Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

On the dark side

One forgets — purposely in my case — that a large part of the general public cannot cope with wit, drollness, or rhetorical conceits, is rendered apoplectic by dark humour, couldn’t get facts straight if they tried, and cannot read with attention. See the angry comments on almost any website. The Internet encourages not jolly debate, but the lynching behaviour that has come to dominate our political life.

To write at all, for public consumption in the world today, is to expose oneself to the myriad unhappy, and lately I’ve been feeling their wrath.

The Devil, too, lacks a sense of humour, except for sarcasm; but it is not a form of sarcasm that can pretend to be funny. Instead it is invariably bitter and cynical. He cannot bear to be mocked or teased, is constantly demanding “safe spaces,” and encourages the masses to worship idols. (These might be considered his masks.) His own mockery comes with a sting: he wants his targets suppressed, and punished.

Among the stratagems of the High Middle Ages, and of the Catholic Church through all times, is to laugh at the Devil’s expense. I try to play my part in this holy mission.

The Devil’s strategic response is to sponsor factions and political parties. From his point of view it would matter little what they stand for — so long as they are violently opposed to one another. He does play favourites when he can, however, strongly preferring the “culture of death” to the “culture of life,” and promoting all those who will take a bold lead in the advance of what is ugly, evil, and false, in the long game of subverting God’s intentions. We can’t defeat him on our own but, fortunately for us, he can be distracted.

Sometimes, so far as I can see, the Devil becomes so absorbed in the performance of some short-term mischief, that we can dodge or make end runs around him. (The image of the matador comes to mind.) And when the Devil is confronted by positive Sanctity he tends, like his followers, to “freak” or panic. I’m all for giving him a bad day.

The Adversary of God is our adversary, too, and through our freedom, God has given us a rôle in the fight. This is a great honour, though sometimes, in parallel with the ancient Hebrews, we might wish that we had not been Chosen. But we were, and are. We may fight on, as happy soldiers, or cut and run. We may even change sides, in the same freedom, from good to bad — or from bad to good. Count on the Devil to use all his wiles to make those choices murky.

At the moment, I notice that his efforts are directed to making every choice a political issue; to help us forget about God, and especially about Jesus, as much as possible. (This is why we should mention Him frequently.)

If, for instance, one has consciously taken God’s side, the Devil gets us so immersed in the political struggle, between Left and Right, that we can only imagine the fight in those terms. This, I think, is why when I or others write specifically on spiritual questions, we are answered with indifference, even from our co-religionists. But put, say, the word “Trump” into it, and there will be a series of explosions. These will come from both his supporters and his opponents, and it will lead only to cacophony, never to the still silence of Our Lord.

The $64.00 question: What do we really care about? For our salvation, and our neighbour’s salvation, or only for settling some scores?

*

Another puzzling Idlepost to leave my gentle reader, while I abscond. I shall disappear for a week or two, returning, should God will, in early June.

Driving

In a frontal attack on my manliness, Kate McMillan, the sweet songstress of Saskatchewan, once revealed to her Small Dead Animal readers that I did not have a driver’s licence. I protested that she was insinuating I can’t drive a car.

“Licences are for cissies,” I replied.

My father taught me how to drive at age five, on an abandoned airstrip. The car was a 1956 Volkswagen Beetle which, as I recall, was taupe in colour. Owing to being small at the time, I had to sit on my papa’s knee while steering, and enlist his help when pressing gas and gears. It is true I don’t drive cars any more, but this is only because I retired from the hobby, at the age of nine.

For I decided there were better things to do in life.

Papa was an industrial designer, to which I attribute my continuing delight in mechanical engineering, including a love/hate fascination with motor vehicles of all kinds. But my attitude towards them is that of the Chinese court officials of the later 16th century, when the Jesuit missionaries first showed them European clocks. They were mad for the things, to start with, and soon opened two royal workshops to manufacture clocks for themselves — to the highest mechanical and aesthetic standards. From the Emperor down, anyone who was anybody had to have a clock, and keep it on display. But the fashion passed, and they soon lost interest in clocks entirely.

After all, what are they good for? Can a man really spend all day watching the arms of a clock move around? The Chinese are, or were, a sensible people, and soon got back to more dignified pursuits.

It is the same with cars. I am delighted with Fiat 500s, for instance, and would love to own one, and take it apart. The external body shape is to die for, and the leathery interior looks good, too. Truth to tell, I prefer the speedometer in a Mini Cooper, which is more deliciously retro. But the idea of driving one of these things on the open roads strikes me as vain and showy. I think, keep it secretly in your garage.

Surely, it would be wrong to turn it on for more than a few minutes. Cars are very dirty. The electric ones are especially foul, as I’ve learnt from an environmental expert, who calculated the carbon expenditure over the whole lifetime of the vehicle, from mine-shaft to junkyard, including all the shocking things that come out of an electricity generating plant (unless it is good clean nuclear power). Give me a horse-drawn cabriolet any day — a Hansom, or a Tonga. Or a quadricycle-framed boda-boda, pulled by ostriches.

Internal combustion is too brutish for me.

Depends what you mean by Is

The Church is not in crisis, as Cardinal Sarah was saying the other day. We are in crisis. The Devil wants us to think that God has abandoned His Church. He hasn’t. In fact, He can’t, if I may add my theological understanding of the matter. I like to quote Joan of Arc: “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.” It is only when we redefine the Church, to be something it is not, that complications arise.

In separating, generally, wheat from chaff, observe: there is wheat. From what I hear, we have some very bad priests (to say nothing of the bishops), but I know some good ones. The same may be said of the laymen. A friend, who has been in Rome recently, almost looking for corruption, mentioned this surprising thing. Much of what goes on in curia and seminaries is what always went on, including prayer and daily work. Why would it not? Men and women have jobs to do, and often they do them. Even those in whose hearts the Church is subverted and betrayed, have the Mass to get on with, and many other things they are paid and were trained to do. They may not be particularly malicious; rather, slovenly in mind and spirit. Their learning and their homilies may be mediocre, but there are deadlines which may be less trouble to meet than to ignore. Always, somewhere, the Sacrifice of the Mass.

Even going through the motions has value, when the motions are in service to a cause that is divine. Inspiration is anyway for special occasions. The Mass is valid, when we go through the motions; it was actually designed to be hard to invalidate. We needn’t bother our little heads with whether the priest is worthy. That is his business. We need only ask if we are in any way adequate to receive the Host, for the consequences of my not being worthy do not fall upon anyone else, except tangentially; and neither can my guilt be transferred to my neighbour.

Plausibly, it can be said that “the Church has failed,” in one way or another. Gentle reader will know what I think of plausibility. The Church has never failed, even once. Men fail the Church, constantly — both from outside and from inside her — and they’ve been doing so since her earthly beginnings. The cock was crowing on our first pope. In our blindness we think, “Christ isn’t there”; that He has (quite understandably) “walked.” Only in the sense that He goes where He is wanted, can this appear to be true. Have we looked for Him? Is He hidden in plain view?

I was also sent, the other day, some screed by a man who said he doesn’t go to Mass any more; that we should continue to be Catholics without the Church. Spot the contradiction. The man was an intellectual; his screed was incoherent. The poor fellow may have some religious inkling, because he still feels the Sunday obligation he rejects. Somehow it had meaning “for him” when he attended; somehow it has no meaning now. He invites others to beclown themselves, by his example.

Christ hasn’t walked. The writer had perhaps noticed that others have walked, and now he follows the Zeitgeist through the narthex, or out the windows, into the Godlessness outside. He is, in other words, too well satisfied with himself, to reason the matter through. Has he lost his faith? He did not say he had, and I don’t think he has, either. As the priest of Ambricourt observed of his parishioners, no one loses his faith. It is there, or it is not, in every cell of the person. It is not like a wallet, or your car keys.

Has he lost his faith or has the faith lost him? Since neither is possible, I will assume he never had any; for a faith that is conditional must be some other thing.

I am speaking in absolutes, but about absolute things. Our modern man is very shy of absolutes. The Dictatorship of Relativism does not allow them. It only allows, at best, “if … then” propositions, which are quite useless to analyse an Is.

Welcome to manhood

Asked recently to define my technical term, “Twisted Nanny State,” I replied, “The Gillette company.” Their unctuous, misandrist advertising campaign from last winter got my attention, but that was only a symptom of what I had in mind. I was referring to the company itself, though soon I learnt that it doesn’t exist any more, having been swallowed by the still larger fish, Procter & Gamble, which split its operations into related P&G divisions. Gillette is now just a brand, its reputation as much for sale as any of its products; there is no “there” there, any more. The manufacturing itself can be moved from one labour market to another, and the management enjoys a kind of extra-territoriality in which personal responsibility is progressively dissolved.

Gillette had previously swallowed I don’t know how many smaller companies, one of which was Braun of Germany, once associated with high standards of industrial design. (Their famed designer, Dieter Rams, master at the marriage of art and engineering, remains one of my somewhat numerous heroes.) But Braun, too, had absorbed smaller companies in its turn.

Gentle reader may object that none of these entities is a government department, except insofar as it is the subject of taxes and regulations, and as it grows larger, an ever more formidable force in lobbying for subsidies and legislation favourable to itself. Objection sustained. Verily, this is just my point.

Each entity made its way until the gobbling by means of mass consumer advertising, in which morally illegitimate methods of persuasion — principally hype, actual lies, irrelevant claims and endorsements — are instrumental to sales success. Honest advertising (e.g. catalogues with exact descriptions) is theoretically possible but practically extinct; campaigns are based on the tawdry manipulation of human “perceptions” — behaviourist psychology at the level of Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, but elaborately quantified, with financial and pricing arrangements factored in.

Indeed, one may link most disastrous marketing decisions to the decline of intuitive reasoning, as statistical reasoning takes its place. The manager who knows in his gut, from experience, what might work and what won’t, or can’t, is displaced by the young analyst with computer modelling skills and all the jargon of “science” to express the platitudes he was drip-fed in school.

But here, too, “private” and “public” enterprise are fully integrated. Both are adapted to the “planning” paradigm, and each is utterly dependent on the other, in what is misleadingly called “the mixed economy.” The critics of abstract Capitalism, on the one side, and abstract Socialism, on the other, draw a false contrast between two administrative orders, when they are both bureaucratic in nature, inhumanly oversized, and habitually dedicated to the pursuit of monopoly.

Several of the readers with whom I correspond are under the immovable impression that I am against making money, or improvements in technology, per se. In fact my outlook is cutting-edge mediaeval Catholic. The moral questions are instead such as, How is the money made? And, for what are the improvements to be used? As I must remind e.g. my Chief Texas Correspondent, I am not against electricity or indoor plumbing. But I am against worshipping such things, or making them the criteria for high civilization.

“Progress” in this kind is an empty achievement. Every supposed “advance” requires the sacrifice of something, that ought to be carefully examined. The real question is not who makes the decisions, but whether the decisions are good. We get lost in technicalities. The ultimate human decision, whether to opt for Heaven or Hell, does not involve statistical analysis.

“Welcome to manhood” was a long-term marketing campaign, in which sample packs of Gillette products were sent to presumed males on their eighteenth birthdays. One could imagine the immensity of the commercial bureaucracy required to “target” this ultra-specific demographic “group,” and giggle when the packs were mailed, mistakenly, to little old ladies. But it is more than a joke when we see that the company, along with the rest of Twisted Nanny State, is trying, in their more recent campaigns, not to sell their irritating products to men, but to redefine manhood.

Again & again

It is said that old men repeat themselves, and as I proceed to my 817th birthday (a man of the 13th century, I count my age in moons) I become the more convinced of our need for constant repetition. This is partly because, like most humans if not all, I am stunned, stunted, stupid. If I were not constantly rehearsing the little that I know, it would evaporate. (Quickly, in my case.)

This is true on the civilizational, as well as the personal level. If we did not repeat the Mass, daily, we might lose it, and then where would we be? There are parallels in all areas of decorous activity. If we didn’t teach the facts of life, mind, spirit, to each new generation, all over again, our descendants would lapse into hapless savagery.

Hence the importance of the classics: “We can never be free of the ancient world, unless we become barbarians again.” (Jacob Burckhardt.)

It is a point that bears constant repetition. Unfortunately, because our schoolmasters have been slipping, it is not getting the attention it deserves. More largely, what might be called the “principle of tradition” is now universally discounted in our demented passion for novelties. The new is by definition untried, unproven. Unless consonant with tradition, it will always fail. It will be unharmonic.

Consider this carefully. Life requires continuity. A man (or woman for that matter) might live to three score and ten, but only if he does so continuously. Should he die — even once in the interim — he will not. The same is true for those who would live to one thousand (lunations; that’s about eighty-one solar years). If he stops breathing, or his heart stops, or another vital function ceases — just the once — he will utterly fail in his ambition. Like tradition, the rôle of unconscious activity is underestimated.

The phrase “culture of life” is well steeped in tradition. Although popularized for a new generation by Saint Pope John Paul II in encyclicals only a generation ago, it confirms Catholic commitment from time out of mind. For the present we are against contraception, abortion, euthanasia, suicide, murder, unjust wars, and embryonic stem cell research. And more: for the sanctity of human life is being upheld against Life Deniers in many other areas. Of course, several of these may require four minutes of thought. (Twenty seconds for the above-average intelligent.)

But there is more to life than escaping death, or helping others to do so, for the moment. By this I make no allusion to “the quality of life,” which could be rather grim. The sanctity of life is a true principle, entirely non-negotiable. A life may not be intentionally taken except for legitimate cause, and for what that might be we are (unless we have become savages) beholden to tradition.

“Thou shalt not” is fairly easily understood; “thou shalt” can be a little more complicated. Notwithstanding, there is what is positively conducive to life. Mozart, for instance, in whom (despite an early death) the life-force was articulated, and ran strong; contemplation of the night sky, for instance; Love in its myriad forms, and all manifestations of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. I realize that all of these are controversial, today; the more reason to storm through with them.

For instance, the authorities at the Bathurst Subway Station were playing Mozart for the express purpose of driving nasty bad loitering people away. Rap music, on the other hand, would attract them. This discovery, made in transit systems around the world, was purely empirical. The Greeks knew all about it, under the heading of “syndrome.” Certain things go with other things, not always but almost always. To deny this is perverse, and — one perversity will lead to another.

But we won’t remember this unless we repeat it.

Fifty years of solicitude

This year we (all of my personae up here in the High Doganate) are celebrating fifty years of soi-disant “adult” life. We left home as soon as we could, at age sixteen, even though we’d had a happy childhood, fine parents, an adorable little sister, &c. We were acing the tests in high school, and teacher’s pet in several classes. (Teacher’s nightmare in several others.) “Free, white, and not yet twenty-one.” We had all the opportunity available to the comfortable middle class; we had no detectable propensity to drugs or crime. Everything was running smoothly. Below that age, we might have been apprehended by a truant officer. But now the “option” was before me.

It was time to drop out.

Those who didn’t — genuinely drop out — were fated to “tune in and turn on,” if I may take liberties with Timothy O’Leary’s memorable phrase. Weirdly, I knew what I was doing: rejecting a society that was rejecting its own formative ideals. Somewhere in these two negatives was a positive. I’m still absurdly proud that I quit.

I, my father, his father, all left home at sixteen, to earn a living and see the world. They had world wars to go to. I didn’t, unless I could start one. I did go to Vietnam, but only as an aspiring young journalistic hack, and tried other potentially life-threatening adventures, each of which I survived. There were moments when my aloneness made me think quiet conformity would have made more sense, and how easy life would be in a university. Such moments quickly passed.

Fifty years later, and by some miracle I am still able to recall the flavour of those times. In Asia, I was often “on the road” with European and American hippies. Fortunately they were following predictable paths to Goa and Kathmandu, so it was not hard to shake them off. More broadly, I was aware, among the young in the West, of a strange revolution — bourgeois in nature, borne of moral permissiveness. Our emeritus pope wrote recently of its consequences within the Catholic Church, and the fallout from “sexual liberation” today. I bitterly recall its fallout on me.

This was one cause of the civilizational slide that was then beginning to accelerate. Without doubt, it was the biggest one, concealing itself within many other causes, and touching the lives even of the avowedly celibate. I’m inclined to think another was (for want of a more comprehensive term) technological. But the two were closely related. It was becoming possible to do things — ride in aeroplanes, for instance — that had not been commonplace in the past. It was possible to avoid the consequences of one’s acts with easily available devices such as The Pill.

It was an age of cutting corners: thrilling to the young of the ’sixties, but already a bore to those coming of age in the ’seventies. In particular, I was aware that inflation was rampant, not only in currency but in educational and all other standards. We were now embarked, as a whole society, on a life of ease and triviality.

Now entering my second happy childhood, I look back on the times that were achangin’ with fairly uniform regret. But also with surprise, that the trends so manifest today were also apparent then, and even to a child of sixteen. There was “revolution in the air,” in the pop understanding, which appealed to the vanity of consumers, but on a closer look, it wasn’t a revolution at all. Rather it was an enfolding corruption, in which people did not fight for freedom but cynically laughed at the old restraints.

Fifty years of relative peace and prosperity in the West; and still my apprehension that the reckoning will come. For the starch required to defend a civilization — the clarity of mind and earnestness of purpose — has been washed away.

Slow cookery

For the next three hours, I am low-boiling about four pounds of red meat. I obtained this from a local multiculture shop, which has a Newfoundlandish section. It came in a sealed plastic bucket, and was cheap. Inside: great manly chunks of brisket, labelled “naval salt beef.” (A memory of childhood.)

At least, it was traditionally called “beef” — in the olden time, when it was fed to sailors — though any other large bovid-looking creature would do. Or sheep, or swine; whatever gets in your way. A moose obstructing a highway. Some lost musk-oxen. An inattentive giraffe. Yak for the Tibetans (in the multiculture store’s next aisle). Whale meat for the Japanese and Icelanders.

Emus and ostriches are flightless birds. Horses run too fast. Bears get too angry.

They (the sailors) were impressed, though not in our modern, “wow!” sense. Read any old Hornblowing maritime yarn, and you are sure to come across this substance. Any meat would do for His Majesty’s unhired hands. It is surprising what one may be willing to eat, when the alternative is to swim a thousand nautical miles.

With this much boiling, any other beef cut would disintegrate into a stringy soup. For the beeves have no collar bones. Therefore they have very powerful muscles at the front, (intelligently) designed to carry the weight of a small car. I should think this renders the animal bulletproof from any fore-angle. But it has seldom been my practice pruriently to inquire how my dinner was slaughtered.

A lot of plain salt (to say nothing of the phosphates and nitrites) calls for a lot of water in the long hot bath, together with wonderfully absoptive root vegetables, beans, splitpeas, rice, and whatever comes to mind during the long wait. (Remember that dry legumes will expand when wet.) Food colouring might have been an idea for the bucket I purchased: to make the contents a more attractive shade of red. Bay leaves to be sure, but as I recall, herbs and spices were omitted in the Canadian Far East. (I put them in anyway.) Gaelic, or Garlic? It is an ancient cultural question.

I was intending to make this into some sort of Giant (if unHindoo) Curry; perhaps an industrial-scale pulao. But then I lost my nerve. My guests previously descried my glad hand with the chillies. (I use them to persecute my white supremacist friends.)

There was going to be a point to this Idlepost; I’ve just remembered what it was. Family. (And what tastes of home.) I have several friends with upwards of six children, and even without adding any more, these families continue to grow. Often it is argued, by the population control freaks, that children are too expensive to collect; that we ought to downsize our inventories of them, and the amount of carbon each is exhaling. Raise them on sushi and kale, perhaps, so they don’t get too robust.

But really, kids are less expensive to feed than parking meters, until they reach the juvenile delinquent stage. And by then you can put them to work — say, killing things for dinner.

Our much poorer ancestors had it all sorted out.

So have I, for Sunday lunch tomorrow.

Tough loves

Ronald Knox said, of The Imitation of Christ, that anyone who claims to be “fond” of it is either a saint, or he is lying. This most formidable of late mediaeval spiritual guides — to call it a “devotional book” is to set out in the wrong direction — was meant as an acid bath. It strips off the skin of one’s vanity, then claws at what lies underneath. The charm in the writing lands like salt. There are no “happyface” moments, unless one counts a surprising chapter, whose number I won’t give lest some innocent try to start there. That chapter can be read as a transcription of mystical experience, along the unitive way. But I take it not as “encouragement” but as grounding and orientation, for the book is deadly serious beginning to end, and the point of it is to point the reader where the Christian must go: on a path that unavoidably includes “the dark night of the soul.”

It would seem that the ancient Egyptian “Book of the Dead” had the same purpose of instruction to the dying (we are all dying), but by comparison it is glib. It is magic spells the reader must memorize, for when he passes through the underworld and “comes forth into the light.” To a reader not in ancient Egypt, with ancient priests to flesh the thing out, it will remain largely incomprehensible. I don’t trust explanations from another day and age, for a religion that can only make sense from inside. Even the projective imagination requires some parallel, first-hand religious experience.

Perhaps a day could come when the Imitatio Christi is as befuddling as that Book of the Dead, but this is hard to imagine, for while spare the style endeavours clarity. There is no drip of arcane theological terms in the original Latin, and needn’t be in any translation. The author has an urgent task; he has no time for obfuscation, secret messages, autobiography, learned asides. (Or, “the authors”: I will hardly dip in this short space into who they were, but cite the book itself: “Do not ask who said this, but listen to what is said.”) It starts with a warning. Only the reader who has already decided to take Christ for his model will find it any use. Here is no Pascal proposing that we try his Wager.

The book has stood the test of changing times: about six centuries of them. The modern mind, addled by a false concept of progress, can only return to the 14th century as a kind of voyeur or tourist. But the modern mind is too heavy to carry a distance like that. Leave it behind. Likewise, discard any later non-Catholic interpretation. This Thomas of Kempin was pre-Protestant, and attempts to make him into a “mere Christian” require conscious meddling with the text.

Another Thomas — Aquinas — had similar habits, though what he had to explain demanded much more space. It is, among other things, a difference between philosophical texts written before Descartes, and those written after. For Descartes was the pioneering liberal, who used old, once reliable words, in subtly tricky new ways. The spokesmen for the Middle Ages are on guard against such tricks; they write to be understood, plainly. Our Moderns are by nature gnostic: one can’t read them without a specialized, “professional” vocabulary. They conceive themselves as members of an élite. They do not address Everyman, but a closed camp of initiates. Their jargon is meant to repel outsiders.

What makes the Imitation of Christ hard, isn’t complications. It is instead enduring the pain of self-exposure; the difficulty of the pilgrimage itself. Getting to Heaven will not be easy. But unlike the vague and contradictory destinations of our insipid “progress,” we have an unmistakable place to go.

Against sterility

[This rant slightly extended overnight.]

*

There are sterile factions on both the Left and the Right of the current ideological spectrum; but the thinking heart of the “pro-life” movement is, in defiance of human physiology, mostly to the Right. (The human heart is a little to the left of centre; the brain is at the top, incidentally.)

All my life, it seems, and especially through my arguably adult life, which began with the legalization of abortion and a clot of “social” legislation around it, the cause of sterility has been gathering force. That is to say, every demand from the politically active has advanced this cause in some way. Killing babies was just the start.

The public embrace of homosexuality, and now transsexuality, with interventions from “gay marriage” to the latest hormone “therapies,” is an obvious part of this massive “trend.” But there are many more subtle developments, and by no means are they all political in the strict sense. It could be said that the bulk of efforts are commercial. Governments (in places unlike Venezuela) adapt to them, rather than setting the pace, with parasitical policies designed to capture tax revenues and secure borrowing.

While the endless demands for “reform” and “progress” are made by a small minority of activists, who infiltrate our bureaucratic institutions and covet all positions of power, the sleepy majority play along. We snore through the latest innovations. The governments we elect are as spineless as we are. They are not themselves radical. The politicians would rather avoid a fight, in which they would be smeared and demonized. They surrender every fort to the Enemy.

But why wouldn’t they, in what I characterize as our pigsty of consumerism?

I notice this in all my walking about, and wandering through media. Everywhere one is confronted by the triumph of mass marketing — a form of salesmanship by demographic in which the lowest common denominator becomes the highest, and the purpose of business is not to fulfil needs, but to create wants on vast economies of scale. “You deserve a break today,” might serve as the background slogan (no you don’t, incidentally); all products promise “the easy way out.” Nothing needs to be done the hard, rewarding way, for the Mass Man requires a life of ease. He eagerly embraces wage slavery to obtain it.

How is this anti-life? Because it extinguishes every aspiration of the human soul to what is higher and better. Raising children isn’t easy. But grooming dogs is a glide, when there are shops to do it for you. Cooking is hard, but our urban world is now full of restaurants. All entertainment becomes passive. All goods become disposable, and essentially generic. We have an economy built around convenience, or more precisely, the propaganda of convenience. (Whether commuting for hours every day to one’s repetitive work is truly convenient, is another question.)

While heredity may remain the determining factor, in distinguishing one human being from another, environment is hugely powerful in making us all the same. Hardware has been in my sights lately. When, for instance, one looks for something that was once available as a matter of course in any family-owned hardware store, one finds that it is no longer available, only things in “bubble” or “blister” packs. For everything is now made handy for the home handyman to do a quick, botched job.

Twice each morning a huge, very loud garbage truck comes to my apartment building, to remove the mountains of consumer packaging that come with modern life. (One truck is for “recycling,” the other for unrecyclable grunge.) I am indifferent to the environmental impact of landfills and the like. (They may some day make rich harvesting.) Rather I am distressed by the human environment that follows from this way of living. Our souls are being discarded piecemeal like the trash. And when they’re done, our bodies are sent, with minimal fuss, to incinerators.

How do we bring moral focus to what Belloc called the “Servile State”? In which nothing holds still, and everything blurs as it passes; and heads choked with advertising jingles lose the capacity for consistent thought? In which Freedom has been redefined as the right to pursue brief physical pleasures, and Love is reduced to inconsequential sex?

A revolt, against the “Culture of Death,” would necessarily involve the rejection of almost everything that has been standardized and sterilized around us. Let’s not wait until tomorrow morning.

In lovely blueness

The good thing about brain injuries, and associated forms of mental illness, is that they are painless. The victim does not know that anything could be seriously wrong. There are moments of awkwardness, but we all have them, and perhaps there are fewer when half your brain is missing. Even those who are, as it were, intact, form the habit of blaming everything on “the others”; it is just another step to giving up. Some become violent when the world tries to stop them, or may at unpredictable moments, but most are freed of the anxieties that a man with more than half a brain is bound to feel, during his progress through life.

Madness comes in many kinds; I have my preferences.

Through the years I have admired the extraordinary poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin. We are lucky in English to have had so fine a translator as Michael Hamburger, and the successive editions of the collected Poems and Fragments have been among my most treasured possessions. Hölderlin’s German and Hamburger’s English are on facing pages. As someone who has been struggling with German (and losing) for a long time, I compare them and spot little miracles all over.

In lieblicher Bläue blühet mit dem metallenen Dache der Kirchthurm. …

“In lovely blueness with its metal roof the steeple blossoms.”

This, among my favourite lines on earth, is from the far end of the book. It describes, I suppose, the view from an attic window in a pretty German town — Tübingen, two centuries ago. Hölderlin had gone completely mad when he wrote it. He was being kept as a boarder and discreetly minded by a kindly carpenter named Zimmer. Or by an angel, I’ve forgotten which.

Details, details: gentle reader may find Hölderlin’s biography elsewhere. I prefer poetry to life, and am happy with only the most skeletal outline of an author’s background. Academics commonly believe, that things can be explained that have no explanation. Why did Hölderlin go mad? He had reason enough to go out of his mind. We all do.

Even as a child he was moody and over-sensitive: now there’s a clue. He was tense. He had a unique understanding of Pindar, and of the inner structure of the Greek ode, and of ideals that underlay Greek tragedy. These may have been wrong, but they were brilliantly so. He is consistently lucid, always to the point, especially when incomprehensible to the modern reader.

From the (later) poems of his madness, his talent never parts. Only his tensions go away. For if there is no point, there is no tension. But consider:

The lines of life are various; they diverge
Like footpaths to the mountains’ utmost ends.
What here we are elsewhere a god amends. …

(It is even better in German; and could have been better in English had the translator not felt the need for accuracy, as I have not in my excerpt.)

There was a strange wisdom in Hölderlin’s madness. Unlike most, he seemed aware of his condition, but looked upon it as a reward. All the storm and stress of his early life, had lifted. He did not even write poems any more, except when people asked him to. In his serenity, he would oblige them. Zimmer kept them for us.

Alas, the people in my neighbourhood of Parkdale do not seem so happy. Perhaps they have been given the wrong drugs. They shout obscenities in the street, instead of softly reciting poems; and never wait to be asked.

Mayday

[This piece kicked forward from six May Days ago; and then fussed with.]

*

“Civilization begins,” according to the poet Ezra Pound, “when people start preferring a little done right to a great deal done wrong.”

Like the capacities for speech, art, music, and sanctity, this is written somewhere in our DNA, deep down where it can be forgotten. As Pound decried, that “great deal” comes out in the popular star system, and every other way of pandering to the masses; in the replacement of what is local and specific with what is general and plugged in. Whereas, a concert of music by Dufay, for instance, or the filling of a niche with an item of carved stone, would be a little deal.

To my mind, as a religious nutjob, tyranny begins with the abuse of talents, with turning God’s gifts (or Nature’s, if you wish) to purely personal account, as the means to wealth and power. The modest, who may also have talents but perhaps not for making big fortunes or winning national elections, must nevertheless try to get by. They become enslaved on various levels. They must agree to accept certain terms of employment, or starve. They agree to serve: not God, except privately, nor their neighbour, except abstractly. Tangibly, the modest are compelled to serve the “men of vision,” the “nation builders,” and other wilful cranks — whose talents are for plausible rhetoric; for moral and material posturing; for ruthless appropriation and the seizure of the main chance. These great become our paymasters. Money speaks, we obey.

Which is not to say tyranny is a modern invention. But I do think the technology for it has been vastly improved.

*

The late George Grant once explained to me that the Volvo in his driveway was “a modern irony.” It was in fact a mode of conveyance, which he could afford on the salary of a “philosophy professor”; mostly the wife drove it. But we spent a pleasant morning in Halifax once, thirty-something years ago, discussing the amount of human art and science, focused skill and moral discipline, subtracted from Civilization and added to The Economy by the invention of such things.

It was, we agreed, a superior car, a fine piece of engineering. (A Volvo, well kept, might last almost half as long as a passenger airliner.) But one was like another, and ten-thousands of people, perhaps hundreds of thousands, lived out their lives for the sake of Volvos — starting from the poor wretches digging the iron out of the ground, or drilling for the oil; and ending with the slick advertising agents and the showroom salesmen. And then there are the other car manufacturers.

Indeed, the late Ivan Illich — half mad to be sure, but I could never tell which half — demonstrated that if we take the total of man-hours devoted to making, fuelling, fixing, insuring, and otherwise accommodating cars (highways, garages, traffic cops, &c), then divide by the grand total of passenger miles driven, for any fixed period, the average actual speed of a car may be calculated. It works out to just over three miles per hour. Which is to say, the same as walking, but considerably slower than a horse. To put this another way, the entire monstrous effort produces a null result.

Really, it is much less than a zero, as we see when we look at the matter more in the round. Let us tackle, for instance, the crowding issue.

The world, since I was born, has more than doubled in population. The human race, according to the environmentalcases, takes up too much space. We have a “problem” today, of “overpopulation.” Yet even they, no friends of big industry, seem to have overlooked a simple fact. We, humans, have increased by a modest two or three times (since anno 1953). But those, cars, have increased by twenty times or more, in the same period. And each one of them leaves a bigger carbon footprint; especially when you remember that the newly arriving humans are just little ones.

Why this emphasis on getting rid of us?

Why don’t we get rid of them, instead? (The cars, not the babies. Or the greenies.)

For consider, the average car is nearly defenceless.

Now, cars give the appearance of moving very fast, to those who do not think analytically, and for the sake of having nice shiny cars in loud solid colours, the masses are happy to exchange not only the direct cost in human labour, but such “intangible” costs as may be associated with making our cities ugly, filling the air with pollutants, constraining souls within metal boxes, and turning the streets where children once played into killing zones.

Include this, too, in what we mean by “a modern irony” — that cars make every city spread, until one needs a car to get around it. Owning one has ceased to be a luxury, and become a necessity instead. One can hardly keep a job without one. And one needs that job in order to pay for such things, as cars.

Cars are not everything, of course. There is so much more on the same basic scheme: the sound and fury of modern industry, signifying the nothing it all works out to. Yet let me not suggest that the lives lived, minding the machines, are wasted. The work is wasted, goes down the black hole. But there is something irreducible in the experience, even of industrial desolation.

In one of my many perished posts, I considered instead the real estate industry. In another ramble, a couple of years ago, I reviewed a study by some Californian, linking cars and real estate together. The thesis, easily proved, is that the allocation of automobile parking spaces had, by the 1920s, determined the shape of every North American town and city, and the disposition of all human habitation within. The little Stalins, called “city planners,” have since that time been using this allocation of parking spaces as their basic “planning tool,” to micromanage the Kulaks.

Movement along the actual roads and highways is only their reserve tool.

That, in turn, leads to a larger observation about the way of our world: people constantly moving, houses constantly changing hands. We have become nomads again, high-tech nomads, while eviscerating local and regional culture, and eliminating almost every prospect of what Illich called “conviviality.”

But that is just where I stand confuted. One can hardly conceive of an evil that does not add a few fiat dollars to the GDP. Say what I like about the collapse of Western Civ, the truth is it was good for the economy. And this can be easily proved, by the numbers, for they get bigger every day.

*

It will soon be nine hundred years since the White Ship went down in the English Channel (November 25th, 1120), drowning, among several hundred mostly drunken passengers, the only legitimate heir to King Henry, thus setting the stage for “The Anarchy” and everything that has fallen out since. It is barely a century since the Titanic went down (April 15th, 1912), also with huge casualties including many quite respectable, well-dressed people.

Bernard Berenson somewhere contrasted the different public responses to these two events. The first occasioned not the slightest indignation, but a great cry of woe and contrition. The second triggered a series of public inquiries, as the politicians sought to identify those responsible for the disaster, on the assumption that something contractual had failed. (The iceberg, curiously enough, was never called to testify.)

So it goes, or so it has gone, for Western society. The awe that is commanded by a great disaster, is frittered away. The large fact is quickly absorbed by many small. Moreover, so far as the awe persists, it tends to be expressed with maudlin sentimentality — with grief poured over the individual victims — unctuously, as it were. This is another way in which the large is absorbed by the many small. We find ourselves weeping for individuals whom, in the course of our natural lives, we would never have met, nor heard of. One might almost call these “virtual” tears.

Today is of course “May Day,” itself somewhat transformed from mediaeval antecedents. By modern European tradition, it is the day on which we celebrate international organized labour, or in a word, Communism — in both its socialist and capitalist forms. Indeed, everywhere I look about me, in the Greater Parkdale Area, I see new condominiums being raised, to extraordinary heights, to provide comfortable dovecotes for the New Soviet Man (capitalist version). For this New Soviet Man demands to live in a “condom”; demands not only to pay his mortgage, but some rent on top of that; in addition to his demand for ever higher taxes, “daycare,” and so forth.

Alas, apart from being human, I find little in common with this New Soviet Man. He shares none of my enthusiasms, I wonder at his. Yet we celebrate so many of the same events, knowingly or unknowingly: childbirth, passages, meals together; ageing, illnesses, deaths. He, with his demands for fresh public inquiries. I, with awe and contrition — for I am so impressed with the scale of our disaster.

An example of usury

Perhaps I could be accused of Christian tendencies, or at the least of a religious frame of mind, in my view of the Oeconomy, and the “science” of Oeconomics. To start with, I don’t think it exists; for I cannot locate it in the metaphysical scheme of Aristotle the Stagyrite, where I can easily find the eternal sensible of the heavens, the perishable sensible of our sublunary sphere, or the divinely insensible. It is not a thing, in other words; just some boring talk about money. (The Metaphysics, Book Lambda; gentle reader should peruse all the chapters.)

I’m not even sure that money exists, except as printouts. It is at a level of philosophical abstraction that defeats me. It is assigned a “value” that it cannot have except by means of an illusion: a kind of con game writ large. We agree to pretend that it has real substance until the day comes when the only bits anyone could want were those minted in gold and silver. Now those are things.

All other kinds are, as it were, minted by sorcerers and magicians. Or, as we call them today, bankers and central bankers. A bank has deposits of, shall we say, one hundred dollars. This entitles it to lend out a thousand, or two thousand; three thousand might seem “excessive.” And then charge interest on the higher sum; and even collect it sometimes. Whenupon, it can lend out twenty times more. For years I’ve thought I must be missing something, but 816 moons have passed, and I still don’t get it. To my mind, if you have your grubby hands on one hundred dollars, the most you can lend is one hundred dollars; and you’ll be needing at least some of that for lunch.

I don’t mind if you charge a fee to the borrower. Neither did (nor does) the Catholic Church, by the way. You have not the use of that money while it is lent out, something should be owing for the service. Too, you are taking a risk. Maybe you have your customer over a barrel, and you are charging too much. That’s bad, but the rates are negotiable, and sometimes the law steps in.

Real usury is something more fundamental, in my view (and I have stated my qualifications frankly). It comes closer to paying for things with play money.

Once upon a time, when I participated in the imaginary oeconomy, I witnessed transactions that seemed fairly large, to me. Capitalists, using banks, were assembling huge possessions, by means of what appeared to be accounting tricks. In one case an immense (and very ugly) shopping mall emerged from the (figurative) top hats, when I was expecting a rabbit. Large numbers of persons with immortal souls were to be enslaved, building and staffing it. But the whole thing was a confidence trick: “We pretend to work and you pretend to pay us.”

Nobody really owns anything, except the things that they buy in the shopping mall, whose resale value tends to be zilch. Call me a materialist, but I whine that there’s hardly any “stuff” any more. Just “product.”

A lady I know has thrice, in the last year or two, bought a security chain for the door of her apartment — from a hardware store galaxy that enjoys a local near-monopoly, from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island. Every time, the chain breaks, from her own modest use. She is an old lady, not very strong. Even at my age (816 moons), I think I could break the bronze-painted “product” with one good pull. It looks quite dinky. I marvel at this lady’s optimism, in buying the same thing over and over, for $11.95 plus $1.55 of sales tax on her debit card, when she could get the same from a dollar store, and pay only 13 cents of tax. (They come, after all, from the same prison camp in China.)

Confidence in the oeconomy — that’s what this lady has. Or to put it another way, she is a victim of usury.

And who will mind the minders?

The world is (have you heard?) full of injustice and corruption. It extends even to me. But I’d rather focus on other people.

Greed and self-interest are often given as explanations. Violence is explained by passion and a cause. Crimes that appear to be pointless, actions that seem remorselessly perverse, invite the question, “Why? Why?” We will do anything except confront the question of evil directly, and would rather consider sin as exceptional. We are told, in the face of bitter evidence, that people are naturally good.

And there is good in them, even virtues often corresponding to their vices (and vice versa). A delicate point, in the old Catholic teaching about human weakness, is to acknowledge sin to oneself and to a priest in persona Christi — the same who sings the Mass. The concept is plain enough, and for the sceptical and distrusting, the psychology makes sense, too.

Confessing to yourself is only a preparation. No Absolution can come of it.

But from those who do not recognize sin as a category, much oppression can be expected. For those who disbelieve in divine justice — who think that if they escape discovery they are home free — there can be no restraints. There is the voice of one’s God-installed conscience, but this can be tampered with, twisted and inverted. We are, for the most part, governed today not by those haunted with faith, but by self-proclaimed “idealists” — those whose ends are essentially totalitarian, and for whom ends justify means. They are invariably haunted by the lust for power.

My view on this topic is unmodern. It includes the phenomenon of demonic inhabitation. I do not think Christ was kidding, throughout the Gospels, when he mentioned this phenomenon, too. We make our little deals with the Devil, and some make big deals. We may even thank God for the Devil’s help, in our moral confusion. Our criterion for virtue becomes worldly success.

To make a stand against the Devil, first in oneself through self-examining humility, then by extension through love of one’s neighbour, is a challenge before each. Evil must be confronted and the occasions of evil avoided when they can be avoided. With Christ’s help, the Devil can be defeated. This has been the teaching for a long, long time.

“Censorship” of many kinds is necessary to this end, both of oneself and at large. Practically, there is much that cannot be stopped, but can at least be discouraged, and ought to be condemned. There is no society in which censorship is not practised, as evidence our present in which, more often than not, the good is censored (not only by governments), and where miscarriages of justice have become commonplace (not only in courts). Often it seems the Devil is in charge, and his servants have captured all of the administrative positions.

Hence the old (and reasonable) liberal saw, “Who will mind the minders?”

This will always be “a problem,” so long as we live in this sinful world. We will always find corruption in high places, even as we now find it spreading like a fire, at the top of our Church. The thoroughly corrupt make poor censors, and worse law-givers.

Everything in this human world is a mess, and so far as I have read, always has been. Still, we cannot give up the struggle to be good ourselves, and put men both good and competent in charge of what needs doing. That task begins with knowing what the good is, and loving instead of fearing it.

There is no way around this: repairing what is broken and maintaining what is not. And so we must get on with it. Pray for angelic guidance.

*

(See my Thing column today, here, also promoting censorship.)