauty and the plum-blossom transience of it brings tears to my eyes. I have searched every Guyanese and West Indian shop in Toronto, surely, and it must no longer be imported. I can be happy enough with a lamb, I suppose, but would so much prefer to have a sheep hanging. I like my meat old, and ripe, and knowing; the innocence of a lamb is trite, beside the rich experience of his aged parent. And surely corned mutton is the old stuff, the concentrated wisdom of the Outback.”

The recipe which followed was conveyed with desolation: for without corned mutton, what use could it be? Among the other ingredients, the celery of course, the dry white wine, light cream, a crumbled sharp cheddar, grated Pecorino Romano, a spoon of Spanish paprika, crushed Hontaka peppers, perhaps some Ancho too, dabs of garlic butter Provençal, and the corned mutton diced, shredded, and folded into all this. The three kinds of chilli to accord with the “three ages of mutton,” as I have understood them.

Better yet than the corned, tinned substance would be real mutton, could it only be found. It has long been utterly unavailable from butchers throughout the Western world, and according to my informants, it has now almost disappeared from India. (The “mutton curries” offered on Indian restaurant menus are today almost invariably goat instead, as elsewhere and for another reason pork is sold as rabbit.)

Lamb, as veal, is preferred by our post-industrial stockyards, and I’m told even bison and boar, ostrich and emu, and venison grow younger and younger. It is a cost/benefit thing, and for what does our advertising industry exist than to persuade the consumer that he likes his meat, as he likes his supermodels, young and lean? Only the magnificently wealthy (in the strictest Aristotelian sense) could consider the investment in sheep, allowed to grow to their full maturity and to be indulged, expressly for their flesh and not their wool.

There are, as I understand, three stages in life beyond lamb-hood when a sheep is very commendably edible: each of these stages adding a dimension to the flavour, while retaining what was added in each stage before. There are thus long periods between these stages, when the shepherd must continue to feed and lead his animals, with no prospect of a quick sale.

Corned mutton, to my knowledge, was originally designed as the retirement plan for the wool-bearers. It is crude, as retirement plans go, but at least it is not wasteful. The corning process is not to be deprecated: designed as it was to dissolve the toughest, grittiest meat. (The brighter reds we see are the product of pink salts; not the preserved flush of youth.) The flavouring of the brine can be admirably complementary, and as I hope to have made clear, corned mutton must not be sneered at. That we must receive it only in tins is a penance; but at least these will keep for decades on our shelves.

I must be old now. I can remember foods that my children will never know, and can never know — removed from the market before they were born, for failing to repay expenses. Foods which required life and love to produce, and have therefore had to be eliminated from a world that despises inefficiency, and worships money. Let this corned mutton never run out; let it long remain somehow “economically viable”: for it is among the links to another world, in which there was life and love and plenty.


Up here in the High Doganate, things are constantly falling out of books: bookmarks, clippings, author photos, Mass cards, old letters. … The names and field positions for a casual cricket team I once captained that called itself “Famous English Murderers.” … Pressed leaves and flowers. … A recipe from Mrs Balbir Singh. … Picture of an old girlfriend. … It is really not the world’s most efficient filing system.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a little lecture-and-social to celebrate the acquisition of Marshall McLuhan’s working books (some thousands of them) by the Thomas Fisher Library in Toronto, here. I enjoyed the slide show on the ephemera that fell out of his books. McLuhan’s son, Eric, is an old friend, and Eric’s son, Andrew, had the nightmare of cataloguing it all. (Little baby Andrew how he’s grown!)

Our great Canadian sage of “media” — and a real one, I might add — is himself also distantly remembered by me. He had a secretary who could remember where he’d put everything, but there are limits to all human understanding, and I doubt she could have told him in which of four or more heavily-annotated copies of Finnegans Wake he had entered some item of marginalia.

My own method of filing is to throw things out. This creates an impressively ordered environment, and saves time searching. No matter how clearly I can recollect some document, I can be reasonably sure it is gone. But in the course of discarding, I’m inclined to overlook anything that is hidden from immediate view. Well, that is enough on my filing system.

One thing omitted from my initial list, was poems in translation. It is something I do, like doodling, or knitting. Another old friend, with rather more gifts, shares this peculiar hobby, and we sometimes exchange our frivolous effusions. Indeed, George Jonas, for that is his name, got a whole book out of such efforts, which was published two years ago under the title, The Jonas Variations: A Literary Seance.

Now, George can speak and understand innumerable languages, and translate from one to another with facility. He is Hungarian after all. Whereas, I’m still working on my English. Therefore, unlike him, I specialize in translating from languages that I do not understand. Sometimes I use dictionaries. Sometimes I avail myself of other cheats. Sometimes I just wing it. (In my twenties, I actually won a prize for a poem-in-translation I had simply wung. Apparently the judges couldn’t read the original, either.)

Having nothing else on my mind today, with which to construct a more intelligent Essay, I attach below the latest but one of my translation efforts, to fall out from between the pages of an old book. (In fact, I’m beginning to think I can keep this website going for some time, in this way.) It is a sequence of ghazal — a Persian poetical form of short, Twitter-length couplets, in Sufi mystical relation with each other. These are by “Fena” (a pseudonym; forgotten his real name). Written in Urdu at Lahore during the Mughal dynasty, a few centuries ago (or so I would guess off the top of my head):


You came and peopled with desires
My heart that was so long deserted.


The path led into the thorns,
The one that had looked so easy.


If there is no burning in their chests,
How can we call them fully human?


The lips of the buds had hardly opened,
The gusts of autumn took them away.


The endless thirst that we must quench:
Who knows whither we are going?