Essays in Idleness


Céline as something else

I would not have read through the novels of Louis-Ferdinand Céline had I not found them entertaining. They are supposed to be “difficult”; they are so only until one gets the hang of the technique and style. It is the opposite of Proustian (and Céline hated Proust with all his demonic passion, called him “the Homer of the perverts”), yet I love Proust and have lived with pleasure in his own “alternative universe.” But then, my idea of entertainment marks me out as something of a non-participant in my own generation. I do not “couch-potato” well; even at my advanced age I suffer from too much energy. I want a participant sport. My natural attraction is to “difficult” authors, because I get my thrills from wrestling with them, and a pleasure that is different in kind from, say, receiving a sun tan.

Read him ideally in the original French, but failing that in the earlier translations. (This is a tip not only for Céline.) The flavour leeches out over time; a contemporary translator cannot help catching things that are in the air of his period; a later translator must think everything through; and as Céline said, “There’s no tyrant like a brain.”

Ralph Manheim was a fine chameleon of a translator, of modern lit from German and French into American English, and his versions of Céline’s triumphant final trilogy of novels (Castle to Castle, North, Rigadoon) are wonderful and should remain definitive, just as they are redolent of the late ‘fifties and early ‘sixties. On the other hand, Manheim’s 1966 re-translation of Mort à crédit, from 1936, is too clean, too “thoughtful.” I much prefer the nearly contemporary version by John Marks which appeared under the much better English title, Death on the Instalment Plan. Marks takes more liberties with the text, but gets the pulse of it. His translation benefits tremendously from having been done pre-War; anything after that War may be subverted by anachronism.

For everything published in the 1930s was written before Auschwitz. The reader after Auschwitz will not be able to keep it out of mind, yet if he does not try, he will misread everything — not only big things, but little things. “The War” for those writing intra-war, is the Great War, the shadow of which still darkens and highlights everything from its own angle. And perhaps more significantly, the pre-War for them is the world before 1914: a world almost unimaginably displaced from the “pre-War” of a later generation.

This is indeed much of what Céline is getting at, as chronicler of his age — a chronicler who has nothing but contempt for “the masses,” and the mass history that is laid down with a slather of “great events.” He is intensely personal, and history for him is intensely personal. It is written in pain, by souls who have been thrust into Hell.

I mentioned in my last post what seemed to me a significant fact: that Céline’s horrid anti-Semitic tracts began appearing shortly after he’d had his heart broken by a Jewish girl. To our way of thinking, this fact must be rejected, and I notice all interpreters looking the other way. For how could he be so petty? Surely a little personal misfortune in love could not be so great a trigger. We are trained to think big. Little things like one single human’s birth, life, and death do not count with us: after all, mere people die by the millions; are so many aborted foetuses in the hospital bins. Yet I think that little event was a trigger in Céline, for bigger things; just as the murder of a well-dressed man in Sarajevo touched off a much wider explosion. Neither “justice” nor “proportion” is the issue here.

In this post, let me mention Céline’s persistent habit of dating the collapse of Western Civ to some moment in October 1914. Many things happened in the course of 1914: the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand occurred in June; the serious fighting began in August. But it was on the 25th of October that Céline himself was grievously wounded, during an action which incidentally earned him the médaille militaire, and had him cited for bravery all across France. That is the date he chooses as the boundary between “then” and “now” — when he is himself “invalided” or as he also put it, “invalidated” out of the conflict. The world before was the world before; the world after he summarizes later in the single word, “Stalingrad.”

Gentle reader must fully take this in, should he wish to make any sense of an author who makes no concessions whatever to the “objectivity” we require for our own mental peace. Céline does not care for your mental peace. He has permanently lost his own. As he puts it, “People don’t deserve the restraint we show by not going into delirium in front of them.”

He has been “victimized,” and the world he depicts is of his fellow victims: the little people. The closest he comes to making a speech is when he expounds little home truths to them:

“I tell you, little man, life’s fall guys, beaten, fleeced, sweated from time immemorial, I warn you, that when the princes of this world start loving you, it means they’re going to grind you up into battle sausage.”

Or when he explains:

“In olden times the fanatical fashion was: Long live Jesus! Burn the heretics! … But heretics, after all, were few and voluntary. Whereas today, under the flags of Europe, …”

Or when he gives his advice to the lovelorn:

“Love is like liquor, the drunker and more impotent you are, the stronger and smarter you think yourself, and the surer you are of your rights.”

Or when he provides tips on how to get out of a fix. For when the executioner has you staring at the blade of his guillotine, it is time to shout:

“Hey, you lazy bastard! Don’t you have anyone sharpening that thing?”

Céline is with the victims. But that, too, will be misleading to our post-modern reader who has come to understand victimhood as a mass phenomenon, as a political position; or if reduced to the personal level, as a way to extract money and retribution through the courts by means of malicious posturing and lies. These are not real victims, but the exploiters of the Left-progressive “system” for the bureaucratic arbitration of victimhood — of a “system” imposed, for all practical purposes, by agents of Satan.

In a parallel way, “indignation” has been whored by the Leftists (and their mirrors on the Right). The very possibility of “righteousness,” therefore “righteous indignation,” has been whored: for us, individual righteousness can only be self-righteousness, for righteousness has been put to work in the streets by our liberal and progressive pimps.

And I say this with some warmth, not only because it is true, but because it will give the reader some insight into the world this Céline is describing; this Céline who absolutely refuses surrender to anybody’s stinking party line, and is therefore easily labelled as “a fascist.”

This same Céline who writes vile and vicious things in pamphlets, and shouts obscenities in his sleep at night; but in his private waking life would not hurt a fly. And who, during the War, in France, refused to play the game of a Sartre or Picasso, both of whom lived well and comfortably under the Nazis and then manoeuvred to pose as heroes of the Resistance after. Céline had no idea how to be a whore; not that he was good, but because it wasn’t in his repertoire.

He identifies exclusively with those “on the run,” and in his last magnificent trilogy, with those on the run who can enjoy no one’s sympathy; on those with whom he is running himself, from castle to castle, ever north, away from the “liberators,” in a fine rigadon (it is the name of a Baroque dance). Running, gloriously and without excuse, through the smashed remains of the old Europe — itself appearing now to be nothing more than a knocked-down Hollywood set. The reality he describes is poetic beyond words.

Those who specialize in condemnation, may surely condemn Céline for many sins. I would not myself volunteer to advance his cause for Catholic sainthood.

Our Canadian sage, George Grant, tried to defend him by suggesting that Céline’s vision — which he once naughtily (and brilliantly) associated with Simone Weil’s — was also to be associated with a Platonic conception of justice and the Good. With characteristic unctuousness, the Canadian professoriat dismissed this as eccentric and naïve. I have read a couple of papers in which essentially Marxist professors diminished Grant, and by extension Céline, for advancing an “art” of precisely the kind that must be censured and censored by the wise elders enforcing Plato’s immaculately sterile Good. Needless to say they knew nothing of Grant, Céline, or Plato. (Or, nothing but a few “facts,” which put them on a level with journalists.)

Céline wears his vices on his chest, instead of the médaille militaire. My only defence could be, that they are necessary to his virtues, and that for the reader, they must be borne together, because in some deep sense they are married — they “cannot be apart.” He provides the vantage to see a tremendous truth about our times, which no other vantage could supply; and in doing so perhaps Céline himself provides a poignant illustration of why God might permit evil in this world.

Finally, to complete my own perfessorial instructions, Céline like any author worth the time, should be read through, chronologically. He will train the reader in how to read him as he goes along; stock us up with what we need to know along the way. And while a few paragraph’s worth of author biography, or better, naked chronology in the French style, may be essential orientation from the start, stay well away from long, later author biographies. They will fill your head with prejudices, misdirections, and stupidities. Céline is to be read on Céline’s terms, not on those of some filthy self-serving bourgeois.

Céline as moral agent

The most disturbing thing about Louis-Ferdinand Céline was not the monstrous aspect, in his writings, but an odd saintly quality in his private life. This was most evident in his private practice as a medical doctor in the Paris slums; but there seem hints of it in almost every passing anecdote I have heard about him. Life and work can never be disconnected, though neither should they be wantonly confused.

Céline’s apparently fascist and certainly anti-Semitic rancour remains on the record, in pamphlets he wrote before the Second World War, and mildly diffused through the novels. The pamphlets would be easy to dismiss as incomprehensible and insane; except they were comprehensible, and Céline was not insane. Madness is his conceit, and his confusions are everywhere affectations. For instance, in his tirades he persistently names as Jews people who quite obviously were not even slightly Jewish. There is a monstrously intentional humour in this: he is being droll at a very high level of malignity.

These pamphlets, which his later wife and widow tried to keep out of print, could I think have been easily republished if in every place that Céline wrote some variation on les juifs, an editor substituted some like variation on almost any obscene common noun. Or alternatively, “the Swiss” might be substituted by the bowdlerizer; or as Baudelaire preferred, “Belgians.” It wouldn’t change the sense; but it would lower the temperature, whereas Céline was always trying to raise it, writing as he was about Hell. Indeed, one might say the intensity of his anti-Semitism spoils an otherwise perfect misanthropy: puts a wart even in that, as it were.

Actually read those horrid pamphlets, and you will find that Céline’s definition of a Jew is fairly broad. He includes, for instance, all communists, and all capitalists; all English and American writers, and without exception, all members of the Anglo-Saxon upper classes. He also includes the Catholic Church, and all the popes from Peter forward (a list in which he includes “Karl Marx”), and the Jesuit order earns a special distinction. Also, all Freemasons are counted in, and all homosexuals. Also, without distinction, everyone who is black, or Asian. As I recall, somewhere he mentioned being Jewish himself. Had I been around in 1936, I’m sure he would have included me. And in his Bagatelles pour un massacre (wonderful title, incidentally) he does not exclude any of these from the impending slaughter.

Perhaps it is worth noting, as a biographical aside, that shortly before Céline wrote it, the (literally) Jewish ballerina who was his mistress, ran off with some rich American. Having myself once been dumped by a Jewish ballerina (again, literally), who also ran off with a rich man, I can empathise with the guy to a point, though not quite so far as proposing to exterminate most if not all of the human race. (Well, I say that now, decades later, but if you’d asked me at the time it would have been touch and go.)

There is no defending anti-Semitism, gutter racialism of any other kind, or the knowing publication of inflammatory material tending to incite the democratic mob. Whether or not illegal, this is morally wrong. It is further to Céline’s shame that his infamous pamphlets sold far better than his famous novels: that he had profited handsomely until they were banned (first by the free French authorities, who took a couple of years to get around to it; and then by the Nazi occupation authorities, who re-banned them quite promptly, because of all the rude language).

Monstrous, sick, dark humour, and no respect for authority: that is exactly Céline’s routine through his novels, from the beginning when Voyage au bout de la nuit first appeared: sick, dark humour wandering purposely and brilliantly over the line not of good taste (all genuine humour does that), but of a more basic decency — and to rub it in, for an apparently moral purpose.

It is this “prophetic” quality — a quality present in all great satirical writing — which explains, too, not merely the absence of sentimentality, but a revulsion against it. He will tell things as they really are and not as they might wish to appear; he will suck all the “niceness” out of our lungs. He will tell a story as it really happens in its disjointed way — abrasively not smoothly. And he will put everything into the language of the street — but “transposed” in some carefully disjointed musical sense. All the “Beats” and other frauds copied him, or copied one feature or another; only Céline knew what he was doing, in combining these dimensions and choreographing the full range of effects.

The Céline of real life is related to the author, but certainly not the same. Quite apart from the bohemian (but not dissolute) habits, the man does give an important clue to the author. He is far from unsentimental, towards his cats, dogs, parrots, as we see in almost every photograph of him in a domestic situation. Many hateful people prefer animals to men, and vegetarianism is often a symptom of this moral disorder. But Céline is as affectionate towards the poor and desperate he treats as a doctor — invariably refusing to be paid, even by people who could afford to pay something. He is ever going far out of his way to visit and sit vigil with the dying. It is not just the money: we know there were many patients who would only come to him, who only trusted him, and would court death rather than visit another doctor. It is this instinctive quality of mercy which I believe they detected in him that was in turn the key to his gift as an observer. For if we return to the novels, we see that the obscurely pitiful details he so frequently records are just those that would be noticed by the most empathetic observer. But with the sentiment extracted, to increase the horror.

It is interesting that the dissertation, for his medical degree, was on Ignaz Semmelweis (1818–1865), the Hungarian obstetric doctor (son of a German Jewish grocer, most likely) who made himself a pariah in the respectable medical community of his day. This he did in the course of deducing the cause of very high mortality from puerperal fever among new mothers in hospitals across Europe. The puzzle was that women giving birth at home with midwives, or even in the streets without them, had much, much lower mortality rates. And the explanation was that doctors in maternity hospitals were not properly washing their hands, even when delivering babies after performing autopsies. A generation before Louis Pasteur proposed his germ theory, Semmelweis proposed handwashing in a lime solution that would eliminate the “contagion” and save countless lives. For his trouble and persistence he was not merely professionally ostracized but finally driven into a mental asylum, where a guard murdered him.

The dissertation, written eight years before his first novel, is in itself a fine piece of narrative, full of unmistakeably Célinean personal flourishes, and with a moral object unusual for an aspiring medicine man. Céline argues that, from beginning to end, the extraordinary achievement of Semmelweis could be purchased only at the price of his personal misery.  “Nothing is free in this world. Everything must be expiated, the good and the bad alike, paid for sooner or later. The good is necessarily much more expensive.”

And it was his highly unprofessional emotional distress at the fate of these poor dying mothers that made Semmelweis the obsessive he became — so utterly obsessive that, even without sound science, and without the slightest deference to his professional superiors, or any other view to his own personal advancement, he finally tracked down the cause and the effect.

It is further interesting that Céline himself — who had made a good marriage that would, along with his genius, guarantee his rise to the top of his profession — began to abandon social respectability in the course of studying this hero. Then after the shocking divorce, he actively sought opportunities to participate in public health projects in colonial Africa and elsewhere overseas. He was, throughout his private life, in effect a medical missionary.

The money for this cause (usually small, and repeatedly impounded by his enemies) came mostly from his writing: the exact opposite of William Carlos Williams and other doctors who have taken to poetry as a hobby and recreation from their well-paid medical day jobs.

Signs & wonders

A lady in Canada’s far east, who shares my taste in Spanish mystics, writes something so apposite to and summarizing of my recent apocalyptic effusions (here and at the Catholic Thing), that I will just quote her:

“As far as signs and portents, … it is once again St John of the Cross who grounded me  as I was finding my way back to the Church. He said God gave us our intelligence for a reason, and we should not be petitioning Him for signs and wonders, not that God does not sometimes give them, but we can so easily misinterpret them. So it is best to leave them alone or take them to a spiritual adviser or let God clarify them in His way and time. …

“One other good thing St John taught me is that faith is not feeling.”


Our difficulty begins with failing to perceive that even as things stand, there is nothing mundane. Nature herself is consistently miraculous, to eyes not jaded or gauzed; and the student of history should also be aware that no human chronicle develops along predictable lines. Were it not for Grace, we would all long since have been annihilated. Or rather, we would never have been.

Our task is to work with what we have; with what God has given us, already. We have enough to be getting on with. Even when what we face is death, we have enough to be getting on with; death is something to get on with.


My apologies to gentle reader for silence prolonged these last few days. Just as I was getting into stride for some new quotidian irruption of my blather, some (figurative) truck hit me. Nothing to be concerned about; I’ll live. Routine, routine is important. We cannot have idleness without routine.


And yes, if anyone noticed, after three months’ experiment, I dropped my Twitter feed.



With each passing day, I find myself more willing to consider a shocking, unexpected, counter-intuitive possibility. Gentle reader must indulge me on this point. Incredible as this may seem, reckless as I may sound, we should review the matter calmly. The evidence, for all we know, may be all around us. Consider, for example, this uncanny fact. Everyone is anticipating the end of days. Everyone — from the most materialist environmentalists to the most spiritualist collectors of “signs of the times” — and throughout the media, and even among the Commentariat on this website — everyone, including the present writer, is using apocalyptic language, rather casually. The weather forecasters have been using it through this winter, on both sides of the Atlantic. Specific schemes, derived from or inspired by biblical prophesy, are a commonplace among the Catholic devotes with whom I pray; and right across the Christian spectrum from most Evangelical and farthest Western to most Orthodox and farthest Eastern, it presents as at least a mild fever. We find some version of this resounding through Islam, too, and still farther to the East; likewise across Africa and the Americas, where catastrophes seem most often to occur. Those who look at the rapidity of change around them, the nature of the change, and its direction — although they may disagree entirely on each item of evidence — seem alike convinced of the conclusion, that the end of our world is at hand.

That is why I think it might not be. For in my experience, if there is a large majority for any point of view, we can know with near certainty that it is either false, or trite. (“The earth is round” is an example of a view that has been universally held, for some thousands of years by almost all educated persons, and it is, I confess,  true enough; but it is also quite trite.)

Now to be fair to the purveyors of amateur eschatology, much of what they say is understated. For instance, just today I was reading a prediction that the United States would collapse and disintegrate by the end of fiscal 2015. But so what? We have seen innumerable other countries collapse and disintegrate over the centuries; that can hardly be the standard for the end of the world. And as for little things, like raising the world’s sea level by a few hundred metres — yawn. (So we move uphill; downhill if it lowers.)

Up here in the High Doganate, we maintain Augustinian views on prophecy, on biblical interpretation, and especially on the apocalyptic writings. A minority of our personae are superstitious by disposition (the majority almost too sceptical); not one persona is a biblical literalist, except with respect to those Bible passages which offer factual report, or wherein the hairsplitting appears to be intentional. However, which passages those might be may also be subject to some dispute. A general rule in discussions among my personae is: do not feign certainty of things you do not know, and could not possibly know except on authority. Also: consult the authorities, sometimes. Also: do not obsess on matters that cannot be necessary to salvation.

I’m sure that is all perfectly clear.

Augustine, and by extension I would say the whole Catholic Church, is what we call “amillennialist.” That is, he wasn’t mesmerized by such an expression as “a thousand years,” and did not immediately enter it on his abacus. He could remember how the expression had been used in, say, II Peter — “One day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” — and how indeed anticipated in the Psalms and elsewhere. More broadly, he has no inclination to play number games, or engage in other forms of calculation which become inevitable when symbols are interpreted as counters instead. He could see a larger structure of apocalyptic teaching running through the length of the Bible, that was not pitched entirely beyond human understanding, and would be dangerous to take beyond. And thus he put the highly symbolic Apocalypse of Saint John in its rightful place at the tail (and thinnest) end. As a literary master himself, he could understand not only what a symbol is, but also, what is a “conceit.”

The world began (as Christians and Jews always knew, through many centuries when scientists did not also know it). Therefore, it will end. We could deduce each from the other revelation. Necessarily, it begins and ends in a certain way. It began when God began it, and it will end, as each of us will end in respect to this world, and within an easily foreseeable period:

“Thou who hast foretold that Thou wilt come to judgement in a day when we look not for Thee, and at an hour when we are unaware: make us prepared every day and every hour to be ready for thine advent; and save us.”

When people look through news events, or even social trends to descry patterns of prognostic prophecy, I lose interest in what they are saying. This on the basis of a theological hunch. How is it possible that God would require us to be keeping up with newspapers and websites, in order to discern “the signs of the times”? I do not myself think we can discern even “the points of the compass” by such means. I am moreover increasingly aware, from my readings in history, that while not all generations are equal, all have been perceptibly going to Hell; and that a plausible argument could have foretold the End Time, in every recorded moment.


There is a rather deeper objection to be made, not only to End Time calculations, but to every other form of what I call “Catholic fortune-telling,” and “the spirituality of the Ouija board.” (How many young ladies have grown tired of hearing me use such expressions!)

It is my view that Our Lord and Our Lady, alike, do not prattle. That they do not play Twenty Questions, or other parlour games. That they give no replies to questionnaires or surveys, do no interviews, and will not engage in chit-chat on the weather. The miracles we have seen, through Scripture and through history, were not especially subtle. Each seems to have come as a surprise. If you were there, you saw it; if you weren’t you did not.

And I am not being irreverent, incidentally. Those who think our relationship with the divine can be set on such a level of familiarity are the irreverent ones.

A Christian is surrounded at all times by little coincidences that wink at him, and to which he may prayerfully wink back; the world itself seems designed to be “knowing” in that way. But on my understanding it would be unlike God, or any of the angelic forces working for Him, to suggest action should be taken on the basis of a nice coincidence or three. For if it were, we would be saying that the Creator of the Universe made us to be easy dupes; that He created an order of things in which credulity trumps faith.

And, that is the very thing that separates the Catholic Christian faith (which is taken to include her Hebrew antecedents) from the Oriental mystery cults she unambiguously rejected. It is at the heart of our differences over the nature of human destiny — for by the same mental action we reject the fatalism of all gnostic cults, and replace it with the triumphant theological virtue of Hope. Our whole idea of human freedom arrived with Christ as something revolutionary. It had been formed in the detachment of the ancient Hebrews from the idolatries of other ancient peoples — as Christ taught, Christ was always there — but was brought into blazing clarity by Christ, at a certain demonstrable moment in history, with demonstrable consequences throughout this world.

Much else could be said, but here is enough excitement. At the core level of Judaeo-Christian teaching — breaking the chains of fatalism — we were freed from our bondage to ancient gods and goddesses, witches, goblins, spooks, and idols; and we were beckoned to rise and walk in a sunlight that provides, indeed confirms, the light of a reason also naturally endowed. The Catholic Christian teaching is self-consistent. Odd and peculiar as it may first appear, I believe it finally makes sense, in the course of providing the most articulate, and also moving account of human freedom and destiny. I wouldn’t have joined up if it didn’t.


Mother Teresa of Calcutta comes into my view. Those who have studied her life — among the most famous and accessible of the last century — will be aware that most of it was lived in spiritual desolation. As an intelligent and well-educated young woman she had a calling to become a nun and go abroad (at first from Albania to Ireland), was sceptical of its validity, sought advice from intelligent Catholic religious, and tested it very carefully. (She was an extremely intelligent woman, in the plainest worldly sense: I can report that at first hand.) Everything she did for the long remainder of her life was premised on that one personal revelation.

As a character she was gentle as mercy, and hard as nails. She prayed, and prayed for answers to her prayers, in a condition of sincerity few have mastered. She asked repeatedly and explicitly for signs, and for instructions, to direct her through all the many hard passages and decisions she ever had to make. As she herself directly reported, she never received answers. Apparently, God had so high an opinion of her judgement, that He left her to make decisions for herself.

This I contrast with certain young ladies, and young men much like them in being rather girlish, whom I count as my sisters and brothers in daily prayer. They are not in any common sense bad people; rather they are often among the kindest and most thoughtful, especially among the young. But they have bought into nonsense, and sooner or later it must cost them.

I’m thinking of one in particular with whom I had awkward dealings some years ago. She seemed to receive (by her own ebullient reckonings) the equivalent of emails from Our Lady, twenty times a day, along with numerous forwards through myriad saints from the Persons of the Trinity, and divine assignations for Harlequin romance. Had I been her spiritual director (an unwelcome task, for she’d drop them as a high school princess dumps boyfriends), I would have instructed her to give up entirely on petitionary prayer for the duration of Lent, or maybe never again to say a novena.

An extreme case, but I became aware of many lesser cases, and a contagion in the Church, curiously more afflicting the traditional end, where sanity is under extra pressure. The ways of the old pagan world are being smuggled back in, as cute pets, and dolled up in sweet Traddy costume. (Well, there is worse to see at the non-traditional end.)

I think it is a mistake to leap to any conclusion — including that most rare apprehension of a truly miraculous “gift from God” — without serious contemplation, and patient testing, which requires time. (And the question is not only whether the gift is real, but what does it mean, and what does it require by way of thank you; divine gifts need opening very carefully.) The Church herself has always believed in testing, and one might add, paid a premium over any other institution for her lapses.

A truly Catholic life is in constant formation, and re-formation: and to be sure Christ must work both from without and within. We are creatures now operating in time, and need time and discernment to take His most genuine and precious teachings in. To my mind, we should pray in a spirit quite opposite to throwing the dice, or flipping a coin, or begging for the lottery number; we should never expect to receive quick answers to anything at all. On the contrary, we should expect to work for them. For the answers will emerge, over time, and in ways that can actually be tested — in our lives, and often through painful experience when getting it wrong. The answers are not delivered by Fedex, as it were. (It is more like the questions that arrive in that way.) If they did, human beings would have no freedom, nor Hell nor Purgatory nor Heaven any serious meaning; and there would be no real and teaching drama in our lives.

But I am no priest. Gentle reader should consult the great manuals of Christian instruction, written by the attested saints, and form his judgement from those. The limit of my claim is to have dipped into some of them, and found similar warnings scattered all through: sober cautions against the human propensity to leap, to believe what we want to believe, to accept just those answers we were looking for, to seek instant gratification at every turn, and take persistently the easy way out — all methods to evade personal responsibility and commitment.

And if this is the case in our own tiny lives, how much more must it be when it comes to discernment of events vastly beyond the scope of our personal capacity to see, let alone comprehend. Therefore let us attend to our business, and leave God to His.

Breeding instructions, revisited

Samastipur is a small city and railway junction in the north Indian state of Bihar. Forty-two years have passed since I switched trains at that station. I had been rolling for seventeen hours northwest from Howrah (across the Hoogly River from Calcutta). Certainly in those days, probably in these, you don’t travel third class on the Indian railways unless you lack common sense, or a few spare rupees; but I was young and looking for thrills. The ride had been nearly intolerable: not fewer than three hundred people (many with bedding and all their possessions) in and on top of a car that had bench-pews and racks for perhaps one hundred. There was no glass in the windows, and yet the air temperature remained above that of the human body. The smell was as if those bodies were decomposing, as we shunted through the evening, and the long night, and the morning of the next day — never faster, I think, than thirty miles per hour, and often so slow I was tempted to jump off and run alongside. I have never enjoyed tea so much as I did on the platform at Samastipur; the name of which, on my ticket, became deeply incised in my memory. But within a few minutes, and a single cup, I had to board another train.

This one lacked even third-class carriages. It instead consisted chiefly of open cattle-cars, with raised planks for seating. The passengers would be under the baking sun, but at least now there would be breezes, and it did not rain. I was in one corner of the car, fully surrounded by an extended family, in the act of migrating from one part of India to another. The mothers (I soon realized they were sisters) had about a dozen children between them, and the older of the two (perhaps thirty, looking forty), was quite pregnant. There were also a grandmother and two timid-looking husbands.

For the next eight hours we rolled towards Raxaul, on the Nepalese frontier. I did not share a language with these people, who tried to address me in their musical Bengali, then included me in their glances after giving up on speech. While clearly allowing that I came from another planet, they adopted me for the duration of their trip. When they produced chapatis and fishpaste out of a battered tin container, I was casually offered my share; and one of the little boys fell asleep on my lap. They were ragged people, there were lice in the boy’s hair; they were ludicrously poor, and I the pampered child of Canadian parents (who could wire home for money if I ever really needed it). For only these few hours, we lived, this extended family and I, in a state of equality.

It may be a principle of education that there is nothing to be learned in any other state — not merely of equality, but of being reduced to it. Read your Aristotle on the social relations between teacher and pupil, the “eros” of the thing as it were, and this all makes sense. The teacher should belong to a lower class than his charges. And though it may be my addition, I think perhaps his task is to bring them down to his level. Rising, by chance, to a higher station, one learns nothing: as we may see all around us in the evidence of an economy’s “rising boats,” or for that matter, in the graduates of our highly unionized public schools.

This by way of explaining what I learnt on that cattle-car. It was something which contradicted everything I, as a product of the post-industrial West, had expected about human nature. Without ever having been told in so many words, I had come to believe that people who live in poverty and squalor must be miserable and in some sense, oppressed. And surely the pressure and uncertainty of migration would make this all the more oppressive. Let me concede this may well be the case, for the migrant or refugee who is alone. Yet these people were profoundly contented and — I shall never deny this — profoundly free. They were — all of them, but especially that serene, pregnant woman, at the centre of them all — quite possibly the happiest people I had ever met, to my tender age of eighteen. They seemed to exist perfectly for each other.

When last telling this (now, too, some years ago), I was in the course of reviewing the annual report of the United Nations’ population control programme. I have forgotten what euphemism they were using then, for eliminating the unwanted babies, and won’t bother to look up what it is now. The point I’d wished to make was that the woman — the pregnant one who sat, quite distinctly in the place of honour, in the middle of this extended family on the cattle-car, being transported across the fields of Bihar — was the very person the “international experts” were trying to reach with their gospel of liberation through contraception and abortion. And throughout the West, progressive-minded people could believe, without even thinking, that it would have been better for her had her children never been born. As alike, all the middle-class, “third-world” functionaries of international agencies, whose own minds are entirely westernized, and whose feelings towards the poor of their own countries shift back and forth between shame and condescension.

I have the old press release here (from 1990): “Unless women have control over their own lives and fertility, family planning goals will not be reached, and environmental damage will hit danger level. … But there are major obstacles that stand between women and their human rights.”

It would be impossible, in the course of mere argument, to show how much freight was carried by that glib statement, how many assumptions it made, and how poisonous they were. Nor was it, like some inscription from ancient Carthage, an artefact of some lost age. The same views are still pressed by the same agencies — if anything with more glibness, presumption, and poison in them today. Nevertheless I will mention the first half-dozen outrageously false assertions that come to mind:

They assumed that this pregnant Bengali woman had no control over her life, which was a lie.

They assumed that she did not want her children, which was a damnable lie.

They assumed that these children prevented her from fulfilling her destiny, when they were her destiny.

They alleged that she, and her family, were a threat to the environment, when they were as near to harmless as humans can be.

They implied that she was inferior to the emancipated women of the modern, eugenic West, when she was not inferior; that her children were inferior, and thus not worth the pain.

They concluded that obstacles stood in the way of her liberation, when those obstacles were part of her very identity as a living human being.

Looking back, from my present vantage, I still see with vividness that beautiful woman’s face; still remember the light and joy in it. And while I did not then, today I think of Mary Mother of God, and her Yes to God’s creation. But then as now: let God decide which of us is not worth having.

Corned mutton

There was a crisis in Toronto eighteen years ago. Few were privy to the story. I may have been the only journalist fully aware of it at the time. For many weeks, perhaps several months, the city was entirely without a commercial supply of corned mutton. I had searched everywhere: through all the shops in Kensington Market, to St Lawrence, and far beyond; resorted even to a telephone. The degree of this crisis may be conveyed in a contemporary note (which fell out of a book, up here in the High Doganate). It was the handwritten original for a fax transmission:

“Oh Fraser, what are we to do? I have just used the last corner of the last tin of corned mutton from Australia in making a celery-and-mutton soup, and the beauty and the plum-blossom transience of it brings tears to my eyes. I have searched every Guyanese and West Indian shop in Toronto, surely, and it must no longer be imported. I can be happy enough with a lamb, I suppose, but would so much prefer to have a sheep hanging. I like my meat old, and ripe, and knowing; the innocence of a lamb is trite, beside the rich experience of his aged parent. And surely corned mutton is the old stuff, the concentrated wisdom of the Outback.”

The recipe which followed was conveyed with desolation: for without corned mutton, what use could it be? Among the other ingredients, the celery of course, the dry white wine, light cream, a crumbled sharp cheddar, grated Pecorino Romano, a spoon of Spanish paprika, crushed Hontaka peppers, perhaps some Ancho too, dabs of garlic butter Provençal, and the corned mutton diced, shredded, and folded into all this. The three kinds of chilli to accord with the “three ages of mutton,” as I have understood them.

Better yet than the corned, tinned substance would be real mutton, could it only be found. It has long been utterly unavailable from butchers throughout the Western world, and according to my informants, it has now almost disappeared from India. (The “mutton curries” offered on Indian restaurant menus are today almost invariably goat instead, as elsewhere and for another reason pork is sold as rabbit.)

Lamb, as veal, is preferred by our post-industrial stockyards, and I’m told even bison and boar, ostrich and emu, and venison grow younger and younger. It is a cost/benefit thing, and for what does our advertising industry exist than to persuade the consumer that he likes his meat, as he likes his supermodels, young and lean? Only the magnificently wealthy (in the strictest Aristotelian sense) could consider the investment in sheep, allowed to grow to their full maturity and to be indulged, expressly for their flesh and not their wool.

There are, as I understand, three stages in life beyond lamb-hood when a sheep is very commendably edible: each of these stages adding a dimension to the flavour, while retaining what was added in each stage before. There are thus long periods between these stages, when the shepherd must continue to feed and lead his animals, with no prospect of a quick sale.

Corned mutton, to my knowledge, was originally designed as the retirement plan for the wool-bearers. It is crude, as retirement plans go, but at least it is not wasteful. The corning process is not to be deprecated: designed as it was to dissolve the toughest, grittiest meat. (The brighter reds we see are the product of pink salts; not the preserved flush of youth.) The flavouring of the brine can be admirably complementary, and as I hope to have made clear, corned mutton must not be sneered at. That we must receive it only in tins is a penance; but at least these will keep for decades on our shelves.

I must be old now. I can remember foods that my children will never know, and can never know — removed from the market before they were born, for failing to repay expenses. Foods which required life and love to produce, and have therefore had to be eliminated from a world that despises inefficiency, and worships money. Let this corned mutton never run out; let it long remain somehow “economically viable”: for it is among the links to another world, in which there was life and love and plenty.


Up here in the High Doganate, things are constantly falling out of books: bookmarks, clippings, author photos, Mass cards, old letters. … The names and field positions for a casual cricket team I once captained that called itself “Famous English Murderers.” … Pressed leaves and flowers. … A recipe from Mrs Balbir Singh. … Picture of an old girlfriend. … It is really not the world’s most efficient filing system.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a little lecture-and-social to celebrate the acquisition of Marshall McLuhan’s working books (some thousands of them) by the Thomas Fisher Library in Toronto, here. I enjoyed the slide show on the ephemera that fell out of his books. McLuhan’s son, Eric, is an old friend, and Eric’s son, Andrew, had the nightmare of cataloguing it all. (Little baby Andrew how he’s grown!)

Our great Canadian sage of “media” — and a real one, I might add — is himself also distantly remembered by me. He had a secretary who could remember where he’d put everything, but there are limits to all human understanding, and I doubt she could have told him in which of four or more heavily-annotated copies of Finnegans Wake he had entered some item of marginalia.

My own method of filing is to throw things out. This creates an impressively ordered environment, and saves time searching. No matter how clearly I can recollect some document, I can be reasonably sure it is gone. But in the course of discarding, I’m inclined to overlook anything that is hidden from immediate view. Well, that is enough on my filing system.

One thing omitted from my initial list, was poems in translation. It is something I do, like doodling, or knitting. Another old friend, with rather more gifts, shares this peculiar hobby, and we sometimes exchange our frivolous effusions. Indeed, George Jonas, for that is his name, got a whole book out of such efforts, which was published two years ago under the title, The Jonas Variations: A Literary Seance.

Now, George can speak and understand innumerable languages, and translate from one to another with facility. He is Hungarian after all. Whereas, I’m still working on my English. Therefore, unlike him, I specialize in translating from languages that I do not understand. Sometimes I use dictionaries. Sometimes I avail myself of other cheats. Sometimes I just wing it. (In my twenties, I actually won a prize for a poem-in-translation I had simply wung. Apparently the judges couldn’t read the original, either.)

Having nothing else on my mind today, with which to construct a more intelligent Essay, I attach below the latest but one of my translation efforts, to fall out from between the pages of an old book. (In fact, I’m beginning to think I can keep this website going for some time, in this way.) It is a sequence of ghazal — a Persian poetical form of short, Twitter-length couplets, in Sufi mystical relation with each other. These are by “Fena” (a pseudonym; forgotten his real name). Written in Urdu at Lahore during the Mughal dynasty, a few centuries ago (or so I would guess off the top of my head):


You came and peopled with desires
My heart that was so long deserted.


The path led into the thorns,
The one that had looked so easy.


If there is no burning in their chests,
How can we call them fully human?


The lips of the buds had hardly opened,
The gusts of autumn took them away.


The endless thirst that we must quench:
Who knows whither we are going?

Everyday sinning

It is a little known fact, that the world is full of sinners. In the past, this was better understood. One of the strangest things I encounter, is my “secular” friends. Knowing me for a religious nutjob, and themselves often vaguely conscious of being what is called “lapsed,” they start speaking to me as if I were some sort of priest. They answer questions that I have not asked. Often they tell me, that they are good people, that they’ve never, or at least not recently, done anything very wrong. Sometimes this is followed with some glib self-assurance, that God is also good and they will go to heaven. It is as if they were arriving at the customs post, and choosing the row for “nothing to declare.” Were I a customs inspector, I’d look at the face and search the bags immediately.

Everyone, including every Buddhist I’ve met (born Asian, not fake ones) has a sense of sin. This can be easily established if you listen to them. The more neurotic make themselves easy to read; the more psychotic less so, but in their case just watch what they are doing. There are moments when I prefer the psychotics: for while they override their inner restraints, they seem to know what a sin is.

The modern tactic, for dealing with sin, is more neurotic than psychotic. The guilt remains, but the sin is denied. It would be invidious to take any one of the Seven Deadlies for my example: let us just say they take all the time they could spend repenting, instead convincing themselves that it was not a sin. That it couldn’t be, because “it didn’t hurt anybody,” or at worst, no one who would find out. For the purposes of that definition, “oneself” doesn’t count.

Euthanasia is growing in popularity, because to the modern sin-evading mind, suicide could not possibly be a crime. For one thing, how do you punish a person who has committed suicide? Traditionally, by burying him outside the churchyard; but the concept of “churchyard” doesn’t exist any more, except among a few of my fellow religious fanatics. For another: the only victim is “oneself,” and as I just explained, “oneself” doesn’t count. He ends his suffering in this world, and having spent the time required to convince himself there can be no next one, the case is closed.

Curiously people who attempt “unassisted” suicide — and I’ve met several people who attempted that — report some compunction about the people who’d have to clean up afterwards. One gentleman recalled that, in the moment before he turned himself not into the corpse he’d intended, but rather into a paraplegic, he felt a twinge of empathy for emergency service workers. I inwardly congratulated him on the fineness of his sensibility.

We see this also in expressions of spontaneous moral outrage, even in the media. The reporter is appalled to discover that daddy hanged himself where his children might find him. (And did.) There must have been something wrong about that. The kids might be “scarred” in some way, seeing their daddy hanging so, with his face all puffy and discoloured and all-round weird. Yet on a reductio absurdum of contemporary thinking, they should take it in their stride. Daddy’s little “statement” only hurt himself. Maybe, use it as an inspiration for their next Hallowe’en costume, for their teachers like to encourage creativity.

As a hack myself, I reach for the dramatic example, but I could as well tone it down. There are sins less dramatic than suicide. Most everyday sinning comes with no drama at all. (One thinks of the flatterers who coined, “No drama Obama.”) With practice, it becomes a matter of course. Any guilt associated with a repetitive act, becomes sublimated to the point where it is unreachable by the conscious mind. It is like a callousing so thick, that little pinprick punctures communicate no pain. Yet the same body might still suddenly react to a deeper incision.

Ordinary time

The world of Power will vex and desolate, how could it not? But nothing compared to the hell in which so many live their fine and private lives: the hell, so often, of insatiable demands, of greed and ingratitude, when not actual rapine; the nightmare of looking every gifthorse in the mouth; the pain of devotion to the merely unavailable; of wanting what is not even God’s to give; my own ravings and thrashings at recent fate.

Woke this morning, from out of the wilderness of dreams, into a sudden silence or quietude, as if I could somehow hear the whispering of angels, which I was straining to discern. Perhaps I was still half asleep:

“Things are as they are and will be as they will be, do not rave and thrash, do not try to understand what is beyond your understanding. Take pleasure in what is given and wisdom from what is withheld; you are loved, don’t be lonely. Your task is to love in return; to love without demanding.”

And then I remembered Newman’s prayer:


God has created me to do Him some definite service.  He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another.  I have my mission, I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.
I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons.  He has not created me for naught.  I shall do good — I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place while not intending it, if I do but keep his commandments.
Therefore I will trust Him.  Whatever I am, I can never be thrown away.  If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him.
He does nothing in vain.  He knows what He is about; He may take away my friends.  He may throw me among strangers.  He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me — still He knows what He is about!


A friend died, fourteen years ago. Bob, let me call him. He was a close friend, an old friend-of-the-family who had never gone away, and whom in the course of things I attended on his deathbed — homosexual, as a matter of fact, and a rather passionate if long highly irregular Christian, too. I had the task of clearing his house, where he’d lived all alone since the death of his companion of many years. I remember going through his closet to choose appropriate clothes, for the undertaker’s man, to dress him in his coffin: laying them out on his bed, to match this with that; and bursting into tears. He was a good man, I think very good in the balance, whose life was an ordeal; who had lived wild, then come to repent it. But his love — specifically, his love for his companion — he would never repent. And Lord, it had been tested.

Returning to the closet, I found Newman’s prayer, on the inside of the door. He must have seen it, perhaps read it there, every morning when he was reaching for clothes. (He was a man almost incapable of “dressing up,” it was work finding something appropriate to a coffin.) He’d written out this prayer in his own hand, and glued it so it would not be removable.

So now I knew why he was capable of reciting it, as he had once done. And, too, why he had written, as a kind of title, over many hundreds of pages of rambling memoir in which, really, he was explaining what and why he would not repent, the words: “To keep in touch.” Of a generation now almost entirely lost in time — my parents’ generation — it would be very hard to explain him to this generation, and Bob’s words could not do it. The homosexual “subculture” for instance, of artists and rogues, is not translatable into any “gay scene” today: how it thrived on secrecy and repression. Bob himself condemned “pride parades” and the like as if they were almost a breach of contract.

He had himself more than a decade, after his companion’s death, to think it all through. An old drunkard, he became serenely sober; a chain smoker, he gave up cigarettes: both, on the day his friend died. He devoted his last years largely to praying: more, I should think, for his friend than for himself. It is not for me to know whether God “heard” his prayers. I find it inconceivable that He didn’t.

Lying on his deathbed — the last month, while he was withering away, and losing one faculty after another — he was at peace. He was in a bed at the Salvation Army “palliative” hospital. He was very grateful they had let him in. He had cried when he arrived, and then apologized for crying — boys don’t cry — explaining that it was a moment of terrible nostalgia. “I am the only one left who remembers all those people. They’re all gone now. When I go, no one will be left to remember.”

But then he composed himself, and reflected, “Everything is remembered in the mind of God.”

For better and for worse, from our human point of view. (Drollness indicator.) So much of our desolation is for things lost, including of course lost opportunities, and the fallout from terrible mistakes. We wail and gnash to have the past back, to have taken the other fork in the road, to have instead of what we have, what we might have had, had we not been so foolish. But especially we lament the good that we had; and the good that was mixed into everything, even into the bad; and everything we loved: all passed away as in a dream. All vanity: for what’s gone is gone, except what is immortal.


The truth is that I am myself rather partial to that human point of view. It comes naturally. And the fevers that come with it are natural, too, and the sorrow, with the loss. Our lot isn’t really quite so easy as the angels might imagine. “You try having a body, and find out what it’s like!”

Ambiguous non-participation

My piece today over at Catholic Thing, suggesting the Church should get the hell out of the United Nations, rather than continue trying to get the United Nations out of hell, was written in superficial opposition to almost everyone else who writes there. Needful to say, I have a very high regard for those people: that’s what makes a quarrel worth having. I won’t go any farther into the arguments over the observer status of the Holy See, and all the “judgement calls.” I will happily concede that the desire of every liberal-progressive to throw us out made a strong prima-facie argument for staying. That is why, after all, I continued to write my column for the Ottawa Citizen, for at least a decade after I’d decided that I’d rather spend my life building igloos on Bylot Island.

As Anthony Esolen says in the Comments (over there), the Church has spent her whole earthly life, “dealing with it,” so to say:

“The Church has understood in all times and places that she will have to deal with thugs and imbeciles. Sometimes the prudential judgement is to consign them to oblivion, but sometimes it is to deal with them, to influence them to do some good or, far more likely, to dampen their eagerness to do evil. What she should do with the UN and its vicious bureaucracies is not clear to me.”

That is how things go in the world of Power, in which we must not forget we are actually living: the one that is being fought over, by two angelic armies. For Lucifer is an angel, too, both defeated and — undefeated in this vale of tears. Nor could we defeat him, excerpt on his own terms, by which he would win; nor can he escape defeat. This may sound like nonsense to most of the people currently alive, at least between the nearest two oceans. It is a “concept” that requires more thought than is currently available on any public stage.

Whatever the decisions made, by whatever Catholic authorities, or whatever men of goodwill, operating in this unpromising environment, and carrying the burden of their own sins — they and we require some aloofness. We must hold ourselves a little free from the engagement. We must seek time to write our love letters, “back home,” to send in these letters the story of our hearts, to send home the news. It is true we will be finally cut down in the crossfire, and this gives a certain edge to them, a certain “petitionary” aspect to our prayers. O Lord, save us. O Lord save the people we love.

The phrase which came to mind was, “ambiguous non-participation.” To participate by not participating, as it were. Ideally, to fully participate by fully not participating. (Lao Tzu Christianized, if you will.) To fully understand that “this is war,” and that war consists mostly, in the heat and in the din, of trying to discern orders. So that I don’t mean don’t fight, our earthly battles; for sure we should man all the gunnery positions, and deny the Enemy his every advance. But there is also the moment when the mails arrive, and: “News from a foreign country came, as if my treasures and my joys lay there.”

Moreover …

On marriage, and its regulation by the state, I observe, that after we have reduced the state once again to its natural functions, and therefore its entitlement programmes to zero, and therefore its taxes to something people might voluntarily pay, we won’t have quite so many problems in family law. For in the absence of the state’s encumbering help, people won’t be able to afford to live so irresponsibly. However. …

This can only “work” (i.e. not involve mass starvation) if we have a society that is basically sane and stable, and can provide the welfare services the state is now supplying, once again through extended family and local outreach. And this we will not have without plain public recognition of Family and Church and Natural Order. (I mean, general recognition, but the state must reflect that general recognition.)

To my mind (which is going out in the snow in a moment with my body), we have totally, er, mucked the order of consensus we had before the hippie-commie-great-society revolution of the 1960s. Putting it back together will take a lot longer than busting it apart did.

Secular semi-libertarians — the actual rank-and-file of the conservative parties throughout the contemporary West — might be with me through a project to diminish the state, but as I plead, that would be irresponsible if we don’t have a plan to replace current state functions.

To, for instance, “de-regulate” marriage, when there is no other broadly recognized authority to regulate it, would be an example of “irresponsible.” I am not a libertarian, nor in principle even a “semi-libertarian.” I do want the state to be “involved” — but not so much in giving orders, rather in transmitting them wisely. That is to say, the state should be “involved” in obeying powers higher than itself, expressed in natural and divine law, and interpreting them in light of the diurnal.

The more thoughtful of “them” (the rank and file of my fellow rightwing loons) might be willing to tag along half way. Their problem, from my angle of view, is that while natural law can be rationally distinguished from divine revelation (yer Ten Commandments, &c), only Catholics or very “high church” Christians seem to get that (along with a few Orthodox or “extremely conservative” Jews). My explanation being that one must see at least some short distance into the “divine” to see where the frontier with “natural” is posted.

My problem is to enunciate the distinction to people who can’t possibly understand it.

In principle, the Church has always understood that only the natural law can apply to non-Catholics, and that it is morally wrong to molest them beyond, let’s say, a little holy teasing. (Or as the Mahometans say, in those poignant moments when they are forced into the defensive, “There can be no compulsion in religion.”)

In practice, I have often observed, Catholic politicians can go rogue. (And not only rogue “Pelosi,” but rogue “Torquemada,” which though it might be nearer to my taste, still lacks the wonted subtlety.)

So that in reconstructing “constitutions” we must not only recover what was often got right in the Middle Ages, but avoid from the experience of the last five hundred years what mediaeval statecraft often got wrong.

I’m not talking here, incidentally, about a Catholic takeover, which, I observe, is not imminent. I am talking about thinking through politics in light of my Catholic Christian being.

Not request but demand

In this vexed and painful fight over the “definition of marriage,” perhaps the most difficult task is to convince not only the proponents, but also most of the opponents of any “re-definition of marriage” that it is not in their power. Most nation states long ago passed legislation in support of marriage, as they understood it at the time. In doing so they never imagined that they were  “creating” or “inventing” or even “defining” the institution: they recognized something that already existed, for all practical purposes since time out of mind.

Tax laws and the like can make it harder or easier to raise children. In recent times, short-sighted governments have done everything they could to encourage “double income no kids,” which offers the best immediate revenue propects for the state. I wrote “short-sighted” because we now have the harvest of that policy: not enough young to keep up with the “entitlements” of the ageing. But this, although extremely important, is a side issue.

Something much more fundamental is at stake. The state did not create marriage, but recognized it; and recognized it as something prior to the state. Marriage was naturally recognized in the explicit Christian form, throughout what was formerly Christendom. In doing so the state recognized a frontier to its own power. The children of marriages did not belong to the state. They belonged to families. Families were the building blocks of society: the lowest, most basic, and thus most powerful level of self-government, in a Christian conception of subsidiarity. And the state had no business intruding into the sphere of the family, except in the most extreme cases. (By measures as simple as compulsory schooling, the state’s intervention proceeded deeper and deeper into family life.)

What we are dealing with now is the latest development in a history of the growth of state power, that goes right back to the Reformation. As I’ve said again and again, “same-sex marriage” is only the latest issue. It cannot be understood except historically in relation to each issue that was raised before. Defeat that, and everything before remains undefeated.

There is no way around this confession: I am a Catholic Christian. I have no choice but to accommodate “things as they are,” and my own Church has had to accommodate and adapt to so many developments that were not to her liking, in the time since the Reformation. But history itself is transient, and I recognize, in the annals of power, a higher power than any which may rule on earth. Which is to say, in effect: I am a monarchist, and Christ is my King.

This may sound entirely romantic. Yet how many have died for that loyalty, over how many centuries — especially, in plain numbers, the last century or so. To them, and to the living faithful, this was and remains no pose, no joke. We have a duty to “live and let live” with our non-Catholic neighbours. We may even have learnt something permanently useful, about the importance of religious freedom, in the course of these last five hundred years. But we remain loyal, Catholics and by definition all other Christians, to a power higher than the state’s, and not to something vague, but to someone: Christ.

The state may assume too much about our complacency. It may try to push us too far. It may ask more than we can decently surrender, to the power of the state — as when it asks us to surrender our conscience, or our children. At that point everything is on the line, and must be.

A lawyer in Texas wrote to me:

“The problem, here, is that religious views got thrown into the law stew.  The state, at some point in the past, provided legal rights and duties to those whose unions had been sanctioned by religious authorities. Thus, sanctioning by the state became available to, and co-opted by, same-sex couples. … The solution is obvious: take the state out of marriage. No more marriage licences. No more involvement by the state in determining rights and duties flowing from marriage. No more performance of marriages by government officials. … If people want their relationships formally governed, let them enter into contracts. Then let the state apply the law of contracts.”

This is a vast topic, and I quote the suggestion as one of several now offered in politics for an easy way out of unavoidable conflict. The author may not be Christian, but is certainly well-intentioned towards Christians. Unfortunately, there are never easy ways out. Of anything, really (but that for another day).

He is under less delusion about the state’s primordial power, than most of the people on “our side,” as well as all of the people on “theirs” — who really believe that marriage is in the gift of the state — whereas all within its gift is tax breaks, and family law. He therefore thinks we should join his revolution, to stop the power of the state juggernaut, by taking all its powers over “marriage” away.

Can’t do that. We are men and women, body and soul. We are not Manichees. When we marry it is in sight not only of our co-religionists, but of the whole world. The two become one flesh which only death can part, and the state can like it or lump it. What we are is not detachable from what we are.

I’ve told this well-intended lawyer gentleman something which I realize is, on his terms, incomprehensible: “We don’t surrender our weapons to join your revolution.” (An ally who asks you to do that is anyway not to be trusted.)

The Sacrament of Marriage is among our most powerful weapons. (He may not know what a “sacrament” is; we know.)

This Sacrament was never legislated by the state. It was recognized by the state, as a barrier to state power. We must force the state to recognize it again. Not on the state’s terms, but on ours.

Nothing to debate

In this world that comes after the Candle Mass, I want to change my ways slightly. From a fairly good start in this anti-blog — my first posts were more numerous and often quite short — I have drifted by lugubrious habit into fewer, and longer. This would constitute a sin against Idleness. The long posts are all very well, or some people think they might be, and I will continue to publish them as and when they write themselves. But I need to do more towards the discipline of Idleness.


This morning, for instance, I was thinking about “arguments.” It startled me to see, from some decade-old newspaper clippings that had heaved up from my last pre-Catholic days, that I had expounded some particle of Catholic Christian teaching. It was a rational, and rationally defensible teaching, requiring no “Revelation,” no “mystical insight.” The question at issue was “same sex marriage,” brought to the boil (2003) by an essentially corrupt Ontario Superior Court decision, effectively overthrowing Canada’s marriage laws. (The chief justice behind this decision went out to party with the beneficiaries after it was done: a profoundly corrupt act by a judge, that to this day has not been punished; a complete and open breach of public trust. He is instead lionized, for having “delivered the goods.” His name is Roy McMurtry.)

What I had written was substantially correct: a reasonably good “journalistic” account of a biblical and doctrinal idea, which was also a natural and rational idea, and from which it could be seen that even “gay civil marriage” was a non-starter. Of course, it would help to be Christian to buy in fully, or arguably Jewish, since these two religions alone have, over the many centuries, tried to uphold the principle of rational consistency.

But if one could not buy in, or at least, if one could not pause to humbly consider the possibility that the contrary of current bafflegab even might be the inevitable Christian position, one could not then reasonably claim to be a Christian, as so many supporters of “same-sex marriage” were in fact claiming.

Indeed it was to them I was chiefly arguing: to those who at least nominally accepted the premisses I was working from, such as the possibility of a distinction between right and wrong; and facts on the level of “only women can have babies.” Hard leftists and atheists may not accept such propositions as in any way inevitable, but run-of-the-mill Christians and most decent people say that they accept them.

But if one rejects, and also rejects thinking about, something that one nominally accepts, what is one in fact claiming? That one is a cowardly fraud, whose obedience is not to Christ, nor to reason, but instead to every newly proferred idol of the Zeitgeist. Or alternatively, that one is a silly ditz, quite incapable of thinking through any position, and in anxious need of adult supervision and guidance. Or, as it were, a “typical Canadian voter.”

My determination to “debate” what the media said was then being “debated” — the whole idea of “same-sex marriage” — guaranteed my gradual removal from the “mainstream” Canadian press. My newspaper column was progressively dropped, first from the soi-disant “conservative” National Post, and then from one CanWest newspaper after another. I could not be surprised by this, however. As the much younger David Frum once wrote, “Canada is a country where there is always one side to every issue”; and as I once added, if you get it wrong, the media will “unperson” you.

Still, an argument is an argument, whether or not anyone is listening. And in the end it can only be defeated by a better argument. (That is genuine dialectic.) Those not listening will never be able to provide one. I grieve not only for their souls, which so need praying, but also for their minds: for almost all of my former journalistic colleagues suffer from intellects crippled by an inability to grasp this simple, initial point. Whatever damage any might have done to me, they did much more to themselves through their panic upon being confronted with an unwelcome argument.

Nor can they begin to come to terms with their own, “politically correct,” tendency to panic. They would never see it as panic, but rather as a kind of spontaneous righteous indignation, confirmed in the jiggling throughout their outward layering of smugness.

Throughout history, so far as I have read, the vilest acts of prejudice and suppression have been committed by the party that considers itself more “enlightened.” And it is natural that this would be so. For without the intellectual humility to pause, and consider whether one’s own position is actually defensible, or whether one might have overlooked something (Thomas Aquinas was the very embodiment of this kind of raw intellectual humility), there can be no effective checks on knee-jerk behaviour. The belief that one’s faction is “enlightened” militates against intelligent or independent thought, and in effect creates the lynch mob. No one will ever be able to out-argue the proposition, “I am right because everyone knows I am right.”

For paradoxically, the “enlightened” party is blinded by its own light. The prejudices are founded on the very notion that “any other position must be prejudice” — so that those who have actually devoted time and pain to thinking through the question are accused of blindly following the prejudice of past ages. This is made plausible because they usually are — coming to the same conclusion as other intelligent men and women came to, over many centuries; to a position which, often as not, fully anticipated the latest “enlightened” novelty, and consciously rejected it for good, stated reasons.


As gentle reader will see, my issue today is not with “gay marriage” per se. It was a political battle, over what should never have been made into a political question; and as a political battle, it is currently lost. But it is hardly unique in that way. There is a piece by Fr James Schall, currently posted in the Internet, entitled, “Fifteen Lies at the Basis of Our Culture.” Gentle reader may go there to review the other fourteen. In every case, “the culture,” including its “media,” will shut down hearing, box up its ears, from the moment a rational argument is proposed against the widely accepted Lie. To put this in unambiguously Christian terms, the devil has us that well trained.

Rational argument, and the ability to cope with it, are crucial to the survival of any culture or civilization, and perhaps the reason why this one is so obviously crumbling.

This is also why every tyranny collapses in due course: the inability to cope with the truth — with home truths, with internal contradictions. The position of saying one thing and doing another can only be maintained for so long. Sooner or later comes the rending crack, and the whole edifice of lies collapses (as we witnessed, dramatically, at the Berlin Wall, but also many other times on less dramatic occasions).

As the Christians teach, freedom itself is bound up with truth, and a society that can no longer confront truth must necessarily and inevitably lose its freedom. (The loss of which is itself a survival issue.) Just as, to use an analogy I hope everyone will understand, a major corporation will come down, once it starts relying upon accounting tricks.

The tyranny itself began, as every catastrophe, in small lies, in lies of convenience, in lies that had to be told to support those lies, and lies to support those new lies in turn, so that the lies accumulate to large, and larger, until no internal “reform” can save the edifice: in a swoosh, it all comes down. That is what we in the West are working towards, and have been working towards for well over a generation, piling lie upon lie, to get farther and farther away from the ground of our being. It is our Babel.

But neither is that my argument for today, which is trying to reach a little beyond argument. I began with my surprise over seeing that in the fake “debate” to which I was once “contributing” I had got the “argument” basically right. And yet it did not satisfy me at all.

Looking back, it now seems that in some fundamental way, I was myself still not getting the point of what I was, correctly, arguing. I was still struggling to see, as it were, not a truth, but the truth of that truth. The argument I was making was still external to me. I was arguing as if I were in an argument — which, I suppose, technically, I was, even if my opponents were only arguing that I should be shut down, silenced.

A former prime minister of Canada (very briefly) once said, in the heat of an election campaign, that an election campaign was no place to discuss public issues. She was telling the truth, and alas, a truth that tells sharply against representative democracy. Of course, she was easily made to look a fool, and the fact that she otherwise behaved rather foolishly clinched the landslide by which she was defeated. She was not a politician I liked or admired. Yet for one bewildered moment she had spoken a truth — a quite defensible truth, incidentally — and I was quite impressed.

It is something like that I am trying to say today. I could phrase it in a parallel way: “A debate is no place in which to have an argument.”

But that’s a little too clever. I mean that, by our current understanding or tacit agreement, “a debate” is a form of public theatre. It never was meant to decide anything. It is a public clash between sides, in the manner of an old Punch and Judy show. Real questions cannot be discussed until we have established real premisses; until we have come to some real agreement on the nature of the ground. That a genuine dialectic can help us to that point, I would hardly deny; all truth-seeking involves some form of dialectic. But “a debate,” as the term is currently understood, means a Punch and Judy show — in which both sides have agreed to act like puppets, and follow a script in what they have to say.

What follows from this, I believe, is that where the truth begins to be apprehended, and the most essential facts become agreed (that we are male and female, in this case), it is not debate that follows. Instead it is affirmation. And insofar as we might sometimes be right, all that we can do is affirm. And, “as Christ is my witness,” everything that follows from that is out of our hands. (Punishment, most likely.)

Perhaps this sounds arrogant.