Essays in Idleness


Speaking truth to wieners

Big truths are more important than small truths & yet, the multiplication of little lies may have a huge compounding effect. Such is the case in the annals of commerce & advertising, when goods are purposefully misrepresented — called one thing when they are quite another. This is not unusual in contemporary trade, thanks to the collapse of guild principles. Nor has it been for decades now; centuries in some jurisdictions. Indeed, the lies have been bureaucratically standardized.

Consider, gentle reader, the wiener, sometimes more fondly called the frankfurter, when it is neither. It has become a commodity on North American supermarket shelves, spreading worldwide with a “simplified” form of the English language. It is made from pork, cheap fillers as available, industrial chemicals & nitrite preservatives, mashed down to a paste then very thoroughly cooked. There is no case for it. Quite literally: the ersatz casing in which it is gathered by machines is stripped off at a later stage in the manufacturing process, leaving a product as softly generic in texture as in taste: a kind of congealed pabulum, for baby’s first adventure in solid food. One might almost call it “democratic.”

Thanks to the proliferation of small ethnic butchers (in Parkdale, we estimate their average height to be 5-foot-6) we are able to obtain the real wiener. This is a cooked minced pork sausage, to be sure, without the unnecessary ingredients, but with subtle spicing. It is longer than an industrial wiener, thinner, & somewhat curved from the effect of natural physical tensions. Crucially, it comes strung in a highly edible casing, made from the intestines of sheep. This gives it the snap when it is bitten into. Texture can be as important as taste, as cooks know from France to Japan. But only the foodies in North America seem to have clued in, & they only half-consciously. There is also a taste component in this muttonish ring. Finally, these sausages are smoked in their casing, which accounts for their richly irregular golden colour, contributes much to their taste, & even a little to their feel, when handling. Note that this “smoking” is an art. It thus excludes the squirting of a vile liquid artificial flavouring into the antecedent machine mash.

Cooked meats do not need to be cooked, incidentally; unless the intention is to ruin them. To the fastidiously hygienic, puritanized American mind (a term in which we subsume all British North Americans), nothing must be eaten until sterilized. This is why the food exporters of the world send their very lowest grade of products to North America; for by the time we are finished sterilizing everything, there’s no taste anyway. The poorest of the poor in Third World slums demand more flavour. Whereas, our poorest eat something they call “vienna sausage,” which is industrial wieners cooked yet again, stuffed in small cylindrical tins, & eaten often directly out of them in the belief that if the tin isn’t blistered, the contents will be safe.

Verily, wieners may be heated through for a few minutes in not-quite-boiling water, but are good cold. With a fine bread, with a potato salad, with condiments such as horseradish, a mustard, or our adored Moroccan harissa, they are sublime. They are exquisite for picnics, & joy to the workman in his packed lunch.

Now, the wiener is associated with a Frankfurt butcher in Vienna in the early 19th century; a certain Johann Georg Lahner. From the German Wicked Paedia we find that he was actually Franconian Swiss. But the sausage of his fame was rightly associated with Frankfurt am Main, and has a traceable pedigree, to the 13th century. (Everything of value in our culture is of Classical or Mediaeval origin, unless of Oriental. All we have added is machines.)

Note that in Frankfurt the “frankfurters,” which they themselves now call “wieners,” were by tradition packed in boxes when shipped, the layers separated by parchment. This was the cause of their subsequent shape: for they would come out somewhat squared in section. And here we encounter another lie, for our manufacturers often imitate this shape, carried to America no doubt by German immigrants. It was like putting the yellow food-dye in the margarine, to conceal what would be in its nature a repulsive light grey.

Let us not live even by little lies. Let us demand real wieners & frankfurters, just as we demand the real Latin Mass!

Live not by lies

We learn that a young Hollywood TV star (of whom we’d never heard) has called the show in which he appears “filth,” & told his fans not to watch it. We suspect this was a poor career move, & are suitably impressed. The lad comes from the usual broken home, found drugs when his parents divorced, & has now found the Seventh Day Adventists, via televangelism. The trendline is looking up, & yet we fear for him, for he has chosen an heroic path for which he had no formation. And while the promises of Christ are true, always, the promises of televangelists are not so reliable. May God ready those who are not ready.

We live by lies, but we don’t have to. This item forwarded by an American reader, contains a further link to Solzhenitsyn’s immortal essay, spelling out what every Christian must do: Passively resist. This, as Solzhenitsyn said, is heroic enough. “The simplest and most accessible key to our self-neglected liberation lies right here: Personal non-participation in lies.”

As a child, of “post-Christian” parents, we nevertheless benefited from a fine example. For our papa persistently lost good jobs, & we came sometimes very close to desperate poverty. But he lost them because he was an honest man. He absolutely refused to tell lies, to participate in lies, or by his lights to live any lie. He took the consequences & of course, so did we. Our mama sometimes wondered about her husband’s good judgement, why he couldn’t just make a “little” compromise sometimes, but her loyalty to him was unshakeable. She had after all married him, having declined to marry some “better prospects” (she was a red-haired beauty; she had lots of choice). She had done so because she had decided, in an inspired & “irresponsible” moment, “You live only once, & I will marry a good man.” She married him indeed in the chapel of a sanatorium, when his recovery from tuberculosis was uncertain, & his career prospects were nil. Christian or not, we came from a good family.

We mention this because the argument is constantly made, by perfectly conservative people, that a man’s first duty is to feed his children. Yes, but not by bread alone. Papa did what was necessary to keep us in food, in clothes, & under a roof, even when it involved personal humiliation. But he would not lie.

A rich Polish Jew we know, who survived the death camp as a child with his mother, by jumping off a train, told us the worst thing to leave your kids is money. Money comes & goes, he said with authority, for he had watched lots of it come & go. “You leave them an example or you’ve left them nothing.”

It is not true that we are powerless. It is not true that politics are the answer. It is not true that we can do nothing because we have failed. These are among the lies for our rejection. It is not even true that we need friends to persist, though friends are very helpful; for there are moments when the truth may cost you every friend, & perhaps even your family. (“Do not suppose I have come to bring peace to the world. I come not to bring peace, but a sword.”)

This seems a hard way forward, but as Solzhenitsyn said, hard on the body. For the soul, he said, it is the only way forward, the only path clear. (“My way is easy, & my burden is light.”)

A Confederate aside

On the subject of daring offence, raised in our last post, we had occasion to be discussing Gettysburg recently with a certain gentleman in Texas. Our great hero from that American Civil War (the Third American Civil War, by a Canadian reckoning) was Robert E. Lee. As a schoolboy we first read of his exploits, presented to us in simplified form through a reader used at Saint Anthony’s School in Lahore, then West Pakistan. He was presented alongside Nelson, & Wellington, & Florence Nightingale & Grace Darling, as a figure larger than life.

It will be recalled that the British, & British North Americans, mostly cheered for the South during that war; though the descendants of the progressive types who had dressed ostentatiously as “American Patriots,” in London after 1776, naturally cheered for Lincoln. But in the main, especially up here in the Canadas, we were “in the bag” for the South; so much that Southern statesmen would come up here, to raise money.

Slavery wasn’t the issue for us, from either side. The Royal Navy had eliminated the slave trade on the open seas, & Governor Simcoe had made it illegal in Upper Canada from the first day. We did not hesitate to receive escaped slaves; for how many escaped slaves had fought bravely beside us as United Empire Loyalists during the First American Civil War; & for God, King, & Country during the Second Civil War, after the Invasion of 1812. Indeed, slavery was, by 1861, illegal throughout the British Empire. The attitude was, “Of course we’re against slavery, everyone is against slavery”; & “everyone” knew it would soon disappear from the U.S. republic. It was unsustainable in a Christian realm. (It had always been illegal in the Papal States, & been condemned by Catholic priests throughout the Western Hemisphere.)

As General Lee himself stated, emphatically, “This war is not about slavery.” One might enter into controversy on what it was actually about: in hindsight, the imposition of a more thoroughgoing “democracy” on an unwilling South, & of central governance on the naive defenders of “States’ Rights” under the U.S. Constitution. Lincoln & company were creating — unknowingly, to be fair — the basic condition for a Nanny State. It is homogenous rule over a vast area, from a single central location, by an agnostic power. (Lincoln himself was only dubiously a Christian.)

In France, as we have argued elsewhere, & will argue again, the major achievement of the Revolution was the transformation of local government. The French nation was changed, overnight in historical terms, from a polity of 60,000 parishes, each under its own unique & long-established customary form of self-government; to one of 36,000 “communes” governed absolutely identically, & answerable directly to an ever-increasing volume of decrees from Paris. Totalitarianism requires no less.

The South had remained agrarian, & varied, & in some respects almost feudal. The North was growing industrial, & urban, & attracting immigrants for its new “working class.” In effect, new forms of “wage slavery” were being invented for new methods of machine production, to replace superannuated forms of plantation labour. There was a clash of cultures deeper than any specific point of public policy, such that “slavery” became the political football. It could be used in the conventional political way: to demonize an opponent & thus avoid having to argue with him on questions that might be subtle.

Or so we were taught by Irish Patrician brothers in a backward school, modelled on British “public” (i.e. private) pedagogic traditions, in what had until recently been British India. And incidentally, this was taught to eight-year-old schoolboys. In retrospect, we feel ever more indebted to those seemingly demented green-sashed Catholics for their acuity. (Our post-Protestant father had sent us to them only because their academic standards were so high.)

As military tactician, General Lee stands accused of commanding Pickett’s Charge, uphill at Gettysburg to the centre of the Union’s forces. For it didn’t work. Our grandfather’s general, Arthur Currie, could equally be condemned for commanding the Canadian charge, up Vimy Ridge to the centre of the German forces. Except, that did work; & grandpa was rather proud of how it worked all the rest of his days, even though his horse was among the casualties. It is indeed surprising how often in history the uphill charge has worked, with the benefit of surprise. Unfortunately, at Gettysburg, General Meade was expecting it.

But we have wandered from our intention, which was simply to provide the following little packet of sayings, from Robert E. Lee. We found them on the Internet, but they made our hair stand, not only because they expound the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita, but because each was first encountered half a century ago, whenas we were a schoolboy at Saint Anthony’s, & first took Lee aboard as one of our biggest heroes.

Item, “Duty is the most sublime word in our language.”

Item, “Obedience to lawful authority is the foundation of manly character.”

Item, “Get correct views of life, & learn to see the world in its true light. It will enable you to live pleasantly, to do good, & when summoned away, to leave without regret.”

Item, “In all my perplexities & distresses, the Bible has never failed to give me light & strength.”

Item, “Never do a wrong thing to make a friend or keep one.”

Item, “It is good that war is so horrible, or we might grow to like it.”

Item, “I have been up to see the Congress & they do not seem to be able to do anything except eat peanuts & chew tobacco, while my army is starving.”

Item, “We failed, but in the good providence of God apparent failure often proves a blessing.”

The grisly cup

If press reports are to be believed, the Toronto Argonauts have defeated the Calgary Stampeders in the 100th meeting for Lord Grey’s Cup, 35 points to 22. Notwithstanding our opposition to professional sport, our freedom from nationalism, & our regret that Canadian football deteriorated from something resembling rugby in the mid-19th century, to something not resembling by the early 20th, we get kind of giddy over such things.

Our Yanqui readers would be able to follow the game, once it were explained there are only three downs. Too, the field is 10 yards longer, & more than 10 yards wider. Canadian end zones are also much deeper, & when a field goal is missed, the ball may remain quite delightfully in play. We also allow open-field kicking, adding aerial drama to the conclusion of a close game. Our goal posts anchor on the goal line, too, so that the need to avoid hitting them becomes an issue in long touchdown passes. Each team has one more player on the field, behind the line of scrimmage; there are no restrictions on backfield movements, & our clock stays running, adding to the general sense of urgency. Until quite recently: none of these cissy innovations such as the “fair catch” rule. The Canadian arrangements force a more daring offence, some wild turnovers, & a big kicking game. The American version is more like an extremely violent form of chess.

It should be further explained to our southern friends that the Canadian game is not descended from the American. The degeneration from rugby happened contemporaneously on both sides of the border; & the differences are almost all the result of later U.S. innovations that were not copied here. The original Harvard v. McGill matches were played to rules that would now appear Canadian.

As to the earliness of the Canadian fixture, one may look to the weather at these latitudes which, even at this time of year, may border on inclement. (We start earlier to compensate, in June.) Among the more memorable Grey Cup matches was the “Mud Bowl” of 1950, in which one player nearly drowned, the pea-soup “Fog Bowl” of 1962, played largely by ear when passing became impossible, & the “Ice Bowl” of 1977, which explains itself. It was, as we used to say, a man’s game, before covered stadiums were invented, & other forms of girlishness prevailed in the culture at large.

Our ancient mama, then a young nurse removed by marriage from Halifax to Toronto, recalls an earlier visit of the Stampeders to Toronto, to win the 36th Grey Cup in 1948 (against the Ottawa Rough Riders). She was impressed by the tallness of the visiting Albertans, their magnificent hats, by the amount of meat they were able to consume, & by their propensity to eschew cars & instead ride horses. Indeed, we believe that was the year in which a classic Canadian question of etiquette was first raised: to wit, Should one ask permission before riding one’s horse into the lobby of the Royal York Hotel? The answer is of course, No, forgiveness is always easier to obtain than permission.

Thoughts for Black Friday

“We never expected that the collapse of Western Civ would be good for the economy.” This is a line we’ve been using for several decades now.

Today is the day when we turn to the Drudge Report to read such headlines as: “Gang fight at Black Friday sale. … Man punched in face pulls gun on line-cutting shopper. … Woman busted after throwing merchandise. … Thousands of teen girls & young women rush Victoria’s Secret. … Video: Insane battle over phones on sale. … Mayhem at Nebraska mall where 9 murdered in 2007. … Shoplifter tries to mace security guards. … Police: Man left boy in car to buy 51-inch TV.”

And so forth. While acquiring groceries yesterday, up here in the Canadas, we overheard several fat ladies plotting their Black Friday shopping strategies. They knew the hours at which various shops would open: this one at 5 a.m., that one not until 6 a.m.; & outrage because another was “refusing” to open until its usual time. Toronto, even without celebrating Thanksgiving on the U.S. date, aspires to match Philadelphia for the bigger event on the morning after.

It’s not that people don’t have brains. It’s what they use them for. We were impressed that these ladies, who might pass quite plausibly for drooling idiots on most other occasions, were suddenly so sharp, so well-informed, so “committed.” Is this ground for hope? No.

Suddenly we thought of all those people who in distant antiquity (say, 1975 A.D.) sat with their families through huge Thanksgiving meals. There must have been many retail workers among them. And today, all of those have their minds fixed on getting up for work in the middle of the night; & going to a workplace that will resemble a piranha tank when the meat falls in.

And yes, this is good for the economy: for as long as economic health is measured in current statistical terms.

Therein lies the weakness of any mediaevally Toryish political philosophy, whose referents are quality & not quantity of goods, & which seeks some intangible “satisfaction” in the product of human labour. Which mobilizes intuitively on aesthetic issues. Which holds (as our mediaeval ancestors once did) that even War must be conducted in a high style, & under all kinds of ethical restrictions, & must absolutely exclude non-combatants.

And again, let us think of those Chinese. As we all know, they discovered gunpowder a thousand years before we did. But until very late in the day, & alas under Western influence, they didn’t use it even against the barbarians. They made, instead, beautiful firecrackers. For the notion had been instilled in them, that if one were to use such stuff to blow up human beings, one would certainly incur the Wrath of Heaven.

How quaint!

We have been thinking a lot about China through the last many weeks, for our bedside reading has been historical & archaeological, about the old Chinese west: “Sinkiang” or Chinese Turkestan through the centuries. As Kipling could have said, “What should they know of China who only China know?” Just as the American westward expansion floods light on the nature of America, so too did the Chinese westward expansion. Or rather, pluralize that, for their own Wild West was won & lost many times over the centuries.

Now in the T’ang dynasty, in the court at Chang’an, there were bureaucrats who understood supply-side economics, kept taxes therefore low but spread them widely (which generates much more revenue than the opposite, covetous “stick it to the rich” strategy). There has been, to our knowledge, little scholarly work done on this by the economic historians, who remain occidentocentric; & let us admit we are inferring from things read beside the point.

But what we say appears obvious: a vast Empire, comparable in scale to the United States or greater in relation to the world of its day, in which “capitalism” is flourishing & generating the wealth for huge infrastructural schemes, to say nothing of the immense standing army that besuits a “hyperpower.” Where also, technology has advanced far beyond that of any neighbouring realm, & often seems almost modern. Through fire signals along watchtowers, for instance, Chang’an could know within hours about trouble a thousand miles away. At sea or on land, it had forces ready. Expeditions could be mounted even to far Afghanistan.

It was an Empire which, like every other in history, finally collapsed upon itself, defeated by nomadic & semi-nomadic peoples it vastly outnumbered & whose technological inferiority was laughable; but whose will was greater. Through political disunity, China destroyed herself, & we have distant glimpses of what will happen in North America, when our own brilliant high technology is suddenly of no avail. Demographic things, like the reduction of the population to a fraction of what it once was, as an immensely complex system of food distribution comes to pieces, & few are prepared for subsistence farming. Empty cities. Savage alien rulers. The learning curve rising once again, straight ahead.

Two points were made above: about supply-side economics, & about the Wrath of Heaven. In the heyday of the T’ang, both were understood. In the collapse, neither could be remembered. The world, of course, is more complicated than that, yet we refer perhaps through these two, to aspects of a single point: for the boundary of Heaven & Earth is never quite certain.

To be in accord with Nature, & master her jungle of “supply & demand,” we must also master another part of Nature: the jungle within man. In politics, it is given to us to find ways to choreograph, & harmonize, the demands of Earth with the demands of Heaven — working not against, but with the grain, from the lowest to the highest. Only thus can we ever rise out of our lazy hapless squalor.

We have been reading also Paul, particularly the Pastoral Epistles, in which he is writing not to churches but to individual men. There & elsewhere through the Pauline epistles one is struck again & again not only by the fire & fury of his Faith, but by his reason & common sense in every practical matter. Read him answering such questions as, What sort of man do we want for a deacon? What sort of women will serve the Church well?

In reading such things, we hear echoes of Confucius: of universal principles at work in the regulation of human life, or “religion” as such regulation is called, from the Latin. We need upright officials. We need persons free of scandal to fill these offices; we need persons sufficiently formed that they will not succumb to the many corrupt temptations of office; we need persons who will earn respect, because they actually serve. We need men & women who haven’t risen too quickly, who won’t let power go to their heads. We need people from stable families, who have formed stable families. “Geniuses” we can do without.

Whether Paul is telling Timothy or Titus, or Confucius is telling Yen Hui, there are moments when it seems all the same. An example must be set, for the common people will be ruled by this example. Tyranny will not work; “do what I say not what I do” will not work. That way lies revolution.

We see in Black Friday the collapse of this conception of Order. And the sad thing is, it is the only conception of Order. There are no easy alternatives to it; there are no easy ways out. Mere machinery will never work on its own; no Constitution can save us from ourselves. The machine must be operated by good & capable women & men; by humble persons who honestly fear the Wrath of Heaven. Or, whatever the machine, it will crush us.

Our American Thanksgiving

Thanks to Internet, I have had more USA Mericans than Canadians reading my hack effusions, for more than a decade now. As a Loyalist, and not a Nationalist, I have welcomed that. To my mind, while we are separated by a very long border into subjects of two distinct Nanny States, we are all Americans. Our own immigrant ancestors landed more on that side of the line, than on this; and they and their descendants were only obliged to cross it in light of a Revolution which broke hearts and split families. (I have never liked schism.) Our hope of recovering our property Stateside diminishes with time. But you never know: I have Czech friends who never expected to recover their property.

It is a further misfortune that the day on which we celebrate Thanksgiving has become separated, by the statutes of the respective legislative assemblies. True, Canada is northward of most of those States, and so our harvests tend to fall earlier. But Thanksgiving does not fall earlier still in Alaska; and besides, the whole thing began on Baffin Island.

Our American Thanksgiving is a little different from the European harvest festivals, which were a little different again from the ancient Hebrew Feast of the Tabernacles.

Some forty-two years before the Mayflower, full of Puritans speaking “rights language,” was forced by winter seas to land not in Virginia but on Cape Cod; some twenty-nine years before the Jamestown landing, Martin Frobisher commanded the first British settlement attempt — in what we now call Frobisher Bay. With twenty/twenty hindsight, we can see why he was luckless. At the time his main problem was the ship carrying the building materials. It went down after hitting the ice. Alas, none of his intending settlers knew how to build igloos; nor how to distinguish fool’s gold from the genuine item, so that they loaded their remaining ships with worthless rock for the voyage home.

But they did know how to pray, and Master Robert Wolfall, their Anglican chaplain, “made unto them a godly sermon, exhorting them especially to be thankful to God for their strange and miraculous deliverance in those so dangerous places.” And an Anglican Eucharist was celebrated, in Thanksgiving for that deliverance.

Take note: “Deliverance.” For as any of our earliest European ancestors would aver, just being alive is a cause for Thanksgiving. Things may not be going so well for us today, but consider: we have moved past breaking rocks in the polar wilderness. Life could be worse than the crowds in the shopping malls will be tomorrow for Black Friday: though morally it might seem more of a decline.

Frobisher’s old-college try was even twenty-six years before our great hero, Samuel de Champlain, sailed to New France in the path of Jacques Cartier with his own first shiploads of intending settlers. He it was who founded the Order of Good Cheer at Port-Royal; who commanded our first grand, unmistakably Catholic, Thanksgiving feast — sharing out food with the Indians who had come in their amazement to watch. (Malicious sceptics in post-modern academia like to challenge every detail, but observe: they replace our tangible records with hypotheses gathered from the empty air.)

Deliverance is thus an intrinsic part of our American Thanksgiving; Deliverance, in addition to pumpkin and squash and fine turkey birds; Deliverance, as any old mariner would appreciate, from the perils we have seen, and too, from the perils we have not seen. We thank God for what He has given, and also for what He has withheld; for what He has permitted, and what He has denied; for what He has forgiven, and what He has prepared, in the fullness of His incomprehensible Splendour.

Confucius says

One may argue for years with a man who gets almost everything right, except the key point. Such has been the case with our Chief Texas Correspondent (see his various comments). Though surrounded by Catholic influences, he puts up a stand, reminiscent of the Alamo. He is in fact representative of the best in the USA “Tea Party” movement (that would be iced tea, in Texas). And we are generally well disposed towards the Tea Party types. They are, in the main, good-hearted “populists” looking back upon what they imagine to have been a populist Constitution.

It survived, largely intact until 1829, because it wasn’t. The U.S. Founding Fathers rightly distrusted The People, & therefore put checks & balances to restrain them. But they created an opening for mass market party politics, & the cart drove through. In a similar way, the Fathers of our Canadian Confederation tried to limit the inevitable horrors of democracy, by creating an appointive, backstop Senate & so forth. But they left the stable doors open, & the horses were soon at large.

The degeneration starts with pride, envy & covetousness; with the discovery that the government’s monopoly on force can be used to appropriate goods & services; to settle all the old scores by spite; to advance one’s class at the expense of another; to free the citizen from his moral obligations — all demands spoken in the name of the demos, the mob, The People, “equality” — from astride a tall wild horse.

The key point here is, strangely enough: God or Man? Will the order of a nation depend on God’s immutable commandments, or on “evolving” conceptions of right & wrong, & human decisions made day to day? From the start, in both countries, there was a tension between these two incompatibles. In United Statist terms, “One nation under God” was in play against “We the People.” To our view, in the end, the self-worshipping People have won; & perhaps Christ has left them to get on with it. Our theory is that Christ goes where He is wanted, & leaves when He is not. He has gone, perhaps to Africa.

We put it that way in the full knowledge that we will be treated as mad, by the atheist Enlightened. Their reaction might be, “Have you been to Africa lately?” To which we might reply, “Have you checked on those Vandals & Huns?” The Europe that was raised by the Church from savagery to the highest pinnacles of civilization started with unpromising tribal material. It took centuries to Christianize them; centuries through which heresy often flourished within the Church herself. Some centuries from now, we may look to Africa again, as the centre of our human world; to the magnificent cathedrals of Africa  — Europe having returned to its barbaric condition, & America with Europe. Already, we are in more need of missionaries from Africa, than Africa is in need of missionaries from us.

Back here in the 21st century, let us not pretend that democracy can save us. The voice of The People is not the voice of God. Humility, not arrogance, offers the only way forward; meekness in the face of both God & our neighbour.

For “secular” political instruction, we could turn to the Chinese. Not, however, to those of the last few centuries, but to the sages of the Han, the T’ang, & the Sung Ch’ao. They were blessed with the wonderful Confucian doctrine that, when political life has degenerated, we need 正名. In English we call this a “Rectification of Names.”

That is, we must return to using words correctly, to mean what they mean, to infer what they infer. We must escape from the imperium of Humpty Dumpty, wherein words mean what we want them to mean. Proper use of language has in itself the power to restore customary order & relations between persons; & therefore obedience from below, & benevolence from above, within the natural human hierarchy; a place for everyone, & everyone in his place. Take such words as Confucius himself flagged. On marriage for instance: “husband” & “wife.” Then, “father” & “son.” Then, “elder” & “younger.” Then even, “ruler” & “subject.”

And let us recall, as Confucius himself, that the truth is liberating. For this we do not even need Christianity: only the will to rise out of our depravity again.

Cherchez la vanille

Granted, we are of a paranoid disposition, though most of our expectations are realized. Our current dread runs along the plot line of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a movie watched in our distant youth. Except, in our paranoid fantasy, it is not giant melons that are invading the Greater Parkdale Area, rather long thin wiry vanilla beans. We haven’t actually seen any of these lately, except the one we keep stuffed into a wee narrow bottle with rum, for culinary purposes. We checked our cupboard, & it appears to be still safely under cork.

But in the last week, three eerie things have happened. First, we were offered a blended Canadian rye, curiously branded “Spicebox,” whose maker claims to offer the palate “notes of pepper & fruit, complimented with hints of vanilla & dried spices.” In our humble but aggrieved opinion, the only flavour “hinted” was the rye. The rest of the suggestion list vanished behind an overwhelming vanilla flash, of the kind we associate with artificial extract. The colour was also suspiciously rich. Well, that wasn’t our first unpleasant experience while drinking whisky. And the label gave fair warning.

Next, we ordered a cup of coffee with a hot liver sandwich in a local greasy spoon. It was a day later, & we were still trying to efface our Spicebox memory. Now, this is a reliable Inner Parkdale establishment, whose cooks & waitresses change only with death. Neither liver nor white bread nor gravy, nor the tinned vegetables on the side, were unusual in any way; but the coffee seemed to be laced with vanilla. On enquiry, we found it was indeed some novel brand, & that the proprietor thought he had gone slightly upmarket. It wasn’t our imagination: everyone had complained.

Lightning may strike twice, but with tea this evening, up here in the High Doganate, we heated then buttered a scone. This was from a respectable bakery, in another part of the GPA, which could be forgiven for no longer understanding that scones are not meant to be cake-like in consistency. No one in the Province of Ontario seems to get that any more; our British heritage is leaching away. Ask for a “tea biscuit” & one will get something closer, but still not near. What can we do but offer it up? Yet again, we weren’t prepared for the shout of vanilla that came out of the innocent-looking thing.

As we used to say at the Idler magazine, “Once is misadventure; twice is coincidence; but three times is enemy action.” We wonder if gentle readers have had similar experiences. If so, & in light of recent electoral indications that zombieism may be on the march – to say nothing of what we’ve seen on the streets throughout Greater Parkdale – it may be time to sound the alarm.

The clincher is this report from National Public Radio on the latest Mars mission. It seems scientists are working to confirm a major discovery by the Curiosity Rover. They won’t say what it is until December. But if what they’ve found resembles stalks of vanilla, we’re done for.

From X to ex

Our column yesterday in the Catholic Thing (cliquez ici pour la version française), on the general slouchment, seemed to touch off a discussion on the disinclination of Catholics to be Catholic. This was expressed statistically in that Yanqui election, wherein government healthcare proposals that will create a crisis of conscience for every faithful Catholic, & end inevitably in the destruction of Catholic charitable institutions, were greeted by Catholic voters in this way: about half voted for the party that would bring on the Persecution, & half voted against. Let us expand on what we said in comments to the comments, over there.

When we were writing for a certain daily in Ottawa, we were often warmly criticized by the secular humanists for persistently mentioning Christianity in a family newspaper. And as if that weren’t irresponsible enough, we would go farther, & specify Catholic Christianity. One of the complaints to the Ontario Press Council against our habitual tendency to political incorrectitude stated that we “openly admitted to being Catholic.” But not only the secularoids were disturbed by our experiment; for we took heat from self-identifying Christians, too, & usually from “Catholics” among those. Dragonfire came regularly from a fellow columnist, who accused us of espousing “Benedict Catholicism,” which she seemed to equate with child molesting. By other Catholics we were frequently dismissed as a “mere convert,” as an upstart or arriviste, for taking some doctrine or other “too literally.” On several occasions, we were even condemned by a self-identifying Catholic priest.

For instance, when we indicated opposition to the practice of abortion in one column, we received a memorably intemperate email from one urbane priest in Quebec, accusing us of misogyny & intolerance & giving Catholics a bad name. In retrospect, we regret not having pushed “Send” on an email forwarding his note to his Bishop with the query, “From what seminary did this man graduate, & have you closed it down yet?”

Ottawa is an ex-Catholic town, Toronto more ex-Protestant, & so the flavour of Catholic anti-Catholicism is different between the two. Toronto ex-Catholics (& we are using this term presumptuously) tend to be more laid back. The Ottawa ones can be virulent, & even when of the Irish heritage, to have adopted post-modern French Canadian attitudes towards Holy Church. That is, there is nothing a Pope could say that would not inspire them to do the opposite. For which reason we have sometimes thought a Pope should send a special encyclical to his flock in Quebec & Ottawa, instructing them to discard every teaching in the Catechism & never to attend a Latin Mass. Within weeks we would have seven million new saints, & the streets of Montreal cluttered by pilgrims saying their Rosaries & singing the Angelus at the stroke of each hour. (In Latin, to the consternation of Quebec’s language police.)

Yet, conversely up here in the Great White North, we have found that lapsed Roman Catholics may take great umbrage at the employment of such terms as “nominal,” “cafeteria,” or “lapsed.” They, who apparently go back generations, will not be told what’s what by some upstart, or arriviste, or as one high-toned older Catholic woman called us, about ten times in a five minute rant, a “Baby Catholic.”

In thinking about this we have come to realize that we are using the term “Catholic” in quite different senses. For us, it refers to something like a religion. For them, however, it is a tribal thing, an ethnicity: often qualified for precision as, “Irish Catholic,” “Polish Catholic,” “Italian Catholic,” & so forth. That is what makes them “authentic” & therefore qualified to speak on behalf of all the other Catholics — in the same way as, say, only women may speak about women, or only blacks may speak about blacks.

They all have “feelings,” & thanks to those, they are able to apprehend Catholicism in its totality without any reference whatever to its intellectual premisses.  Christ, because He can never be surprised, would not be surprised to learn that they have “felt” their way into a better understanding of what He meant by all the things they haven’t read in the Gospels. In particular, they “feel” that they are good people, who have never done anything bad & have therefore no need of Confession. Some even feel themselves to be “traditional” because they were married in a church & attended a “very traditional” Novus Ordo Mass at Christmas; to say nothing of a funeral which they found “very comforting.”

In a similar way, the lapsed Scotsman has sometimes been seen in a kilt, & singing “Auld Lang Syne” at New Year’s. (Few go as far as to eat the haggis.) In an age of cultural desiccation, one clings to decorative fragments of the past.

There are some who do, however, consider Catholicism more a religion than an ethnicity; or more precisely some kind of opiate, or brainwashing cult; & these self-identify as “Recovering Catholics,” omitting the ethnic tags. Ottawa seems especially to be crawling with customers so self-styled, & we imagine rooms set aside in government & corporate offices where these people hold their alternative rituals.

Yet one should not only mock. For we have encountered, among these “recovering” & “tribals,” people who are haunted by priestcraft in more telling ways.

We think at this moment of a lady on her third marriage, suddenly provided with her first child. Further provided with her fourth drink, she expressed concern about the fate of this child. She wanted to get him baptized. To this end she had several times stolen into a church, to attend some portion of a Mass with the intention of collaring the priest afterwards. In each case she had lost her nerve & fled. In her cups she made an extraordinary statement: “I know that I’m going to Hell. Sometimes I think I’m in Hell already. But I don’t want my child to go there, I want him to be saved!”

Here was a woman who could easily pass, in daylight hours, for a glib lapsed Catholic.

Her confusion about the Church was heart-rending. Nor did it seem possible to set her straight. She was actually convinced a priest would decline to baptize her child because she’d been remarried; or for some similar solecism – of hers. She wanted help in finding a priest who would perform this baptism “illicitly,” without being told who the parents were. And more; & more.

This story does not have a happy ending, so far as we have been able to follow it. We suspect the lady “solved” her terribly misunderstood problem by putting it progressively out of her mind. The failure of the Church to teach or guide or console this woman, herself born into a Catholic cradle, was apparent in all her pain. Our own failure to compensate for this larger failure counts within that. Perhaps most discouraging: the indifference to her fate, & that of so many like, from the bleary world of the diocesan bureaucracies, compiling their numbers. Baptized herself, she counts as a “Roman Catholic” for demographic purposes. But her son will not, unless Christ intercedes.

The end of Twinkies?

At last, people begin to understand. It’s not just some abstract end of the world. It’s the end of Wonder Bread. It’s the end of Ding Dongs. It’s the end of Twinkies. Hostess Brands Inc. have shut all their factories. Many thousands of employees who decided to strike a company that had twice filed for Chapter Eleven protection also begin to understand. They may now wave their little signs in perpetuity.

Except, not so fast. Those bidding auction-room prices on eBay for “the last box of Twinkies” may soon find that the liquidators have sold the brands, together with the industrial recipes. Twinkies may rise again. Maybe they’ll start making them in China. They are imperishable after all. One could ship them from anywhere.

One hardly knows what to think. Up here in the High Doganate, we are shockingly indifferent to the fate of Twinkies. Our view was that a person who puts that in his mouth needs the rest of his head examined. But not by us. We are snooty and elitist up here. By the standards of the Greater Parkdale Area we probably count as a foodie. We did eat a Twinkie once, or something very similar; just as we once tried Beondegi, the popular Korean snack, made from steamed silkworm pupae (and not from maggots as commonly supposed). You only live once, and not long at that, as the philosophers have observed. In neither case did we finish the serving. Given starvation, and a choice only between the two — between a tin of Beondegi and a box of Twinkies — well, we preferred the seasoning of the silkworm pupae.

But we are not Mayor Bloomberg. We wouldn’t try to discourage members of the urban proletariat from buying Twinkies, or soda pop in gallon jugs, or any of the other products of post-modern capitalism. We would drop the ridiculous health messages he and his ilk now propose to stipulate. We have never liked half measures.

No, we would do nothing of the kind. At least, not until we have the vice squads in place for the Aesthetic Division of our new “Rapid Reactionary” model police. This paramilitary force, which we have often imagined, would conduct dawn raids on the supermarkets, removing from the shelves everything deemed ugly, purely on the basis of external packaging. Even the milk would go, if our cops found it being sold in these 1.33-litre plastic “bladder bags.” Indeed, anything sorted into metric portions would be a candidate for our Lists.

We have never felt comfortable telling people how to live. Not when we can reduce their options by direct action.

A literary widow

Valerie Eliot, the widow of Thomas Stearns Eliot, died Friday in London, a little less than half a century after her husband. We caught a glimpse of her once in the London Library: a magnificent dowager empress of a woman. She donated a substantial part of the huge copyright earnings from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical, Cats (based on Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book) to an expansion of that most Alexandrian of all private libraries, in the north-west corner of St James’s Square. But at the time we saw her, she was there only to borrow books.

Eliot had once been president of that library, founded by Carlyle in 1841. We resented the expansion, unreasonably, because it involved the destruction of the old philosophy bunker, many floors up top of one of the newer columns of an extraordinary three-dimensional labyrinth. To find it required first locating a succession of three different staircases (two of them helical) through meanders in which one glimpsed, through iron floor grates, book stacks over stacks dropping many storeys down.

“Bunker” was the word, for that particular column of the library was built of poured concrete, & the room at top housed numerous ancient folio volumes, many of them with shrapnel still embedded from a German bomb in the last World War. One long shard had passed all the way through An Essay Concerning the Human Understanding, with supplementary treatises by John Locke, pinning it permanently shut. (Who says there is no God?) No one ever seemed to visit that room, & for several years we appropriated a little oak school desk, on runners by a south-facing window. We visited almost daily, leaving our notebooks & other low-value equipage in a bottom drawer, never to be disturbed. Our heart seizes up with nostalgia when we remember that room, & so many others in the London Library, including the rather grand, high, L-shaped formal Reading Room, where magnificent old toffs slept in wide cushioned armchairs, with the old broadsheet Times covering their faces, rising & falling with their snores.

How often, in London, we preferred the Luftwaffe’s alterations to what was rebuilt post-War, in a 1950s style one architecture critic dubbed, Late Georgian Bomb Damage. But the London Library expansions all happened the day before yesterday. Money is a terrible destroyer of character. The buildings are now climate-controlled & wheelchair accessible, if you know what we mean. When we last walked in, we hardly recognized the place, & a new generation of PR-trained, smileyfaced staff had replaced all the high-collared ghosts, who looked at one disapprovingly, & were pellucidly unhelpful. We had stepped into the future, where everything is “nice.”

Not that we blame Valerie Eliot. Instead we blame Margaret Thatcher, for making Britain prosperous in an ugly age. It was still such a beautifully decaying & dysfunctional, class-ridden ruin in the 1970s. That much we can say for socialism. By the 1990s we had people with truly vile accents, dripping with their gains from the most vulgar imaginable economic activities.

This piece in the Daily Telegraph, by an unusually well-informed hack, celebrates the passing of literary widows. Mrs Eliot, along with Sonia Orwell, Natasha Spender, Kathleen Tynan, & Mrs Cecil Day-Lewis, were among the formidable legion, all now finally dead. As Peter Stanford writes, they were mostly second wives (the first having conveniently predeceased), decades younger than the famous men they married. Each lived on, tenaciously to fight for her husband’s reputation, & to fulfil the actual requirements of his will. The idea of a devoted wife became in the meantime so alien & unbelievable, that they were made into “pantomime villains,” to whom the lowest motives were casually assigned. But in the case of Valerie Eliot especially, a formidable woman who could hold her own against the filth.

Her greatest accomplishment consisted of decades of implacable opposition to biographers intent upon invading T.S. Eliot’s private life, & thereby depriving him of his dignity. A capable scholar, she took control of the editing of the poet’s letters & manuscripts; & shrewdly managed the estate to raise the considerable sums with which to endow not only the London Library, but the English department of Newnham College at Cambridge, & many other arts & literary institutions. A figure of the Establishment she was, & as her husband once became — among the more remarkable accomplishments of a man who was essentially a chain-smoking bohemian. For he was also a Christian; one who could still conceive Christendom as an Establishment, to be inhabited & served.

In the kingdom of Whatever

We do not like Daylight Savings Time (why would we?) but can say this much for it. Once every year, it gives us a publicly-recognized opportunity to set all our clocks back one hour. While this is hardly sufficient to erase centuries of Error, it is a satisfying gesture. Voting no longer gives us that sort of thrill. “Those bastards never set the clock back a single minute,” as Evelyn Waugh explained, to some dimwit or other, who asked why he wouldn’t vote even for the Tories. (No doubt apocryphal; the best quotes usually are.)

Our American readers are reminded to set their clock backs this morning, if they haven’t already. And as it is now the first Tuesday in November of a Leap Year, “vote often & early for James Michael Curley.” Had we the energy, & a car, we might be tempted to drive down to Ohio, & impersonate dead Americans in a dozen voting precincts. But then, we would probably overcome the temptation.

As a former newspaper pundit, we are ashamed to say, we would be capable of talking gentle reader’s ear off with comments on polls, their background assumptions, the underlying demographic facts, the partisan trends & their causes; the conclusion of which would be that we’re not sure who will win. Without enthusiasm, we support Mr Romney’s “Mormon-Christian coalition,” or at least, have long been on record against the Obama Nation that makes desolate.

But the Archbishop of Phila, the estimable Charles J. Chaput, makes a more sober point. Read this. And do not weep, for as he says, “it has always been this way.”

Verily: our Kingdom is not of this world.


To which we might add, that His Grace, in the item linked, touches upon vast history, through Brad Gregory’s recent book, The Unintended Reformation, which we have promised ourself to read. In our experience, people (a term we use to include Catholics) know little to nothing about the Reformation, & this mite floats on the breeze of centuries of half-remembered sectarian propaganda.

Consider this remark:

“Late mediaeval clergy too often preached one thing & did another. Greed, simony, nepotism, luxury, sexual licence, & schism in the hierarchy created an intolerable gap between Christian preaching & practice.”

True, but note the qualification. Let us distinguish between “too often,” & “always.” The point here is that the Protestants did not finally focus upon the greed, simony, nepotism, &c, rather used it to support attacks on the doctrine itself, by which such crimes were ultimately defined. (How often, back in the days of the Cold War, we found ourself painfully obliged to defend corrupt & hypocritical allies in places like Vietnam, against supposed “morally pure” Communists, who would not merely depose them, but impose a tyranny that turned morality itself upside down.)

Corruption there was in many places, but also, exemplary works. In England, for instance, on the eve of Henry VIII’s sack of the monasteries, it is necessary to go through them case by case. Some were in an appalling condition; some were shining lights; & many were somewhere between. We should not easily accept a caricature, in which the worst cases are taken as typical. (Read Eamon Duffy, for instance, & through his bibliographies, find much more.)

It should also be remembered that the arguments of the Reformers were themselves the product of the later Middle Ages. Reckless anachronism recasts them, through eyes that are looking through the history backwards.

“Our side” did not consist of perfect little choirboys. No side of anything ever did, for this planet is diseased. Conversely there was good in the worst of the Reformers; the good that God had put there. And while there is plenty of better & worse to argue, the argument itself leads us astray. For the issue was not the assignment of Brownie points, but the integrity of Christendom.