Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

On national unity

Women are always in the right. Men are always in the wrong. This is the basic tenet of feminism, and the theory behind modern family law. It is justified by empirical research, in which it has been found that, indeed, women are often abused.

Similar conclusions have been reached on questions of race, ethnicity, economic class, linguistic preference, religious affiliation or non-affiliation, immigrant status, et cetera — and the laws adjusted to reflect the latest discoveries of “human rights.” The intention is to achieve “equality.”

Employees are always in the right. Employers are always in the wrong. Surely everyone knows this. In particular, employers are wrong to expect people, other than themselves, to work, in the time before a social wage can be established, by the agencies of the State, to end this oppression.

Tenants are always in the right. Landlords are always in the wrong. More generally, creditors must defer to debtors. The principle is expounded on posters around Parkdale, which call persistently for rent strikes. How dare the landlords impose their gratuitous fees on persons who would otherwise be “homeless”?

Now, I have exaggerated a little. Many of the old laws remain on the books, and the police still do (selectively) enforce them. They have been given “sensitivity training,” however, lest they enforce with too much zeal, matters of no grave importance. They recognize that the only real crime is to possess the means of self-defence.

Moreover, it is possible I misrepresent the State. It may seem to have a radical policy agenda, when in fact it is content with absolute power.

We have a democracy, after all. Tenants have more votes than landlords. In every big city the politicians of the Left have rivalries, but only with each other. “Affordable housing” is in every manifesto; and “equality” on their every lip. The odd “Conservative” who gets himself elected has successfully demonstrated that he is really a “Progressive.” Or he has found a new constituency of whiners, usually among the denizens of the suburbs — where there may be a plurality of home-owners.

Home-owners are an inconvenience. They tend to engender biological families. These have always been a challenge to the State, especially when inflamed with religious beliefs. Their loyalty to the State falls short of absoluteness.

Democracy is built on, “Us versus Them.” Parties represent the contending interests. As Thomas Aquinas noticed, democracy is naturally divisive. As he didn’t, because it hadn’t happened yet, it is a means to advance the cause of violent revolution, peacefully. It is a way for the counter-revolutionary elements to negotiate their surrender, in a piecemeal fashion. As the Leninists used to say, the bourgeosie have rights. Specifically, “they have the right to become extinct.”

Out in the country, it should be said for balance, the shoe is still sometimes on the other foot. But the cities, or conurbations, grow, and rural populations are in decline, the world over. Technology has made this possible. In this sense it is the guarantor of progress.

And yet, advanced technology is not strictly necessary to create a Cuba, a Nicaragua, a Venezuela. A monopoly of arms is sufficient. Technology is there at best to create a China: a modern, centralized Surveillance State in which the proles get food, clothing, shelter — on the one condition that they keep their mouths shut. The Maoists began by killing tens of millions. These days obedience is secured by killing a few dozen, here and there. And prison camps work just as well.

Democracy works the other way around. The Surveillance State can be built without terror. The Internet provides all it can require, and its users volunteer information on themselves, in return for their economic treats. The mega-corporation and the mega-state gradually coalesce. It remains to be seen whether the Amazon method, or the Politburo method, will prove more durable.

For “national unity” was the object all along.

Naipaul

“Sir Vidia” is dead, at the age of eighty-five: one less magnificently cranky old man. To one of twenty years less, he has been around forever. I thought he might be a hundred by now; apparently time moves more slowly. The obituaries are long and plentiful, in the British press, which excels in that genre. Their profiles of the living also read like obits. Too, they do “rude” more elegantly than we know how, here in the Americas.

To my mind, he was among the greatest journalists in English. He wrote novels, too; indeed started with them, and his earlier novels won many awards. They were calculated to do that, in their place and time. Naipaul cashed in on Trinidad, brusque and curmudgeonly beneath a glittering comic surface. His career worked backwards, starting where most writers end. Each novel I started seemed a kind of memoir; an accounting for loss. I never finished one; not even A House for Mr Biswas. (I count A Bend in the River, with its African setting, as not really a novel.) Sometimes I got as far as page fifty, before admiring the developing structure, and deciding that I could see where it was going. In the ’sixties, the literati wanted to hear the Third World speaking. He gave them a little more than they wanted, but he filled the order.

Later he moved beyond these “memoirs,” and became a focused journalist, writing pointedly about other people, with his trademarked motto, “The world is what it is.” I think his books on his ancestral India, and on the world of Islam, are unquestionably his best. They are journalism; they are not “travel books.” With tremendous energy, and unfailing curiosity, he travelled and observed. I got easily to the end of his epic, India: A Million Mutinies Now, of Among the Believers, and Beyond Reason — his later and most mature accounts of realms with which I was familiar. I remain in awe of the enterprise of his reporting. I cannot think of better preludes to the refugee world that we live in now.

He was a fine “racist,” in the best sense. He presented the spirit of failure, that animated post-colonial life in so many newly independent states, while capturing the flavour of each. He did this without exculpating, but also without demonizing, the old colonial powers. His accounts of Pakistan (country of my early childhood) and of other Muslim polities tells truths that other visitors cautiously avoid. Yet all he does is describe what is before him, with the sharpness that requires artistic genius.

Thanks largely to the deletion of history from the Western public mind, and its replacement with leftist gibberish and hogwash, there is little appreciation today for what journalism has been, or could be. It is a “first draught of history,” to be sure, but to deliver this it must free itself from “theory,” and try to depict what is really going on. The J-school emphases on the factitious lead us farther and farther away. Naipaul gives us a return to the methods of the eighteenth century, when the essay and prose fiction had not yet been surgically separated; when fruitful exchange between the general and the particular had not yet been disallowed; before imaginative powers had been foresworn on the side of the reporters. For this alone, he would be invaluable: for the example of a journalist using his whole mind, and not only the desiccated bits.

He was a truth-teller, even about himself. His account, in interviews for his authorized biography, of the history of his relations with women, has that ring we associate with the dentist’s drill. It is bravely candid. Naipaul reveals himself as a ruthless man devoted exclusively to his trade, who uses all those most closely around him, and abuses their loyalty. He admits to having been “a shit” of the first water, and his refusal to excuse himself was taken by many as proof that he never cared. But again: he would not deviate from the truth, nor refuse his penitential lumps for it.

Another irreplaceable man, for the overpopulated graves.

Death by technology

A commenter and queryist on yesterday’s effusion makes the brilliant and original suggestion that technological progress is inevitable. (Droll alert.) It makes no sense to resist, he says. With some background in the printing trade, he averred that the replacement of hot lead with cold film, in the world of half-a-century ago, entailed such large savings of time, money, and clatter, that only fools hesitated to buy in. (He overlooks the overheads.) Ditto the next revolution, less than a generation later, from film to digital, in which the newly-acquired skills of the paste-up artists followed those of the metal typesetters out the window. What use are skills that have been obviated? What use are Luddites?

In the case I cited, he fully missed my point. Yes, the revolution was happening, and soon great masses of heavy metal would be melted down as scrap. But why should we be in the forefront of that revolution? The New York Times, of all grey ladies, would not make the changeover until 1978. (There is a lovely documentary in the Internet somewhere, on the last day of the linotype machines in the Times composing room.) The little Bangkok World was rushing in where angels fear to type, in 1970. Why not take our time, and get it right? Let others who enjoy such things experience all the pain of pioneering. We can do our buying into the new machinery after the stupidest mistakes have all been made, rather than be among the first to make them. At least be conservative.

By some chance I know more about typography than printing, and have done since childhood. The first thing I noticed during the typesetting revolution was that all standards in typography had been relaxed, to accommodate the new procedures. To this day, cut metal type remains normative: it allowed human precision in the cutting, the font size gradations, the kernings and spacings, that computer algorithms can only approximate, having nothing to match the aesthetic faculties of the human eye and hands. The sublime beauty in the slight irregularities of craft production cannot be delivered by programmed machines; it can only be faked. Thus we “advance” by increments — not only in print — from the hard, unforgiving art that assists our rise to Heaven, into the soft homogeny of computer simulation.

Then followed the new slapdash sparkly effects, in both typography and writing. The notion of fussing over quality had lapsed.

Yet all this aside, we have the issue of whig-historical rush, in itself. Why, when the mythopoeic lemmings are rushing, ever quicker to the cliff, should we struggle to outpace them? Why not play the wise tortoises, instead? For as my son, the electronic engineer, tells me, they are the Luddites who force all the genuine improvements. Verily: why not experiment with moving the other way?

Granted, the “market” shrinks in that direction — where we find that the great plurality of the lemming-men have “moved on.” But still, we might enjoy the open spaces. They used to be so crowded.

To the point: why should human beings, created by God in His own image, agree to form such herds? Why should we emulate dumb animals in migration? (The actual animals have reliable signals, and every intention to return.) God made men to be Artists, like Him; to be “co-creators.” Each was endowed with his unique talents, and most, the time to discover and cultivate them. Each has his place in the mysterious, whole, Body of Christ. We aren’t interchangeable.

I will admit this thinking is counter-cultural, as well as uneconomic. More, it is philosophical; we stop to ponder as the herd rushes by. It is true that we will die, just like all the others. But the instruction from our Maker was to choose life.

Chronicles of defunction

Once upon a time, when I was younger (seventeen), I became interested in a specialized area of economics. This was, why companies fail. The math was of no interest to me; it was the human side of defunction that aroused my curiosity. This was because I was working for a small, but humanly sprawling daily newspaper called the Bangkok World, that was never going to make a significant profit, but had limped along for thirteen years and could, to my mind, have limped along forever. Unfortunately, the management got Big Ideas. Within six months of acting upon them, the paper was dead. (The title was sold to its inferior competitor, which fired everyone in the subsequent “merger.”)

The big idea was to take in American investors who would replace the backward (hand-set hot metal) composing and printing equipment with spanking-new state-of-the-art photo-offset technology (then in its incoherent infancy), flown across the Pacific Ocean. A hyper-professional MBA-styled managing director was also flown in: a nice man who’d never been to Thailand, never seen a similar publishing operation, and spent his short tenure learning elementary things before fleeing back Stateside.

I have been reminded of all this by reading a memoir by the paper’s then-editor, a certain Denis Horgan, a young ex-serviceman who had arrived in the job on a train of accidents. Naturally, everything took him by surprise. His account of “the end of The World” was quite affecting. A liberal, progressive soul (but with a lovable regard for quaintness), I think he has yet to guess what hit him.

Through the half-century since, I have been privy to essentially the same scene repeated, many times. A small company is doing passable work in a small market, adapting to the requirements for survival through trial, error, and multi-dimensional collusion. There is a hierarchy within that has developed organically and bears no relation to any organizational chart. Everything works at a low but constant level of efficiency. In my example, the newspaper did come out every day, in fact twice a day, morning and evening. And for all its eccentricities, it was beloved by its few thousand readers. Had the flown-ins spent their whole time drinking iced Mekong in the noodle shop across the street, making themselves too blotto to move, all would have been well.

Alas, they had the Big Idea. Too, they were exemplars of temperance — workaholic instead, and probably incorruptible, in that sterile, short-sleeve, Puritan way. This is of the essence of liberalism and progress. It is a matter of stolid conviction, in opposition to all human experience. Everything is done consciously, nothing by instinct. Statistics are gratuitously gathered, and constantly reviewed. Everything must be managed, to the end of eliminating anything that smacks of a living tradition, spontaneity, or morale.

The (ancient) Greeks, who knew a thing or two about tyranny, felt that no decision should be made until it had become unavoidable, by when it would have been discussed, in a leisurely and therefore thorough way, sometimes drunk and sometimes sober. If the same conclusion is reached by both methods — by the coffee method and by the whisky method, as it were — then, and only then, should we dare proceed.

Meanwhile: “live and let live.”

In my example, a company that was barely meeting its payroll, but somehow meeting it every month, took on a tremendous load of unrepayable, indeed unserviceable debt, which promptly sank it. The paper would probably be alive today if, instead of “investing” in a white elephant, they had bought a couple of second-hand linotype machines, to speed up the composing room a bit, and put the big-idea men back on an aeroplane. (Preferably in the hold.)

My memories involve intense affection. The Bangkok World was the best little newspaper imaginable, for its time and place. It was overstaffed with talented, mostly very young people, of innumerable nationalities. No one was paid well, nor should have been. It was a glorious place to work. All such institutions should be left alone.

On killing people, cont.

In one of his enchanting letters of travel, the English convert to Islam, Marmaduke Pickthall (1875–1936), defends the Oriental practice of casually killing people. He tells the tale of a bag of lentils, purchased in the market at Damascus by his host, Rashid, and left unattended just inside the door of a modest lodging. In a corner, on a heap of cushions, Marmaduke is trying to sleep off the midday heat.

A gentleman of eccentric dress and turban — which is to say, a gypsy — notices the bag and steps inside to take it. While he looks about for other spoil, Marmaduke stirs, and asks the man what is his business. The gypsy flees, disappearing into the city crowds.

Rashid returns, and Marmaduke tells him what happened.

“What?” Rashid exclaims. “The man stole our bag of lentils, and you watched him do it? And you had a good revolver at hand, and did not use it?”

“Why should I shoot a man for such a trifle?”

The debate between them continues on the stools of a coffee vendor across the street. All the idlers gathered there agree with Rashid. The thief should have been shot. Marmaduke, then young and still fairly English, insists that it was “just a bag of lentils.” He stands corrected: that is not the point. The man did something wicked. What if, encouraged by his escape, he goes on to steal a bag of lentils from a poor man who owns nothing else? One must be practical about these things. What kind of world will we live in, if thieves are not shot on the spot?

The “Franks” (Europeans) are criticized for their habit of encouraging both the good and the wicked, indifferently. They are condemned for their lack of religion.

Finally, an old bearded gentleman, venerated for his learning and wisdom, sums up the case. He is gentle and indulgent with this foolish young Englishman, but feels he must speak plainly.

“The Franks have lost belief in Allah and the life to come. They deem this fleeting life the only one vouchsafed to man, and death the worst catastrophe that can befall him. When they kill a man they think they have destroyed him quite. But when we kill a man, we know it is not the end. Both killed and killer will be judged by the One who knows the secrets of men’s hearts. The man who is killed is not deprived of hope.”

It was worse than that for the Franks, in the old man’s estimation:

“For us, death is an incident in life; for them, it is the end of the story. They have no idea of sacrifice. They can only imagine killing a man out of hatred.”

He goes on to explain how, for instance, it is necessary sometimes for a ruler to kill all his brothers and closest friends, lest later they conspire against him and disturb the peace. He doesn’t want to kill them: they are after all the beloved companions of his childhood and youth. His sympathies are entirely with them. But he mustn’t be sentimental. He kills them all for the public good, and they, if they are at all manly, meet their deaths with fortitude and understanding.

I would not go so far. Perhaps I am too soft. But in recent discussions about the death penalty, I take this Mussulman argument to heart. We must shake off the atheist notion — now prevalent even in Rome — that death is simply The End. For truly, we shall all die, and when we do we will learn that it is more like The Beginning.

Crime without punishment

What is the difference between an “old-fashioned” liberal and a “modern,” or “post-modern” one? I have thought about this question much, over the years, as I have myself migrated towards what are called “reactionary” positions on most subjects, beginning I think with poetry and art but gradually encompassing politics and religion. So far must I have wandered, that I cannot account for many of my youthful views. They strike me as having been not so much wrong, as they were asinine. Yet looking back I see that I was never a hard-boiled progressive. Rather, a liberal like my father and grandfather: what would count as a libertarian today, and traditionalist in manners and morals.

The two things went together. A man (and a woman, to be clear) must take personal responsibility. It is not for “guvmint” or “society” to meticulously regulate his thought, speech, or behaviour. A man, particularly, must adopt a trade, make a living, marry once at most, support a household, raise children to be upright, kindly, and responsible. He must also be ready at all times to lay down his life when it is asked of him in a valid cause. (Both papa and grandpa volunteered in the World Wars.) He is answerable to legitimate authority with respect to laws, modelled essentially on the Ten Commandments. If he is accused of crimes, he should be fairly tried, and if found guilty, punished — from fines for minor traffic violations, to the death sentence for wilful murder.

But in everyday life, where there was little crime, and houses did not need to be locked, prudence ruled. Whatever you intended to do, you first thought through the likely consequences. And if there were unpleasant consequences to be faced, you faced them. Views might vary between religious sects, on this overwhelmingly Protestant continent, but without doubt, there was God, and one of His attributes was Justice. Moreover, “God is in the details,” as my father (not a church-goer) often told me. “Go with God,” he always said on departure. (He died with a Saint Benedict crucifix in his hands.) Until quite late in life, he continued to vote Liberal.

When you see real injustice, you make a stand. When you see crime, you intervene to stop it. When you see human suffering, you do what you can to alleviate it; or even animal suffering, for that matter. Your duty is to be harmlessly benign, and in all transactions, honest and reliable. Nor were these considered heroic virtues. They were duties incumbent upon all.

All of this became “dated,” as I grew older. My first shocking discovery about the “modern” liberal is, that while he might give lip-service still to some “antiquated” ideals, and gratuitously pose as virtuous, his first instinct when faced with serious responsibility was to cut and run.

My second was to find that he was now brainwashed by ideologies and slogans; that it was impossible to argue with him from reason or fact; that faced with any difficulty he would present himself as the helpless victim of forces he would not even try to define coherently.

My third was the discovery that he was now, instinctively, on the side of the criminal; that he identified with the lawless; that he admired “the transgressive,” trespass, violation. Without acknowledging it to himself, he now had a conception of “human rights” which consistently excused the wrongdoer, and consistently ignored the consequences to those who had done nothing wrong.

This “modern” liberalism, I came to understand, was the development — not over months and years but over centuries — of a mortal flaw in the “classical” liberal worldview. It was avoiding God. The liberal mind was persuaded that humans must “make their own beds.” Its great strength was that it took responsibility; its great weakness was that it had no reason to do so. Faith and reason are mutually dependent; when one goes the other eventually goes, too.

Or put this another way: the Devil gets in when we make room for him.

Over at Catholic Thing, my piece today (here), is about the latest outrage from that very “modern” liberal, Pope Francis: he has now taken it upon himself to begin rewriting the Catechism of the Catholic Church — to change not merely words, but doctrine.

It has been an extraordinarily bad week for Catholics, with major revelations of the profound corruption in our hierarchy: by no coincidence, almost entirely among the most outwardly “liberal” of them. I invite gentle reader to read that column, in light of what I have written above.

On fake news

I don’t do “breaking news” in this website. I mention this in boilerplate reply to those kindly readers who continue to supply me with news tips on the latest outrages — unreported, not accurately reported, or not adequately presented in conventional news media. I am more a former journalist than a present one, but from experience I know that, to do the job properly (“without fear or favour”) takes detailed, and usually expensive, mostly thankless work. By omission of this plodding we spread rumours instead, which is wrong even if many of the rumours might be true. You can’t take “maybe” to the Confessional.

Worse it is, when the bias is carefully managed, and the hearsay is almost certainly untrue. As a long-time consumer of “the news,” familiar with how it is generated, I am more and more appalled. I have elementary “editor’s questions” for almost everything I read on Internet sites, and what I see in print is seldom any better. This applies to all sides of every contested issue; though it is obvious that the bias runs Lefterly, to an overwhelming degree. One comes to believe only what one has seen with one’s own eyes, and that is necessarily little.

It is a matter to regret, that in a country the size of Canada, or one the size of the Natted States, there is no market large enough to sustain even one reliable news agency. That is to say: even one that stakes its reputation on methodical checking of fact, unhurried collocation, and dispassionate articulation; which consistently eschews emotion and sensation. Nor, if such a thing briefly existed, would it be likely to survive long. It would require heroic vigil, against efforts to subvert it. Scrupulous editors would, for instance, never hire any graduate of a journalism school, or with a commonplace humanities degree. They would rather employ strictly specialized correspondents, with genuine expertise, writing within carefully delineated “beats”; whose honesty is above suspicion. They would grant the space that is required to report significant matters thoroughly. Which is to say, something like the remarkable Swiss daily, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, used to be. (I think it was the last to crack up, in the 1970s.)

Even in the past, there were few newspapers or news agencies like this; and going back to the sixteenth century (the Fugger newsletters and the like), the few that have existed were invariably “business” papers, cultivating a readership of traders and investors who “needed to know” what was actually happening, far afield, because they had money on the line. But in a modern economy dominated by the capitalism of hype and fashion trends, such businessmen no longer exist. Money is risked, but no market or currency is stable. One reads the media only to know which way the wind is blowing.

At the moment I sit on at least five Toronto-based “stories,” about which I cannot write. But in each case I am aware that the accounts from all “mainstream” media are seriously incomplete, and on crucial points, wrong. I don’t know anything resembling the whole truth in any of these cases (hence my reticence to weigh in). I do know that I, and all other news consumers, are being misled, both intentionally and unintentionally. Scratch any surface and I find an “agenda.”

The fault lies largely with us. We are easily angered, but we are not curious. We grasp at what straws are offered, and if they fit our preconceived views, we are content to repeat the half and full lies. We choose news sources to suit our preconceptions: to provide ourselves with the emotional comfort of being told what we already know and expect. The news outlets don’t dare to contradict us; they make their money on our credulity.

Mister McCarrick

Why, asked Karl Kraus, do we take dogs as symbols of loyalty? They are loyal to their masters, not to other dogs. Were I a dog, I wouldn’t trust another. I’ve seen how they treat each other. And let us not start on their sexual morality; they are shameless.

This adage came oddly to mind while reading news about Mister (a.k.a. Cardinal Archbishop) McCarrick. A friend called my attention to his revised honorific, in an article ping’d from the BBC (who of course have their own agenda). He also expressed satisfaction, in the demotion of this Prince of the Church, once a great liberal “mover and shaker” in Washington, DC. Readers of ecclesiastical news will quite understand the feeling. I have taken note of one detail. Mister McCarrick “is alleged to have” molested little boys, but mostly young adult seminarians (we used to distinguish between childhood and youth), not only alone but in groups, leaving many witnesses. That was not the detail. Rather, that it was no secret. He was notorious, and even the paper trail against him goes far back. It is very ugly. No one, who could have, had the guts to do anything about him — because he had such power. This “Uncle Ted” could more easily do something about the complainants.

What I’ve read I have read enough of. We ought to feel queasy — that men do such vicious things, in lust for a moment of sexual gratification. That for their little thrill, they are prepared to corrupt and destroy those who have trusted them. That such perverts have flourished in our hierarchy. This makes me deeply ashamed, as a Roman Catholic. It helps me to understand what happened to the Church in Ireland, and elsewhere; how so many souls could be lost to the faith, and profoundly embittered; turned, in their anger, against the rest of us “tolerant” silent types. It infuriates me when every good priest is undermined by such behaviour. I pray Christ to let us see some justice, here below, where it may still serve as a memorable warning. And that we may get the news straight, and not spun to reflect some ideological conceit, or promote the campaigns of the “gender” contortionists.

Young and old, men and women, were invited to rest their faith in Christ, through this dog-like man, with no loyalty to his fellows. The worst enemies of the Church are within, bow-wow! … It is a sign of the times.

Aren’t we (as Catlicks) in the business of forgiving everyone? I should hope we are not so antinomian. The whole topic is vexed, since the whole idea of forgiveness has “evolved” under the management of secular progressive “thinking,” some of which pretends to be Christian; in which the idea of “mercy” is made utterly worldly, and thereby depraved. We used to hang people for grave crimes. We would pray for their souls before and after — but we did not omit the duty of punishment; or even our satisfaction in seeing some justice done.

For Justice is a “thing,” too. The man who wrote the NYT bestseller, entitled, The Name of God is Mercy, left a few things out. (It is typically modern in its cravenness.)

Yes, “Mister McCarrick” is the latest “start.” Thank you, Rome, for accepting his “resignation,” even if decades after the man should have been publicly defrocked, then surrendered for trial before the civil authorities. It is dark, that only tireless public pressure could breach the smug organizational defences; that conscience alone was so insufficient, among the functionaries of Christ’s own Church, drowning as she has been in functional atheism. There remains so much heroic labour: to drain our swamps, to clean out our Augean stables; to damn all “modernity” to Hell.

____________

P.S. the usual complaints about this essay, to several of which I can only answer, “Oh, please.” … I confess that Karl Kraus and I may have been unfair to dogs. Indeed, my Chief Irish Veterinary Correspondent was very quick on this point. But no dog has written in against me. … On a point of fact, only the Times of London stripped the subject down to “Mister.” I merely enjoyed watching them do it. My better information is that he remains, “His Excellency, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick,” with the slight proviso that he is suspended a divinis, deprived of all faculties and of any jurisdiction. … Of course, were it up to me, he would be deprived of his licence to get up in the morning. … “But he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he be drowned in the uttermost depths of the sea.” (Matthew xviii, &c.)

Here on Earth

John Sommer has been coming back into my life. It is a recent thing, that has happened since he died, as an old, old man. It is interesting how dead people do this — I won’t say those who “have passed,” for I think that is euphemism and evasion. Dead people. Physically dead, and unmistakably so, not “deadish,” not “gone but not forgotten,” but gone, deceased, buried, or whatever they do with the bodies these days. Let us specify this, with ghoulish, mediaeval clarity, before mentioning that they are present to us. “In memory” — yes — but that phrase is another try at glibness. I remember Peggy my cat, and Subash my dog, from childhood. There were limits to their influence on me.

Once upon a time, when I was little, my family had a house in Georgetown, Ontario. An aunt was visiting from New Waterford, Cape Breton. She went to answer a knock on the door. She almost screamed, running to her sister (my mother) in the kitchen.

“Florrie!” cried she. “There’s a man at the door. I think he might be Jesus Christ.”

Sure enough, Mr Sommer had a beard, and was wearing sandals. And there was an unearthly shine in his eyes. I should mention that my Aunt Mildred Holmes, a remarkable church organist, and a woman of extraordinary Christian faith, didn’t do “irony.” She meant what she said.

Mama came to the door. He was a German gentleman. My father had found him on Main Street, and invited him over. He’d been easy to spot. No one, but no one in that little town, in the 1950s, wore beard or sandals; no one had since Edwardian times. His accent went further, over the top. And when he told my father that he had just moved into a house, on the next street — and that he was starting an art gallery — papa was overjoyed. “You’ll be needing a drink,” was his first advice.

I was very young when all this happened. I can no longer be sure what is my own recollection, what borrowed from parental memory. But my aunt’s explosion of amazement was indelible.

“Gallery House Sol,” 45 Charles Street. For half a century it was the de facto cultural centre of that town. A beautiful woodframe farmhouse — built before the rest of the street — and filled by John and Gisela Sommer with the most gorgeous furniture, pictures, objects. The dining room doubled as the exhibition gallery, the parlour and its hearth welcomed the most animated conversations, long into so many nights. John’s voice and his enthusiasms had the ring of prophecy.

He was descended from aristocrats. He came from near Leipzig. The Nazis killed off part of his family, then the Communists another part — satanic interchangeable evils. Gisela, slightly older, was the daughter of the family that hid John through the War, in the cellar of their farmhouse. She brought down potatoes for him. I am vague on the details. The War over, they married and escaped; came to Canada as indentured labour. Then, having fulfilled their immigrant obligation — on yet another farm — they came to Georgetown. John took a factory job, which he held to retirement. They never owned a car, or a television.

He had wished to be a painter; acquired the skills, but concluded that he lacked the talent. Therefore he would devote himself to promoting other artists: mostly humble craftsmen from the countryside around Georgetown. His eyes discovered so many fine folkish things, that other eyes had passed over. He assembled a magnificent art collection which in the end he donated to the town library and a museum at Guelph. Had it ever been in my power to dispense Orders of Canada, I would have given the first one to John. He would probably have refused it.

There is a real estate listing that will soon disappear. It has pictures of this now empty house: the empty rooms, the empty walls, the empty hallways. I look through the pictures in grief.

Dead, gone, finished. And yet through the recovered eyes of childhood, I summon this man and his times. He taught me what “civilization” means — entirely by example. And after a pause, he is teaching again.

On explanations

Do you believe in Atoms, gentle reader? I mean really believe that they exist? I want only candid answers: not whether someone you know, with a degree in physics, believes, but whether you believe in the little things.

I don’t. Not only have I never seen one. My tongue gets in my cheek when I hear the explanations.

To me, the inferred Atoms of contemporary physics are no more real than the inferred Atoms of Leucippus and Democritus, from the fifth century BC. Indeed: according to Diogenes Laertius, who had it from Epicurus, Leucippus himself never existed. He was just another product of Democritus’ rather fevered, hair-splitting imagination.

Atoms (to say nothing of their constituent parts) are much smaller than the wavelengths of visible light. Or so say their scientific votaries. Therefore no one has seen or will ever see one. They are purely theoretical constructs, the existence of which can only be inferred. Mach, Duhem, Poincaré, Boltzmann, and a few others — for different reasons, but to the same end — did not believe they really existed. All were recognized physicists, of high accomplishment.

Pierre Duhem wonderfully demolished the notion that anything can be definitively explained by inference from empirical observation. The mediaeval Scholastics, to whom he pointed, knew better than to fall for anything so glib. Rather, a given observation will always have multiple possible explanations, not one of which can ever be “proved.” He demolished Newton, too, by showing that what he had “refined” from Kepler wasn’t in Kepler; it was an entirely new explanation for essentially the same orbital phenomena. Given geniuses of like stature, we could go on inventing explanations, none of which would get us closer to the truth. They would all be “just so stories.”

Empirical science depends, like so many other things today, on hype — false advertising. We claim to isolate the individual event. We can’t. All observation is by nature incomplete. Everything always depends on everything else. “Everything else being equal” is a crock. If, as some assert, “God cannot be proved,” then nothing else can be proved, either. (In this limited sense, Descartes was on to something.)

Verily, Duhem held, and defended at great length and in considerable detail, the proposition that theoretical physics — his speciality of physical chemistry in particular — must necessarily be a (minor) branch of metaphysics. Detached from this “holistic,” it becomes a parlour game. Moreover, an expensive one, when the politicians agree that we should pay for dangerous toys such as particle accelerators. Billions of dollars, euros, and pounds — and the results they give are also inferential.

Do Atom Bombs prove the existence of Atoms? Frankly, no. A non-atomic theory could “produce” the same effects; one which merely infers the magical qualities of fissile materials, on the analogy of magnetic fields. It would “work” just as well. It could “save the appearances,” as a Thomist might put it.

Let me say that I have nothing but respect for the man (or the woman) who actually believes in Atoms. It is, or could be, a noble act of faith. My paternal grandmother believed in ghosts, and I had plentiful respect for her. Others believe in flying saucers. I myself believe that some birds on or near my balconata take winter vacations in Venezuela and Brazil, though I don’t press the point. I merely assert it in passing, to anyone prepared to listen.

These feathered creatures could be tagged and followed, however. Some have been, I am given to understand. This fills me with a smug self-regard. It makes me believe that my beliefs are plausible. Generally, I feel safer with the facts of geography, or history, for which we have witnesses. It is just one of the reasons I believe in Jesus Christ: that he was a man, who lived at a certain time, and did certain things. We have credible witnesses. And the archaeology backs them up.

But no witnesses for Atoms; not for even one. (There will be no comment from the High Doganate on the artefacts of electron microscopes.) … Next question:

Do Molecules exist? … Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.

____________

To the innumerable correspondents (well okay, I could count them on the fingers of three hands) who have wittily rejoindered that “God is an inference,” allow me to say, No. God is more like a premiss. Now if I say that God is the proximate cause of something that looks like a Miracle, true, I would be inferring. I might or might not be more or less right. (See the divine proofs of the Scholastics. They are far better than Immanuel Kant imagined, or understood.) …

Still, if Atoms actually exist, according to some shifting scientific definition of what an Atom is, it is no skin off my nose. My universe includes Mosquitoes; I’d be happy to accommodate Atoms. But my belief in Mosquitoes is on much firmer ground. …

Of course, nothing exists the way God exists, since He pre-exists, as it were. …

Item, the more complexity is built into advanced, ultra-specialized scientific equipment (from electron microscopes to the Large Hadron Collider and beyond) — the more treatment subject materials require in order to be tested, and the more statistical the interpretation of test data — the less I am inclined to buy into what they “find.” Atoms, maybe. But what you get when you smash anything, I call Smithereens.

As for the more advanced inferences of the String-Theorien, or the existence of the Dunkle Materie — oh, come on, lads.

Backward ho!

It appears that all my correspondents got the connexion, between the rejection of the natural and spiritual order, by Prometheus then, and by almost everyone now. (See postscript, yesterday.) This is good news, for me. Many may still think the comparison irrelevant to the way we live today, and on the surface of things, who can answer them? I happen to think the matter is important, and grieve at the loss of that classical culture — that explicitly pagan classical culture — which through centuries Christians including (especially) those in monasteries were at pains to copy and preserve; and for which they had tremendous respect.

As Jacob Burckhardt wrote: “We can never be free of the ancient world, unless we become barbarians again.”

The ancient Hellenes were not the mindless revolutionists that we are; they did not make of Prometheus a boilerplate hero and benefactor of mankind. In their view, he was a trickster, a source of destructive mischief in the heavens; and the consequences of his “benefaction” to mankind was, seen aright, bad news to his supposed beneficiaries. (Consider, for instance, Pandora, who came in Prometheus’ wake, and whose jar, having released much chaos, was closed before Hope could also escape from it.)

We misunderstand the ancients by our ignorant anachronism. For whereas Shelley and Byron were making a cute and purposeful reversal of the widely-known classical myth, we don’t know any better. Verily: Aeschylus was more Catholic than what we now get from Rome. (Though not therefore Catholic.)

To make sense of Aeschylus one must first absorb Hesiod and Homer; and then, his inimitable contemporary, Pindar. It isn’t a one-step process. Aeschylus, in Prometheus Unbound and throughout, does not invent, but embodies, a “worldview” utterly unlike ours; both Aeschylus and Pindar from the same antecedents. These were not liberal people. The ancient lyricism was not “happyface.” These Hellenes stared down reality in its fullest tragic dimensions, and Hope only came to them after many centuries — explicitly through Christ.

Why did Christians preserve this stuff, when by their own account they were fully in possession of something later, and better? It is a question that first occurred to me in high school, thanks to the ministrations of a superb Latin teacher (beloved Jessie Glynn). It was because we cannot properly understand our own intellectual and spiritual heritage, if we take it from a vacuum. The depth of the Christian resonation would be lost on us, in zero gravity.

This, incidentally, has been a radical difference between the Christian and Islamic traditions. Christians instinctively preserve their pre-Christian past, and thereby continue an instructive dialectic with it. The good Muslim erases his pre-Islamic past, having first taken anything from it that might be of practical use to him today. Hence the transmission through Islam of the philosophers (including the medical men); their indifference and neglect for the poets and dramatists and historians whose texts the Byzantine Greeks could also have supplied to them. They thought they were sifting the gold from the mud.

The culture of our universities today is closer to that of Islamic terrorism than to that of our old abandoned Christendom. We teach the technologies, and discard the humanities. We judge everything pre-modern on our post-modern terms. Society has “progressed,” we assume; we don’t need to hear the ancient thinking any more — which now includes anything before the Internet was invented. We have our own thinking; and if the Greeks were dead white paternalistic males, what use are they to us? Ditto everything else that once civilized us. All we want from the past is goods and services, which we’d be happy to pirate except, we’ve taken everything useful already. So we landfill the remainder.

It strikes me that Internet institutions such as the Wicked Paedia operate as a kind of electronic landfill. Pick through the rubbish if you want. But everything you find will be broken into pieces.

The horror chronicles

The writer — whether for the public prints or on the water of electronic meejah — is in the position of Princess Scheherazade, under threat of death if she ceases to amuse. In my own perusals of the Arabian Nights, I noticed that she never omitted an evening.

*

Several correspondents this morning ask if I was among the victims of the latest multiple shootings in Greater Parkdale. Be assured, they have missed me again — by at least two weeks since the last time I was walking along that stretch of “The Danforth.” We have been getting rather like Chicago, lately — another prominent “gun-free” city, with the standard liberal exception for criminals and terrorists. (Did you know that Toronto is bigger than Chicago, now? Apparently we overtook them in live population several years ago. Still lagging in our murder rate, but don’t count us out.)

Let me copy the bromide of our politicians at every level from City Councillor to Premier Ministre. Let it be known that I am appalled by the violence, that I deplore the shootings (or knifings, or automotive mow-downs, or acid attacks, as appropriate), that I am in a state of apoplectic outrage, generally, and that I would like to thank first responders and extend my sympathy to the victims and their families.

And as they will never add: you get a lot of this sort of thing when a society is cracking up after a half-century or more of liberal “tolerance” and “innovation.” No police force can possibly keep up, especially one that has been debilitated by “sensitivity training,” and so, you might as well get used to it.

Requests for amelioration would best be directed to God.

*

The heat continues here, and has made and been keeping me rather ill. I think I must have reached the age at which I do not flourish when interior temperatures (as within the High Doganate) surpass 100 degrees of F.

Other correspondents complain that they haven’t seen a homily from me in days. I suppose that means I was overdue to write one.

____________

P.S. there was a piece by me in Friday’s Catholic Thing (here), under title, “Prometheus Unbound.” I challenge any reader to spot the relation between the first and the second half of it. You may be the first. It seemed obvious to me, however.

The vice of tolerance

A lady of my acquaintance has been called a good liar. My informant says that this is not only her private opinion; that “everyone knows” it.

If “everyone knows,” I reflected, then the lady must actually be a poor liar.

Now, I will not take lying from its ethical handle, but only from the “aesthetic,” as De Quincey would say. To my mind, a “good” lie must be convincing. It should be believable, on its own terms, as any work of art. It should cohere within itself, and fit with externals believed to be true. It should fit so well, that no joins are apparent.

Practice makes perfect, as we say, and I will assume that a good liar has had plenty of. A bad liar may be new to the game. His lie may fall apart by internal contradiction, or for want of plausibility. Children, lacking experience, start this way. The clever child soon learns what will or will not fly; that a half-brick carries farther than a whole one, and so forth; that a non-brick will not fly at all.

Behind the skills obtained through practice, however, may lie natural talent. Great liars, it could be said, are born, not made. They rise to eminence, in business and public affairs, thanks to their gifts, which may not extend to competence in their trades. Notwithstanding, people believe, and rely on them — though everything they touch turn to ashes. Many, I suspect, of the captains of industry I have glimpsed, and most of the politicians, are such products of nature: genuinely talented in the arts of trickery and deceit; good cheaters, and even better thieves. Roguish charm is their defence against exposure. They must be good at something, or how did they get so big?

Are they good or bad liars? I should think success an important criterion, in scoring their achievements. On this view we might give the lying lady, above, another chance. Perhaps “everyone knows” that she is lying, yet none will challenge. Mere convenience may dictate silence. In the present environment of “political correctness” — in which lies are piled openly on lies — telling the truth becomes downright dangerous. You could be brought before a Human Rights Tribunal.

Not all salesmen are liars, incidentally. I discovered this long ago. There are those who sincerely believe in what they sell, and the mark of their sincerity is that they need not lie, knowingly or half-knowingly. Their products may be as splendid as they say. Often this is a critical factor. The more evil the product, the more lying is required — including selectivity with the truth, for there are lies of omission as well as lies of commission. “Hype,” generally, consists of lying in both modes. I have noticed it has become the unquestioned basis of our economy. Without hype, the Industrial Revolution itself would have failed.

Thus, assuming this lady were a persistent liar, I would need to know just what she had gotten away with, to make a fair judgement on her accomplishments. It is the same in many arts, I perceive: bad artists often succeed, the good ones often fail. Their audience, the “consumers,” should be held to account. You can’t get away with something, unless someone lets you.

I do not think lying a social problem, however. For the habit began with Adam. Rather it is, like all other sin, a matter between the perpetrator and God, and as such, extremely foolish. But “society” does not come into it, until we are out of Eden.

It is the widespread toleration of lying that I count among our social diseases.

By this I don’t mean that we should be more suspicious: for trust is the very thing lying undermines. Why spread its effects? Why be tempted to counter lies with lies? Rather, we should be less tolerant of both lying and suspicion, and more alert against ourselves. The best remedy against public lying, is not to lie; which includes not co-operating in the lies of others.

For while true, in some instances, that tolerance may be argued “a necessary evil,” we should not forget that it is always a vice.