Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

The two paths

Lately I find that the choice before those who populate the former Christendom is reduced to two paths: 1. To go Christian. 2. To go mad.

I realize there are non-Christian readers who will disagree with this assessment. But notice how ecumenical I was. I didn’t say “Catholic,” I said “Christian.” As someone who took fifty years to find the One Holy (from a standing start), I am sympathetic to those who may be dawdling. Let me also concede that our Roman Church is in such an extravagant outward mess, that conversion is presently discouraged. (But that’s all the more reason to come aboard. We need your help.)

Recently in Idleposts I have touched, from several successive angles, on what might be called “problems of translation,” and “good sense.” The pope in Rome pushed the discussion along with his extempore proposal to destabilize recitation of the Lord’s Prayer — some last freeboard against the mounting waves. He is an accomplished boat-rocker, determined to rock the Barque of Saint Peter as she struggles to level in the modernist storm.

This is … “not done,” as the cultivated used to say, over tea. … Still, it must be grasped that the elevation of Bergoglio to the captaincy was a symptom, not the cause of our terrible disorder. It showed a loss of judgement.

For the rôle of the Catholic Church, within a world that is not entirely Catholic, must be kept in view. In my humble but unalterable opinion, held even before I was received, the steadiness of her doctrinal position is of some moment. No other institution — whether gentle reader considers it to be divine or not — can sport her two-thousand-year record of maintaining, or repeatedly recovering, a coherent body of thought and teaching. This is sanity, par excellence. She has thus a responsibility towards all the non-Roman confessions, including to my mind the Eastern ones, to act as lodestar. Even those who disagree with her positions, benefit from keeping them in sight.

She has another function, that we are rediscovering, and must never again discount. In a world going or gone mad (as the world is inclined to go on its own cognizance), she must be the last monastic refuge of the sane.

Oddly enough, to the moralists, I care more about this than I do about whether remarried divorcees are illicitly taking Communion, or the many other instances of what tea-drinkers call “bad form.” The crucial thing, in  a time of convulsion and catastrophe, is to maintain Christ’s self-consistent course. If the law is breached, the breach can be repaired; rescind the law and everything is lost. And I mean everything, for in addition to the Barque, all lesser ships are lured towards the shoals.

It was possible in the past to be, as I think my own parents were, not Christian and yet not mad. I think that can be done for one generation, at most two. That was certainly the case with the Victorian sceptics, who lost their faith but remained stiffly moral, dispensing with anything beyond a vague theism but hardly questioning the biblical commandments. Their children, however, lost the rest of the connexion. They took everything into their own hands — and lived shameful self-destructive lives. They kept some of their parents’ (irritating) earnestness, but their judgement went haywire.

The sublime Fr George Rutler, whose homiletic works I try never to miss, made this point last Sunday. Insanity, he explained, is not a loss of brains. It is a loss of judgement. This is a point often made by apologists for Christianity. The madman may reason perfectly well. He may indeed be a teapot short and stout, on his own phantastical premisses; or a “trans-sexual,” or whatever pleases. It makes sense if you can be anything you decide. As Chesterton put it: “The madman is not someone who has lost his reason, but someone who has lost everything except his reason.”

For better or worse (i.e. for better), the Christians in their rise and creation of “Western Civ” carried off everything of value from the cabinet of ancient, “secular,” Greek and Roman Civ, carefully assimilating it into what they now knew by divine revelation. They achieved, in this way, a kind of monopoly on sanity. After all these years we can’t detach again. We would have to start over from scratch, but even scratch has fallen into chaos. The only game in town for the sane is the old Christian one. But look around: not everyone is playing.

On good sense

As my Chief Argentine Correspondent (this guy) likes to say, “I can give you the simple answer; but for the correct answer you will have to consult other sources.” A certain modesty in declaring the limits of one’s knowledge is just what we don’t find, almost anywhere we look on the Internet. (Not even here.) And the truth is not even in the hands of the admitted experts, although their carefully qualified opinions are likely to be more interesting than those of the [insert bawdy epithet here]. For these experts are all men, including those who are women; and there are strict limits on what such creatures can know. Put not your trust in them.

Notwithstanding, I have a simple “theory” of exegesis, which begins with Holy Scripture but may also be applied in every other realm of human perception. It is called “common sense” in English, and corresponds to sensus communis in Latin, κοινη αισθησις in Greek, and phrases in many other languages. The bon sens of French sounds prettier to my ear, for it is among my insights that what is “good” is not necessarily held in common. Too, I like the parallel we might draw between “good sense” and “good taste,” along with all-round goodness, preferable to badness in almost every case.

Aristotle had a word or two on this, and he says “common” (the koinos thing) in an uncommon way. His whole account in the De Anima is superbly teleological. Things work in a certain way, because otherwise they would not work. He does not mean by “common” that we take a vote. He means that something makes good sense when there is a coalescence of impressions in the soul. In my understanding, this is something like facial recognition. Everything fits together in such a way that we confidently hail the familiar, even when it is obscured by such accidents as wounds or advancing age. There is this “all of a piece” quality which is actually transcendent of sense impressions, much though it may begin with them. We have a “good idea.” Or we have a bad idea and get everything wrong.

We get the “gist,” and that gist is not a “whatever.” It is something specific, that does not continually “morph” into something else. Changes can be explained, but as the old man discovers, he is not a different person than he was at three. Nor is anyone not that.

Good sense begins with the recognition of realities that are outside us. The baby emerging from his mother’s womb may at first be in some confusion (I know I was). But in very little time he discovers that his mother has a face; that for all the profundity of his relation with her, she is someone else. It is the beginning of “good sense,” and with the passage of time other discoveries may be added to it, and answers found to such deep questions as, “Who is that other person?”

Good sense (or “horse sense,” perhaps, in honour of the wise Houyhnhnms) proceeds from known to known, and tends to avoid the leaps of “theory.” Which is to say, it does not follow rules. Instead the rules follow the knowledge, and no rule is ever quite secure.

I mention all this because I have the sense impression that modern man, especially in Greater Parkdale, lacks good sense. His development is less and less experiential. “Science” — or scientism, as preached in our schools — has taught him to be cowed by authority, and he is chiefly moved by the authority of opinions that are not his own. He believes the strangest things. To him, the world is full of djinns: spirits who take care of things, and make the most absurd demands, such as that he put his trash into different coloured boxes. He has the “cargo cult” mentality towards the State, and does not realize it is made of other persons. He is extremely easy to manipulate and fool.

A rant

Two things I miss from my Anglican days: the King James Version, and the Book of Common Prayer. My friends who remained Anglican also miss them, for both have been removed from church services by the Anglican bureaucracy. As the priest who received me into the Roman Church said, Anglicans make ideal converts. We already know at first hand what happens when liturgical, scriptural, and other received norms are “progressively” abandoned: the church itself disintegrates. Thus no one need hold our hands when we discover e.g. Roman bishops much like the cowardly, patronizing Anglican ones we left behind. We are ready to face them.

The deliquescence is everywhere; why would it not be here, in the Catholic Church, too? All the once-familiar markers of Christian teaching and prayer are in the process of demolition, by revolutionary forces within each denomination; and those who long for consistent order are denounced for “nostalgia.”

As we are reminded in daily mutterings from Rome, the Swinging Sixties aren’t over. The swinging balls are still crashing through the ancient glass, and the sacrifices are still being made: of manners, dress, comportment, modesty, custom, courtesy, propriety, decorum, form, taste, decency, reasoned argument, logical consistency, &c. Parousia may now be interpreted as, “let it all hang out.”

But returning to my topic, it was the beauty and poetry, the precision of phrase in the named works that appealed to me. Stable, as they had been for so many generations, and breathing elevation, it was possible to memorize extensive passages; to absorb something timeless, in its nature and in its aspirations. Almost every phrase in KJV and BCP could be read and prayed as catholic. One was drawn out of oneself; lifted. One learnt the language with the gestures, and in the dance of tradition, did not have to think where to step. For the dancer who must think is always stepping on one’s toes.

The (characteristically glib and fatuous) argument of the progressives was that the KJV translation had, in the course of three or four centuries, gone out of date. Many words had changed in meaning. (A good example is “temptation,” as in the Lord’s Prayer. It meant a testing then, as Jesus in the desert; it means a chocolate cake now.) And scholarship was marching. New manuscripts, fragments and palimpsests continued to emerge from obscure monastic archives and the sands of Egypt.

I once had on my shelves the massive Variorum Teacher’s Edition of the Holy Bible, edited by Cheyne, Clarke, Driver, Goodwin, Sanday — all once names to reckon with — anno Domini 1881. It contained the text of the King James, unrevised. But it also contained extensive notes, alternative readings, explanatory essays and other materials to help even the reader without Greek, Latin, Hebrew, or any dialect of Syriac, to see into the text. Books like Frederic Kenyon’s Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts (1895) keyed into this Variorum. That book I still have, and although it is now more than a century past its “sell-by,” it continues to offer a foundation on which an intelligent, independent reader may build an understanding of all the genuine advances in biblical scholarship, since — decidedly better than any later introduction I know of.

In my former life, when I entertained grand schemes, I dreamt of publishing a multi-volume revision of that Variorum, with the latest scholarship, but attached to the same old, resonant King James text. (This project could as well have been mounted on the explicitly Roman, and similarly magnificent, Douay-Rheims.)

There are now, in print, more than one hundred alternative English translations of the Bible, and the reader who buys, say, the top twenty, to compare them, is wasting time. He could actually save time by mastering the original languages. I rather think it was the Devil’s idea, to undermine the simple Christian’s confidence in Scripture by means of multiple translations, and innumerable petty and irrelevant distractions.

The New English Bible’s first volume, a translation into “modern idiom” of the New Testament, was published in 1961. It is dated now in a way the KJV will never be, and has in fact been succeeded by the many other “improved” — and desperately flawed — ever more “modern” editions, including those which intentionally misrepresent the original texts to keep up with the latest “gender” abominations. Yet even when it first appeared, T. S. Eliot could say that the new translation “astonishes in its combination of the vulgar, the trivial, and the pedantic.”

That criticism holds, so far as I can see, for every modern-language “update” of scripture and liturgy. The hard truth is that the medium of contemporary language is incapable of conveying the substance we require.

Remove not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set.

The havoc chronicles

It is a nice question, what has caused more havoc in rush hour traffic this morning: a prematurely-exploded pipe bomb in New York City, or snow and black ice in London? At the time of writing, headlines from both sides of the Atlantic suggest a growing consensus on behalf of the pipe bomb. Either, however, could have a dampening effect on Christmas shopping, thus potentially inhibiting consumer confidence insofar as it is measured by the trend of daily sales: though by less than one dollar in a million.

Some snow in Greater Parkdale, too, but we’ve seen precipitation in this form before. Not enough to impede traffic. The merry bells of Christmas are ringing, or would be ringing at the cash registers all around town, except that new technology has obviated that delicious old “ching-ching.”

Now, if the North Koreans were to succeed in exploding an EMP device (that’s electro-magnetic pulse, I gather) high over our heads, I should think the consensus for “story of the year” would be overwhelming. The difficulty would be in reporting it, however, with the electrical grid out, and powered machinery at a standstill. This would be a serious inconvenience, and according to one frequently repeated estimate, 90 percent of the population would die as direct or indirect consequence of the blackout.

This estimate came from a science fiction novel, but entered media consciousness via USA congressional testimony nearly a decade ago, and has since become “a thing.” It is like the climate change estimates, though easier to trace.

My guess is that it would be good for the economy; perhaps even better than a hurricane or earthquake. The blackout would take days to overcome; weeks in some places. A certain proportion of electronic baubles would be knocked out, a proportion of those would be permanently fritzed, then consumers would be queueing for new baubles in EMP-hardened shells. Over time there would be very expensive infrastructure improvements. Add a few permilles to annual GDP.

This is a curious thing about economics. The “science” (a term that now connotes self-flattery) is amoral. The pornography industry, for instance, adds handsomely to our Gross Domestic Product; and much other enterprise that is gross indeed. Speculation conjures billions in “Bitcoin” with no backing at all. In the absence of (unquantifiable) moral considerations, the good is expressed as economic growth.

I sometimes wonder what a man of the thirteenth century, magically transported to the present time, would think of our fast-paced, high-tech “civilization.” The received notion is that he would be mightily impressed. This is not what I imagine, though. As a man at least sympathetic to what I can reconstruct of thirteenth-century mindsets, I think even without the pipe bombs and the EMP, our time traveller would be under the impression that he had died and gone to Hell.

On being polite

Christianity is not a religion of the sword. Or rather, it is. Jesus said that he brings not peace but a sword; that he sets son against father, daughter against mother. But He could not possibly have meant “sword” in the worldly sense, which now includes machine guns and ballistic missiles. There is a time and a place for stuff like that, very arguably; there have been Christian soldiers called to arms in monastic chastity and devotion; but the sword of which Christ speaks strikes to the heart in a different way from a metal pike. The Christian is not required to conquer by arms, but neither is he excused from evangelism. We seek to save, not destroy our enemies.

Saint Michael is depicted with a sword that bespeaks the good, the true, the beautiful — and in the highest divine sense, freedom. There is civic freedom, there are “human rights” so far as they are in accord with human duties, but there is also something larger than the human, in which human freedom is subsumed. God is free and above us. His ways may often be inscrutable to us, and yet He has revealed so much of Himself that we can know to serve Him, in our freedom.

One of the things I have admired in the few serious Calvinists I have known is their appreciation of the cosmic order. God is central, man is peripheral. (This does not mean that man is unimportant, or why would Christ come down to us?) Our orientation in religion must be to God, and we must do our best to comprehend His requirements.

His, not ours.

We may disagree, critically, on questions of interpretation, but there can be respect for the man who, though working from premisses we find skewed, is diligent and honest in his labours. The good Calvinist is seeking the original Scripture, not lazing in popular translations. He is rightly curious about the writings of the earliest Fathers, and about the life and language of biblical times. He wants the truth, from source, unadulterated, which includes the original context. We should honour his intentions, and debate his conclusions in a respectful way, the more effectively by listening for what we must reply to. He might well teach me a thing or two, from his oblique angle. He may be a better man than I am. Upon conversion, he will make a better Catholic.

So, too, the Jew, whom we (in the received Catholic and Orthodox traditions) believe to be apostate in his denial of the Messiah present and implicit through the “Old Testament.” We are obliged to debate, and to pray for his conversion. It hardly follows that we are obliged to persecute him; and we can hardly expect to convert a Jew or anyone through brutish, arbitrary acts. Without acknowledging the sincerity and intelligence of our “rival,” we do a disservice — to him, but also to ourself. He might well teach me a thing or two, from his oblique angle. He may be a better man than I am. Upon conversion, he will make a better Catholic.

Gentle reader will perhaps see the trend of this argument.

There is a season for argument, although in the end, by our own argument, all argument will prove vain. This is because not we, but God will be vindicated, not on our terms but on His. And we ourselves will be called to account, not for our cleverness but for our sanctity.

Jerusalem

Peace — in the limited sense of avoiding conflagration — often requires as much boldness as war. To achieve it, the statesman must cut through illusions. He must not appear weak; weakness encourages aggression. He must cut through the illusions of his allies and his enemies, as well as his own. As war, peace requires taking risks, and not all risks are painless. Sometimes they don’t even work. But the avoidance or rather, the deferment of risk, is the formula for making any small problem grow.

To my mind — sincere, however addled — the decision to move the USA embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, after twenty-two years of bipartisan blather, is a bold stroke for peace. It is made at an especially opportune time, when the State of Israel enjoys openings to the surrounding Arab world thanks to the common external threat of Iran. The American decision is of course protested, from Cairo and Riyadh to the dark, pettifogged chanceries of Europe; but will be taken everywhere as a side issue. Erdogan of Turkey will make as much mischief as he can, and the Ayatollahs will amplify their bluster. But the case required a fait accompli.

Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States except Qatar, have come to realize with unusual clarity that Israel is not only not their enemy, but a necessary ally. Regardless of current public opinion in those countries and elsewhere, the radicalized Palestinian quasi-state is not their friend. Neither Hamas nor Hezbollah — both now functioning as Iranian proxies — is useful to them. Therefore it makes no sense to be constantly arousing their peoples to anti-Semitic fits, or using Israel as the whipping boy to explain their own comprehensive failures.

There can be no peace around Israel until Israel itself is normalized, and a normal country has the capital of its choice. The Trump move from America hastens the recognition, that Israel is a permanent feature of the Near Eastern landscape. It is a danger to its neighbours only if they attack it. It will not go away, and cannot be removed without a war that will entail their own extinction. Other countries will gradually follow the American lead. The Arab states should, too, after a face-saving interval.

From a Christian point of view, it is well that Israel persists, and occupies our common Holy Land. Our question is only, Who will better protect our ancient shrines, and grant our pilgrims access to them, Israel or Hamas? And the answer to that is, Duh.

A punch in the nose

A young priest of my acquaintance tells a delightful story from his own ordination. He has several brothers, and during a reception after the event, one of them had to listen to some painfully cheap anti-clerical blather from some irreligious grinch, helping himself to the cupcakes. This brother had probably been selected for his patient and peaceable demeanour. He is known as a soft target for bores. But the wrong day had been selected. Mister Charitable suddenly punched the guy in the nose. Laid him out nicely.

What a joyous thing. It made me think of Saint Nicholas — the fourth-century Catholic and Orthodox original for the Protestant and shopping centre Santa Claus. By a jolly tradition, this Saint did the same at the First Council of Nicaea to some tedious Arian, perhaps Arius himself. Having tired of listening to the man spout heresies, he dropped him with a crisp right hook. For this, the good Bishop of Myra was stripped of his mitre and pallium, and escorted to a prison cell. But Our Lord and Our Lady came to visit in the night, thanked Nicholas for defending their honour, and dressed him up again: now as an Archbishop.

Sceptical scholars call this story fanciful. Let none of them near me.

They doubt all Saint Nicholas’s miracles, too, which included the raising from the dead of the three children from the tub of brine. They take a pass on the legends of his copious gift-giving to the poor and sick; the gold dowries that saved the penniless young maidens from lives of prostitution; the unending list of his heavenly intercessions through the centuries after his earthly death. Naturally, they have doubted that his relics, translated to Bari in Puglia in 1087, could possibly be genuine. That is the function of the sceptics: to preserve deniability for all the works of God.

It is the Feast of Saint Nicholas, today, in the West. He’s been gone these last 1,674 years. Shrines to his memory remain, however, scattered around the world.

The relics in the Basilica di San Nicola at Bari — substantial bone fragments — have just been radiocarbon tested by the labcoats of the Oxford Relics Cluster in England. Sure enough, they date decisively to the fourth century. More fragments from the Chiesa di San Nicolo al Lido in Venice, already known to fit with those in Bari, will now be tested for a DNA match.

This comes a few days after the news that tests under the Edicule of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem have confirmed dates for the tomb of Our Risen Lord. They tie in exactly with the historical records, of continuous veneration by Christians from the earliest times. The story is much the same for Saint Nicholas: everything lines up.

It is a little cosmic joke, that at a time when technology worship has replaced religious faith in so many hearts and minds, the most advanced technology now compels belief in what generations of sceptics dismissed as foolishness. Poor things; it must come to them like a punch in the nose.

Of infamy & shadows

With her impeccable timing, Christine Keeler has died. This is the woman who brought down, or more modestly, contributed to the destruction of Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government in the “Annus Mirabilis” of the late Philip Larkin:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me) —
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Yes, a lot of things happened in 1963, of which, at the time, I was imperfectly aware. (Just think, if sexual intercourse had never been invented.) It was also the height of the Cold War, and Miss Keeler (a teen-aged runaway from Berkshire to a London cabaret) got things properly rolling. She had been sleeping with John Profumo, Britain’s Secretary of State for War. Also with Yevgeny Ivanov, an attaché at the Soviet embassy.

She was a refreshingly honest girl, according to a laudatory obituary I’ve just read. (Served nine months for perjury, by the bye.) Not so Mr Profumo, who lied (can you believe it?) to the House of Commons when asked a perfectly straightforward question about broadly circulating rumours. His resignation was forthcoming with his subsequent admission that the rumours were quite true, and the case went down in the History of Tory Infamy. The disparity in ages (forty-six and nineteen) must have drawn additional winks and nudges, but was not the issue then.

Only recently we learnt, from released MI-5 files via our ever-vigilant media, that as an Oxford student in the 1930s, then young Tory MP, Profumo had a much longer affair with one Gisela Winegard, a “haughty, Teutonic” model, who happened to be also a Nazi spy. And that it was resumed after the War.

Was she “refreshingly honest,” too? Was Profumo, for his habit of writing endearments to his (invariably shared) mistresses on House of Commons notepaper? Enquiring minds want to know: How do such idiots become Ministers of the Crown?

I mention this history only in the context of current kiss-and-tells. It has come as a surprise to many that men, including older ones in positions of authority, have been manoeuvring attractive young women into bed. Also, apparently, attractive young men. It would be too dark a secret to reveal that this isn’t always difficult; that so perverse is human nature that, exempli gratia, lively young women are sometimes attracted to staid, rich and powerful old men; or might even try to exploit them. Or that there may be teen-aged girls who don’t know what they’re doing. Or worse, who do.

Mr Profumo spent the rest of his life working off his shame (received a CBE for his charitable activities in London’s East End), but still died with the reputation of having been the “Profumo” in “The Profumo Affair.” Miss Keeler attempted “normal family life,” achieving two divorces. Mr Macmillan, who crashed down as prime minister, was the picture of family loyalty and fidelity, and a heartbroken widower. It was his wife who had been cheating — for thirty years. He was also the devoted, longsuffering father of a troubled daughter, whom he knew to be not his.

Yes, men are bad and women are their victims, as the feminists are proclaiming once again. And it’s all hanging out there in the media breeze. But behind closed doors, there is much that goes off-script.

Mere news

If there are two things that “foreigners” don’t understand about the Roman Church, they are these. 1. The Pope is an absolute dictator. 2. He has no power to change anything. Granted, this may seem a contradiction to some. I prefer to think of it as a holy “paradox.” It can be explained by the fact that there is someone above the Pope in the Church hierarchy. And that is Jesus Christ: King above Kings. The Pope is, as it were, His beadle. Should a Pope stand in conflict with the teachings of Our Lord, he is not serving his office. Instead, he is being an idiot, in the strict sense of standing alone.

Now, this is the world, in which things are always changing. But in their essentials, things never change. Perhaps gentle reader may receive this as another paradox. It is echoed in all areas of human life. The winds blow: it is necessary sometimes to adjust one’s footing, to remain standing in the same place. This is a thing of no consequence. Some habits of dress and turns of phrase may suffer adjustment, from time to time. One need not be confused by such “accidents.”

Over against this is the modernist notion of “evolution,” which puts the accidents in charge, of a world in perpetual flux. It is as wrong in science as in religion.

In both, the Truth is something we home in on, as the ratios in the Fibonacci series home in upon the absolutely constant Golden Section. Einstein did not overthrow Newton, but made Newton’s cosmology more exact. The very Catholic astronomer and mathematician, Copernicus, did not overthrow the pagan Ptolemy, for that matter: he explained observed movements more completely. Augustine did not overthrow Origen; Thomas Aquinas did not overthrow Augustine; &c. We may come, over time, to a better understanding of what was before us all along. No matter what revolutionary ideas are propounded, the Sun will continue to rise in the East.

The moral order is no more subject to revision than the observed physical laws. It might be explained differently, to one generation or another. But what is wrong is wrong at all times, no matter how many people are doing it; and what is right stays right, no matter how few. It is among the beliefs of post-modern nincompoopery that this order is subject to human choice. But attempts to alter what is founded in Nature will never end well.

That “there is nothing new under the Sun,” that Christ “came not to abolish but fulfil,” are words to bear in mind against the blathering. As too, the Psalmist’s “Therefore.” … “Therefore will not we fear, when the earth shall be troubled; and the mountains shall be removed into the heart of the sea.” If it happens, it is possible, but it does not follow that anything has changed.

Which takes us back to the papacy, and the book published in English today, The Dictator Pope. It is not before me as I write. I doubt, in fact, that I will ever read it, for from the publicity the Italian edition has received I see that it contains nothing new. It will be full of things that I knew already, in sufficient outline; which indeed my Chief Buenos Aires Correspondent told me in 2013. He, and several other fine Argentines said that the Conclave had made a terrible mistake. But how could they have known?

We have had bad as well as good Popes before; we will have them again, God willing. It happens, and thus it can happen. We were perhaps too spoilt with Popes better than we deserved. It may seem unfortunate, that mountains are shifting; but we should not be distracted by mere news.

____________

On the subject of new books, my friend Herman Goodden’s Speakable Acts — a collection of his plays — is also launched today. Surely a more agreeable read. Those in the vicinity of London, Ontario, are instructed to proceed to the Chaucer Pub (122 Carling Street), where the drinking will begin at four-thirty. (See here; see here.)

Advent MMXVII

It is a splendid thing when the Moon near its perigee (a “supermoon”) comes Full at the beginning of Advent and the new liturgical year. The heavens and the earth seem briefly in alignment. This Frost, or Cold Moon (as our Algonquian peoples called the one before the Winter Solstice) is thirty thousand miles nearer than it was in June. Bright it is and large. I recall the effect from childhood, walking through thin snow along the Bruce Trail, to a hilltop from which I could see the Moon rise, and a landscape rolling north, being picked out in lines of silver.

Born as I was under a Full Moon, and being something of a lunatick (accentuated just now by a nasty fever), I like to count my age in Moons. This leaves me, I think, only one month shy of my eight hundredth birthday. Alternatively, I count metonic cycles, so that I am still three, but will turn four under the Full Moon of April, 2029. (God willing.)

As a child I was a fount of unwanted astronomical information.

Just now it is middle night, and somewhere in monastic silence a sacrist chimes a small bell. The monks are called to their night watch. The Moon is alone in the middle of the sky. Towards dawn as it sets, Sun and Moon will be on opposite horizons (having exchanged positions in the night), and we on this illumined orb between.

It turns through the stars. The lights arc around us. The years come and go.

Soon we may forget the passage of the seasons, the shock of being young or old. For now we wait, with Isaiah, “Beholding from afar, Lo!”

Eros & Psyche

Getting back to the “science” of translation (there is no such thing), I should like to recommend Coventry Patmore’s translations of Paul Claudel. Granted, I have got this backwards. Claudel (1868–1955) was under the reasonable impression that he was translating Patmore (1823–96) into French. He was doing this during the period of his symphonic Cinq Grandes Odes, when, in the outset of the twentieth century, he sought to retrieve harmonic resonances to which his contemporaries seemed deaf or dead. Claudel, as Patmore, was profoundly reactionary, and thus incomprehensible in his day and since. (He has often been retrospectively smeared.) Even so, he is appreciated for his music, as Patmore is not, by those prepared to ignore what each is saying.

Kiss me again, and clasp me round the heart,
Till fill’d with thee am I
As the cocoon with the butterfly …

Patmore is forgotten in English, for both music and meaning. He went to extraordinary lengths to make himself understood, always a mistake in a poet. He left a trail of short essays and a treatise on metre, by which he was found out, as a Catholic alien in a Protestant milieu; among the “homegrown” cases. His comments on the “nauseous and vicious effeminacy” of his time, on its hamstrung “logic mitigated by enthusiasm,” sent even his contemporaries scrambling for their safe spaces. In a time of soft, highbrow porn, he was reverting to the Song of Solomon.

My Darling, know
Your spotless fairness is not match’d in snow,
But in the integrity of fire.
Whate’er you are, Sweet, I require …

He presented a form of erotic masculinity the opposite of the homosexual, for which the “Gay Nineties” were unprepared. His verse meditation on the fable of “Eros and Psyche,” Christianized as “body and soul,” makes no connexions that I can detect with the broken symbolism, the fey imagism, the surrealism, and Freudulent psychologism that was to follow through the Great War. And yet apart from a few floral flutterings of high Victorian lyricism, he rejects the nineteenth century just as well.

If instead of reading forward we instead read backwards, taking Patmore as the translator of Claudel, we may begin to see this. Patmore serves as the gloss, showing through the fable how the soul seeks the body, more passionately and substantively than the body seeks the soul.

Hand-held device

In the Guardian we read, or at least I read, a long business story on the triumph of sandwich merchandising in England. It is what people eat there now, for breakfast and lunch and at other times. They don’t make the sandwiches themselves. They are made in long conveyor-belt factories, staffed with immigrant cheap labour; soon to be mechanized. You can buy these sandwiches for up to ten quid apiece, and the beauty is that you can eat them without noticing, while your other hand taps away.

In my London days it was beans-egg-spam-and-toast, but for that you had to sit down. Too, I doubt that (what was it?) eighty billion plates were served per year in England, even counting Wales. The “ham sandwich” was universally known, but you didn’t order it from a “cafe” (one syllable) because you could make it yourself in less than twenty seconds (twenty-five while talking). To buy a roll of stuffed bread from a street vendor, you had to walk to, say, Tehran.

The numbers have washed out of my brain already — I do not read such articles twice — but my sense of the magnitude of the enterprise remains. Those who have made googlish fortunes, peddling sandwiches to the Britannic masses, compliment themselves on having perceived a trend in Western Civ. Our eating practices have “evolved.” We don’t have meals any more. We still want food, but take it “on the run.” Even hamburgers have come to seem too fussy. Somewhere — possibly also in the Guardian — I read that by the age of fourteen, at least half of British residents are, by some medical definition, “obese.” Like the opioid crisis, this makes perfect sense. Few actually want to die; but few want to live, either. Their habits suggest a target somewhere between.

They still eat, and they are happy to do surveys. I gather from other journalistic revelations that “the Millennials” and the “iGens” (that’s the generation after) have rejected “institutional religion.” This was no surprise — it was already rejected in the Spirit of Vatican II — but in addition the young no longer describe themselves as “spiritual,” either. “Heaven” interests them less than foie gras, which can at least be put in a sandwich. We needn’t go into their moral ideas, which though sometimes strident, are perfectly externalized. While they have rejected family life, too, they’d rather stay indoors. They are uncomfortable with direct human contact, to the point of preferring not only shrinkwrap to menus, but pornography to sex.

Sandwich in one hand; iPhone in the other.

Well, none of this will come as news to any reader. It is “the way we live now,” and the trends are towards a kind of high-tech, pure animal existence. One thinks of wombats with their distinctive cubic faeces. And their indifference to any sort of fence or boundary. Moreover, in my (admittedly rather limited) experience, nothing beats a wombat for self-esteem.

My guess is that these children are essentially unhappy; but I am thinking in categories that may be out-of-date. Plus, my bias is showing towards the higher primates.

Among the depenguined

“The older I grow, the less I know,” strikes me as a useful slogan, though like most it may need some serious qualification. For until one starts losing one’s marbles, one can actually know more than one once did. But this qualification reinforces the thesis.

When I was young, I thought I could know everything. Now I know better. This is what I was getting at in a recent post on “depenguinification” (here), hurled against smooth translations of ancient and bewildering texts — which, in a short passage of time, themselves become bewildering in an unrelated way. Yet in their season (my example was pulp paperback translations of the classics, and the blurbs attached to sell them) they are able to convince innocent readers that, with a minimum of effort and pain, they have “been there, done that.”

The column was unpopular with several readers, for reasons most succinctly expressed by a (much treasured, Protestant) correspondent in St John’s:

“If you consider how few of us can read Latin, and Greek, and Aramaic, and Hebrew, you might want to give further thought to your column ‘Depenguinification’. Except for a blessed few of us, we rely upon translation for our knowledge of Holy Scripture.”

Oddly, I had anticipated this objection; and welcome it because I think it retrieves one of the principles of the Reformation, which I may now directly contradict.

In their demand for a scriptural language “understanded by the people,” the Protestants laid the foundations for our populist post-modernity. Let everyone be his own Bible interpreter. Let no priestly mystificators stand in their way. (Only the Lairds with their yellow sticks.) By the Lollards forward, in the English-speaking world, we have been offered translations that make the Scriptures “accessible to all.”

In Scotland, the Presbyterians took this so far as to create the planet’s first majority literate society. From what I like to call the Madrasas of Caledonia, the example shone, so that by the nineteenth century everyone from otherworldly Catholics to violent Communists took the value of universal literacy for granted. As a man of the thirteenth century, I oppose it, in the same way I oppose simplified spelling schemes, and the Westminster Catechism, Form, and Directory. I am not, and do not think I could become — even under intense Facebook pressure — a window-smashing Roundhead.

To my reconstructed mediaeval mind, Priestcraft can never be abandoned. Scripture and Tradition are interdependent, and the Christian religion is essentially sacramental. This it must be in descent from our crucified Founder, and in our imitation of Him. He provided us with a religion — verily, a Church — that is rationally comprehensible, but not mechanical, formulaic, “rationalist.” Wisdom itself (or “herself,” as I might write, in honour of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom), eludes such Procrustean devices.

Unlike my Scotch ancestors, I am not a legislator, and do not aspire to be. I only make suggestions, which gentle reader may take or leave. One of them must be that the way to absorb Scripture is by the incremental effect of a lifetime attending Mass, and attending to the liturgy through all seasons of fast and festival. (The homilies one may take or leave.) For those who can also read with some attention, but with no Latin and less Greek, there are e.g. Latin Missals available with modern-language cribs. But these are a means, not an end, to understanding.

Before we decide that we understand the Psalms, for instance, there are a thousand pages of commentary on them by Augustine to consider. (He who, unlike his feisty contemporary Jerome, was unaccomplished in Greek or Hebrew.) And so much else, including so much never translated, that the acquisition of Latin, for instance, might be viewed as a shortcut.

(As Saint Jerome could tell us, the translation of inflected Greek into inflected, Greek-absorbing Latin, can go with the grain. Translation into a staccato, uninflected language must frequently cut across it.)

Alternatively, we might care to admit that the King James Version, or the Douay-Rheims, or any of the sad succession of penguinish recent versions, only give us a view through binoculars. It may sometimes be a beautiful, poetic view, and “true” insofar as poetic beauty is a carrier of truth. But there are deserts, swamps, forests to traverse. And hooo, will we need guides.

Hence my thought for today’s Feast of Saint Andrew: “Pray for us, that we may be among the depenguined.”