Essays in Idleness



There have been so many “sensitive” responses to the nightclub massacre in Orlando, that I should like to add an insensitive one, for the sake of variety. I note that the pundits — and every amateur politician is a talking head these days — divide roughly along party lines on whether the shooter was an Islamic fanatic, or a generic madman. This strikes me as a “both/and” proposition, rather than an “either/or.”

Yes, Florida gun laws seem a bit lax, perhaps they should be tightened. But then I held this opinion before the massacre, keeping it to myself only because it was none of my business. Perhaps I am over-Canadian, for I tend to flinch at the open sale of battlefield weapons such as the rapid-firing assault rifle this Omar Mateen was carrying. (If gentle reader would rather describe the Sig Sauer MCX as a “modern sporting rifle” he may.) I presume that, “even in America,” the citizen’s right to bear arms does not extend to, say, nuclear weapons. Reasonable men might decide upon some reasonable limits; but between the current spokesmen for the respective political parties, I do not detect much reasonable manliness; only a propensity to grandstanding.

On the other hand, should we look beyond the glare of publicity, we will find that the proportion of gun deaths attributable to these rather theatrical weapons is small. To a mind like mine, the case is not urgent; but then to a mind like mine, such questions should be dealt with both in and out of season, and better out of season when cool heads may prevail. But this is a characteristic foible of the current political order: that “urgent” matters take up so much time and space in our media-collectivized consciousness, that “important” ones are wontedly deferred.

My own prediction is, that like other shocking public events, this one will fade. The Democritters will make as much hay as they can, while it lasts in the news, but will then “move on” as their saying goes. The Republicants will spleen then forget as usual. Both would need a slaughter daily at three o’clock to keep it up. But then, as with London and the Luftwaffe, the violence itself becomes a source more of tedium and inconvenience, than real anger. The grief, once publicly expressed, is privatized. People could remain calm about it, so long as the RAF were gravelling Germany, in reply.

“Let us be clear,” as the Obama loves to say, in his station as talking-head-in-chief. Grand displays of public grieving are invariably fraudulent. Those who knew none of the victims are faking it. Those who encourage them are morally disordered.

As a customary principle of politics, whether “electoral” or “appointive,” I think it unwise to adjust legislation, or offer to adjust it, in response to behaviour by the criminally insane. This confers too much power on them. Verily, it is a mark of our present social condition that “reforms” are guided more and more by the hardest and strangest cases. (Dare I mention the word, “trans”? Was there really a continuing national crisis in the designation of toilet facilities?)

In classical Western jurisprudence, it is considered wrong to murder people, even one at a time, in a nightclub or elsewhere. This holds regardless what kind of nightclub it is, and would apply even if the nightclub were illegal. In Shariah, as currently interpreted by Jihadis, the case is more complicated, but I do not think we should vex our minds with it. I cannot think of any omission in Western law that would make nightclub massacres acceptable; or would make any other venue for murder exceptional to the general rule. The need for new law would thus be zero.

The need, specifically, for new “hate laws” is zero, at most. Murder has never been an expression of affection, to any individual or group; specific hatreds have always been considered in the interpretation of motives. We have enough crimes already, without inventing redundant ones in accord with the latest fashions. The intention behind them is never exemplary of mental and moral hygiene.

Which points again to the deeper “problematic” (one tires of the misuse of this word) in politics as practised today. We not only legislate in response to the transient behaviour of the criminally insane. Worse, our legislators, though arguably sane to start with, get in the habit of indulging insanity, even within themselves.


Humanism, without foundation in sincere religious faith — whether Christian, or Jewish, or (sometimes) Islamic — will soon reflect the values of the Devil. This is a thought that has occurred often while reading, especially in the eighteenth century, when the ground was laid among intellectual elites for the more populist apostasy of the nineteenth century. By small increments, over a hundred years, even the most reasonable thinkers are detaching political thought and philosophy from its religious moorings in the tradition of the West — as if it were possible for a body to flourish and respire, without heart or lungs, but by brain and nerves only.

It is a long history: this destruction of the West, and of Christendom. It is necessarily so, for there was so much civilization to destroy; and still some of it is visible in ruins that remain inhabited.

Here I am not thinking of the French Revolution, or similar irruptions of fanatic violence. I am thinking instead of Lockes and Humes, Kants and Hegels, or even of what I was reading in the wee hours of summer cool this morning: an obscure English poet named William Diaper, writing a paraphrase of Oppian. It is an inverted Arcadian phantasy in which the mermen and fishes take the place of piping shepherds and their keep — or that is what plays over the surface of the witty couplets in a zoological catalogue of the underwater creatures, their loves and their fears and their fund of death. Diaper’s Nereides, read previously, set the taste for “piscatory eclogues.” He is a “water poet,” out of his boat and sinking in the deep.

Thus have I sung, how scaly Nations rove,
What Food they seek, what Pastures they approve;
How all the busy Wantons of the Seas
Soft Loves repeat, and form the new Increase. …

Diaper, a poor Anglican curate, rural and obscure in his own lifetime; a reliable Tory from the age of Queen Anne who never made court in London, but nevertheless shared in the eclipse of Tories after her demise — is a writer to whom we may turn to glean the first moments in what is called “the peace of the Augustans” — a strain in English literature which lies under “the Enlightenment,” and flows the other way. He died, fairly young, in 1717, happily before evidence of industry had begun to mar the English landscape, and to pollute the English streams.

He is subterranean, or submarine. His channel, like a buried river, resurfaces in pools, throughout the century, in gentle idyllic Thomson and the like, in Collins and Gray, in George Crabbe, finally gushing up through Wordsworth. He is small, but only because near the source. He has nothing to do with great thinkers and actors.

Why do I mention him? Gratuitously, for a start, for rivers must start somewhere; but also, I suppose, from what is implicit in his verses: and in the lines I quoted.

To our contemporary, “modern” mind, Nature might be a means towards the understanding of God, and could be studied by artists and scientists to that end. This argument is often tried, by our more desperate proselytizers: to seek God’s will through the supposed paradise of Nature. “The Heavens shew forth the glory of God, and the firmament declareth the work of His hands,” or so we might quote the Psalmist. But we will get him backwards.

To Diaper, as in the Psalms, it is through God that we can begin to know Nature. The precedence of God is fixed, in the mind that is, by heritage, Christian. The “peace” (the one that passeth all understanding, but extends to the Tory distaste for war) is communicated through the very animation of Nature, in her often telling beauty, by Nature’s God. It is that way around. It is not the other way.

Reverse this, and the beauty begins to disappear. Everything is for a use, and even the pursuit of God becomes “useful” — to some other end, such as restoring civilization. As even in Rome today, God becomes something that must be “applied” — not something lived, experienced and worshipped; not the final end in Himself. And once we are there — once we have taken for granted that God as everything else can be used for our purpose — it is, “Devil take the hindmost.” But he takes the foremost first.

Chronicles of expectoration

The little archerfish, which spits jets of water, can be taught to recognize a specific human face and spit at it, according to a scientific report (wonky link, here). It helps when the face is presented in black-and-white, apparently.

Little humans can also be taught to do this. Indeed, modern politics were built upon the discovery that with enough repetition, a person can be taught to spit at anything.

“Boo, boo, bad man!” … I am quoting my late mother at a time when I was three years of age. For some reason I recall it. I do not remember, however, to whose face she was responding. Perhaps it was the one that belonged to Adlai Stevenson. I do remember that she preferred Eisenhower (though as a non-American was ineligible to vote).

Ambon damselfish can be even more personal. They can recognize each other’s faces. They may all look the same to us, but we have not their facility with light in the ultraviolet range. Seen in that, each damselfish has facial spots. It is dead easy to tell one from another. Were gentle reader an ambon damselfish, and another one was giving him grief, he could simply avoid the idiot’s company. As you would be only four inches long, and living in a coral reef, there would be plenty of places to dart in and hide. (Bad luck if the niche were occupied, already, by something that eats ambon damselfish.) I don’t think damselfish can spit, at least not as dramatically as archerfish, but I’m sure they have other ways to express their disapproval. Or trapped, perhaps, they smile and say they’re on their way to a meeting. (Can damselfish smile? Must check this.)

There is no aquarium, up here in the High Doganate at the moment, but I did keep goldfish as a child; and tried putting minnows in with them once. (Foolish experiment. Tadpoles did not thrive, either.) Alas, I had not the wit to check if my goldfish preferred Kennedy or Nixon. (Surely they would have supported Goldwater.)

See the picture and spit. Look at another and convey indifference. But what if the poor fish is presented with only two pictures, and wants to spit at both?

Mistah Kurtz — he dead

“Clear sky this morning. A nice Lake breeze.”

I often think this would make a good column, or rather, a sufficient column to get the Comments going. By the third comment, someone would attack Pope Francis; or Trump, or Obama, or Hillary, or Justin; and we’d be off to the races. (See my venture this morning at Catholic Thing, here.)

Another possible column would be the Conrad epigraph before T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” which I now use for my title. Or for that matter, the second epigraph, “A penny for the Old Guy,” might turn readers’ attention to my PayPal link.

To be fair, one may learn a lot from Comments, directly or (more often) indirectly. This morning it was a reference to Dr Paul Kurtz, self-appointed doyen of the Secular Humanists, former perfesser in the State University of New York (about which the less said the better). On checking his entry in the Wicked Paedia, I learn that he died in 2012. This was on the 20th of October, if anyone wants to celebrate it.

Somehow I missed that news, and here we are forty-five moons later, in a world where someone else must be the doyen of the Secular Humanists. But there is another sense in which we may think of all human decease as occurring in a simultaneity of death and resurrection, on the Day of Judgement. In that view, the story remains topical.


The original Mistah Kurtz (in Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness) was an ivory trader, somewhere up the River Congo. As the beuk seems to have been assigned to everyone who attended a North American college through the baby boom, and later, I needn’t reprise the plot. I don’t think Conrad himself ever thought it such an important work. The question of why it was found so significant by the mediocrities in American academia would make the better doctoral thesis, I should think; but then we might stray into sociology, which gives mediocrity a bad name.

When I came to the novella myself, entirely of my own volition — I have 98.6 degrees, but only in Fahrenheit — I was fascinated chiefly by such information as it could provide on the history of the ivory trade. I have always loved ivory, though not always approved the uses to which it is put.

Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against rhinoceros horn, the casks of hornbills, walrus morse, the ribs of dugongs, narwhal spikes, hippopotamus canines, the dental extensions of wild boars and sperm whales, or any tusks, horns, or antlers. All are suitable materials for art. And I will admit that Plaster of Paris presents the longitudinal lines along which an artist may carve to advantage, although it is inconveniently flammable. But the ivory from elephant tusks is best; and as the Chinese discovered, by the Sung dynasty, the elephants from Central and East Africa concede an ivory more noble even than those of India and South-east Asia.

The colouring is sublime: creamier than the Indian; or from where Mistah Kurtz was harvesting in the jungles, a brown above that of any pigment soil. A rose tint appears from out of the bamboo forests; and as I am given to understand, the tusks from farther west in Africa, which at first glance seem too brightly white again, develop with age chromatic values of engaging subtlety.

The working of ivory takes great skill. The dental enamel must be removed with care, and the obdurate rind sawed through with stiff blades thoughtfully lubricated. The Chinese at Suchou, the Japanese at Nara, found that a complex regime of heating and cooling could be employed to prevent any sort of cracking.

Having no personal experience of this craft, I will not presume further to describe: it is enough to say that elephant ivory makes the finest imaginable scrimshaw, and should be delivered into the hands of the most capable artists as a treasure of great price. Unfortunately, such artists may be as extinct as some magnificent elephant species. (The fossil ivory of mammoths draws our attention to a terrible loss.)

Yet we must not exclude revivals.

It follows that the cultivation of elephants for their tusks (as sheep for their wool, or deer for their hides, or goats for their milk and meat) should itself be conducted with skill and refinement. I am persuaded by some accounts that the poachers who now dominate the trade, thanks to what governments have arbitrarily made illegal, show little propensity to connoisseurship.

Lately I was utterly appalled to read that the Kenyan government is again burning ivory captured from the poachers. The scene was the more ludicrous because ivory does not easily burn. It takes jet oil and a week to reduce one of these ivory pyramids to ashes. It is political theatre that, far from reducing the demand, increases the price of illegal ivory, thus inspiring poachers to ever more heroic efforts against species whose numbers are running low. (The USA authorities now pulverize the ivory instead. On the instigation of the infernal United Nations, most of the countries of this world have now joined in these incomprehensible acts of destruction.)

But there is no room for gloom. The finest of all ivories is yet to be seen. In the face of all the world’s disorder, we must diligently pray, eventually to see it.

Disputed question

Should beer be allowed in tins? It is a question of concern in the High Doganate just now, with some lads coming over tomorrow night. With my eye to ethnicity, I obtained some tins from the local licker store. One of the brands was Swedish: mislabelled to my mind as a bière forte. It made me think only of Archbishop Forte, the one who rewrites Synod documents. Not a happy association.

A Swedish palaeographer was among my guests. (Now the blighter has cancelled.) I’m sure he could have warned me, against anything that comes out of Vimmerby. They haven’t had monks there in centuries. On tasting I find this beverage to be soapy and oily and bland, with a shy (but not affectionate) mule-kick at the end. I had laid in several of those tins. Guess I will have to drink them myself. But I was looking forward to making the Swede drink them.

It tasted tinny, too, but this is because I began sipping it from the tin. Of course it tastes tinny, with your tongue and lips on the metal. The aluminum is lined, as I understand; it cannot taste tinny poured into a large, properly glazed, ceramic mug. (Thick white porcelain is ideal, Imperial pint size or larger.) A glass bottle, straight from a dark fridge, might be preferable for the direct imbiber, but only because glass is so chemically neutral.

Too, I can tout glass bottles because the opening at the top is small. The opening at the top of a mug is much wider. Anything that slows my beer consumption is to be commended. “Sip, taste, appreciate, swallow,” was what my papa said to do. Not: “suck and swallow.”

Now, the problem with bottles, as opposed to tins, or barrels, is light. Beer bottles are traditionally dark for a reason. The ultraviolet murders a beer, and can do so quickly. One may discover this for oneself by drinking on some tropical beach, while acquiring a sunburn. By the bottom of the glass the beer is not only warmer. It tastes different: it is “skunked.” Not by the heat but by the light, according to my (frankly inadequate) chemical understanding.

This makes tins better than bottles for the storage of beer. And barrels better than tins, if they are the right sort of barrels. But I have limited this discussion to tins.

Aluminum is light in weight, eminently recyclable, and charitable in the sense that you put the empties out in Parkdale and the rubby-dubs fetch them from the trash. I think they may get a dime for each tin, and they are lighter to carry than glass bottles. So remember: the more you drink, the more charitable you are; and tins instead of bottles show regard for the poor.

(I’m a bit vague on whether the recycle award is cancelled if you crush them.)


I see Mrs Klingon has won New Joisey and Californicata, and with the help of all her “superdelegates” has now clinched the Natted States Democrat nomination. (Did you know that she is a woman?) In view of my remarks yesterday, I feel some sort of congratulation is in order. We might think of her as the last of the old-school politicians, whose forte was lying and hypocrisy. Much worse will follow, surely. A time will come when we’ll look back on America’s Weimar period with nostalgia.

Appreciate what you have while you still have it, that’s what I say. Look not to the future, for the future is Unknown. God made it that way, to accommodate our freedom, to preserve our sanity, should we so wish.

The decline of requirements

Hitler (one cannot mention him without the subliterates mouthing, “Reductio ad Hitlerum!” — not realizing that they are quoting Leo Strauss) was the great enabler. He gave cover to all lesser evils, including the greater of the lesser ones; and thereby retired all the prattling politicians from the Age of Hypocrisy, which he closed. Now all the baddies seemed good, by comparison, and everyone needed a baddie of his own, or they would get one assigned from Berlin.

The Age of Hypocrisy re-opened, of course, with Hitler’s death, when political discourse again softened. (Hypocrisy is the padding on the madhouse walls.) But for a twelve-year run in Germany, and shorter periods wherever their shadow fell, Hitler’s Nazis erased hypocrisy.

This is what Karl Kraus meant, when he said that the Nazis had left him speechless. For decades he had exposed the lies and deceitful posturing not only of politicians in the German-speaking world, but among their immense supporting cast of journalists and fashion-seeking intellectuals. He was the greater-than-Orwell who strode to the defence of the German language, when it was wickedly abused. He identified the new “smelly little orthodoxies” as they crawled from under the rocks of Western Civ — the squalid, unexamined premisses that led by increments to the slaughterhouse of Total War. He was not, even slightly, a revolutionist; he had no argument against anyone’s wealth or status, even his own. Rather, through savage satirical humour, with language untranslatably precise, impinging constantly upon the poetic, he undressed the false.

He had seen the First World War coming, in the malice spreading through the language; in the smugness that fogged perception; in the lies that people told each other, to preserve their amour-propre; in the jingo that lurked beneath the genteel. After, he saw worse.

Popular perceptions of him are wrong. As we learn from the vast and fatiguing biography of Edward Timms (it fills time that could be spent learning German), Kraus hardly stopped writing as the Second World War approached. Timms thought he gave up hope; I think Kraus merely ceased to be heard, by anyone. All his warnings had been ignored; everything he feared was being realized. (The people get so bored with prophets.) But Kraus had, I think, diligently turned his guns to the rear, to attack speech that was now no longer posturing, but explicit and crude. (The Nazis, even when speaking figuratively, chose euphemisms that any moron could decode.) But subtle precision is no use against a blunderbuss, which in the end only bigger weapons can destroy.

My sense is that we are once again coming to the end of lies and hypocrisy. The political class has delivered us once more, by increments. Trump and Sanders say things that are plain; in Europe, too, we have candidates who mean what they say. What they say is blather, and frequently unhinged, and not lying but indifferent to fact. It is sincere, however. “The people are angry,” and the new class of politician will play to that anger. It is a matter beyond any passing question of public policy. The people are angry about everything the “old politics” delivered, with their help. They want punishment, they want action. It is no elite rebellion: they want what is coming good and hard.

Trump and company are no Hitlers. This is what I mean by, “Hitler has them covered.” They are functioning today in an environment that parallels The Thirties in its de-moralization (note the hyphen), but is farther advanced. So many things then were still unthinkable, outside Party ranks in Germany and Russia. Now we are living in a time when the value of a human life can be more easily disregarded; in which survival depends on sentimentality alone. (As my friend Denyse O’Leary puts it, “On the eve of euthanasia, we are all the foetus now.”) Human decency has been “redefined,” and all the classical “rights” inverted. (Read the swinish Comment threads on almost any website.)

“Pause, take stock, think through what you are doing.” … What, today, would be the prospect for a politician who said such a thing? … Who said, “We must consider the likely consequences of every legislative action, including each ‘no brainer’ with what’s left of our brains. If there is something to fix, we must fix it carefully.”

For that is not the yammer people want from politicians: no more of this shuffling and avoidance. No more “say one thing and do another.” No more trying to hold the fort together, until the cavalry arrives. The cavalry has arrived!

The traditional restraints on malicious imbecility have been systematically removed; and this time it will take much less than a Hitler.

The greatest?

Was he greater than Aristotle the Stagyrite, greater than Saint Thomas Aquinas? Greater than Homer or Dante or Shakespeare?

No, but he was greater than Sonny Liston and George Foreman and Joe Frazier and, though I hate to admit this, greater even than George Chuvalo. Though Chuvalo went fifteen rounds with him, twice, and that ought to count for something. Chuvalo also decked four class heavyweight boxers on a single night (26 April 1956), each within four rounds; and would have been at least the British Empire champ had that cissy, Henry Cooper, ever agreed to fight him.

But Chuvalo (“Boom-boom Čuvalo” to you Toronto Croatians) ain’t dead yet, and Muhammad Ali is. He was the diamond in the golden age of boxing; he was (and I quote him as the primary authority), “the double greatest, … the boldest, the prettiest, the most superior, most scientific, most skilfullest fighter in the ring.” …

“I wrestled with an alligator. I tussled with a whale. I handcuffed lightning, I thrown thunder in jail.”

He calculated that he had taken 29,000 punches in the ring (maybe less than Chuvalo), and it is said against boxing that this isn’t healthy. Boxers often die young, and before that, punch-drunkenness may become a permanent condition. Is this worth it for a game? For a few unforgettable moments? … Yes.

I ha’ seen them mid the clouds on the heather.
Lo! they pause not for love nor for sorrow,
Yet their eyes are as the eyes of a maid to her lover,
When the white hart breaks his cover
And the white wind breaks the morn.

Another fighter (Ezra Pound) glossed these tropes: “’Tis the white stag, Fame, we’re a-hunting. Bid the world’s hounds come to horn!”

Boxing, as stag-hunting, is a gracious sport. “A lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up.” (Again, I am quoting Ali.) It has been in the Olympics since 688 BC; and man-to-man combat was known before that. Men can understand it, if they are men, and some women, too: this match in which draws should never happen. And there are rules — there have always been rules. And the man who breaks them is a cad, a worm, beneath human dignity.

Muhammad Ali never broke the rules.

The modern ironist will be quick to add, “He never had to.” (The modern ironist is a cad, a worm.)

Ali was a gentleman, and a fair man. I remember his remark when he was busted for refusing the draft, back about 1970: “They did what they thought was right. I did what I thought was right.” And in the end, they had not the guts to gaol him.

He was an inspiration to the black race, but only because he was an inspiration to the human race.

And of course, he was the poet, of so many fine and memorable couplets:

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee — his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.”


Artes serviles

[Slightly expanded in the peace of Sunday morning.]


There is no truth in the allegation that I’m against all liberals. I am, for instance, in favour of the liberal arts. Thanks to the other liberals, however, our “systems of education” have collapsed, along with our broken families, to a level where the term must have little meaning. The distinction between the artes liberales and the artes serviles becomes lost on people who, as Josef Pieper indicates (passim), make only a distinction between “work” and “spare time.” This is to favour the artes serviles.

Servile work is done for some other purpose than the work itself. It is what the gentlemen have been doing downstairs, and are doing again for the sixth time in the last decade: digging up the street. They may no longer remember why they are doing it — the task began with the problem of burst pipes in winter, but was complicated by efforts to fix that, which involved extreme forms of municipal incompetence, abetted by arbitrary union rules. Still, the workmen expect to be paid, and that seems reason enough for them to keep digging.

I have mentioned before, have I not, that modernity can be conceived as an immense make-work project, in which the work to be done is constantly increasing at a rate much faster than the work that can be accomplished, all of which will need re-doing anyway.

Perhaps gentle reader has detected the unconscious adaptation of my prose rhythms, to the cacophony of jack-hammers, pavement saws, and the infernal back-up alarms now installed by law on machinery that moves as often backwards as forwards. Or perhaps he has noticed logical slips, explicable from the fact that I am being driven nuts by week after week after week of this, starting every morning at seven o’clock. I have come to imagine Hell as a vast, ultra-modern, construction site.

It is true, with equipment like this, the Egyptians could have built a million pyramids. But soon they would have run out of space, and in order to maintain full employment (one of the economic policies in Hell), devoted themselves instead to replacing their pyramids. At which point, the quality of pyramids would necessarily decline, from the knowledge that each is going to be demolished by the next shift of pyramid workers.

There was a city lot still occupied by a gas station, when I first moved into Parkdale, more than ten years ago. It is presently cleared for car parking, but a small billboard announces the next building scheme. In the time I’ve been walking through this neighbourhood, there have been two other buildings on that site: first a line of cheap, single-storey retail shops, that nobody wanted to rent; then a 24-hour “convenience” store, that nobody found convenient. Both evocative of brick lavatories.

Much servile work is to a good purpose. Agriculture is important, I insist, although it is now despised as a vocation; and has been fully mechanized, to disturb all peace. I am also a secret fan of textiles, though I hardly approve of current mass production, mostly imported from far, far away. And I’m not, in principle, against building houses, or even roads, cobbled in the Roman fashion. All these things can be made well, or poorly. My preferential option is for beautiful, and well.

Even the most necessary labour, to a purpose outside of itself, is vitiated if there are no gestures of liberality. These tend to sneak in wherever bureaucratic code standards are whimsically relaxed, and the strictest requirements of cash are neglected. (Codes are designed to identify, and thereby universalize, the lowest acceptable standard.) The mischievous thought, “Let us make this better than we need to make it,” insinuates itself. (We might call this the Bridge over the River Kwai principle.) Let us make it as if the fate of our souls depends upon it. (Because our fate does so depend: “God sees every sleazy little short-cut you take,” as my papa once explained.)

God, in the form of that son of a carpenter, Jesus the Christ, calls us to be perfect. This means everything we make should be perfect in its kind, within the natural limitations of our stupidity and awkwardness.


Heidegger says somewhere that “truth is freedom,” and as ever with that man there is something in it, though not much. Mostly he talks piffle, but some of it sounds grand.

So let me use that to segue back to those artes liberales.

Our mediaeval predecessors, and the classical ones who predeceased them, built curricula around the notion that man is of value, qua man. We should aspire to raise his condition, even in plainly practical ways. If not all men, at least some could be taught there are arts above the servile; that there is more to “spare time” than, say, circuses, or football games, designed for the couch tubers, from their desperate need to be entertained in the moments when they are not working, or sleeping, or copulating, or gorging on junk food. There should be things done not only at a pitch above sating crude appetites and killing time, but to ends that are in their nature mysterious, and thus involve contemplation.

Drawing is like that. One draws and paints, or at least I have done, not for the industrial purpose of “making art” — which is a potentially servile activity, and would anyway require more talent than I seem to have at my disposal. Rather I do it by way of teaching myself to see. Through this exercise I discover how little I saw, before trying to draw it, not only in the works of real artists, but in the other scenes arranged moment by moment right before my eyes. Only in the effort to transcribe, or better, represent it, do I begin to notice what is there. (All the best photographers can draw, incidentally.)

It is so with music, too, for those who try to sing, or play upon some instrument — as opposed to listening passively, at less than half-attention, to the musical equivalent of filth. Chesterton says anything worth doing is worth doing badly, and I will agree, with the qualification stated above: that it is the best we can do. Love requires no less of our “hobbies”: for there is that pixie of aspiration, deeply implanted in the human breast. We long to find or to make what is worthy; to be lifted — as opposed to dumped, in the mire of our depravities.

We are Homo Ludens, man at play. This begins in earliest childhood (before birth), and continues ever after in that spirit of mimesis, or let us add the Platonic diegesis (story-telling) — the spirit of “imitation” (weak, inadequate English word). It is a process by which we discover what is “useful” only by the occasional accident; in the main it directs our attention to what is good, beautiful, and true — to the “poetics” in command of all Creation, in all directions beyond human reach, and thus everywhere apparent to those who look; to every man who would “see” with his whole being.

“Spare time” is wasted on the contemporary man, who is taught from the start only to consume, and to work only towards fulfilling the requirements of consumption; to seek the pleasures of the fatted beast. He is taught to condemn whatever is useless or irrelevant to this cause; to be a pig in pursuit of acorns. And this is true even when e.g. he tires of acorns, and in his human complexity, turns to sexual and other perversions instead. His only “right” is to consume. He is clocked, statisticized, and shivved towards this end, and our entire moral, aesthetic, and metaphysical order is bent to the requirements of production and consumption. This makes him utterly servile.

I am trying to encourage a slave revolt.

Of mercy & forgiveness

Perusing, once again, what remains of the family archive (still not satisfactorily filed, years after the demise of my parents), with a particular view across Gaelic Cape Breton, and the Hebridean isles from which those ancestors came — who did not think themselves Scottish at all, but only “Scotch” in some North American context — I became enwrapped in a long sentence, which threatened to sprout more thistles here and there, among the innumerable subsidiary clauses. … Aye, thistles, man. … Too, I became a little more aware of what might be described as a genetic disorder, shared generally by the “Celtic” peoples, from Shetlands and Orkneys to Galicia.

“Celtic” is of course a creation of the modern academic mind, which keeps tidier files than I do. There never was, in fact, such a race or people. They were just a bunch of mongrels driven west, ever west, until they came against The Ocean — while the more settling tribes established their European lebensraum.

Also, perhaps, they flit north, and east, but let us put those refugees out of sight and mind, as most were made extinct. For I refer expressly to “the people of the fiddle,” who, when delivered to the New World (invariably by some persecution), instinctively found the least arable land, and scattered up anything that resembled mountains. We find them still today not only in “the highlands” of Cape Breton, but right down the Appalachian cordillera, where they dug in as “hillbillies” and such. They remain the ethnic backbone of our English-speaking armies, ever eager to sign up.

It is a proud ancestry. I have previously written in praise of the Zomians — the peoples of that alpine orogeny that spreads from Afghoon across the roof of Asia. They are much the same type, it seems to me, driven to the least habitable realms by the expansion of this “civilization” thing, which never appealed to them. (It besets them on both sides, in the case of Asia, which began as two reasonably flat continents, impacting together.) They are people unaccustomed to following orders, or even hearing them, above the din of battle; the consternation of all the neatly drilled; people whose own immigration policy is, by tradition, to kill all intruders. (Yes, my dear reader, Trump is one of us.) They have many virtues, to be sure; and the vices corresponding.

There is a special section in Hell — “The Isles” it is probably called — consisting entirely of my Celtic or Gaelic or Dalriadic or even Pictish ancestors, to say nothing of the Northmen, from the days when they were sailing and marching about the farthest reaches of Europe, putting each other in their respective glens. Perhaps it was their historical experience that made them such a touchy lot. Perhaps it was their freedom from literacy, among other chains that shackle the lowland dwellers. The literates record their histories, then forget them. The illiterates never forgive nor forget.

Here and there they spilt into lowlands themselves (as green Ireland in the first Christian centuries), and became civilized in spite of themselves, sending their missionaries into still-pagan Europe for the redemption of all humble peasant souls. Egypt, then Ireland, were the lights that came on, with the little lights that flickered in the two Romes (Rome and Constantinople), wiring gradually together along all the travelled roads. But that is another story.

This morning I write after a dream in which I committed a rather messy murder — though not without cause, I insist, gentle reader — write, of those soi-disant “Celts,” whose grievances were nursed over centuries, millennia. But now they have all been taught to read and write, and to accept their pogey, so that they swim in the waters of Lethe, with only the occasional crocodile irruption of the ancient foiled pride and cussedness.

Gaelic (or anything Goidelic or Brythonic) is lost, and for a very simple reason. Once one sees it written down, one loses heart. One doubts that anyone could ever have spoken it aloud. Every word of this “mouth music” looks plainly unpronounceable; and proves unpronounceable to those unprepared from birth to speak it, not only from the centre of the mouth, like an Englishman, but from both sides, and every other part of the anatomy. (Compare: desert Arabic.)

Reading a few passages from yellowing letters, and recalling a few more from the lips of the deceased, I fix on this unforgiving quality. And more positively, upon the joy in it, deliciously conveyed in so many Gaelic phrases, sadly lost upon our lazy modern ears.

“The Isles of the Unblest.” … I think I visited them in my dream, and found them peopled by ancestral sprites, fighting through eternity among themselves, for a little more of the clan territory that must soon be surrendered again. Each disfigured by the accumulation of his hideous injuries. Left by the Devil, to rule themselves, since he isn’t masculine enough to tame them. I imagine it the happiest region in Hell; as the field of a perfect human liberty, exulting in perpetual gore.


The French have this wonderful word, amour-propre, so much better than our English “self-love.” It comes, with its edge, from La Rochefoucauld, his urbane and scintillating Maxims in the seventeenth century. It is the arch-flatterer, “more artful than the most artful of mankind.” In parallel, it comes from Blaise Pascal, who observes that Christianity is the only cure. Then it comes again through Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the “enlightened” eighteenth century, who thought the primitive savages incapable of amour-propre, because they lacked the gilt-framed mirrors of sophisticated society, in which their pride might be reflected. He imagines it the source of all corruption; and with some authority, for he was himself among the most corrupt of men — this Rousseau who taught us all to “blame society.”

Really there is nothing new under the sun, and the concept comes much earlier from Saint Augustine of Hippo who in his City of God calls it in Latin, amor sui, and puts it about the centre of his review of human tawdriness. That, in turn, is how it came to Pascal: via the French Augustinians, with whom Pascal was in thick, about the time he was writing his Lettres provinciales. One might add, contre Rousseau (and perhaps with Joseph de Maistre) that it goes back farther, to Adam and Eve.

Ye devill appeals to Eve’s amour-propre. She then appeals to Adam’s. That’s how this whole wretched mess got started. Note that this couple predeceased all Rousseau’s noble savages, and that the field anthropologists have since discovered that the primitive tribal types are a lot like us. Which is to say, bad, in many colourful ways, and quite invariably self-regarding.

I cannot prove that Pascal (and Augustine) are right, to a gallery of liberal theoreticians, but then, I do not seem to have such an audience listening at the moment. The pope does, however, and I suppose that’s why he gave a slew of medals the other day to such as Richard Gere, George Clooney, Salma Hayek, and who knows what other movie stars were named after I stopped reading. Surely it was a satirical attempt to show what posturing clowns they all are; though I fear the satire may have been unintentional.

Among the chief theories, embodied today in Hollywood capitalism, is that the amour-propre of celebrities is a creative force that can be harnessed to advance philanthropic causes. One might question whether the causes in question are actually philanthropic, or even benign in the manner of a good brain tumour, but that would be to dwell upon details, details.

My own theory is often the opposite. I hold that hardly anything good is accomplished in this world by the people who manoeuvre to take credit for it. (Hence my general anathema upon politicians, including the ecclesiastical ones.) Moreover, the much good actually done is not generally publicized. And this in itself is a good thing, because if people found out who was behind it, their punishment would be doubled.

Verily, this is why Holy Church has been, since the first centuries, very suspicious of claims made on behalf of “saints,” and went to the trouble of appointing Advocati Diaboli (“devil’s advocates”) to get at the truth about them, before rather than after canonization. (The term for this office has since been suppressed by the prim.)

I firmly believe that it is possible to do good in this world, because I have seen it done. But only by men (including women, and wow, how many women) who did not seek the credit, nor could even be driven by the prospect of feeling good about themselves. It happens, but I think, only by God’s grace.