Essays in Idleness


Of tolerance & friendship

Fortunately, so far as we are Christian, we do not have to worry much about injustice in this world; only about the injustices that we are personally committing. It is a simple point, but I’ve noticed that it extends beyond the intellectual range of many smart people. The world is the world, and while we were not warned at birth — only a little later when we abandoned Gibberish for other “native” tongues — our power over this place is really quite limited. Even ambitious mass murderers will find that all their best plans go awry, and as the old saying has it, many a slip between the cup and the lip.

Ye olde Law of Unintended Consequences — not yet acknowledged among the laws of physics — guarantees that the most slam-dunk no-brainers will end in embarrassment for the dunked no-brain. And oddly enough, this is because the world is, with respect to action and consequences, not complicated at all, but almost every day, simpler than anyone imagined.

I should like to cite Thomas Aquinas here, but I lack the learning and precision of mind that would be required of a good Thomist. Notwithstanding, I think this was what he was getting at in his teachings on Ethics. Metaphysical questions finally defeat us because they pass beyond the possibility of human understanding. But questions of how to live, and what to do, require much less thought, for they are, in most cases, dead obvious. Scepticism is required only for the exceptions.

We are perversely wilful. The answer being so obvious, our problem tends to be, that we want another answer. This is where extravagant thinking comes in, as we try to find a way to prove that the pig has wings, and is really an angel. “The end justifies the means” is only the beginning of unwisdom.

The ethical precept, “do as you’d be done by,” betokens a right worldly relation to the unworldly God. It was taught by Christ only in passing. It long precedes his coming down from Heaven. It has been known in every culture for as long as we have known of any culture, and has been unanswerable for longer. It is that simple point where mercy and justice meet.

With worldly experience, it indeed becomes deeper than the words portend, but still not complicated. One must know one’s neighbour to do the good for him — and yet, this begins in the most elementary knowledge of pleasure and pain in ourselves.

In the end, our neighbour may not know what is for his own good, or eventual pleasure, and be outraged when we don’t give him what he wants; so be it. It is common knowledge, or should be, that people often don’t know who their friends are; that they count as friends only those who are pliant to their wishes, and may come to detest those who most love them.

There was a lady I once met, a German, who had been raised rather poorly. Her father was a monster whose death brought relief, her mother the kind of aimless woman that monsters “acquire.” From a very early age she was on her own, and predictably fell in with bad company. She became pregnant, and that more than once. Some angel kept telling her to keep the children. This was difficult, because children cost money, and the only way she knew how to make it was through crime. She was not good at this calling, however, so had to spend time in gaol. An unpromising outlook, as any social worker might observe, but what do they know, compared to the angels? Four months “inside” a woman’s prison, at one stretch. That got her to thinking.

She emerged with a will, to recover her children. This involved a dispute with the father of at least one of them. The dispute warmed, until one day it took a physical turn — and as I’m glad to report, she put him in hospital. She was also physically harmed, but less seriously. Since the altercation had begun with him trying to kill her, there were fewer legal consequences for her, this time. Now freed of him (he inside gaol, and her out in this reversal), she gathered up her children, and left town, intentionally for a better one, having dedicated her life to raising those children in as close as she could create to the tight and loving family embrace that she herself had been totally denied.

A “single mom” she became. And one of the best.

I mention her because, in her simplicity, she had detected the error in her parents’ ways. They made poor friends. They were extremely tolerant. They’d let her do anything, including anything that was bad, sometimes even acting as her facilitators. (They “accompanied her,” in the present vicious phrase, the use of which helps us to identify our worst bishops.) But she loved her own kids, and wasn’t going to tolerate any bad behaviour from them. She became the most intolerant mother in her new neighbourhood. When I last heard, the kids were turning out quite well.

Parents must be parents but they must also be true friends.

Saturday night thought

A humble, indeed an obsequious, verily, a grovelling apology is owed to gentle reader for the reduced number of my Idleposts lately. This is an idea I have not formed alone: for I am in receipt of much mail expressing “concern,” and asking what is up (or down). One wishes to give a simple answer; for instance, I have died. But I can’t say this because, on my honour, it is not the truth.

Rather I have been at a loss for something to say, that I could think worth publishing. I am in the habit of rising fairly early each morning, and draughting an Idlepost is my first item of “work”; though not the first thing I do. I may return to this task as the day passes, or as evening descends, give up.

Among my self-destructive habits is glancing at the news. This was never a good idea, and with each passing year it becomes more wounding. News, as every journalist knows, was never meant to be good. That wouldn’t sell. Thanks to modern communications, we can now be demoralized by bad news from everywhere on Earth. In the past, there were villages where one might not hear that the Emperor had died, until the next one was on his deathbed. I daresay people were happier then. Whole months might pass in which not a single shooting or terrorist incident was noticed.

Which takes us to the Pope in Rome. A Catholic did not need to know what the Holy Father thought about anything, because he was pledged by his office to say nothing new. His job was to uphold the Faith; not to revise or adjust it. A Synod or Council or equivalent might be called, say, every century or two, when there was a mess truly worth sorting out, or an accumulation of heretics overdue for burning. The current arrangement is daily, and the object now is to create a bigger mess, or give the latest heretics our blessings. I can say with some confidence that every single instruction from the incumbent Easbaig Ròmais (excuse my Gaelic), since he took office in 2013, has been subversive of Catholic order. He makes pronouncements that are, at their best, inane; an acrid smoke of politics doth suffuse the incense of worship. There is a constant stream of insults to the “rigid,” i.e. the longsuffering faithful. He is on whose side?

The alert reader will notice that, when I was last “uploading” frequently, almost every Idlepost had become about the Church, and none were celebratory. Then I fell silent on that topic, and on others less than a million miles away. While I do not encourage psychologizing, I suspect there is a relation between that silence and my inability to find anything to say.

I discard one essay after another, thinking, “this can do no one any good.” Specifically, comment on the state of the Church has become “an expense of spirit in a waste of shame” — a kind of lust in which we perversely desire a greater outrage today than yesterday, and go hunting for ever more sordid details. Since we’re going to lose, why don’t we lose big?

Worse will come; we have only to be patient. Meanwhile we should get on with our lives. And I, for my part, must get over my funk, and find topics on which I can write, constructively.

Reactionary thought for today:

It is wrong to long for the recent past — to wish we could go back to the ’nineties, the ’seventies, the ’fifties. We are enduring today the consequences of just such rotten decades. We must go back to Christ; or forward to Him, which is the same thing. The only alternative is to go to Hell.

The road home

“And when I get home, there will be tea.”

I do not know when I first uttered these uplifting words to myself, but more than forty years ago. (Forty-four? Forty-five?) It was a cold autumn evening in London, when I was underdressed, and also underfunded. Hungry, too. With neither tube nor bus fare, a six-mile hike lay ahead. Well, the cold would make it invigorating; and from Highgate to Vauxhall is mostly downhill. I remember, too, how I’d got into that fix: emptying my pockets on some much-wanted books I was now carrying in my satchel.

Since, whenever walking, with miles to go, this line returns upon me: “And when I get home, there will be tea.”

“Books or cigarettes?” Orwell once asked, in the title of a pamphlet. I did not smoke in those days, so might instead think, “Books or dinner?” Indeed, bibliophilia can be a serious addiction. But I did have a roof to sleep under, and usually at least bread and cheese, and tea, always tea. Looking back over decades I retrieve the happiness of those irresponsible days, when I was so young.

This evening in Toronto, the chill again, the sun setting early, and me jacketless. The same experience repeated, except that now I am somewhat older. Worry about the future has still not settled in; it will be as it will be. The important thing to know is that there will be tea.

“He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. …” (Newman’s prayer.)

Recently, a burglar took away my money, such as it was — poorly hidden within the High Doganate. But no modern burglar would take my books, I reflected, “Don’t let it change your mood.” And worse, much worse things can happen, as visits to the dying helpfully remind me. I don’t mean to be glib. On the streets, I glimpse worlds of pain — and the terrible loneliness of the friendless and abandoned. The eyes of the defeated seem everywhere these days. Were they always?

“The homeless,” they are called, by media trolls, who use them to score political points. As ever, the term is misleading. Hardly one of them has no place to stay. What they characteristically lack is a home where they are cozy; people by whom they are loved. Social workers can’t provide that service. If they wanted to, they wouldn’t have the time.

On my walk home this evening I saw a panhandler with a dog. He also had an iPhone, which he was diligently consulting. Even the beggars in this city are computerized! And there are places where anyone can go to get warm. Food is available for the harder cases; Guvmint Nanny has programmes for that. What the poorest of the poor in fact lack, is any sense of belonging.

I remember London; how cold it could seem; closed doors as if nothing were behind them. Shop windows with goods for the cash-plentied. And as today, once again, living entirely alone.

But no, no one does: for there is God, and inmost grace, in gladness or in sorrow. It is there when it is sought, never failing; as a nest or lair, which one may make cozy; and within, a soul which God created, and can never be thrown away.

“He has not created me for naught. …”

Consider the matter in its eternal dimension. For, “When I get home there will be tea.”

Hydraulic society

There is a danger, when telling the economic history of the Earth in half a column (half of this one), that one may omit some significant detail. Fortunately, I have readers eager to correct me.

When I write that the human family — nuclear or extended, but ever reproductive — was the basic economic or productive unit, from the last Ice Age until quite recently, I did not mean that everything was strictly a family business. There have been (even to this day) family alliances — for instance, the “chains” I mentioned, trading one unit to the next right across Eurasia.

Technology (with a capital “T”) cannot be blamed for everything, or more of it would have been present in the Garden of Eden. But it can be blamed for a lot. Here I am not thinking of the machine humanly created, much as it may be intrusively ugly, but of the “mindset” that views nature as machine.

Descartes and Bacon may come in for a ritual kicking here, but the attitude long precedes them. It built the Pyramids, as we say, and many thousand miles of irrigation ditches and navigation channels through ancient Mesopotamia, India, and China. Verily, the latter Grand Canal, equivalent to a wide river with feeder tributaries right across Europe, was no paltry scheme, and for comparison, knocked the construction of the Great Wall of China into a cocked hat.

There and elsewhere, I allude to what Karl Wittfogel called “Hydraulic Societies” in his entertaining book on Oriental Despotism (1957).

Centuries these megaprojects required, though each may have begun with one bright light of a bureaucrat, and his big idea. Not family businesses at all, though one might be cute and refer to Pharaoh’s family business. This conceit will fail farther East, however, where systems of government that have lasted a millennium or three (as in China) were fairly consistently non-hereditary, indeed positively meritocratic and “elitist.”

I am not against irrigation or navigation, incidentally; though my enthusiasm may wane on such monuments to Power as oversized tombs and presidential libraries. Monarchs and magnificent Lords should make themselves useful, and infrastructure projects seem, at the first blush of plausibility, a harmless outlet for their energies. Let Roosevelt build dams, Hitler his autobahns. I will not even raise environmental concerns.

Rather, the question of corvée labour. It exists in many forms, short or long of duration, seldom with decent pay, or entirely voluntary. The great robber barons, both public and private, might compel it by sheer brutal force, or by exploiting hardship. What we call today “economic migrants” are an old story. The world is cruel and full of tyrants.

Moreover, we may look at the deeper history of Western “capitalism,” as my Chief Spinning and Weaving Correspondent has invited me to do:

“I think that you have overlooked the development of commercial undertakings in the Middle Ages, and these were real and regulated by government (meaning the king). Millers ground flour and were famous for thievery, as were weavers. But bakers baked and sold bread to the populace and were required to give fair weight, hence the ‘baker’s dozen’. Trades were widespread and established, and it was not nearly so much ‘every man for himself’, as every village or demesne for itself. This produced a great deal of stability, until the plague, &c. Even wars seemed not to interfere, except for killing and pillaging and the usual; but the mind of the people was still on the survival of their village, after all the horrors had wandered by. …

“In the new world, children in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were required to produce a certain amount of spun fibre under the contracts governing the colony, which were of a decidedly business nature. As I recall, it was reckoned that five or six children could (meaning must) produce enough spun fibre to clothe thirty adults. (I assume this was per year.) This indicates that the thread was turned over to weavers, who were of course under contract to send back certain amounts of cloth to England, along with certain numbers of felled trees, &c. …

“So while the paterfamilias governed the household, the governors of the colony called the tunes he danced to. Children, male and female alike, were apprenticed during their adolescent years, and were under the command of adults in whatever household housed them. It was paternal, but it was not really the family as we define it.”

This is all true, or close enough. Yet even so, the essential generative function of the family (as some of us still define it) underlay everything, and was the school of loyalty. Bust that up, and you have what we (increasingly) see around us.


One of my gentle readers, currently hiking in the Faroe Islands, writes in defence of Zen masters. He comments on my Idlepost of 2nd October, and the broad topic of Attention, which is necessary for any kind of human renewal. He says,

“It is exactly this that the Zen master aims to teach to his adepts. Zen parables, when read with attention, should make the reader laugh. Their aim is to make us appreciate irony (in the English conception of that word) and to appreciate how serious the world is even when at play. The Zen master’s reproach to the struggling adept is to whack him hard across the brow with a stick, in the hope of that way bringing him to attention. … It seems Western man as much as his Eastern counterpart needs a big stick across the brow, to at least momentarily bring him to attention.”

Well put. I am fingering my lathi as I write. Actually it is a cricket bat, which I hesitate to use, lest I put the struggling adept in hospital. I don’t know what the laws are in Japan, but in Canada we are obliged to treat struggling adepts gently. Certainly this is the rule at the seminary where I (arguably) teach. I fall back on rhetorical overkill instead.

Homo Ludens — the extraordinary masterpiece by Johan Huizinga from the 1930s — was a stick that hit me in my adolescence. This study of “the play element of human culture” strikes me still today as the place to start when it comes to Attention. It still whacks me hard.

Play is what men do best; and women, too, if we let them. It is the formator of rules, and their strict enforcer. It is thus the purest expression of freedom. There is nothing ordinary about it, nor any overlap with “real life.” Nothing in it stinks of profit or gain. When applied to love or war it is above such considerations, for it can be accepted as divination. The result of each contest is out of our hands. We will see who wins.

Well: there is a start. Our modern minds are trapped in slavery to false forms of Reason with no access to Faith. We have developed an allergy to poetry; like the allergy to peanuts, but often worse. Take allegory, for instance. In the modern mind, it can induce a stroke. Most of the Bible, to say nothing of other significant literary works, has become unreadable or incomprehensible to us, because we cannot take “play” seriously. Yet play is deadly serious at all times. It requires all of our Attention. We pretend to have no time for that.

Travel, even in the Faroes, should be without purpose. This is something that no tourist will ever understand, though every genuine traveller will. The tourist always has a purpose, some “vacation” to perform, if not something sillier should he also be “on business.” Whereas, the true traveller is a pilgrim. My understanding of travel, when footloose and young and under the influence of Huizinga, was the opposite of touring. Let us hit the open road — and see what we find there.

This attitude, I realize looking back, was thoroughly unmodern; and wonderfully unscientific. The scientist sets out to confirm his theory. As a young Frenchman once explained to me, sneering, “Every American east of Istanbul is an anthropologist.” But not that young Frenchman (Patrick, of beloved memory, son of a Paris gendarme or “aubergine”). He had gone to Asia to learn and not to teach. He refused to teach, except by example. For him, all life was play, and the “game” would require his complete Attention. You could see it in his eyes.

An unusual hippie: he refused to take drugs. He knew that would be cheating. He would not even take aspirin. “It would put me off my game.”

This is a very important topic. I try to return to it, again and again.

A Pareto curve

As a general rule, I like to avoid two kinds of people: fascists, and anti-fascists. Both will have programmes for human improvement. At least, keep either away from power. Of course, it would help if we had some intelligible idea of what fascism might be. If anyone has one, he is keeping it to himself. The term is now flung casually about. It is meant to smear anyone it touches. It is tossed like mud. This is because it is mud, and I won’t say pure, because according to my definition of it, mud cannot be pure. As for “fascist,” my generous definition will be, any dirigiste seeking power.

I imbibed, young, some of the thinking of Vilfredo Pareto, while trying to understand how “society” works. This is the man who invented the “80/20” rule, which I prefer to call the “rule of thumb.” Into his hidey-hole in Switzerland, towards the end of the 19th century, Pareto gathered statistics on the distribution of wealth, from anywhere, going back through the five centuries before. He noticed a recurring pattern. Twenty percent of the people own eighty percent of the land, everywhere and always. Other inequalities of wealth follow logarithmic pattern. This wasn’t entirely true, but by the time his critics had the upper hand, Pareto was dead and safe from their revenge.

Nature works in certain ways. She isn’t much interested in human equality. Her laws cannot be successfully altered. Pareto trashed the utilitarian principle — “the greatest good for the greatest number” — proposing an alternative “optimality.” He also trashed democracy, liberalism, and several other forms of economic brigandage.

His (unfortunately) enduring accomplishment was the mathematization of sociology, economics, and all other disciplines which had once been moral sciences. I would have been happier to stop at the observation that the distribution of fingers to thumbs tends to the ratio 4:1 (not always, but almost so), and to agree with Pareto (a “free market” phanatic) that any statist, Procrustean plan to make them equal is unlikely to end well. Why don’t we accept reality, instead?

Approximately five books could be inserted between that last remark, and this next one:

Let us compare Donald Trump to Benito Mussolini. The comparison works better than one might expect. Both want the trains to run on time. Both are total pragmatists when it comes to making this happen. Both realize that “pure” socialism cannot work, ever. Both then think: surely dirigiste something. Mussolini swoons to the siren song of Pareto, actually attending his classes in economics at Lausanne. Trump forms his Pareto view of unions in the New York City real estate market. The ideal of unobstructed economic growth is shared. The application of a sledgehammer to perceived obstructions is also in common. Where both deviate sharply from Pareto is in their further fondness for unobstructed nationalism.

Now, Mussolini is reputed to be a Fascist. This seems fair, for he invented the term, as a party label for his masterplan to Make Italy Great Again. Yet, insofar as the term is used more broadly, to convey the centralized application of sledgehammer reforms, he was also an anti-fascist. It is a little-remembered fact that Mussolini was a deadly enemy of inefficient bureaucracies. (I myself much prefer them to efficient bureaucracies.)

By descent from Pareto, it could be said, both Trump and Mussolini acquired an obsession with numbers. All efforts are focused on making the national statistics move the right way. In material terms, this works for a while. Everyone in the 1930s, including all progressive politicians, thought Mussolini’s Italy an economic and social success story. Superficially it was: productivity up, unemployment down, and so forth.

But here I will stop my provocation, with a reminder that history never repeats itself. Only the laugh track is on a perpetual loop.

Against the news

“Most people are other people,” as Oscar Wilde used to say, before he stopped saying anything whatever. To which Fernando Pessoa adds (in his Book of Disquiet), that they spend their lives in pursuit of something they don’t want; or do want, but which will destroy them.

I am more inclined to Mr Wilde’s view, though he’d serve as the Pessoan’s Exhibit “A.” It took me some time, in youth, but finally I came round to the view that most people are other people. They see things quite differently, even when, verbally, they see things the same. By this I mean that there are aesthetic, spiritual, even moral dimensions of human life — in addition to the dimension of Jonas Dryasdust (the antiquary in Sir Walter Scott’s Antiquary), provisioner of “background,” “history,” “facts.” These last can be written into footnotes and fine print, and are, like most contracts, boring. But the former things aren’t easy to compose; are impossible to convey entirely, from one unique sensibility to another. Illusion is actually required, to effect any transfer at all.

Or let us call it “art,” although the term is dangerously abstract, ersatz, and factitious. This can’t be helped. It means something different every time we use it. But whatever it is, it comes off the page, and begins to swim in the imagination. Audaciously it passes, through walls and skulls.

Between two people — let us narrow our range — there can be not so much communication as resonance. This is what makes the sacramental, Christian account of marriage interesting. (I’m aware that sometimes the resonance is dissonance.) It is linked directly not only to child support, but to the mysterious relations of human beings within “the Body of Christ.” It serves not only as ideal, but as analogy. It is one of those bottomless things — that hat, from which rabbits keep emerging.

Or widening again, there is a large field of correspondences, as the French poets call them, producing symphonic social effects, with crashing and kettle drums perhaps, or the harmonies within a string quartet in a side gallery.

Or duo, as when two viols talk to each other. They are not, strictly speaking, communicating news. I’m not sure what they are communicating, but I love to listen. I am thinking especially of gambas, my image of two old men on a bench, in a scene with peanuts and squirrels. (I took note, t’other day in a park, of two old men who looked like gambas.) They play to each other; they resonate together.

Or two old guitar virtuosi, as Julian Bream and John Williams — each an enigma to the other, and with techniques that seemed quite incompatible, until they began playing duets. (Had they met to discuss politics, say, it could not have turned out as well.)

And yes, there will always be news. As an old Czech friend used to say, “Always, there is something going on. For this I do not need newspapers.”

Homiletic review

To my reasoning, there must have been some changes in the style and substance of parish homilies, over the last thousand years. I am no expert, as usual, but will consider two points in respect to which things have changed, externally. The first is the spread of literacy, compounded by book printing, mass education in the Scotch Presbyterian manner, and even the appearance of a periodical press. In electronic media, too, the oversupply of “information” has not altered the nature of human consciousness (some things never change), but has seriously twisted it.

The second is the art that was not merely on the walls of our ancient chapels, but in every dimension that could be seen, heard, touched, or in the case of incense, smelt and tasted. It was a composite art (as William Blake tried to recreate, if only around himself), and in this peculiar sense a “virtual reality” for the mediaeval pew-sitter — in which even shaped spatial volumes, materials and their acoustical properties, were deployed to a single, focused end.

I could not say this of any church I have entered, parish or larger, built in the last hundred years, or more. Notwithstanding Victorian attempts at period revival, and spiritual aspirations among certain major artists, architects, and musicians since then, we now have churches which are big boxes with decorations tacked on — themed, here and there, but still a jumble to the sensory organs in human head and hands. (I do not wish to condemn “best efforts,” though.)

To the creature alighting from a spaceship, perhaps, the mediaeval chapel would also be a blur. Too, this would be true for the newborn baby. He looks at what might as well be modern: a kind of pop-up “comic book” of unknown meaning. With “acculturation,” however, it becomes an integrated story, culminating in the Host at Mass.

In the absence of general literacy, no guidebooks or pamphlets. Preaching does that job, from the mother’s knee to what is delivered at the pulpit. The homilist provides the captions for the pictures all around: on glass and plaster, carved in wood and stone. He explains the narrative divine, in harmony with the music, the poetic liturgy. (“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”)

Always, there is narrative, whether or not it will be coherent. We, the over-literate spawn of much simpler and more reverent ancestors — less inclined to doubt God, and thus more inclined to fear Him — can see this even while glancing at the news. Crass ideology and salesmanship have replaced religion in our society; but storytelling remains in all content streams. We are surrounded by a cacophony of little dramas, that make little sense. We are, as the audience for stories, still mediaeval and will always be. The great majority continue to be peasants, however high-tech and urbanized. The worldly distribution of intelligence and talents continues as before.

From this angle, the only “evolution” consists in the quality of our attention. As I know from having travelled in illiterate realms, the unlettered man has a power of watching and listening which is extraordinary to an over-literate, like me. He need not take notes because he sees and hears directly. His memory for details is almost frightening, to a texting modern with camera and all our other recording implements — cripples’ crutches to the more natural man.

The world is full of stories, however disintegrative, but the homilist of a thousand years ago (give or take many centuries) is telling, in images and chapters, The Story itself. Our contemporary homilist assumes his auditors have that story recorded somewhere — “have the printout,” as it were, whether or not they will ever consult it. Rather than tell it, he comments on the story. For the modern mind is not attuned to things, but to comments on things. This facilitates his preference for quarter, half, or complete inattention, except in moments when money is involved.

The reconstruction of the Catholic Church, it seems to me, will require more than driving out the perverts, correcting heresies, or waiting for the last modernist to die. Rather it will need a recovery of attention, and restoration of distinctly Christian habits. The artists and musicians must get back to work. The homilist must resume his task, as moralizing narrator, rather than as a kind of Sunday pundit, with his fifteen minutes to compete with all the rest.

Nostalgia & recollection

For one reason or another — overexposure to the news, I suspect — I have been going back to high school. This, of course, in mind only, jogged by such little evidence as an old yearbook can supply, and some pictures and letters I’d not known I still owned. A priest made me aware of the dangers of nostalgia; of revisiting sins that have been absolved; of mistaking old, face-grabbing embarrassments for sin, when the overlap is often less than first appears. But memory, like the world in general, is complicated to a denizen of that world.

The Church herself upholds “recollection,” which may take different forms, each an active and attentive function rather than a passive and apathetic.

Among things I’ve noticed when revisiting the past, is its teaching function. Look back upon one’s childhood and youth, from enough distance in time, and one will see things that were only half understood, in a larger frame. In particular, one will see oneself and old neighbours more as features of a time and place; and this may lead beyond shallow mortification for defunct hair-styles and period costumage, to a better understanding of what gulls we were, and may still be.

We took evanescent things for the groundwork of reality. Our old opinions might be easy to reject, for now we “know better,” but as Lichtenberg said, what matters is not a man’s opinions but what his opinions have made of him.

It is easier at a distance, as from eagle flight, to see beneath a surface. The proclivity, for instance, to idleness — in the sense of sloth, bone laziness, and avoidance — may have deeper and more tangled roots. For this sloth is interwoven with a habit of disengagement that has helped one escape bad company and temptations. It has served, even while undermining, and could serve, were it taken into hand. We might learn, from the past, how to not do things in a courageous and not a cowardly way.

Recollection, in the Catholic understanding, is an action of the grace of God, manifest in mystery. Let God address, let us listen. But we are not without a part, in our silence and solitude, as we struggle to attend to the work of grace, in our lives within time. In precious glimpses we see ourselves not as others see us, but as God must judge, in mercy and in justice that will finally coalesce. Real progress, in life, is the progress of virtue; a progress towards and through earthly death — through the eye of that needle, through “Heaven’s Gate in Jerusalem Wall.” As opposed to, say, consumer acquisitions. In recollection, we may hope to escape the foolishness and dissipation that engaged our half-attention; that slid us off the road.

But we were just kids, then. We did not know how important we were. The memory of faces returns to me; several the faces of old friends now dead. Did they know how much God loved them? Did they even know how much God loved them, through me? Did they ever apprehend the joy in this, or was God to them only the puritan stick with which they were occasionally beaten?

It will be seen that recollection is almost the opposite of nostalgia, rather as lament is the opposite of regret. We lament only the good that we had in our arms.

A child dies, who meant everything to his mother. But in the bittersweet act of lamentation, she has recalled him to life. Everything that was beautiful in that child is resurrected in her human way. We begin to see that nothing is lost: for what never existed cannot be lost. What exists may be transformed, but God does not “forget things” — and the child was real. Lament is for the actual; for something that is real. It is not for something that never was, unless we make it so in our illusions.

We regret, when looking back, our mistakes, and the alternative universe of a missed opportunity. But all of this is nonsense. Let us recollect in joy.


See also: my Catholic Thing column, here.

Women beware women

I once kissed a girl. This was at a dance, back in high school. I could say, “she was asking for it,” but this would leave the wrong impression. There were several witnesses — I can remember only the name of the girl, that she was very sweet, and that she was not my girlfriend. Indeed, one of the witnesses was her boyfriend, then known to me. He did not object. It was on the cheek I kissed her, but I think that might count as “groping” today. I don’t know what came over me. She smiled upon my behaviour at the time, even though, as a toxic male, I may have stepped on her foot while we were dancing. Bad news if she is a feminist today, and I get appointed to the Supreme Court. My only hope is that Mr Trompe will overlook me, after his advisers explain that I am a foreign national and have no law degree.

Now, I’m aware that some males, even in high school, do worse than kissing females on the cheek, but I have grown almost tired of hearing it. The fact is like the warnings on cigarette packs: I tire of reading those, too. Perhaps the point has been made, already. Perhaps it never needed to be made.

A friend forwards a news item from a Connecticut university (Yale). It seems law students, all dressed in black, have staged a sit-in there and refused to take classes. This is because they are protesting the existence of their alum, a certain Brett Kavanaugh, as nominee to the American Supreme Court. There is a photo of them, in their considerable numbers, lining a very long corridor. The thought occurs: this is the (Maoist) future of law in those Natted States. (It’s worse up here.)

The kids (including quite a few professors) “know” Kavanaugh is guilty, of groping some girl in high school, thirty-six years ago. But of course the real charges are that he is white, male, Republican, and a practising Christian.

Judge Kavanaugh went to a Jesuit all-boys high school, and can apparently show that he did not attend the party where the event was first alleged to have occurred; though as in all coached, “recovered memory” cases, venue and particulars tend to change. All named witnesses have denied that a sexual assault, or anything like it, actually happened. An extraordinary number of old friends and colleagues — including more than a hundred women, and many who have known him since childhood — have come forward on their own initiative to attest that Kavanaugh has been an exemplary gentleman, of unusual consistency — one whom they cannot imagine ever having abused a lady. The unsubstantiated (and unsubstantiable) charges are, moreover, an obvious political stunt, to delay Kavanaugh’s appointment until after the mid-term elections when the Democrats hope to control Congress. It was not their first theatrical stunt to spread chaos through the Senate hearings, and may not be their last. (I doubt it will be the last “symbolic” theatrical event at Yale, either.)

Well, gentle reader will know all this and more from the news, if he reads it from more than one ideological perspective. (One must read both sides to get basic information: the “mainstream” media habitually suppress vital details that contradict their “narratives.”)

It is true I am not a feminist, or even a latter-day Marxist, so may be accused of “bias” against ideological phantasies which I hold to be insane. Yet what disturbs me most, at the moment, is not the politics, per se. Rather it is the account they give of the contemporary American woman. It is widely suggested that the Republicans are in a trap: for whether the Kavanaugh appointment is confirmed, or not, there will be a “backlash” against them from female voters who assume all smears against the judge are true, and that his accuser is a selfless, disinterested, patriot and martyr.

The idea that women, just because they are women, cannot grasp the most elementary principles of evidence and jurisprudence — innocent till proven guilty, &c — is alarming. It is to put American women on a level with Yale students: a very grave charge. It is open misogyny.

Of hawks, naiads, & dwarves

We don’t do pictures in this anti-blog, but often I want to display, for instance, some painting, or a wonderful still photo by an ornithological friend, of the clearest blue sky, and red-tailed hawks swirling straight above — a dozen, with the suggestion of more. My swallows are gone to Parkdale-on-the-Amazon, a fortnight out, the warblers and so many of the little birds gone after them. Now it is the turn of the Accipitridae, gathering on Lake Ontario’s north shore.

They fear open water so will not cross until they can see the other side. But they seem to have lost their fear of cities, so will fly right over Parkdale North, towards Hamilton or so before whipping across. Or keep westbound to Windsor.

Or so I understand. And have acquired even in this very urban district a fund of observations, which I hesitate to share with any serious ornithologist, with his natural distrust of amateurs and incompetents. I have learnt to deny all certain knowledge. I would not positively identify a bird if he let me examine him on my Round Table with spoon and stethoscope, answered ten skill-testing questions, and showed me his birth certificate and pilot’s licence. A Cooper’s hawk that alighted on my railing, recently, I only call that because someone else did. I do not even know whether to call an accumulation of hawks a lease or a kettle. They are all, broadly, magnificent.

A wonderful blow of wind last night, to hasten them along, and cool today, after four months of heat wave (unless I exaggerate). The autumnal equinox has — as of this minute — arrived. The sun already streaks through my windows at a rakish angle. For a moment today, delicious silence in the street below, until a skateboarder broke it up with his mechanical thunder.

How could he understand? That there is an autumnal ode, by Apollinaire.

Or that I was trying to remember how it went (in the English of another poet I’ve forgotten):

Afflicted autumn and adored
You die when hurricanes batter the roses
And the orchards
Fill with snow
Poor autumn
Perish in whiteness and in wealth
Snowfall and mellow fruit
As in the deepest sky
Hawks glide
Over naiads and over dwarves
Who never loved

In distant woodlands
Rutting deer have roared
How much I love o season your clamour
The apples falling to the earth
The wind and forest weeping
Their tears in autumn leaf by leaf

The leaves
A train
Disposed of

Of straitjackets

Let me admit to a long dislike of straitjackets. Now, I’ve not yet been put in one, but my mama told me that even as a wee thing, I objected to being confined in a crib. But she did it anyway, because I liked to wander, and sometimes she had to make lunch. The memory is vague, and perhaps imaginary, but I recall my resentment. Babies have rights!

Those moderns (can’t include me!) have the amusing notion that people, more generally, have rights. It is an extraordinarily obtuse worldview. Lions have rights, and the means to enforce them. They go where they will, and eat anything that catches their fancy. Well, almost anything. Against a cackle of hyenas they have no rights at all. It is the way not only of the jungle, but of the world. Humans have rights because we invented spears, slingshots, crossbows, and machine guns. Unlike lions, we are the sort of bureaucrats who decide on rules for when and where to use them. And straitjackets, too, and cribs we invented, so we could make lunch. That’s how it works.

But sometimes bureaucracy goes too far. In addition to rules that seem necessary and consistent, we like decorative frills. Let us take murder, for example. I’m against it, myself, and would be inclined to enforce the general rule against it. Mustn’t kill people to solve your problems, as they say on the pro-life fringe. But you’re allowed to kill your offspring, until they are hatched, and perhaps a little beyond that; and you may kill yourself quite gratuitously; and soon you will be allowed, nay encouraged, to despatch your unwanted oldies, the sick, and sourpusses. (We still have to ask their permission.)

On the other hand, you will get extra time if you kill people because you hate them. But there is an unwritten schedule of qualifiers. Do you hate homosexuals, gentle reader? Very bad. Muslims? Ditto. What about chartered accountants? Hmm. Neo-nazis? I think that’s allowed.

Notice the straitjackets coming out here, in a double sense. We have created fluctuating categories, which at any moment pretend to be absolute, “zero tolerance” standards. What about Muslims who hate homosexuals? Or male homosexuals who hate women? (It happens.) Or the man who claims, in his defence, that while he likes homosexuals as a rule, he had it particularly in for that one? Could that get his sentence reduced?

We call it “identity politics” currently: a rainbow-coloured selection of straitjackets; a kind of fashion craze. This is the second sense. All blacks must be Democrats. All white middle-Americans must be Republicans. Those who deviate must expect to be lynched in our social media. This is because they have got out of their straitjackets, and were supposed to stay in. Naturally, my favourite people tend to be Houdinis.

To get downright Catholic about this, a man is a man is a man. This goes for women, too. He has an immortal soul, and that is not a “right” but a fact of supernature. This could be good or bad news, depending how he lives. He has no rights at all, unless he can enforce them. The profane courts of law come in at this point, and in a Christian society, they are meant to take their customers one by one. Justice is blind. She has the scales and the blindfold. But of course we are “evolving” something post-Christian in which the blindfold comes off, and the fingers go wantonly on the scales. Guilt and innocence involve the question of identities.

Everyone says he is against this — their spontaneous opposition is one of those vestigial, Christian things — but in practice we become terribly subjective. Your politics tells you whom we should hang.

For sure, I am in favour of hanging people, but I would like the process of selection to be as objective as possible. There is an etiquette to be observed, in the choice of a victim. First, he must commit a capital crime.

Ember days

One of my most beloved saints is on the calendar for today: Saint Joseph of Cupertino, humble Franciscan friar (17th century). My affection was first excited by a comment in an old missal, that he “needed divine help to qualify for the priesthood.” He was remembered by his contemporaries as “remarkably unclever,” but also for ecstatic visions, which began in his childhood. God plucked him out from an unpromising trade as a shoemaker’s assistant.

He had rhythm if not brains. According to post-moderns he had gymnastic abilities that made him appear to levitate. According to witnesses, he actually levitated. Sometimes he suffered from fits of wrath, that got him moved from one community to another, the way our modernists move along the more difficult priests. He did not often eat, but had the memorable habit of sprinkling extremely bitter herbs over the food when he did. There was nothing cissy about any of his penances. He spent much of his life in rapt contemplation.

Saints come in all kinds; there is much more variety among them than among the demonically-inhabited. This is why saints are sometimes mistaken for demons — their greater chromatic range. This Saint Joseph was charged with witchcraft at least once. (Nobody expects the Italian Inquisition!) But in his worst moments of adversity, his rather slow-witted holiness shone through.

I think one of the reasons to aim for Heaven, instead of Hell, would be the company there. In Heaven it will be more various and uplifting. In Hell, a certain miserable homogeneity, worse even than we find in modern factory life. It is true that the damned can provide moments of excitement (9/11 and so forth), even here on Earth, but when they do there is a foreseeable viciousness about it. One gets bored with being beaten up and terrorized all the time.

For Saint Joseph, unpredictable ecstasies, and a mysterious wrath, aimed apparently at himself. The sight of beautiful things seemed to trigger the ecstasies, who knows what provoked the angers? The Kingdom is not entirely obvious to us, especially to those among my gentle readers who are not, as I am not, steeped in sanctity.

Saint Joseph Cupertino pray for us, that we may see some of what you have seen. And inspire us as we pass through the glowing Ember Days of September, this week: tame our passions and levitate our thoughts.