Essays in Idleness


An alteration of course?

My sense of things, when Pope Benedict resigned, is my sense now: that we have rounded the cape, that we are in a new ocean. There is a new man at the helm of our barque: the first to have become a priest after Vatican II, the first Jesuit, the first from the New World, &c. That his “style” is a radical break from the last is already apparent. His choice of the name “Francis,” unused by popes over all these centuries, was our first indication. It is as if the polarities were reversed at Rome, & the strange dishevelled saint of Assisi, who was absolutely loyal to the resplendent papacy, now receives the fealty of the robes. I am convinced there is a Hand on the hand of our tiller.

There will, perhaps, be other popes from Europe, but Benedict XVI may still come to be remembered as the “last European pope,” & his resignation to be pregnant with that spiritual message. Here I am not using the term “Europe” geographically; nor would I dream of dismissing the popes who came before, now a heritage to all ages. It is to Europe as the Christian culture I am referring. It began destroying itself in the Reformation of the 16th century; in the time since 1914 it has completed this task, with greater & greater urgency. I am at one with Hilaire Belloc, & Pat Buchanan, & many others in taking this view.

But it does not make me giddy with excitement. I will myself live & die a “European,” for I was formed in that shape; & even though so much of my own earlier life was lived in farther Asia, from my parentage I could not have become anything but a man of the West. It will be the same for most of my readers: we are what we are.

It is a bit like being an old Jew in the early Church, in this New World full of Gentiles. The European, the American sense of being the “chosen people,” the specially enlightened, adheres to us still. But the old Temple is gone; has crumbed, & will be buried in an archaeological stratum. Europe has gone, & in its going scattered the seed of Christianity to the ends of the Earth. Many peculiar customs of Europe will persist, but transformed in new soils & new climates; & we will not live to glimpse some dear familiar folds in the faces of the children of our children’s children.

Here is a son of Piedmont: removed somehow to Buenos Aires, “to the ends of the Earth.” Tied to Italy by one last thread, he still speaks some words in the old Occitan. The thread is inseverable; but a time will come when we can no longer trace it along its full length.

“Religion” & “culture” are two different, though closely & mutually related things. Christianity could not account for all the differences between Spaniards & Englishmen, Germans & Italians, Frenchmen & Poles, Europeans & Americans, even within the Catholic Church. Religion unifies, culture diversifies. The “highest” culture will always be religious, because religion, revelation, God, penetrate most deeply the soul of man qua man. Religion is the music; culture is our song. The culture fashions the religion into a new song. But religion raises & inspires & is its principle of life. A culture freed of religion dies; falls into silence, as if the music were taken out of the song, the soul out of the body. Europe, in freeing itself “progressively” from its Christian heritage, has performed its suicide, for centuries in slow motion, ever quicker towards its end. Over the last several decades it has fully embraced what an old pope called “the culture of death,” & the next called “the dictatorship of relativism”: the culture of glibness; of pure self-adornment; the nihilism that whispers, “one thing is as good as another,” then howls its last out of empty despair.

The seed is now planted abroad; Christ has moved on from where He is not wanted. Yet, too, He remains in our midst, wherever He is wanted. The Europe within Europe is not entirely dead, as we are reminded by the gatherings in St Peter’s Square, by the “youth days,” & by the life that continues in the churches where the Mass is still sung with reverence — even before tiny congregations. There is still some spark of life in the old girl; she is still refusing to be euthanized. But she is surrounded by her hollow children, determined to kill her & take her goods.

There are moments when, even as an old European, I think we should blow up the cathedrals, rather than let them fall into enemy hands; just as our ancestors blew up their forts, rather than surrender them to enemy uses. But no, let future generations see their beauty, even in their ruin. Let them know that Europe was not always a dance of death in the pigsty of consumerism; that we once put our wealth & all our art at the feet of our Saviour.

A great majority of Catholics now live outside Europe, & the Rome of the Vatican is once more being transformed into the capital of a different kind of “empire.” The faces of the cardinals streaming out of the conclave were still in their majority white, but this may only be the case for another generation. The churches within Europe, & in Britain, Canada, the States, have been filling with new faces. The “white man’s world” is passing into history, faster within the churches than on the streets. More & more, the Christianity of Europe & America is being imported.

These are things that go beyond the election of Pope Francis, but to which his election now points. He is an old man, with sciatica, on one lung; we cannot expect to have him with us for long. We can, however, believe that God has entrusted him with a mission, upon which he is acting with the energy of a youth. We can expect that some of it will be incomprehensible to us, in a way perhaps as Francis of Assisi was incomprehensible at first to so many of his contemporaries, who saw in him very worrying departures from conventional religious custom, & did not yet see that he was heroically loyal to the Church; that he honoured the Magisterium, & had come not to destroy but to renew.

Christ, I believe, is bored with Europe, bored with our wealth, bored with our sleaziness, bored with our narcissism, sick through the nostrils with our Paris perfume. He will never, however, be bored with our hunger for the Bread of Life. We must rise & be on our way: Europe has died, & Christ liveth.

Smoke & the mirrors

“We want a Pope for young people,” sez the current top video item on the Beeb, & looking about the media we find that a Pope is wanted for some other things, too. It is time, I read, for a Pope from Africa, from USA, from South America, from Canada. Even when they are not being especially malicious, the media are obtuse. They do not grasp that the papacy is not a representative government, except in the sense that it represents God to man, & man to God.

Yet this is obvious. Why can’t they get it? You don’t have to be Catholic to grasp the principle of the thing. But brains are baffled by the received ideas of any age. We can see this clearly enough when viewing, say, the 10th century through 21st century eyes. It is the beam in our own eye that we cannot see. And yes, there is an explanation for it. (Original sin breeds false consciousness.)

“Lord do not send us the Pope we deserve.”

It is true I have favourites, for instance Angelo Scola, Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, former Patriarch of Venice; or Raymond Leo Burke, Cardinal Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, former Archbishop of St Louis. But I know these men only through other men who have known them, & I have done little more at firsthand than kiss the ring of a couple of others. I have disfavourites, too, but will not be so stupidly invidious as to name them. I am working from the same kind of vague & often wrong & misleading information that is provided through our media of communications to any general electorate, when making their foolish choices among self-seeking politicians. The Pope isn’t elected like that. Perhaps I am better informed than most; but not a fly on the wall of the Sistine Chapel.

That is where one must be to see what is involved in the choice; & some hopeful trust is required that for all their moral, intellectual, & spiritual limitations, the 115 who are locked inside will be listening through prayer for God’s opinion.

Sandro Magister mentions Michelangelo among the electors, in a recent post. For the cardinals have been locked up with his Last Judgement; & with the prophet Jonah, turned to face our common Maker, Who is separating the light from the darkness at the Creation. Jonah, the prophet sent by God to convert the pagans; the prophet who, with his human sense of justice, regrets that God shows mercy to Nineveh; until by a vision of the Creation, some part of the mystery of God’s Love unfolds before him. Christ took upon Himself “the sign of Jonah”; of a justice & a mercy beyond human understanding.

It is an extraordinary place, which through the genius of popes & artists, & by the trumpet of the Gloria, speaks comprehensively of the Keys, which Christ passed to Peter. The frescoes on those walls, the images placed throughout that chapel & in its vaults & recesses, sober & raise the thinking heart. The cardinals are removed not only from the electronic welter of our present world, but more fundamentally from the welter of its glibness.


Update. I was in an Italian grocery shop (in the Greater Parkdale Area) when the white smoke appeared from the chimney. The television behind the cashier was set to it. The cashier — also the proprietor I believe; a man of age, girth, & good humour, with a grand white beard — translated a televised remark that the choice was “unexpected.” But of course, the name was not yet announced.

“They must have elected a black,” my grocer surmised.

Another customer in the store, a Jewish lady, asked him if he is Catholic.

“Some days,” he replied.

I was in another store when I heard a radio flash that it was Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, taking the name Francis I. Now curiously, I had been thinking through, to the best of my ability & knowledge, what would be most likely; & had come confidently to the conclusion that it would take the Conclave until tomorrow evening to settle on … Cardinal Scola.

More than I ever knew about the former Cardinal Bergoglio has now been reported through the usual media, or may be found in the standard reference sites. Everything I learn about his career in Argentina persuades me that he will not be a great enthusiast for Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum; but he will not get in the way of it, either. He appears to be humble & without hypocrisy: he takes his Christianity neat, lives it, & has no illusions about right & wrong. Doctrinally, a rock. He is quietly courageous; the opposite of ostentatious. Not the first man I would expect to swing an axe through the Curia, but we’ll see. I am more surprised by the election of a Jesuit than by the election of a Latin American.

According to a well-publicized account, Bergoglio was runner-up in the Conclave of 2005, but clinched the election of Cardinal Ratzinger with an impassioned appeal to his own supporters to “please stop voting for me.” That he will be utterly unlike Benedict XVI seems clear enough. But as they say, the Catholic Church doesn’t believe in cloning. That so many cardinals both then & now thought this man, whose whole life has been devoted to the Church in Argentina alone, a worthy successor to Saint Peter, must speak for itself.

A tenor voice

Choi Sung Bong is a name on everyone’s lips, no? The young tenor’s sudden rise from obscurity to fame on the television show, “Korea’s Got Talent,” has been captured for posterity on YouTube, with English subtitles. “Posterity” being defined today as, “forever, or for a couple of years, whichever comes first,” it grows even while it sheds, & the posterior of our culture has become enormous. But fame is still fame, while it lasts. And we do offer enhanced, if belated coverage of Asian Pop on this website (see, “Gangnam Agonistes,” Dec. 21).

By his own account — the main points given succinctly & modestly to the judges in reply to their direct questions when he first went on stage — Choi was dumped in an orphanage by his parents at age three. At age five, tired of beatings, he ran away. The rest of his childhood was spent on the streets of Seoul, sleeping in stairwells & public lavatories. He supported himself as urchin, selling chewing gum & “energy drinks.” There were “bad things” he did not want to talk about, such as being “sold to someone.” By age eight he had tenuously graduated to day-labour jobs, such as delivering milk & newspapers. Twice he was hit by cars, & went untreated; but after a serious fall he finally made it into the Kun Yang hospital, where the cumulative effect of traumatic injuries were diagnosed & given medical attention.

Choi prefers the name “Ji-Sung,” once given him by a kindly lady food vendor, to the name with which he was registered at the orphanage. (He seems to remember every kindness ever done him.) His life-transforming event happened in a nightclub. At age fourteen, selling whatever he was then selling, he heard a performer who sang “so sincerely.” It was classical repertoire. Choi was only vaguely aware that God had endowed him with a magnificent tenor voice. The food vendor told him he must take lessons, must get some schooling. He earned enough on the street to attend some classes in an arts high school. He listened to recordings, especially by Andrea Bocelli, & tried to emulate them. Another kindly lady gave him voice lessons, for free. He remained invisible, until the day almost two years ago when, still looking so desperately young, he came out to sing before the pop judges on television.

His choice of song was “Nella Fantasia” — by Ennio Morricone, the great Italian composer of spaghetti-western soundtracks. But this number comes from a religious film, about the Jesuits in 18th-century Latin America: the only friends the native Indians had against rapacious white men (though the first missionaries sent to them were martyred). I mention all this as a reminder of the many ways in which, I believe, Christ has embedded Himself even in popular culture; & how we must be discerning & not sneer at the “cross-over” genres by reflex — as I am apt to do.

Choi did not project emotion on the stage. Watching the clip, at first I thought, “perhaps he is autistic”; then saw him smile shyly. He answered the judges’ prying questions in a monotone; he did not seem to be playing for sympathy, but to be self-protectively cautious about his past. There was a fluster of anxiety in the hall: “How will this turn out?”

And of course it turned out fabulously. By the end of the first bar, Choi had taken the house down; the judges themselves were near weeping. They waived him right through to the finals. Then after, we see him being mobbed backstage. But again: no emotional response from him, no triumph; & when he can be free of all the well-wishers he walks alone down a corridor, to be by himself.

Now, as hack journalist of long standing, my scepticism was aroused. This story is too perfect; I smell a script. And I flinch at what happens when all the “fact checkers” go to work on what Choi said, because I already love him. But from what I am able to see, after Korean journalists had done their best to find holes in his story, every traceable detail had checked out. Still, they & other writers sprinkle their accounts with qualifiers — “Choi claims this, Choi claims that” — because our world is choking with cheats & frauds & imposters, & no one wants to be caught with his cynicism down.

This last statement is not entirely true. I am every day amazed by media credulity at the imbecile level, typically towards self-serving demagogic politicians. But as I know from first hand, the journalists are seldom so innocent or ill-informed as their reporting might make them appear. They identify with party — usually with the “progressive” side; the side of “secular humanism” — & wish to help it swing elections against what they take to be the “dark side,” of religious believers & the like. (And there will always be darkness enough to go around.) “Truth,” for most journalists, has been “relative” for so long, that they can no longer detect their own lies & hypocrisies. “Good” is whatever serves the agenda, even if it requires the suppression of context to make it sound plausible. The hard simple truth, the big inconvenient fact, will be ignored or scorned. Often, the moral posture becomes the more strident, the more twisted it becomes: & what is beautiful & inspiring is spontaneously derided.

Choi Sung Bong ran off every agenda. His “claim,” though understated, & made only in straightforward reply to factual questions, was staggering. Choi unknowingly broke all the rules, by failing to be a victim of his environment. There had to be something wrong with his story.

Charles Dickens, that wonderful old hack, quite capable of cynicism, was the man to tell dangerously sentimental stories like this. He was the Victorian Solzhenitsyn, in a sense. In a book potentially so mawkish as Little Dorrit, whose central setting was the notorious Marshalsea prison — into which Dickens’s own father had once been thrown, for debt — we find the figure of little Amy Dorrit. She was raised in the Marshalsea, as ward of a father likewise imprisoned. A swill of human evils surrounds the child, & reaches out in the panorama Dickens presents, of moral posturing that extends across England, France, & Italy; by all of which Amy seems untouched. She does what she can for people, out of unthinking loyalties, out of a naïve & unquestioning human decency; she takes her lumps without whining.

Out of a gorgeously colourful background, the “vision” of Dickens is assembled — of this goodness rising from the very mire; a goodness of which Amy becomes allegorical symbol: this angel rising from the squalor. (Dickens is replete with child angels.) From the Marshalsea as from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, it is a vision of salvation. The whole world is a prison camp, & from the bottom of it, “we are rising.” In some details, the novel may seem overwrought; in its overall effect my heart still stops at its splendour, at the breadth & audacity of the thing.

Dickens was no politician. The attentive reader will never find in him anything resembling a political agenda. He is clear that the corruption does not stop at any door; that the evils extend not only through the Marshalsea & out of its gates through the streets of every city, but also through the corridors of the Circumlocution Office. He did not imagine any solutions to the “problems of society,” short of that rising. Only when men & women rise — from within their own humble stations — can the good happen. Dickens’s faith was of the simplest evangelical kind; he had no room in his mind for precise theology. His God was of the simplest kind: the Christ child, & not the adult preacher. Yet from that childish angle he could depict a “life force” at work, that cannot be disentangled from Grace, & by which, mysteriously, Love will conquer all.

I have had the good or bad fortune myself, though only in moments, to taste real hunger & life among some of the poorest & most abandoned of mankind, & see how “the bottom of society” looks & feels. These were only little glimpses, by the luck of my travels; & by more luck I have had little glimpses of life “at the top.” I am disinclined to be sentimental about the former; nor too excoriating about the latter. As Dickens showed in Little Dorrit, give the poor enough money & they will soon assume airs. The problems of “society” will be reproduced in every society, & legislation will usually accentuate the worst features, giving new scope to corruption. Salvation comes not through “programmes” but through persons: a teacher, a food vendor, a nightclub singer.

The beauty in Choi’s case is that it proves nothing. Or else, arguably, it proves everything, which is as good as nothing. I wrote above that, by his own account, his life-transforming moment came in that nightclub, when he found his own calling, which was to sing. I cannot know if his “victory” on television was any kind of a good thing; victories in this world being in their nature transitory & illusory. It is entirely possible that it was the worst thing that ever happened to him. But not if he has taken it in his stride.

The end of the world

There is considerable dispute on the date of the end of the world, sometimes even up here in the High Doganate. It is a gentlemanly dispute, however, in which the (aspiring) gentleman who lives here politely considers & then rejects the various alternatives to his own beliefs. I have been doing that all my life. Sometimes I find that I am wrong, but only in retrospect. In prospect my vision is 20/20. Things that haven’t happened yet have never failed to happen. And I have a perfect track record because in every case, as I would be willing to demonstrate, they fail to happen only in the future. Which is to say, elsewhere in the multiverse, not here.

Once again the issue is in the air, for I gather the President of the United States was so foolish as to predict the end of the world, should the “sequester” of funding he proposed himself be allowed to happen on the first of this month. It is wise normally to predict the end of the world for a more remote date; the President was guessing it would happen “tomorrow” on the very eve. Curiously, he had done everything in the power of his office to assure that the end of the world would take place; for like many petty politicians before him, outraged by budget cuts, he made sure they would fall in the most visibly destructive manner on essential government services, leaving mountains of pork & incredible waste untouched. He wants his opponents on their hands & knees, begging him to restore these services & promising to raise more taxes on “the rich” to support them. It is a game so tawdry, & played so many times, that I’m amazed anyone can still be suckered by it; but needless to say the entire liberal media are playing along with his latest “crisis narrative.”

And yet, it is March 3rd already, the sequester has happened, & the world has not ended; just as it did not end at the Winter Solstice, when the ancient Mayan calendar hit, & nothing followed beyond the usual news & views. There was not even a memorable earthquake in, say, Tierra del Fuego. As we write, south of the border, there is no evidence of a catastrophe yet unfolding. It turns out that even if you remove la crème de la crème of the most necessary functions of the U.S. Government, nothing much happens. The President will have some explaining to do.

Eschatology is not a science we have much pursued (up here in the High Doganate). This may have something to do with our low regard for the statistical methods that are too often employed in calculating the date on which the world will end. They strike us as almost amateurish sometimes. Of the eschatological systems of the great religions, other than my own, I have sometimes taken note from a motive that could be confused with pure self-entertainment. It is not: I think such spiritual insights as each may provide are presented compactly & vividly, in each end-of-world scenario.

Let us consider in passing Frashokereti, the Zoroastrian expectation, which comes to mind whenever I am reading news of anything from “frosh week” in a university to the hydraulic “fracking” of mineral resources. In brief, there are three ages in the world, that of Creation, of Mixture, & of Separation. The first was good, but into the second evil was insinuated. In the third, which is surely coming soon, God, under the name “Ahura Mazda,” effects a winnowing. There is a huge battle between the Yazatas & Daevas (the proponents of good, & evil, respectively). In the course of their exchange, all the dead are raised. Too, the metals of this world melt & flow by tributaries into one great river through which all must pass. No supernatural agent nor force will be able to intervene on behalf of individuals: each man & woman will be tried in the balance of all his thoughts, words, & deeds. The good will find the river as warm milk, the evil will experience it as a consuming fire. The molten stream will itself pour over the ledge of this world, into the depths, where it will find & annihilate “Ahriman” (the very Devil & his Hell). It is an optimistic cosmogony.

Before I receive death threats from aggrieved Zoroastrians, let me acknowledge that this is not from the Avesta, but from interpretive, non-scriptural works. The Avesta itself, or the parts we retain, contain only poetical allusions to this End Time. The most sacred Gathas — hymns attributed to Zoroaster — are in a very old form of Persian indeed (7th century BC?) but the interpretations were written in Book Pahlavi far more than a millennium later (9th century AD). It makes no sense to speak confidently of any Avestan eschatological doctrine; & yet the power in such ancient prophecy can be discerned in resemblances to every other earthly eschatological doctrine; for in all, the worth of men is tested. And on a Zoroastrian view, as from a Christian, it makes no sense to assign specific future dates, or treat prophecy as a prognostic method.

On the other hand, lest gentle reader titter at the introduction of so exotic a body of mythic moral teaching, let me remind him that from Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, & others, we often encounter doctrines as arcane. Each, to my mind, is the product of very sincere “visionaries,” without “conventional” (not to say, “Catholic”) formation, struggling to convey an experience of unknown otherworldly origin in worldly terms; without first subjecting it to the reasoning of the wise. Then seeking followers among the spiritually estranged & hungry.

For some time in childhood I became a kind of connoisseur of the illustrations in publications of the Watch Tower Society — then as now fairly widely disseminated — which showed the lion lying down with the lamb rather literally, & a multicultural assortment of humans smiling as if they had all just won the Irish sweepstakes. These pictures of an imminent heaven on earth struck me as naïve, & contributed to my youthful, smartass atheism. Moreover, as I was distantly aware, the Society & other congregations of “Christian outliers” had been almost trigger-happy in predicting that imminent end, projected from quite worldly political events.

Yet in retrospect, it seems there is something sound woven into their notions. The significance accorded by the Jehovah’s Witnesses to October 1914 — when Christ was held to have resumed the throne of which He had been deprived by the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, & the End Time began to unfold — was well chosen. I myself assign not that event, but something cognate, to a moment a little earlier in that year: to the 28th of June, 1914, when Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated at Sarajevo. The summer which followed consisted of an extraordinary matrix of declarations of war, & acts of invasion. By September, Tannenberg & the Marne trench warfare; by October, Ypres.

The Great War was an entirely man-made, planetary disaster, whose vortex was Europe, then fairly plausibly the centre of everything. Its effect was like Constantine, in reverse. Almost everything we now live is fallout from that War: through Communism, Fascism, Nazism, Islamism, to the effects of mass democracy & the construction of Nanny States. In the background, everywhere, the replacement of religion with ideological totalitarianism, & the moral & spiritual blindness which follows from our new loyalties to the available “least evils.” We entered an era that might be called with justice the Age of the Mass Grave; or if you will, the Culture of Death with Wheels On; or with less colour, “post-modernity.” The evils of the Modern Age came home to roost, among all the false hopes of “man’s triumph over nature.”

One might call 1914 the beginning of the end, but let me credit the Jehovah’s Witnesses for also discerning, while I was growing up in the ‘sixties, the impending end of the end in that decade. Though let me quickly add that, in retrospect, John Lukacs (the historian of Chestnut College, not to be confused with György Lukacs, the fatuous Marxist) put the matter more elegantly in his book, A Thread of Years (1998). This book offered a series of vignettes, from commonplace life, cast year by year from the beginning of the 20th century, to 1969, in which the decline & final extinction of “the idea of a gentleman” was knowingly presented. It stands in my mind as the greatest of several dozen of the author’s imaginative yet authoritative historical works.

Though I don’t entirely agree with Lukacs’s world view, which I consider too Anglophile & Churchillian, I think he offers real insights into what has gone down. In particular, his understanding of the emergence of the bourgeoisie in “Renaissance” modernity, & of its development into the Populism of our post-modernity, is essentially correct. He owes this to an astute grasp of 20th century history. As a World War II survivor himself (Budapest son of divorced parents, a Catholic father & a Jewish mother), personally acquainted with forced labour in the penumbra of the Holocaust, he was able to spot a lie at the heart of historical teaching in liberal academia. It was the lie that the German working classes were opposed to Hitler. No: they were his principal support. It was the goad for Lukacs to expose more generally false teaching.

To say that he despises Populism is almost an understatement. I despise it with some warmth, & Lukacs despises it with more than I will ever muster. There is a crucial question we would answer, perhaps, a little differently. I anchor Populism in the self-worship of man, per se. He, to my mind, is a little too indifferent to this philosophical question, & comes closer to despising it for itself. But for practical purposes, the difference comes out in the wash. We have been led, through post-modernity, by men who were truly representative of “the people,” & not by any of the old, & now demonized, men of aristocratic vocation. The carnage may be attributed to the ideal of “democracy” in itself & in its natural ramifications; to the promise of giving the people exactly what they want, without reference to the better angels.

This democratic ideal, though already eloquently expressed through the bloodletting of Paris after 1789, may be said to have matured definitively by the summer of 1914. One might even call it the greatest triumph of democracy — with mass public demonstrations in all the capitals of Europe, from all sides, demanding immediate total war. In cause & effect, we have this history backwards: again, from the lies taught in our schools. It was not old aristocratic politicians cynically manoeuvring “the people” into war against their will, to serve their own mysterious interests. It was “the people” manoeuvring them, into an Armageddon; one which many of the aristocratic, old school, “balance of power” diplomats did actually foresee, & did everything in their power to forestall, fearing it would be the end of their own class.

But it was not a simple process, not some new or sudden thing, for the history of the rise of “popular” national chauvinism & jingoism goes much deeper. We look here only at the point of combustion, through which the politics of the world were radically & unambiguously transformed, from a degree of self-critical civilization, to a high-tech barbarism incapable of self-appraisal. Within this new world order, that emerged from all the blood lust: an oscillation between the “total war” of conscripting national armies, & the “total peace” of conscripting national bureaucracies.

It has been an apocalyptic scenario, to be sure; & it is understandable that we, in consequence, have come to look forward — sometimes religiously, more often superstitiously — to a nuclear incineration, or some equivalent environmental catastrophe. In our gut, we feel that we may have contributed to this as tiny atoms; but at large it is something over which we believe ourselves to have no control, being mere cells in the body politic, hardly to be held to account. From the train of secondary explosions throughout the 20th & into this 21st century, we expect things to end, inevitably with a bang not a whimper.


In fact, the world ended on the 10th of August, 1969. This happened to be a Sunday. People look to the future for an event which actually happened in the past; but I am glad to see that Alain de Benoist, the celebrated French pagan of the nouvelle droite, has picked up on this, over at Occidental Observer. He is the compleat crackpot of course, or cinglé as I believe it is called over there, with a long history of viewing everything upside down. That might be his strength, however. Turn him right side up & all becomes coherent. Meanwhile, let me offer encouragement for the first thing he may have got right: in his essay entitled, “Yes, the end of the world has happened.”

For decades I have held this view against all comers. Indeed, I have held it since the 10th of August, 1969, when I was sixteen. How do I know the date? Because I was there. I remember it perfectly. I was standing at the time in a ruined coastal fortification, from World War II, near New Waterford, Cape Breton. I was up in a concrete tower (once disguised as a church steeple), looking down over a field of blank concrete slabs (once pretending to be a churchyard). It must have happened around two o’clock in the afternoon, Atlantic time; which is to say, about Vespers, GMT.

At the time, I will admit, I was not entirely certain that the world had come to an end that day. But everything I have since read or otherwise learned has tended to confirm my initial observation.

People often ask me what happened that day. “It was the end of the world,” I reply. “You are asking me to mention something bigger? What else could you want? Surely the end of the world will do for a newscast.”

Pressed on the point, of what happened on the day the world ended, I say, “Nothing much.” It ended, after all, not with a bang as everyone had expected, but instead with a whimper, or less. Pressed further, I recall that the LaBianca murders also happened on that day, “But that was sheer coincidence.”

I am even asked what happened to me on that day, as if my own personal fate could have any significance against this world-historical background. “Again, nothing much,” I explain. “The usual adolescent stuff, you know. Unrequited love & all that.”

And nothing much has happened, since; or at least, nothing much good has happened. Forty-three years, & a half, have passed in which people have gone on, not realizing it is over, pretending to themselves that the end of the world has not, in fact, happened. It is obtuse to look to the future for something that has already occurred in the past. I protest against this general obtuseness, & argue earnestly that it must be overcome. We have reached the point of stasis, at the end of the pendulum; we hover there. But I look for some movement, sooner or later, in which the pendulum begins to swing back, the other way.

High flight

For Saint David’s Day, our Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield, twitters from space: “A perfect pass coming up on Cardiff.” Were it only not, alas, for the clouds over Wales. I discovered his Twitter page this morning, thanks to BBC. The man is an obsessive space photographer, & some magnificent pictures from high over Scotland were re-splashed through the Beeb. In one, the Isle of Skye is depicted, with the late February snows on her peaks — “mist & mountains, a stirring landscape,” our astronaut observes. The islands Canna, Rum, Eigg, Muck, are below her; the Scottish coast to her right, from Loch Torridon down to Loch Nevis. The relief is crisp, from the acute angle: one could almost use it for a walking map. Well, it brought tears nearly to my eyes.

Some Scotsman tweets back: “I live on the island bottom left, here’s a photo I took of you last week,” showing the light streak of the International Space Station crossing the night sky.

Yesterday, the Pope’s resignation, Commander Hadfield clicked remarkable shots looking down the throat of Mount Etna, which is currently quite active. His finale for the day was the huge cyclone, swirling clockwise off the Australian coast. His captions gleam with geographical precision, & the unquenched boyish delight in his adventure. And, too, with unconcealed Canadian patriotism, as he flags an announcement from our space agency with, “Canadian know-how on its way to see what asteroids are made of.” Or, assures the launchers of the latest package for the space station that his Canadarm is ready-aye-ready to catch it in space. But there are friendly words, too, for a Japanese robot.

My uncle Bob (H. Robert Warren) was something to the Canadian space programme, & on secondment to the British, from their earliest days; his name is written in the annals of our Alouette, & with our teams to Houston. Octogenarian now, enfeebled by age, he was once the dreaming child of a very modest farm cottage in Clarkson, Ontario — inspired by his elder brother who went off to fly Spitfires in the last World War. How he longed to fly, himself. He was just too young to follow. But he never looked down, climbing height to height, from aero to astro. In old photos, still, he is my papa’s earnest & adoring little brother; & through the huge family he begatted in his turn, I have long since taken our space effort personally. Whatever tiny part of my taxes go to support that effort, I pay with uncontained enthusiasm. (It is only about 86 percent of current Dominion expenditures that I find morally abhorent; down a couple of points from the previous administration.)

For astronaut breakfast this morning, in the space station, how perfectly Lenten: “Granola with dried blueberries, dehydrated vegetable quiche, instant pineapple juice, instant black coffee. Suit you too?” (There is nothing so Canadian as a blueberry, even dried.) In a video link with His Excellency, our Governor-General, Cmdr Hadfield shows Canadian schoolchildren how to wash their hands in zero gravity.

There are moments like these when all the stars align, & I feel as if I were at home in our world of high technology. And these are the moments when the technology falls away, & I glimpse the entranced faces of the schoolchildren, & the snow on the ancient mountains, & the serenity of the heavens.

“Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,” my uncle recited at my father’s funeral, “& danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings. …”

           And while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
           The high untrespassed sanctity of space
           Put out my hand & touched the face of God.