Essays in Idleness


Shifty eyes

Two of my (many) heroes became famous while suppressing the Taiping Rebellion, in China in the mid-19th century. One was the British reactionary, & devout Evangelical, Charles George “Chinese” Gordon (later “Gordon Pasha,” & “Gordon of Khartoum”), who took command of the foreign-officered Ch’ang Sheng Chün (“Ever Victorious Army”). It was a remarkably small, independent, mercenary outfit, fighting on behalf of the Ch’ing Dynasty in Peking, which “punched above its weight” by several orders of magnitude.

The other was the Hunanese reactionary, & devout Confucian scholar-general Tseng Kuo-fan. He raised the Hsiang Army (named for the river that flows through Hunan province northward towards the mighty Yang-tze Kiang), that took back Nanking.

Gentle reader should be apprised of what I have discovered this summer, while reading some modern Chinese history. It is that Wikipedia, & other Internet sources that depend upon it, reflect, or at least obsequiously respect, the official Communist Party line in most articles touching upon China. Therefore they cannot be trusted. There is indeed a background problem, for any “China expert” must maintain his Chinese visa & access to mainland archival & other institutions in order to keep his credentials warm, & flourish in his trade. This leads to careful self-editing, & by increments from discreet vagueness, to tendentious selectivity, to contextual misrepresentation, to calculated lying.

Bear this in mind when reading, for instance, that Tseng Kuo-fan was some kind of “warlord,” who ordered gratuitous massacres; or when he is presented as a stooge for foreign interests; or conversely as a “traitor” to “modernization.” Such views are artefacts of the old Maoist propaganda, only beginning to deliquesce. Similarly, broad accounts of the so-called “Tung-che Restoration” are ill-served by systematic smearing. This was an effort corresponding to the reign of the 10th Ch’ing emperor, 1861–75, to cope with modernity on Chinese terms. The dowager empress, Tzu-hsi (mother & regent of the child incumbent, who died at nineteen) was the remarkable figure behind impressive efforts in what proved a hopeless cause. Her struggle continued until her death (in 1908). The Chinese governing order this august Manchu former-concubine was trying to sustain finally disintegrated in the republican revolution of 1911. By Sun Yat-sen & his political successors, Chiang Kai-shek & Mao, that ancient & magnificent civilization was finally obliterated.

Another century or more will surely pass before the history can be told in a disengaged way. For now, the satanic ideologies of Progress are spread, like lava & ash over the whole vast territory. Even before the accession of the human monster, Mao Tse-tung, millions of Chinese lives had been extinguished in pursuit of progressive fantasies & illusions (“democracy,” &c), foisted on the world by the votaries of Power.

I am, by way of full disclosure, a Ming Loyalist myself — i.e. still attached by sentiment to the last fully-independent Han dynasty, prior to the (Manchurian) Ch’ing; whose capital fell to the barbarians in 1644 — for the same reason I am a Jacobite, & a United Empire Loyalist, & a Holy Roman, & habsbourgeois, & réactionnaire tous azimuts. These were all lost causes. Yet only from the position of defeat, before the forces of Progress, is it possible to see the Beast with clarity, or to appreciate its mechanical, steamroller aspect.

Let me concede, that no specific lost cause can, once flattened into the asphalt by Progress, ever be revived. No veterinary medicine can rejuvenate the roadkill; no garden is worth watering, once paved. Yet I have seen the freshets come, & the shoots & seedlings sprouting through the asphalt cracks. The cause-behind-the-cause, of “Restoration,” remains dear to me; the vegetable opposition, expressing its dissent. And likewise in society a Man may sprout, through the cracks in The People. Hail Mary full of grace!

In what remained of that old “feudal” China, the gentry organized the peasantry for the defence of their homes & fields, against the first waves of revolutionary violence. It was as ever the old, civilized aristocracy, standing against the new, plebeian, puritans & psychopaths. True leadership is thrust upon a man, never wilfully seized. But by formation & training he must be ready to receive it. True leadership requires moral & spiritual strengths, along with intellectual qualities grounded in them. It requires simplicity of life & outlook, indifference to popularity, freedom from vanity & vain attachments — including that final attachment to survival at any cost.

Alike, “Chinese” Gordon & Tseng Kuo-fan understood such things. They are entirely worth studying in that light. Neither was importunate for command. Both were called to duty by “events.” And they were allies in a heavenly cause, who spontaneously recognized one another across every cultural divide. (Read again, Kipling’s “Ballad of East & West.”) Neither attempted to build a private power base, or to derive wealth from his service to the legitimate governing order. Nor did either strut as a paragon of virtue. When no longer needed, each quietly retired; until called again by the bugle of duty.

It is with Tseng I most wish to identify. On ancient principles of Chinese recruitment, he chose his officer corps. This product of the venerable Han-lin Yüan (“Brush-Wood Court”) laid down the exemplary procedure by which candidates were subjected to long interviews. He would begin with a slight, “oriental” smile, staring at the candidate for a prolonged period, observing the man’s facial & bodily dispositions. Questions were then directed to his practical knowledge, his intelligence & capacity for independent thought; but at the back of these was also an inquiry into the man’s fundamental honesty & decency. Before risking betrayal by a self-interested officer, Tseng would assiduously watch for signs that the man was betraying himself: would eliminate the boastful, the coarse of speech & manner, & above all, the shifty-eyed.

As a journalist I had often to make judgements in the course of an interview; to decide on whom I could or could not rely. I was actually taught, young, the sort of ticks to look out for. In particular, the inability to return one’s gaze unselfconsciously; for shifty eyes are the very flag of devious low cunning. The ability to distinguish upright from dishonest was once taught, generally, as a survival skill. Today we are taught instead “not to be judgemental,” & to overlook what “isn’t important.” But to the wise, the large is revealed in the small. The skill of reading character is not in itself a cultural property, though it may take cultural modes; it is rather one of the universal properties of man. It is a human skill, in the acquirement of which we are constantly reminded that nobility is simple & direct; that the ignoble are complex & crooked.

The leaders in our public life today — our “politicians” — are more or less invariably ignoble, self-serving, crooked men & women; “complicated people,” who cannot coherently explain themselves; “passive-aggressive” as the current saying goes. They boast, they are coarse, they are shifty in behaviour. This has much to do with the way they are selected.

In the picture

Perhaps I know less about photography than I know about music. It is hard to say, for my ignorance of music is formidable. I am thinking here of the sort of knowledge that can come only from practice & participation; not “academic” knowledge, which is quantitative, & cheap. The theatre critic, who has never tried to write a play, or act in one, is rightly dismissed as a public nuisance. So might be the critic of photography or music, whose participation has been desultory at best.

But these are not activities I have avoided, rather, subjects in which I may be unteachable. A music master in school — a man of beneficent calm & patience — was once driven nearly to despairing violence by my inability to grasp the “concept” of a choir. It wasn’t only my failure to sing in key. I could not be made to understand when to start singing, & when to stop. Nor was he my first victim; for in my earlier childhood a kindly Pakistani lady, who claimed that she could teach piano to anyone, withdrew the claim after trying to teach me. My own saintly aunt, an organist & choirmistress of considerable accomplishment, knew better than to try. She was happy if I would just keep some personal distance from her musical instruments.

But I love music. Whereas, I do not love photography. It provides, I strongly suspect, machinery with which to capture what is without substance in the scene before one. The more convincing the picture, the more empty & therefore false it becomes. Photography cannot be a substitute for any form of visual art. Worse, it is an extremely dangerous & distracting aid to artistic production, & a dubious method of recording — paintings, especially. This much, I think, can be judged directly by the employment of one’s eyes.

Too, it may be confirmed by the experience of the wise. An old friend, who happened to be a cinematographer, said he had often wondered whether movies could be considered a legitimate art form. He continued in confusion about whether the moving picture medium (with or without soundtrack) could ever express a coherent “aesthetic idea.” But he was quite certain that still photography could not. For art requires truth, even when it departs, into lying. Whereas, film is just a chemical reaction; & if I understand correctly, digital is not even that. The skills come down to point-&-shoot. We do not consider the product of a rifleman’s ministrations to be “art” in the strict sense — even if he has carefully tied up his target beforehand, to assure an intended result.

It is true that photographs can be pretty. But this is something genuine art eschews: the reason Impressionist painting is such a waste of canvas. It is like the difference between “sexy” & “beautiful,” or between rhetoric & reality. Nature is never pretty like that; & in being made pretty for the benefit of a camera she is manipulated against her will; & shall have her revenge in due course.

My father presented me with an old Brownie box camera when I was a wee lad. Most of the pictures I took with it — around Lahore, in Punjabi villages, up in the hills by Abbottabad, &c — are still in my possession. They were remarkably sharp & well-composed, if I do say so myself; but then, I depended entirely on the viewfinder, like Henri Cartier-Bresson; with the advantage over him that I was usually dealing with subjects that held still. A greater advantage, at age seven, may have been freedom from any kind of photographic “theory.”

Later, as a (very) young journalistic hack on my own in South-East Asia at the beginning of the ‘seventies, I acquired a camera again, or rather, two of them in succession. The first was a Nikkormat FT, along with several lenses. These required too much fussing, & I soon gave the whole kit away. The second was a Nikonos II “Calypso,” with one lens only (35mm). It was waterproof & as indestructible as the Hermes 3000 portable typewriter that travelled with it. The Nikonos could be used in any weather, above or below the waterline — whether for taking pictures, or if necessary as a weapon when swung from its strap. It was the workhorse among the more intelligent hacks, during the War in Vietnam. The mere possession of it conveyed the coolness factor required for self-recognition as a photo-journalist. Better yet, I liked its overall simplicity (the side-knobs for adjusting focus & aperture, which ceased to be counter-intuitive when the lens was installed upside down); the rewind mechanism (that compensated for my absent-mindedness); & the viewfinder (of the Albada type, showing the rectangle of the picture frame precisely). On the other hand, it was a pain to open & reload.

The preceding Nikkormat had led me into sin: into self-conscious artiness with the contact prints, from which I would select & crop obsessively. I would take multiple tries at almost every shot, sometimes dozens of what promised to be a “nice” composition. This was appallingly wasteful & wrong. Better, in the field, to prime one’s mind to the notion that one has one, & only one chance to get it right. Too, it is more useful to blame oneself than to doubt the camera.

I mentioned Cartier-Bresson above by way of self-aggrandisement. Though he used a Leica, he seemed to understand the moral conditions governing photographic reportage. As a well-trained painter, & constant draughtsman, he kept photography in its place. Let me count the ways, in which I purposefully or instinctively emulated his habits.

Most important, I never knowingly took a colour photograph. (It is necessary to insert the qualification, for I have several times agreed to snap a picture of some tourist, with his own camera, & who knows what may have been inside it?) I have said photography captures what is empty or false, but with colour it garishly fills the space, painting over what was nominally there. Black-&-white is crucial to any one-eyed essay in three-dimensional representation, wherein shape, texture, & the slighter variations of depth can be conveyed only through subtle shading. As a medium to record sculptural & architectural detail, photography can sometimes supplement or (rarely) even rival drawing. When the subject is living, it gives some hint of that animation: of the time dimension in the scene. It may even capture some spark of character in the depiction of a face: provided that the photographer has reflexes comparable to those of a good cricket batsman, for such visual effects are fleeting.

We could go on with this all day. I was just looking by chance at a colour photo of a tropical fruit stall. For all I know the semi-geometric fruit mounds came pre-composed by the costermonger, & were not instead carefully assembled for the photographer’s “artistic effect.” But assuming perfect candour on his part, in presenting each visual component, the photograph still lies, shamelessly. It omits, for instance, the fragrance of the guava, rising in the tropical heat. Or rather, it does not merely omit, but masks. I have seen black-&-white pictures of fruit stalls that do not impinge on the imagination in this way; wherefrom, at a glance, the scent of the guava is immediately called to mind.

No “special effects” should ever be tolerated, when photographing on the human scale. They may be necessary to resolve images at the microscopic or macroscopic scale, in scientific work. Indeed, colour film may be indicated, to the specialized purpose of showing refractive patterning in an animal, vegetable, or mineral specimen. But in environments that humans are capable of inhabiting, even the seemingly small issue of cropping the images comes immediately into play. For it is the first step down that slippery slope, to fakery.

The next is the use of flash, or any other lighting gimmick. The light available belongs to the scene, & any attempt to tamper with it necessarily involves a fraudulent intention. As I recall, Cartier-Bresson compared the use of a flash to shooting off a pistol at a concert. It changes the nature of the performance too much. It is frankly intrusive. And that is the opposite of what a photographer should be, in his function as a recorder. The man himself wrapped his Leica in black tape to make it look inconsequential. He snapped his pictures furtively.

That he understood the wrong in what he was doing was indicated by his own shyness. When speaking to groups, he would hold his prepared text directly before his face, to make getting a photo of him nearly impossible. And I was told by someone who knew him, that he was entirely sympathetic to the belief of traditional Muslims, & many rural & tribal of all cultural locations, that the camera is a tool for stealing men’s souls.

Fortunately, it cannot succeed without the active cooperation of the subject. But the proof that these “backward” people are astute may be demonstrated in the lives of fashion models; or worse, the behaviour of those engaged in endless self-portraiture with their cellphones & other hand-held devices. Imagine, a person so depraved, as to persevere in the theft of his own soul!

The middle way

You know the type: expensive food & women; silk kimonos every day. Private carrying chairs for their wives. Music & card lessons for their marriageable daughters; drum lessons for their sons. Football, miniature archery, poetry contests. Constantly renovating their houses; downright addiction to the tea ceremony. Cherry-blossom viewing, boat trips, daily baths. Nights on the town. Gambling & litigating, sword-drawing & duelling. Participation in mining projects. Sake with the evening meal; then smoking, one pipe after another. Unnecessary trips to Kyoto. Carving small articles during working hours. Collecting gold sword-fittings. Borrowing money at over 8 percent.

What can I say?

The truth is I was never sufficiently appalled by these wastrels, bringing decadence to Tokugawa Japan. They were the nouveaux riches of the risen merchant class, whom Ihara Saikaku takes to task in his 18th-century novels. One generation makes the money with enterprise & thrift. The next just spends it. You get what you might expect, when peasants rise too fast: for most of these people came up from farmers.

Enterprise & thrift are all very well, but they lead quickly to extravagance. Peace is nice, but it only leads to war. And war is pointless, because it only leads to peace. (Once upon a time I had a Delhi girlfriend, who explained all this to me.)

We should try to cultivate some moderation.


From a recent item in the Catholic Herald, we see that Chuck Darwin’s great-great-great granddaughter has lost her faith in scientific materialism. The item has been travelling through Catholic media & blogosphere since June. By now it has appeared even in the National Catholic Register, which frees me to mention it here. For I take pride in being “last with the news.”

Laura Keynes is descended on the other side from the family that gave the world John Maynard Keynes (I think he was her great-great uncle). This is the innermost ventricle in the heart of Bloomsbury — which is to say, from the outlook of the High Doganate, the centre of enemy territory in the English-speaking world. Darwinism is the cosmology, Keynesianism the economic theory; & for more than a sesquicentury, Liberalism has been the product of this self-publicizing intellectual aristocracy. It is an extended family affair — one marries in, or marries out — with lines of descent traceable to generations even before the bearded sage of Down House. For he was himself conscious of an intellectual pedigree; of being from birth in the forefront of enlightened liberalism, with its attendant social activism.

The famous Oxford debate of 1860 between the Anglican bishop, Samuel Wilberforce, & Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley, was itself an intra-family affair. Samuel was the son of William Wilberforce, the great slave emancipator, & both he & Huxley were in some intimate sense heirs to the evangelical tradition of the “Clapham Sect” — which emerged in all the majesty of its self-regard, at the tail end of the 18th century. Both were men of science, & Wilberforce no fool in his grasp of contemporary biology. Neither had the slightest patience for “mediaeval obscurantism.” But Huxley was trending “agnostic” on Christianity itself.

They were both from the evangelical, progressive milieu that had “freed the slaves,” & founded Freetown in West Africa, among other knightly acts of Christian philanthropy. They had brought the thunder of moral earnestness into the British Parliament, & carried the drumroll of progressive Victorian self-importance to the ends of the Earth — from Little England to the farthest Imperial shore. For they founded, too, the Church Missionary Society, the British & Foreign Bible Society, & almost every other outreach of Anglican evangelical fervour. They were “muscular Christians.” But what we now call the “Bloomsbury” component slid into a sophisticated, quizzical agnosticism, passing by degrees of scientism & socialism into the bitter atheism of today — yet without sacrifice of fervour, or any acquisition of self-doubt.

It is a fascinating history, perhaps too often traced, but never with sufficient irony. In addition to his campaign against slavery, William Wilberforce & his entourage had campaigned against domestic immorality, founding innumerable societies for the reformation of manners & the suppression of public vice. Not only slavery was outlawed, but through high-toned beseigement, Parliament was persuaded to pass various proclamations against “excessive drinking, blasphemy, profane swearing & cursing, lewdness, profanation of the Lord’s Day,” & other “dissolute, immoral, or disorderly practices.” (I am inclined to call this, “Christian Shariah,” reflecting as it does the old Koranic, if not also Presbyterian admonition, to “command the good.”) They installed the “nanny” in our Nanny State, with that heroic commitment to perpetual Reform & Improvement that seized the imagination of the Victorian Age — & which still echoes in the battle cry for Progress, long after their Protestant God was held to have died. (So that now I call it, “Progressive Shariah.”)

For through Darwin, Huxley, & their avant-garde, they also discovered Evolution, or perhaps more exactly, Evolution discovered them. What on the Continent was received as a tentative scientific hypothesis, full of holes, was in England — & then throughout the English-speaking world — taken for a refutation of Scripture. The Bloomsbury set were the vanguard of what became in effect a new secular religion. Darwin’s Origin of Species became the foundational document for the new scientistic faith — its replacement for Genesis. Evangelical religion was not so much abandoned, as transformed. By the more talented of Bloomsbury it was turned into aestheticism & “art for art’s sake.” The moral earnestness continued with polarities reversed. The old obsessions over sexual vice, for instance, flipped into sexual experimentation. Meanwhile, the science types assembled their New Inquisition, hunting down & eliminating from the possibility of employment those who strayed from Darwinian orthodoxy in the academic worlds they increasingly controlled.

These were people long habituated to identifying wherever they were standing as the high moral ground. With that goes the habit of demonizing anyone not standing with you, & the technique of substituting defamation for debate. To my mind, the nasal tone of today’s “political correctness” owes as much to descent from the Clapham Sect, as to later Soviet inspirations; & the catastrophic relaxation of intellectual standards, to that refusal to debate.

Feminism & homosexualism were never something new, but the political edge they acquired for their slicing action was honed in Bloomsbury. The knife of the new sexual politics was thrust into the body politic with the zeal that had once propelled campaigns “for the Encouragement of Piety & Virtue, & for the Preventing & Punishing of Profaneness & Immorality.” (I allude to the title of a Royal Proclamation advanced by the Wilberforce party, back in 1802.)

“The world decays, sir, as it ages” — or rather, it is made new in every generation, from the seed of the generation before, & it is wonderful to behold the metamorphoses. I have now lived long enough myself to watch the liberalism of my parents’ generation mutate into the liberalism of my own, & to see it again mutated in the liberalism of my children’s generation. What was unthinkable in one, becomes thinkable in the next, de rigueur in the one after. What is presented as the jet of Progress flies not with time’s arrow towards some pre-determined goal, but rather arcs & twists in wild spirals, forward then back in upon itself; rolling, pitching, yawing in its sport; finally spinning, tumbling, & cartwheeling until it hits the ground, in a magnificent explosion.


My own retreat from Progress, into the Catholic Church, was a complicated thing. It began I suppose at age six, when by father put me in a school named for Saint Anthony (of Padua) in Lahore, Pakistan. He did this with no religious intention whatever, being Methodist post-Christian himself, but from the same motive as so many across subcontinental India, of diverse religious strains, who entrusted their children to the missionary Catholic schools because these had (by far) the highest academic standards. If I was uplifted by the experience, it was only by the ears, for to this day I flinch at the memory of such as Brother Berg, come to punish me for writing with a blunt pencil.

Not even my conversion to Christianity quite pushed me into the Catholic Church, though it put me very near. I came within a trice of joining at the age of twenty-three, & would have, had the Church’s local representatives (in the England of 1976) not struck me as rather more Progressive, than Christian. For it was from Progress that I was fleeing — at first into the rafters of High Anglicanism.

What brought me finally home was the contemplation of history. It was the gradually increasing shock of realizing that this Church was teaching, in her catechesis, precisely the same doctrine she had begun teaching nineteen centuries before, & was still doing in her 20th century. She had strayed often in her behaviour, she had tilted & sometimes tipped, but she had kept righting herself again, returning to her original course; indeed, never quite abandoning it even while taking on water. No other institution on the face of this Earth, crewed as each must be, by humans, could make anything resembling such a claim. In the end I became convinced that God would never abandon her; that Christ was at her tiller, & the Holy Spirit in her sails. There could be no other explanation for this unearthly consistency.


But this piece was supposed to be about Laura Keynes, our latest convert from Bloomsbury. A brilliant girl, at least by the standard of academic attainment, & by personal accounts; & an unusual refugee, given all the advantages of family connexion that she is — in the slipstream of John Henry Newman — now consciously leaving behind. She intends, from what I can read, not only quietly to attend on Sundays, but to become one of those “Catholic apologists” the Bloomsbury set have always particularly despised.

As Huxley once said of the Roman argument, it is “carefully calculated for the destruction of all that is highest in the moral nature, in the intellectual freedom, & in the political freedom of mankind.” Richard Dawkins says pretty much the same today, without the old jowling sonority, yet still with a certain shrieking pomposity. For if there has been one consistent theme, through the Bloomsbury generations, it has been reviling the Catholic Church — first from one side, then from another, & another. This, in turn, is what links it back to the Reformation, & the larger Protestant heritage: for though erratic in their own doctrines, the descendants of the first schismatics have been absolutely consistent in their condemnation of Rome.

Welcome aboard, Miss Keynes.

What fascinates me is the suggestion that a significant impetus to her conversion came from actually reading the aggressive “New Atheists” of her own (former) tribe. She describes, “the strange mix of angry emotion I encountered there: anger at the thought of God; anger at any restrictions on behaviour; anger at thwarted will; pride in the exertion of will; pride in feeling intellectually superior; contempt for anyone who reveals human vulnerability in asking for the grace of God. It’s important to remember that where there’s anger, there’s often pain. I see a lot of pain there. I think it stems from clinging to the idea that we’re in control, that we have autonomy.”

More: “The question of whether the existence of God is demonstrable by rational argument has kept philosophers & theologians busy for centuries. I’d ask the claimant to explain how closing this discussion furthers the cause of reason. So I’d respond gently, but if I really lost my patience, I’d tell them: ‘Just go & read Aquinas!’ ”

Consider, if you will, gentle reader, what is implied in these remarks. It is that far from leading young intellects astray, the legion of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens (& Grayling, Krauss, Shermer, Stenger, et alia) have actually been doing the work of God. They have been doing it involuntarily, to be sure, but that is the miracle of the Holy Spirit, who stays at least one infinity ahead of the quickest human minds. In this case, they have finally made the argument against God so plain, so obvious, & so symmetrically the reverse of the truth, as to win souls over to the One Holy Catholic & Apostolic Church — in effect, chasing the intelligent over to Christ’s side.

Let us now utter a little prayer of thanksgiving for every one of these dark little expostulators; & hope that Our Lord will reward each in turn by the same “mechanism” of conversion.

Chronicles of “peace, peace”

The horrifying violence in Egypt — well, I have been reading about it from this very safe distance, from where we see what we have been shown. In this case, we have been shown a lot of tear gas & rat-tat-tat from two locations in Cairo, with cuts to statesmen deploring it all, & calling for “peace, peace.” The chorus declares that violence is “not going to solve anything” (which is a lie), that Egypt must return to “inclusive democracy” (which was the cause of the violence).

Elsewhere in the country, there is more violence, that is not being shown. The Muslim Brotherhood, presented as victims of brutality in the vicinity of the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, & Nahda Square, have been attacking undefended government buildings, Christian churches, Christian monasteries, Christian schools, a Christian orphanage, & Christian homes. Through such Internet sources as MidEast Christian News, I have seen multiple accounts from Alexandria, Assiut, & at least seven other governates, in each of which Islamist devils have responded to viciously demented propaganda blaming Egypt’s defenceless Copts for the Muslim Brotherhood’s loss of power.

The destruction of Mar Girgiss (Saint George), the cathedral church for the diocese of Sohag, was among these many “incidents.” From my travels among the Copts in Egypt, all the details were familiar. The church was thoroughly firebombed by the jihadis, after they had made helter-skelter with the icons & statuary inside. By the time a fire truck arrived, more than an hour after the flames went up, the church was gutted. The jihadis then hijacked & wrecked the fire truck. They made no special effort to conceal their identities; & no arrests were reported. If there ever is an arrest, the police will need an army brigade behind them to perform it. In the meanwhile, it is likely local Christians will be dragged to a “reconciliation” session, in which they will be physically humiliated & made to pay indemnities to buy a break from the persecution.

That is Christian life in Egypt today. When Mohamed Morsi came to power, things became considerably worse for them than under Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian military at least had the decency not to join in the attacks; local police were unpredictable. While Morsi delivered the usual blather about “peace, peace” to the cameras, his brownshirts were going to work on the Christians, & on many secularized Muslims, too. Pogroms are intrinsic to the Islamist conception of Shariah: religious minorities are to be exiled, enslaved, or exterminated. Attacks on them are celebrated as holy acts, & any assailant who manages to get himself killed in the course of the carnage is hailed as a martyr.

Notwithstanding the pusillanimity of our statesmen & media, & the veil of political correctness that we draw over our own heads, most people in the West know the score by now. We’d rather pretend that we did not know, but we know. All Egyptians most certainly know it. The great majority are reasonably decent people. Only the usual minority of thugs, who exist as a proportion in every society, join in the rampages. For the rest, as for the Germans under Hitler, the best thing is to look the other way. Why intervene, & thereby make yourself a target? Perhaps, make your whole family a target? And when it is all over, & the shame descends for what was done, & the truth begins to rise from the ashes, there is nothing else for it but, “We never knew!”

Sohag (soft “g,” also spelt “Sawhaj” & “Suhaj”), in a verdant plain on the left bank of the Nile, about ten miles north of Abydos, was formerly known as Girga (soft “g”s again). The town is seldom visited by tourists, for it has little to offer by way of Disneyland spectacle, & while its museum is full of interesting things, there are bigger & better air-conditioned museums elsewhere. It has been a town since at least the 11th Dynasty — for more than four thousand years — although one cannot see this beneath contemporary squalor. Archaeological fragments in the district go back to the 1st Dynasty. It was an important agricultural & industrial centre in Roman times, known internationally for the quality of its pottery.

It was a significant cultural centre before the Islamic Conquest, in the heart of the ancient Thebaid: a landscape once cluttered with highly productive monasteries. Christians from the earliest generations lie buried in its necropoles. The Girga Road led to the Kharga Oasis, another rich centre of early Christian civilization. Papyrus fragments still wash up, in Coptic & in Greek, from the libraries that were once part of a sophisticated civic environment. Two ancient monasteries remain on the outskirts of the town — to my knowledge not yet gutted by the Islamist savages; their monks not yet slaughtered. Christians remain a substantial minority in the town, for the time being.


The restored military regime — for that is what it is regardless of what the U.S. State Department cares to call it — remains popular, even as it butchers the very people whom “the people” so recently voted into power (by a tiny margin). The Western media, so enchanted by the scenery of the Arab Spring, lost interest in the follow-up. Now they want numbers, just numbers, for how many have been killed. If they have a good number — hundreds is good; thousands is better — the “story” could be front-paged for two or three days. Then it goes back to Iraq-level coverage: a dozen here & a dozen there, from one Islamist bomb or another. Hardly big news. That is what “democracy” is about: numbers.

John Kerry is tied up with the latest vanity, using what’s left of American clout in the region to force unwilling Israelis “back to the bargaining table” with unwilling Palestinians. The Israelis were pushed into releasing more bloody murderers from their gaols, as a “sweetener” to lure Mahmoud Abbas to the table. The first of these have now returned to the standard heroes’ welcome in Gaza & West Bank — where every Jew-killer is a hero.

Again, the “two state solution,” on “the road to peace.” Kerry is full of it: “peace, peace.” Twenty years have now passed since the Americans strong-armed (or “jet-planed,” the old Maoist term) the Israelis into turning over the occupied territories, & with that the Palestinian people,  to Yasser Arafat’s terrorists. That was “Oslo I,” the “interim agreement”; the “final status” deadline was 1998. All the little details, such as who owns Jerusalem, would be worked out by then.

If Arafat’s successor ever signed on to a genuine “two state solution,” he would be lynched. The Palestinian authorities — now essentially Hamas — will & can accept nothing short of a “one state solution” in which every Jew is removed from greater Palestine, just as Jews have been removed from every other Arab country; & as every last Christian may be removed, one day.

And still the State Department goes through the motions, along with all the other Western diplomats, muttering “peace, peace.” These are profoundly cynical men. I am incapable of believing they do not know what they are doing.

Through history we have learnt, again & again & without exception, that nothing comes of negotiating with psychopaths. Or rather, worse than nothing. When they are strong, they resort to force without hesitation; when they are weak, they play for time. Nor does the dumping of billions in aid, & all the baubles of modern commerce, change the outlook. The ruthless take it all in their stride, without the slightest gratitude, as an admission of our weakness. It enables them to be more obdurate.

Peace comes, & comes only, in this world, with the strength of enforcement. It does not come from prattling with the psychos; it comes from rendering them powerless. The Egyptian military understands this from intimate dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood; & now the fickle Egyptian public, from first-hand experience of Brotherhood rule. You do not go half way with these people: you destroy them, or they destroy you. Turn your cheek & they slit your throat.

It would be more merciful, all round, if we stopped trying to appease our mortal enemies, to see if it might somehow work this time. Whether dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood, or Hamas — as with Communists or Nazis in another generation — nothing is achieved by pulling punches, or offering to “jaw.” What works, what has always worked, is unambiguous: “If you do this, we will do that.” And then deliver on the nail, as promised. The choice is not between war & peace; it is between little war now & big war later.

The Egyptian military did what it had to do. They told the Brotherhood to remove their camps from the middle of Cairo, or have them removed. The regime acted exactly as it threatened to act, when the Brotherhood did not move. It should continue to act, with resolution. There is no mealymouthed advice the world can give, to which the officers should listen; none to which the Israelis should listen. They, not we, take the consequences of irresolution.

In Egypt, we should note that the fate of ten million Christians is on the line. Either the Muslim Brotherhood will be uprooted, or the Christians will be uprooted. There is no “third way,” & those who speak & act as if there were have effectively taken sides, with evil.

Victorian literature

The coarse word condemns the sin; the refined word excuses it. This is the secret relationship between Victorian Bowdlerism, & the postmodern politically correct. My thanks as so often recently to Mr G.K. Chesterton for pointing this out, while I was waking this morning. Our conversation, which has grown much rounder since I joined Holy Church, derives in this instance from a book he wrote in 1913, one nice & precise century ago. He was still an Anglican then, nearly a decade before he would himself be Received (at something like the age at which I was). The book was The Victorian Age in Literature, a little volume in the Home University Library lent me by one of those priests who haunt Parkdale, & which turns out the most astute assessment of its topic I have seen. This is not light praise: for I have several times been mistaken for an English Perfesser, & own the regulation tweed jacket.

Chesterton’s epigrammatic remark, on the coarse & the refined, is characteristic of him: plain, simple, & powerful enough to bring down the curtain wall of the castle. Moreover, it was one in a series of densely-packed epigrams, their fuses connected in unimpeachably logical order. Having made his hole, he then charges through, & up the towers with grappling hooks, taking in due course the crenellated turrets of George Eliot & John Stuart Mill. From there he surveys the keep. But he does not deny they are towers, did not belittle them while climbing, has not hesitated to show what is best & most impressive in their works. Nor, what is completely missing. For example: the curiously telling observation that George Eliot has humour, & everything else required of great literature, except “glamour.” Or, that Jane Austen could do something none of the Victorian woman novelists who came after her could do, which was, look at a man coolly. And a hundred more remarks as startling & revealing. Chesterton makes me appreciate the best in authors I am inclined to abhor (Carlyle, for instance), & assures me that he appreciates the merits in those I love but find nearly indefensible (Ruskin).

Almost invariably, there is real depth beneath the surface glitter. Chesterton attributes the polite (but anxious) discretion of the Victorian Age to the emergence of women as writers “equal” with, even greater than the men, in the remarkably original genre of the Victorian novel; then clinches this by observing that whereas no woman could have written Smollett’s Roderick Random (1748), a woman could perhaps have written Thackeray’s Henry Esmond (1852). And this thrown off, in the course of developing a larger argument about the “Victorian compromise” — the bastion of a semi-official Utilitarianism, absorbing shocks on every side, from literary, artistic, & religious rebels, & being in some sense reshaped by them. Too, mutual absorption with an accommodating background religious tradition, long since undermined; ending finally in deadlock when this Christian faith refuses to disappear.

The 20th century began on the 28th of June, 1914, & was as Solzhenitsyn declared, godless, in the main. Yet the peculiar nature of the godlessness of that short century (which ended in 1989) was not its own creation. True, it is prefigured in the French Revolution; in the French, German, & Scottish “Enlightenments.” But it is moderated & systematized in the Victorian literature that Chesterton has analyzed in this little book, & presented so clearly that we, who were creatures of the 20th century, can see ourselves in the mirror. Our essentially Victorian scheme of Progress, on the Utilitarian model, marched triumphantly forward through Auschwitz & the Gulag, into a world quite unlike that which the Victorians inhabited; a world they could not have imagined. But they provided the moral callousing with which we endured it.

“Progress” in itself means nothing — for what are we progressing towards? — unless given the direction which Utilitarianism gave it, at first explicitly, later implicitly. Chesterton demonstrates what Utilitarianism is: the old Puritan impulse, stripped of its Christian dogmatic content. Through the Victorian age, & great Victorian minds, it was able to assimilate what it initially lacked as an alternative religion. The genius of the age was to make armed & dangerous a worldview which, left only to its own resources, was merely boring & asinine: to provide it with the cosmology of Darwin, & the psychopathology of Karl Marx. But it was more than the triumph of scientism. Through brilliantly agnostic novels, for instance, it reduced the poetic to the mundane.

I see that Dale Ahlquist already flagged a note the publishers affixed to the front of this little, century-old volume. It explains that the book is not an “authoritative history of Victorian literature,” but only a “free & personal statement” of the “views & impressions” of its author. In other words, no author with “views” can be an authority. This is something I have been forced to accept about the world in which we have been living, ever since: that authority can come only from a committee; that “the personal” is inherently invalid; that unless vacuity can be guaranteed, no moral or intellectual argument has standing. In a further prefatory note, Chesterton himself is made to apologize for the way his religious beliefs may have contaminated his judgement. But with that out of the way, he proceeds to tell something that must have made his publishers feel awkward & uncomfortable: the truth.

Back to the future

Let us take a brief moment to laugh, sarcastically, at the idea that freedom consists of obedience to the laws of supply & demand. John Lukacs quotes Wendell Berry: “Rodents & rats live with the laws of supply & demand. Human beings live with the laws of justice & mercy.”

Berry I may never mention again, but to Lukacs I keep returning. The quote is in a diary entry, within a footnote, within a chapter, within the latest but one, of the last books Lukacs has been writing — “waving adieu, adieu, adieu,” through the last quarter century. It is entitled, Last Rites. He is approaching ninety now, & one always fears that his last, last book may be his last. This happens with people: they come & they go.

It was my friend George Jonas who called my attention to Lukacs — “John, not György” — some years ago. Were it not for Jonas, I would hardly know about any Hungarians. Jonas is a “liberal,” but in a sense of that word that died in the 1960s, & is now incomprehensible to anyone not historically learned. We say “1950s liberal,” but that doesn’t really tell us much, beyond the chronological fact that the last throatsome & abdominal wharks of traditional liberalism were heard around 1956. Lukacs is a self-proclaimed “reactionary.” It is typical of an old-fashioned liberal to appreciate an old-fashioned reactionary; & vice versa. But this can hardly matter when we are both dead.

It is typical of contemporary liberals & conservatives to abominate one another. By Lukacs’ account, the Left is governed more by fear, the Right more by hatred, but there is fear in the hatred & hatred in the fear. They are the two faces of contemporary Populism, & may be found in every one of our contemporary democracies across America & Europe, although the flavour of the mutual antipathy varies from, say, USA to Hungary; & for historical reasons.

It is typical of Lukacs to have e.g. little patience for Ronald Reagan: to describe him as a divorced movie actor, who spent World War II in Hollywood, & was sentimental about the armed forces. It was Reagan who began the puerile practice of saluting to soldiers when not himself (thank God) in a military uniform; a practice copied by each subsequent President. This was, let gentle reader understand, an unconscious yet vile extension of the concept of “Commander-in-Chief,” mentioned in a list of presidential powers in Section 2 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution, but not there dwelt upon.

It is typical of Lukacs to mention that when a President now goes abroad, he takes a retinue that would dwarf that of Genghis Khan or Louis XIV. It would be typical of me to add, that the limit of American conservative ambition today is to find “another Reagan.”

And as a parenthesis to this, I have been coming to realize, especially in the time since wandering away from my last extended job as a newspaper pundit, that I made a terrible mistake in aligning myself with contemporary “conservatives” in order to avoid the even worse mistake of aligning with contemporary “liberals.” It was a vulgar error, requiring confession & shame. My apologies to the people of Afghanistan & Iraq. You had enough problems already.

Tocqueville noted that the character of a people is more important than their institutions. Lukacs’ writing on his adoptive America (three score years in one house in greater Philadelphia, outliving two American wives, now married to a third) has focused repeatedly on that character. I alluded to his masterpiece, A Thread of Years, when I last mentioned him (March 3rd). He mentions autobiographically the transformation of the township in which he has lived. Outwardly, it is hardly spectacular. Neither the housing stock, nor the demographic, is much changed. Inwardly, people who once knew each other by name have been replaced by people with no idea about, nor interest in their neighbours; people who will themselves most likely move on to a new location within four or five years.  Outwardly, the institutions have not much changed, either — except for the gradual disappearance of everything that corresponded to “civil society.” The character of the people has changed.

Kierkegaard: “People hardly ever make use of the freedom which they have, for instance, freedom of thought; instead they demand freedom of speech as compensation.”

In the time since he wrote that (1845?) we have considerably extended the domain of “freedom,” to the point where we can now put quotes around that word, too. So much of what Kierkegaard wrote is truer today; so much of the cheap Hegelianism he opposed is even more false, although triumphant. As Lukacs observes, women, blacks, homosexuals, abortionists, & pornographers have all been emancipated, but liberalism itself (in that fine old classical sense) is dead. This is hardly surprising, for as Lukacs also reminds, it is harder to be free than unfree.

On reading his penultimate last, last book (which appeared in 2009: I’m running four years behind the publishing season) I feel able to correct my previous criticism that he is “too Anglophile, too Churchillian.” His successive writings on the duel that took place, between Churchill & Hitler about May 1940 — not the moment when World War II was won, but when, more importantly, it was not lost — makes more sense to me now. Indeed, Churchill makes more sense, in the latest light cast upon him by Lukacs.

We forget that Churchill’s sudden rise to power was almost anti-democratic; that he displaced Lord Halifax in something like a Parliamentary coup; that he was despised not only before, but after taking office. Without him, Britain would almost certainly have negotiated a peace that recognized Hitler’s conquest of Europe. The war was actually won by Roosevelt & Stalin, on the grand logistical principles of modern Total Warfare, requiring the sacrifice of millions. But it was not lost by Churchill, fighting essentially alone.

It was not lost, because the old, deceased, frankly aristocratic (or as Lukacs insists, bourgeois) notion of “character” prevailed, & could still be communicated. Yet it came down to one extraordinary, wilful person. And because it was not lost, by a man whose profoundest commitment was not to “democracy” but to Western Civilization, we are to this day living in circumstances that do not quite approximate to total savagery. To this day we have preserved a few precious options. We have lost, however, our gratitude for them.

Churchill himself was operating beyond the close of the Modern Age (it ended in 1914), but was still essentially of it. He was a man of the 19th century, somehow functioning in the 20th. His accomplishment was more astounding than we realize. Lukacs, ditto, is now functioning in the 21st.

At the front of Last Rites is a very useful demolition of the popular concepts of “subjectivity” & “objectivity.” They cannot be disentangled. No purely selfish nor unselfish position is possible to an inmate of our world. The only position possible is a “personal” one. Nor can “detachment” mean “separation.” There are no innocent bystanders on this planet. “Materialism” & “idealism” are among other false dualities mentioned, that offer some fleeting illusion; we must live with the real. The chapter is a manifesto on the conditions of historical knowledge, which are the conditions of human life. Our history is as imperfect as our own memories, but it is all we have to work with in an evanescent present, towards a future that cannot be conceived. The rest of the book is a good read, but this first chapter, entitled “A Bad Fifteen Minutes,” is the fist in this little comet. It requires very careful mining.

Curiously, it leads forward instead of back, to an even later last, last book that has yet to fall into my hands: The Future of History (2011). From reviews, I gather that Lukacs is directly addressing the collapse of his profession into a miasma of academic fads, relieved by popular escapist “infotainment.” The actual number of history graduates has fallen to less than a quarter of what it once was, & the standards continue to slide. (Yet as Lukacs also knows, there are very bright, self-educated students, who can still get the gist of the discipline, & are not so easily intimidated by “political correction” as the despairing might think.)

A hostile review by the current Regius Professor in the University of Cambridge shows what Lukacs is getting at. Vulgar & fatuous, the reviewer cannot engage with Lukacs except on the level of calling him “a blast from the past.” He proposes to correct the old guy by taking him out for a few beers, & perhaps bringing him up to speed on “gender studies” & the latest Google-search methodologies. We have, in what were the humanities departments of our universities, nearly complete moral & intellectual degeneration. And yet, to my mind, this is beside the point, for none of that can last much longer. Nothing of value is produced, & the fads themselves negate one another. The kids they graduate are totally unsuited to material survival, let alone cognition; & the subsidies are running out.

Lukacs will instead be useful to those trying to rebuild the study of history, as a serious & consequential enterprise. This will require restarting from scratch, in the circumstances created by the actual death of that “Western Civ” we were recalling above, or more precisely of its Modern Age: the one in which this “history” was invented. For as Lukacs understands, the end of it is not something we are living, but something that was lived & is over now.

A penny’s worth

Among my favourite places to lunch in the Greater Parkdale Area, is in the vicinity of the Robarts Library, downtown. There are food trucks parked along Saint George Street. Several offer quite extensive Chinese menus, & one a Slavic interpretation of American junk food, distinctly superior to the original. By my estimation, the town’s top hot dog vendor is also there, offering a good variety of sausages & an exceptional range of condiments. One may dine in splendour for well under ten dollars, & often under five.

It is a fine ambiance. There are various places to sit, in shade or sun, none provided with tables. Avoid conventional lunch hours, & there are no crowds. Though I must add, these days, as the avians will attest, the students in the University of Toronto are gentle. Part of the reason is that they are now, in substantial plurality, not only girls but Oriental. (I refer to the students, not the birds.) It was a brilliant stroke, on the part of the politically correct, to eliminate aggressive young males from the student body, together with males of every other description. It was perhaps the only way to neutralize the campus, as a source of violence & revolutionary zeal.

And as I say, the birds in that district appreciate the change. I have long judged the inhabitants of city neighbourhoods by the behaviour of the animals who live among them. Happy, well-adjusted animals, such as we have in truth through most of this city — animals that do not flee in terror when a human comes near — are the reflection of reasonably tame people. Along Saint George, we have not only pigeons, but sparrows who will (sometimes, after careful consideration) eat out of one’s hand; who actually expect their share in a banquet.

They have accordingly developed a broad multicultural diet: will take rice flavoured in any way, breadcrumbs in all dippings, fries with or without gravy. The chief joy I have found in lunching there has been in making the acquaintance of an equally broad range of contemporary urban sparrows, & observing their personalities. For they come smart & silly, bold & timid, gregarious & shy, gallant & rude, formal & obtuse, jolly & morose. Too, male & female, & what would appear twin syndromes of behaviour in some respects the mirror of man. That is to say, they are like us, but with the “gender rôles” partially reversed.

Quite recently I had the opportunity to make a moral assessment of eight sparrows I invited to share a box of fried rice with me. That would be four farthings, by the accounting in Saint Matthew (10:29). I say “eight,” for within the half-hour I could distinguish each with the confidence to count them (others may have escaped my attention). I say “invited,” for I refused an intemperate starling, explaining to him that I was only serving the smaller customers that day. (At which he squawked.) This prejudice was probably unnecessary on my side, for a sparrow has no difficulty in outwitting a starling, or most larger competitors for handouts, & is a master of petty theft.

By my observation, two of these sparrows were inclined to Heaven, five likelier to require Purgatory, & one was definitely bound for Hell.

This last persistently dominated the meinie for clumps of rice she showed little interest in eating; provoked a fight with another clearly trying to avoid her; & shamelessly beat up on her fellow females. (I named her “Judy,” after a prominent Canadian feminist.) Nor would she leave when told she was unwelcome. Her “ch-chur-ch-churrit-ch-chu-churrit-chu” in response was most unbecoming in a lady: for that is swear language in a sparrow.

Whereas, in contrast, the two heavenly sparrows, one of each sex, were as persistently gracious in surrendering to the first comer, & were accordingly rewarded. Both exhibited fine table manners when eating, & were melodic in their conversation. (A certain shrillness reduced the charm in the discourse of several others.) The female struck an especially philosophical attitude, contemplatively studying her benefactor with many slight tilts of her head to take in the full visual spectacle. (I tilted my head in imitative reply.) Darker above, & paler below, in comparison to the other females, I concluded that she was the eldest, & named her “Thérèse.”

They are a monogamous bird, jealous on both sides, though some conduct affairs away from their nests, & the eager helpfulness of the unmated may create the appearance of a ménage à trois. One of the challenges at lunch was to see if I could guess who was married to whom. While none were wearing rings, I supposed the heavenly sparrows to be a couple. My interest also settled on a young, purgatorial pair, who ate mostly together, & who flit almost simultaneously with fairly large clumps as if they had children to return to.

One, & only one, condescended to take not out of my hand, but from my fingertips. This was the boldest, except Judy, & also the smallest, with the shortest tail feathers. (“Madison,” I called him.) Sociable, & fearless, I would have ranked him with the heavenly except, too much of a thief. For in my judgement, it is perfectly acceptable for a sparrow to steal from right under the beak of a pigeon or gull. But there was plenty to go round, & whipping food away from a fellow sparrow betrays impatience & poor breeding.