Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

A new year

Advent began, overnight, with a magnificent snowfall upon Vallis Hortensis (my presumptuous Latin for “Parkdale”). It is the first substantial snowfall of the new Catholic year, and forms a blanket of apparent purity over a country and neighbourhood that was formerly Christian. The more distant objects, especially the recent suburban tower blocks, are deleted by the gentle whiteness, and even the Lake is invisible. All is made ready for another start.

I am reminded of a calendar, that some now deceased friend had given me, published by a now defunct typographical studio, half a century ago. The pages were filled with mediaeval depictions of the works of the seasons — but not the clichéd Très Riches Heures — with a single row of day-symbols across the bottom of each monthly sheet. This was decoratively punctuated with the kalends, nones, and ides for each month; and Dominical letters rather than numbers marked the other diurnal spaces. The reproductions were extraordinarily crisp, and I kept them untouched, except for the mottoes I scrawled in the several compositions that seemed to invite them. My calligraphic hand in those days seemed to complement the paintings, and I felt that, by these inscriptions, I was assimilated into each scene.

The pictures were details, not of the full paintings, but were very cleverly cropt, to suggest a beauty that was not narrowly mediaeval.

What I remember was the joy of it. The sight of the snow this morning brought it back, as if I were turning a page onto a new and splendid composition.

To the mediaeval mind, or the classical, the calendar is an immortal, unchanging thing; to the modern mind it requires constant revision and updating. We are perilously falling “out of date.” Good to be reminded of the ages before this was possible.

Black Friday

The day after Thanksgiving — America’s most religiously profane holiday — would seem to be an appropriate time to celebrate Wokeness. It symbolizes the height of ingratitude, and the culture of narcissism and complaint. The violence and rioting that interferes with life on other days, could be transferred systematically to this one day; and various other typically leftist displays of viciousness and spite could be permitted on what we might continue to call “Black Friday” — rather as working class demonstrations were once fixed upon Labour Day (or, May Day, in Europe).

With time, we could hope Woke celebrations will become more lazy and vague — forgotten, like Christmas. For the Woke grow older, and more mentally feeble. Their followers are usually sterile (their efforts become focussed on indoctrinating other people’s children). Thus we can hope that, once their fashion craze expires, they will themselves become extinct.

But by proclaiming a distinct “Carnival of Wokeness” (as mediaeval societies recognized Festivals of Fools), we might reduce objections to the arrest of the Woke for anti-social behaviour on the other days. Since Woke nastiness against the non-Woke happens throughout the seasons, it would provide a nice reversal. We could, for instance, declare “open season” on Woke people for the duration of their special day.

This would provide us with two celebratory events for Black Friday. The other is that it continues to be the day when the author of the Essays in Idleness begs his remaining gentle readers for their financial support. This year, perhaps, he asks a little more earnestly than in other years.

Nostalgia

Suppose, for the sake of having an argument, that there is a God, that he exists in His Trinity, and has such characteristics as are attributed to Him by Saints, Prophets, Apostles. To a modern person, of course, this is quite a stretch. He would ask me to leave out all those things which are not “scientific,” because they are specific, and so can be specifically denied. And, “Please,” (I’ve heard him often), “… don’t use caps.”

That is what our natural theology has come to — using our own natural means to establish what is good and real. We have reached Nowhere, having drained all certainties; and what we know is, Nothing. We haven’t enough faith to rise from bed in the morning, unless other motives come to mind.

But let me not generalize. I am hardly speaking of every “modern person” in the world today; only of the vast, uncountable majority. I, for instance, tend to mix with people who are a bit strange, by comparison.

Many of us suffer from nostalgia. By this I do not mean we long to return to the old days, when modern people were less apparent, or at least less aggressive, and more placid and polite. This is a common mental failing, or limitation, for our species — that we can’t reverse the direction of time, and move thoughtfully backward, when that appears to be the best option. It never happens, and in fact cannot happen, until the faculties of this world are turned about.

But that could only be done by God, whose very existence is doubted, even by his “lip servants.” I am “following the science” when I say that the only possible way to visit the past is by memory, sometimes aided by fragments of the past that have survived — usually for no good reason.

If there is God, I imagine that nostalgia is useful, however — if not consistently pleasurable, or pain-free.

It should be considered as one of the six official senses, or one of the forty-three primary aspects of memory. It restores nothing, though it may sometimes inspire the recreation of things good, true, and beautiful. But purely in and of itself, it offers a way of looking at moving, compendious things, which had otherwise become invisible and inaudible and untouchable.

For there is a close relation to lamentation, which is also a sense of what is, not what was. We recall what is lost, and summon to mind things once loved, and however secretly, appreciated. For often these are things we did not appreciate when they were physically present to us, and which we mishandled. Now they begin to communicate coherently to us.

As illness and another Canadian winter shuts me in, I welcome the idleness in which nostalgia will flourish. Even from events which I now properly regret, there will be fresh learning.

Perhaps, in nostalgia, God is opening our eyes to what we never noticed; that life, even in the most miserable conditions of squalor, created by ourselves — is good, is worth living, is filled with happy “accidents.”

Detestation

Hermann Hesse, I must surely have mentioned or suggestively failed to mention at some point before, is among my favourite hippie novelists. The statement is also misleading, for I encountered Hesse during his first period of international posthumous fame, when he was first being unforgotten; and he was heavily “sold” to me by a good, young, arguably German (less arguably American), friend from Mainz. My literary tastes of half-a-century ago are not reliable indicators of my preferences now, but they aren’t necessarily opposed to my current judgements. I have picked up Hesse, including Narziss und Goldmund (which gives an unreliable depiction of the Middle Ages, and the monastic life), and found him still entertaining, and many of his attitudes to life still attractive.

I call him a hippie novelist even though the world he was born into (in 1877) was not ready for his kind. But in a way more telling, he was not a hater. For instance, he did various bold and brave things, to subvert the Nazis (from 1933), and assist the Jews. (His third marriage was his most eloquent essay against anti-Semitism).

He detested them all (the Nazis, not his wives), and yet was criticized for never having made a formal condemnation of the Hitler regime. One thinks of popes who courted unpopularity with the unthreatened progressive types, from the same cause: unwillingness to arrange the martyrdoms of others.

Hesse detested Nazis from his first sight of them, and before that, in the heritage of Prussia; and he wasn’t afraid of their habit of persecuting people like him (beyond occasional exhibits of tact that could be read as fear). He made enough statements that implied that his detestation was profound. But he was not a political showman, like Thomas Mann, or Bertolt Brecht, both of whom he helped to escape from Germany.

Like recurring figures in his (hippie) novels, his inclination was just to do what seemed right, if necessary under difficult circumstances; and then, different things under different circumstances. If someone had ever asked him to sign on to the principles of Antifa (unknown through the fascist generation), he would have detested them, too.

For he detested the ideological sort of haters.

My point here is that detestation is not the same as “hate,” or hatred, and therefore cannot constitute a “hate crime,” whatever the political busybodies decide that is. In fact, it is more compatible with love; and the number of things a man hates (I will be a man, in this instance) that he also loves (Germans will be our token objects) may be quite formidable. Indeed, I hate everything I love, so far as I can enumerate; at least, every nationality and culture, and most of the individuals I have come to know.

All great novelists are in some sense “hippie novelists.” In future, I fear, all will be charged with hate crimes. In the spirit of Hesse, let us read and praise as many as we can.

Dignity

I used the controversial term, “dignity,” at the end of my last effusion, and I might apologize to those whom it offends. I won’t apologize, of course, “I have too much dignity.” Rather, I shall explain the eccentric way in which I use the term, in this world from which it is largely retired.

To us, at least to those who are woke or equivalent, dignity is something that can be bestowed. It is frequently given as an order, with legal implications. If you don’t recognize, and celebrate, the “dignity” of another person (a sex pervert, for instance) then you are guilty of a “hate crime” and may be prosecuted in law. In this limited sense, dignity is flourishing; there is a huge number of persons who, previously objects of indifference or mere disgust among their neighbours, now qualify for police-enforced dignity.

In my own view, we should follow the hint of Friedrich Hölderlin, the German poet I am now reading through his “later odes.” True, he went mad, either from his anxieties or from his lack of them. Like other harmless madmen of the past (whether or not they could write first-rate Pindarics), he got into the habit of greeting his visitors with an excess of polite deference. Everyone, including rough and semi-literate workmen, and all but his several genuine friends, he addressed as “Your Highness,” or “Your Majesty.”

My own adaptation of this practice is to confer landed titles, in great variety. But this is immodest, for it assumes, from the point of departure, that I am the royalty.

Giving acceptable pronouns to the masses must invite confusion. “Highness” and “Majesty” are, neither of them, gendered terms, and ought to be safe and generally acceptable.

But dignity, in principle, is not something that can be bestowed, let alone demanded, or even earned. It simply is, in and of the person. (Perhaps we could include certain other animals, such as lions, or walruses.) He is dignified if he is not undignified, and the distinction is quite easily made, at a slightly prolonged glance.

The term doesn’t exclusively apply to Christian humans, necessarily, or to members of any other group — whether apparently alive or dead. The worth of it does not extend beyond itself, for the highest award that can be given to a dignified person is (invariably silent) recognition of his dignity.

To the Christian, or to the gentle, all human beings have dignity, or should have, whether born or not yet born, and we live and interact with the world in recognition of this (astounding) fact. We recognize silently, the presence of dignity, and to those determined to conceal their dignity, we offer “no comment.”

Armistice?

As the son of a veteran of World War Two, who was the son of a veteran of World War One, armed for Canada in England and France, I look upon “modern history” as a participant. By a miracle, neither father nor paternal grandfather was killed. (The maternal grandfather risked his life piloting coal trains.) Yet grandpa ran up Vimy Ridge, and across many once-famous mud-puddles. My father had it easy, by comparison, flying Spitfires. That way you sit through all the more violent bits, and witness most carnage from the top.

Both are gone now, and mama too, at advanced ages. Their children should soon be gone. We all fade, and must expect to spend a million years dead and forgotten for every evening that was memorable.

It is on this broad view that I forgive my countrymen — at least those in this part of the country — for neglecting to wear a poppy pin today. I did not spot even one, among all the transit customers, and only one in a medical waiting room (a very old lady). I was looking for poppies, obsessively, while riding buses and walking through crowds, on my way to and from the doctors’ appointments this morning. At the moment of eleven o’clock, there was nothing to be heard.

Except very softly, beating inside me: the echo of great wars. There was a time when we were capable of remembering, at least the more recent conflagrations; and knowing gratitude for those who had leapt to our defence. But now, after a short interval, we, the nominally living, have found our place with the dead. There was no passage in which we attained dignity, and no one will remember us, even briefly.

Christ the King

The royalty of Christ is difficult to explain, to our republican society. He is to be grasped, to start, in the creation of the universe; mere kingship seems rather to demean Him. Yet it isn’t meant to do so, instead to make his claim on our loyalty explicitly greater than that of any earthly power, or prince. We celebrate His Dominion, beyond his personal authority. (Kings were once more than political officers; their lives ran conspicuously above the lives of their nations.) Martyrs have so often gone to death, declaring this kingship. It announces something above mere citizenship.

Whether in church, or outside it, we have for several reasons come to ignore this festival. This year, with All Saints on a Monday, reverence for Christ the King may seem to appear inconveniently in the Calendar. It is the same night as Hallowe’en. (The Novus Ordo had moved it away.)

Hallowe’en, in its crassness, and commercialism, makes the same appeal as Saint Valentine’s Day — to be retired or cancelled from common observation. Both are only tangentially Christian, but in our time, even Christmas and Easter come to be acknowledged as crass, commercial affairs. We cannot save them without restoring a world that was capable of religious sincerity.

My younger son is “Down syndrome,” which means he is a member of a tribe that is now usually murdered in the womb. Yet also, surprisingly, a tribe which by its nature, is understood to be innocent and kindly. This year, through my various “ischemic events,” I have perhaps had a small, partial experience of how my son finds the world; a new understanding of how plainly he assimilated Christ from our conversations; of the horror with which he learnt of the Crucifixion; but too, the incomprehensible simplicity of the Everlasting Life. He has, or course, a genius for understanding things that my cleverness would put beyond me.

The typewriter keyboard, for instance, is something I find myself almost learning again, yet it doesn’t amount to much.

With luck, my brain is as neuroplastic as others have been discovered to be, and I look forward to having the use of it back, in due season. For Christ is King, and what can be taken away from us? Except by Him who is the source of all gifts?

Vegging

The earlier stages of my vegetation were more interesting, or rather entertaining; for they involved psychotropic drugs. The surgeons give these to the people they propose to operate upon. They are merciful, it should be said, in the main. But, eight months into the adventure, it becomes tedious. I wish to recover my health and my poise; even my balance. I wish to avoid another spell like that of the last fortnight or more, in which I have been unable to form a sentence coherently.

Nevertheless, according to Thy will.

Thou who hast foretold that Thou wilt come to judgement in a day when we look not for Thee and at an hour when we are not aware:

make us prepared every day and every hour to be ready for thine advent,

and save us.

Book use

As a reader, and sometime owner of books, I’ve been curious about what use they can be put to. I myself once justified a large collection of them, to a sceptical Canadian, by declaring their insulation value through the winter months. To a more searching questioner, I mentioned literature, as a way to kill time. In ages past, I supposed they could also be used to kill people, or at least the small ones, and the more modestly-sized inhuman predators. This was when books were mostly produced in the gigantic folio format, with thick wood covers, by the printers of five centuries ago. But Aldus Minutius invented the portable, pocket-sized version in the cusp of modernity (about 1500). This, I speculate, encouraged reading, at the expense of hunting.

For physical fitness, it was a dead loss, and I used to see modern students tote little libraries about without great difficulty. Now the texts have been reduced so that all the world’s writing can be fit into a cellphone, or similar  device, and the trend to not reading (except government health directions) advances quickly. For, if everything can be squeezed inside one of these small machines, it must be the devil to read, and I can understand not being tempted.

A woman I know had charge of several male children, and was determined to “get them educated” in the old-fashioned way (which involves reading). For years they were out of her company in the daytime, attending something called a “school.” Now that they have decided to be “woke,” and to condemn everything this lady stood for and believed in (including, presumably, sending them to school), she has joined the ranks of the sceptics. She says that she profoundly regrets allowing her eldest to attend a university.

However, she continues to honour books, in which she takes great delight. (She can often be seen reading: in English or German.) Her point is about the effect they have on her juniors.

Her sons show no effect at all. In their schools, they were presumably taught to read (and were shown how at home if the school skipped that discipline). But she had assumed that the school would inculcate the habit of consulting these works of “literature,” on which unwoke Western civilization had been based. They would help to make the young minds thoughtful, as well as conveying content to them that is not easy to find on a computer. They would educate the young reader in the use of leisure.

This lady, Gertrude I shall call her, now is something of a widow, having been abandoned by everyone she formerly knew who was younger. (Those who were older are, increasingly, dead, including her husband.) She will have no company for her old age, but should not fear the loss — for she would have nothing to talk to them about, anyway.

Nevertheless. she is in possession of a theory. It is that the most important thing that has been lost by the collapse of our primary, secondary, and tertiary education systems, is this habit of reading, and associated habits of assimilating music and art. The consequences of losing it, and of the tedious vacuum that has filled the space, was not considered by the liberals in their projects of “reform.”

Or perhaps it was considered, and not as a “bug,” but as a feature of the revolutionary, woke truncation. All surviving human thought to be ruthlessly compressed, into 150 characters of Twitter, and fewer where alpha-numeric symbols may be substituted. Much of it, of course, banned outright.

Michaelmas day

I did not agree, incidentally, with the late Richard J. Needham, in his attitude towards Toronto readers — although I loved to quote it, seemingly with approval. I used to meet Mr Needham (at a Harvey’s franchise that dispensed cheeseburgers), after his (compulsory) retirement from the Globe & Mail. (Also known as the Mope & Wail, the Soap & Pail, the Grope & Fail, &c.)

Verily, Mr Needham could be looked on as a pioneer of the art of getting cancelled, from media outlets, up here in the tight-assed north. When you ask his old colleagues about him (should you find one still living), he will sneer at the memory of the gentleman who was the Globe’s most interesting and valuable correspondent, in just the way one sneers at any writer of interest and value today.

He, Needham, enjoyed perhaps a larger readership than the rest of that newspaper, combined (they didn’t count eyeballs as carefully in those days), but had no following among the fashionable and sophisticated. His views on women, animals, comportment, and several hundred other topics could have been subtly chosen to affront “respectable society,” but he maintained them in the dangerous, Socratic spirit. He belonged to no “team,” no “ingroup,” but rather he appealed to the young, including intelligent high school students: people who hadn’t been taught to shut their eyes and ears yet when unfamiliar ideas were discussed.

He told me, when I begged him to write for my Idler magazine (flourishing at the time), that he had retired from authorial labours. He put this politely, but as I became insistent, he countered by becoming rude:

“I have NOTHING to say to the inhabitants of this town.”

The word “nothing” is capitalized to indicate vehemence. His cheeks also changed colour, in a disconcerting way. But otherwise, he continued to be charming.

Mr Needham had observed the growth of Toronto into what its politicians called “a world-class city.” He had watched it become crowded with vehicles and construction materials, but most signally, the draining of every legitimate, unregulated cultural enterprise — a kind of rehearsal for the Batflu. He was what I would call a “bitter nostalgic,” in moments when he softened into nostalgia.

“Blow it up, and all you will lose is the cost of the explosives.” I contributed this miserly thought, from out of my own Presbyterian genetic constitution. (Scramble when we get merry.)

But in my view, so long as one is capable (which may not be for long), one has an obligation to one’s readers — including those, to reverse the usual advice, as shrewd as pigeons and as poisonous as snakes. As long as the world staggers, there is a chance for at least parts of it to be redeemed, and one’s sneering should be habitually contained. You will be laughed at, and generally insulted, but how does that differ from what you have deserved?

Today is indeed Michaelmas — the Feast of the Angels. It is the traditional “getting back to work” day in universities and places like them. It is the ninth anniversary of the day these “Essays in Idleness” were inaugurated — just after the last “mainstream” media outlet in Canada “let me go.”

The world is not to our taste, entirely, and in defiance of the public faith in “progress” I would add that it is unlikely to improve. But bless Mr Needham, in memory; take a moment to bless me; and put your hope in futurity into the hands and heart of Christ Jesus. What comes of that will be self-explanatory.

The vote

According to the tribal consensus, in my neighbourhood at least, there is a federal election today. We had been waiting for the campaign to start, but after a few weeks there wasn’t much more than tired media attacks on “the right-wing fanatics,” who hide their political views, to avoid social unpleasantness.

All the numerous parties in Canada are left-wing, including the Conservative Party, which beat the Liberals in the last election two years ago. The Liberals won it by the “efficient” distribution of their vote. They had been exposed for various forms of corruption, but “the people,” who lack something in the brains department, decided to forgive them. The former Conservative leader, an apparently sincere Catholic, Andrew Scheer, was believed to secretly hold conservative views. (Perhaps he did.) For instance, he did not show enthusiasm for killing babies, or the elderly and despairing. But he has been replaced, by media demand, with someone named Erin O’Toole (openly), who has no opinions that vary from the clichés of the smugly fashionable.

Like Mr Justin Trudeau, O’Toole also has no known religion. Religious belief has been largely extinct in Canada since the 1960s. As a Batflu precaution, it was phased out in the three remaining provinces.

A tiny “People’s Party of Canada,” under a possibly pro-capitalist leader (albeit French Canadian), has emerged to drain the “conservative” vote this time.

Really, there are hundreds of issues that could be discussed in an election campaign, but the citizens are too shallow to participate. Justin Trudeau, called “Blackie” in the blogs out West, or “Spendy McBlackface” for his junior-school behaviour, is the shallowest, most contemptible politician Ottawa can offer. He is also the most popular — especially with women — although he is closely rivalled by the airheads who lead each of the other parties. One of them is memorable for wearing brightly-coloured Sikh turbans. (He is the official socialist.) The “PPC” leader, Maxime Bernier, has a soupçon of courage. That’s what makes him exceptional, as well as inconvenient.

My brief discussion of the election with a local intellectual (I saw him examining a book once), ended when he said that Bernier is “a fascist,” &c. (I wasn’t listening for his precise terms.) “That’s why I’m voting for him,” I explained, even though I doubt he is a “serious” candidate, who could win even a free coffee at Tim Horton’s.

The election authorities have had a great deal of trouble recruiting people to mind the polls, in this most boring and pointless election — called so the Liberals could win back their majority. With luck, the staff will not be able to judge the result, and the established constitutional system will collapse.

Canada, like other countries, would benefit by doing without a federal government, indefinitely, or for fifty years. We could never have afforded what the governments we elected cost us, and a constitutional crisis could get us off the hook for repayment. (This works for other third-world countries.)

Blowing them away

It is easy to understand the attraction of high-tech killings, by the U.S. military and its more advanced rivals. For, although it is not often acknowledged, murder can be difficult for most people. This makes it unpopular in opinion polls. “High tech,” by contrast, makes it easy. The technical details had traditionally contributed to this awkwardness, allowing moral hesitation to get started up. The intended victim may move too much, or scream out in an alarming way, or be armed himself and ready to retaliate. Even if one catches him by surprise, one’s own gun may make an appallingly loud noise.

But imagine a helicopter drone or similar device, that launches highly explosive missiles. There is no pilot, and at most a television camera. The operator, miles away, does not have to dwell on what he has done. Within moments, his screen is blank, and so is his conscience.

The “strike” was in Afghanistan, say, but the “striker” most likely among the computers in an army base in, say, formerly rural Florida. The morning’s work, tapping instructions into his finger-board, having concluded, the officer can step out for a pastry and a coffee. The only risk he has taken is in his diet. He may have driven up his blood-sugar levels, and might some day be diagnosed with “diabetes two.” Then, finally, he will discover what moral criticism is like.

From some reports, it appears that the majority of U.S. drone strikes are misdirected. Wedding parties appear to be their principal target, followed by other school and family outings. Islamic terrorists seem to be repeatedly overlooked. However, we must bear in mind that when drone strikes can be so casually ordered, they can be more easily lied about, and our sources of information are leftist and unreliable.

I have no better sources myself, and must take for granted that little, or nothing, can be known about this kind of obscenity. It is now the preferred way of eliminating unwanted people — accurately, or by mistake — and I would expect it, like other devices of military and paramilitary technology, to be provided for police work soon.

Keepers

The mathematicians — or shall we say, the skilled  ones — often proclaim beauty as their criterion for truth. It is, in the view of the angels, and of the genius or saint, a world where order prevails, and thus serenity and peace. It is a place where we are reminded of the simplicity and purity that could govern our affairs, if men did not reject them. There is elegance, without all the slovenly trappings that we have associated with elegance.

I refer to things which are “just so”; and somehow inevitable, though inevitably unpredictable, in art and in science.

Conversely, the mediocre mathematician produces results that are ugly, trivial, squalid, and a mess. He is by nature clumsy, but also lazy: looking for proofs that can be easily found (because they are clichés.) Like all the higher intellectual disciplines, math reserves painful punishments for the lethargic and incurious, and awards brutal treatment to those intent on ignoring its “aesthetic” dimension; the element of form.

The other arts — one thinks of music, and sculpture — differ from mathematics in their selection of blindness. Math is sensually blind, or vacated, and must become musical or sculptural to assume “shape.” (A subtly different term from “form.”) But it is not sensual, and resists the transformation into something alien to itself. No mathematical model can be exact.

And yet, mathematics has beauty, or should have, for it is an art.

I knew once a collector of mathematics — a Polish gentleman, of course. He had, it was true, many mathematical books in his retinue, but these were the shadow not the substance of his subject, as print may offer a shadow of literature, poetry, song. These items have yet to be animated by their singers, and indeed, the visual arts also do not really exist until they are animated or “sung.” They must be found, or brought back, into life.

My Polish friend collected from among the things he had animated. He would eagerly show his most valuable possessions. He was remarkably patient with the slow-witted, such as me. But he realized his task was to give his possessions away; for only then could he keep them. He had the instinct of a teacher, which is to say, a kind of collector.

Those who collect material goods, sometimes exclusively, tend to operate on one of two radically opposite principles. Either they collect things that “might be useful,” though few things will ever be. Most do this, and make arguments for doing it. They are the common collectors of junk, as opposed to normal people, who use what is meant to be used, so that it is constantly disappearing.

The other type collects things which are beautiful, being indifferent instead to whether they will ever be needed. These hardly restrict themselves to lumpish, awkward, physical goods. However, note, they make shocking exceptions.