Essays in Idleness


How strange

I cannot tell gentle reader how shocked (shocked!) I am to learn that Donald Trump talks dirty in private; or that Hillary Clinton says one thing to small paying audiences in Wall Street, and quite another to big audiences across the USA. This changes everything. It revolves my commitments 360 degrees. From a position of condemning both candidates, I come out giving my support to neither. Or perhaps the turn was only 359; for the shrieking hypocrisy of the international media, and the whole political class, has possibly moved me one point closer to Trump. It is hard to pick out, however, one-sixth of a second on the dial of a small watch.

Perhaps the most sordid and widely-watched political “debate” (“ever!”) will occur in wild “town hall” format on the networks tonight. I think the rest of us may meet elsewhere, because we’ll all be out for a walk. Pubs must be avoided, alas; for they’ll be showing the implosion on their wide-screen TVs.

Up here in the Great North, where the sun is now declining, and the leaves will soon fall, it is the weekend of Canadian Thanksgiving. There is much for which Canadians could be thankful — quite sincerely if we could overcome our smugness. We could envy the Americans if we were capable of grasping that they have some outward choice, however repulsive and disgusting. Up here we have interchangeable parties, so that rather than a Trump versus a Clinton, we have something more like a Clinton versus a Clinton versus a Clinton; plus another Clinton in exceptional years. (Lest anyone be tempted to make a mistake.) We are told, constantly, to express gratitude for our national cradle-to-grave daycare; and we oblige, with infantile cheering, every “Canada Day.”

Thanks be to God. Who brings the harvest, family and friends. And decorates the winter nights with the light of a trillion trillion stars; and will freeze the ponds for kids to play hockey. Who seems to leave politics entirely to the Devil. We have little left of the cultural memory of Thanksgivings past, once upon a time when people were consciously grateful for such “modest” things — for food on their tables, and knew from whence it came, as also that it came by good fortune. But to the abortuaries of the body, we have added abortuaries of the mind. And now euthanasia: so we may thank the state for death. After thanking it for giving us a choice of many sexes.

Now, death had a history before that. I think of the soil, and so many buried; ashes to ashes, dissolved out of view. Of how they await the Resurrection — our mothers and fathers, our uncles and aunts, generation behind generation.

At least, there are moments when I think of this soil, turning; of the Harvest my contemporaries have ceased to expect. Of the ground that was seeded, from the beginning; that in that spring will burst through our asphalt, with a power that will split any rock, convulsing in choral waves of the Gloria.

Of the dead, burying their dead through the ages; and of the once living, who are living still. Of their graves, with the snow blowing over; of the graveyards, grown over by the thickening woods, in quiet and forgotten places, once filled with children’s laughter. Nothing has been forgotten in God.

I think of the children in the sunlight of time future, as of the children in the sunlight of time past, called from their play by Our Lady. And of stars wheeling in their new courses, as it was in the beginning and will be in the end. Yet even now they wheel, beyond our failing sight.

How incomprehensibly strange is this world; how large, in the passing of trivial events. In thanksgiving for the peace that passeth all understanding, let us whisper deep to deep.

Anchovy sandwiches

The life of an impresario is not to be recommended to any of my gentle readers. The money may be good, but you have to hang out with rock stars and stelle del cinema — boorish people who always order the most expensive wine on the list, and trash their hotel rooms. It is the job of the butler in the house of horrors; you will need a large staff to clean up after your charges; and in the meantime you are likely to become the focus of their abuse. And that is before considering the mind-rending fuss of booking dates and transportation. Or the tedium of the court appearances.

From what I can gather, this has always been the way, and was no different in the age of Restoration Comedy. Richard Brinsley Sheridan remains a playwright in the annals of “Eng. Lit.” but in life was probably far more concerned with his property interests along Drury Lane. Shakespeare, too, did real estate on the side, the complex tax-dodging that goes along with that, and was up to his ears in theatre management, along with his rôles on the stage. I wonder how he found time to actually wright forty plays — and not at all bad plays, in my opinion — amid all these distractions. To say nothing of those “sugar’d sonnets among his private friends,” &c. He must have been a monster of efficiency. And not one holiday in Biarritz (so far as we know).

About Sheridan we know more, including his curious gift for creative procrastination. To Shakespeare’s accomplishments he added those of a duellist (it is the best way to dispose of drama critics), and Member of Parliament (as Whig, sadly enough). Plus, coming from Ireland, which in London has always required great skill. He came from a family of impresarios, however (his papa used to manage the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin, his mama wrote plays and bestselling novels), so was accustomed from birth to the demands.

Too, having eloped at a ridiculously young age, with the ludicrously beautiful Elizabeth Ann Linley (surely gentle reader has seen her portrait by Gainsborough), he needed lots of money. She came with a good dowry, once he got round to marrying her, but that was quickly burnt through (along with the cash and jewellery from a wealthy former suitor). To maintain themselves as apples in London society’s eye (big house; lavish entertainments) poor Sheridan was put to the trouble of writing one smash hit after another. The marriage proved sufficiently tempestuous to run the costs up further. (Both parties made a habit of “falling in love.”) There wasn’t a choice, really: for as an impresario of my acquaintance once explained, it is generally easier to make more money than to persuade one’s wife to spend less. One thing leads to another.

Duelling alone requires much preparation, and quibbling over venue. But Sheridan was a master fencer (as his wife an unforgettable soprano), and a sure winner. As he showed, you don’t even have to kill them — which is icky — just separate the drama critic from his sword and have the pleasure of watching him crawl and beg for mercy.

(Well, there was the one unfortunate incident, in which his aggrieved opponent came at him with the broken remnant of his foil, putting Sheridan in hospital. But that was more embarrassing than painful.)

A master in postponing tasks till the last moment, Sheridan was notorious among his players for leaving them in rehearsal with incomplete scripts. In the case of his play, The Critics, he hadn’t finished the thing, until it was two nights before the opening at the Theatre Royal. He had this memorable character, “Sir Fretful Plagiary” — to traduce one of his rivals — but had yet to decide upon a suitable fate for him. Too, how to dispose of the villainous stage critics, “Dangle” and “Sneer.”

The answer was to lock Sheridan in a room with a couple of bottles of fine Medoc, and a mound of anchovy sandwiches. Also a pen and some paper. He’d be sure to finish, from his need for more claret.


I’m arrested by this idea of anchovy sandwiches. As we are in the middle of the eighteenth century this morning, I would guess the anchovies were salt-pickled as today, and might be pounded into a paste. Contemporary cookery books mention anchovies again and again, as an explosive flavour enhancer, and as a cure for headaches; but I can’t find a recipe for anchovy sandwiches on my shelves. I am, however, informed by a scientific Frenchman that like Roman garum, or Siamese nam pla, anchovies are one of heaven’s glorious nucleotides, when salted: just waiting for a glutamate to set off. The salt is merely a cover for an umami savour they can deliver, big time.

Not from the traditional barrel, but from a small Italian grocery jar, I pulled my wee fillets — in honour of Sheridan, messy life, and the Friday abstinence. My own recipe was simplicity itself. Into the anchovies I pummeled a good dollop of butter, a generous squirt of lemon, a dribble of wine vinegar and dusting of dry herbs. For good measure, this mixture was casually heated in my smallest stovetop pot, then bottled (in my now empty anchovy container) and stowed in the fridge.

That was yesterday. This morning I selected two slices of soft white bread, and spread the compound between them. Thus provided, I set about completing my Idlepost for the day.

Good I declare it (the sandwich if not the Idlepost). Invigorating, quite. And the pot of Assam tea was all very well. But better, I would think, with two bottles of claret.

Towards silence

“At the beginning of our Eucharistic celebrations, how is it possible to eliminate Christ carrying his cross and walking painfully beneath the weight of our sins toward the place of sacrifice? There are many priests who enter triumphantly and go up to the altar, waving left and right in order to appear friendly. Observe the sad spectacle of certain Eucharistic celebrations. …

“Why so much frivolity and worldliness at the moment of the Holy Sacrifice? Why so much profanation and superficiality before the extraordinary priestly grace that makes us capable of bringing forth the body and blood of Christ in substance by the invocation of the Spirit? Why do some believe themselves obliged to improvise or invent Eucharistic prayers that disperse the divine phrases in a bath of petty human fervour? Are the words of Christ so insufficient that a profusion of purely human words is needed? In a sacrifice so unique and essential, is there a need for this subjective imagination and creativity? ‘And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words,’ Jesus has cautioned us.”

This excerpt is translated from a book published this morning (in French), by beloved Cardinal Robert Sarah. It is entitled, La force du silence (“The Power of Silence”). From what I can see (here; and also here), it is a development of what he said in, God or Nothing, in the same dialogue form with the intelligent journalist, Nicolas Diat. The earlier book was more autobiographical and personal; this one looks outward from Sarah’s curial station, at Rome. His “style,” as that of Wojtyla and Ratzinger, is to proceed from, then return to, the heart of the Christian religion, in Christ.

As with another beloved cardinal, Raymond Leo Burke, there is great strength in Sarah’s manner. He is gently direct, without mincing. I’m aware there are people who hate all these men, but I cannot see how. None has shown the fear or self-consciousness that usually excites the dogs. Good Christian instruction omits that mouth-organ whine I am so tired of hearing from our pulpits; and the blathering of those “airport bishops” — “the turbulent floods of easy, hollow words.” The faith is not to be argued, but affirmed. The religion is so, and it is so; you may reject it, but there can be no doubt what it is. Those who are listening will hear; those not listening will not hear. Shouting is unnecessary; it only adds to the environmental noise.

Both Burke and Sarah are, in the best sense, plain speakers. They are capable of replying to the simplest questions with a “yes,” or a “no.” They give answers which themselves hold still. Each is papabile.

Our Mass has been confused, vitiated, emasculated, through the last half century of “reforms,” which turn away from Christ, towards worldly concerns. This reversal is most apparent in the turning of the priest, who now puts his back to God, and thus makes himself the focus of the sacrifice. We have turned from silence towards noise — even within the Mass. As Cardinal Sarah says plainly, this is wrong, and must be corrected.

However, I do not think, and do not think he thinks, that everything can be restored by “a fix.” Correcting this mistake is a precondition for correcting all the others, but in that only a start. We, in the Church and in her proximity, face unprecedented circumstances, in a world of constantly increasing noise — and with it, ever bolder atheism. We cannot out-shout this world. Paradoxically, we must go by a way that is silent, even to hear our own hearts; before apprehending God in the silent centre of things. The Mass begins and ends in this silence; and does what is necessary to expound it.

“Be still and know that I am God.”

A thought for Hierotheos Day

Do devils have rights? I should think they do, especially in our world, where even furry animals have rights, which can be spelt out and chartered. Apparently even polar ice shelves have rights, in the latest expositions of deep ecology. We would be wrong to melt them. And coal has the right to sleep undisturbed in its coal beds, et cetera. For we are, I’m afraid, increasingly insane: a proposition that is easily confirmed by reading posters on any university campus.

Still, “to give the devil his due” is an old concept; the “devil’s advocate” is a debating pose long honoured. But those are similetic propositions, as I think we say today. It is not the devil we are honouring, but justice, principally, in the first case, and truth in the second. We are testing propositions in a sceptical way, and verily, taking the arguments out of hiding; out of their “safe spaces.” Or, we once were.

This is what the man whom I consider the world’s greatest intellectual hero — one Thomas Aquinas — set about doing, on a big and ruthless scale. It is moreover at the root of “scholastic” philosophy, with threads dangling centuries beneath it, all the way down to Plato’s Socrates immediately below Aristotle; if not to some Pre-Socratics. The truth might set us free; but first we must find out what, or even where, it is.

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from, …

As a young man I was inflamed by this slogan, that “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Unfortunately I was taking it more from e.g. the drug-addicted S. T. Coleridge, than from Our Lord. I was willing to follow it anywhere, however; except to Source. But upon arriving there (despite my best efforts to arrive elsewhere), I found this Source to be, as it were, an infinite force multiplier.

Yet it is a saying that will survive translocation through many diverse contexts, in a universe designed to yield truth from any point. We must start somewhere. And it turns out we could start anywhere. Which is why, in the end, we tolerate, or used in principle to tolerate, open discussion in places like universities.

“Science” means “knowledge,” and as the sane discern, it will not hold still. An oxymoron is a figure of speech; but “settled science” is a flat-out, self-negating contradiction. For our knowledge has this much in common with a black hole: that it has no bottom. And what can be constructed from our practical knowledge, will never be secure. The suction is too great, one might say.

Reading Thomas Nagel the other day (Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, 2012), I was happily reminded of the overview that only philosophical reasoning can provide. Nagel is not merely refuting the old bearded wonder of Down House, and his sproo. He is showing the inadequacy of materialist naturalism, to explain anything. From a noticeably irreligious point of view, he reviews our modern, “scientific,” intellectual equipment. It can give us answers, but only to questions that can be phrased in a tedious way. It cannot cope with interesting questions.

Such as: how does matter come into being? How does life emerge from dead matter? How does consciousness emerge from life?

Now, those are interesting evolutionary questions, which materialist naturalism must necessarily funk. It simply does not have the equipment, and will not have in any future foreseeable, at least to Nagel. But he can descry the need to restore the teleological reasoning which our ancestors trashed in the soi-disant “Enlightenment.” Which suggests we are not quite through with Aristotle yet, who noticed that one cannot make sense of a function except by acquiring an understanding of its purpose. That, in effect, nothing “just happens” in our busy little monde. Not when you look into it. (See my magisterial unpublished treatise on, The Uses and Abuses of Paranoia.)

Nor can we embark on the catechistic questions, with what we have in our labs. Why is man here? What are his real options? To what end might his functions aspire? But Nagel avoids the phenomena of Faith, as beyond his philosophical jurisdiction. Having graduated from Science to Philosophy, we would have to graduate again to Theology for that. To which end, we would have to believe that it exists.

And so, to return to my original question, do devils have rights? This is an issue, because they have long been demanding something like the Internet “right to be forgotten.” They demand to be excluded from any consideration of how our world works — and in the name of their president, Settled Science. They assert some absolute right to privacy, as they get on with their daily chores. All those who mention them should, in their view, be hauled before the courts, and punished. Even Nagel appears to respect these demands: he leaves devils out of the account entirely.

But there I disagree. I want to keep them in our larger account of Nature. For I think the explanatory power of devils is yuge.

Gender benders

There was a nasty incident in school, when I was a wee boy in Pakistan. It happened in a washroom, after a muddy school recess. (No showers there; instead, taps over a trough along one wall.) A child had been put up on a stool by the other children, in the middle of this dank, slippery, concrete chamber. It was a boy’s school, but the child was a girl. She had been stripped naked, and all around the boys, mostly older, were taunting her. Viciously. She, for her part — who had been “he” before the incident — was beyond tears. I recall the terror in her face: the strange amazed silence of a six-year-old, with no defender. I recall, only vaguely — I was seven, then — running for authority. (This was what my parents had taught me to do.) Later, being told at the school to hush up about it. For the parents of this child were Very Important People.

I knew this little girl, slightly; in memory as a “little boy lost.” Always stiffly uniformed, and scrubbed; never wishing to play. Her parents were neighbours in our Nedou’s compound, and this was their only child. I knew the story, though it is hard to reconstruct what I knew when. They had wanted a boy, so badly, that having a girl they dressed her as a boy, and gave her a boy’s name, and made her behave as a little soldier-man, even before enrolling her in a boy’s school. The deceit was quickly exposed at St Anthony’s. (We might ask: What were they thinking?)

Today, I suppose, now that sex can be told before birth, that little girl would just have been aborted. (Through our pre-Christian ages, too, people were not sentimental about the despatch of unwanted children.) The preference for boys is now an established demographic fact, in India, China, much of Africa. The first-born, especially, “must be a boy,” when childbirth itself is publicly discouraged. Transgenderism has yet to catch on, over there. It is, however, being pressed through the United Nations and Western aid agencies. Pope Francis was dead right, on his plane ride back from Georgia and Azerbaijan, to call the export of the latest Western “gender theories” a form of “ideological colonialism,” a scheme of “indocrination” — as each wave before it.

A little girl of six does not choose her sex, in this or any other situation. But small children are imaginative, and will play along with the phantasies of adults, having yet no anchors of their own to hold them, by the rocks close ashore. They are suggestible and manipulable. Their shock in discovering that this “boy” was a girl contributed to the cruelty of her persecutors. But I should think it was also a terrible shock for the little girl, who had become entirely convinced by her forceful parents that she was, instead, a little boy, whatever the evidence to the contrary.

My views on “gender theory” will be easy to predict. God made them male and female. There are, indeed, “hard cases,” of apparent hermaphrodism from birth, but these are rare. Confused sexual inclinations have often been observed in nature, but the acts which follow are not consenting: the target animal will repel the advances, if it has the strength. Only the human fancies can mature into consent — because (see the Book of Genesis) we are capable of perversities deeper than any bestial ones.

I have sometimes wondered what happened to that little girl. We never saw her again at St Anthony’s; her parents suddenly moved away.

Similarly, I wonder what will happen to the little ones who are persuaded today, by the state-imposed “gender” indoctrinators, that they are “trans.” They provide the ideologues with a moment of publicity. But what follows, for the child?

Most likely: a life of self-destruction, which the child in his innocence could not possibly foresee; which only a responsible adult could have foreseen, on his behalf.

So where are these responsible adults? When the “gender” tyranny gathers around him, will he not have even one defender?

Halls of memory

My thanks, and whispered blessings upon all who have sent money and/or kind words in response to this week’s earnest fundraiser. I am much encouraged, and will of course continue in this idle pursuit. Several of you have mentioned that you don’t and won’t have “PayPal” accounts, or would contribute. Before my next begging letter, I promise to find other ways for you to slip me cash. To the gentleman who said he’d have sent me a thousand USA dollars, but gave it to the Trompe campaign instead, a lively “Buzz, buzz!” (That would be the Elizabethan for a raspberry.)

“If we fail in our esteem of those who confer benefits on us, the good that is done among us would be as nothing.” (Gottfried von Strassburg to his gentle reader, eight centuries ago.)


The piece I wrote for Catholic Thing yesterday, on the shriek of advertising (see here), will serve as confession for what I have been up to. It is again the season of the autumn book sales in the major colleges of the University of Toronto. As I hinted, it is not simply the appearance of so many used books that attracts me, but the echo of generations, through the halls where they are held — the ghostly presence among scholars young and old, of those dead and long dead. Not only in Toronto, but in London, Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Paris and elsewhere, I have visited such fairs, and mixed with these fellow readers. Too, it is not only low prices, but the scattering of books now hard to find; books for which the “market” today may have shrunk to a small handful. Among tens of thousands of old (and usually out-of-print) tomes, spread upon the tables, real “finds” will always be lurking, to which new memories will immediately affix; and so we may add the excitement of the chase.

One should look for good news, where it may be available, and while I’ve noticed the crowds at these fairs grow smaller year to year, I do not think that they are ageing. Few of the young want to read at all, but those who do have tried electronics, and are returning to the printed object. This is inevitable, for they are apt to rediscover the advantage of keeping physical books: not only for their “content” but for their associations. A book, like a man’s soul, wants to animate a body. A personal library is a hall of memories, a filing system not only for words, but for everything each book has touched through our senses five. My friend Maureen Mullarkey put this well recently. (Here.)

God makes a portion of each generation intelligent well above the average, and despite the best efforts of our state school systems, His handiwork is hard to suppress. The task of the modern progressive university is therefore to corrupt and unbalance the intelligent; to pit their minds against their common sense; to adapt their brains as a useful putty — a kind of “semtex” or plastic explosive to press into the folds and corners of the society the progressive must destroy to rule.

Yet even in the ruins, some will be rebuilding; and even in the shadows, as in these fairs, old books are read and exchanged, and the genuine life of the mind continues. The censoring agencies of “liberal fascism” (more precise, I think, than “politically correct”) ice each field; but underground, the roots of civilization abide the long winter.

Moreover, the ambitions of our political masters must be sustained. A new generation arises, and they must idiotize and demoralize anew. Eventually they get lazy, distracted, forgetful. With age, their ruthlessness trickles away, and in the end, death beats them.

This is my principal, generic hope for the future within Time: the extraordinary power of nature, including human nature, to recover from abuse. And through dark generations, pockets of decency will persist, wherein the good is recognized as good, the true as true, and the beautiful as beautiful — regardless of what progressive legislators try to override. And though they be punished, men will know their Saviour.

Love, through Grace, will continue its work in the hearts of men, including the evil. Living, we can never be sure that the worst malefactor is finally condemned. For God did not create a world in which means to redemption were not readily at hand.

This is the old saw, of our Christian civilization, down but not out. Through Christ we can know something of the Trinitarian Godhead. We know, by the theology He taught, and the wise have comprehended, that God is not petty; that He has not set us up to fall; that our freedom is real and not one of us was predestined to damnation; that we may refuse complicity in wrong, and instead participate in the eternal Gloria. Though it seem in our time the demonic is prevailing, it cannot win.

And this is all set out in books, waiting for us to find them.

Gentle reminder

Aha, it is Michaelmas — the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, MMXVI — which means, four years have now passed since I began this antiblogue, in the spirit of, “What else can I do?” … For I had been run out of all mainstream media, for my poisonous literary and scientific views, and was already too old to train for a new career as a pugilist, or concert musician. Too, I refuse guvmint pogey, and lack the skills for white collar crime. About a thousand of these “Essays” have been posted; less at least a hundred that I have “disappeared.” (Nice Argentine verb, that.) Towards one million words for gentle reader to choose from, on this rainy day.

It is a mendicant antiblogue. I depend for food, clothing, shelter, and Internet connexion, largely on my receipts through PayPal. (See button, atop this page.) There is some other minor income; but this, poor me, is the principal source. And while my “readership” still seems to be growing, “donations” are mysteriously down. A small circle persist in sending more than they can afford, kind souls. It is the rest of you to whom I am appealing. Need I say more?

Well, probably yes. The experts agree that begging letters should be long, wordy, rambling, gratuitously prolix, and even wantonly diffuse; and that they must be frequently repeated. The theory is to leave the customer with no way to be rid of you, except by shedding cash. And so, by way of piling on, let me link to previous Michaelmas effusions: here, here, and here.

Fight night

For some reason — and not a very good one — I found myself last night watching excerpts from the soi-disant “debate” between Trompe and Klingon. I knew they would annoy me, and they did. Why does one seek annoyance, when it is so plentifully available in the environment already, “for free” as it were? This is the mystery of iniquity.

I knew, however, that I would be asked today, in my travails around the city, which one of the candidates I thought had “won.” The question supposes that one or the other has advanced in the eyes of likely voters. This in turn requires some belly sense of the American electorate (different from the Canadian, but not much). There are people with sensitive bellies — who have some skill in guessing by this instrument what the great unwashed do think — but I pity them. I’d rather not know, and preserve my stomach for steak au poivre.

Very well, I’ll tell you. I thought Trompe spoke most about how America could make more money and spend less; Klingon about how it could make less and spend more. (Neither addressed the question of going to Hell.) This will prejudice much of the public, against Trompe.

On the other hand there are those of wandering attention who look not at the current speaker, but across the split-screen at his or her opponent. These will have noticed Klingon’s characteristically smooth, smug, self-satisfied, gliberal smirk while Trompe was speaking; and vice versa, Trompe’s mad, frenetic, irascible look while she was. This will hurt Klingon.

Trompe will win the election, incidentally. This is because some people like him. (No one likes Klingon.) The pollsters ask the wrong question, to compare “negatives.” Obviously, both candidates are fatally flawed; but Klingon would win if it came down to the less negative “favourability rating.” That tells us nothing, or very little. We could learn more if the pollsters could discover a way to phrase the better question, to elicit the secret crush.

Three-quarters of Americans can be shown (by the same pollsters) to be viscerally opposed to almost everything The Obama stands for. But he is quite popular. He won the last two elections because people liked him more than Romney, or McCain. Public policy had nothing to do with it. Not one in twenty voters has the slightest idea how his government works. In a mass democracy, people discuss “the issues” the way they talk about the weather. It is their elevator music. No one thinks the weather will change because they elect a new TV forecaster — they aren’t that stupid.

Had the Americans more wisely left the choice of their next President to me, I’d have picked that “Ted Cruz” guy from Texas. He could have been their least popular president, ever. But they didn’t; and Cruz himself wasted his time talking about policy, and trying to enunciate a few principles that ought to guide public life, which he had selected from the USA Constitution. People hate that. It is so boring. (And elitist, too.) The Republicants preferred swaggering rogue charm, even if it had to come from New York City.

Since I am supplying news this morning, allow me to correct a mistake that appeared in Mr Cruz’s blog where, owing no doubt to inattention, the former candidate misworded his presidential endorsement. What he meant to say was:

“After many months of careful consideration, of prayer and searching my own conscience, I have decided that on Election Day, I will dress up as the Akond of Swat and cast a write-in ballot for Jorge the Pink Fairy Armadillo.”

(Looks just like Trompe: see here.)

Back to metaphysics

A gentle reader (it was Perfesser Smith!) has kindly pointed to a fatuity in yesterday’s Idlepost, sufficiently egregious to be worth taking back. It was the suggestion that printing has anything to do with modernity. This is the sort of thing only a modernist would say, trapped as he is in the realm of appearances; in his hall of mirrors.

While it is true that a revolution was “in the air” of the fifteenth century, with the usual revolutionary dimensions and fronts, to associate it with the introduction of moveable type is worse than confusing cause with symptom.

Centuries before Gutenberg, Sheng Bi had introduced the same in China, with wood, then porcelain characters; his successors cast them in bronze. No “revolution” followed from this. A wit might observe that the Sung dynasty was now doomed, but this had more to do with Mongols invading. And whatever may be said for the Mongols, they were not great readers, nor theological hair-splitters. (They preferred to split heads.) I would go so far as to say that the Khans were not even preening intellectuals, of the sort that brought down the old metaphysical order of Europe in what we now call the Reformation.

Indeed, it is worth mentioning China for an attitude towards technology much more like ours in the Middle Ages, than like ours since the “dawn of the modern age.” Clocks, gunpowder, printing, what have you: they may have been quicker off the mark than we were (though we are only beginning to understand the range of mediaeval invention). But they took such “advances” in their stride, often greeting new devices as playthings, toys.

So did our pre-moderns.

Take for instance the Cistercian monks of Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire. They had a blast furnace for pig iron, plus all the techniques for a modern steel mill, though they hadn’t pushed production that far. This was all lost, together with Rievaulx’s extraordinary water-works, when that monstrous criminal, Henry VIII, dissolved the monasteries of England. The archaeologists who exhumed the ruined furnace in the last century were startled and amazed. Being moderns, they began to lament a “lost industrial revolution,” that could have swept Europe many centuries before the one that did.

But it would never have gone that way. The idea of mass production would not have occurred to the monks, because they were Christian. What an “industrial revolution” requires is not technological progress, which is easy enough to arrange once one’s attention is fixed on it. Rather it requires the modern attitude towards human beings: the ability to conceive of them as objects, as “labour,” as beasts of burden, interchangeable and essentially disposable, as the Pharaohs might have considered their pyramid-building workforce. That is what a “steel industry” presupposes: a proletariat.


Now back to Perfesser Smith, who, upon obtaining an electronic copy of the volumes to which I alluded yesterday (Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change), was unimpressed.

“I first checked and saw that she makes no more than passing, inconsequential reference to Machiavelli and William of Ockham, and does not appear to use the word nominalism at all.”

Instead he found this revealing statement, by Mrs Eisenstein (a fine lady, who died earlier this year):

“To ask historians to search for elements which entered into the making of an indefinite ‘modernity’ seems somewhat futile. To consider the effects of a definite communications shift which entered into each of the movements under discussion seems more promising.”

What is one to make of this?

Rather than paraphrase, I will quote Smith’s email, for it will repay close reading:

“In other words, being herself a modern, she cannot conceive that concurrent movements in the scientific, religious, and political spheres might share a common metaphysical essence that would account for their nature and near-concurrent historical emergence. Being metaphysically blind, the modern will always regard these realms as essentially heterogeneous, and that they can only share a commonality insofar as they may be affected by the same extrinsic, measurable phenomenon, in this case the printing press, which through changes in dissemination and retention patterns and whatnot, may accelerate the pace of these different movements, but not account for their origin; may account for their intensification, but not their content or direction.

“But if we define the difference between the pre-modern and the modern as that between a worldview oriented by a sense of transcendent reality and one where the notion of the transcendent has been eliminated, then, once we demonstrate how that transition occurred, the origin and direction of all these new movements can be accounted for.

“The Reformers severed all ties between the natural and supernatural (so the latter was only now accessible to “faith alone,” while the former was left to manage its own sinful affairs), scientists severed those between phenomena and substance (so reducing explanation to description), and politics those between power and authority (so reducing right to might).

“In general, appearance has been severed from the reality it was once understood to be an appearance of, and in such a way that appearance itself is now considered the only reality.

“In the pre-modern worldwiew, the essence of appearance lay in its being the means, the path, to an end, reality. In the modern worldview, appearance being itself the reality, its essence lies in being the means to more elaborations of appearance. In turn, the essence of these elaborations is as means to more intense elaborations, and so on. Appearance feeds on itself without any other intended end.

“Technique and systematization are the processes by which the essence of the modern worldview finds expression, and they cannot be stopped of their own accord. Nor can it be argued to the modern that these processes are inimical to him and his interests, because he can understand himself and his interests only through this worldview: his worldview.”


Or if I may be so bold, to condense this into a sound bite: The overthrow of Realism by Nominalism lies at the root of modernity; the replacement of a profound metaphysic with one that is invincibly jejune. Printing, at most, only served as a weapon.

Mea culpable, mea maxima culpable. It should have occurred to me by now that something inanimate, such as a machine, cannot change anything. Only souls can do that.

On discipline

“Brilliant! … And completely wrong!”

It is for this line that I am, apparently, remembered by a seminary class I taught two years ago. I encouraged my impressive young charges to speculate boldly on matters Shakespearean. I also encouraged them to rubbish each other’s speculations. “Creative destruction,” I suppose Schumpeter would call this, as he did the equivalent in the capitalist economy. But I prefer that kind of thing be confined to friendly, truth-seeking, intellectual debate.

For centuries, brilliant scholars have been proposing intricate textual theories to explain away the composition of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, and the works of the earliest Church generations. Which is fine, but they ought to be shot down.

The Reformation itself began with brilliant new theories, in the intellectual blaze that followed the Late Mediaeval introduction of moveable type. That is a topic for many other days; a subtle topic, for as Elizabeth Eisenstein and others have shown, the printing revolution was hardly confined to making rare books suddenly widely available. It was also a revolution in tone and attitude towards the great sources of Western intellectual tradition: a new spirit of sceptical inquiry — for better, though more often for worse.

I mentioned in last Idlepost, a certain Clement. He was bishop at Rome, according to ancient authorities (Irenaeus long before Eusebius), in the generation after Peter and Paul. The history is murky, as we might expect, but this much is clear from the Tradition. Clement, first among the “Apostolic Fathers” — high Christian writings temporally just outside the canon of the New Testament itself — comes down to us in two carefully-preserved texts, an epistle and a homily. We cannot be sure of the authorship of that latter, though deadly sure of how it begins:

“Brothers, we must think about Jesus Christ as we think about God, as about the judge of the living and the dead. …”

There can be no credible conflict over the authorship of “First Clement,” however, written (in Greek) from Rome as a letter to the local church at Corinth, and telling the Corinthians to shape up. Nor can the text be much disputed, though some passages might be puzzled over. It is dead clear in the main. And those acquainted with the Hellenistic world, and the genre which Clement has Christianized, will be unsurprised by its construction. It is unmistakably a product of that age when (Acts 17) Paul has stood before the Areopagus and addressed the men of Athens on, “The Unknown God.”

We Christians are as Greek as we are Hebrew. Gentle reader should note that his New Testament is translated from Greek; that from our beginnings, Greek and cognate Latin are the languages in which we think. That from the start, we were indeed thinking, and in the rational categories that came by grace through Athens and Alexandria; as from a Judaism that had itself been Hellenized, even within its native Palestine. Live with it — for that is what happened.

A lot of time has been wasted by busybodied fools arguing that someone other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare; that someone other than Homer wrote Homer. (“Another poet of that generation who happened to have the same name.”) The time would be better spent reading such authors. The same is true, generally, of the Church Fathers: better to read them in their breadth, and not with a view to pursuing small vexatious points — inevitably to factional ends.

Moreover, as the history of sceptical inquiry has abundantly shown, clever theories become quickly dated; and the main lines of ancient tradition (inside Church and out) tend to be confirmed by archaeological discoveries. The ability to distinguish contemporary attested fact from parable, or later accretion of legend, is among our natural endowments. Intellectual fashions come and go, or may recur, like style in women’s clothing; the basics remain.

Hence, I will affirm of Clement, that he wrote very early; that he wrote with a consciousness of real authority; that he wrote to correct. He is also in the lists as Pope, in succession to Peter, and if he leaves the impression that Rome may correct Corinth, it is an authority to which Corinth finally subscribes, for Clement’s Epistle is to be found within Corinthian liturgy by about AD 170 (along with Clement’s name) generations after he wrote it. Live with it, O scholars!

And live with it, even though the evidence formidably suggests a universal Church, headquartered at Rome, and governed by a living Pope, in the first decades after the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Our Lord.

But more than that: this Epistle of Clement is already dealing with a crisis in that Church. For the Corinthians to whom it is addressed, are like us.

They call themselves Christian, but are loath to accept Church authority. They are by habit mentally distracted, by every passing meme. They have replaced the bishop and elders sent to them with men more to their own free-spirited taste. They despise hierarchy, and “elitism.” The Eucharist to them is “a thing” like other things; the focus of their prayer was lost with their obedience.

Saint Paul had already chastised them for their “libertarian values,” for their effeminacy of mind and sexual immorality including (goodness me!) open homosexuality; for their reversion to nasty pagan customs in marriage, to the detriment alike of women and men. And a few other things. (It is noteworthy that the post-modern attempt to parse Paul’s condemnation of sexual perversions — to argue that he must have been referring to something other than that to which he was obviously referring — requires forms of insolence and special pleading that he also condemned.)

Clement is following up. Both he and Paul assumed much good in the Corinthians, too: in their hospitality, for instance; their openness to strangers. There is even a hint that the ease of their women and youth — a kind of emancipation — was, to begin with, a good thing. But not good, once it came to entail a loss of respect; an incapacity alike for reverence and for repentance; a dissolution into that spirit of factiousness, of party strife, that Paul (like a divine Tocqueville) had already discerned.

In the finest Hellenistic rhetoric, Clement celebrates the contrary spirit of homonoia (the Roman concordia, our “concord”) among the statesmen, the poets and philosophers, the preachers and teachers of the old pagan polis. No hick, we find him quoting e.g. Sophocles and Euripides, for an audience to which he refuses to condescend. He embeds the new Christian kerygma in the old Greek paideia. He evokes physis — the Greek word for nature, and a natural order (which is nearly opposite the idea of “naturalism” which we substitute for it today).

Clement demands that the errant Corinthians restore their appointed elders to office; that they acknowledge the natural hierarchy within the Church; that the teachings of the Apostles be obeyed; that order and harmony within the Church universal be re-established among them. For we are “all in this together.” He excoriates the arrogance, amounting to madness, now come into vogue among them; the loss of humility which presages that loss of order. Better to offend the presumptuous, he tells them, than to offend against God.

But what I find most remarkable is Clement’s praise (in section 37) for the Roman Army. He admires their discipline, their submission to command, according to rank. He uses the old Greek saw about the parts of the body: that the feet can do nothing without the head, nor the head without the feet. Each part is necessary in its station, and the real consequence of a revolution for “equality” is, and can only be, death to the whole.

Or as I like to put this: “A place for everyone, and everyone in his place.”

Let the strong care for the weak; and both be grateful. Let the wealthy personally care for the poor; and the poor be thankful. Let the wise show their wisdom in good deeds. Let us carefully consider the materials from which we are made, that we redound to the glory of our Creator.

Discipline and training thus goes much deeper than the sergeant barking on the parade ground. For every part of us must stand, courageously, in battle. We must “be prepared,” must be ready-aye-ready against the temptations and punishments of this world. This the Corinthians are not.

We must not have soldiers who will fold — the way we have been folding.

For we are all Corinthians now.

The addict

Articles such as the one Andrew Sullivan has written (here) are true enough, and might have some passing effect upon the reader. “Yes, I am addicted to the Internet,” he may think to himself, for a moment before clicking the next links. (There are several within the article itself.) Or, he may be more spooked, and resolve the next morning to drink his first cup of coffee — or the first half of his first cup — before checking his Smartphone. He may find the mental quiet disturbing; he may even find it exhilarating. Then the alarm will sound, the panic kick in, from the back of his head. “What if something has happened?” He must take action. The horror of standing without crutches is intense. He must return to his click-bait before he crashes; before the silence becomes a cause of pain. The familiar screen flashes back before him, the sound in the ear-buds strikes up.

God has, in His design of the human metabolism, provided for this two-stage reaction. The first alone is the source of good proposal; the second is habit long-formed, and a war. It is technically possible to override the habit, but harder the longer it has prevailed. There was a flicker, not only of reason but nostalgia; a memory retrieved of a time before the addiction was acquired. If there was such a memory.

For children today, provided almost from birth with their hand-held devices, defeat is assured. They have, in a sense, been spiritually aborted, though thankfully not physically slain. They will have no childhoods; there will not be time. For the race is on, even before daycare, to get them plugged in, and turned on. (They must be consumerized, sexualized, politicized, made docile.)

Everywhere I see these little ones. From their strollers, they look up at mommy. She is on her Smartphone. It is not that they are unloved; but there is something else more important. They must learn to think tactically. Perhaps, when they get their own Smartphones, they can call her, on theirs?

It is this second stage in which there can be a moral confrontation. We must decide who is to be the boss of us. A demon has been installed as the pilot, by our own neglect and unacknowledged will. This is no simple matter of asking him to step aside; of shutting down the autopilot and taking back the controls. For demons, normally polite and soothing, become cheeky in situations like this. It will be a long and exhausting wrestle with the demon. (Why today? Why not leave this till tomorrow?)

Somewhere in that Sullivan piece, which contains perversities, but fewer than in most of his writings, we find his truest observation. For Sullivan was or is a remarkably gifted, nominally Catholic man. He has seen the looks in their faces: of the people locked into their screens. He has looked at himself, through others. (“Out of the eyes of babes.”) What is that look?

I have seen it myself all over, while walking and riding about the city; and moreover, I have seen it increase, dramatically, over the last few years. I would not call it a “zombie look,” for it conveys a certain alertness. (It is not like heroin: quite another drug.) The face is deadly serious. It is a look rather of anxiety, floating on a lake of melancholy. It is the “breaking news” look. The subject is deeply concerned. He could be in uptown Manhattan on the morning of 9/11. He “needs to know” what is happening downtown. Except, nothing is happening there. Rather, somewhere else in virtual space, his own fate is being decided. He must keep up with the latest developments. His attention is entirely fixed, on a place beyond his comprehension or control. Though his case is hopeless, he must decide his next move. His Facebook “likes” depend on it.

Clement of Rome writes about a state like this, in his (“first”) letter to the Corinthians: the “New Yorkers” of the generation next after Saint Paul’s. The state, I mean, of being without discipline, without self-control, and mentally “elsewhere.” Perhaps I will return to this tomorrow. But first I must get away from this machine.

Unfinished conversations

John Bentley Mays (1941–2016) was last spoken with, around the corner here in Parkdale, a few weeks ago. He was on his way to a rather highbrow, Saturday-morning Bible-study group, that he could not persuade me to join. (I am a notorious non-joiner.) A distinctive large presence in dark clothing (see here), he was among Canada’s cultural heavies. As art critic for a generation in the establishment Globe & Mail, then guru of “architecture and urbanism,” I’d known and sometimes followed him since the days when he would sometimes drop into the Idler Pub (1986–2002). He did not write in my Idler magazine (upstairs from the pub) however, for we agreed in the most amicable way that he did not belong there. As a character in the pub he was extremely welcome: someone for me to disagree with about … pretty much everything.

A sincere Catholic (convert from mild Anglicanism), of the kind I’d call “liberal/liberal” (that is, a mixture of old and new liberalisms), he tried hard to reason soundly; as a journalist, to follow the leads and twirl them together; to be consistent and sane. This isn’t easy today, as gentle readers have been pointing out, and Mays’s case was made harder by the tendency to morbid depression on which he wrote a memoir, In the Jaws of the Black Dogs (1999). A loner as a child in America’s deep South, he lost his father to alcohol and perhaps murder at age seven, his mother to cancer when he was eleven, and nearly himself to suicide, early and often.

The book is a compelling, unpleasant read, valuable because it tells us three things. First, that such depressions do not yield to shrink fixes, and will not otherwise “go away.” Second, that there is no “template,” for each sufferer is his own constellation of symptoms which no outsider is privileged to explore. And thus, third, the depression can be controlled and mastered, only if one grasps these things. One must, as it were, leash one’s own black dogs, and it will be neither easy nor painless. While perhaps overwritten, the book is admirable for containing no victim’s plaint, no false appeal for applause, and absolutely no pop psychology.

As a young man in Ireland, South Africa, and Canada, he said he was a “fascist.” His personal circumstances contributed to his demand for “authority figures.” As an older man, I think he overcompensated, in his embrace of a self-consciously post-modern, aesthetic anarchy. In architecture, he was a champion of Gehry and Libeskind, and beyond them, he longed for the kind of urban development that would shriek, break neighbourhoods, and épater le bourgeois. He wanted new buildings in conflict, rivalry, “dialogue” with the old. Though he played into cultural fashions, which invariably promote the subversive — I accused him of being a handbag once — he was more genuinely subversive than might first appear. And also, quite possibly, more genuinely Christian, in ways I stubbornly under-appreciate.

Back in Idler days, we had an argument going about “beauty.” I was in favour, he was against. He did not think beauty should be an aspiration in art, and where he acknowledged it was present, he was displeased by it. It was a curmudgeonly argument, but it intrigued me, because I think he had found some ironical Platonic way to contribute to the understanding of beauty itself; that it has nothing to do with “search and find.”

That was thirty years ago. We never got back to it. I was hoping that we would; I still hope to understand his position. But now he has dropped dead — “literally,” on a sidewalk, a few blocks away. I will miss him, for he was kindly and charming, at least to me. As death often reminds, we must learn to wait more patiently, for we live in a world where the conversations are never finished. There are no “closures” here.

God buy him!

Addendum on wrong places

Just yesterday I mentioned wrong places in which one might repose one’s hope — places in which, I would say, the long sleep of the just will prove unobtainable. Several of my correspondents seem to have missed my point, and one asked for a complete list — which, thanks to free enterprise, will be impossible to provide. Let me however give two examples that I find much in the news.

The first is the belief, among Republicans in USA, that this Trump gentleman (or I might almost say, fellow) is “getting better.” He is acting a little more presidential, and thus scoring fewer “own goals” now that he is in the championship final. Perhaps he is, though I think even I could word a few things more empathetically, were I playing this game of running for high office.

But the same correspondents are so appalled by this Clinton lady (or I might almost say, woman) that they desperately hope he will behave more like a presidential candidate, and less like a three-year-old with some powerful resentments. And it is in the nature of people — Republicants and Democritters alike — to believe what they want to believe. They are full of illusions, as a consequence of this, and the belief that a fat, loud-mouthed billionaire of seventy can change his colours without a massive and embarrassing religious conversion — or at least a coronary — is, shall we say, optimistic.

I realize this argument won’t work against his “warts and all” supporters. God help us when he takes to Twitter in the Oval Office.

Another point I have already made, perhaps too many times, but it does bear repetition. It is the notion that the world would fill with Catholics if we’d only make the moral requirements a little looser. This, too, shows little appreciation for the human psychology. On that level, people do not turn to a religion — the Christian one in particular — in the hope that they will now be allowed to behave like barbaric atheist neo-pagans. For that option is already available, outside Holy Church. Too, there are other “Christian clubs” with all the consumer variety that free enterprise can supply. Yet it is from the sense of being dirty that one seeks a shower; and from the sense of sin that one seeks to be washed in the blood of the Lamb. That is, to be as vulgar as possible, where conversions begin: in the terrible perception that one is “alone” within bad company. It is, if you will, our “unique selling point” — the Truth. Unchanging and unchangeable.

If you think people want to become Catholics because it is “cool,” think again.