The world in small

Commending the works of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, in an article that was really about something else (see here), I mentioned the SMOM’s stamp issuing authority.

The Poste Magistrali was established as a modern postal administration only in 1966, but a philatelic survey would have to review a much longer history of mail delivery, as a function of the SMOM, attestable to the early XVIth century, and probably going back to the Crusades. Couriers have, after all, been employed by every sovereign order. Postage stamps were invented in England so recently as 1840, as a convenience; but in one form or another, the mails were being delivered in ancient Rome, Greece, and Persia; in Babylon and Egypt; in the Indus civilization, the Mauryan, across China, and everywhere else authority has been exercised on larger than the tribal scale. (From this information alone, we can see that the Internet is a shocking novelty, and guess that its implications go well beyond what we can discern or imagine.)

As a lad, in wonderfully backward British schools in Asia, I began seriously to collect and trade stamps. This was not really an option. All boys were expected to collect stamps, and those who tried to avoid the hobby were marked as dangerously odd. Other deficiencies — moral, material, spiritual, and intellectual — could be overlooked in a boy, but one who did not collect stamps was confessing to a more fundamental weirdness. This is because, I think, the collecting impulse is itself fundamental to human nature — especially, masculine human nature, and we are talking boy schools here. And, stamps and coins were until recently the most obviously collectible artefacts of human manufacture. Which is to say nothing against the collection of butterflies, or beetles, or books into vast libraries.

Or, works of art. “The aesthetic” was, from the beginning, my principal attraction to stamps, though it took some time for me to appreciate that it was. By mimicry, I quickly acquired the lust to complete a set. If a set of stamps had four members, and I had three of them, I could not rest until I’d acquired the fourth, no matter what its condition, or how unpleasant the underlying design.

I suspect this is at the root of the bureaucratic impulse. It is to complete, to collect everything that can be collected, to regularize and schematize the collection, and eventually to make everything the same. Nothing offends the sensibility of the bureaucratic soul so much as an omission, or an exception. It disturbs his sleep.

Towards the end of my boyhood, and with the help of my father, whose preaching on this topic I took to heart, my own views “evolved.” I developed the concept that certain stamps were TUTO (“too ugly to own”). Not simply stamps, but stamps beautifully designed, skilfully and ingeniously engraved (or sometimes typographed, or lithographed) called to me, cor ad cor. Had I a set of four, and three exquisite, but the fourth a poorly executed afterthought, I would actually get rid of that fourth. And I learned to take pleasure in the riddance. (This is how I became an “editor.”)

It was my great grandfather who began soaking stamps off envelopes; the man to whom I owe thanks for having provided a miscellaneous mound of Canadian orange three-cent “small Victorias” from which, many decades later, I was able to extract an inspiring range of local post office cancellations. His son, my grandfather, the cartographer and illuminator, became a systematic and obsessive collector, and evangelist for the hobby, which he pressed upon each of his innumerable children and grandchildren. My father’s mounted collection ends suddenly in 1940, when in an instant he stopped being a boy in a world at war; I keep it intact as a memento of his childhood. I, for my part, have never been able to shake off a kind of irrational exhilaration, at the discovery of a stamp shop or a stamp fair. My sons, however, escaped this fascination, despite my best efforts to enchant them. Alas, though fine upstanding young men, they were born into the age of email; an age too busy for truth, goodness, beauty, or the chaste solitude they often command.

Let me say that the quality of the SMOM’s stamps is not very impressive. I see missed opportunities in almost all their issues. Inflation now governs the world, and while conventional post offices are everywhere in recession, approaching bankruptcy, the number of new stamp issues constantly increases from almost all of them. This is for the most part a cynical effort to obtain a (diminishing) revenue from the (dwindling) horde of naïve stamp collectors; sometimes (as in the SMOM’s case) for charitable purposes. Hardly anyone puts stamps on letters, and even bills are now paid online.

Somewhere around 1970 (a little sooner or later, depending on the country), engraving was replaced with “modern offset printing” by almost every stamp issuing authority, and by now, at least ninety-nine new stamps in each hundred are complete rubbish — as may be seen immediately through any 5X magnifying glass. Instead of a finely executed, tiny work of art, which will acquire patina with age, you have under your nose what might as well be a square inch cut from a glossy magazine: a meaningless slur of tiny, multicoloured dots. Whereas, every minuscule stroke in an engraved stamp adds to, or subtracts from, its aesthetic meaning, and is potentially a delight in itself. For art is not a mash. Every gesture is significant.

What we see in stamps is generally the case whenever human handicraft is obviated by large-scale machine production. A world that has quite consciously discarded civilizational values, and replaced them with ruthless economic calculations, degrades everything it touches, and industriously replaces the authentic with the fake. It actually takes pride in doing this. Socialists and capitalists alike share in competitive zeal, as they seek out “the lowest common denominator.”

I thrill to examples of resistance, however quixotic they may be. The French, the Austrians, several Scandinavian countries, Italians, Germans, and some others from time to time, have mounted rearguard actions, sticking with or reverting to engraved stamps, in some cases even to the present day. The Czechs, even under Communist rule, were regularly issuing stamps of the highest craft standards, magnificent design, and genial spirit. All these authorities also issued garbage stamps, to keep up with the times; and the trend is certainly towards the bureaucratic consistency of all-garbage. Yet by the grace of God, some of the greatest stamp engravers have flourished within the last two generations, their art still in (shrinking) demand.

The Pole, Czesław Słania, died 2005, is widely appreciated as “the Picasso of stamp engraving”; the Austrian, Wolfgang Seidel, always takes my breath away; perhaps the Norwegian, Martin Mörck, is the most talented stamp engraver still fully active; but there are several dozen other living or only recently deceased stamp engravers, including an admirable disproportion of Frenchmen (and a couple of women), quite incapable of producing inferior or prostituted work. Yves Baril is, incidentally, the name of our greatest Canadian stamp engraver.

Let me add, before resuming my silence, that it was through stamp collecting that I absorbed the outline history of the (post-1840) modern world, and indirectly acquired many of my views on subjects superficially removed. For instance, I early developed an aversion to “propaganda stamps,” together with an awareness that they were not restricted to formally totalitarian regimes. I could say that my whole view of the evil of Statism, and the Nationalism on which it feeds, began with a mysterious distaste for certain kinds of commemorative stamp, as commonly produced in the United States as in the Soviet Union. My very preference for monarchic over republican constitutional orders may follow from the triteness and narrow, jingo viciousness displayed in the stamps of most republican regimes. And with that, a perception that the handmaid of our post-modern inflation — not only of money but in every other aspect of our lives — is the cancerous growth of Ideology. On a planetary scale it has been, with growing confidence, subverting and destroying Religion. Political ideology turns men away from the grace of God, and instead towards “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” and all the poppycock and hogwash that flows from that. By accelerating increments, God is rejected, and Satan embraced.

But that is a larger topic.