Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

Beyond help

Whose side are we on? Hezbollah’s? Or al-Qaeda’s? That is the choice in Syria, & I do not wonder that our politicians have hesitated to make decisive moves.

The choice for Israel is a little simpler. Hezbollah — sponsored by the Iranian mullahs through their Syrian ally, Bashar al-Assad, is the more immediate enemy. However, the Israelis cannot wish, by helping to depose the Syrian regime, to advance the cause of Sunni Islamism; nor can they leave that threat to later. For Sunni Islamism, embodied by Hamas — in occupation of Gaza & claiming the allegiance of a likely majority in the West Bank — is not an enemy for tomorrow. But Hamas, too, takes sustenance including arms from Iran, & cannot immediately benefit from an Iranian setback. In the balance of risks as the Israelis assess them, Assad goes.

A worrying thought, for the thinking Israeli, is that his interests in this conflict may not coincide with the larger interests of the West.

The current situation is more complicated than first appears. The Muslim world is factional, & while Islamist fanaticism is advancing on all fronts, more & more of the fronts are between Islamists. It is usually a mistake to associate Islam with Arabs. At the moment it would be a big mistake. Persians hate Arabs. Turks hate Persians. Arabs hate Turks. Vice versa, & ditto. And there are numerous smaller ethnicities, before we consider doctrinal divisions within each racial camp, & each naturally tends to hate most viscerally the enemy that is nearest. The doctrinal divides between Sunni & Shia & others is aggravated by the ethnic rivalry, everywhere; & compounded by fluctuating alliances across the field.

Israel is thus not alone, as a rôle player in the general carnage. Nor is the “Zionist entity” without sympathizers in the Muslim world. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, according to a very old adage, & Kurds, for instance, tend to love Jews. It is not, however, an abstract brotherly love. It is rather because they share exactly the same list of enemies at the moment, together with the historical experience of being deprived for centuries of an independent homeland. Like Israelis, the Kurds identify with the West. Or with anyone they think might help them. And Kurds are just one of the ethnicities wading in the Syrian quagmire.

The Assad regime is & was always, from its Baathist, nationalist & socialist origins, vile, murderous, unspeakable. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t the lesser evil, when compared with any imaginable alternative. Assad’s allies are incidentally winning the battle against their domestic opponents — which is why Europe, especially Britain & France, want to supply those opponents with weapons. The idea, hidden behind humanitarian posturing, is to keep the battle raging until some genius thinks of a solution better than living with Assad.

For there are four Western options. Supporting the monster Assad is unthinkable. Supporting his monstrous Sunni Islamist opponents, who would surely come to power if he fell, is unthinkable. And staying out of the fray is unthinkable, given media publicity for human suffering in this particular war zone. The fourth option, which is thinkable, but only to persons of cruelly limited intelligence, is to blunder in without knowing what we’re doing. This is the option that has been selected, with the Europeans showing the leadership from which the Americans have, perhaps wisely in this case, recused themselves.

The Russians, who have a large & important naval base on Syria’s Alawite (Assad’s tribal) Mediterranean coast, huge financial interests in Syria & Iran, & a general commitment to harm American & other Western interests whenever they can do so without harming themselves, have also resolved to resume shipping arms — to the Assad regime, thus banking on its survival. Let us hold our breath until we see what the Israelis will do about that; & if they do what they might do, let us scout for another planet to live on.

In a perfect world, or rather, one in which self-interest could be advanced with indifference to consequences, the Israelis would simply bomb all parties. But this world is imperfect even in that sense. The number of triggers they must not risk pulling is frightfully large. Iran’s mullahs boast that they are deploying missiles within Israel’s range, as well as to all major U.S. bases in the region. Assad has offered similar threats, which may or may not be convincing, to retaliate should the Israeli air force take out another of his likely WMD installations. And most Muslim parties would dearly love to restore the Israeli distraction. Given the Hezbollah connexion, Lebanon is also going back up in flames, so that all paranoid allegations about who may be behind it are plausible.

Several million Christians are caught up in these events; & many of those have already become refugees. In the old days, of European Imperialism, this would be a public issue. The European power with the biggest local stake — formerly France in the northern Levant — would certainly intervene to protect them. Indeed, the problem would not have begun, for France would have intervened to quell any Syrian uprising, with the blessings of her European neighbours. It has however been observed, that these are not the old days.

In one way, however, they still are. The boundaries drawn across the Middle East, as across Africa & elsewhere, bore little or no relation to racial, linguistic, cultural, & religious realities. The modern nation state was imposed on the colonial maps gratuitously. The borders haven’t moved, chiefly because ersatz nationalists succeeded the European rulers, to create power warps in each of the spaces. Note that the Palestinian problem corresponds to the one unsettled border — & that this has contributed as much to the international focus on that conflict, as the fact of Israel’s creation. That is, I think, the secret explanation for the endless diplomatic posturing about an otherwise fatuous “two state solution.” It amounts to, “Please, guys, let’s draw a boundary.”

Salvation, of a temporary & illusory kind, may thus be within Israel’s reach. It would consist of the sudden erasure or movement of other boundaries around the region, taking the focus off Israel’s. In the present state of general volatility, this is not impossible, may even be likely. For with Islamism has come reversion to an earlier, & more Islamic notion of statehood: the resurrection of the idea of a Dar al-Islam, or pan-Islamic empire, among all Islamist factions. But it cannot be realized, for it remains confused with Arab chauvinism, whose appeal to Turks & Persians is nil. This is why, I think, Islamism will prove an unambiguously destructive force, within the Islamic realm much more than outside it.

And the Syrian conflict exposes all the fault-lines, not only within multicultural Syria herself, but as they extend beyond, throughout the region. This in turn is why, as a few of our better-educated diplomats understand, the Syrian conflict is so important. But it is also why it cannot be managed. It is like an explosion in a munitions plant: they are reduced to watching for the “secondaries.” (The mass media, on the other hand, no longer employ the informed or educated, hence their focus entirely on the pictorial aspects of the conflict within Syria itself, & then those of the other regional conflicts in discrete “packages.”)

To the person who — like the old Tory souls who relished a fight between Stalin & Hitler — looks forward to the violent “mutual assured destruction” of all Islamist camps, against a background in which the Arab oil weapon is rendered harmless by fracking technologies — my instruction would be to shut up. No conflict, in which millions are killed, ends well for the “bystanders.” The whimsical notion that we might hermetically seal the region is belied by both the incredible power & reach of widely-available modern weaponry, & by the fact of massive Muslim emigration to Europe & America. We may think we have “no horse in that race,” but will inevitably discover we have several, none of which are going to win without our help.

The convention of punditry is to propose a way out. What can we do to retrieve a situation that is getting entirely out of hand? Or as the technological mind tends to formulate this question: “Whom should we bomb, & why?”

There is no answer. Or rather, the answer will emerge, in all of its unpleasantness, from events that happen the day after tomorrow. There are deep historical reasons why the Middle East is blowing up, & there is blame to scatter over many generations. We can no longer even begin to make an inventory of sins & sinners. The best we can do is pray for the Christians, Muslims, Jews, & all others caught in the latest “historical mistake,” & ask God to lead them, & us, out of the Inferno.

Perhaps I should explain

One of the most frequent complaints I receive — in email, much more than in Comments — is that I propose a return to the Middle Ages. Variants include “living in the past,” & “fighting battles that were lost five hundred years ago.”

In the first case, were the tables turned, I would wish the pundit, “Bon voyage!” In the second, well, I’d be happy to return to the 14th century, or even the 7th for an extended vacation, but am unable to find a flight, or book accommodations with my debit card. To the third objection, let me suggest that all the best battles were lost five centuries ago, & what better time to fight them again, than now that our enemy has been lulled into complacency.

The battles I have in mind are on points of principle. While it is true that I have an aesthetic preference for centuries anterior to my own (or let’s spell that “anteriour” in the obsolete manner), battles are seldom fought on aesthetic principles; more often on doctrinal ones. (Except, some of the aesthetic issues may also be doctrinal.) “It would be nice” to build cathedrals again in the Gothic style (or better, Romanesque), but as gentlemen discovered in the 19th century, it can’t be done in the same way, without the same centuries of preparation.

Consider the organ, for instance. Let us suppose, for sake of argument, we could build a new organ on genuinely Gothic lines & install it within a church built ditto, with so much attention to detail that no technology later than, say 1450, were insinuated into the works. This would still give us an instrument with a three-octave range or better, & keyboard sharps & flats; & there is music enough to play on such an instrument. Let us then devote tireless efforts to restoring the finest defunct acoustic & musicological desiderata.

Lost cause.

What we cannot reproduce, is the background silence of the Middle Ages. The auditor of that organ, in 1450, walked into the church from a world without background mechanical noise. In that time, birdsong was explosive. The human sounds — the sounds for instance of the London Cries that Orlando Gibbons set in a montage for voices & viols — dominated the town market. Not the motor but the creaking of the cart was audible, & the beautiful clop of horses. Noise enough could be heard in the towns — often it was singing, for before the ghetto blaster, everyone sang — but there were in all Europe very few places where, by walking one mile, one could not be in open country, away from all that. Imagine, on such men, the effect of the church organ. We cannot share that. Imagine, for that matter, the effect of the bells, as when they sounded from every belfry across Christendom of an Easter morning.

It is not the design of the organ, but the background silence that interests me here. What was the consequence of giving that up? What has been the effect on men’s souls of surrounding their ears, minute by minute, day & night, with the throb & clatter, fracas & din of our vile mechanical devices? We shut this out to remain sane, but even in small towns, even on the modern, industrialized farms, open your ears to apparent quiet & you will only become conscious of background irritations in a lower decibel range. To which bird-slaughtering wind turbines are now being added.

Example: the whine made by a television signal, which I have detected three floors away in the quiet of night, though I could not hear the programme. It must have been part of the diurnal soundtrack all along. Or more obviously, how the motor-boat discord plays in cottage country. And here I do not mean motor-boats within rock-throwing distance, but those many miles away, detected only when no boat is nearer. The ear picks all this up, but the mind deletes, or runs it together into an ignorable sludge. At what cost to hearing?

At what spiritual cost, do we suffer constant sensual irritations? For the audio deprivation, of holy silence, is matched by deprivation for each of our other senses. The sights, smells, tastes, & also the tactile qualities of the modern, viciously ugly environment, have an aggregate effect. We are brutalized, sensually & materially, & this in turn has moral consequences.

Among my motives, in walking decades ago through some of the more backward parts of pre-electrified India, was to hear & see what human life had been through the ages of silence — & real darkness to view the stars at night, when the first thin fingernail of moon arrives as something astounding. And before mass literacy, when people could remember stories & tell them word for word; & lullabied their children to sleep. Before news arrived hourly.

It was a hunger I had already developed through canoeing, in parts of Canada where the noise gives out (till one is alerted to the passage of an airliner, thirty thousand feet up, & a full day’s rowing away). In the Canadian wilderness, once portaging a canoe more than a thousand paces, I recall a moment when I felt my life suddenly restored — for I had finally made enough distance for that. And the bark of the birch trees through which I was struggling suddenly declared what “whiteness” is, & why it is important. Too, I could suddenly recall a Bach fugue, note by note; & realized that this musical composer had understood a principle of growth in living things: the Lazarus principle, in A minor. My ears & eyes had suddenly reopened.

Now, none of this has much to do with the Middle Ages, for I am touting virtues of any low-tech society, that were indeed available all the world over before Gutenberg started making his infernal racket, or rather, some idiot put a steam-press to the thing.

So let us try to get this argument back on the old Roman road by noting, first, that the word “mediaeval,” in the form medium aevum, goes back to the early 17th century, & the concept a little before that. The intention was to demarcate a great blank space between the ancient & the modern; to indicate a period that no longer required to be studied or understood — the historical equivalent of “flyover country” for seaboard liberals in today’s United States.

I use the term myself with conscious irony, for to me this “middle” is like “Middle Kingdom” to a Chinese. That is to say, the opposite of peripheral. Nor is it a geographical term, nor ever was it. Instead, it is the norm to which we may return after a period of warring states, though it last centuries. The past cannot be repeated, but Christendom could nevertheless be restored. It survives in the hearts of men who remain Christian & civilized, who have not become pagan & barbaric again. Indeed, Mediaeval Man was ever trying to rebuild this Christendom, in endless waves of “reform,” so that we might say what defined the Middle Ages was a constant effort to restore the Middle Ages.

My interest in them began with perception of their formative importance to modern history. The West wasn’t discovered in 1492, just as Canada wasn’t invented by Pierre Trudeau. To understand what fell out in the 16th & 17th centuries, one must understand what it fell out of. But this is just an argument for intelligence over stupidity — albeit not an easy argument.

The ancient world has also faded from the consciousness of nominally educated people, along with the world of the Reformation, & when I look at most political history today I see that it is predicated on the assumption that our world began around 1750 AD, everything prior being relegated to a chaos before all worlds. That is part of the reason why “democracy” is taken so seriously, & why the State in its present bureaucratic form is accepted as inevitable; why even where the “prehistory” is taught, it is forced into anachronistic categories — even art history frozen into national cubes which could have meant little or nothing to the artists. At the cutting edges of political thought, we see the timeline further truncated, so that 1993 becomes the terminus ad quem, all human experience before the Internet re-allocated to the Dark Ages. But here again is nothing more than a catastrophic failure of education.

To those still aware that history exists, & that it might contain more than they absorbed by rote with grade-school clichés, history can provide a much richer sounding board, than can what is flashing past in mass media.

There was no moment during the Middle Ages, or none of which I am aware, when all was right with the world. There is no aspect of the Middle Ages — more than a thousand years of history spread over a very large geographical area — when some polity was realized ideally suited to the human condition. Indeed, mediaeval history, as all known history, is a mess of sin & error; an era of constant crisis, just as we have today. Which takes us to our boilerplate Catholic observation, about the fallen nature of this world, & man.

Grant & concede all such points, as I try to do, parenthetically on all occasions. Mediaeval Man, Catholic by disposition wherever Holy Church had weaned him from his pagan state, never abandoned this parenthesis. It is thrilling to see how discontented he was with everything he had achieved, & modest in allowing that others had probably done better.

“I cry, I cry, & I cry again,” writes Pope Gregory VII in 1084, to anyone who will listen. “The religion of Christ, the true faith, has fallen so low that it is an object of scorn, not only to the Devil but to the Jews & Saracens & pagans. … These keep their law, as they believe it, but we, intoxicated with the love of the world, have deserted our law.” … He goes on to catalogue the desertions.

It is a flagellation, even a self-flagellation, typical of that time, & to the twenty or so generations either side of it. But do not suppose his catalogue was over-hyped. Gregory referred to terrible things: blood & carnage, tyranny & perversion. And yet it showed, for that age, a degree of self-knowledge greater than our own. It also displayed the aspiration to be worthy of the Christian calling, to build better & truer on the Gospel model, not merely externally but in each human soul. That is what I find so attractive about the whole epoch, in which politics could often (but far short of “always”) be subordinated to a higher, divine cause; & the territorial states, in all their preening pagan pompa, themselves came to recognize & even defer to this higher authority. And did this because their princes feared God.

A single word, “feudalism,” is employed to consign everything to dust. How many of the “educated” living today, who use this word as a sneer, have the slightest understanding of the conditions in which it arose as a system of land tenure; or for that matter, of what it consisted? That men were forced to serfdom not by edicts of Church, or kings, but when freeholdings were smashed by fresh waves of pagan invaders. That it grew spontaneously as the only possible method of defence, against such as Viking raiders; that Christendom struggled for centuries against pagan enemies both external & internal, especially towards the northern frontiers. Or that the state system which emerged from Westphalia was itself a form of pagan recrudescence — the Church again compelled to submit, by violence, to secular lords.

The physical & historical circumstances of the Middle Ages cannot be replicated, which is a good thing; & the institutions, except the Church herself, were products of their time & place. I have never dreamt we could restore such things, any more than it is in the human power to raise the dead. But that is not the purpose of the historical inquiry. It is instead to see how the aspirations of Mediaeval Man — whom we remain, so far as we are Catholic — were operated upon. For these were men motivated as we would be, upon taking to heart: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” It is in that sense a history more relevant to our situation today, in the deliquescence of pagan modernity, than is the dead end of modern history.

Which is not to say that modern history should be forgotten. That would be an act of stupidity comparable to neglecting everything between Alaric & Luther. It should go without saying that much can be learned, even of a non-technical nature, from the modern experience; especially from what was Christian in it, which by doctrine will include “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good fame.” Certain notions of human liberty, for instance, or of mercy, were better realized within modern times, & may be worth keeping as more Christian than what we did before, together with genuine advances in arts & sciences.

Our task is not to return to the Middle Ages, but to restore in ourselves the Catholic aspiration which animated men in those times. It is to live out our lives as Christians, in a land Christianized as much as possible; ideally to restore our earth to the worship of God’s glory. But of course, only God can do that, & we must fail, as men have always failed; as Mediaeval Man knew that he must fail. But by the grace of God he would fail nobly.

Back to work

Perhaps the most shocking, & encouraging thing about Pope Francis, is his habit of calling out the Devil — by name. He does this daily, from what I can read in L’Osservatore Romano & other Vatican sheets; & as ever, Sandro Magister has taken note in astute commentary at his Chiesa website. Other media have largely ignored it, reacting for instance to the exorcism the pope apparently performed, spontaneously in St Peter’s Square after Pentecost Mass, with an indulgent, “How quaint!”

“Quaint” indicates a special exemption from fashion, granted by media on a day to day basis. It applies to acts judged reactionary, but harmless, & picturesque. It is assumed that an exorcism could have no effect.

In a similar way, the pope’s persistent naming of Satan in public homilies has been vaguely noticed, but dismissed. It is taken for a quaint way of speaking; the pope himself for just a sweet, harmless old man, out of touch with this Age of Science. Satan, on the other hand, is taken for non-existent, & talk of angels & devils for talk of spooks & fairies & elves & goblins. It appears so irrelevant to the concerns of modern life, as to need no refutation, beyond the occasional sneer of condescension. By all means, this attitude in the press should be encouraged. It will give us some extra time.

“Everyone believes in God,” as Charles Baudelaire observed, rather a while ago, “although they do not love Him. Nobody believes in the Devil, & yet his smell is everywhere.”

Trouble might arise should other people start speaking of the Devil the way Pope Francis does, as a real & present factor in human life — not only around churches. The habit would more likely rise from the ground up, than travel down from the bishops, I should think. Already my gut tells me, with respect to the intransigent still in her pews, that the Church has retreated as far as she will go. There are no social advantages to being Christian any more; & pretending to be Catholic would be quite ludicrously counter-productive to any person on the make, trying to steal ahead in business or politics. We are down to our core constituency: the people whom pragmatic arguments cannot reach. Priests survive, from a time when it was still an easy job, that came with house, meals, a maid, & job security. But it isn’t any more — there are safer jobs in government — & the young ones can’t possibly have been attracted by the perqs.

Even so, the notion of radical evil, or the radical notion of an evil that is personified in the Father of Lies — who needs therefore to be personally opposed — is far from being extinguished among the general population. Perhaps I notice it more than my old media colleagues because I move in circles quite different from theirs, among people they have effectively disenfranchised. I also notice that our new pope is speaking to these awkward footsoldiers of Christ, directly — in just the way their bishops hadn’t been talking, lo these many years, from under their crate-paper mitres.

I haven’t noticed, on the other hand, that he is saying anything different from the retired pope. Benedict XVI called attention to the transcendent nature of Catholic faith — in God’s working beyond & through the crimp of space & time — in everything he said. So has Pope Francis. The language is different, that of Francis rather plainer. But as Francis has been the first to say, the content doesn’t vary. And the existence of whom we call, by his title, the Prince of This World, is an ineffaceable part of that content. It is not a rhetorical flourish, not a decorative gargoyle projecting from some high corner of the edifice. The edifice itself is taken to be under siege, by that very gargoyle, & has always been so taken. (The more Church history one reads, the better one realizes there was never a moment when she was entirely comfortable or secure, not riddled by enemies outside her gates & also inside her chambers.)

The media perhaps could not understand what Benedict was saying, because he used long words with which they were unfamiliar. Francis uses shorter words, but they are equally unfamiliar.

Use even of the word “evil,” in circumstances to which it obviously applies, raises sceptical eyebrows among our chattering classes, our progressive elites. That bad things happen, including in some exceptional cases those embarrassing “me bad” things, is generally acknowledged. There are crimes & abominations which have yet to be redefined as prejudices surviving from the dark unscientific past. Murder in cold blood continues to earn disapproval, at least when it is combined with sadistic acts; & other sins may sometimes be acknowledged, by any word but “sin.” Still the worldly, including the more worldly priests, are on their guard not to be judgemental. The Church herself, as Sandro Magister reminds, has been exceedingly deferential to the feelings of the worldly, through the recent past. Her message has tended to omit direct references to Satan or to Hell, emphasizing instead the extra-Biblical qualities of tolerance & an icky sticky niceness. Whereas, Christ was not so nice.

Christianity has been under siege, in all of its traditional manifestations, & anti-Semitism is also rampant, but other religions are still granted dispensations. The doctrine of multiculturalism, embedded now in secular law, relieves all moral & religious “belief systems,” other than Judeo-Christian, from any obligation to justify themselves. Suicide bombings may, for instance, continue to be illegal, and are actually met with social disapproval (at least here in the West). But the condemnation of religious beliefs that condone, even promote that sort of behaviour is, strictly speaking, a “hate crime.” On college campuses & in other closed camps of the progressive elect, fanatic Islam has the edginess of a fashion statement. It is encouraged & subsidized — partly as a replacement for dour Marxism, but mostly because it is an ally of convenience for secular humanism, in its war on Christians & Jews.

It was to this last curious fact Pope Francis was alluding in his homily at Santa Marta in Rome, Wednesday of this week. Expounding a text from Mark’s gospel (9:38-40), he noted that all were called to do good, & to abjure evil, including non-Catholics. To kill in God’s name is a blasphemy, as he explained, in the fullest ancient sense of that word. It is a blasphemy that does not require Catholic belief to perform. Writers, including this one & the late T.S. Eliot, may have argued that without plausible belief, blasphemy is nearly impossible to pull off; that it reduces itself to mere cussing or bad form. The pope is telling us to stop dreaming. Even atheists, in his account, must be capable of real blasphemy; “invincible ignorance” can take them only so far. Conversely, the command to do good — not to “command the good” but actually to do it ourselves, voluntarily — is incumbent on all humans. And this because we are human, & because it is within our capacity.

The distinction is no casual one. “Command the good” is at the root of Shariah, & incidentally also at the root of the secular humanism that provides the theocratic, or rather “atheocratic,” substance of the Nanny State. We think, for instance, that good consists in taxing the rich to sustain the poor; in empowering the State to perform other acts of goodness in our name; in lacing the jackboots for the frogmarch of progress. Currently received “political correctness” is all about enforcing good behaviour (as defined by human ideologues), or being forced.

This is precisely the opposite of what Christ was preaching, in for instance the gospel text at hand. Our Lord goes so far as to suggest that the good does not require correct instruction, or proper accreditation; that it need not even follow the correct forms. The commands do not come from Kafka’s Castle, but rather from God & through nature; particularly that nature which is our own “human nature.” It is the still small voice of conscience that everyone who is listening can hear. Men in uniforms may not countermand this voice. Should they give evil commands, we need not obey them.

His disciples were in fact complaining that some unqualified person was casting out devils. Jesus told them not to stop him; that the man was doing a good thing. Permission was not required, & will never be required, to do a good thing.

There is more, much more, to the passage than this, & a man suffering under the crippling burden of a modern education will need a lot of time to think it all through. By the example of Christ, Pope Francis may say things too plain to be understood by our more subtle minds — things beyond the normal reach of intellectuals. But plain people can usually understand.

Satan, & demons, fall into this class; as do angels. I have met simple Buddhist rice farmers who know exactly to whom we are referring when we mention such beings. Indeed they are plentifully depicted in Buddhist temple art. I could give a longer list from my travels, to assure my reader that there is no culture unacquainted with demons, & much else any Christian would recognize from his own “cultural conditioning.”

And I have put that term in quotes because it is a lie. Knowledge of what I will call, for shorthand, “the otherworld,” precedes all cultural conditioning. A religion provides explanations for otherworldly phenomena; it must make some sense of things already discerned. The most primitive tribal cult works to the appeasement of spirits that are all the more apparent to the “primitive” tribesman’s mind, undistracted by the buzzing confusion of the machinery for settled life. (And again the quotes, because the most primitive men we have encountered have the same class of minds we have, with the same capacities, the same intelligence range.)

These simple & backward — tribals, subsistence farmers, hardscrabble types — function in the world of real particulars, facing realities from which the urbane are eager to detach themselves. They are the people to whom the mediaeval Church was speaking, in sermons, pageants, statuary, & stained glass — rendering the ineffable in comprehensible form. To dismiss them as so many superstitious peasants awaiting liberation by literacy & technology is to misunderstand: that we, ourselves, are superstitious peasants — voting in our masses for “hope & change,” & prone to belief in every other sort of magic. Every day I see around me in the city behaviour that exhibits a credulity no peasant farmer could afford to entertain in his hard, earthy sphere & orbit.

Christianity would not be a religion if it did not offer explanations, for what lies beyond the reach of material manipulation, the scope of eyes & hands. It offers warnings against the danger of invoking the spirits, against trying to establish communication with them, against becoming their agents, or trying to make them our agents. It offers means of escape from the influence of demons. It does not offer, it never offered, scientific dismissal of them — that hubris in which the voodoo of the primitive cult is replaced by the voodoo of technology.

I have met sophisticated intellectuals who get this. But only because they did not give up on the simple when they adventured into the complex; nor trade particulars for abstractions. An appreciation of the personhood in evil is innate to the human condition, including theirs. It is to be honed in wisdom, not foolishly discarded under layers of cheap linguistic persiflage. It is not inevitable, for intellectuals to be fools — for them to lose the ability to grasp the obvious, including the morally obvious, in their pursuit of knowledge-as-power.

It takes, for instance, an extraordinary blindness, to read the Gospels & not see what they say, or read into them what is not there. We stock libraries for these blinded. Yet we have a pope (inevitably an intellectual) who, rather like his predecessors, can actually read the Gospels. His attention is apparently riveted upon the very details that modern man overlooks, or overdubs, to his peril.

Example: Christ very often calls out the Devil, by name. It is not poetic licence. He uses terms plainly, so that they translate plainly into any other tongue. He takes his Opponent for an actual being, with a personal will. Jesus could not be kidding about demonic possessions, or he would not have been performing exorcisms, day after sunrisen daisy-blooming day. One does not perform exorcisms on intellectual abstractions.

Those who reject belief in the Devil must necessarily reject Christ. Verily, here is a circle that cannot be squared. To accept Jesus Christ as Eternal God & Saviour, then argue he needs updating for our times, is fatuous. That form of Christianity was unsustainable, & is therefore passing away. Pope Francis is teaching instead the kind that is here to stay.

We are fighting for our lives against a very real Opponent, & denying his existence guarantees we lose. The pope knows this, & expects every Catholic priest to know it. He also knows many of them don’t know, or are too shy to say. Therefore he resumes the normal activities of a priest — because he is a priest, & by way of encouraging the others. Look & see that he is not, in point of fact, some sweet harmless old man, except on the sweet harmless old occasions.

Look what happens, in that video, when the pope is told by a legionary that the man from Mexico, in the wheelchair, is afflicted by devils. See the smile disappear instantly from Pope Francis’s face, & note what immediately follows. Note the convulsion in the man, when the pope lays his hands upon his head, & note the sag of his face & how his jaw drops open, as the hands are removed. One is looking at something that does not fit into our glibly urbane little view of reality. So look hard.

Consult, if you prefer, the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (5th edition just published, & reviewed in last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal). It is 947 pages, & a very sick joke from end to end. Comparison to any previous edition will quickly reveal the speed at which psychiatric disorders are invented & disinvented, in the complete absence of lab tests that can materially demonstrate the presence of even one of the mental disorders that have been catalogued. Then explore the fantasia of bio-medical “cures.” The pretension to science has created in this case an extremely profitable business — vastly more profitable than for the charlatans of old — in which millions of the spiritually afflicted are treated by fully accredited mad-doktors even crazier than they are. (The WSJ headline, “How Psychiatry Went Crazy,” is misleading because it was crazy from the start.)

Gentle reader might try to keep up with all the other mirages in the pop “science of mind” — available from the glossies alongside the mild porn & hobby magazines at his local smoke shop (or for the professional, in yawning learned journals). The grave seriousness with which the shamans of that cult, who think they have banished mind from the rest of the universe, go about banishing it from the human brain, is really quite risible. One must dig out old works on phrenology to match their confidence of tone.

It is good to cast out devils. It is bad to leave them in, quite bad; & even worse to medicate their victims into zombies. Not knowing how to help is the only excuse I can think of, but that ignorance needs to be freely confessed. With or without any formal permission, we must get back to working on the problems with which jackass “science” simply cannot cope.

Neil Reynolds

Neil Reynolds died Sunday, in Ottawa, of cancer at the tender age of seventy-two. I had & retain a special regard for him, as well I might. For he was the only Canadian newspaper editor who ever gave me a steady job. Had it not been for him I would never have participated in the MSM at all — except “abroad,” where my services were always more welcome. My mourning for him is thus perfectly sincere: “There goes my last meal ticket.”

Peter Worthington died the week before. He was Canada’s other “crazy” newspaper editor. True, they were both rightwing, in an undogmatically libertarian sort of way. But their reputed craziness had nought or little to do with their politics. Instead what marked them was complete freedom from the dictatorship of mediocrity. Each in his own way advanced the notion that newspapers were for readers; Worthington more the news hound, Reynolds more the man of letters; but both went recklessly for “the story,” propelled by a force prior to & larger than modern journalism.

Paradoxically, these men presided over extremely profitable newspapers. Each of Neil’s, even before the Reign of the Internet, began sliding down the plughole from the moment he left. Yet he ran editorial departments that were, even by the standards of previous decades, rather overstaffed, filling more space than might seem strictly necessary to a bean-counting mind. More revenue poured in from circulation, then advertising, until they became cash cows.

The late Richard J. Doyle could also be mentioned: once editor of the Globe & Mail, when it was an interesting newspaper. (Died 2003.) He kept promising me jobs, but never delivered; he was effectively vetoed by his section editors, & I never pressed. (Did work for him as a copy boy for a few months when I was sixteen.) I have written in praise of him before, of what he was able to accomplish even within the deadening environment of “Canada’s national newspaper,” where the mediocrity is encased in the cement of intellectual pretension. He was able to put cracks in it, here & there, by hiring men (& the odd woman) of real talent, who acted as if they didn’t know the rules.

The trick, as Neil Reynolds discovered, is not to hire professional journalists. His instinct was to hire writers, & see if they could handle reportage; or hire people who knew something, & see if they could write. His habit was to throw people in the deep end, & see if they could swim; then ruthlessly fish out those who couldn’t. It is understandable why he was loved, or hated.

At the Ottawa Citizen, I had the most wonderful job, from 1997 to 2000. Neil sent me all over the world, to cover the most unlikely subjects. He loved length & depth — he had this counter-cultural theory that readers would be willing to slog through thousands of words, even on an unfamiliar topic, provided the piece was interesting. The reader to him was Everyman, not “our market.” He thought it made sense to let a writer spend the time necessary to investigate, preferring the big splash to the endless dribble. Therefore I was several times given a whole newspaper section to pursue a topic such as, “Looking for Christ under stones in Israel.”

It was the sort of topic that appealed to him. Self-educated (like the other two editors mentioned), widely read, & full of curious arcana, he was the son of a Free Methodist preacher in Kingston, Ont. He wore this comfortably in his self-understanding. Over coffee & a smoke we once agreed that his heritage was the Free Methodism — “of Bruegel.”

Among his favourite expressions was, “the sacred & the profane.” Possessed of the notion that human beings live once only, that the universe is not intrinsically boring, & that it cannot easily be explained away, he felt it the task of a newspaper to wander gratuitously back & forth, across that essential divide: to wander profanely into the sacred, & sacredly into the profane. Journalism was “literature” to him; it was not to be circumscribed or narrowed by professional convention. It was not “a branch of literature” in his view; it was literature. Therefore it ought to be well-written, & to employ imaginative devices where required, & to be set out in fine typography.

He hired me twice: first at the Kingston Whig-Standard, in its glorious last days under Davies family ownership before tax rules forced its sale to a big chain, & the remarkable quality of the paper was immediately gutted. He kept offering me a job when he was editing the St John Telegraph-Journal, under Irving family ownership, but I would not move to New Brunswick.

When Conrad Black installed him at the Ottawa Citizen, I think I was his first hire. By that time we had some mutual understanding, & when I heard the news of his appointment I stayed patiently by my telephone, waiting for his call, which duly came several hours later. A man of Humphrey Bogart charm, & equally laconic, he said when it rang, “I’m going to be in Toronto tomorrow, & was wondering whether I could drop in on you for a cup of tea.”

Upon appearing at the little studio I then occupied, he lit a cigarette & examined a dozen author photos I had pasted above my work table on the wall. He named every one of them: a remarkable feat, for several were obscure poets. (He sometimes gave evidence of magical powers.) Then he took his seat, declined the tea, & stared at me without speaking.

Finally, I cracked. “So, Neil, you have been appointed editor of the Citizen, & you’ve come here to offer me a job.”

“How much will I have to pay you?”

I named a sum that seemed a little extravagant, to which he nodded, adding, “When do we start?”

With that sorted out, he asked what I’d be doing.

“How about we invent a Sunday magazine for the paper?”

“Good. Let’s do that.”

The rest will be largely untold history, not all of it happy. I was received in the Citizen office as one of a delegation, from Mars. People to whom I was speaking would turn their backs & casually walk away. Sometimes I was allowed to overhear rather hateful grumbling about Conrad Black, Neil Reynolds, & someone named David Warren, peppered with obscenities. Efforts were made to sabotage everything I did, & gossip about me was “leaked” persistently to Frank, a local scandal sheet (enhancing my reputation). Neil naturally left me to sink or swim. When I moaned about my managerial difficulties, he gave me a little fatherly advice.

“There are four basic principles of management, David, & you will just have to master them. The first is to delegate everything. The others all deal with resource allocation & they are: lie, cheat, & steal.”

Finally he rescued me for plain writing tasks, entirely outside the office. The job description became: “wandering scholar.” That Citizen’s Weekly (the Sunday magazine) was now on its feet, & didn’t need me any more.

Alas, for me, Neil was moved on in anno 2000, to “save” the Vancouver Sun, & my days of adventure & world travelling for the Citizen were promptly over. I was now one of a champing stable of columnists, writing mostly of international affairs, from my apartment with an Internet connexion. The need to keep up spousal support payments kept me at this for another twelve years.

Kingston had been even more fun than Ottawa. That is where I had the opportunity to absorb Neil’s eccentric ways, & worldview. One remembers things like a long editorial meeting, that consisted almost entirely of Neil lecturing the staff on the works of Matthew Arnold.

Or of another moment when I thoughtlessly barged into the morning news conference in his office, turning the heads of all news editors there assembled. Neil’s secretary had tried to warn me it was in progress, but in my wrath at some petty oversight I had ignored her.

“I’m a prima donna, gawdammit, & I expect to be treated like one!” I declared, to all these blank faces.

Without bothering to ask what the problem was, Neil picked up the phone to his editorial page editor, & barked, “Whatever you just did to Warren, never do it again.” Then turned to me & said: “Get out of here.”

One could still smoke in the greasy spoons in those days, & often we would fill a booth to chat. I got to ask him things like, “Why are you a Libertarian?” And, “Are you a Christian?”

He assured me that his libertarianism had nothing to do with free enterprise or economics. His view was that the bureaucracy & all other false security must be stripped away, until the real questions of human life become visible again. It did not really matter whether this would make us richer or poorer in material terms. The important thing was to be alive. And as for whether he was Christian, “That isn’t a question for me but for God.” His own calling in the world, as he conceived it, was to be “oppositional.”

“Oppositional to what?”

“To everything, more or less. Everything ought to be exposed & opposed.”

He was an aloof man. He could manipulate through charm, show sudden great empathy, & as suddenly withdraw it. He let very few people get close to him, & even they could not always be sure he cared. My impression was sometimes of a kind of autism, with remarkable acting skills. This went with nerves of steel.

Walking once across a parking lot in Ottawa — to a place where we could smoke & chat — we left behind the cries of some office convulsion. Neil had just done something typical, to cause complete emotional disarray. “What was that all about?” I asked him, as we walked past all the cars.

“I tend to run a fairly chaotic newsroom.”

He got the best out of people; often better than they themselves thought they could do. And he did this shamelessly, at the expense of their nice feelings. People who claimed to hate him would risk their very lives to please him; & this without having been told what he wanted.

“Have you ever considered the possibility that you might be a psychopath?” I then asked, for it was a moment when I truly wanted to be fired.

“Yes,” he answered. “That is one of my little foibles.”

Let’s party

A correspondent, Mr Michael Hendry, calls our attention to the fact that today is the 100th birthday of Nicolás Gómez Dávila. (Yesterday was the 19th anniversary of his death.) As a website that aspires to be Canada’s leading forum of Gómez-Dávilism, & all-round reactionary intransigence, we really ought to say “Eh!” & get tanked or something. Drinks will be served at the High Doganate, to anyone who can find the place in the Greater Parkdale Area. Just go to the corner of Jameson & Queen, & ask the gentleman in the turban with the long beard. The one with the hookah.

*

I have carried the discussion of the last few days over to Catholic Thing, where my column continues to appear every second Saturday. (Today being one of those Saturdays.) While no Colombian sage is mentioned, the point about politics being pointless is made. I don’t think people will understand it. For many I know, giving up politics would be like giving up poker, or crack cocaine. I often think many of us know it is pointless, in the same way we know we will not win the lottery. But the devil tells us to try again. And sometimes, of course, someone does win; & then the real tragedy starts unfolding.

Which is not to say, even at this late day, that no decent men & women mix in. I have known a few, motivated by a notion of public service; who, wrongly or not, “believe in democracy,” & argue that paraphrase of Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Which is well, on the condition of self-understanding.

Burke, in my view, is the first man to read on what was best & wisest in the Anglo-American political tradition; as also for a standard in political campaigns. He refused to flatter, & gallantly accepted the consequences when required. It was he who told the electors of Bristol: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

There, in a sentence, is why populism stinks; & why it gets worse, the broader the franchise.

Conversely, however, the statesman prepared to lose his seat, the party prepared never to form a government, the man who will stand against public opinion & endure mockery on behalf of the truth — may have some power. I think that may be the exception that proves the rule.

The yairs chronicles

Gentle reader will forgive a little lapse, a little traipse, in the nature of a hit-&-run, into mundane politics. There is no point to this post whatever; which perhaps qualifies it, nevertheless, as a legitimately idle effusion. I will be perhaps the 489th pundit to say what I am about to say: that it is really quite wonderful how the Obamanoids have (unintentionally, of course) picked their scandals.

My guess is that the IRS scandal is tops. Nothing could make the “average taxpayer,” in the very season of income tax returns, & with the nightmare of them freshly in memory, identify so viscerally with the IRS targets — with the tea-baggers & “patriots” & others of that ilk whom the Tax Department selected for persecution — nor infuriate him against Big Guvmint so comprehensively.

He then learns about Benghazi — a story which the gliberal media, determined to protect America from the horror of a “President Romney” — had been keeping out of his sight; storing it up for him until now. He learns that Americans were being slaughtered by Al Qaeda in Libya, as Obama’s officers of state stood by, doing nothing to help them, indeed preventing anything from being done that might enlarge the drama. That instead, they were preparing their “talking points,” to prevent the slaughter from impinging upon the President’s re-election campaign; that they went about telling bald knowing lies on all the TV talk shows, to substitute a fictional narrative for the real one.

And then, the Justice Department hit on AP. Not on Drudge, not on Fox, but on the Associated Press, that pillar of American gliberal journalistic mediocrity. Pure genius. Let every harmless progressive hack in the USA think Eric Holder is monitoring his telephone & email. Let them think Big Brubber is really after them. And, at the very moment they are reviewing storylines that could portray Barack Hussein Obama as morally indistinguishable from, if not actually inferior to, Richard Watergate Nixon.

Who knows: maybe God still loves America. And that’s why He let Obama win.

Wake me up when they impeach him.

*

The above will serve as well as any political event, or “constellation” of events, to illustrate propositions from Nicolás Gómez Dávila that were being discussed, or at least referred to, in a Comments thread a couple of posts ago. Now, Gómez Dávila should not be held accountable for the remarks that follow. They represent only my own (genuinely) humble attempt to grasp the reality he discerns. I am convinced he understood it much more profoundly.

The enthusiasts of democracy, & socialist partisans especially, work from the assumption that someone has power — some Person, or Party. Let us set aside for the moment how he, how they, obtained their power — by popular election, aristocratic election, inheritance, revolution, military coup, whatever. Let us merely imagine that some person or persons are “in power.”

Embedded in this belief is the notion that, while they are in power, they enjoy some influence. They make things happen; become choreographers of events. Until they die, or are displaced, we assume they are the ones directing history. That, indeed, is why the democracy enthusiast thinks it so important for the government to be freely elected according to some specified constitutional procedure — so that it will reflect “the will of the people.”

That the people are idiots, is a point quite easy to prove, & thus like most such points, not very significant. Let me not invidiously insinuate that the people of this democracy are more idiotic than the people of that one. There is always enough idiocy to go around, & I have yet to visit a country that is experiencing a shortage. Nor am I aware of a time in history when this was different; nor is such a time conceivable. Ask any large sampling of people to compose triple roundels, or paint portraits, or construct machinery to levitate themselves, & you will get about the same proportion as should be allowed to vote in elections. Had all been trained from youth in these arts, they might make a better showing. It isn’t really their fault.

People might think a man like Barack Obama would know something about politics, since he has been bathing in them most of his life. He does in fact know something about them, but not much. This is because his acquirements were all in a specialized area of politics — that of getting oneself elected. (Read the old Commentariolum, or handbook on electioneering, attributed to Marcus Cicero’s little brother, Quintus. Nothing much changes in two thousand years.) Once outside that specialization, poor Obama is at sea. He was never exposed to the craft of governing, only to the craft of getting power. His ideas of how things work, of what can & can’t be done by government agency, are absurd & laughable. To be fair he is, in this respect, a typical politician. They all studied the same specialty; not one in a hundred studied anything else.

But leave all this aside. We still assume that, since he has the power that goes with the office, Obama must have influence over what falls out. On democratic theory, he could be held accountable. He could be replaced by someone who knows what he is doing, or is more likely to do what the people want. His replacement would then be judged by the same criteria.

Bear with me. I must say something shocking.

I don’t think Barack Obama has any power at all. Nor do I think any alternative president, or king, or generalissimo, or fuehrer, competent or incompetent, would have any power — beyond that of any other human being. That the President of the United States can lift a mug, & decide whether to fill it with tea or coffee, I will freely allow. That he may make decisions affecting other people, & that his decisions may be treated as law, I will also allow. Such laws may be obeyed or disobeyed. But all that happens beyond his power, & is only in the power of other people.

To my knowledge, Mr Obama cannot even launch a nuclear missile on his own. The gizmo on his desk only asks someone else to launch it, & the target selected is merely a suggestion. The technocrat receiving this suggestion, should he deign to listen, might if he wished select a different target, that would please him more. Granted, he might be hanged for doing that, but so it goes. Each person must weigh the likely consequences of his actions, & decide in the balance what works for him.

Does that mean the technocrat has power? Of course not. He has no more power than anyone else who happens to have his finger on the means to obliterate, say, a medium-sized city. He can kill a lot more people than a man with a rubber slingshot, or even a hunting rifle. He can, as it were, create an event that will be consequential. But he has no power to guide the consequences, nor predict them beyond the first day or two.

The nasty little boy who steps gratuitously onto an anthill may slay or inconvenience a great many ants. But the ant world continues, according to its own patterns of behaviour, regardless of that boy. The survivors soon develop work-arounds for the problems he has created for them. Our human world continues at a level of sophistication & unpredictability unknown to & unimagined by the ants, so in that sense our technocrat has even less power than the nasty little boy.

My interest in the Middle Ages has been useful in bringing this point home to me. Consider, for instance, the Black Death. Unquestionably it made an impression at the time. The scale of the catastrophe was vastly beyond anything of which mediaeval men had experience. (It wasn’t as if they lived in the 20th century, when the deaths of millions was a matter of course.) Large districts were depopulated across Europe, cities reduced to a fraction of their former size, horrors endured of an apocalyptic piquancy. Nor was the experience ever quite forgotten; we still remember it, today. Yet within much less than a generation, the Black Death had ceased to be an important issue. Life had resumed, & the work-arounds were in place.

Without doubt, the world is different for such events. To this day, things are not as they would have been, had the Black Death not occurred. But the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis, had no power to determine any of the outcomes. Some other bacterium might have been worse, perhaps; but still it would have had no orchestrating power.

Someone mentioned Hitler the other day. (I think it was me.) How was he different from Yersinia pestis? Consider what trivial events would have changed the course of European history, to say nothing of the demography. A few bullets whizzed past him at Ypres. With minute adjustments in timing & the breeze, any one of them could have finished him off. He collected two iron crosses, when bullets did not miss. His siblings had all died young, of such diseases as diptheria. Neither of his parents lived to old age. And car accidents happen every day. Forget the plot to assassinate Hitler. Slightly adjust a dial, & any one of us is no longer here.

At age twenty, broke & alone, Hitler nearly perished in a Vienna doss house. “Poor vagrant who never hurt anybody. Dreamt of becoming an artist.”

He had no power. Everything he achieved was through others.

History happens, ideas have consequences, one thing follows another in a chain. But no human being ever controlled even his own destiny.

It seems to me, & it seems to me that it seemed to Gómez Dávila, that God has so arranged our world that history doesn’t matter. Or more precisely, the kind of history that we think matters, doesn’t matter much, if at all, to us. The significant events happen out of public view; & they are constantly happening. The real drama is within each human soul. Each responds to events that come his way, but the events in themselves are just props in the drama. Let us express this in a painful cliché. Politics are a way to rearrange the deck chairs. They do not change the fact we’re all going down. They only add pointless melodrama & farce to a plot already sufficiently gripping.

Of course, I would prefer monarchy to democracy. It is so much less distracting, & the taxes would be much lower. Occasions of sin would be drastically reduced. The king has a job, for which he was trained, whether well or poorly; let him get on with it. The nobles have their own lives, too. Let the world be governed by customary law, & normative tradition: how better to keep these big shots out of our affairs?

But since getting rid of democracy & replacing it with monarchy would itself be distracting, I will not press the point.

Besides, nature will take care of it soon enough.

Straussian aside

The smaller a man’s mind, the easier it is to drive him out of it, as I have observed passim over the years. In certain academic, sherry-drinking milieux, it could be done only a generation ago with just five syllables (“As Leo Strauss says, …”) & sometimes with just three. Unfortunately today they no longer drink sherry, & probably wouldn’t recognize the name. Strauss was a delicious affront to the Bouvards & Pécuchets of post-classical liberalism. He was the worst kind of “fascist” in the sense that he embodied pre-post-classical liberalism. He taught his (many illustrious) students to read the classical texts of political philosophy with attention & great care; to escape from the narrow present into an historical breadth of thinking. By doing so they would find any number of things that were deeply affronting.

Nineteen sixty-three is a year I recall vividly, though I had only ten years’ experience of this planet at the time & was still, as it were, getting up to speed. It was the annus mirabilis in which, as the late Philip Larkin noted, sexual intercourse was discovered (too late for him; too early for me), “between the end of the Chatterley ban, & the Beatles’ first LP.”

I was not, incidentally, then or later a student of Leo Strauss. The best I’ve ever been able to do is read his beuks. But I have some further idea of his “presence” from having met some of his academic progeny.

He was Jewish in the best sense, from a Christian point of view: the leaven in our bread, the particle in our oyster, the perfect outsider, within. It was the Jews that made Christian Germany, indeed Christian Europe, “rise” intellectually, tiny though they always were in number. They did so simply by remaining Jewish, often even when they ceased to be practising Jews. But, thinking as Jews. Though I will admit the remark is rather mysterious, the Jews have remained God’s gift to us, & the means by which we could obtain a certain self-understanding; without which we could not. Even in pogroms, mediaeval & later, they gave us a gift of self-understanding, as no other people could — in that case, of the evil in us. That Christ himself was a Jew, is at the heart of this mystery, which even in this temporal world, seems strangely to transcend time. But that is another, very long story (one with which, incidentally, Catholics were wrestling, painfully, in 1963).

Re-reading a couple of the essays collected in Strauss’s Liberalism Ancient & Modern, in wee hours of a sleepless night,  I was reminded of his nearly angelic ability to drive a certain class of people out of their little minds. Let me cite, for example, this brief passage, from an essay in which Prof Strauss was reviewing a social science colloquium, in 1963:

“Not a few people who have come to despair of the possibility of a decent secularist society, without having been induced by their despair to question secularism as such, escape into the self & into art. The ‘self’ is obviously a descendant of the soul; that is, it is not the soul. The soul may be responsible for its being good or bad, but it is not responsible for its being a soul; of the self, on the other hand, it is not certain if it is not a self by virtue of its own effort. The soul is part of an order which does not originate in the soul; of the self, on the other hand, it is not certain whether it is part of an order that does not originate in the self. Surely the self as understood by the people in question is sovereign or does not defer to anything higher than itself; yet it is no longer exhilarated by the sense of its sovereignty, but rather oppressed by it, not to say in a state of despair. One may say that the self putting its trust in itself & therefore in man, is cursed. …”

Strauss was alluding to Jeremiah (17:5 et seq). He goes on to say: not only cursed but haunted. The self (contemporary with 1963), though an “unwilling witness to the biblical faith,” & in that sense unbelieving, was nevertheless in no sense pagan. It might have wished to be, but could not be. “It is the unbelief of men who, or whose parents, were Christians & Jews. …

“They are haunted men. Deferring to nothing higher than their selves, they lack guidance. They lack thought & discipline. Instead they have what they call sincerity. Whether sincerity as they understand it is necessary must be left open until one knows whether sincerity is inseparable from shamelessness.”

One sees immediately how he might be hated. And that is before he has mentioned that this “sincerity,” which has become so prized, “fulfils itself in shrill & ugly screams.”

We begin to see where this is going; that the essay is developing into a very nice analysis of the mental outlook of the generation that found its primary intellectual expression in protests against the Vietnam War, against “racism,” against “inequality,” against “conformity,” against everything that could be defined as “American” — while dreaming of an American “great society” of no discernible content.

“We have met the enemy & he is us.”

That immortal line from the comic strip, Pogo, sounded depths deeper than its draughtsman designed. For the scream of that sovereign Self could only be screamed against itself. People who acknowledged no moral law, & no ground upon which any law could fasten, uttered protests that assumed the existence of immortal & unalterable moral law. What were they thinking?

Of a time only slightly displaced from them, when such a moral law was acknowledged.

And to compound the joke, the cry for “diversity” was already in the air, together with demands that every alternative to the stifling conformity of the atomized self — in its secular state, demanding secular statism — be overcome. And for the sake of world peace.

Truly, for world peace, & world government, & perfect universal conformity, for as Strauss also noted it is the very existence of diversity in thought & life that is the cause of conflict. In effect, looking back over fifty years, we have the moment in which “tolerance” was being redefined, from “live & let live” to an absolutely uncompromising intolerance of anything with moral, intellectual, or spiritual substance.

Has there been any progress in the last fifty years? I would say that our liberal intellectuals today are less haunted; or rather, if haunted, not by memory but by some ghost more directly; perhaps, as I speculate, the Holy Ghost, whose grace still operates even on lost souls. A liberal intellectual of 1963 could still see specific things that he did not like, against which he was furiously rebelling. His descendant, his intellectual grandchild of 2013, shadow boxes in a complete fog, entirely of his own exhalation. In that sense, the secular humanist Revolution has been achieved.

So that today it is no longer necessary to utter five syllables, in order to drive a liberal intellectual out of his mind. We find him out of his mind already.

Vive la décroissance

My Chief Texas Correspondent, a great enthusiast for the burning of fossil fuels, ping’d me yesterday a link to Charles Hugh Smith’s blog, on “Degrowth, Anti-Consumerism, & Peak Production.” To my surprise, he pronounced himself amenable to it, “except for the knock on fossil fuels.” I proposed a compromise, in which we continue to dig, pump, frack, & pipe at a merry old rate, but instead of using the products to fuel anything, simply flare them off directly into the atmosphere. Thus we might benefit global agriculture (plants just love carbon dioxide), & contribute what we can to global warming (against the threat of the next Ice Age), while sparing the planet from all these frigging cars.

I love the vocabulary of the Degrowth Movement: “financialization,” “phantom collateral,” “Keynesian cargo cult enablers,” combine in a rich emulsion that may be rolled into sentences as, “the quasi-religion of growth is just the public relations narrative that mesmerizes the debt serfs, political toadies, & media sycophants.” … “Décroissance” (French), “decrescita” (Italian), “decrecimiento” (Spanish) are apparently the alternative labels for this movement, among those sophisticated, cheese-eating furriners. (Americans shouldn’t be told about them.) From sources discovered in a quick Google search, I see it must be internationally trending.

That the “spiritual” consequences of consumerism are frequently mentioned is all very nice, except, these days “spiritual” in no way implies “Christian,” nor precludes any of the dozen or less standard gnostic heresies — known to us through twenty centuries; patiently & repeatedly explained & exposed — that are exhumed & relaunched yet again in every fervid round of New Age fallacy.

The first point to make is that there are worse sins than consumerism; & consumerism itself cannot be effectively attacked without a fairly full understanding of this. Nor is it really a particular sin, but a glom of many, most of them venial. Without some larger view of the moral order, within which fast & abstinence take their part; without some joyful apprehension of the purposes served in human life, I don’t think attacks on consumerism will get us anywhere. They tend to devolve into attacks on other people’s consumerism or, when precept is put into practice, become the ghostly fuel to power spiritual pride. Do we propose to be holy, or do we propose to be smug?

Notwithstanding, the “degrowth analysis” is basically right. More & more we inhabit a bubble economy, in which we have amateur physicists dressing as bankers, inventing exotic financial instruments to summon new & illusory forms of wealth for themselves, from out of thin air. We have built “consumer confidence” into a network of confidence tricks, many easily spotted. The term “financialization” is as good jargon as any to describe economies that depend on “phantom collateral,” starting from the paper & electronic money that is, even in principle, ultimately exchangeable only for itself.

Paradoxically, the Degrowthians are prone to recommend new statistical indicators that are every bit as tomfool as the ones they would replace. “Gross domestic product” is an insane way to measure the “progress” of any society, but there is no way to quantify “gross domestic happiness” that does not equally depend on grossly arbitrary assumptions.

I am a real Chinaman in this regard. Which is to say, I hugely admired traditional Chinese ways of doing business, & going about the government of trade, which survived in many locations into my own earlier manhood. These were businessmen who eschewed abstract statistics; who made their contracts verbally, & had no use for courts. They operated in a marketplace where reputation was everything, & where it was also put into question the moment wealth was flaunted. Numbers were of course used, but they were numbers corresponding to real things: weights & volumes of the commodities, for instance. You know to the tael what you have in your warehouse, & you deliver it to the measure, intact & on time — or you are no longer in business. Indeed, no legal action is ever necessary, because no one will ever buy from you again if you fail, even once.

A question such as, “How much are you worth?” — asked typically on North American visa applications — was meaningless to these people. Dollars, whether Yankee, Mexican, or Hong Kong, meant nothing to the traditional Chinese businessman, except as weights of alloyed silver. The Chinese, after all, invented paper money, & were therefore the first to see through it.

(Which is another thing I love about Mediaeval Man. He was pretty Chinese about things. He did not confuse forgiveness with mercy, nor extend mercy on behalf of his unconsulted neighbour. He did not feel the modern obligation to let himself be suckered again & again. He was habitually inclined to Christ’s preferential option for direct action.)

The modern advice of the Degrowthians is sound enough, so far as it goes, for it was the advice of our ancestors, passed parent to child, constantly reinforced by church & community. Do not buy what you can make for yourself. Buy nothing for show. Use anything you own until it can’t be fixed any more. Buy, when you must, the best you can afford. Avoid clutter. Ignore advertisements & salesmen. Do what you can to drive any kind of tempters out of your environment, & use violence when necessary to keep them away from your kids. Give to those genuinely in need, care directly for your sick & old, volunteer when a barn needs raising. Regardless of cost, be reliable.

This was sound advice because anyone could do it; no one had to wait for Armageddon. Then or now: no one need wait for some other person to do something first, nor think about the result of the next meaningless federal election. (From the thinnest vine, the vineyard may be restored.)

Yet it was made sounder still, by fretting & interlacing each sensible point of domestic doctrine into the crown of a solid theology. For in the view not only of the Church, but of my own Calvinist & Methodist ancestors, the purpose of life was not to increase some abstract efficiency. Rather, the opposite is closer to the truth: that the purpose of efficiency is to increase life; to grow both materially & spiritually towards an end that is in God. And not just any god, mind, but the One revealed in Christ Jesus.

*

I know this sounds crazy & impossible to the emancipated man of today, steeping in our contemporary consumerism. He is constantly told to maintain confidence, & keep his pecker up for hope & loose change. His capacity for trust, so far as it goes, is invested in the hope that his debts will not be called in, that everything he owns won’t be hauled away, & himself in the next truck turned into the landfill. Under all the anxieties of his fast-paced life — work till you shirk, shop till you drop — he believes himself to be a team player. He is anyway reminded in a thousand subtle ways, & a thousand more obvious, of his most solemn public responsibility. What would his friends say if he broke rank, & stopped doing his bit for “the economy”?

He must make his obeisance to the clichés that bind us all together, as worthy citizens of a modern secular state; to “the Gods of the Market Place,” as Kipling called them, “& their smooth-tongued wizards,” operating in politics & business alike. He must maintain the common faith that animates our democracy; that sacred faith in Peter Pan — that if we all keep our eyes closed together, the facts of life will eventually go away.

How can he dare let go of that? What would be the consequence if he did? Who could reasonably expect him to embrace an alternative “blind faith,” that might separate him from his fellows, & from the safety of the crowd?

And why anyway should he believe in what, according to the scientific consensus, is a crop of old myths? For that’s the real rub. According to the scientific consensus, he’s just a lump of dirt, or at best a worm crawling in it. Why should he believe that his soul has any value? That he is not just a worm, or a number, but a man? Sounds like narcissism to him; sounds rather selfish; sounds downright unscientific. For in his heart he believes that he is worthless. In his heart is the counsel of despair.

What is impossible today was not always impossible, however. There was a world before Peter Pan. Even I retain glimpses of another way of life, not in some distant place, but right here under the asphalt, in a country that once had a little dignity. (Canada today is a country of which her ancestors, of every confession, would be rightly & deeply ashamed.)

That it was never secure can go without saying, for it is gone. Nothing in this world survives, that is not constantly maintained & replenished, & what is built in faith requires the renewed faith of every generation. And the truth is that faith was broken, except a few resilient threads. (Which the devils try so desperately to sever, from the fear that they might grow again.)

Yet I recall an old house in Cape Breton, where every degrowthing principle was once observed, as a matter of course, & where this text adapted from the Book of Joshua (24:15) was embroidered & framed:

“If it seem evil to you to serve the Lord, you have your choice. Choose whichever strange gods you will serve. But as for me & my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Mad Ruskin

I love to quote the opening line of Praeterita, John Ruskin’s uncharacteristically light & playful book of autobiographical sketches, happily completed just before he went insane:

“I am, & my father was before me, a violent Tory of the old school; — Walter Scott’s school, that is to say, & Homer’s.”

As pendant to my last post, I thought perhaps to parry a criticism received in email. Like too many of my correspondents, this critic did not wish to advertise his name, & therefore would not post a formal Comment. He nevertheless had a complaint, that I’m “beginning to sound like John Ruskin,” & this was accompanied by a reminder of John Ruskin’s fate.

With world enough & time, I should love to ramble on about Ruskin & Ruskinism. My relation with that grand Victorian sage; with the Pre-Raphaelites buzzing around him; with the painter J.M.W. Turner for that matter (whom Ruskin worshipped); with Pugin & neo-Gothicism, including the neo-Gothic Tracts for the Times; with the whole cumbrous tide of Victorian Romanticism & Reaction — is full to choking with love & hate. It trails off on William Morris wallpaper in a mixture more of hatred & contempt. (O Lord do I despise William Morris!) But in the descent of Ruskinian opinion & ideals I trace shadows from my own family. Kipling, too, came out of that fecund primal ooze, to which I can return by a straight line passing through my father & grandfather.

Hatred & love are not an odd combination. It flourishes within most families.

I would love to ramble on about Ruskin, but had better not. I propose, today, to come swiftly to my point. Any other approach would be suffocating. Even the paradoxes run too thick, as we advance from the Victorian Reaction, to the anti-Victorian Reaction; from Their House to Bauhaus, as it were. We are dealing with a huge & catastrophic failure — as I see it now, the failure of the drowning English mind to catch the life-line of Catholic Christianity.

The points I would make are anyway almost perfectly captured in a book published in 1939. It is by Rosalind Murray — daughter of the august Gilbert Murray, sometime wife of Arnold Toynbee, mother of Philip, grandmother of Polly Toynbee, &c — who skipped ship, or turned traitor to her own class. For the book, entitled The Good Pagan’s Failure, presents the high-minded Victorian paganism from which she herself sprang, & the high-minded Liberalism it begat — the Enlightenment of the Enlightenment, if you will — in all its best arguments & finest poses. And then it utterly demolishes them.

The flaw in the heart & mind of Ruskin is not to be found in his raging Toryism. It is instead to be found in the largely unacknowledged, high-minded paganism that was admixed to it. In a sentence, Ruskin, as so many of his contemporaries & followers, embraced the external signs of high civilization, as if they were that civilization itself. At core, he is not a believer. He merely believes that he believes. At core he is as self-creating as his exact contemporary in madness, Friedrich Nietzsche. And of course Ruskin thinks that art can save us, & more subtly, that politics can save art.

Yet he is gloriously right in discerning the cheapness of modern life; in attacking evils that have only become worse since his time. His excoriating tract, Unto This Last, & his many lesser tracts that deal with “political economy,” are, if gentle reader will forgive the occasional atrocious pun, “right on the money.” He understands what is wrong with what we might call “optimistic capitalism” — with the whole analytical school descending from Adam Smith, & the entire Utilitarian project beside it.

Let us put the argument plainly. The problem is not with trade, per se. Trade is noble, or potentially noble; private enterprise goes without saying. The problem is with the development of trade in the direction of cheapness. Products of an inferior nature drive out products of a superior nature, because they are cheap. Capitalists become obscenely rich by cutting corners, & offering cheap, through methods of mass production which drive the decent & honourable tradesman out of business. If he survives at all, it must now be by making & selling luxuries to those rich. But meanwhile the broad world fills up with garbage, in the strict sense of goods disposable by design.

My shirts, for instance. I would be happy to own two shirts, that would stand up to a little wearing. Instead, for the same price I might pay for those, my closet is filled with shirts (I count nine at the moment) which survive for a year or two only by alternating use, & very gentle laundering. Indeed, I have roughly calculated that the best the shopping malls offer will begin to disintegrate — the collars fray, the elbows come out, stains become unwashable, &c — after being worn only a few dozen times; which is to say, their life expectancy can be expressed in weeks. Better than that comes only from a tailor; though no longer from just any tailor.

Now, Ruskin can be laughed off as naïve. As he was himself too angrily aware, the ideology of “cheap” was prevailing; of “free market competition” to obtain the lowest price; of quality standards enforced to “the lowest common denominator” — as much by the demands of the market as by any legal requirement. It would be wrong to suggest there are no quality standards at all. (A shirt that disintegrates the first time one puts it on is unlikely to sell a second time.) But it is amazing how many corners can be cut, over time, & how acceptable this will be in the marketplace when it is done gradually. Mass “lifestyle” advertising is itself designed to make it acceptable, by distracting from each product’s essential worthlessness, & has proved cheaper & more efficient than any effort to improve the goods. The whole idea is wonderfully conveyed by the vulgar expression, “bottom line.”

Ruskin’s solution to the problem can also be laughed off. It was to end competition for price, & replace it with competition for employment. The tradesman selling inferior goods, the craftsman making them would be, under his regime, soon out of business — instead of the purveyor of superior goods. True, Ruskin rather relished the idea of the hucksters starving.

What he advocated was close to mediaeval economic arrangements, & he further bought into the guild systems by which they were regulated. Guild regulation should not be compared (invidiously) with “free markets” — which in practice never exist for long, & are as rare to start with as “perfect communism.” Rather they should be compared (fairly) with the massive centralized bureaucracies which are our way of regulating trade, & perfectly inevitable in any democracy.

To a Ruskinian view, the truly naïve & laughable position consists of failing to see the real choice. This is not between “free markets” & “socialism” — the propaganda simplification by the ideological fanatics on both sides. That is a choice between abstract positions, neither of which can survive in our human world — the law of the jungle versus cages in a zoo. Nor is “something in between” much of a choice, either. It is one foot in the fire & one foot in the freezer, on the theory that this yields a comfortable average.

It is true that Ruskin went insane. This may have been from some other cause than his views on art & political economy. But let us suppose him a victim of his own over-earnestness. His condition may then be sanitized, by supplying just one missing Catholic dogma. It is never to take too seriously one’s hopes for improvement in this world.

Mayday

“Civilization begins,” according to the poet Ezra Pound, “when people start preferring a little done right to a great deal done wrong.”

Like the capacities for speech, art, music, & sanctity, this is written somewhere in our DNA, deep down where it can be forgotten. As Pound decried, that “great deal” comes out in the popular star system, & every other way of pandering to the masses; in the replacement of what is local & specific with what is general & plugged in. Whereas, a concert of music by Dufay, for instance, or the filling of a niche with an item of carved stone, would be a little deal.

To my mind, as a religious nutjob, tyranny begins with the abuse of talents, with turning God’s gifts (or Nature’s, if you wish) to purely personal account, as the means to wealth & power. The modest, who may also have talents but perhaps not for making big fortunes or winning national elections, must nevertheless try to get by. They become enslaved on many different levels. For they must agree to accept certain terms of employment. They agree to serve: not God, except privately, nor their neighbour, except abstractly. Tangibly, the modest must serve these “men of vision,” these “nation builders” & other wilful cranks — whose talents are for plausible rhetoric; for moral & material posturing; for nerveless appropriation & the ruthless seizure of the main chance. These great become our paymasters. Money talks, & we are paid to obey.

Which is not to say tyranny is a modern invention. But I do think the technology for it has been vastly improved.

*

The late George Grant once explained to me that the Volvo in his driveway was “a modern irony.” It was in fact a mode of conveyance, which he could afford on the salary of a “philosophy professor”; mostly the wife drove it. But we spent a pleasant morning in Halifax once, thirty years ago, discussing the amount of human art & science, focused skill & moral discipline, subtracted from Civilization & added to The Economy by the invention of such things.

It was, we agreed, a superior car, a marvel of engineering. (A Volvo, well kept, might last almost half as long as a passenger airliner.) But one was like another, & ten-thousands of people, perhaps hundreds of thousands, lived out their lives for the sake of Volvos — starting from the poor wretches digging the iron out of the ground, or drilling for the oil; & ending with the slick advertising agents & the showroom salesmen. And then there are the other car manufacturers.

Indeed, the late Ivan Illich — half mad to be sure, but no one could tell which half — demonstrated that if we take the total of man-hours devoted to making, fuelling, fixing, insuring, & otherwise accommodating cars (highways, garages, traffic cops, &c), then divide by the grand total of passenger miles driven, for any fixed period, the average actual speed of a car may be calculated. It works out to just over three miles per hour. Which is to say, the same as walking, but considerably slower than a horse. To put this another way, the entire monstrous effort produces a null result.

Really, it is much less than a zero, as we see when we look at the matter more in the round. Let us tackle, for instance, the crowding issue.

The world, since I was born, has more than doubled in population. The human race, according to the environmentalcases, takes up too much space. We have a “problem” today, of “overpopulation.” Yet even they, no friends of big industry (at least in their own distorting imaginations) seem to have overlooked a simple fact. We, humans, have increased by a modest two or three times (since anno 1953). But those, cars, have increased by twenty times or more, over the same period. And each one of them leaves a bigger carbon footprint; especially when you remember that the newly arriving humans are just little ones.

Why this emphasis on getting rid of us?

Why, while we still can, don’t we get rid of them?

For consider, the average car is nearly defenceless. But the cars of the future might not be. (Unfortunately, the little humans are also defenceless.)

Now, cars give the appearance of moving very fast, to those who do not think analytically, & for the sake of having nice shiny cars in loud solid colours, the masses are happy to exchange not only the direct cost in human labour, but such “intangible” costs as may be associated with making our cities ugly, filling the air with pollutants, constraining souls within metal boxes, & turning the streets where children once played into killing zones.

Include this, too, in what we mean by “a modern irony” — that cars have made our cities spread, until one needs a car to get around them. Owning one has ceased to be a luxury, & become a necessity instead. One can hardly keep a job without one.  And one needs that job in order to pay for things, such as cars.

Cars are not everything, of course. There is so much more on the same basic scheme: the sound & fury of modern industry, signifying the nothing it all works out to. Yet let me not suggest that the lives lived, minding all the machines, are wasted. The work is wasted, goes into the black hole. But there is something irreducible in the experience, even of industrial desolation.

In one of my many pre-deleted posts, I considered instead the real estate industry. In another ramble, a couple of years ago, I reviewed a study by some Californian, linking cars & real estate together. The thesis, easily proved, is that the allocation of automobile parking spaces had, by the 1920s, determined the shape of every North American town & city, & the disposition of all human habitation within. The little Stalins, called “city planners,” have since that time been using this allocation of parking spaces as their basic “planning tool,” to micromanage the Kulaks.

Movement along the actual roads & highways is only their reserve tool.

That, in turn, leads to a larger observation about the way of our world: people constantly moving, houses constantly changing hands. We have become nomads again, high-tech nomads, while eviscerating local & regional culture, & eliminating almost every prospect of what Illich touted as “conviviality.”

But that is just where I stand confuted. One can hardly conceive of an evil that does not add a few dollars to the GDP. Say what I like about the collapse of Western Civ, the truth is it was good for the economy. And this can be easily proved, by the numbers, for they get bigger every day.

*

It will soon be nine hundred years since the White Ship went down in the English Channel (November 25th, 1120), drowning, among several hundred mostly drunken passengers, the only legitimate heir to King Henry, thus setting the stage for “The Anarchy” & everything that has fallen out since. It is barely one century since the Titanic went down (April 15th, 1912), also with huge casualties including many quite respectable, well-dressed people.

Bernard Berenson somewhere contrasted the different public responses to these two events. The first occasioned not the slightest indignation, but a great cry of woe & contrition. The second triggered a series of public inquiries, as the politicians sought to identify those responsible for the disaster, on the assumption that something contractual had failed. (The iceberg, curiously enough, was never called to testify.)

So it goes, or so it has gone, for Western society. The awe that is commanded by a great disaster, is frittered away. The large fact is quickly absorbed by many small. Moreover, so far as the awe persists, it tends to be expressed with maudlin sentimentality — with grief poured over the individual victims — unctuously, as it were. This is another way in which the large is absorbed by the many small. We find ourselves weeping for individuals whom, in the course of our natural lives, we would never have met, nor heard of. One might almost call these “virtual” tears.

Today is of course “May Day,” itself somewhat transformed from mediaeval antecedents. By modern European tradition, it is the day on which we celebrate international organized labour, or in a word, Communism — in both its socialist & capitalist forms. Indeed, everywhere I look about me, in the Greater Parkdale Area, I see new condominiums being raised, to extraordinary heights, to provide comfortable dovecotes for the New Soviet Man (capitalist version). For this New Soviet Man demands to live in a “condom”; demands not only to pay his mortgage, but a kind of rent on top of that; in addition to his demand for ever higher taxes, “daycare,” & so forth.

Alas, apart from being human, I find little in common with this New Soviet Man. He does not seem to be, in the least, animated by my classical & mediaeval enthusiasms. And I, for my part, do not long for a Volvo. Yet we celebrate so many of the same events, knowingly or unknowingly. He, with his demands for fresh public inquiries. I, with awe & contrition — for I am so impressed with the scale of the disaster.