Essays in Idleness


Aphorisms of Don Colacho

Here are some aphorisms of the Colombian thinker, Nicolás Gómez Dávila (“Don Colacho,” 1913–1994), whose compendium, Escolios a un texto implícito, is among the significant documents of the 20th century. His work had been translated into many European languages, but not English; a gentleman named “Stephen” in Irving, Texas, is remedying this defect by posting his own translations in a searchable weblog. (He cannot be adequately praised.) We have shamelessly stolen every one of these items from that marvellous blog:


There are two kinds of men: those who believe in original sin, & idiots.

Humanity is the only totally false god.

Reason, Progress, & Justice are the theological virtues of the fool.

Either man has rights, or the people is sovereign. The simultaneous assertion of two mutually exclusive theses is what people have called liberalism.

Liberalism proclaims the right of the individual to degrade himself, provided his degradation does not impede the degradation of his neighbour.

Under the name of liberty, man conceals his hunger for sovereignty.

To refute the new morality, one needs only to examine the faces of its aged devotees.

Envy is the key to more stories than sex.

Without a hierarchical structure it is not possible to transform freedom from a fable. The liberal always discovers too late that the price of equality is the omnipotent State.

Those whose gratitude for receiving a benefit is transformed into devotion to the person who grants it, instead of degenerating into the usual hatred aroused by all benefactors, are aristocrats; even if they walk around in rags.

Ingratitude, disloyalty, resentment, rancour define the plebeian soul in every age, & characterize this century.

The necessary & sufficient condition of despotism is the disappearance of every kind of social authority not conferred by the State.

Natural disasters devastate a region less effectively than the alliance of greed & technology.

Science’s greatest triumph appears to lie in the increasing speed with which an idiocy can be transported from one location to another.

Religion did not arise out of the need to assure social solidarity, nor were cathedrals built to encourage tourism.

The reactionary does not become a conservative except in ages which maintain something worthy of being conserved.

Thought tends to be a response to an outrage rather than to a question.

The root of reactionary thought is not distrust of reason but distrust of the will.

Metaphysical problems do not haunt man so that he will solve them, but so that he will live them.

An “explanation” consists in assimilating a strange mystery to a familiar mystery.

By replacing the concrete sense perception of the object with its abstract intellectual construction, man gains the world & loses his soul.

A dentistry degree is respectable, but a philosophy degree is grotesque.

The impact of a text is proportional to the cunning of its insinuations.

Literary skill consists in keeping a phrase at the right temperature.

Classical literature is obviously not prelapsarian, but happily it is pre-Gnostic.

Every work of art speaks to us of God; no matter what it says.

A good painting cuts short the art critic’s lyricism.

Goya is the seer of demons, Picasso their accomplice.

Civilizations enter into agony when they forget that there exists not merely an aesthetic activity, but also an aesthetic of activity.

The Muse does not visit the man who works more, or the man who works less, but whomever she feels like visiting.

Even though history has no laws, the course of a revolution is easily foreseen; because stupidity & madness do have laws.

History is full of victorious morons.

In history it is wise to hope for miracles, & absurd to trust in plans.

To proclaim Christianity the “cradle of the modern world” is a grave calumny.

There is some collusion between scepticism & faith: both undermine human presumptuousness.

Wisdom comes down to not showing God how things should be done.

Reason is no substitute for faith, as colour is no substitute for sound.

When he died, Christ did not leave behind documents, but disciples.

My convictions are the same as those of an old woman praying in the corner of a church.

The open pit

In the future, anyone opposed to the open society will be arrested, in the West. In the Middle East, perhaps only those who oppose the Islamic open society will be arrested; & in China, only the opponents of the Politburo’s.

A big talk piece by David Rieff in National Interest has prompted this observation. Rieff, the product of Susan Sontag’s earliest liaison, with the Freudian sociologist Philip Rieff, could almost be said to have been born an avatar of societal openness. An anarchic vagabond, caressed by the liberal intelligentsia, he has been undermining their claims to authority in ever less subtle ways. He is member, fellow, or senior fellow of various prestigious fora of the self-celebratory great & good, from the World Policy Institute, to the Council on Foreign Relations, to Human Rights Watch. Yet he now hints that the heroic project to bring the open society to the whole planet is a chimera, & that its leading exponents are titched. He is saying this cautiously; but read the article. Surely, finally, he can be disowned.

We may not have to wait long for the arrests, especially if Barack Obama is able to bestow upon America the incomparable blessing of four more of his invaluable years. For the idea of the open society is itself open to evolution, & we are about one Supreme Court appointment from declaring the U.S. Constitution entirely open to keep up with it. The open society now requires vigorous universal welfare arrangements, centralized policy control by czars, & ceaseless bureaucratic punishment of the non-cooperative. It is Obamacare writ large; & the sceptic of the open society, whose conscience will not row to its command, already finds himself exposed to what Austin Ruse has called, “the ugly claws & bared teeth of the pelvic Left.”

But we mention this only to be melodramatic. It is from want of courage that opponents of the open society agree to go silent & stand down. We have the spectacle of some rookery of alarmed penguins, fleeing the transgressive sea lion, who catches & flails them at his leisure from their rear. After each round, the surviving penguins congratulate themselves on reaching safety. Yet sometimes, rather than fleeing, one spritely little proximate penguin with his razor beak stands to announce, “the hell you are going to eat me,” & we have instead the spectacle of a blinded, bleeding, panicked & retreating sea lion.

This is not what Rieff is getting at, however. His position developed through his opposition to the U.S. military enterprise in Iraq, when George Bush & not George Soros was his target; but he is moving towards a fuller understanding that these two Georges, while opponents in any imaginable democratic ground game, were working all along from the same background assumption: that “democracy,” “civil society,” & the gamut of Western, post-Christian schemes for universal emancipation, are the inevitable destiny of the world; that every obstacle to this emancipation must be levelled & paved; that nothing in the end must obstruct the view of the open society. This was exactly the position Francis Fukuyama advertised in his famous “End of History?” piece in the same National Interest, nearly a quarter century ago. It was a useful article because it generously revealed the fatuity of his own position; & he has spent the rest of his career trying to recover his poise.

History has since continued, taking the usual unpredictable turns, & yet the astoundingly glib proposal that we must all work towards the inevitable triumph of the open society weaves ever more tightly into the progressive consciousness, along with freedom marches & “the American Dream.” The segue of blissful Hegelian fantasy into breaking-news nightmare may yet cause the sleeper to wake, but meanwhile he remains in a kind of moral & intellectual coma, perfectly convinced that he can fly.

Freedom cannot be imposed. Nor can one man define it for another; nor one society liberate another. We can work against a discernible evil — slavery, say; or abortion; or some specific tyrant, individual or corporate. We can resist a specific evil, by prudently framing a specific law. But in contradiction of the essential tenet shared by radical Islam & the secular Left: we cannot “command the good.” For the good does not answer to human command.

The paradox is not that the open society imposes a new, quasi-religious doctrinal order. Its demands are anyway constantly morphing, so that today’s categorical imperative will be tomorrow’s capital crime. The paradox is rather a cheap imposture: that glib claim to inevitability & foreknowledge, against a background of history that offered constant surprise. That is what links the open society to Auschwitz, & to Stalin; that idiot self-confidence. The open society delegitimates every opponent, & strips every minority of its peace. Having foreseen an end, it can when necessary justify any means. It goes beyond any Pope, or Caliph, or Caesar, in claiming the monopoly on both force & virtue. It is restrained, at every turn, by some “irrational” sense of decency; but that decency is external to itself.

Jacques Barzun

One hundred & four is not a bad age for a human to attain, though it seemed to us that Jacques Barzun was much older. America’s leading public intellectual was, from what we can make out, already quite mature when he came to the U.S. at age thirteen — put into prep school there by his Whitmanesque, Americanophile father. His family’s circle of friends in Paris included Guillaume Apollinaire, Georges Duhamel, Marcel Duchamp, Edgar Varèse, Stefan Zweig, & the little-remembered but remarkable vagrant typographer, Lucien Linard. These were Utopian people, but from the age before Lenin. They were crazy artists, with an outlook on life that simply cannot be translated into any language comprehensible to the present day. For instance, each had strong political views, but of a kind we might classify today as utterly apolitical.

Barzun remained French while becoming entirely American. His mind was logical in the French way, & it was stocked with French things; but he used it for American purposes. He went to Columbia University, & stayed there for the duration of the 20th century, without ever becoming an “academic” in the narrow sense. His field was civilization, & together with Lionel Trilling (his contemporary, now dead for decades) he created a little cell of civilization in this most unlikely place (Columbia University). As recently as half a century ago, there was a significant community in the U.S. which aspired, in a humble, decent, republican way, to acquire & promote high culture. These were the sort of people who launched “great books” programmes, & begged European intellectuals to cross the Atlantic & teach them everything they knew. Barzun found & ministered to them.

His several dozen books are without exception addressed to “the common reader.” They cover an extraordinary range of topics, & each is solid in its learning. Barzun was at home in art & music, as well as literature; in history, & also in the sciences. We have used the “C” word (for, Civilization), & he was among the last men living who understood that it is all one thing. Specialists are always welcome, but the specialist who is not backed up with a broad general knowledge — who has not read widely, not remained alive to arts & sciences at large — is a subversive influence, & in his nature an enemy of civilization whenever he pretends to serve it.

Some years ago we overheard a worthless little professor of “philosophy” in the University of Toronto sneering at the reputation of Jacques Barzun, for his very range. We asked him, sneeringly back, if he knew what the word “university” meant. He made it abundantly clear he did not. He was a “specialist” at war with those “generalists” & “popularizers.” It struck me that even in his own recondite area of specialization (“analytical philosophy”), Barzun could have tutored him, by explaining e.g. the breadth of topics that Wittgenstein was addressing; for the little man had no idea. The whole, very tenured career of this soi-disant professor had consisted of teaching the young & impressionable to sneer at things beyond his or their understanding.

Barzun was “civil” as well as civilized, yet never pusillanimous. A large part of his work consisted of serenely articulated anger, focused chiefly upon the teaching profession. The phenomenon that is glibly called today “political correctness” — a far stronger term is needed to convey the stench of it — has been a feature of North American intellectual life for a long time. It is in fact the contemporary expression of the Puritan theological outlook, that landed with the Mayflower; & it has everything to do with cults of specialization, & with heresies (i.e. deceitful half-truths) both within & beyond the formal perimeter of religion.

The Puritan spirit is iconoclastic; it seeks to cut things down, to smash the beautiful, to rule inconvenient truths out of court; to promote witch hunts. Barzun had unerringly the scent of this enemy, & could be annihilating in response to it; though as a correspondent reminds (see comments) he could also spy positive features in the Puritan heritage, & deal with its exponents quite charitably on their own terms, for he was never a witch hunter himself.

He was a nominal Catholic, not a church-goer, & by his own account at sea in the ecclesiastical life of America. He associated the Church with culture in the modern French manner, without vexing himself on any doctrinal point. He was allergic to the enthusiasm of “converts”; & found American Catholicism too Protestant for his tastes. Paradoxically, he observed that a typically American “high-church Presbyterianism” — with its choirs & processions — was closer to the European “semi-Catholicism” in which he was reared. And this was compounded by his genius for not committing himself, even to the inevitable logical consequences of his own assertions.

The closest we can find to a credal statement from him is, “Nature is conscious of itself, in & through man.” A lot would follow from that, but Barzun wouldn’t follow. His dislike of “converts” extended to ideologues & reductionists of all sorts. His book, Darwin, Marx, Wagner (1941 & revisions) — the continuation of research & arguments begun much earlier — is an inquiry into the nature of modern superstitions. He shows convincingly how capitalist notions of free competition & survival of the fittest were repackaged as a Victorian cosmology, & acquired the power of sorcery; how they were presented as quasi-religious doctrine; how the substitution of Natural Selection for Providence came to be defended with a warmth that never belonged to empirical science. The book brilliantly depicts the personal evolution of Thomas Huxley, that earnest & honest man, haunted by the real possibility that he had championed ideas which compromised the moral order, without yielding secure empirical results, or being able to do so. The book continues through the strange, quaintly Victorian world of Marxian political scientism & Wagnerian romantic egoism. It shows the hollowness beneath the crust on which our post-modernism has strutted; the excavation & discarding, beneath our own feet, of everything that supported us except, “might makes right.”

Barzun was a modern. Perhaps with his death we bury the last living modernist, like the last Great War veteran, or the last recipient of the Victoria Cross. His cultural history of that modern age, Dawn to Decadence (2000), makes a fine textbook we might recommend to serious private schools. Published when he was a nonagenarian, it shows no diminution of his powers, & embodies an erudition that is scintillating. He is a terse writer, but never an obscure one; his books are all accessible to any intelligent, attentive reader. And the quotes with which he decorated the pages of this one are an education in themselves: one well-known author after another saying something one might not expect him to say. Barzun represents the history of five very Western centuries with the freshness almost of an eyewitness; & while there can be no mistake about the moral & intellectual decadence into which we have fallen, he is hopeful throughout, & ends sure that something new must inevitably be stirring in our ashes. He is perhaps most Catholic in allowing God’s will; in that optimism which expects some good to come of evil, without ever commending the evil.

A car or a baby?

Given the choice between a car & a baby, which would gentle reader pick? We are supposing, of course, the “right to choose,” & it is your call entirely. Let us try not to be too utilitarian about this, for use is often in the eye of the beholder; let us consider the matter in a much broader way. And please do not be too hasty. Cars may be more expensive than one thinks, & babies less so. The inconvenience of operating cars may be underestimated.

True, babies eat & drink, make a mess sometimes, & while overall they generate less noise than a car, that noise is sometimes painfully concentrated. Moreover, the baby will take time & attention to raise; & while much of this effort may be sloughed off on the State, there may be social or even legal consequences if one fails to collect it after daycare. And, those who have raised a child will know that as it grows, it will cause other headaches. By the time it is seven or so, one may seriously regret what one got oneself into. Whereas, a car might still have some trade-in value, & the State puts fewer obstacles in the way of selling it.

The comparative cost of car & baby depends on the method of accounting, but also on one’s attitude towards them, respectively, so that on the pure money question it is hard to decide. One could easily spend more on either. But to be perfectly Scotch about this, the minimum expenditure for a baby is probably less, for it can be clothed out of the Sally Anne, & fed for as little as, say, a large dog or pampered cat, & kept in as small an area. It is true these costs rise as the child increases in volume, but the smallest car is heavier than the largest child, & there is no way to cut corners when filling the gas tank. From this side, babies start to look economical.

However, thought should also be given to the comparative benefits of car & baby ownership. The consensus of polite dinner-table conversation, we have found, is that the baby will give more emotional feedback, over an extended period. But again, that’s not always a good thing. Against the car, one might argue diminishing returns. It’s a bit of a thrill for the first few days, but afterwards it tends to become just a mode of transport, & a depreciating asset at that.

In either case, one might tire of looking at the thing. Cars, to be fair, may be easier to ignore, or abandon. Indeed, so biased is the State that, in the case of the child, if one fails to kill it before it is born, the law prevents one from killing it after. Whereas, the car can be eliminated at any time, provided that environmental regulations have been observed.

But now we should mention the “overpopulation” problem that we find at the back of many urban minds. The great majority of people living in vast conurbations apparently believe that the world is overcrowded. They live in big cities not so much by choice, as because that is where the jobs are. And one needs one of those to get to the point where one may choose between the car & the baby. Some can afford both, but if one already thinks the world has too many people, the car looks like the better bargain.

Several times we have been told, by some horrified urbanite, that the population of the world has doubled within his or her lifetime, as if this fact settled every argument. Therein, we think, lies the positive enthusiasm for abortion & the various other techniques of “population control” – if not for oneself, then generously subsidized for others. These city folk are usually too distracted by the pace of city life to think anything through; but as a general notion they imagine it would be better if most of the excess population could be put down — in a humanitarian way, of course — to create more elbow room, & less pressure on finite resources.

As a city boy ourself, we have observed that city life is made less pleasant by the 80 percent or so of city dwellers who don’t really want to be here. If they could go to where they’d rather be, it would be better for the rest of us. Yet as we saw above, they may not have alternatives. Though we may find them irritating, & often in our way, we are personally opposed to having them euthanized or, more patiently, sterilized. We are willing to entertain more “optimal” solutions.

For instance, we are told that if all the world’s inhabitants were assembled contiguously at Tokyo density, they would fit into less space than France, or Texas, or may we suggest Afghanistan — thus leaving the rest of the planet clear for outdoorsmen. The people thus moved wouldn’t be any more or less happy than those in Tokyo, or any other conurbation, so what’s holding us back?

In much of the world, rural population is actually declining, so that space may be opening faster than suburbanization can fill it. From this we see the crowding is an illusion, & of choice: for most of the world may be getting less crowded. It must be admitted, however, that as the city folk get money, they buy up the countryside & spread their urban junk around it.

Consider: in the time the human population of the planet completed its last doubling, the number of cars increased more than 15 times; a trend that is continuing. Consider further, that a car occupies a much bigger surface area than a pair of human feet. And that, thanks to cars, what used to fit into one square mile of city is now spread over many square miles of bungalows, front yards, back yards, swimming pools, roadways, shopping malls, & parking lots. And, the people who drive them feel crowded because the cars take them to places where everyone is concentrated at something like the old city densities; & put them through traffic jams along the way. People have the illusion that people are everywhere, when really they are being shifted about by car to glom in just a few over-subscribed places. If they walked, they’d find lots of unoccupied space, albeit somewhat cluttered & despoiled.

There are some moral & spiritual considerations here that we have overlooked. We might wish to recall them briefly, while contemplating our “final solution” — the sanctity of human life, & all that. Granting that the world appears to be crowded (even though it isn’t), what should we do about it? Kill off all our babies?

Or might we focus on killing off the cars, instead?

The culinary symbolist

An aspect of cookery we think indefensibly neglected, is the symbolism of ingredients. This is of course vastly too large a topic to be more than touched upon; but up here in the kitchen of the High Doganate, where we try to maintain the liturgical attitude, we allow the ingredients to speak to us. For even when cooking alone, there is a dimension of conversation. City folk may find it hard to converse with what came shrink-wrapped, boxed, or tinned, yet we carry from childhood the most poignant memories of foods grown & harvested entirely by human hands; not “packaged,” but gathered in the conscience of thanksgiving.

Rosemary has an hundred household uses; not only its needles but its flowers & its oils. A bough of fresh rosemary hanging by an open window in hot summer will freshen & cool a room. Then burnt in the fire, when it is dry in autumn, it imparts an aroma that is sublimely sweet. It may be taken in a pipe, as tobacco. It has been used since ancient times in tinctures against rheumatism, & the biles; as a gargle, or in a tea; the flowers cut into salads, or the leaves cooked into beans, not only for their taste but their effect in counteracting flatulence. With lamb & mutton there is no better herb, among all those in the broad mint family; or baked with potatoes, or in breads, & many soups. We once tasted a Greek wine resinated with rosemary, from Crete we think it was, & with snails that had been steeped in it.

There is no end to these utilitarian considerations; but they extend into symbol through one of the qualities of rosemary long discerned. It has been held to improve the memory, & both worn & ingested to this end.

It is pre-eminently the herb of memory, & in heating just now some enormous Italian beans (truly, fagioli corona) in olive oil with crushed garlic, rosemary, & chillies, we were remembering Saint Thomas More. “As for rosemary,” he wrote, “I lett it runne all over my garden walls, not onlie because my bees love it, but because ’tis an herb sacred to Remembraunce & therefor to Friendship, whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language.”

And that famed herbalist of Warwickshire, at the shepherd’s cottage in his Winter’s Tale:

Give me those Flowres there; Reverend Sirs,
For you, there’s Rosemary & Rue, these keepe
Seeming, & savour all the Winter long:
Grace, & Remembrance be to you both,
And welcome to our Shearing.

The word has alternative etymologies. It is Latin ros-mare (dew of the sea), for its ability to flourish where there is no rain, but only the moisture of the sea breezes. Or if thou wilt, “Rose of Mary,” to commemorate that moment in legend, when the Holy Family were fleeing into Egypt. Our Lady was wearing a blue cloak, which she cast over white flowering rosemary while she rested. Lifting the cloak, she found the flowers had all turned blue.

Violence around women

Men are more violent than women. That is the conventional view, at least among men, & radical feminists. But those familiar with women will know the case is not secure. True, we have met women who were to appearance of a pacific nature, but then, we have met plenty of harmless men. (More, probably.) The issue is confused because men quietly agree to measure violence by quite selective standards. There may be more men than women in our gaols, convicted of soi-disant “crimes of violence.” But the connoisseur will observe that such violence is often of a superficial kind, artless & without subtlety.

We like to quote the late Canadian economist, Stephen Leacock, whose thoughtful essay on “The Woman Question” appeared among his Essays & Literary Studies, about 1916. A man of uncommon fortitude, Leacock patiently explains why women are not suitable for any form of paid employment. After a long list of exempla, he concludes that they are “too crooked, even for business; & even for war, too violent.”

Men, in fine, know where to stop. They alone understand teamwork, & “fair play,” which Leacock defines as “the particular amount of cheating that a man may do under the rules.” Yet even when he seems to stray beyond them, it is only because he is now playing another game. A man, for instance, “may enter the criminal class, either in its lower ranks as a housebreaker, or in its upper ranks, through politics.” Women cannot understand vocation, in this way.

Leacock correctly predicted that after the Great War, women would get the vote; & that men, upon return from the European trenches, would get Prohibition. He further predicted the women’s vote would not lead to many women in Parliament: this because women would never vote for women. They don’t trust them. And it is this very clarity that makes women such a danger to society; this freedom from illusion, that lifts them over & across all masculine boundaries, & thus gives them the advantage in all contests with men. As Doctor Johnson said, “Nature has given women so much power, that the law has very wisely given them little.”

That they are naturally violent, was brought home to us some years ago, at a Czech drinking party, with both sexes in attendance. A muscular Czech gentleman, the son of a prominent symphony conductor as it happened, had also brought a pretty little dog, which we stooped to greet politely. Suddenly we were thrown part way across the room.

Fair enough, we thought, as we came to rest against the leg of a piano. We are not in a familiar Anglo-Saxon environment. Perhaps, with a view to multicultural amity, we should ignore small dogs in the future, when chatting with our Slavic friends.

We rose good-humouredly, taking care not to meet the dog owner’s eyes, lest we trigger a bigger rumble. For this was physical violence of the most superficial kind, to be ignored as misadventure. But as we did not wish to mortify our host, by leaving his party too early, we skirted round the piano, & back towards the bar.

It was as the evening progressed, that we learnt the dark secret, which for the public good we now humbly impart. It came from being spoken to, by friend & stranger alike, about our little altercation. Somehow, everyone had noticed it.

Without exception, every man asked us, mildly & reasonably, “What was that about?”

And without exception, every woman asked: “Why didn’t you hit him back?”

So there you have the key difference between the sexes, statistically proved. Women are more violent.

This thought came to mind as we were listening to an analysis of the second U.S. presidential debate, earlier this week. The two candidates had been unusually forceful, in both word & gesture. The expression “fight night” came to one TV panelist’s lips, & it was suggested that the “town hall” format made the encounter resemble pugilism. There was a moment when Mr Obama had risen from his chair, & Mr Romney “walked him back & sat him down again.” This was taken for an aggressive act, & so, certainly, it looked.

Then came an absurdity. The panelists glibly agreed that Mr Romney’s behaviour would go over well with men, but poorly with women. Women, we were told, prefer the man who is gentle, sensitive, civil & courtly. They do not like it when men get shirty.

Yet, while they were saying this, some twitter comment from a woman flashed by. She said she’d been impressed by Mr Romney, “because he showed no fear.”

We are told too much about women these days, or rather, too little that is true. We have men & women both telling us constantly what women think: the men perhaps ignorant, the women perhaps liars. How wonderful, amid all that stupefying blather, to see an honest woman commenting for a change.

The majestic plural

We have been asked, by correspondents twa, to abandon the pluralis maiestatis. Both queries were from Americans who find the practice unbearably arch. It was abandoned two Popes ago at Rome, & by the present Queen in England soon after she ascended (only then to be parodied for, “My husband & I”). It is condemned as a fustian & pompous conceit, by one of our critics, who came close to making us squirm; & by the other, who didn’t, as an encouragement to grammatical error. Surely, he argued, “we ourself” is inadmissable into English. But if ever it was, it got by Queen Victoria, who was never shy with that reenforcing pronoun.

In Fowler no ruling we find; only his fear of confusing one “we” with another. Not that we looked very hard, for our habit is to work from vaguely remembered precedent. Indeed, over the years, having found delicious precedents, we have picked many fights with newspaper sub-editors. They would proudly flag what they took for a solecism, in a writer obnoxiously prim. But we’d be waiting with the quote from some “classic” English author, in which the act prohibited had been unambiguously performed.

As we vaguely recall from school days, the question at issue can vex only moderns, for in Middle English there were no distinctions of number in reinforcing or reflective pronouns. Some nevertheless think an “-en” ending could make these plural, but they are wrong & one will find e.g. “yourselven” addressed to a single person, passim, in the Canterbury Tales; & in the up-so-doun world of the Wife of Bath, when it takes two to tangle, they are singularly “ourselven tuo.”

It is worth asserting that the pluralis maiestatis, called by some journalists “the royal wee,” is different in kind from “the editorial we,” which does require consistent plurals. This is because the conceit is instead to be writing on behalf of some editorial board, or committee. Sometimes it is used to feign the very existence of a larger entity, in the manner of the Wizard of Oz. But we prefer to keep our conceits on a higher level.

Manuscript extractions

We share Robert Bork’s view of the Israeli Supreme Court — that it is the most liberal, activist, interventionist thing in the Orion-Cygnus Arm of the Milky Way — & stood ready to condemn it with a jerk of our knee, until we realized that the offending Judgment came from the Tel Aviv district family court. This was to take Kafka materials left by Max Brod to his secretary, & by her to her two daughters, & put them instead into the Israeli National Library. They must now emerge from flat & bank vault into the light of academic day.

Franz Kafka died of tuberculosis in 1924. He told Brod to destroy all his manuscripts, unread. Brod not only published The Trial, The Castle, Amerika, &c, but made a good living from them until his own death in 1968. The bulk of Kafka’s manuscripts, including diaries & correspondence, has long since been published; what remains to transfer is mostly Brod’s own scholarly & personal scribbling. The international media characteristically omit that little fact, acknowledged by the court in the assignment of future royalties to the sisters. They will need this income to pay the huge legal fees of the people who took their property, while demonizing them, in a case smeared over five years.

Let us admit to being a voyeur, for we have copies of all three novels mentioned above on our shelves up here in the High Doganate; therefore we needn’t mount too high a horse in protesting that Kafka told Brod to burn them. Each is a strange masterpiece (Amerika the strangest), & each conducts us towards real insight into the nature of our modern age (including, in the case of Amerika, its optimism). One might say: Kafka did not foresee Hitler, Stalin, or Obamacare, but did see through them. He gives memorable form & tactility, even humour, to nightmares.

Kafka’s stories anchor below politics, & below the malignant bureaucracies he depicts, in nature herself; & deeper into a kind of theology. His inspiration is essentially Hasidic, but it is a Hasidism twisted. Tales that he loved have been metamorphosed, through a personality that is fundamentally neurotic, sometimes on the verge of schizoid. From this dark he is presenting, in the final twist, man’s relationship with an inscrutable God. Now that we have them, these books are worth keeping, though we should read them in light of Kafka’s own self-doubt. At bottom he did not trust himself; & these are not books for children, or for the spiritually immature.

Has the author of unpublished manuscripts the right to burn them; or direct them to be burned, as an extension of that right? We think, yes. We think, to deny this right, when the author is not demonstrably insane, is to make him a ward of the Castle.

In this case, owing perhaps to Kafka’s own genius for confusion, paradox reigns. He used Brod sometimes as if he were one of the mysterious Officials, to whom he only surrenders ambiguously. None of these novels were ever completed, & in his editing, Brod, with a genius of his own, shaped them to his own conception of what a novel should be. It is unlikely that the ambitious scholarly effort to disentangle Kafka’s work from Brod’s, will get us to a better place. (It anyway requires work on manuscripts which Brod deposited in places like Oxford University; he wasn’t so irresponsible as the media accounts imply.)

Kafka’s peculiar voice & vision are captured in Brod’s structures, but when they are let out, as for instance in Kafka’s Letters to Milena (the most married & intelligent of the many women with whom he toyed) we glimpse a side of him we don’t need to know. For here is a man addicted to brothels & pornography, now posing as a puritan ascetic — performing vain & deceitful acrobatics to impress a sophisticated woman who pretends to understand him. Another mistress will be an illiterate chambermaid, another an earnest village schoolteacher; he seems attracted to a physical type. His relations with his father are similarly unedifying. He is extremely articulate, but he is often articulating nonsense, even in diaries to himself. His avoidance of war service through a job in the government insurance agency turns the bureaucracy schtick at a revealing angle; & his remarks on contemporary politics are consistently fatuous. Charming, when he wants, but unbearably self-serving: we didn’t need to know more, & shouldn’t have sought it.

We made the same mistake the other day by obtaining a copy of the latest & grandest edition of Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems. The editor has diligently aggegated all the Larkin sources, especially Andrew Motion’s biography, & reprints juvenilia & scraps from notebooks together with his exhaustive commentary to make a very thick book from what was previously a slim one. The net effect is to diminish Larkin, to encumber him with things not so good. True, in the odd quoted remark or passage from his correspondence, he is large, but his own carefully edited opus made him larger. And the more our attention is directed to the circumstances of his life & compositions, the more it is sidetracked from poems that resonate beyond those circumstances.

The modern mind, buzzing with & bleating for distraction, cannot leave well enough alone. The courts now assist in this process. From more & more we extract less & less.

Bats & the philosophers

Thomas Nagel’s latest work must have some merit: it has created a stir in the belfries. The book is, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. The author is the celebrated, John Rawls-trained, atheist and empiricist perfesser of philosophy and law at New York University.

I last checked in with Nagel some decades ago, in the days of “What is it like to be a bat?” — his bald philosophical paper of the ‘seventies, which argued that the question is deeply interesting. For after we have learnt every empirical thing that can be known about a bat, we still don’t know what it feels like. His paper was an attack on scientific reductionism, and must have been an early anticipation of his current large essay, in which he extends his attack to what we call “materialism” or “naturalism” at large. This invariably bestews an author in frankly Aristotelian pots of teleology (i.e. reasoning to final cause). For a universe consisting only of bona-fide stuff, evolving by bona-fide chance, and thus limiting itself strictly to efficient causes, would surely not bother with something so scandalously “inefficient” as consciousness.

The academic reviews of Nagel, from what I have seen in the electronic aether, are appropriately scandalized. The Neo-Darwinist Inquisition would hardly be worth its pay, if it did not promptly wax hysterical whenever a credentialled person drifts towards the shoals of Intelligent Design. This review in the Nation provides judge, jury, and summary conviction. These two in the Thrupenny Review provide some amusing sneers from the humanities gallery.

Nagel’s attack is dismissed as vague and amateur, since he has refused to buy into reductionist premisses to attack reductionism, and into naturalist premisses to attack naturalism. He stands further accused, by the Nation reviewer, of failing to abase himself in the presence of the high priests of empirical science. Can he not see that science gets results? Where is his Faith in Science? How dare he employ philosophical reasoning to an enterprise innocent of such dark things!

Now here is what we understand to be the Nagelian critique. A materialist or naturalist science should explain how things got the way they are, in terms that are ultimately plausible and likely. All the most obviously important results of the evolutionary process should be present and accounted for at the end of the day. And therefore, something as huge as consciousness needs explaining. Something so shriekingly volitional should not be presented as a kind of add-on or spin-off or side-effect or by-product of “sparks and drips at the synapses” (some Berkeley neuroscientist’s happy phrase).

Moreover, the “grey jelly” has an uncanny way, even in mere animals, of apprehending truths outside of itself. In the case of humans, 3 plus 5 equals 8 is astonishing: because it checks out with the universe; it emerges as an inescapable consequence of the “law of non-contradiction.” Math and logic are spooky like that, and so, as Nagel will apparently argue, are certain moral axioms. We may say that they “evolved” to assist us in survival; are “by-products of evolution”; but that doesn’t begin to explain e.g. “do as you would be done by.” This steps radically beyond what we required to deal with sabre-toothed tigers, into a realm of tautology (in the highest sense) that precedes (in the logical) any evolutionary explanation. If science means “knowledge,” as it formerly did, we will just have to deal with that bit, too.

This empirically-demonstrable fact of self-awareness, on the part of the universe in this location at least, is what lies under and behind the anthropic cosmological principle, towards which empirical science itself may be moving, on the strength of its unlikely discoveries. For we have a universe which, in no location, can ever be shown to neglect purpose. It does not merely spark and drip; it lays eggs.

Aristotle was not ahead of modern science in empirical research (how could he be, since that is cumulative?) but well ahead in his grasp that efficient cause does not complete the scientific transaction. Final cause may dance beyond our reach, but there it dances. Cheap parodies of teleological reasoning do not put it to rest: for if human beings had never asked “Why?” there would be no science. The Neo-Darwinians may try to arrest us at the boundary of efficient causation, but in the end their Berlin Wall will fall: for we have seen bright lights on the other side, and we want to go there.

From Paul, via Ephesus

There is so much said in the six short chapters of the Epistle to the Ephesians, that we cannot pretend to understand it all. Yet in outline, and essential message, it is plain sailing. There is an intense prologue, in two extremely long and involved Greek sentences, amounting to a hymn. This recounts the Blessing brought with Christ into our world. Cumbersome in translation, I once came close to hearing how it sings in Greek.

The hymn then segues into a kind of narrative solo: of Christ’s servant, Paul, apostle or “messenger” to the Gentiles, ending in a fervent prayer.

Tone and style change abruptly and quite purposefully, at the beginning of the fourth chapter, while remaining lyrical. We have an exhortation, in the unity of the Church, to the calling and duty of each member. This begins doctrinally, presenting what resolves into a schematic description of that Catholic, or universal Church; which is, “one body and one Spirit, … called in one hope; … one Lord, one faith, one baptism; … one God and Father of all, above all, through all, in all.”

This in turn devolves to relations between persons within that Church. The verses memorably include the central tenet of Christian matrimony, relating wives to husbands as Church to Christ. Paul invokes, here as everywhere, simplicity of heart, carrying into the reciprocal obedience and love owed between all children and parents, between servants and masters of all kinds. All share membership in their parts within one body of Christ.

And then, the clarion of true spiritual warfare, and the fight each Christian must fight, all for one and one for all. “For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.”

To which end: “Put you on the armour of God.”

From the salutation at its beginning, to its postscript commending Tychicus, Paul’s messenger and his old companion of the road, it is like the structure of a Bach Cantata. The Epistle to the Ephesians has provided the materials for a thousand commentaries and a million sermons. Most significantly, it does not merely “make an argument” for the claims of the Catholic Church. It unambiguously requires “the unity of Spirit in the bond of peace.” (That extraordinary line, which a recusant sonneteer from Warwick so tellingly inverted to: “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame.”)

That the Epistle was written at Rome, during Paul’s first captivity about anno 62, comes from the Tradition, much attested and nowhere contradicted. It also comes confirmed, by statements in the text; a text which echoes in allusion through the earliest Christian literature: in Justin, Ignatius, Hermas, Polycarp, Clement of Rome; and too, in the Didache, since it was rediscovered. Origen and Jerome have not the slightest doubt of its authenticity or its authorship; even Marcion the heretic takes this for known.

There is a fair question whether the Church at Ephesus was the addressee, or rather more likely the point from where the Epistle was disseminated to the farther reaches of Asia Minor; for we know from Basil and other sources that the words “at Ephesus” were missing from the earliest manuscripts. But this is not a mildew question; it invites an understanding that is fresh, of a doctrinal authority that is unmistakeable.

Was Paul the author?

I have, on my shelves up here in the High Doganate, though perhaps not for long, a modern (1998) commentary on Ephesians of more than 700 pages, on each of which this is taken as an open question. Rather than dare say “Paul” the writer diligently substitutes “AE” (for “Author of Ephesians”), in deference to modern textual scholarship, which takes everything as an open question, and can make any factual assertion, however plain or innocently made, into an issue for perpetual, unresolvable disputation. By this means we are distracted constantly, and at tremendous length, from the Scripture itself; as ultimately from the chance of our Salvation.

Indeed, almost any modern commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians, whether nominally Catholic or Protestant, heads straight into the weeds from the first word, which is, “Paulus.” The same who (at 4:25) puts lying at the top of his list of sins his Christian readers must avoid. Are we to take it the Epistle was written instead by some pretender, whose first word was a lie?

Yet even to state that is to invite another journey through the weeds, the more tortuous because it must be in the company of tin-eared scholars making confident judgements on Paul’s vocabulary, syntax, and style.

The Epistle was from the earliest times paired with that to the Colossians. The two seem sometimes to play one theme together like a pair of violas. From that ancient useful hint, one may solve almost any puzzle that comes to mind, about the relation of Ephesians to the rest of the Pauline canon.

And if we read it on the assumption of Paul’s authorship, we grasp immediately the reason for adjustments in voice from Paul’s other Epistles: for he is writing here not to a local church he knew at first hand, but to new Christians he has never met, in the Church Universal beyond them; and condensing, poetically, what elsewhere he had once had the opportunity, more prosaically, to spell out. Thus, in a sense, he is writing even more directly to us than in his other Epistles.

That we would shoot the messenger of bad news might be understandable in some circumstances. But why tamper with the messenger of Good News?

Up & about with Bill Tilman

One of the greatest pleasures in life, for those who were taught to read in childhood, is falling upon an unread book by a much-loved author. This happened to me, and if I add the scrupulously bibulous celebration of an old friend’s seventy-fifth birthday (now ten years retired as the last competent drawing master in what, before name inflation, was called the Ontario College of Art), I may explain the omission of posts on Tuesday.

The author was Bill Tilman (Major Harold William Tilman, CBE, DSO, MC and bar, 1898–1977), renowned mountaineer, pilot-cutter yachtsman, and raconteur, whose fifteen ridiculously understated memoirs of voyages and adventures supply something that went missing around the time of the Great War.

The book, entitled China to Chitral, is an account of wanderings up and through the mountains of Chinese Turkestan, especially about Urumchi and Kashgar, with his old climbing companion Eric Shipton in anno 1948. It could be praised at many levels, both for what it describes and what it ignores. Tilman crossed China westward when Mao Tse-tung and his Communist Revolution were sweeping the other way. But not once does Tilman mention this news, restricting his remarks on China and Chinese either to the timeless, or to the exactly particular. We hear more about a T’ang Dynasty general who led an army across the Pamirs against an alliance of Arabs and Tibetans, in anno 747.

He spreads learning almost in spite of himself: “My theme is mountains, unsullied by science and alleviated with Chinese brandy.” A culinary anthology could be constructed from Tilman’s passing mentions of food, drink, and hard tack. From his climbing descriptions a reader may find the whole jargon of mountaineering self-explained. He minutely discerns birds and animals, glaciation and geology, without the slightest pretensions. He makes sharp anthropological observations on Kirghiz, Turkis, Kazakhs, Wakhis, Sherpas, Tungans — of a kind that could be made only by a man whose survival depended on getting them right. Yet he observes with a drollness that would be severely reprimanded today, by professorial experts who know nothing at first hand, and little true at second. And his way is lighted with innumerable aphorisms, both original, and derived: for he was a man of very broad reading, able effortlessly to insert the perfect, jaw-droppingly apt quotation, then improve on it with a light touch.

The inward joy is fully derived, from a view of life that is totally incompatible with that of the modern world. He is traveller, never passenger, and so he tramps or sails, compulsively taking the hard way over or around each obstacle. Several other twentieth-century English travellers shared in that attitude (Wilfred Thesiger is another of my heroes, Freya Stark among my heroines), but Tilman exceeds all in the gratuitousness of his assaults upon the world’s least habitable places.

He ascended Everest, for example, without oxygen and in weekend hiking boots and a tweed jacket, to an altitude of 27,300 feet, in 1938. He and Shipton were the first human beings to physically penetrate the inner Nanda Devi Sanctuary, similarly ill-equipped. There is a long list of such accomplishments, for which he was half-prepared at best. His soldiering in both World Wars, whether behind enemy lines or leading frontal attacks, was the stuff of legends.

And at the end of China to Chitral, upon hearing a false rumour that, during his absence from civilization, another World War had been declared, he says:

“There was no time to be lost. Modern wars are such long drawn out affairs that it would not be easy to arrive too late to take part, yet it would never do to commit such a solecism. In a terrible stew, hot-foot and resolved to march double stages, I set out for Gupis and the beaten track which I could no longer shun.”

The man writing that was already past fifty. He undoubtedly meant just what he said. Carefully read, the short passage communicates a masculine nobility almost gone from this world — a form of incorruptible flippancy which we correctly associate with those knights of old, who dared without hesitation, and laughed at everyone, especially themselves.

Why bats are often happier than poets

“We are using our own skins for wallpaper, and we cannot win.”

This was among the quotes we had on our office wall, in the old days at the Idler maga. Since media mediocrities are currently obsessed with issues of attribution and plagiarism, let me quickly admit that I knicked this line from John Berryman (1914–72), the American poet. (Dream Songs, no. 53.) Now, Berryman said he took it from the German poet, Gottfried Benn, and my fact-checking department has traced this to Benn’s essay, “Artists and Old Age” (of 1954, translated in Primal Vision, page 206):

“Your art has deserted the temples and the sacrificial vessels, it has ceased to have anything to do with the painting of pillars, and the painting of chapels is no longer anything for you either. You are using your own skin for wallpaper, and nothing can save you.”

Benn was in turn mischievously interpreting a remark by Thomas Mann. And, Mann was commenting on a very old theme which, arising within the trunk of the Classics, branched through every European literature. Artists, according to this ancient meme, must be tough, not least on themselves.

Or as I might explain this to a fact-checker: “We can never be free of the ancient world, unless we become barbarians again.”

That’s another quote, from the same wall. It is from Jacob Burckhardt, in his Historische Fragmente. (Do you want the original German? I have it here.) Though truth to tell, I had nearly attributed it to Emil Staiger. (Shows you the importance of checking.)

We are becoming barbarians again. And so we are using our own skins for wallpaper, as perhaps Berryman came to appreciate most fully as he leapt from a Minneapolis bridge, into the Mississippi River. (Fact-check alert: “He didn’t land in the river, but near the second pier on the west bank, then rolled fifteen feet down the embankment. But as the autopsy showed, he would have been dead by the time his body made contact with the river itself. Please correct.”)

Berryman was an alcoholic. (You cannot libel the dead.) He was arguably manic, but unarguably depressive. (“Bi-polar?”) He was a deeply unhappy man, in the grimly uncongenial environment of modern American academia (which had already hog-tied literature and art, and was working on music). He burnt through three wives (if we have counted correctly). He was even cast, by the fashion of his generation, into the sadly inappropriate role of a “confessional” poet, when he longed for escape from his own skin. (Confessional poets often kill themselves; Berryman, to his credit, outlived most of his contemporaries.)

A distressing ego he may have had, but there were other facets. Many students remembered him as tirelessly devoted, both tough and kind. As poet he was a painstaking craftsman, whose turns, breaks, and very gravid pauses, show him fanatically avoiding the easy way out. He’d worry himself sick about keeping jobs, and paying bills, and keeping the very families he was about to abandon. He’d drive himself to the border of his sanity; then crack, and hit the bottle; brag, womanize, fight, slather, lie; and make an excruciating ass of himself.

His last, posthumous book, Delusions, &c (far from his best, and burning out around the edges) was also his most interesting. In de-tox in 1970 he’d had what he called a “sort-of religious conversion.” Instead of an abstractly transcendent God, he came suddenly to think that God might be Personal; might be interested in each human fate; might be capable of interceding in individual lives. He hit the bottle again; quit, hit, quit; struggling, apparently, against this idea. And finally he left that garbled, fragmentary, versified witness to something partially understood.

O gentle reader, pray for him. He was one of the innumerable lost: men and women of huge gifts, able to sing, but given no song; given instead freedom without purpose. It is, if you will, not entirely distinguishable from that “American Dream” that we heard invoked too many times in two recent political conventions: the self-made man in the land of laissez-faire, where nothing is impossible and “history is bunk.” (Which is not to condemn a little entrepreneurship.)

The “dream” stands unknowingly opposed to, “gather from the air a live tradition” (Ezra Pound, plagiarizing Dante through Villon). The critique here is more fundamental than, “You didn’t build that!” (when the real horror is often that they did). Men cannot lift themselves by their own ankles; they need that current of air to fly. They need even to be pointed and launched towards the Heaven. They need pillars to paint, and chapels, too. More than a country, they need a civilization.

Forty years have now passed since his passing. I remember from adolescence the thrill of Berryman’s “Henry,” and the strange architectonic of his Dream Songs; the hard poetical pedagogy in Berryman’s Sonnets, and the high lyrical pitch of his Love and Fame. (Though, Mistress Bradstreet made no sense to me.) I remember him showing me to the door of Emily Dickinson, and cutting a new trail through the Forest of Arden. And then, how I puzzled in the crash of his Delusions, and how he lay crumpled in a vaguely Catholic heap, after his Icarian fall. (Let God alone judge him.)

Turning a few more pages through the Dream Songs:

Bats have no bankers and they do not drink
and cannot be arrested and pay no tax
and, in general, bats have it made.

Comparative intelligence

Crows are very clever; laboratory bird testers, not so much. Here, a simple case of correlation is presented as inference of a hidden causal agent.

Crows have been acing correlation tests since the day God created them. (One indication of how intelligent they are: I have never seen a crow reading Discover magazine.) They can trace causal agents on a scale so microscopic as to be non-existent; and they can infer things so subtle, that people who realize scream and run away.

But ravens, hooo! … Knock the smartest crow into a cocked hat. … They conduct empirical experiments on all the other species, and hide the journals  in secret places where they will never be found.