Essays in Idleness


On crime & punishment & wrath

Anger is not “useless.” Were it so, it could be ignored. It does not like to be ignored, however, so that often we must deal with it. Often, too, it is quite justified. This is especially so in a conflict where anger is being used tactically. The general coolly does things to make his opponent angry, in hope of provoking a foolish response. For it is true, even for the blind, that “anger makes one blind” — makes one awkward, and collision-prone. In warfare, there are other methods for driving an opposing general spare, but like frustration, they resemble it. In all events the target is wise to keep a cool head: and an eye on the puck, as we say in hockey.

But like so many other vices, anger is human. I was impressed once in reading a summary or transcript of a conference where Joseph Ratzinger (later pope) dealt with the intemperate words of a colleague, directed, deviously, at him. A soft word turneth away anger, according to Proverbs, and Ratzinger reviewed his colleague’s argument in the most charitable light, improving it for him along the way. Rather than ignore the intemperate expression, Ratzinger called it “a very human response,” sweetly conveying fellowship to a man who might now be feeling in need of forgiveness.

It is better to put out fires than to start them, unless one is a potter or a cook.

Christ, and Aristotle, are I think in agreement, that anger should not always be suppressed. But even when it is not suppressed, it must be regulated. It communicates that a significant wrong has been done, when soft words would fail. Like a good bombing, it should be carefully aimed, against the risk of unintended casualties. If it can’t be, one must hesitate to drop the bomb.

Having been born a hothead, like my father, I watched carefully as he wrestled with his condition. He tried to deflect his (almost invariably justified) anger in harmless ways. I noticed his quick recoveries. And as he grew older, and older, he became ever more benign, until it did not seem he had a temper. He was himself of the opinion that benignity beats malignity every time; that it is better to suffer, than to inflict an injustice; that punishment should be administered calmly.

Unfortunately, this is beyond the imagination or intelligence of today’s gnostic public educators, who are incapable of distinguishing punishment from rage. To them, the parent who disciplines the child is always in the wrong. This is why they can approve only those parents most likely to rear juvenile delinquents; and why they threaten to seize children from good homes.

But punishment is a means to instil self-regulation, or should be so at rising levels of sin. It cannot take away the wrongdoer’s unworthy desires: only Christ can do that, if the subject will let Him. It can, however, teach him to control his impulses, in order to avoid the consequences of them. Of course, some cannot be taught, in which case it may be best to despatch them to the highest Court, where justice is infallible.

The need, in some circumstances, for e.g. capital punishment, is lost on people who can conceive the act only as emotional retribution. Whereas, a good public hangman will be tranquil as a good family butcher. His demeanour, with the creature soon to die, will be kind and reassuring. (Lord protect us from executioners whose craft skills are skewed by impure emotion.) For that matter, all administrators of punishment should be benign by disposition, as, by analogy, doctors and nurses. They must not let themselves become “emotionally involved.” This can only lead to botches.

(Note that I advocate capital punishment only for those found guilty of capital crimes; not exclusively for the innocent, as the liberals do by abortion and “euthanasia.”)

And let the principle not be confined to nurses and doctors and public hangmen. The judge who rants at the prisoner, upon his conviction — this is becoming a commonplace in our courts — should never have been allowed to practise law. He has exposed himself by taking personal retribution.

Instead, justice must be served, tempered by mercy where mercy may serve justice, but not where it can only compound the wrong. A certain distancing is required, for justice does not belong to us, and we can only aspire to it. The virtue of justice requires that we acknowledge our personal interests (as we can do by the habit of frequent confession), recusing ourselves when potential conflict is espied. For justice must be, and should be seen to be, impartial.

Alas, anger is contagious, from our courts, as from our politics. It is a fault of mass or mob democracy, such as we have today in all the Western jurisdictions, that it depends upon the mobilization of anger, through media of disinformation.

The just statesman works towards the reconciliation of rival factions, by articulating a higher common good. He looks beyond lobbies to those who can provide, impartially, relevant missing information. He would rather do nothing, than do something wrong, and does not act in the absence of necessity.

Yet to get himself elected the contemporary politician must cultivate the wrath of one party against another. He must likewise present an agenda for “change.” To keep himself elected he must continue to divide and conquer. He must sabotage any opponent’s attempts to assuage. He must, regardless of moral cost, advance himself, in an environment where the old Christian constraints are going, if not gone. His wickedness, though he tries to conceal it in self-serving rhetoric, will necessarily twist all his legislation. He must please his supporters by doing gratuitous harm to any class of people they despise (such as, these days, faithful Christians). He rewrites law to curl an angry whip against those impeding “progress.”

Whereas, a true leader would check the intemperance of his followers; seek, consistently, a chance to reconcile; and likewise, promise to preserve the common heritage. He will intend, as we read in most Westminster-inspired constitutions, not the victory of a cause, but “peace, order, and good government.”

Which is to say, he will be unelectable.

Deus lo vult

Today, according to the Roman Martyrology, we celebrate a saint “who protected the freedom of the Church against the encroachments of the laity; fought against corrupt and simoniacal clergy, and, at the Council of Claremont, urged Christian soldiers that, signed with the Cross, they liberate their oppressed brethren from the infidels and free the Lord’s sepulchre.”

That would be the Frenchman, Odo of Châtillon-sur-Marne, in Champagne, better known to history as Pope Urban II, who died on this day in 1099 — not knowing that his valiant knights had just taken Jerusalem. He had outmanoeuvred an antipope and the Holy Roman Emperor; clinched the Gregorian reforms of the Church from within; eliminated simony, investiture, and clerical marriage from high places; and restored Sicily and Sardinia to Christendom.

But this is a long, as well as glorious story, across the top of which I skip.

Even before his election to the papacy at Terracina, this Cluniac monk had accomplished extraordinary things. As legate of his papal predecessors, he had travelled Europe to confirm rightful bishops in their sees, and depose those under anathema, with breathtaking holy nerve. Upon election, he was shut out of Rome, but soon entered in the train of bold Norman soldiers. The victim of a coup once he stepped out again, Pope Urban spent three years in the wilderness of an eleventh-century Europe in terrible disarray, gathering the loyalties for his triumphant return.

One event especially appeals to me. It happened towards Easter in 1094. With the partisans of his opponent still in control of the strongholds of the city of Rome, he returned to the surrendered Lateran — just in time to celebrate the Easter Mass.

Pope Urban was no dawdler. His sense of priorities was sublime. He was a man of majestic fortitude, against whom opposition finally collapsed. To the inspiration of faithful Catholics in all subsequent ages, he defended the sanctity of marriage, and of clerical celibacy, at a time when both were everywhere under attack; excommunicating and often successfully dethroning secular rulers who had attempted divorce and taken second wives. For Henry VIII of England was hardly the first king to defy the unambiguous teaching of Jesus Christ.

Alas, upon Urban’s accession, the crisis in the West was nothing to the crisis in the East. The Seljuk Turks had overrun Byzantine Anatolia, and were pressing towards Constantinople. From there, and from Christians across the Middle East, Rome received desperate pleas for help. Christians were persecuted by their Muslim overlords; their peaceful pilgrims to Jerusalem were slaughtered, as the Holy Land was closed to them. Then as today, ancient communities faced extinction across a region which had centuries before been Christianized, without the help of swords.

By diplomacy, oratory, and example, Pope Urban rallied true men to their defence, from across the Western realms. In one of history’s most profound acts of Good Samaritanship, the First Crusade was launched. Horrors followed aplenty, of course — then as now, war is war — but in the miracle of events, within the years 1096–99, the Holy Land, lost to Arab conquest in the seventh century, was restored to Christian freedom — crowned with the capture of Jerusalem as the saintly Pope lay dying.


Some things I lack the stomach for, and I’ve been unable to watch even short snippets from either of the American political conventions. One checks the news by Internet, receives it through email, notices headings in the newspaper boxes grouped by the trolley stop. Sometimes they are yuge. People leave papers in the seats, full of lifestyle features, and lifestyle ads. If a “story” catches one’s attention, one pursues it: a story such as that on which I touched, yesterday. I wanted to know more about the backgrounds of the two Muslim hitmen.

Hardly to my surprise, I learn that the latest murderous adolescents were problems for the state’s social services long before they were “radicalized.” One was diagnosed as nuts by the child-shrinks at the age of six. The use of drugs usually comes into it. There are family “issues,” and schoolyard issues, in most cases. The child makes himself despicable and is thus despised. His race and religion need not come into it: denizen of a Muslim ghetto, he is surrounded by his own. Yet he is not isolated, because the blue-rays of the outside world are beamed in. His confusion is exacerbated by the deconstruction of all cultures in the contemporary West: the loss of continuity in custom and governing norms. He becomes a different kind of Muslim from his parents, who can’t understand him. In many mosques, financed by the oil-monied Wahabis, the worst features of Islam are emphasized. The Islamists do much recruiting there, and also in prisons: like the Communists before them, they are looking for psychoses to exploit. And of course, the Internet is a great boon, to all of satanic tendency.

A proof, to my mind, that we deal with the unbalanced, is the incompetence of most terror strikes. The operatives kill and maim a handful when, with the weapons they had accumulated, they could have killed far more. They lack the needed organization and skills. But training psychos is like herding cats.

The Daesh in Iraq and Syria pretend to run a military organization, but from everything I’ve seen, it is poorly disciplined. A real army will reject psychologically unstable recruits: they get in the way of teamwork. They won’t properly focus on whom to shoot. Their reckless, suicidal courage is more a danger than an inspiration to their comrades. Even one-on-one in a boxing ring, a psycho is too wild. He will score a knock-out only by chance, get knocked down easily, and always lose on points. No professional sportsman could want to coach a psycho.

No, war is serious business, and it is a huge scandal that the Daesh were not wiped out in short order. The Arab armies opposing them are also poorly disciplined, for cultural reasons our technologist trainers are ill-equipped to plumb. But behind these dubious allies, is the schizophrenic, shadow-boxing West. Our attacks are almost entirely from the air: mallet blows against the ants in their native sand. We have not wanted to get our hands dirty — to suffer casualties in an electoral season — and besides, the Daesh have been convenient to many political interests, not only within the Middle East.

But mostly, we are pussies (it is best to put this in a vulgar way), whose minds are addled by “political correctness.” We don’t know who we are; we cannot find a place in our own multiculture; we can imagine nothing to defend that is not some evanescent abstraction. Consumer goods have not made us concrete. Jogging has not fortified any spiritual muscle. (It is just another drug.)

Whereas, previous generations knew who they were; and were thus capable of understanding when they had been attacked. They had some concept of adulthood. We had men, once. And the thing about men is they have something to protect, beginning with women and children — and ending, as for that manly priest in France, with that desperate attempt to defend the sacraments. God made men that way, and with time, I expect, they will return to their calling. But for now, we are experimenting with our own, amateur, designs: the New Man, “liberated” from his masculinity.

The post-modern male has only his own strange and unaccountable package of appetites and lusts; and the strange and unaccountable restraints upon them, beyond self-regulation. He is pure consumer, and he is lost. That is what lies behind, “No more war!” It is not principled pacifism, ready to sacrifice — to die, rather than to kill — but a consumer choice, a lifestyle option.

I am not a priest. Neither, so far as I can see, are the ten-thousands posting “Je suis prêtre” in the latest public display of maudlin and posturing grief in France. Most aren’t even Catholics; it is this week’s way to self-congratulate, in solidarity with the crowd. Few will ever find themselves in any real and present danger from Islamists, and if one does, I doubt that “Je suis prêtre!” is what he will exclaim.

But I began with political conventions. We do have a problem with our world falling apart, and some of it is the consequence of a resurgent, militant Islam — a genuinely external phenomenon, with which we ought to be familiar, after fourteen centuries of it. And the choice, for voters in the West’s only superpower, is now between Hillary Clinton, who is not a woman, and Donald Trump, who is not a man. People are “angry,” but cannot articulate why. They cannot look into themselves, to discover what is wrong; instead they look outward for the latest scapegoats.

This feels to me like a lifestyle option, a consumer choice — strange and unaccountable, like evil.

Confronting evil with joss sticks

On checking the news later, I discovered that I had not chosen the perfect morning to write lightly about the phenomenon of “hatred.” Or perhaps I had. One reader complained that my piece on the artist Mondrian yesterday was, in light of breaking news from France, in “extremely poor taste.” He proposed that I take “hatred” more seriously.

I won’t. I have been exposed to hatred all my life, and my mama taught me to laugh at it.

But the use of the word “hate” as a term of art in the New Jurisprudence is now well-established. The purpose is identical to that which the liberals advanced when replacing the term “rape” with “sexual assault,” the definition of which could then be gratuitously extended. The idea was to slur the distinction between the heinous crime of rape, and minor infractions such as “unwanted touching” and flirtation. This would, for a start, enable feminists to tout fresh statistics showing that one-in-three women had been “sexually assaulted.” (Perhaps two-in-three women were too modest.)

“Hate crimes” put coarse language on a level with murder. The intention was to get something into law that could be used selectively against political opponents, while “sensitizing” (i.e. neuroticizing) the public to the fuller range of progressive Newspeak.

Conversely, in his role as the serious criminal’s best friend, the contemporary liberal diminishes the significance of rape and murder. These are reduced, in principle, to the level of saying things that are rude. The law of course still observes gradations; but I noticed that, in Germany for instance, where violent attacks not on but by immigrant Muslims have become an almost daily occurrence, the cops were busy raiding sixty addresses to arrest people accused of posting hateful anti-Islamic blather in social media. As the old ballad had it, “The world turned upside down.”

Facebook, Twitter, and Google — a fair cross-section of service providers — have all agreed in Germany and elsewhere to put “programs in place” that use all their search resources to track and silence such inconvenient voices as that of Milo Yiannopoulos; if not for what he said, then for what some trolls contributed by way of enhancement.

Yesterday’s “incident” was the murder of a Catholic priest, during Mass at the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, near Rouen, Normandy. The police knew that this church was targeted; and one of the perpetrators had been released after actual conviction on terror charges. It is good to know now that he is dead, and so will not be participating in further “incidents.” (Unless there is some conduit from Hell.)

The French president said it was an attack on all French citizens, which presumably includes the citizen Islamists; our pope called the violence “absurd.” I find these lies in extremely poor taste. It was not an attack on all Frenchmen, but symbolically on a Catholic priest. And it was not absurd, but purposefully directed to that end. Father Jacques Hamel was martyred during the morning Mass. His throat slit, then by some accounts, beheaded; two nuns and two others at prayer also seized and tormented; and another throat slit; while a rant was delivered from the altar, in Arabic.

I am truly disgusted by remarks from Rome that we hope the elderly priest is at peace, and that we condemn “every form of hatred.” This reduces the teaching of Our Lord to the asinine. Reference to Islam was carefully avoided.

One wonders what atrocity the Islamists must commit, to make their point more explicit.

I really don’t care if they hate us. That is their opinion, and none of my concern. I do care that they are trying to kill us, on the basis of verses plausibly cited from the Koran. Would it hurt their feelings if we called them on this?

The joy of hatred

A minor matter it may be, and with no legal repercussions, I hope, but let me mention that I hate Piet Mondrian. I only realized this yesterday. Prior to that I rather liked him, or more precisely, dutifully applauded his uncompromising abstractions, his pursuit of “the absolute” in growing disregard of all the traditional “content” of painting, such as representation, draughtsmanship, colouring and shading; the “pure plasticity” he advertised. The actual enjoyment was tepid at best. I knew he was Dutch, which makes me quizzical; and of a Calvinist background, which puts me on my guard; and a convert to Theosophy, which sets off the alarm. From photographs, I have guessed that the man himself would irritate me, regardless what he was. I do not like “tight little people.” But I’ve long been willing to waive my prejudices on behalf of a great artist.

Was Mondrian “a great”? That is the consensus of the art market. And how can one sniff at the judgement of someone who will pay 50 million Natted States Dollars for a grid of black-lined rectangles filled with flat primary colours (or white). True, there can be something romantic in a torrid competition, as at Christie’s last year, when the price of Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black was dong’d five times past the starting estimation.

People may pay what they want for art: at least the money doesn’t go to the poor, who’d be sure to waste it. Again, I do not hate Mondrian for that; and anyway it is hard to envy a man who died years before one’s birth. It can be done, but as I say, it is difficult.

No, I have decided that I hate Mondrian for his pictures. And that I hate them, not individually, but as a series — the whole career that began in soft twee chocolate-box depictions of Dutch landscape; that adapted repeatedly to the latest trends; and ended in the tyranny of professional abstraction. The final style, of his two famous Boogie-Woogies — the latter quite unfinished and rough, giving the game away from close up — has, I admit, a certain unique purity of expression. But this expression is pure style. I can no longer see his paintings as art, only as decorative objects, famous for being famous. And they are not decorations I would want in my home.

Perhaps my disapproval should be stated more gravely. I do not see a consistent development from representation to abstraction. I see chops and changes instead.

This notwithstanding I continue to adore e.g. Ellsworth Kelly, and Josef Albers, and to be entranced by their respective presentations of sharply delineated colour fields, which omit in order to reveal. And in the case of Kelly, to see a direct development from his early draughtsmanship of curves under Paris bridges, and the spookily nondescript oval faces. And in the case of old Albers, an investigation of optical effects, of genuine use to students. These men were chaste, and honest, craftsmen. I consider such work to be “catholic” in some broad sense, which I shall define in visual art as “discernments of truth within expositions of unexpected beauty.”

The truth is outside us; the sincere artist wants it manifested: called into view. In the nature of things, he will offend the Puritan, who thinks he has all truth already, and so interprets the beautiful in art as idolatry. (This is the opposite of Plato’s critique.) The Puritan will finally accept art only as perfume or decor. My hatred for Mondrian resonates with what I detect as his own edgy, puritanical self-loathing. He sought to make the kind of art that could destroy art: that could bust right through it.

I hate Mondrian, because I have come suddenly to the conclusion that he was not “making art” at all. He, who seemed most obviously trying to seek some “absolute,” was temporizing, fooling and pretending. The movement of De Stijl was aptly named: for it was style, only; a commercial art; trade in a currency from the beginning. It was, to my mind, the sort of thing Christ overturned in the courtyard of the Temple. Its proximity to the Temple condemns it.

And it points to what prevailed after the War: “minimalism” as an expression of pure style; the final collapse of the West’s art traditions, into cute, glib, demeaning “installations.” It points to the smug removal of “content”; to the creation of art that makes no demands. It does not lead towards the depth in colour field, but beyond, to the complacent generation of Warhol. Art, ambitiously reduced — to a form of clothing; to dressmaking for the current vogue.

Hatred has a use. It can be the flex in a pole-vault, the spring in a dangerous leap to freedom. It is important to survival, intellectually and aesthetically. My new-found hatred of Mondrian, for instance, helps me understand not only my long-standing love for the sun-filled contours and gleeful rotundities of Ben Nicholson at his most “abstract”; but for the playful, transcendental humour in Paul Klee — who noticed all the trends, and mocked them, in compositions one-tenth their size.

Hatred can be liberating. It can be a joyful creative force. Truth can surprise the hater of untruth by filling his receptive vacuum; has already helped him identify untruth, in confrontation with its persistent grimness. And it will not be clamped into a frame, for it is the power that declares, “I am and I joy forever.”

But of course, if gentle reader can find joy in Mondrian, he is welcome to keep it.

How to breed monsters

For some centuries now, the method of the progressives has been certainly anti-clerical, and even Averroëist; yet it is commendably mediaeval for all that. It is to identify “a problem” and then “solve” it, by making it larger.

Let us say, for instance, that someone is starving. A narrow and impulsive solution might be to bring him food. But if, rather than succumb to arbitrary doctrine and fallible instinct, we were to stand back, we might see that others are starving, too, including classes of humanity which we might research, and eventually define. By hard work in this long study we might classify the groups, analyse their respective conditions, and propose the means by which the larger problem of hunger could be “scientifically” alleviated.

Meanwhile the poor wretch has died of hunger, but to the progressive mind, hardly in vain. He was after all the inspiration for all this brilliant inquiry, and the new faculties of human enterprise that it launched.


Frederick II, Hohenstaufen (1194–1250), was a pioneer of modern science. He kept up an international correspondence from his princely court, wrote a carefully-illustrated treatise on falconry, sponsored mathematical competitions and congresses to discuss this and that. No effete bureaucrat, he also conducted experiments to put dogmatic ideas to empirical tests. For instance, he locked prisoners in barrels, to watch if their souls emerged at the moment of death; and raised newborn babies in complete sensory deprivation to find out what language they would speak.

At the universities of Padua and Bologna, where medical faculties were established entirely beyond the control of the Church, the new art of dissection was advanced. The ecclesiastical authorities had previously frowned upon that sort of thing. In Paris, and elsewhere, dissections were banned. But we owe our modern knowledge of anatomy to that pioneering escape from the scholastic ontological perspective, with its logical subtleties and bookish pedantry. The medicine men were also eager dabblers in the science of astrology, from which, arguably, our modern astronomy gradually emerged, if by accident more than by intention.

Moreover: Did you know? That Galileo was once put on quasi-trial for opposing the received Aristotelianism of the academy in his day? I bet you did know that, gentle reader. But it is interesting also to know that for three full centuries before that, not one man, nor woman neither, was visited by the Inquisitors for anything resembling a scientific investigation.

We must go all the way back to conservative Paris and the year 1277 to find an episcopal condemnation. This was the famous occasion when Stephen Tempier, archbishop in that town and thus effectively rector to her celebrated university, condemned two hundred and nineteen theological (40) and philosophical (179) theses being taught in his Faculty of Arts. It was a formidable “syllabus of errors,” and among the victims were the flourishing “experts” on necromancy, witchcraft, and fortune-telling.

Two hundred and nineteen is a lot of propositions, and the document is fascinating as itself a carefully constructed, encyclopaedic survey of anti-Christian nonsense, much more exact than its reputation. Nor did it finger any individual practitioner of the dark intellectual arts, though we are given to understand that Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia took personal umbrage.

The topic is very large. Pierre Duhem (1861–1916), one of my greatest intellectual heroes, propounded the notion that modern physical science emerged as a consequence of this sorting out, in which, additionally, profane Aristotelian ideas received through the Arabs were put suddenly on the defensive. (That is an oversimplification, but I think it will do for my idle purposes.) Duhem flagged this as, paradoxically or not, a tremendous inspiration to free inquiry. (The very inquiry that Galileo was alleged to have taken too far, with scholars in the Protestant realms demanding he be executed.)

It was Duhem who first scandalized our own modern scientific establishment, early in the last century, by showing that the scientific breakthroughs of the seventeenth century relied on much earlier advances, and were in the nature of continuity, not rupture. This was interpreted as a fiendish impingement on the vanity of modern science, which conceived itself as a rebellion against the dogmatic slumbers of the Middle Ages; and the attempt in France to suppress the publication of his findings continued until it broke down in the 1950s, and the last five volumes of Le système du monde were allowed to appear.

More fundamentally, I think Duhem began to show that there are no scientific revolutions. When any civilization is stable, there is a cumulative progress of knowledge about how nature ticks; and the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century, and the “breakthroughs” of the Seventeenth, were merely accelerations of this world’s most remarkable run of accumulation.

It is now, finally, running into the ground, or has been since the eighteenth century (a.k.a. “the Enlightenment”), owing to the imposition of a false premiss upon all fields of knowledge, from the empirical to the philosophical, and ultimately to the theological understanding of good, truth, and beauty.

That supposed madman, and real prophet, Joseph de Maistre, explained the reality in Les Soirées de Saint-Petersbourg (1821), an extraordinary book in classical dialogue form. He observes the cancerous growth of Enlightenment, proceeding from a fatal error in ethics. It is the belief that Nature is the “ground, source, and type of all possible Good and Beauty” (this summary is actually from Baudelaire, his essay “In Praise of Cosmetics”), and thus excludes the very possibility of original sin.

From the Enlightenment forward, to no thinking Christian’s surprise, science began to breed monsters. And not in the hobby-horse manner of the Hohenstaufen emperor, but as a tireless, impersonal, systematic, and jealously protected secular enterprise.

Let me specify, for clarity, that God, and not Nature, is the ground — not only of our knowledge but of human decency.

Well, anyway, this is what’s on my mind this morning.

Pictures at an exhibition

At each stage of our decline we have, it seems, exchanged one truth for another. Let me give an example.

Photography was “invented” or “discovered” in the early nineteenth century. In fact, the pinhole camera was known many centuries before Christ to both Greeks and Chinese; and the Byzantines had, during our Western “Dark Ages,” worked out all the methods of the camera obscura. (It was, as so often, they who taught the Arabs, and the Arabs who taught us.) Albert the Great knew all about silver nitrate; and mediaeval alchemists dealt with silver chloride — they could in principle have produced “primitive” photographs, and probably did. The modern trick is not so much “discovery” of anything new, as organized or methodical play, in which various tricks, long known, are combined to a clearly-conceived purpose. (I believe this is called, “technology.”) The ancients only wanted to see; we wanted photographs to look at.

Not only photographs, but the means of reproducing them, in large numbers, had been worked out long before the end of the nineteenth century, and newspapers began to use them as soon as the reproduction became economic. They were immediately popular.

I have watched bargirls in Asia go carefully through Western fashion magazines, unable to read a word in English or any other language, but riveted to the colour photos. The semi-literate of our inventive West were similarly enchanted from the start; and as they obtained the franchise, our politics were transformed by still and moving pictures.

Serious newspapers resisted this revolution, and right up to the 1960s, would never put a photo on their front page. Then they made the concession of running boring photos, of diplomats arriving in airports, and the like. Of course, there are no serious or intelligent newspapers any more.

But today’s sermon turns on an invention of the 1930s. Inspired partly, I should think, by developments in fine art, and perhaps early cinema, this was the invention of the contorted photograph. Called by the late art critic, John Russell (in his book on the painter, Francis Bacon) “the formalization of disrespect,” it was the picture in which public worthies such as statesmen and royalty would be depicted, “wrenched out of the standard attitudes of traditional portraiture and shown as they actually are: harassed, inconsequent, racked by tics, their faces distorted, their clothes in disorder, their bodies off balance.”

From there, the development leads to the formalization of disrespect for humanity at large, and as a by-product, the development of that “post-modern irony” which looks upon anything well-composed or dignified as an aberration, that could be mocked.

One thinks of this, glimpsing imagery from the latest psychopath hit, on some Munich shopping mall. These scenes of people scrambling and hysterical are by now a journalistic norm. Big media will pay big bucks to the person who can hold his mobile steady during one of these panics, so the home viewer can get a good look, along with the soundtrack of all the screaming. In turn, the images quietly teach us how to behave, should we ever be caught up in a terror trauma.

The original “revolution” — the indignification of the respectable — could be presented as an advance in moral truth. The Church herself has taught that people are people, and gravely flawed. (She also teaches, however, that with God’s grace we can be raised to passable behaviour.) The “great and good” are not so serene as they once looked. They are “just like us” in the sense that, though in better clothes, they belch, get drunk, mishandle chopsticks, and stagger to the water closets. “Human, all too human,” we might say. The wind blows their hats off, and sometimes they try to kiss babies and miss. Focus closely enough on their faces, and we’ll be treated to buffoonish stares.

Balancing this, a new field of human enterprise arises, governed chiefly by Hollywood. Dignity itself is a matter of indifference, but with proper training, control of paparazzi, and editors willing to select, they may guide the ascent of the “cool” person. In the Natted States, Obama, in Canada, young Justin Trudeau, were sold to the electorate by means of this directorial process. To my mind, neither man is abnormally evil. Both strike me as mere airheads; but tutored by the pros on the keeping of appearances.

We celebrate, in art and elsewhere, the destruction of “bourgeois values.” This seems to move us closer to the truth. Really it moves us towards levels of hypocrisy that the actual bourgeois — the simple shopkeeper of former days — could not imagine, let alone reach.

Why no one writes books any more

People ask why I don’t write books. Not many people, but some, and those happily among my readers. The subset of these readers who are publishers is nil. It is now almost fifteen years since the last of those bothered me, with a proposal (soon after 9/11) that I write a book on Islam. Cleverly, I did not cash the advance, for I knew the exercise would end badly. The book I could write would never be acceptable. It would be too negative in some respects, and too positive in others, and both against “the tenor of the times.”

Too, I would be likely to do what I had done with a dozen or so previous book manuscripts I had diligently worked upon, beginning with the draught of an adolescent “novel” (or rather, matrix of travellers’ tales), which filled a badly frayed side-satchel with foolscap and turquoise ink, weighing me down across India. Adding a couple of rocks for good measure, I tipped it into the Mekong River. Gentle reader may find it on the bottom, towards the middle, some miles downstream from Vientiane. I must assume the pla buek, or giant catfish, rejected it, too, preferring his filamentous algae. (They are huge beasts, but toothless; they come only in answer to sincere Buddhist prayers, and are thus now feared to be extinct.)

On the other hand, five, and arguably seven books that I have written, have been published, but none under my name. In each case I was employed as a ghost-writer, trying hard to suppress my own style, and contrive another. The topics ranged from shadow puppetry to case studies in development economics. For most I was paid, too little; for one far more than I deserved. It all comes out, however, in the river wash.

And then there was the thesis I wrote for a girlfriend. It was book-length, but I doubt it was published. A pity, because at the time I thought it the best thing I’d ever done; all meticulously researched and footnoted; and carefully composed in Greek-accented English. Her thesis advisor did not agree, preferring the “essays” in “comparative literature” I’d whipped off the top of my head, which he had marked extravagantly. “It will do,” he told her, “but it lacks the inspiration you showed in your term papers.” Perhaps he was right; almost certainly I was the greater fool for women.

There are two things I think cannot be written at the present day. One is poetry, and the other is books. This is not to say that they are not written; only that they can’t be. I know this from having tried both. Of course some bold literary genius might be able to do it; but I rather think that is a third thing unlikely to appear in our times. A high literary culture requires an integral civilization, which in turn provides a common stock of imagination — a live tradition on which the artist may draw. In its absence, he can only doodle.

By “imagination” I allude to imaging, not to the imaginary: to the form beneath, or transcending the concrete, as a soul might be said to transcend a body; but undetachable in our earthly sphere.

The late perfesser Northrop Frye wrote two (inadequate) books on the Bible, considered from the literary critic’s point of view. The King James Version of 1611 was, by intention, a traditionary English text in parallel with the Vulgate; it became the key to all subsequent English literature, and more than Shakespeare, the tonal foundation of our modern tongue. It remained so, up nearly to the present day. It made the richness of that literature possible, as Homer made possible the literature of the Greeks. This could be shown to be true, in a technical sense; but Frye, in turning the Bible into a textbook, purposely omitted the aspect of Faith.

Beginning in the eighteenth century, that faith began to relax. Scripture was becoming what it was for Frye: an important, but essentially decorative feature of the drawing room. It ceased to fill its readers and auditors with awe; and that in turn is what I think made possible the descent from poetry into journalism and prose fiction.

Frye correctly saw that William Blake was astounding, coming as he did so late in the day. To my mind he incorrectly read him in the post-modern way, as a kind of schema, developed from Milton. He could be studied that way, but only at the cost of overlooking his Poetics (in engraving as much as in verse). This “Stranger from Paradise” had no system at all; he drew and wrote as a direct observer. The tradition in which he swam was not something that could be labelled and encased, like a cabinet of curiosities. For Blake it was a garden, even a zoological garden, of living things. As it were, he called forth spirits from the vasty deep, and when he called, they answered.

And so for that handful of poets who in moments have risen above their craft in the time since Blake rebelled from the encasing world of “journalism” and “fiction.” But it can only be a fragmentary rebellion. It calls back a world that has passed away: a world in which knowledge must necessarily serve as the scaffolding for wisdom.

To us, catechists of the post-modern, wisdom is only knowledge in its most gaseous form. Whole books, and real poetry — the most telling tales — cannot be assembled from gas.

Do I make myself clear? I shouldn’t think so.

How to save the environment

“O Lord, deliver us from these turkeys,” is not an orthodox prayer. I cannot imagine a single Catholic saint (or saint of any of the Eastern Churches) muttering it. But then, like Pope Francis, I deny being a saint. Better, I think, to recite the Jesus Prayer, if we are in need of a one-line mantra. (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”)

When in need of profanity, there is Rudyard Kipling. (“If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you …”, &c). He had a gift for the discovery of profane ideas in happy symmetry with the Christian teachings. It was a message instilled, not only in the noble jingle of his verses, but between every line of his epic, Kim, which mesmerized me as a child. You take your lumps, you note your own failures. And you resume your journey along the Grand Trunk Road; resume your search, for the red bull on a green field.

A volume of the Bibliotheca Himalayica, which happens to reside on my shelves, was by G. A. Combe. He was one of those British colonial officers, and his work, first published in 1926, gave an account of Tibet through the eyes of a remarkably perceptive Tibetan, a certain Paul Sherap (formerly Dorje Zödba). While the book is mostly an “insider’s” account of Tibetan ritual and custom, as it was before Western and Communist subversion, it begins with Sherap’s exhilarating biography. It is a kind of Kim that has been strangely inverted. (Tibetan child runs away from home; the bonze he eventually meets is Christian.)

But it is not Sherap’s Christian qualities that are so impressive; rather his inherited Tibetan virtues, that arrest Combes and his reader. There is a quality of fatalism that is, in itself, divine.

Sherap never complains, about anything, yet he endured considerable privations. To every inquiry about his sufferings, he shrugs. Extreme cold is in nature, so is shortage of food and fuel, wild animals, or bandits for that matter. Why should we whine? And if, as a Tibetan, one is captured and tortured by bigoted Chinese — still, nothing to write home about. These things happen.

Combe tempts Sherap with questions to elicit his thoughts on the Chinese. He cannot possibly like his ancient racial enemies, but will confess to no opinions. Only, “eh” and a shrug. He implies: they are people, and people do things like that. It is hardly surprising.

Pushed, to give his candid opinion of what, if anything, might be wrong with the Chinese, he finally obliges. He throws his interlocutor a sop: “I think their women are a bit loose.”

But then he looks ashamed of himself, and the conversation moves on.

As I suggest, this fatalism, or rather, this aspect of fatalism, is something I find profoundly impressive. In my own youthful, Asiatic travels, I sometimes glimpsed it; never in the cities, but in remote rural places. Had I travelled, instead, in mediaeval Europe, I’m sure I would have encountered it there; or in rural Canada, during the dustbowl years; or anywhere far away in space and time from Parkdale, where I live, in the constant state of critique.

It is mimesis, I swear. One picks up one’s habits from one’s environment, and by condemning that environment, one condemns oneself.

Therefore: environmental change begins with not whining.

All the bells are ringing

Was Melania’s speechwriter being droll, in using lines resembling those in an old speech by Michelle? Or perhaps Melania’s husband let her write the speech herself? Or did Democrat hackers break into her teleprompter? In which case, why didn’t they just change the text to Hindi as she came on stage? (Hindi not being among her five languages.) Maybe her spellcheck inserted clichés as she typed? (Mine did that, until I found a way to disable it.) Has anyone checked where Michelle got the lines?

They were scintillating, to the media, when Michelle uttered them. She praised hard work, and family values. No one must have thought of doing that before, in a stump speech. How her words must have resonated over the last eight years, for liberal journalists spotted them in seconds. According to my chief social media observer, the charge of “plagiarism” was filling the twittersphere before Melania finished speaking; possibly before she started. He is checking the time logs now.

A question: Were the journalists plagiarizing each other?

Or had they all decided on the meme in advance?

Melania is the whipping girl “du jour”; the new Sarah Palin. A quick bark, and the whole pack is on her. Every dog wants his piece of her flesh. It is not true, however, that they are misogynist. Their war is only on Republican women.

And this is what has come to pass for “investigative journalism.” It was the top story everywhere before I retired last night; it was still the top story in the morning. By now, any Internet search that includes the word “plagiarism” will stream innumerable attacks on Melania Trump. Too, any search that includes the word “Melania.”

But between us, gentle reader, don’t you think she’s pretty hot for forty-six? Shouldn’t we be asking what moisturizer she uses?

Why our problems are insoluble

As previously reported on this website, the world is falling apart. It has done so before, however, so we should not be unduly alarmed. Given only a few centuries of “dark ages” with physical insecurity and economic stasis, it is quite capable of reassembling itself. Patience is the key.

Let us take Turkey, for this morning’s lay sermon. The democratically-elected tyrant, Erdogan, has now been entrenched and in growing power for about fourteen years. During this time he has “transformed” his country. This invariably requires turning each section of the population against each other. The “Islamic” constituency was already growing, from its habit of generating more children than the “secular” constituency. This was the demographic wave on which Erdogan surfed to power; the tiger he continues to ride — upon the illusions of the ignorant masses who, unbeknown to themselves, are truly godless on both sides.

To the best-informed sections of the Western media, misreporting events in Turkey as elsewhere — and even to media in Turkey herself — the country has been moving “backward” from its “forward” inclination through the decades after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the “transformative” presidency of Kemal Ataturk. This reflects the media’s settled bias towards some antique and incoherent (because self-contradicting) revolutionary goal of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Turkey was becoming “modern.” Now, according to the gliberal sages, it isn’t any more.

By this callow definition of progress, Turkey is moving backwards; but the real gift of modernity is not “secular humanism,” per se. It is popular enthusiasm for the organized, centralized, transformation of society, by political means to idealist ends; for the grand Pharaonic projects of social engineering.

A term like “progress” is meaningless without at least an implied direction. Erdogan in Turkey, as the ayatollahs in Iran, or before them the sheikhs of Wahabi Arabia, show us that the direction need not be towards the liberal, Enlightenment ideals. It could be “progress” in some other direction. What we have in common is the machinery for “change”: the large, bureaucratized, central state, with its monopoly on worldly power.

We will eventually learn if Erdogan “staged” the incredibly naïve and disorganized weekend coup attempt. This would be his style. His theatrical return from holiday to the Istanbul airport stank of it; his calls to the mass of his supporters to take to the streets in defence of his authority. He often creates crises, to justify the violent extension of his personal control. Like the French revolutionists of 1789, he knows how to use the aroused masses as a battering ram or siege engine.

I put “staged” in sceptical quotes, for the method was most likely focused provocation. The high command of the Turkish military was already purged of men whose personal loyalty to Erdogan was in question. He has been replacing or imprisoning “secularist” generals for years. (He also gaols prominent “secularist” journalists.) By threatening to purge lower ranks, he could induce the hopeless rebellion that would then justify their purge. It would further help him identify his opponents (arrests so far announced include 8,000 police and 6,000 soldiers). Several hundred are dead in the crossfire (again, official numbers), but to a psychotic, this is a small price to pay.

Friday night, no one knew what was going on. As of Monday morning, we know that Erdogan’s power has been considerably extended. This does not portend increased law and order. It creates instead a more profound disorder: “progress” towards a more terrible catastrophe. As we have seen through history, especially that of this last and most violent of centuries, tyrannical regimes will eventually disintegrate by their own internal contradictions, if they are not first consumed by war.


Civilizations are created by religion, and destroyed by politics. In the very word, “religion,” we find the principle of true social order — the voluntary direction of each human soul to a higher, encompassing, futurity. It is the unifying principle: men, animated by faith, gathered to serve something “higher” in the sense of transcending the conditions of human existence.

Politics consist in the appropriation of this organic authority by specific men, who put themselves above God, and naturally demand worship. (The vanity of tyrants is on public view.) The religion itself becomes a political tool, as today throughout the Islamic realm. In the West, the triumph of Man over the fear of God is more openly celebrated.

Men today cannot imagine an auctoritas like the mediaeval Catholic; or even like the bourgeois Christian order that persisted into the twentieth century. This is because the present generation have never seen such a thing: even in the debased currency of “motherhood and apple pie.” To them, as to Mao, authority comes down the barrel of a gun. They quail only when it is pointed at them.

From what is familiar to us, we can imagine only a mediaeval Church with the legislative power (which it never had); and popes commanding police and armies (which never existed). We cannot imagine an authority in the minds of men, that was not installed by brain-washing. We do not “reject” the authority of religion. Rather, we cannot imagine it.

We cannot imagine a society — whether Christian or of some other religion — governed ultimately by faith, or genuine belief in a cosmic order, which the ruler himself must serve, and to which he must appeal for his own brief authority. The integument of every such social order has been shattered, in the course of “events.” At best, we imagine a ruler responsible to the wayward people; or to a magically non-violent “multiculture” from which all positive virtue has been eliminated.

Saint Thomas More is to my mind among the greatest statesmen because he could, with sublime courage, articulate the limits of political power. He was martyred because he delineated them in the presence of a great tyrant. He was not executed because the monster, Henry Tudor, was stupid or a hothead. He was executed because Henry was intelligent enough to see that More had got to the crux of the matter. He knew, in effect, that More was a saint, and that other people could see that he was. And that was the very reason he had to kill More — to “gore that sacred cow”; to cow his opponents by showing that he would stop at nothing.

For the man in pursuit of absolute power dares not stop at anything. He dares not ever be humble and meek, nor dream of reconciling with his enemies. He must not concede; he must break them; he must be seen to break them. It is “triumph of the will.”

Religion, by contrast, is ever commanding us to stop; to study and to know our limitations. It builds upon humility, not wrath.


Rouault was born under a bombardment of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. (In 1871; died 1958.) In the district of Belleville, before it was an arrondissement, he first saw the light of this world. A shell hit the side of the house, sending his mother into labour. The extended family within retreated to the cellar. Grandfather was separated from the rest, as bombs landed in the street like hail; but during a lull he found his way back to what was left of home.

“Is everyone dead down there?” he called, into the hole.

“No, in fact we are one more,” replied the grandmother.

The story appeals to me on multiple levels. At the top, what a fine setting for dry humour. One knows immediately that these two oldies had a happy marriage. That they were ready for anything, all along. Birth, death, war, carnage: you take it as it comes. Through all, you stay Catholic.

This maternal grandfather (Alexandre Champdavoine) was not rich. He had foresight, nevertheless, having blest the new grandchild with many wonderful aunts. He was an art collector, owning in total two plaster busts: one of Racine and one of Corneille. Too, he collected cheap art reproductions, being addicted to Manet and Courbet. He could not afford books, but would borrow and copy them out. Among Rouault’s prize possessions, in later life, was his grandfather’s Orlando Furioso, patiently transcribed: every page of a French translation.

For years I did not like Georges Rouault’s paintings. They struck me as crude and “simplismic.” Perhaps if he had taken up stained glass, I thought, the style would be more appropriate. (I did not know Rouault had worked as a stained-glass restorer.) It needed backlighting. I had seen several of his oils, hanging in museums. The impasto was impressive. It seemed, from close, that one was looking over the relief model of a battlefield. Could he do anything more delicate in pencil?

This was when I was quite young and, arguably, even stupider than I am today. Eventually, however, the penny dropt, and I began to understand what Rouault was about. Then he became one of my major heroes: an artist of commanding grace.

But of course he could draw, delicately, and I have since seen the sensitive sketches of his youth and early manhood. He painted the way he did on purpose, when he came into his powers. He painted in the confident lines of the artists in the caves of Lascaux. Neither he, nor his talent, were narrow. He painted, set aside, returned to his paintings. There was nothing unintentional in them. He had what we call “a vision,” and would not compromise.

He belonged to that generation who came to full maturity “between the Wars” — the fathers of twentieth-century “modern art,” building upon Cézanne and Degas; or rebuilding. Each was a traditionalist of a certain kind, more aware and more devoted to “art history” than painters of any previous generation. A surprising number were intensely Catholic, and among those not, a surprising number were some other sort of religious nutjobs. I think I wrote about this somewhere: that one cannot begin to understand the greatest art of the twentieth century — extending into the 1950s and sometimes beyond — without beginning to understand the artists’ intentions. They were publicized as revolutionaries, but in almost every case, the artist was instead a thundering reactionary, whose actual views on almost any topic would curl your ears.

Rouault, among the least intellectual, had perhaps the clearest idea what he was doing. He drilled shafts to older artists long dead (including Rembrandt, whose prints, I think, provide a skeleton key to Rouault’s tactics), without the props of “analysis”; he dealt in mysterious continuities. I would characterize his whole production as an attempt (remarkably successful) to perdure in Christian art, for all that had been lost through meretricious generations. He is romanesque, gothic, baroque — and something else that carries beyond them. It is as if Christian civilization had never been diminished. For where others sought to recreate or reinvent — to make a new start, to find a new path — Rouault took only the old road home.

He loathed, even more than I loathe, sentimental clutter — the kitsch that is still merchandized to the guileless faithful in Catholic trinket stores — not because it is “in poor taste,” but because it dulls and degrades their faith; drains the blood; makes us anaemic. There is nothing cheaply “romantic,” nor “pretty,” nor prissy, nor prudish, in Rouault’s depictions of Paris street life. He paints souls, through faces; he can show us the squalour of a prostitute, and through it to her immortal, God-created worth. His pictures belong in churches, not museums. I imagine them sometimes as altarpieces. I transfer them, by recollection, into an apse that looks empty or weak. The real presence has infused them.

He is such a gift, to the meek of a Church that has been losing her way; to those led, as today, by cowardly or false shepherds. How natural that he should be delivered into the world by a cannon.

Nasty in Nice

What is the news here? … A lorry drives a mile through trapped crowds at a Bastille Day celebration, killing dozens of people along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. The driver was a Muslim terrorist, as usual. Police finally shot him dead. They are now looking into his background and connexions.

And? … That is the whole story.

Anything the media can add to these plain facts is prurient and macabre. Moreover, it is helpful to the other side. Grand public displays of “mourning” make it worse; for that is the effect the terrorists are seeking. Why should we play into their hands?

Each victim had a family with a circle of friends, for whom the horror is real, and the mourning may be genuine. The rest — the millions — are putting on a show, advertising France, and the West generally, as squeamish and unmanly; as one big soft underbelly. It “sends a message” back to the Islamists, and that message is: “Keep it up!”

But I am myself looking through the front pages of newspapers from France and all over: covered with the colour photographs to full bleed, with big banner headlines. Nor is there a news website not painted the same way. Somehow (and I know how, from having worked with these ghouls) they manage to fill page after page with redundant or unnecessary details.

To condemn such attacks is pointless. The iniquity is too obvious for that. Every form of venting can be done privately. Those who applaud such carnage, will not be reached by words of disapproval. They need no publicity, either; we only need to know where they live, so those without citizenship can be deported; and those with, watched carefully.

Supposing we wanted the terrorism to stop, this is how we would do it. As a practical matter of security, it would be good if Europe’s Schengen area could be broken up again, into national sectors. (Illegals may get across one border; but can they get across two?)

And so on: I have visited this topic before. When we have an enemy who is infiltrating, to purpose of our harm, we should not play nice. If we do, we make ourselves complicit in the evil. Self-defence is not only a “right.” It is, as Western man once understood, a moral duty.


Shame is not guilt. There is no social value in shaming individuals; this only corrupts the shamers. There is no intrinsic moral value in the feeling of shame, as there is none in any other common human emotion. Feelings are just feelings. Everybody has them. Shame can only be of value as a first corrective, to the man or woman who is going very wrong. But for the sake of redemption, one must feel not shame, but guilt. And not merely feel it, for guilt is not a “feelie”; rather one should learn and know it, objectively. We have too many “feelers” today; we need more “knowers.”

Thus let us say, know guilt — for what one has done; for what was objectively evil. Guilt thus accords with voluntary penance, in the sight not of man but of God; and with accepting the punishment proportional to the crime, in the sight of man, only.

Whereas, shame is just an involuntary penance. A penance hardly counts, until it is consciously embraced. When publicly expressed, it is mere showboating. One is too many; showboats should be sunk.

On the other hand, we need not worry about a person’s emotional or spiritual condition, to punish him for a crime. All we need to prove is intent. That, too, should be objective. Find the appropriate law, and nail him, by the correct procedures. We never needed murky “hate laws” for this. We already had a fairly good hold on what is a serious crime, and what isn’t.

There are, however, in this fallen world, true outlaws — and the Islamists provide a good example. The correct procedure in this case is instead, to track them down and kill them. For true outlaws are outside the law. They seek the destruction of reasonable positive law itself, and will not politely surrender.

One could easily be too gentle with such people. They are psychopathic killers, and we need to get them before they get us. This is war, not Judge Judy; war is not like theft or tax evasion. Those who can be rounded up — who can be arrested and hand-cuffed without excessive drama — need trials. Those who can’t, need killin’.

Verily, the law itself used to understand this.

We should get these things straight, once again, by recovering a calm, rationally consistent, Catholic worldview — that does not tolerate grave wickedness, but is not much surprised by it, either. Instead we seem to have everything crooked. We tolerate wickedness; we cultivate our surprise.