Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

Break

I was going to write a companion piece to the Thing I wrote on beauty (here), under the provisional title, “Beauty is indivisible,” but like so many of my optimistic projects, it floundered. Perhaps I will try again after Easter, for through this coming Holy Week I am going to lie doggo, go silent, shut up.

Often I wish that I were more articulate, as well as better disciplined. I think I can see something fairly clearly, but when it comes to sketching what I see in words, I am at a loss. One must keep trying. The airwaves are full of meaningless blather and bafflegab. Clarity is usually avoided. Often it is punished. The more reason, as through Lent, and the Triduum, to pursue the trial.

My best wishes to gentle reader into Paschaltide. Let there be no dedition, until we can surrender to Christ.

Esquesan

Gentle reader is invited to draw a square on a piece of paper. Let each side be about ten miles. Eight miles will do, or nine; eleven or fourteen would also be acceptable. It could be more of a rectangle than a square, but try to make the corners sharp. Or even a triangle, if the paper runs out.

You have just drawn an Ontario Township.

Now, make your grid. The line roads, north and south, should be 100 chains apart (one-and-a-quarter miles), and the east-west sideroads either the same, or different. They needn’t come out evenly; you may leave a fraction on whichever side you didn’t start from. The whole board may have to be tilted at the “front” (baseline) to parallel a lakeshore, or accommodate the “back” of the next Township down. If you’re in the mood, you might want to draw a diagonal road, right through everything.

Congratulations. You may now have a job as one of His Majesty’s surveyors in pioneer Ontario. It’s a much better job than down south of British North America, where the land is somewhat populated already, and everyone seems to have an opinion about where the roads should go. Up here, not yet any people in the way. But there is still the difficulty of slashing through the bush. You only draw “concessions” — future roads defining blocks, to be further subdivided into future farmlots. When the people granted land move in, they will be compelled by the guvmint to actually make those endless mud ribbons.

This will make the roads more interesting. Where the lines meet an obstacle, you get a little run around it. Or a big one, if the obstacle continues. Intersections don’t quite meet, so you get a jog. Or, you decide to put the jog in the middle of nowhere, instead. There were at least five major surveying systems in Upper Canada (later “Ontario”), and dozens of variations on each one. The line and side roads might be 66 chains apart, or more than twice that, depending on some local magnate’s whim. Or the surveyor may have been drunk that day.

Now, a Roman surveyor, though he had the classic preference for straight lines, took the deformities of the landscape into view from the outset, and thought his routes through. His lines would anticipate the obstacles; and even when he couldn’t have a straight line, he would be trying to establish the shortest “navigable” distance between any two points. And this, even if he was in a hurry, which surveyors and planners always are.

As a proponent of idleness, I praise those pagan Romans. It is surprising how many things take much less time, and turn out better, if you think things through before you start. Sleep, and experiment, could be factored in. Experience might also be consulted.

But back home, in the Ontario of more than two centuries ago, we were doing what we are doing still through our political process: creating problems for future generations to cope with. Currently, piling up debt. Formerly: using rulers to ignore the watershed boundaries; drawing farmlots that ignore the slopes and soil conditions; creating problems that, with thought, more attention, and divine patience, could have been foreseen; and would then have cost nothing to eliminate. For we were as we are: a people who think too fast.

In case she is curious, gentle reader was drawing the plan for Esquesing Township. It is now called “Halton Hills,” but we won’t go there today. The original name was borrowed from the Mississauga Indians, and probably misheard. Had there not been a shortage of poets at the time, it would have been transcribed, “Esquesan.” It meant something like, “The back of beyond.”

As a child, and as a youff, when we were home in “Georgetown” (the capital of Esquesing, surely), I hiked over a considerable portion of its 66,700 acres, uphill and down (on a bicycle sometimes), and (in soggy boots) through the valley of the Credit and all its tributaries. On Google maps, I can find the location immediately of everything in the human and natural landscape that once struck me as delightful or enchanting, and discover that most of those things are gone.

Esquesing was large enough to make a country, with its own little Parliament and its own peculiar ways. Indeed, one could divide it “naturally” into seventeen parishes and a few town wards.

Over large expanses of magnificent farmland, there has now spread a circuit-board of suburban sprawl, and along all approach roads the strip-mall phenomenon, of franchise capitalism at its most ghastly. City planners and surveyors worked it all out. Fifty years, and almost everything I loved has been wantonly destroyed. But thanks to those Google “street views,” I can see that the same has happened almost everywhere else I have ever been. We’re still calling it “progress,” and it is still leading us by the straightest possible line, to Hell.

From an early age, I became a phantasist. I would put what was demolished back together in my mind. I would also design new things and place them in imagination where they seemed to fit — parks and creek-side woodland trails; shops for carpenters and every sort of craftsman; mills, millponds, barns; the quilt of fields and hedgerows surrounding; the steepled townscape rising from the fields; galleries, music halls and cosy theatres; chapels for the meditative types; chantries to remember the dead (catacombs to expand the graveyards); country houses with verandahs for the living, houses without but with balconies above; town courtyard houses with yard and balconies inside; the winding lanes between them, and children at play on the streets; public monuments, sculpture, murals; foundries, bronze casting studios; a covered farmer’s market downtown; pottery kilns and the like; quarries dug for building stone and not for gravel, later to be made into such as sunken Mary gardens.

Each edifice built once, uniquely, as if for all time, with repairs and adjustments made through the years, wearing its age proudly.

Try to imagine what could have been done — with what, for a native, should he open his eyes, is the most beautiful patch in all the vast Godly quilt of our planet — for each homeland, each sacred and precious domain.

I haven’t actually been to Hell, but I’m told it is full of surveyors and planners.

Spilt religion

Give Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s, according to Our Saviour. I wonder how well this statement is understood, even when taken as quick repartee to an entrapment question. In that light it was an invitation to His persecutors, to think again — about God, about moral obligation, about human freedom, and many related things. Today, we cite the phrase to enforce, from the Christian side, the separation of Church and State. I doubt that could have been the original intention, for Jesus’ contemporaries never concerned themselves with the niceties of American constitutional practice. They had sixteen more centuries before they’d ever have to think about the Peace of Westphalia. Notwithstanding, the distinction between earthly and heavenly power, slurred in ancient paganry including the Roman, was, I think, already morning star on the horizon of Hellenistic thinking.

We can’t cease to be modern, or escape history, so long as we are breathing. Nor have we become again quite so barbaric that the past is lost to us. Even if unwilling, we are anachronists, and the ideas, both of Church and of State, do not go away. To our modern view, shot through with the vice of individualism, a man has connexions with God and with his neighbour that are different in kind. We hear an “either/or” when Christ had specified a “both/and.”

He was — and I am no theologian, don’t trust me — making a distinction between God and Mammon. (Now, what this term “mammon” means is a large topic; its reduction by childish translators to the word “money” is a sign of our times.) Both exist in the spiritual realm, both (by the Incarnation) in the material. The silver piece that Jesus was shown (foreshadowing the silver pieces to Judas), were of Mammon, on whom Christ made no claim. On justice and order He did, so that ultimately Christ claimed Caesar, but in no worldly sense. Caesar did Christ’s work, insofar as he maintained the lawful order of things; or he refused, and served only himself. That coin was his token, either way, and not for Christ to micromanage. It was not a sacred article.

Trade, though it should be honest, is in its nature profane. This does not mean that it is evil. Eating and drinking are not wicked things, in themselves. We are not Manichees. Insofar as a human is an animal, alive within the natural world, he is not a moral subject. Only insofar as he belongs to a supernatural order, does he participate in the absolutes we find there. We are not Animists, we are not Pantheists; the natural order we neither worship nor condemn. We give up the coin in taxes, or we give up our body to the lion in the Forum; at the material level, it is all one.

Although this world is a mixture of the sacred and profane, we need not confuse them. We ought not confuse them, and never in God’s name. The sphere of politics, on which I touched yesterday, is the sphere of Caesar’s coin. It is decidedly NOT the sphere of our neighbour, who is never abstract. The most seemingly charitable welfare or eleemosynary schemes are in the realm of Caesar.

Christians are called upon to be alert. With God or neighbour our relation is with a Person; the Church, for all her outward organization, is a vessel in which we find a Person, too. The vessel of the State contains, actually, a bottomless nothing.

Our contemporaries are bewildered by these. They think that Christ has called us to advance His Kingdom by political means; or that good resides in the empty vessel. This is spilt religion; the wine poured, as it were, into the wrong jar, and lost, immortally. That which is owed to Christ — a life — is instead paid into the emptiness.

Chronicles of collusion

I accused the Democrats of colluding to get Donald Trump elected to the presidency of the United States. How could anyone not see it? Everything they did during the last election campaign looks in retrospect, but also looked in prospect, as if it were designed to give people a reason to vote for Mr Trump. The conspiracy was larger, however. The whole Washington Swamp, as it is affectionately called, went to the wall to make Trump electable. The media were enthusiastically playing their part; still are.

It was a put-up job.

And now I accuse Theresa May and the Conservative “remainers” across the water — together with the civil service, the London Swamp, the rightwing media, &c — of colluding to get Jeremy Corbyn into power, for whom no one in his right mind could vote. Mrs May seems to work on this night and day.

A significant portion of any electorate is, of course, not in their right minds, and as I’ve noticed before, they are now the majority; but even as a minority they often constituted the “swing vote.” This helps explain the technique of collusion. All those who are batty, start making demands; the rest of the population forms a closed camp to stop them. Their candidate, too, has the reek of madness; but they hold their noses.

Then the pendulum swings. But here I’m getting ahead of the plot.

To understand what I’m saying, gentle reader must realize that politics have nothing to do with government. A sane country (Switzerland?) would more or less govern itself. Changes would occur, but only from necessity. If they did anything at all, the politicians would be responding to the public will, though resisting it until a consensus were formed, to do the unavoidable. Peaceful government flourishes on consensus; on mom, and apple pie; on knitting, not on pulling at loose ends.

Government in nature works from the bottom, up. Government against nature works from the top, down. Modern politics is contra naturam — no matter which party wins.

Thanks largely to the abandonment of traditional religion, politics have assumed the power of symbol, of religious obligation and belief. Every government decision becomes a symbolic act, to please one faction and affront another. The actual effect of the policy is ignored. The electorate participate in what is essentially a religious war. Finally it escalates to the apocalyptic battle, between two parties that despise each other, psychopathically.

Only at this point can “real change” be accomplished: the country is destroyed.

Another way to put this, is that politics have been spiritualized. Differences between parties have been removed to some cosmic plane, where angels and devils contend. People seek personal transcendence through political action. (Mr O’Rourke in Texas is an especially sad case.) It is a Manichee struggle, in which worldly realities are pushed out of sight. The protagonist, in his heroic gestures, freed from the possibility of self-deprecation, will also lose sight of the fact he is a jackass.

Among my arguments for not voting, perhaps not even voting against the worst freaks, is that one endangers one’s soul. One becomes emotionally “committed” — i.e. fit to be tied. I speak with knowledge of the partisan entanglements in my own soul, but also of political policies that, though fought to the death over, don’t amount to much.

Example: the overwhelming support for stopping illegal immigration at all American borders (that with Mexico is just the most publicized). “The peeple” elect someone who, rather crassly, promises to do something about it — and three years later the problem is much worse.

Yet it was an administrative, not a political issue. No one in his right mind could oppose basic border controls, in the world as we have it. Suddenly it became “a symbol,” and now only crazy things can be done.

What is genuinely necessary, or would at least be helpful? These are things that once could be discussed. Now they are just “triggers.”

Serial groping chronicles

The world could live without Hegel’s philosophy of right, or his principles of logic, but I shed a metaphorical tear when I realized that his philosophy of history was no longer on my shelves, for it is full of juicy anecdotes. Give Hegel up? Personally, I’d find that one of the easier things to omit for Lent; though I know a man for whom it might be difficult. A Hegel quote in every email; one looks for it as for the Captain Midnight secret decoder ring in the box of Sugar Pops.

Was Hegel a serial groper? I don’t know; I’m just asking.

There is no truth to the often-circulated rumour that Germans are boring. Indeed, as I once argued to a beautiful German woman (who worked for the FAZ in Frankfurt, which aspired to be the most boring newspaper in the world, except for the NZZ in Zurich), the more interesting they become, the more dangerous. She retaliated by earnestly asking me to explain the English concept of “irony” — knowing full well that it could not be done. (She was a dangerous woman.)

In the subsequent conversation I held up the book, Horace, by the late great German philologist, Eduard Fraenkel. It is a breathtaking work of classical scholarship, which I still have on my shelves, though let me be the first to admit that I have never read the thing right through. Page after page one is arrested by the breadth of his knowledge and the subtlety of his reasoning; this makes it slow-going. Too, even though he was exiled to Oxford (same old story: Jewish in 1933), there are no jokes.

We don’t know if Horace ever groped anyone, but we can know that the poet was as full of sly ironies as any English schoolboy and, I would imagine, given to mischief. Fraenkel certainly knew this, but his reader might never guess. At the moment when Horace’s humour becomes slam-bang obvious, while his good taste seems to be taking a rest, Fraenkel falls mysteriously silent. He was not merely a brilliant German scholar, but an heroic one.

I mention him today to be topical.

They were letting women into the English universities in the last century and, according to quite a few who studied under him, Fraenkel was a serial groper. Verily, there were almost public warnings about him, in which it was conceded that he was a remarkable teacher, but you’d better come to a tutorial armed; because he had arms, and they strayed everywhere. He was the Joe Biden of classics professors.

Between Fraenkel and Biden, I think there may have been others. Someone with a lot of prurience, and patience, should compile a list of famous historical gropers. It won’t be me. I am much too prim.

In the olden times, to which I’ve been referring, groping — even by learned classicists — was a risk the learned woman ran. Some acquired husbands in this way; there is a vogue for #MeToo confessionals among prominent elderly female Latinists just now. I daresay the phenomenon was known in other branches of society. There were no laws against it. There was no law against a woman giving her assailant a crisp slap across the face, either; though I suppose she’d have to wonder what the effect might be on her grades.

But defending one’s virtue is a skill that must be acquired, like any other skill in the jungle of human life. Parents of female children used to teach it, and mother crow could give examples of how it was done to her chicks.

(I think of an unnecessarily attractive waitress in a beer hall I used to frequent. She had mastered the art of dancing with a tray of fully-charged beer steins, never slopping a drop. When male customers reached for her, she’d dance very slightly away, drawing them out until their chairs toppled and they’d be washed by their own beverages. She wouldn’t even look back. One night I counted four such “accidents.”)

Poor Joe Biden. How sad that he may never become President. My heart bleeds. But if he were a real man, he wouldn’t stop. He’d go right out and grope AOC. Turns out, he’s just a coward.

Back to the land

Some younger person, a self-declared “conservative,” who reads these essays even though I am not, asks me what I think is the most important single thing to be “conserved” in politics and society, through the lifetime he may be facing.

As a reactionary, I of course immediately replied it is something to be less conserved, than recovered. It is no particular law or institution. Our laws and institutions, within both Church and State, have been so thoroughly subverted, that the conservative impulse is obviated.

They are, as our architecture, comparable to the buildings that have been erected in the last generation or two. Almost all of them could be cleared away, on the argument that a parking lot would have more substance and dignity. The failure of conservatism is apparent in those buildings that were replaced. If there is a site where something better, or even more solid, was constructed, it has not yet come to my attention.

Much blather is devoted to our recent ideals of “efficiency,” “functionality,” “accessibility,” and so forth. Much attention is devoted to economic calculations — on the large, inhuman scale. The fact that inefficiency, dysfunctionality, and inaccessibility are common, is justified on the argument that “nothing is perfect,” and thus striving for “perfection” (in the sense of “completeness”) is a waste of time. Craftsmanship, once taken as essential, is systematically eliminated, for it gets in the way of our idiot-proofing schemes.

Here I refer only to the physical machinery of modern life and “progress.” The mental and spiritual machinery runs parallel.

To my mind, the common feature is the decline of truth (which is sacred), and its replacement with bullshit, as defined in e.g. Professor Frankfurt’s book (On Bullshit, Princeton, 2005). While the author (about to turn ninety) could fairly be accused of Cartesian and Humean feints, he grasps the rhetorical divide between those who acknowledge the truth as something external to them and valuable; and those who only care for persuasion, and are indifferent to whether what they say is true.

A liar is to be preferred to a bullshitter, for a liar is aware of the truth he is avoiding. He has thus some relation to it. Strictly speaking, most politicians and journalists are not liars. They never rise that high.

Truth is not reducible to a few checkable facts. In my experience, bullshitters make diligent fact-checkers, for “facts,” even true ones, can be used as persuaders. Truth requires an elaboration of context, whereas the use of statistics is, no context required. Cause may be attributed to mere statistical correlation, so that once we have that, the truth doesn’t matter any more. Thus the statistics are gathered in an anti-scientific way — in order to make a point, not to discover anything.

Yet we should know from an elementary experience of nature, that the truth is more likely to be surprising. It is often implausible. The ideological mind is totalitarian, as well as technological, and fanatically plausible. Where nature fails to cooperate, its bulldozing instinct is to change nature.

The demand for truth, which must be recovered, is not for something ethereal. Instead, it is a demand for the real. It offers an escape from our Unreal City. Perhaps only a holiday, under present conditions, but to the young I would advocate: “back to the land.”

____________

A piece I wrote some years ago on the decline of politics,
as a trade, may be relevant. (Here).

Prima aprilis

The procession from March Fools’ Day (which is also Saint David’s), to April Fools’, to May Fools’ (also called “May Day”), to June Fools’, and so on, is a tradition of some historical standing, going back as it does to the Second Punic War. That the pagan Romans celebrated the Veneralia on the kalends (first day) of this month, in honour of Venus and her vestal virgins, I was told as a schoolboy, but by a Latin teacher who may have been joking; not about the festival itself, but in certain details of its celebration, which struck me as implausible. However, the prospect for undressing attractive young women and tossing them into fountains — we may have had our French teacher particularly in mind – seemed grounds good enough for a revival of this custom. It could be explained as “scholarly.” As I recall, overcome by timidity, the lads did not get beyond the kidnapping stage.

The teacher was Scottish, and spoke French quite fluently, though with a brogue and a lisp, which had already inspired some satirical gestures. She had a sense of humour, to be sure, but within the usual limits. She found it easier to command affection than respect, and so the idea of trying something on for the kalends got quickly out of hand. I was incidentally of the killjoy faction, and rather than participate in the plot, ran to fetch a vice-principal. This being an old-fashioned, tightly-disciplined “British” school, the plotters were of course detained, tortured, and killed. (Perhaps I exaggerate.)

“Boys will be boys,” it has sometimes been alleged — or even used as an improbable defence. My own view is that prudence dictates some thought on the likely consequence of one’s action, and while I’m generally against prognostication, in cases like this a moral argument can be made. April Fools’ jokes should be, in the first instance, genuinely funny, to the broad audience, and not merely cruel to certain members. But no cruelty at all might be too little.

The mediaeval conception of fools, intended foolishness, and celebratory misrule, is lost on us moderns. They did it in high spirits for a moment of relief, then returned to order voluntarily. We do it in the name of progress, and never look back.

With a (very Catholic) gentleman of my parents’ generation I once unexpectedly crossed the path of a “Gay Pride Parade,” whose exhibitors were disporting themselves in ways I would rather not describe. I worried that my elderly friend would be outraged, and make a scene. Instead he found it amusing (he’d never seen such a thing before), as if the world had been turned upside down for a joke. He could not stop laughing. I found his response instructive.

“Fake news,” likewise (gentle reader may remember this example); it wears somewhat, when it becomes a feature of everyday life, and is not reserved for special occasions; when, moreover, the will is to keep the audience fooled in perpetuity. This is among my criticisms of the “Main Stream Media,” today. Seldom, any more, do I see a news article that has been played straight. I could laugh at the distortions, but one can only laugh so long. Moreover, in politics, high spirits and the old virtue of a belly-laugh has receded so far, that when something fairly innocent is done to disturb the grimness of our public life, arrests may follow; and the fellow who was trying to “lighten everyone up” will be compelled to attend Maoist self-criticism sessions. Only if he was a certified “progressive” can he hope to get his career back.

April Fools’, and any other fool days, are among our losses. There is no “normal” to invert any more; and there will be none for the foreseeable future — except among our friends, until the surveillance technology has made it impossible to have any.

Brexit Day cancelled

Oh look: today is the 29th of March, anno 2019. This is the day the British were to have a huge street party to celebrate their escape from the putrid, dark, inhuman bureaucracy of the European Union.

We have got it in a string,
And the Whigs can all go swing …

— as Jonathan Swift wrote of a similar occasion, back when Britain was emerging as the world’s great power, at least partly for good. “All their false deluded hopes, will and ought to end in ropes, and the Queen shall enjoy her own again.”

Except, this time, and rather characteristically, they’ve made a mess of everything, and caught themselves deeper in the very sticky goo they were trying to exit.

It would be simplistic to blame the delay, the sabotages, the sordid compromises, the incompetent political conspiracies, on Britain’s own putrefying, dark, inhuman establishment — on her bourgeoisie, and the straitjackets in which they feel comfortable. It would be unfair to suggest that even if they lose, the Remainers will win, by extending Britain’s own vast, intrusive, Twisted Nanny State, to fill any gaps in regulation and surveillance from which the EU was to have been evacuated. (But at least their decisions would have to be made closer to home.)

Allow me to be simplistic, and unfair. At a distance, I have watched their whirligig in the molasses. The vote to “leave Europe” was clearly won, but it wasn’t a consensus. On the other hand, Britain got stuck into “Europe” without any referendum vote.

The argument for maintaining, at the highest possible level, the monstrous and profane machinery of modern state control, is easily answered but not defeatable. As I am reminded by my own quaint dealings with Canada’s version of jackboot “nice,” one wrestles not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore, one must take unto one the whole armour of God, and stand.

People are persuaded that the demons who rule them are indispensible. (Strictly speaking, not devils but their servants and slaves.) They provide the “safety nets” to those who might fall from the Temple. They make sure, like Holden Caulfield, that we will never hurt ourselves. They take responsibility for a nation of children, who will never be adult enough to take care of themselves.

The unambiguously evil book to which I allude — Catcher in the Rye — was taught in the Canadian high school I briefly attended. Even then, my proposal was to push Holden Caulfield over the side. But my classmates were all mesmerized by the niceness, by his (fraudulent) “idealism.”

The best way to leave Europe was, all along, to walk. And in the best British tradition, to walk like Charlie Chaplin, and do as much damage as possible to the dark European machine, thus helping other nations to escape its clutches.

____________

More of my political rambunctiousness this morning, over here.

Notes from the underground

With a name like “Warren,” gentle reader will guess that I have an affinity to rabbit holes. I like to go down them, especially when pursued by notorious coney-catchers; I applaud the safety of a domestic cavern. I had a friend named Burrows (alas dead, from drowning) who shared my joy in excavation, and the ability not only of the family Leporidae, but of moles, gophers, groundhogs, meercats, certain pelagic seabirds, countless beetles, ants, clams, crustaceans, worms, and small dinosaurs, to disappear in one place and then, quite possibly, pop up in another. Meanwhile the pursuer may stick his proboscis down, to learn whether the creature can defend himself.

“You can run, but you cannot hide,” according to a common taunt (see here), but ho, what if you can dig, and be swallowed by the earth. There are limits to everything on this planet, however, and not even cautious trench warfare is safe for all participants.

The equivalent in politics is not necessarily a lethal sport, but at some point one must stick one’s head out of the trench, and then the meejah are on you. Best to remain invisible to them.

By exposure to the (illustrated) “Pookie” books at a very early age, I became aware of the elaborate, furnished chambers of a rabbit family, entangled in the roots of a mighty oak. This is where they entertained their fairy guests. I have not the book before me just now, but may assure gentle reader that it was an architectural wonder. (A remarkable rabbit, Pookie grew wings — tiny flimsy fly-like wings, but angelically curved and pointed — which proved useful to escape an oppressive lettuce farmer.)

If I recall correctly, Pookie was a rabbit who:

— made himself unpopular by being a little different from other rabbits and got teased for the wings;

— went on journeys with a sack of his belongings on a stick over his shoulder;

— refused to take anything on faith such as Santa Claus, believing only in the fairies with whom he played;

— demonstrated imperfect ideas about capitalism for instance despairing because the little shop he opened in the woodland had too many customers;

— indulged in fanciful schemes for putting the world right such as banishing winter.

Who, moreover, had a delightful little camp follower named Belinda.

Nature, “the environment,” with many a niche, is well-disposed to the disappearing animals, and among the themes of my favourite biology teacher, whenas I was a lad in school, was the high population of concealed beings, just where you think there are none — under the sands of water-polished beach or wind-polished desert, but too, everywhere else. Walk in the stillness of the woods: a hundred creatures are watching you, but not even one of them can you see.

The bowerbird, for instance. Let us suppose ourselves hunting for one (in New Guinea, or Australia). We find an abandoned bower, soon enough, but if the bird thinks we might mean him ill, and that he has been glimpsed, we will subsequently only hear him. And it will be a trick. Most bowerbirds are good mimics of other bird calls, and better yet, they are ventriloquists — leading you where you don’t want to go. And this after having visited your home, to obtain such sparkling items as tinfoil, rings, jewels, car keys, with which to impress his lady.

Most birds do not warren in the ground, however, but make their own burrows in the eaves, leaves and branches, in the tall grass, or as the woodpeckers in the hollows of the trees. In every case, an architectural wonder, were we but small enough to see inside.

Lent is in a sense a time for hiding, or may I say warrening, from the wickedness and snares without and within, from all the wicked spirits that prowl about the world. We seek a place of prayer where the Devil cannot get us.

The cosmic duh

Question for today: Does God exist?

It is a difficult question. For as we read in the (Svetasvatara) Upanishad, “He is not a male, He is not a female, He is not a neuter. He neither is nor is not. When He is sought He will take the form in which He is sought, and again He will not come in such a form. … It is indeed difficult to describe the Name of the Lord.”

It is also a silly question. Of course God “exists,” in a sense that is prior to all existence. The more interesting questions concern those attributes, discernible to us. Has He personhood? Does He will good or evil? Why were we created, and what will happen to us? But answers to such questions will require Revelation, and command action on our part. Today’s question is only about existence.

There are some things that cannot be verified, or falsified. These would include all axioms of logic; even those of post-modern “paraconsistent” logics, wherein the very Law of Non-Contradiction is (implausibly) denied, but which are axiomatic on their own terms. We are out the door of “science” when we discuss logic; or the principles of mathematics for that matter. All we can say is that the world makes sense on axioms; and not otherwise. Otherwise it is incomprehensible mush.

For science, or human knowledge more broadly, God is not an hypothesis, but an Axiom. Start in Aristotle, if you will, to see that the world has no purchase on sense, without the Unmoved Mover. The “Five Ways” by which the inevitability of God was demonstrated by Thomas Aquinas, and the related ways in which this was done by others before and after him, are easily misunderstood, because they are not proofs of an hypothesis but recursions. They show, without the “God Axiom,” that there can be no causation, no change, no being in itself, no gradation, no direction to an end. We need a Still Point, from which to depart. It cannot be hypothesized. It is too simple for that. You need to assume it even to contradict it.

I should think that “post-modern” developers of “natural theology” (not the theology of nature, but theology constructed without Revelation) are onto something when they refuse to attribute “causation,” “being,” “ends,” and the like, to God. But they are onto nothing new; just a new way to express the old inexpressibles.

There is not merely a huge difference between our being and God’s beyond-being. For He is prior to being; being’s ultimate cause; and end beyond all ends. These are not relative terms. They have nothing to do with the plaything of “infinity.” To my mind, it follows that God does nothing without angels; or nothing without mediation; as it were, the “absolute idler,” Who does nothing at all. “I am that I am,” in Hebrew Scripture. In no way does He need the Creation; in every way, it needs Him. There can be no gradations, such as, we are small and He is large. That is mere metaphor. Any attempt to get around this, plunges us into pantheism, which is atheism by halves: it affirms immanence by denying transcendence.

Yet we must affirm transcendence without denying immanence.

“Created in His image.” … What can this mean but that we are endowed with an irreducible “spark” of the same axiomatically perfect Stillness, from which we proceed, inerrantly but for the subverting Adam within us all. But that “spark” remains, ineradicably. (Or one might call it freedom: which is what makes the evil we do terrible, for it is not involuntary.)

Too, we were made to resemble Christ: the perfect self-giving of this self-revealing, Triune God, prior to all being. The embodiment of Christ is beyond thinking. But so are we. For even to begin thinking of ourselves as being, we must consider ourselves from a standpoint of not-being, which is unthinkable. The situation resembles what they call a “singularity” in physics, but is more fundamental. An “is” requires an is-maker.

Observe, now by Revelation, that God is Love, not being; and that on Love, all being depends. That in persona Christi, walking as He did, when and where, we see Love, embodied. God, beyond all being, brought Himself even into being, for Love.

A thought not reductive: this is what I’m trying, haplessly, to articulate. Our universe may be reduced to some primordial egg or atom. God cannot be reduced in such a way, by our glib scientists — the “global village idiots.” At one hundred billionth the breadth of a proton, that cosmic egg from which we were hatched would be far too large. Ditto, at one hundred trillionth, and with a whole multiverse tucked inside. We are NOT dealing here with gradation, and the relativists can all go fly.

Or, to bring out paradox in a season of folly: to be an atheist is to believe too much.

Kristin Lavransdatter

[I bring forward this old tweedjacket essay, for a low motive.
But I will not tell gentle reader what that motive is.]

*

There are two translations of Sigrid Undset’s remarkable trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter. That by Archer and Scott came out promptly after the Norwegian originals in the early 1920s. Undset had lived in London, spoke English fluently, and knew the translators. She would have been consulted on fine points. I am told by a native Norwegian that the (mildly) archaic English these translators used nicely echoes effects in the sentences of an authoress who was steeped in Old Norse, and intimately familiar with the old sagas.

The other, commissioned by Penguin Books three generations later, is by Tiina Nunnally, award-winning translator of several dozen (mildly) fashionable Scandihoovian tomes. I’m sure it is quite accurate, but I put it down. I’d read the older version years ago, but did not return to it from nostalgia; at first the new version seemed a breath of fresh air. But Nunnally’s very “modern” English changed the atmosphere. It obscured nothing — passages touching on physical sex were if anything belaboured and spiced up — but everything seemed wrapped in cellophane. The protagonist Kristin herself becomes more “modern,” too, where in the older version she had struck me as “timeless”; and rather more immediate.

I dwell on this, for in articles and interviews, Nunnally sneered at the old translation, insinuating that it was grinding, stilted, anachronistic, loose, and bowdlerizing. She is herself a creature of “Scandinavian Studies” in current academia, who knows how to alienate readers from a rival text, by telling them they will be alienated.

For as long as I can remember, readers have been trained to associate literary archaism with the stuffy and Victorian. Shielded thus, they may not realize that they are learning to avoid a whole dimension of poetry and play in language. Poets, and all other imaginative writers, have been consciously employing archaisms in English, and I should think all other languages, going back at least to Hesiod and Homer. The King James Version was loaded with archaisms, even for its day; Shakespeare uses them not only evocatively in his Histories, but everywhere for colour, and in juxtaposition with his neologisms to increase the shock.

In fairy tales, this “once upon a time” has always delighted children. Novelists, and especially historical novelists, need archaic means to apprise readers of location, in their passage-making through time. Archaisms may paradoxically subvert anachronism, by constantly yet subtly reminding the reader that he is a long way from home.

Get over this adolescent prejudice against archaism, and an ocean of literary experience opens to you. Among other things, you will learn to distinguish one kind of archaism from another, as one kind of sea from another should be recognized by a yachtsman.

But more: a particular style of language is among the means by which an accomplished novelist breaks the reader in. There are many other ways: for instance by showering us with proper nouns through the opening pages, to slow us down, and make us work on the family trees, or mentally squint over local geography. I would almost say that the first thirty pages of any good novel will be devoted to shaking off unwanted readers; or if they continue, beating them into shape. We are on a voyage, and the sooner the passengers get their sea legs, the better life will be all round.

*

This is peculiarly so for Sigrid Undset. And the paradox here, in Kristin Lavransdatter, is that we must become fully immersed in the 14th century — mediaeval daily life in the interior of Norway — to begin recognizing the timelessness of her characters and their situations. She is using the form of the historical novel to an extremely useful purpose: to slit through our “modern” superficiality; to take us out of ourselves in order to look about, in the strangeness of a strange new world, then to find ourselves again, in the costumes. This is Tolkien, for adults.

Undset was a formidable mediaevalist. Her father was a reputable archaeologist, and both her parents historically learned. From childhood she had heard the antiquarian aesthetic call, and succumbed to the true historian’s fascination with what lies under things. In that field and from her eventual home of Bjerkebæk at Lillehammer — surrounded by the landscape in which Kristin Lavransdatter is set, which Undset described with such crisp poetical exactness — she is on home turf. Scholars to this day acknowledge her as genuinely expert: there are details in her 14th-century reconstructions that were speculative, at the time she was writing, but have since borne out. She knew, as it were, where the old, pre-Reformation Norway was buried. For this alone, the trilogy — and the tetralogy that followed it, called The Master of Hestviken — is a pleasurable education.

It is partly because of this expertise that Undset is free of romantic illusions about the Middle Ages. She needed the background “Age of Faith” to depict human passions more sharply, to strip away the clutter and insulations of technologized, urbanized life. But her purpose was hardly escapist. By thirty pages in, we are not only bathed in this exotic environment, but exposed more directly to hard facts of life that are ignored, today, until it is too late. We feel the winter cold and the demands made to survive it; we begin to understand that if the crops fail, we will starve. The consequence of every human action is amplified, in the absence of our “safety nets.” The politics which Undset depicts are personalized, not abstract and ideological: men of all classes take counsel of each other, not from lofty principles but out of necessity. The dependency of man on man, of woman on woman, of man on woman, and woman on man, was no parlour game. We are about as far as we can get from the fatuities and asininities of “human rights.”

The book is about motherhood. It is also about everything else that comes into human moral experience — about childhood and fatherhood and priesthood and nunhood, belief and unbelief, marriage and aloneness, love in the kaleidoscope of shapes and angles, the power of eros beyond lust, sanctity and devilry, work, dreams; and in multiple dimensions about sin and grace. But everything is refracted through the prism of motherhood, and by this a huge background statement is made. More than any novel written since, this one slaps me in the face with the Fact of Woman.

It is for this reason that it is never taught at Harvard or elsewhere in the Ivy League, as part of “Women’s Studies.” For Undset absolutely refuses to be shallow. She grew up as a feminist; her own mother had been by 1880 well ahead of the “sisterhood” today. Our authoress had written when quite young various feminist tracts, and short novels meant to be “contemporary” and alarming. In the face of reality, through the First World War, she had grown out of it. And from her own difficult life, full of man problems, and children not only her own, she was in no possible doubt that women are moral agents in the fullest truth. Not only most spectacularly in her protagonist, Kristin, or in Kristin’s mother Ragnfrid, or later her daughter-in-law Jofrid, but in the little galaxy of other characters through the passing scenes, the theme of motherhood is revolved. Moreover, not only Kristin in the foreground, but other females in the story are wilful souls. As we will see, for better and for worse, they will not be shackled. In the relations between the women, Undset tackles issues that even our best woman novelists tend to ignore: because Undset’s women live also through their men, their sons and their daughters, and therefore through time in a way our post-family microwave life has forgotten. This does not diminish but enhances their place in the world.

Yet too, this is no book “for women,” no chick-lit. For I would also say that I have never read a novel in which I could see men so clearly through a woman’s searching eyes; in which, as I hinted above, I felt so judged. The failures of men, and at the most painful, the failure of men to be men, is presented in light that is often excoriating. Indeed, the manner of a woman’s judgement must come as a revelation to men: not only the grown women but the girl children. Through that prism of motherhood, things are seen that men might not want to see, including centrally the scandal of being loved not for our virtues but in spite of our appalling weaknesses. And in this sense, women stand in for God.

Conversely, the nobility of a man — Kristin’s father, Lavrans, in the first instance — is revealed in and out of season, and through all his naiveté and frailties. To me, the conclusion of the first volume, where the good will of the ageing Lavrans is breaking down, while the ground of his trust shifts beneath him, leaving nothing on which he can rely, was a terrible reckoning. There is a moment of weakness, at which he cracks into pettiness over something so minor as the failure to return a cart promptly; and the whole world seems to be lost, along with his heritage and a life’s labour. Then to top it off, in his occluding despair, his wife selects the worst conceivable moment to tell him that when she was young, she had been as false as his daughter.

And how does he react? Incredibly, after absorbing this final blow, his first thought is for his poor wife, who has carried this burden so long and so secretly in her soul.

Rather, not incredibly. It is the extraordinary gift of Undset to make that moment credible. And too, to make it pass as lightning that has illuminated all the landscape, and then, with the storm, it passeth away. How many novelists can depict sanctity, or the truest of true loves?

It is on this level that Undset operates. Her Kristin is not only wilful but “deeply flawed”; we cannot help identifying with her, nor fail to see objectively what is going, and is bound to go, wrong. She has set her heart on a man who lays waste to everything he touches; she allows herself to be seduced. She sticks by him even when he has proved his irresponsibility and unworthiness, again and again. This lover and eventual husband, Erland, must remind every male reader of what is small and faithless and predictably unreliable in his own soul; yet Undset also comprehends all of his excuses. She makes us see what Kristen sees in him; see even the virtues that correspond to Erland’s vices, for in his recklessness, he can be a knight. His love, and their love, is neither casual nor empty. It raises the stakes in every common endeavour, as they try to raise children in the world. Tragedy will necessarily befall them, but out of this tragedy Kristin’s redemption will be forged.

No: it is better than this. Kristin is no fool. She sees with a frightening feminine clarity precisely what she is getting herself into, and the growth of her contrition likewise follows the searchlight turning on her own soul. She sins knowingly, she makes what she inwardly knows is a catastrophic mistake by jilting the good man her father chose for her, and who loves as her father loved: selflessly. At seventeen, she is throwing herself away on a man well over thirty with a known, murky past and the earned reputation of a Lothario. She has, in every critical moment, enough “information” not to do what she will do, but does it anyway. In crisis, she does not seek help or absolution. Somehow Undset makes us understand that this is how it must be; that the smartest girl will do the stupidest thing; and it will make sense as part of something larger.

One might say, “life is like that.” This is a pretty limp cliché that Undset is confirming, but she raises it repeatedly to the visionary level. And in the second volume, where Kristin is now married and mistress of an estate, puzzling in her heart over the vagaries of her boys, who puzzle over her in their boyish understanding, the theme of motherhood deepens and deepens. She is left with very male responsibilities, by her wayward husband — the running of her husband’s estate, an enterprise for which she was never raised or trained, and on which the very survival depends, not only of her growing family but of retainers and families beyond them. And thanks to that feckless husband, that is lost, too.

She is reduced by circumstances again and again to one woman against the world; but she will not be reduced. Through that prism of motherhood, through the extension of family, through the finally mysterious relation of man to all men, soul to all souls, and through every adversity, she is rising. In the end, we may discern that it is a divinely-assisted passage.

*

The book is far from painful to read. As I’ve said, the “archaic” earlier translation will only be in the reader’s face for thirty pages or so, and the discovery that he is now at home in it will come as a pleasant surprise. As in the reading of any fine saga embracing generations, he will soon feel almost part of the family, emotionally invested in its fate.

There is a moment — and O Lord is Sigrid Undset the mistress of moments — when our heroine is “leaving home” for what will be the last time. This is the home she left by marriage, and to which she had returned for refuge with her children. Those children have grown, and scattered. A dark cloud of plague is descending upon Norway, but this is not so apparent yet. Kristin Lavransdatter is entering old age, but still has her health. She is setting off on pilgrimage to Trondheim — the grand mediaeval cathedral of Niðarós, shrine of Olav and tomb of kings, capital and spiritual seat of pre-Reformation Norway (still standing in its Gothic stone, by the Arctic Circle).

On the first leg, she is accompanied by her son, Gaute, now master of the manor and its future, carrying her “wallets” up the rise on his horse. She will not ride, being Kristin. They must part, Gaute in an explosion of tears, for the mother he will never see again; Kristin in mysterious containment. At the height of land, she looks back over the valley that has been her life, spotting in the far distance, her home. As Undset puts it, she is torn back, for one last home-sick glance; but also torn forward, by something very much like a home-sickness for heaven:

“It seemed as if these yearnings burst her heart in sunder — they ran hither and thither like streams of blood, seeking out ways to all places in the wide-stretched land where she had lived, to all the sons she had wandering in the world, to all her dead beneath the moulds.”

The story is not yet over; but I will leave it there. It is more than a thousand pages, and I have not even mentioned beloved Brother Edvin, or so many other characters brought to vivid life. Yes, it is an unambiguously Catholic novel, though Undset was not yet a Catholic when she wrote it. Yes, it won the Nobel Prize, ninety-something years ago. Yes, there are many other works of Undset’s worth reading, including her extraordinary biography of Catherine of Siena, and many other penetrating essays and stories, should there be world enough and time; but this trilogy is all of a piece.

One might read, I suppose, any sort of novel; but this is one of those novels that reads you.

Decide, comrade

“What is to be done?” asked Lenin rhetorically, to himself before the crowds, in the grand tradition of Russian revolutionism. Those with some slight knowledge of history (a tiny diminishing minority today) will have from the history of the Soviet Union his approximate answer. It was revolutionary terror. Marx had said that communism was inevitable. A Fukuyama ahead of his time, he thought it was the End of History. But as the times continued too slow, Lenin thought to speed them up a bit. Even in this 21st century we continue trying to end it all. One is on the right side of history, or the wrong side, as the late Trotskyite, Christopher Hitchens, liked to declare. He thought George W. Bush was on the right side of it. I wonder what he thinks now.

The notion that we should “do something,” collectively, led by a vanguard of the self-advancing elite, is not confined to the Left. Reading Georges Bernanos, I was apprised of what Franco and company were doing in Majorca, during and then after the Spanish Civil War. The island was exceptionally apolitical, its inhabitants indifferent to who was winning the battles, either by blood or by toil. A droll population. There were not more than one hundred Communists and Anarchists in the Balearic archipelago, according to one unreliable estimate. (All estimates are unreliable.) The Falange had to create a few more, when they ran out of people to slaughter.

Generally, civil fanatics are created by their enemies. Of course, until they are created, they don’t know who their enemies are. But should they finally link their suffering, real or imagined, to those who are causing it (see Venezuela today), they want to do something about it. We have the pendulum swing of events, in which the glass is successively shattered on both sides of the street. This is almost a force of physics. Once the pendulum is in motion, holy friction — of the air, and of the chains rubbing — gradually slows it down. As an Indian girlfriend once explained: “Too much peace only leads to war. Too much war only leads to peace.” She had a better understanding of history than Lenin.

Bernanos I mentioned not as a civil, but as a religious fanatic. Most of his novels feature (apparently ineffectual) priests. They do nothing, or very little beyond what is their duty, day by day; then (for instance) die of stomach cancer, uttering: Tout est grâce.

“Grace is everywhere.” … Even in the prison camps of history, as we learn from the best literary sources; and on the scaffolds. Too, it is in less obvious places, such as our supermarkets. One must develop the ability to see it against the disgusting background that Bernanos also described — though with the subtlety of a great master. One is cured of this blindness also by grace, from the moment one decides to receive it.

Which leaves the question, What is to be done?

Decide, comrade.

Has gentle reader ever witnessed, by happenstance, an act of kindliness? By this I mean an authentic act, that seeks no reward; an act unintended as an example to others, as “a teachable moment,” or to win public praise? Perhaps even something the recipient will not recognize as kind, until his benefactor is well out of sight? Or done without his knowledge.

It is the most radical thing I can currently imagine.

Strange but true

There is a man named Sam Brownback (I kid you not) who is the United States Ambassador to Religious Freedom (which I am unable to find on a map). Leaving this aside, I am happy to inform gentle reader that, as far as I know, he is a good and honest man, which is an unusual thing in diplomatic circles. Anyone formerly the Secretary for Agriculture in Kansas I assume will have the down-home virtues. But I’ve heard other good things about him. As Governor of that fair state (elected then re-elected) he made himself viscerally hated not only by Democrats, but by all liberal and progressive Republicans, radically cutting not only state taxes but spending on their various statist schemes. And then he refused to retreat when they spread politically-correct lies about him, his policies and his record, with the active cooperation of the media. How to endure an adversary who can’t be manipulated or intimidated?

This is the most we can hope in a rightwing politician — guts — and they are still on display. Brownback is now in the news for a speech he gave at the Hong Kong press club, detailing what is happening to Catholics under the still professedly Communist Peking regime. They are being persecuted, their churches demolished, their children orphaned and brainwashed, their own hierarchy systematically infiltrated by Communist agents, all with the permission and cooperation of men in Rome who, as Cardinal Zen — still among the most impressive and courageous living bishops of our Church — says must have come “from another planet.”

The recent Sino-Vatican Accord was a surrender. Among many other things it instructs members of the underground church in China to out themselves to the authorities, tells their priests to register with the mortal enemy, gives to the “official” church (a front for the Chinese state) the standing within the Roman to advance their anti-Christian subversion all over the globe. And, none of this is subtle.

Liars and press officers in the Vatican bureaucracy say that as a result of the Accord, the Communists are now going easier on the Catholics. But as Brownback and many others have reported, their campaign against these Christian faithful has actually stepped up since the Vatican sold them out.

Sam Brownback is a Trump appointee, however, as the progressive types eagerly point out. He is not Red, but Red State. They, who excuse moral monsters from Xi Jinping to Nicolas Maduro, faced with an opinionated Brownback, fall into apoplectic rages.

To me, standing harmlessly on the sidelines, it says something, that Trump and his administration are more reliably Catholic than Bergoglio and his. The latter has Cardinal Filoni, “ambassador for evangelization,” as it were, touring the planet to sell the Sino-Vatican deal. I do not think it possible that a man of Filoni’s background and eminence can be so ill-informed. He is “only following orders,” as they said at Nuremberg.

Filoni says this deal will be a good thing in the future, implying the admission it is a bad thing now. He should also know that the future is unknowable, by men. Perhaps he will prove right: that the Vatican-approved torment of China’s longsuffering Catholics will lead paradoxically to some unforeseeable good. But meanwhile, I am inclined to condemn, with horrified outrage, a grave and present evil, of just the sort we must expect when our own shepherds cut deals with the wolves.