Essays in Idleness


Christ hither & away

This day, apparently for the last time until anno 2157, is both Lady Day and Good Friday. Our pre-modern ancestors, and those non-modern who walk the earth today, celebrate this Conjunction with our fast. For as this link explains (here), the 25th of March has been taken for the historical date of the Annunciation to Mary, and too, of Christ’s Crucifixion thirty-three years later. The two events are intwined, in doctrine as in mystical contemplation. In this moment we see something whole, which is perhaps lost on many.

On ðone fif ond twentegðan dæg þæs monðes com Gabrihel ærest to Sancta Marian mid Godes ærende, ond on ðone dæg Sancta Maria wæs eacen geworden on Nazareth ðære ceastre þurh þæs engles word ond þurh hire earena gehyrnesse, swa þas treowa ðonne hi blostmiað þurh þæs windes blæd. …

This is quoted from the Old English Martyrology, in the link.

“Through the hearing of her ears, like trees when they blossom at the blowing of the wind. …”

The coming days

In the grim days, when I was an overpaid prisoner in a newspaper chain, writing daily columns on matters of no importance as member of the chain gang, there were breaks. One was granted annual leave, of five weeks in my case. One was even allowed to choose which weeks, subject to negotiation with one’s editorial keepers. Invariably I chose Easter: partly because that would be spring after the long Canadian winter, and partly because it would be Easter. I would write my dangerously orthodox Easter blunderbuss (in my role as “the token Christian”), then make off. Through Lent, I would be counting down the days to my coming furlough. For I have always hated writing, but hated writing for newspapers most of all.

Five weeks is a long, an excessive time in modern life. There could be five Super Tuesdays in that period. Governments might rise or fall, with the pundit nowhere to be heard. His readers might be at a loss what to think, for the duration. In my other role, as “the token conservative,” I had several readers, who would pepper me with emails saying, “Hurry back!” This was kind, but I would smile, because I was in no hurry. Other members of the chain gang could carry on the brutal heavy work of removing the foundations of Western Civ, to build with this stone the grand prison maze of our Dictatorship of Relativism. I would be out in the park, feeding sparrows.

As I will be, soon again, for I intend to take not five weeks (that would be excessive) but Holy Week to start, then Easter Week, too, for a kind of vacation. This takes us, I believe, to April 4th. Let gentle reader be assured that I need it. I shall try to catch up with correspondence in this time (I keep falling badly behind), but give no guarantees for that, either.

I am blessed with, I think, more readers than I had as a chain-gang hack — more widely spread, and on balance, more discerning. I am indebted to a few of them for keeping me in food. I ought to be grateful, and in fact, I am, and wish them all a hard Fast and then a blesséd Feast, as we silently approach the Crucifixion of Our Lord, and His unimaginable Resurrection.

Stillness within the panic

I write today about Ratzinger over at Catholic Thing (here). He is back in the news, quite modestly, and I seize on almost any chance to echo my hero of the last forty years. Over here, in this Idleposting, let me add what I had no space for, though little enough it adds. Apart from reading Ratzinger, whose Collected Works are now beginning to appear in English (see here), there is his example. To know, or begin to know a priest, one might say, is to watch him say a Low Mass, ideally in the most adverse circumstances. (Vidi.) But that is a personal judgement, from a man who must himself be allowing his attention to wander in the Mass. The alternative is to observe the priest over time, ideally over a long time, in the role dictated by his vows.

There is general agreement among most of my correspondents that we are desperately in need of a man like — of men and women like — Ratzinger in our living Church. This is not necessarily a critique of Bergoglio; and a comparison that might be impertinent is more likely to be irrelevant in this case. Plutarch drew comparisons and contrasts in parallel lives — who am I to judge Plutarch? — but comparisons often lead us astray. They emphasize what is unique in each respective individual, at the expense of virtues in him that may be universal.

And Ratzinger is unquestionably a Bavarian, and a pianist who adores Mozart and Schubert. He is a book-lover, too, in a way separate from his propensity for reading and study; he is “aesthetically” at home in libraries. As pope, he was the opposite of Wojtyla in his shyness and privacy, and with this we appreciate the flavour of his modesty (which is the universal virtue). Though very disciplined, and brave, one could almost see him flinching from the stands he had to make. He did not enjoy controversy. All these things are virtues, in their way, and virtues that happen to appeal to me, but they are not “universal” virtues. I mentioned the acknowledged saint, Wojtyla, to suggest some painterly shading: there are aspects of “personality” endowed by God, that remain through self-denial; that Lord Who created a world of extraordinary, seated variety, and must have done so to a purpose.

But there are simple and universal virtues, in which all may partake. Let me give an example of one, reflected in Ratzinger’s intellectual life.

He was determined to see things whole. His patience and caution and prudence are guided, consistently, to that end; his discipline prevents him from being cute or glib. This is evident in the interview with the Jesuit, Jacques Servais, or that portion of it translated into Italian in the Milan newspaper, Avvenire (here), currently making minor news. It is in Ratzinger’s nature to review events of the last fifty years in the light of the last five hundred: he cannot be satisfied with the immediate. Nor did he ever respond in the “media” way, to events of the last five hours or five days. First, he examines.

This is precisely the virtue — prudence in its essential form — that seems most absent from contemporary life. It can be made to account even for our atheism, or “agnosticism,” which is by nature a response to passing events. I often think recklessness is not the opposite of prudence; rather, glibness is the vice. The recklessness is the product of our glibness.

We, today, as men in all ages, cannot do without the anchoring of faith, which begins in an attachment to the unchanging. The detachment from “breaking news” follows from this. I pass by the profound theological observation, that underlies all faith — that it originates in the grace of God, not in some human intention — only because I am giving an external description. A man of any culture — East or West — who is not by desire rooted in the unchanging, is not rooted at all. He is not prepared to see things whole, when he deals as he must with what is constantly changing. He is adrift in a world liquid and not only uncharted, but unchartable.

Ratzinger, especially as Pope Benedict XVI, set a wonderful example for us, of freedom from the “breaking news.” To my mind it is exhibited at its best in such documents as Summorum Pontificum, a masterpiece of careful construction, in which the Old Mass was restored to common access, without upsetting the current order. In answering to a grievance from one side, he did not give grievance to the other, and it took extraordinary skill to avoid doing so. He then turned his full attention to completing the task of removing demonstrable defects in the wording of the New Mass. Only good was accomplished.

He did not “take sides.” Rather he kept his attention firmly on the good that either side must, at its best, intend to serve. He had no choice, in his office, but to play ecclesiastical statesman, but with a diplomacy fixed upon the cause of the Holy.

To take responsibility in this way — to know in one’s heart, and also on one’s lips, that one must finally serve the common interest beneath and beyond any faction’s reach — requires just this anchoring in what is changeless. It has been the wisdom of Holy Church herself, confronted by so many distractions, through the last twenty centuries or so.

We are living in a time when often it seems even the Barque of Peter has slipped her moorings. Yet we know by the promise of Christ that this cannot be so. It is incumbent upon us at just such times to avoid the panic that we find all around. I admire Ratzinger for his splendid example, of how to remain still and upright when the barque is tilting in the sea.


[Lazily brought forward, and only slightly revised,
from something I wrote a couple of years ago.]


Barely three centuries have passed since English travellers in Ireland noticed the wearing of “shamroges” in “vulgar superstitious” displays of patriotism on the 17th of March. These, along with “excess in liquor,” and other inducements to debauchery, are recorded with finely jaundiced Protestant sobriety. The notion that the Saint had used a sprig of trefoil grass (there is some dispute over which clover species) to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity, is apparently more recent than that. The accretion of folk customs and beliefs about the fifth-century Saint Patrick began, it seems, within a century of his death, in the marvel-laden hagiography of Muirchu. By now he is taken for a creature of legend. The Disney touch was added in America.

We have two documents, however, from Patrick’s own hand, that stand up to every reasonable critical test as contemporary with him. And they ring in a voice that is unmistakably that of a real man. The first is his Confession, rather in the spirit of Augustine’s, though shorter; the second his Letter, of exhortation “to the soldiers of Coroticus” — evidently a Pictish or other warlord from the “Scottish” wilds (there was no Scotland then), with fallen Christians in his train. Breathing through these documents is precisely the Catholicism that has been taught down to this day, infused with scriptural and credal references that any educated Catholic would recognize.

“Patrick the sinner, verily, unlearned: and I am a bishop, appointed by God through His Church, in Ireland. I most certainly deem that I have received what I am from God. And so do I live, here, among the barbarians, a stranger and an exile, for the love of God. He shall be witness that this is so. It is not that I want to speak so harshly and so roughly, but I am compelled. …”

So the Letter begins, of this latter-day Roman from Britannia, called to become one of the three major patrons of Ireland (along with Saint Brigid of Kildare, and Saint Columba the Abbot), among the many Irish apostles. Through his own words we may form a picture of his tasks, and glimpse his real accomplishment in the conversion of thousands, on an island now floating in distant time. But his words are vivid, and that island draws close as we read him: that Ireland which becomes a nursery of saints, and missionaries for the conversion of western Europe. All this remarkable work was done through men and women, utterly convinced of the truth in what they carried, and prepared to witness that truth to death.

The spirit of parading nationalism and chauvinism is as alien to the character of Patrick, as our times are alien to his. The world was nevertheless the world, back then, and the ruthless play of power was as common. The distinction between a king and a pirate was a subtle one, as the distinction between a citizen and a slave.

Well, this is so today, though we are ever more blinded to the plain truth by our material comforts, enmired as we are in virtual bread and circuses.

The task of Patrick was to free the inhabitants of that island, that beautiful Ireland, from the ancient despotic rule of heathenism; to show them whose sons they really were. He did this through his own person — that person quoted, above. He was a true bishop, whether or not the first in the succession of Armagh.

Let us lift that sleeve of green-tainted ale, in the usual celebration; and spill it over our own heads in the hope that it may bring us to our senses. For I think our task for this day is to forget all the vanity of “Ireland,” and remember the cause of Saint Patrick, instead.

Super endless Tuesday

My curmudgeonly instinct is to dash to the support of the Republican Establishment. This would be easier to find if anyone would admit to belonging. More, I think, advertise their membership in the KKK. I am used to being a minority of one; used to supporting defunct causes. But the Republican Establishment is supposed to have living members, so where are they?

By a course of reasoning, I guessed that everyone who thinks Trump is “vulgar” must secretly participate. I have told gentle reader that I share this view, and thus await my invitation to a Country Club. Except, further inquiry reveals that entry is debarred to those previously blackballed by the Tea Party, who seem to have eaten all the Grand Old Partiers during the last couple of election cycles. This makes them (on Idi Amin premisses) the Establishment today. That is certainly what poor Mr Rubio, present à l’heure du goûter short years ago, discovered this time around. Yesterday’s disestablishmentarian somehow got pushed in, and now carries the mark of Cain forever.

My reasons for thinking “Little Donnie” a vulgar man are, however, not quite aligned. I hardly objected on this ground to (for instance) his proposal that supporters punch hecklers in the face (and he would pay their lawyers’ fees). Rhetorical thuggery of this sort can be “common,” but among the elegant and refined we have also a long history of chivalry and duelling. The candidate was not being vulgar in this case, rather girlish and fairy: he should have offered to punch them himself (and pay his own frigging law bills).

To me, skyscrapers are vulgar. Anything called a Trump Tower is in execrable taste. I have toured with Melania (via Fox News) the interior of the sprawling apartment in Manhattan, and it is what I call “Louis XXXIInd.” The furnishings appal me. The mansion in Palm Springs is probably worse. I haven’t read Trump’s various memoirs, but from the bits I’ve seen quoted — boasting of his sexual conquests — I can see he is no gentleman. That the three layers of his family speak well of him does not surprise me: his sons are clones, and the rest must be in fear of his lawyers.

His manner of public speaking clinches my argument: he says no coherent thing. Not one sentence follows from another, even when, by accident, they parse. Such a spray of non sequiturs (non sequuntur?) shows he nowhere received an elementary education. Granted, other politicians do that, too, but none with such ebullience. He presents no policies beyond “win, win, win,” but more to the point, no principles. (I am not counting “deport eleven million people” as a policy.)

Is he another Hitler? Of course not. Hitler’s mother wasn’t Scotch. And he is more Berlusconi than Mussolini. Perhaps, indeed, the American electorate is on to something the Italians learnt, by trial and error. If you elect, consistently, as Americans are now doing, the biggest jerk in sight, eventually the bureaucracy becomes dysfunctional, and people can get on with their lives.

On the liberal principle, of blaming the victim, Trump is held responsible for organized leftist attempts to foment violence at his rallies. I’ll have none of that: they’d be there even if the cissy hadn’t told others to punch them. If he wins the general election, or alternatively if he loses, there may be riots across the USA. But these won’t be his fault. I have no sympathy with rioters, paid or unpaid: spare the lathi and spoil the child. True, Trump has contributed to the decline in public morals, but he is only one clump of snow in the vast avalanche of Western Civ, beyond cause or symptom.

A correspondent, who signs himself Denis the Carthusian (from somewhere in Wisconsin, I think), has considered the matter deeply. He has a scheme to improve upon the Italian strategy, that would contain the violence before it spreads through the streets:

“My proposal for ‘electing’ a president is to have the various candidates duel with pistols. Last man (or woman) standing wins. We could use the same method for senators, congressmen, governors, too. … Just think how much better off a country would be with so many less politicians; how much money would be saved, rather than wasted on campaigning; how few would even step forward.”

Novels, novels

On the topic of novels, a very good one has fallen into my hands, by a dear friend, who is crazy, in all the right ways. The book is entitled, Israel Madigan. It is by Robert Eady, and good luck finding it, for the publisher is small, Catholic, and not pushy. (One might start trying, here.)

Anita Brookner died last Thursday, it was announced this morning in the Daily Telegraph. I mention this because she was the opposite of Mr Eady. Her desolate novels, of lonely spinster women like herself, and the occasional lonely man, are refined and crisp. They expound, with genius, the subtle acts of betrayal, that make life more interesting. These include the betrayals of nature, for people once young grow old and die. She makes unhappiness more attractive than it might otherwise be. Nothing memorable seems to happen in these novels, but the prose is so lucid, so patiently understated; the psychological tension so close to that of the examined life; that one is compelled forward. Miss Brookner was a Freudian, and I would deduce an atheist; punctiliously honest, and very well-read. Naturally, she won the Booker Prize, for her worst novel. This, too, was a kind of betrayal.

Both authors came late to writing novels. In Brookner’s case it was a “displacement activity,” from a quietly successful career as art historian and instructor in the Courtauld. She seems to have needed something to do with her free time, to avoid going mad; her works are remarkably tasteful. She turned them out annually for a long time, starting at age fifty-three.

Whereas Eady, whose second novel this is (the first was, The Octave of All Souls, same publisher, 2013), has started later still, after a life of dayjobs, and as a disregarded poet. He has also been the author of magnificent letters to the editors of various defunct or soon-to-be-defunct newspapers, the best of which should be gathered in a collection. These would be those the editors did not publish, because they were offensive in all the right ways. Definitely Catholic; and one might say, rightwing.

He is as far from Anita Brookner as, say, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, or Flannery O’Connor, and in the same approximate direction. But his narrative world is that of a small, and beloved, Ontario town, poetically re-imagined. It is because he can capture the serenity and goodness in such a place, that his depictions of black evil are so effective. Men and women betray each other, subtly or not; but Eady is able to show that they also betray God, subtly or starkly. He is deeply insightful of the criminal mind, and of a selfishness which does not recognize subtle restraints. He is unmodern in not trying to excuse it.

This is what I have found exhilarating in both of Eady’s novels; for there are few authors who can capture sanctity; fewer who can capture demonry, too; and it is hard to think of another alive who can capture their interaction — in warfare. Instead we get cartoons; we get glib Punch and Judy, downsized to the politically correct. Eady, by contrast, goes bravely where only angels would not fear to tread.

To raise as protagonist and heroine a (“former”) prostitute, and gangster’s moll; to cast her in the avenging role of the “deuterocanonical” Judith; to enter into the very tent of Holofernes; is at least ambitious. To tell the story through the eyes of a haplessly observant, ex-convict rubby-dubby, and in the reactions of a simple Catholic priest, lifts the burden higher. To make the stakes a small bastard child, and weaponize the power of his mother’s love, is to pass beyond the boundary of what is conventionally attempted in modern fiction. I think Eady pulls it off.

But this is a novel that is not self-regarding. Nor does it lack a convincing plot. It is not shy or pixie, either. The author is acquainted not merely with the existence, but with the demands of literature, in high story-telling; but conservative in adherence to the realistic genre. The characters are all sharply distinct people; no extra-terrestrials are admitted, except through the portals of the narrator’s visions, which are tightly delineated. Eady is intent upon grabbing gentle reader’s lapels, and telling him something; something he wasn’t expecting to hear. The experience is cathartic.

I do not think this work will win the Booker, however. For it lacks effeteness, and will take too long to stale.

Benedictine “option”

Let us revise the “Benedict option,” named by Rod Dreher, and proposed by him and many others. They invite us, in effect, to head for the hills, or to the nearest virtual equivalents; to separate ourselves, in mind if not in body, from the depraved society in which we find ourselves immured. Christians should detach, so far as we are able, and go our own way. To some extent, we must always do this, or have always done, insofar as being sincerely and faithfully Christian puts one beyond the worship of worldly power. We have always been in one sense traitors to Caesar, and to his successors; in another, perhaps Caesar’s only real friends.

I, for instance, have already retreated to my ivory tower, or mountain hut, or small apartment, high about Parkdale. Unfortunately I can still hear things from the street; and must leave my sanctuary to do imperative things, such as go to the corner and buy cigarettes. And while I may have ninety square feet of balconata, plentiful sun, and a water tap still working, together with computer access to hydroponic, and even aeroponic methods, I frankly cannot feed myself by gardening. Others I know have found parallel constraints, in their attempts to disengage from the filth around them.

Sometimes I walk farther than the corner, and often to a small, blessed seminary where I teach “CatLit” (Roman not feline) to some impressive young men. They wear costumes that mark them apart from other denizens of Parkdale; and while none is yet a priest, nor fully launched on the life of monk or canon, all would appear to point in that direction. Often they astound me because they seem to have mastered, in scarcely a score of years, things on which I’m still working after three. They have, in the old hippie terminology, turned on and tuned in (to the Holy Trinity), and dropped out (of conventional society), in a way my contemporaries could not imagine when I was young.

This is partly, let me aver, because there are “options” available to them that weren’t there for young Catholics when I was (not Catholic but) young. Several had the luck to come from “underground” — from backward-looking, “traditional” Catholic families. A high proportion were home-schooled, in America or far abroad. But all through happy circumstance came in touch with a religious order that is rekindling our ancient Faith. Forty, and even fifty years ago, in my cultural orbit, monasticism was too busy collapsing to offer a plausible vocation to almost any young man. Today it is reviving, though not everywhere. But there are beacons in the desert of modern life, that have been lit by a small minority of Latinate “Traddies,” who are also filling churches that had emptied “in the spirit of Vatican II.”

It often happens — I am tempted to walk so far as, “it always happens” — that a small, almost invisible minority begin to grasp Truth by seeking it. The great majority are otherwise engaged. Catholic civilization was hardly built and rebuilt by some silent majority. The conversion of the rank and file of men and women, after their first movement away from the profane and towards the sacred, depends on the work of Peters and Pauls, often doing things that make no outward sense to bystanders.

A “Benedictine” option is my preferred revision, to acknowledge this mysterious call. The “still small voice” is beyond most hearing. Yet somehow it can still be heard even in a society like ours, heaped with noise and unspeakable vulgarity. The Holy Spirit has not ceased His whisper; and the ear of human conscience may not be quite deaf.

I blame the Church for many things — from allowing the Reformation to happen, to losing the Culture Wars today — by foolish retreat from her own divinely-appointed authority. She has, through five centuries of frequent failure (and not five decades as we glibly assume) let the “modern,” post-Christian world metastasize. Her task is now impossible, “with or without divine assistance,” most people believe.

Yet they are wrong. Anything once achieved is by definition achievable. Even within the modern world, impossible things (such as the Counter-Reformation) can be somehow pulled off. As the (Gospel) saying goes, “With God all things are possible.” But this is not so with man; and that is why politics have never ended well. We are radically mistaken to imagine that man can accomplish anything by himself, from his birth, forward.

The “Benedict option,” so far as I have seen it expounded, strikes me as one of the mistakes. It is a proposal for what we, as men, can do to make things better. The word “option” already gives the game away. We have created a society that is spiritually uninhabitable, with all our other options. This one will fail, too; fail even to get started.

In my youth, a few hippies went back to the land, and a few of those did stay there (becoming wild reactionaries sometimes, as they toughed it out). I applaud “back to the land,” myself, as a half measure. But it isn’t the solution to any real problem. Real options are presented only by God.


It happens in class we have read, in passing, the scientifictional “classic,” A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960). I won’t go here into its virtues and flaws, how well it was composed, or whether it belongs in its assigned genre. The “idea” of it is spectacularly good: to cast light upon the nature of human history by projecting a parody of it, leaping forward about six centuries at a time. It was cleverly done, to attract the mass audiences it has enjoyed since it was first published; though its doctrinal core is lost on most. The author himself might perhaps be counted among his misreaders, for he ended by blowing his own brains out, after being unable to finish another book.

He seems to have written the one he did finish in memory of the military obliteration of Monte Cassino (founded by the original Benedict of Nursia), in which he had participated as an American soldier during the Second World War. He married a Catholic, and for a time his trauma was turned to good effect; then the trauma returned. I find in it the poignant story of a fragile man, trying to chart the intractable, with inadequate tools. There is, however, much to be learnt by considering his brave but hopeless attempt: to understand history in relation to a feeble yet weirdly indestructible Church.

The abbey at the centre of the novel (really three novellas, varied on a theme) is presented as a small unflagging island of civilization, in a desert both of space and of historical time. It is out in nowhere, as the Church it represents; yet somehow the world has revolved around it. Inside, the monks have done what monks have always done — kept alive things only they would or could, in retirement from the world. They have preserved tiny archaeological fragments, which they imperfectly understand, from our own era — which had then passed not only through the “Flame Deluge” of a nuclear war, but a subsequent murderous “Simplification,” darker than any Dark Age. And all their efforts are turned against them in the end, for the world has meanwhile grown no wiser, and makes the same mistakes again and again.

A monk in anno Domini 529 is not, in principle, different from a monk in 1960, or a monk in 3781: the same tasks, the same Mass, the same way of living, without “evolution.” And all this time the world goes round in circles. Walter M. Miller, Jr., presented this as fact — beneath the superficial facts of change. To the end, 1,765 years from now, the same old Church is still “blindly” resisting such peccadilloes as euthanasia and abortion; is still confessing the same unrevised Creed. Out there in the world, the “good guys” are still losing; and men still do not know what causes they serve, from out of the same old vanity that blinds them.

The Benedictine “option,” or rather calling, is to the few, not to the many. It is, and has often been, unimaginable to those who descend from parents, and leave children in their turn; or otherwise follow the louder calls of our human nature. Even to hermits, the obedience is hard to fathom: the aspiration to die unto self. Yet by the grace of God it will be heard in some quarters; and over time it is efficacious — not by human, but by divine will.

Quietly, it may be, God is resupplying the monks and nuns we so desperately need: to pray for us, constantly, and actually to preserve us, against an Enemy we can’t even see.

All talk

Though we might exempt poets and philosophers, what people do is usually more important than what they say. Though sometimes, even among the unpoetical and unphilosophical, speech can be a crude action; or actionable, depending on the angle. One must consider these things case by case.

Sandro Magister gave examples yesterday (here). I had noticed over the past three years that the rhetoric of “a Church that is poor and for the poor” rings hollow. Reading Laudato Sí, I sometimes thought it meant, “a Church of the Left and for the Left.” Posturing on behalf of “the poor,” while doing photo-ops with their more fashionable “oppressors,” is among the many things Christ avoided. He was under watch as a revolutionist in Roman Palestine, not least by co-religionists; but the charge was false.

He neither proposed demagogic “reforms,” nor schmoozed with the rich and famous. So much was He not a politician, He could say, “They have their reward.” He addressed explicitly “the poor in spirit” — distinguishing thereby from the poor in cash.

When it came to His Crucifixion, He found no special interests on His side; only a few disciples who, in the main, thought it safer to pretend that they didn’t know Him.

There is no class formula in the Christian religion. In its (par excellence) Catholic form, we have endured many political operators. But too, “we” (the historical “we,” the “we” of two thousand years) have invariably returned to our origins in which, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither bond nor free; there is neither male nor female.” There is the soul in the confessional; there is the soul who kneels anxiously at the railing. There is a “preferential option” for unfeigned holiness.

Always, this is true, but especially on the verge of the holiest weeks in the Christian calendar, when we recall what Christ did to save us, transcending pain and death. For we will not be living in this world forever.

At a time when this world is (characteristically) going to Hell, I think it is best to ignore the politicians of church and state, and focus instead on the foundational simplicity. Christ instituted His Church that we might belong to no earthly cause, rather, immortally to Him.

Good & useless

Yairs, yairs, gentle readers, well spotted. I refer to the apparent howler yesterday, on the tail of my seventh paragraph, which read, “I only fired people for being useless.” It was to be taken more in the tone of spiritual confession, than in that of professional pride. But since not one of you has read the (unpublished) memoir of my years before reception in Holy Church — The Half Life: Fifty Years of Sin and Error — you may have missed the context. I was young then.

Much retrospective confusion attends my editorship of Business in Thailand (and allied publications, 1978–80), a literary journal posing as a glossy business magazine in order to reap subscriptions and advertisements. I look back on the adventure mostly with regret. It was a time when I sincerely believed in “economic growth,” to alleviate material poverty. I was a maven for “development economics.” I thought capitalism could fix the Third World; and indeed it fixed, everywhere it was tried; but not in the way I expected. It destroyed much good worth conserving. It did not replace with better.

Thailand was an odd place to be advocating wealth. “There is rice in the fields and fish in the streams,” according to an old Siamese proverb; on which the gloss might be, “except during monsoon, when there is fish in the fields and rice in the streams.” It is one of those countries richly blessed by nature, where nothing short of socialism could ever bring about starvation.

How could I miss what was plain before me (as it had been from childhood, when my father also worked there): that here was a country at ease. Any more wealth would be redundant. The generals were already driving in Mercedes, and all the major roads were paved. They had imposed a corrupt pseudo-democracy; but the people adored their gracious King. Except those schooled in modern Western values, they were kindly, generous, and content. Ask any of them what was wrong with their country and they might say, “Too hot.” Otherwise, they couldn’t think of anything.

When I left for the last time, Bangkok, “the Venice of the East,” was already a hell-hole of progress. The klongs (canals) were being filled for expressways; skyscrapers were beginning to ascend; the air was such that one had to smoke, in order to avail of a filter. A few more decades have passed, of what became a playground for whores and tourists. From what I can see through Google-goggling, nothing has been added that is not vile.

God save the King (Rama IX), God save the people. And God save me, as I reflect on my own tiny role in this dystopic transformation.

But to the point, I remember the three people I did actually fire from the publishing enterprise in which I was complicit. All useless, for the purposes of the enterprise, but at least two of them more perfectly “useless men.” To understand this term as I presently use it, gentle reader must consult a previous Idlepost (here). I now take it for high praise.

I remember today the aptly-named Dr Tin Aye, elderly Burmese exile, who seemed to know everything that could be known about the geology of his native (and adjoining) land. Compassionate, benevolent, courteous Tin Aye; obsolete child of the Raj; appointed as our mining correspondent. Though educated in English, he could write nothing that was not incomprehensibly dated. Nor, as he casually admitted, could he understand any innovation in mining that had occurred since the Second World War; let alone, “development economics.” Yet he was a fund of intriguing oral tales from the lore of mining before that time.

The day I sacked him, he smiled, thanked me for the term of his employment, peacefully cleared his desk and made off. He never cashed the severance cheque I’d had cut for him. It was only because I brutishly insisted, that he’d taken this document at all. He said he hadn’t earned it; that he ought to be refunding his salary instead.

I can still close my eyes, and see him shuffling away: carrying his unravelling school bag, and some tattered map rolls under his arms; his left foot conspicuously dragging. From the little I could guess, perhaps a Catholic saint, known only to Christ and a few aging children. No use to “the modern world”; today his doctors might prescribe euthanasia.

A beautiful man, whom I fired, on my own initiative without instruction. But my boss congratulated me, when he heard what I had done. He said we have to be ruthless, “to protect the bottom line.”

“Why?” I thought, even at that moment. What fanatic puritanism could limit the purpose of a business to that, alone?

The business was flourishing. We had a hundred reasonably productive employees. We could easily carry a dozen lowly-paid more, who added to the charm and character of the place. And who reminded all young that tomorrow will come, as today we must respect our elders. And who sat as quiet guardians of order. Let all know, too, that they are working for a company that does not abandon its people to bureaucracy and chance; that does not throw human beings away.

I saw the old guy limping off; but in a dream of judgement I might turn with him, and look back upon the young executive jackass, drest in silk tie and “a little brief authority.”

The hours of folly

The word, “untenable,” is not frequently used. Perhaps it is too philosophical for an age that is as unphilosophical as it is irreligious. Which is to say, our age of “science,” undermined by scientism, and mediated by a “logic” that is demonstrably insane. We lack the ability to abandon ideas that are untenable — that do not lead anywhere, because founded on premisses that are liquid, and drift. One may float or sink upon them, but they can lead us neither to wisdom, nor to Heaven. “Reason,” for the moderns, is only a “how-to” for trivialities — a “progress” of disconnected inventions and minor, cumulative, technical improvements that provide only more to consume, and bloat us. They have nothing to say on such primary questions as, how to live, and what to do; on, “the meaning of life,” if I may be so pretentious.

Consider: the Chinese, much our intellectual superiors, invented clocks and many other things long before us. And then left them on the junk pile of their material history, proving themselves more astute, too. We moderns assume they were foolish to do so — to take such inventions and treat them as toys, for a brief period while they remained in fashion. Then to forget them when some other vogue came along.

The Jamaicans used to have a saying about punctuality: “Is the clock for the man or the man for the clock?”

In Bangkok, when I was confronted by a new time machine, and told that the staff of a magazine I was editing must use it to check in and out every day, I created a decorative placard that briefly hung above it:

“The Hours of Folly are measur’d by the Clock; but of Wisdom no Clock can measure.”

The aphorism is of course from William Blake; I used it as a motto for my magazine, The Idler, later on. But in the meantime I encouraged a technically adept member of the staff at Business in Thailand to find a way to trick the new time machine, so that it would record our checkings out before our checkings in, thus puzzling the timekeepers who had, originally, intended the machine pour encourager des esclaves in other departments.

We were accused of arrogance, of setting a bad example; I was suitably chastised. But I wanted to make clear that my writers and editors were not chain-gang, nine-to-five people; that “one size does not fit all.” If one of my scriveners could do in one hour better than another in eight, I had no objection if he worked only four. I only fired people for being useless.

Count me as Chinese, in this respect. Keep your eye on the task, not on the clock. We can rely on the time to keep moving forward.

Though really I am a man of the thirteenth century. This was about when Western man began taking clocks seriously, yet before he began dispensing with his marbles. The monks invented both foliot and escapement about 1275. But it was to a purpose: the more careful regulation of the Hours of Prayer in monasteries and abbeys.

Too, like the Chinese, they were amused by the idea of an armillary sphere, that might mechanically parody the movement of the heavens.

Alas, the monks’ timepieces escaped into the “secular” or profane world, and began appearing on the towers not only of churches but of town halls and the like (at first with only an hour hand). These had (at first) their innocent uses — for instance to signal the public recitation of the Angelus, by automatic chiming of the bells. One hardly needs a mechanical device, however, to determine when it is dawn, noon, or sunset. By posting the unnecessary intervening times, in plain public view, the secular authorities were providing an early example of “too much information.”

For remember: Christ will come to judgement in a day when we look not for Him, and at an hour when we are unaware. The idea of a countdown, or worse, an alarm clock, is rather silly. And rather than contributing to, the ticking thing actually distracts us from, any contemplation of Time in its deepest mysteries. I would have been dead set against it.

If we need a device to limit the lucubrations of lawyers, rhetors, homilists, and prattlers, a sand-bulb or clepsydra (water clock) will do. And it will measure the time without this confounded ticking. The Egyptians, the Babylonians, indeed everyone had this problem — of vain speakers who go on and on — and all soon discovered the remedy. Mechanical devices should be kept simple; the more elaborate, restricted to use as toys.

I might embark on a wider critique of the nonsensical notions that began to clutter our world about the fourteenth century, and became more and more intrusive as the centuries proceeded. By increments, sound philosophy and diligent religion were replaced by tedious circus games. But I haven’t the patience or the time, today. I will content myself with this aspersion upon our modern chronographic fetishes, and again recommend — as I may have done before — that we ignore the “progress” of the last few centuries, and instead fixate on recovering our mind.

Gardez l’eau

One strives for a Christian view of words that start with V, such as Vampirism; or, Violence; or, Vulgarity. And Visions, too, for sometimes folk have bad ones. To say nothing of, Valls, or rather, Walls, for I think that takes a double V. Or, Misogyny, in which we have two Vs, but both are in-Verted.

To my Catholic mind, each of these things is good for something or someone or in some situation: I don’t want to go all negative, here.

Vampirism, for instance, has worked out well for mosquitoes, fleas, bedbugs and the like; for leeches and many other small haematophagous creatures — such as the tiny blood-sucking finches of the Galapagos, the rasping lamprey eels of the Great Lakes, the torpedo snails of the eastern Pacific. And of course, “in your dreams,” the discreet Desmodontinae, or vampire bats.

Omnivores like us tend to sneer at such over-specialized diners, but note that, unlike us, they hardly kill anything. They mean only to tax, the way the government does, while spreading their physical (or moral) infections here and there. Surely every liberal or progressive must identify, in his heart, with the vampirists in nature.

And it is after all a question of degree. The larger creatures can easily bear the loss of blood, and by taxation, it is only the smaller businesses that are killed, like the smaller fishes by the lampreys in Lake Ontario. The bigger fish have, as it were, skilled accountants. People think the lampreys should take more blood from the bigger fish, so they can die, too. (This is the first principle of socialism.) But again, the lampreys make their own decisions.

Misogyny gives us another example. Among the ways I once found, to get myself out of further media appearances, was to say, of this apparent vice, “I think there are societies in which there is far too much misogyny. A number of Muslim societies come to mind. But we might have societies, such as in the West today, in which there is too little.”

I’d thought it an innocent remark, equivalent to saying, “I’m not against taxes, but I think some are too high.”

I would have said the same about the reverse misandry, of course; and rather grandly and generally for my own democratic misanthropy, of which I think there is too little everywhere. I think all races, classes, ages, “genders,” and what have you, could benefit from ridicule. It depends where one begins, I suppose, whether something will sound politically correct, or just the opposite; though one has said exactly the same thing. I think this is the same for all the V words, single or doubled, and upright or inverted.

For Violence and Visions and, better, Visionary Violence, I could perhaps make an argument, but limited to extreme cases. One is a “force multiplier” on the other. That is to say, if one scores 7 in 10 on an argument for violence, and another 7 in 10 for the quality of the vision, by addition we get 14 out of 20, which is 70 percent. But if we multiply one by the other we get only 49 percent. That tells me 7 out of 10 on both the What and the Why isn’t quite good enough for a “regime change.” Though close.

These “force multipliers” of mine are like that: they tend to sink a cause. Note that a 10 for “let’s have some violence,” but only a 1 for the, “and here’s why,” yields a 10 percent “go for it,” not a 55 as in the usual calculation. At least, in my policy universe.

But let us now consider Vulgarity, in politics and public life. (It is harder to be vulgar in private; one needs an audience.) I wrote about this over the weekend, but decided no one should read it. Hence the empty space, where there might have been an exceptionally long and pointless essay on Saturday, weighed down by too many examples. Moreover, my fine philosophical distinctions between the vulgar, the coarse, the crass, the rude, the crude, the impudent, the indecent, and the merely “common” — all examples taken from Donald J. Trump — struck me as sophistical, in review.

I tend to think Vulgarity — examples of which gentle reader might supply — is something like Misogyny. That is to say, something that should be used sparingly; but none would be too little. It follows, I should think, that when one complains about too much vulgarity, one isn’t necessarily condemning vulgarity tout court. There are moments when it might be “appropriate,” as we say today, when we try to avoid terms such as “good” and “evil.” For one must reply to an argument using the same vocabulary.

That, anyway, was the conclusion of this meandering, invisible essay, which I present today, reassembled as a Pure Thought. It was to defend vulgarity, but only with the superaddition of wit; to prefer a kind of “directness” (not a V word, I admit) in which the realities of flesh and blood are frankly evoked or implied, but daintily treated in flushing conceits — not dumped into the street down the vvalls from a high bedchamber. And without the prim, traditional warning, “Gardez l’eau!”

Thus I will not condemn a man for being sometimes vulgar. Rather, my objection is, when he lacks or loses the capacity to be anything else.

The banality of evil

So many years have passed since my last good argument over Hannah Arendt, I’ve forgotten which side I was on. Her pregnant phrase, “the banality of evil,” from her book on the Eichmann trial (published 1962), was usually under attack from the “intellectuals.” So I probably defended it. I even read the book, as I recall, for Arendt’s characterization of the SS-Obersturmbannführer, who had organized logistics for Nazi death camps. The Mossad kidnapped him from Argentina, to put him on public trial at Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion apparently thought Israel would benefit from this propaganda stunt, at a time when people were beginning to forget why the country existed. (Perhaps we forget, that David Ben-Gurion was a politician.)

According to Arendt, Eichmann cut an unimpressive figure on the stand. The audience was looking for a bug-eyed, psychopathic monster. Instead this fellow was middle class. He wasn’t terribly smart, either, and his vain exaggeration of his rank, apart from sabotaging his own defence, made him seem the smaller. His offer of a moral argument (that he had always followed Kant’s “categorical imperative,” which simple as it is he could not understand), was lamer still. His conversation was a clutter of semi-military jargon, damp euphemisms, and clichés. He could not construct a competent sentence in any language.

The truth was he had been following orders, since a young man — when he flunked out even of vocational school. But with family connexions, he still found a job; and was a loyal employee. He had always been a joiner. The YMCA, the Wandervogels, the Freemasons, the Nazi Party — whatever. He wanted to belong, and always tried to fit in.

He had been shown to half a dozen psychologists, in preparation for his “show trial.” None of the shrinks could find the slightest evidence of mental illness.

The Nazis were bores, and in Adolf Eichmann the Israelis had caught themselves a typical Nazi. The publicity would have been more favourable to them, had they somehow found an eccentric one.

Eichmann could tell them about the day his boss, Heydrich, sprang the proposed “Final Solution” on the Wannsee Conference, to senior civil servants. He “stunned” them with the ambitious plan to exterminate all the Jews in German-controlled realms. Except, they were not stunned. They reacted just as bureaucrats, to this initiative. No outrage, but no great enthusiasm, either; rather the professional upbeat of, “When do we start?”

Reinhard Heydrich himself, the “man with the iron heart,” the “darkest figure in the whole Nazi elite” — lacked visible fangs. He was a capable amateur violist, from an operatic family; he showed real organizational skills, from Kristallnacht forward. He dressed sharply. He was popular with the women. But to the men, he seemed only a company man, getting on with his departmental agenda: at the time, annihilating Jews. (There was jargon for this, including the term, euthanasia.)

The phrase, “I was only following orders” — or giving them, as the case might be — became famous from the post-war Nuremberg trials. It seemed so glib, in light of what the Nazis had done: the great mountain of bodies. It was assumed to conceal the most horrible secrets. But it was meant straightforwardly. That’s what they were all doing — following orders. And getting their paperwork in on time. It was glib.

The camp guards, too, had a job to do, and managed to make it routine. They might be feeding human beings down the chutes, into the ovens. But it was nothing personal. Sure, a few of them may have been sadists; but no more proportionally than in, say, the Canadian tax department.

Here we are considering the bureaucratic “mindset,” and while it may benefit from a Prussian pride in efficiency, it is common alike to Italy and Spain, to India and China, to Britain and Australia and all fifty United States. As well, to any large private enterprise: one has a job to do, and a head to keep down, and a nose assigned to whichever grindstone.

I think of these things when I consider the 80 percent of North Americans who favour “euthanasia” in the polls (see yesterday’s Idlepost). And the men and women who will do the killings, when instructed by their superiors in the organizational chain. They aren’t the “monsters” it would be convenient for the opponents of “mercy killing” to depict. They are dull people, of “average” intelligence (which is to say, pretty low), with a work ethic. I’m sure 80 percent of Germans agreed there was “a Jewish problem” when Hitler was at his apogee. (Though later: “We did not know what was happening.”)

And we, of course, have our own demographic “problem,” with the disabled and the aged — more of the people Hitler killed off, “for their own good,” and to free up their beleaguered guardians.

He, too, from what I have heard, was on the personal level, rather boring. No particular interests, talents, skills; a failed Sunday painter. A few obsessions, perhaps. It took considerable stagecraft to make him look big — much bigger than some troublesome Alpine peasant. But a patriot, determined to “make Germany great again”; and “a man of the people,” who could command obedience — according to his rank.

Evil is so banal. Only sanctity is interesting.

Killing people

At Mass today, across the Archdiocese of Toronto, all homilies were suspended so that a statement could be read by our Cardinal Collins against the Ottawa government’s impending “euthanasia” legislation. This our Parliament was ordered to write and pass by Canada’s Supreme Court: a junto of nine who are a law unto themselves. The Parliamentary Committee discussing the matter, now dominated by the Liberal Party, has made recommendations such as forcing all doctors and other medical staff to participate in the killings; and arranging for children and the mentally ill to be terminated on the advice of one “care giver” or another. It is a monstrous, unambiguously evil measure they are contemplating — which, like abortion, targets the defenceless.

In reading of the Maoist revolution, years ago, my attention was riveted on the massacres. In villages across China, a quota of persons were to be exterminated, by way of establishing the absolute power of the new Communist dictatorship. The Reds did little of this work, however. They instead compelled the neighbours of accused petty landowners and the like, to do the actual murdering. This was not because the Reds were squeamish. It was to make sure every surviving citizen of China was morally and memorably implicated in what the Communists had done. It was a policy expressly designed to erase “conscience.”

This is what most strikes me about the impending measures: the power to compel doctors and nurses to perform the killings. It is to make conscience itself a career-ending choice; to implicate every single member of the medical profession in murder. Any one you visit might have blood on his hands.

Archbishop Collins, a good man so far as I can see, cannot be criticized for raising the temperature of the public “debate.” He has the guts to make statements when they need to be made; then speaks very softly. One may listen to him read the statement we heard in church today (here). It sounded more fiery when our own priest read it, so one might also consult the text (here). Links to the issue are easy enough to find; and Collins tells his audience how to write their Members of Parliament, “respectfully.” The governing Liberal MPs — all of whom were vetted for their pro-abortion views before the last election — will reply with form letters. If that.

Unless, by a miracle, many millions write in, and a few hundred thousand storm Parliament Hill, I cannot expect the government to change its satanic direction. For in my knowledge of this benighted country, it is only a small minority of Catholics, and others, who much care about the issue, at any given moment; and not all of those are opposed to “euthanasia.” (The replacement euphemism is “assisted dying,” truly worthy of Orwell.)

Emotion trumps thought among those who have witnessed the lonely suffering of the afflicted; and the idea of “mercy” has been so cheapened that they are able to confuse it with murder and suicide. (“Here, dear, press this button if you want a nurse, and this one if you feel like dying. I’ll tell all your visitors which is which.”)

Those who demand, instead of killings, attentive palliative care, also expect the Nanny State to provide it. They have been raised to look for a technical solution in any grim situation, and to react to all stimuli as pure consumers. Indeed, much unnecessary physical suffering is caused by very expensive medical technology which helps to prolong life, artificially. This also creates consumer demand for artificial means to shorten it.

One cannot argue with what is now the great majority of “the people,” to any immediate effect, because they no longer accept the sanctity of human life (including their own) — on which not only our retreating Christian religion, but all the laws of this country were premissed. You do not push ailing granny off a cliff, even if she is asking for it. The case does not change, morally, if you choose a more presentable way to kill her. In the grave new world of our “Culture of Death,” our “Dictatorship of Relativism,” appearances matter, and substance does not.

Less than a generation ago, there would have been a public outcry against what our courts and legislatures are attempting. What will they do in another generation?

That is clear enough. Taking care of the old, and enfeebled; the seriously ill, and disabled; the depressed, and hopeless; the demented, the rude, and the improvident; is something that will remain beyond the means of bureaucracy — especially as fellow-suffering Love, of the toughest least bankable kinds, is the principal requirement in each of these cases. You cannot buy Love, even at the price of an unimaginably large, unionized labour force.

Families, in the first instance, and in the second, institutions that inspire voluntary labour and gifts, are the means by which this “social problem” — that has been and always will be with us — can be assuaged. There never was an alternative. Only the mad, in the deepest sense, could propose and then insist upon “policies” that can never work, in which Man, through massive Kafkaesque public agencies, tries to overwrite both natural and divine commandment. The sane already know where that must end.

Canada’s Liberals and their allies, and their power-seeking colleagues in every other Western country, have formed the equivalent to an international coalition of the “progressively” mad, and madder, to advance this unholy cause. We will see where it will go, next. It makes its appeal to the mindless and glib, who now dominate every Western electorate, and make decisions of profound consequence on less than a minute’s thought. We have, in effect, electorates which demand to be lied to, about the most fundamental facts of life. Who don’t want to think about it (to paraphrase Housman), “because thinking is hard, and a minute is a long time.”

Nor can the few remaining Catholics and others, still animated by the “traditional” human decency, hope to disentangle or separate ourselves, in a time when centralized government is increasingly able to track every individual, and control his behaviour and fate by external means.

Eventually the burden of overwhelming cost will inspire our keepers to cut their expenses by eliminating all their more expensive “clients,” whether they request it or not. The latest proposed legislation will surely be found insufficiently “inclusive” in a few more years. As we see, the great rush of Liberalism is accelerating. It is that of the Gadarene swine.

We cannot stop this “trend” except by growing more faithful and courageous; by raising children with the knowledge and backbone to resist the Devil’s works. We can, at best, struggle to recreate families that will take care of their own, without poisoned government assistance, and persist in doing so — until the jackboots burst in, and the matter is out of our hands, and into God’s.