Essays in Idleness



There is, or there was, a small school desk by the window at the very top of the philosophy and theology stacks in the London Library. The structure itself — that part of the warren that is perhaps the world’s finest private subscription library — may be gone. I can’t quite tell from the Google satellite picture. It was an oblong cuboid in raw concrete, of no architectural distinction whatever, entirely concealed by older buildings around it. To reach its top floor, from the library entrance in St James’s Square, one passed through a foyer of catalogue tables, up a panelled staircase, through a three-dimensional labyrinth of iron grates and shelves, up one helical staircase, then through another maze and up another flight of stairs and, … I close my eyes and repeat the whole journey.

The school desk in question, and the window looking over the delightful backsides of Victorian buildings, was my “office” or study cell for several years. It granted an almost perfect privacy, for no one else seemed ever to go there. In all that time, I recall only one other visitor, and he an aged Anglican clergyman who was quite lost. I could leave my notebooks in the drawers of that desk, return after weeks of walking on the Continent, and be confident to find them undisturbed.

A spirit filled the room, of the “timeless contemporary.” Many of the books stacked there were retrieved from the preceding library extension, which had collapsed after some attention from the Luftwaffe during the Blitz. There were, for instance, 17th-century folio volumes pinned shut by shards of German shrapnel, and other mementi of Total War, adding to the bunker effect, and thus enhancing the stillness, the silence, of “all passion spent.”

This room was an antechamber of Paradise. I felt very honoured that the angelic presences had granted me this space, to read Aristotle, then gradually to discover, at first through the commentaries of Thomas Aquinas, a deep catholic Christian heritage. For nearly four years it was my private university chamber, and London at large, with its other libraries, and bookstores, its museums and galleries, its churches and its concert halls, was my Athens. Those were happy days, and my memory is gladdened by the knowledge that I appreciated them, while they lasted. I was living hermit-like and chastely after the convulsions of earlier youth; I would return to the world of work and play; but for a time circumstances had coelesced to allow me the freedom to study and to think. I needed little money to get by, and that little was easily found in odd jobs, themselves entertaining.

Last night, on my birthday, I thought back on this, in a long pause while glancing in mind over sixty-one years of sin and error. I have a small desk today, by the window in my bedroom, and had with me two candles and a bottle of good wine. I thought back, too, to the workman’s cottage in which I then lived — without electricity, in Vauxhall, right in the middle of London. It was a house address where no bills or solicitations ever arrived.

(I was squatting, with the informal permission of the socialist Borough of Lambeth, which had expropriated several contiguous historical neighbourhoods to demolish and replace with hideous tower blocks. Happily, they’d run out of money, and right in the middle of a “housing crisis,” so that they dared not leave a square mile empty for Mrs Thatcher to talk about. Many of my neighbours had been genuine working-class home owners, their properties inherited since time out of mind. They’d been paid mean, arbitrary sums for their property, that was then clawed back in taxes — truly dispossessed, banished as in the old Highland Clearances but, thanks to a little miscalculation in Big Brother’s Five Year Plan, they were themselves now squatting in what had been formerly their own homes. … And the poor devils had always voted Labour; had voted, and would continue to vote, wilfully for their own destruction.)

The automotive and infrastructural hum of London, as any modern city, is constant even in the middle of the night, and yet in the interior of blocks it may sometimes still be defeated by birdsong. And then, if one is lucky enough to live in a slum or ghetto, one may be on a street where no one owns a car.

Perfect silence is not of this world, nor even of outer space, so long as the equipage to sustain human life must be carried through it; and there is background noise in the metabolism itself. True simplicity is also not possible here, though again, an approach to it is possible. When I think back over past centuries, before the “industrial revolution,” and use for my analogy my experience of walking through unelectrified rural India, I am astounded by the silences. That is what the “modern man” would find most provoking. He cannot easily cope with it, for when left in peace he is soon overwhelmed by instilled cravings for noise, clutter, and motion.

In religion (not only Christian), the greatest challenge for the modern man is to endure silence and simplicity of intention; to pray, to contemplate without distraction. He enters church, temple, synagogue, mosque, from a world blaring and glaring. He cannot help taking the reverberations inside, within his own body, and will have little time to compose himself.

Again, from my own experience, I have found it takes about two weeks to “dry out” from modern urban life; to reach the point where one is no longer inwardly flinching at mechanical noise, or unconsciously preparing for the next encounter with salesmanship and “professionalism” — with all the outward credentializing requirements and traffic arrangements of the Prince of This World. The modern man is free only to indulge his lusts and perversions; to display “choice” in his consumer selection of “products” almost invariably fake. He has no patience for the good, the true, the beautiful — and is therefore a cringing slave in his nature, compelled to participate as an easily replaceable cog in the infernal machinery.

“The modern world is too complex to be governed by the simplicities of the past.” Some variation on this has been told me often, in a condescending way. Yet there is one thing I know that the modern world does not: that simplicity leaves room for God. Complexity can spare neither time nor space.

This, anyway, is my birthday wish: to continue my quiet resistance. Gentle reader may call this an ideology should he wish — moreover, a reactionary ideology — for it is not in itself of God, rather a precondition for apprehending Him, in the human condition. My watchwords here are quietude, aloofness, idleness — to keep by them so far as it is in my power, as the citizen of a Nanny State and therefore a haplessly indentured servant of Democracy. To make a small example of my freedom; to seek the company of other free men; to cultivate simplicity, and thereby leave room for the very God from Whom the votaries of Hell would distract us.

Last lines

How often — and especially when I was editor of a soi-disant “literary” magazine — have I read a nearly passable poem that was ruined by its last line. This exposed the rest of the composition. With practice, one could see it coming: the cumbersome set-up for the long-anticipated punch line, often itself flubbed. Vers libre slips naturally into this joke format. It appeals to the poet because, it doesn’t have to be funny. Standard prose rhythms are also acceptable, with the addition of a few unnatural pauses, leading to a commonplace that was often thought, and e’er so ill-expressed.  With one poet, I used to argue that his stature as a great Canadian worthy of the governess-general’s ordure and every other public prize of our exalted democracy would be enhanced if he would only re-issue his collected poetical works with all the last lines excised.

He was on to me, however. He had received all those prizes already. He pointed out that the prizes are for the sentiments expressed in the last lines. And having friends on the prize committee who would agree with them.

There are innumerable contemporary accredited academic philosophers who would appear much deeper, to me, if they would cancel their last chapters. These would be the chapters in which the purpose of all the preceding incomprehensible jargon is plainly revealed, by the insertion of a few tawdry clichés. At least take out the last paragraph, which can only enable the reader to omit reading the preceding book. For that is the paragraph that gives the whole story away: of how the man got tenure. Spare us that.

But the man who had followed this advice would hardly have gotten past the tenure committee.

One could be ambitious, and consult dictionaries of quotations for the famous last words of famous people: little tags placed on the ends of lives that leave us wondering if they were truly worth living. All those decades of hard-earned human experience ending in … a lame tweet? … Of course you need more light, Wolfgang. You probably need more oxygen, too.

Perhaps I should do it myself in these essays. Go back through them and delete the endings. When I wrote for newspapers I would often find a sub-editor had performed this service for me. He’d remove the last sentence to make the column fit the space. Sometimes not the whole sentence, just what came after the comma. This must have happened to me a dozen times before I learnt always to write a little short of the word-count, leaving the frustrated sub-editor with a line to fill, in which he could write, “Mr Warren’s column appears Wednesdays and Saturdays.” Or if that wasn’t enough, he could add, “And Sundays.”

Reading Charles Krauthammer’s column this morning, I was inspired to write the above. He does what the Canadian poets do, but with flair. A fellow obnoxious rightwing lunatic like me will be nodding all the way through, agreeing with everything he says — yes, I thought today, the leftists are becoming more and more totalitarian. Yes, this example; and yes, that example; and yes, the other example, too. Well said, Charlie, I totally agree. He adds, this morning, “Long a staple of academia, the totalitarian impulse is spreading. What to do? Defend the dissenters, even if — perhaps, especially if — you disagree with their policy.”

Good man, and a commendable liberal impulse, in the fine old sense of that word. Voltaire would smile, and look at his pocket watch. Talleyrand would wonder at the indiscretion. But then Krauthammer adds:

“It is — it was? — the American way.”

Oh please. You’ve spoilt it. All these small and simple truths, ending in a flourish of … bosh. It was never the American way. That’s not how a democracy ever worked. It works by consensus. The people may or may not have a few opinions, but they wait for the consensus to form in their immediate environment, and then everyone against it shuts up. That is, and has been, the American way, from the income tax to gay marriage. Also the Canadian way (but more so), the British (but with sly humour), the French (while eating), the German (to a fault), the Swedish (beyond it), but — God bless them, it is not the Italian way. No, the Italians don’t care what they say. They don’t even know what a consensus is in that country.

Let me conclude by mentioning that I really like Italians.

Libertine atheism

Several readers have noticed how little I’ve had to say about our current Pope, whether here or elsewhere. But you know me, always trying to avoid controversy. “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing.” Today, thanks to a correspondent in Virginia, getting at the latest Sandro Magister post before I could, I have something nice to say. It follows from the meeting last week in Rome of Pope Francis with the President of one of those unfortunate American republics, which lie to the south of us. (There is one I can get glimpses of, just across the Lake, from up here in the High Doganate.) You know the gentleman, surely. He has been on TV. He was the one with the big grin: that wide, painted, danse-macabre grin he was wearing while he stood beside our Pope for the photo-op in Rome. The Pope, for his part, was glowering.

The two faces, in juxtaposition, seemed plainly to suggest their respective positions on contraception, abortion, and the vicious attacks on religious freedom over here in the New World — most recently through the provisions of something called “Obamacare,” designed to put every faithful Christian on the spot, with fines and other punishments unless he agrees to make a public sacrifice of his own conscience, and worship at the shrine of Belial.

This is not how the matter was presented in the pages of the New York Times, however. On the other hand, elsewhere in that paper I noticed that even they begin to characterize their President and his administration as enemies of liberty — at least, liberty of the press. They are on the cusp of noticing that their President is, to put this as nicely as I can, often less than candid about his actual agenda.

Just between us, I expect politicians to lie. That is their trade, after all, and many have devoted decades to the mastery of this art of “circumlocution,” which contains many little techniques of deceit, and is in turn part of the larger art of mass suckering, or “democracy.” The master of this art can tell a very big lie, that is aggregated from small, factually checkable statements, or uncheckable statements that will pass glibly. The art is in the selection of his “talking points,” and in omitting the connectives, the reasoning, that takes him from point to point. As a student of rhetoric, I can admire a talented sophist, simply as a craftsman. He is, like an old-fashioned circus magician, able to distract his audience in key moments, to perform his tricks. He can turn even the sceptics into a cheering section. They all go off and vote for him, now he has shown that he can deliver an endless supply of rabbits, or anything else they may require.

However, the President in question lies without the slightest air of plausibility. I consider that poor workmanship. He does it again and again, with or without the help of his teleprompter; and except for the humourless types at Fox News, nobody calls him on it. He secured victory in the last election by having the tax department methodically neutralize organizations that had delivered crushing electoral rebukes to his party in the previous mid-terms. Very well, corruption goes with the territory. Any political party in a “democracy” may try that sort of thing, by way of clinging to power. The experts love a winner, and will smile on their success.

My outrage is instead directed to his public statements afterwards; about that and other matters including Benghazi, where knowing lies were told, in something of a panic, to keep the matter off the political agenda until the election was over. Once again, that is what politicians do, when they have the means to do it. And lies like that are limited, not systemic; they are only meant to serve in the absence of any more subtle deceit. Later, they can be retracted. But when later, the acts are fully exposed — and no acknowledgement is made of the fact of exposure — my rant begins.

As I say, corruption I expect. And I expect them to try to get away with it. But when they are caught, mere decency requires a little show of contrition. This did not occur.

The same comment, really, for contraception, abortion, infanticide, and innumerable other crimes — fornication, adultery, sodomy, bestiality — and whatever else Phil Robertson mentioned in the alligator swamp. I know these things happen. I am sometimes prepared to look the other way. I will allow that, in some cases, the consequences of having a law are worse than the consequences of not having a law; that we should “live and let live,” tolerate the tolerable, so long as it does not spread. But the argument that these are not wrongs, not “sins” both by revelation and reason — which, in principle, ought to be discouraged — goes beyond me.

Sin in secrecy is perfectly comprehensible. But when it ceases to be secret, and is flaunted without shame, well: “Houston, we have a problem.”

To Sandro Magister I send the curious reader for the best account yet of how the current Pope may, indeed, be Catholic. [Link.] At the most basic, viscerally intentional level, he, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis, seems to know exactly what he is dealing with, when he is meeting with men of worldly power; who have sold their souls to the devil to obtain it; whose dishonesty extends even to denying that crimes are crimes. I am relieved to learn that Francis is a “disciple” of such a thinker as Alberto Methol Ferré, whose description of contemporary “libertine atheism” is so astute. For the prospect of the Church herself making concessions to Belial is of concern to me.

Doing wrong is common enough. We’ve been doing that since Adam. But denying that wrong is wrong — that is where we pass from the human into the metaphysical realm of evil.