Essays in Idleness


Choose life

In Saint Luke’s Gospel for today, the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (in case you have lost count), ten lepers appeal to Jesus. They wish to be healed. He sends them off to the priests. Along the way, they notice that they have been cured. Then one returns to thank Jesus. He just happens to be “a foreigner” — Samaritan, as it turns out. (Who’d have guessed?) Jesus asks, rhetorically, what happened to the other nine?

Often I recall this parable when, sometimes in defiance of obligation, the thought passes through my head, that I don’t want to go to Mass today; to go to where Christ is. There could be many reasons why I might not want to go. Humour can sometimes be had, by listing them, shallow as most are. Perhaps even a fragment of useful self-knowledge might be obtained, thereby. But not too much, or it will make you late for church.

There are various reasons to attend — to “assist” in the Sacrifice of the Mass as our saying goes — but these tend to be more serious. Example: gratitude for being alive. Should we thank God for this? On balance, I would think so. The desire not to have been born remains uncommon. As Jesus mentioned of Judas, that would be better for the man who chooses death, given human immortality. (Of course, He did not mention whether Judas went to Hell, since that was none of our business.)

But once conceived, being alive ceases to be “an option.” One might as well be happy about it. I, at least, still think it is a positive, to be (as it were) “cured” of the condition of non-existence. There are pagans and atheists who disagree; but few of those to be found, anyway, in foxholes or churches.

There are irritating people to be found in the temple, including, sometimes, irritating priests. But then I have noticed that there are irritating people to be found all over.

With whom shall I side, the Christians or the lions?

So yes, I think I ought to go to church.

Olympic special

Until this week, I knew nothing whatever about a 19-year-old girl from Texas who is two feet shorter than my elder son, and rather good at gymnastics. Now I know more, without really having wished to know more, thanks to world media. I have also seen a video in which this Simone Biles does things in a floor routine that I did not think humanly possible; so that I found myself involuntarily cheering, and almost with tears in my eyes. I seem to remember a little Romanian girl, named Nadia Comaneci, who did vaguely similar things. On checking, I find that was forty years ago. I know nothing about gymnastics, so perhaps am easily impressed.

As a schoolboy, I was compelled to do gymnastics as part of something called “Phys. Ed.” From the start, I knew that I would not make a career of it; that if I were to find lucrative commercial sponsorships, it would have to be for something else. My instructor said I did some things he didn’t think humanly possible. He added, however, that he had not thought it possible for a boy to be so awkward. “Phil,” as he insisted on being called — in defiance of the convention that a teacher should be a “Mister” at least — was, also memorably, a strict and somewhat loud-mouthed Darwinist. I speculated that he was trying to get me killed, for the sake of the rest of our species. (To be fair, he got me sent to hospital only once.)

Like Rabelais, I keep lists. For instance, I keep special prayer lists for people I might otherwise overlook, in various groups. “My old schoolteachers” is one such example. But Phil is not on that list. Instead, he is on another, for “people I have wanted to shoot,” in my turn. These lists can never be complete, but as a Christian one must make one’s best inclusive effort.

I have no list for Olympic stars. They are, frankly, not my cup of whisky; someone else will have to take care of them. In my career as a hack journalist, when doing interviews for the features pages, I think I met more porn stars than athletes; and the closest thing to gymnasts were ballerinas. (Interviewed that Imelda Marcos once; but haven’t yet assigned her to a category.)

At this point, I do not expect to interview Simone Biles, so have no need to read up on her. I merely scanned two starstruck items in the electronic aether, in the knowledge that if there is anything unusual or interesting to tell, it will be omitted. For journalists have their mental checklists of topics to belabour, and topics to ignore; and contemporary journalists are largely interchangeable.

By now, I should think everyone knows that her mother was a drug addict, so that from age five she was raised by her conscientious grandparents, who sacrificed their holidays to take her to sports meets when they discovered her talents; that she adores them and calls them mom and dad. Which is good: to be reminded that some of the best upbringings begin in broken homes, by the grace of God.

My email correspondents send me all the good stuff, however — the stuff that “major media” don’t think we need to know. And from one of those I gleaned this additional little nugget about Miss Biles: that she’s a fixture at daily Mass, who carries a Rosary in her kitbag.

Which she will need, as the whole world conspires to corrupt her.

Here is a title

A controversy smoulders in the life of letters, of which gentle reader may be unaware. It may be detected from distant little whisps of smoke; occasionally it blazes, but far, far away. It is one of those questions to which there can be only two answers; which promise no “middle way.” It applies to books, primarily, but may also vex writers of poems and essays. The question is: which to write first, the title or the “text”?

Truth to tell, this is a very modern problem. In the good old days (that ended some time in the fifteenth century) it could not exist. Books back then had no titles. Or rather, they took their titles, for cataloguing purposes, from the first several words of the text. The popes still do this by convention, although the habit of draughting in universal Latin has now been discarded, and who knows what will go next. Sometimes the book would prove so popular that it might acquire a nickname, such as “Iliad” or “Odyssey.” But these were attached by readers, or librarians, without consulting the author, long dead.

Much changed, with the invention of printing, which made literature so accessible and cheap. I suspect this was one of the changes: the need for louder, more distinctive labelling, to grab the purchaser’s attention in a market soon cloyed. Indeed, were I not so idle, I think I could prove it.

Open your Horatius, gentle reader, and leaf through the pages. The poems have no titles. They are grouped in old-technology “books” by genre, and numbered. Now, Horace was a self-conscious author — a “preener” just between you and me — I’m sure he would have loved to write droll titles for all of his effusions. But he knew that would be gauche. So like the Psalms, we call up his carmina by number, or by the opening phrase.

By tradition, this little essay should have been headed, “A controversy smoulders.” But I can’t help myself, for I am not only a preener but a modern, and the chance of a title is available to me. This is like everything else that is modern, or post-modern, or post-post: who can resist?


The issue came once again to a head last week, while drinking with my buddies in a decaying pub in the wrong part of town (the middle). Often, there is some altercation in the street outside; hardly ever inside, given the clientèle. For we are old and lazy. The fights are more vivid to those of us who smoke, and therefore go out on the sidewalk every hour or less. This sets one, as it were, in the middle of the middle of things.

In this case smoking was unnecessary, however, because the young lady pugilists were bouncing off the windows by which we sat.

Nine of them, there were — corresponding to the Muses, I reflected from my count. Students, I would guess, from Ryerson “University,” which is in course of being Islamicized. All were dressed in wonderfully dignified blacks or dark browns, head to toe; all but one with elegant head-scarves — as upon the tanagra that make me homesick for Rhakotis. By their voices and their beautifully dark, round faces, their sparkling eyes, I could see they were Somali.

They were having what in our unselfconscious youth we might have called “a catfight.” Though we feared for the integrity of the glass that separated us from the participants, we were highly entertained. It was years since any of us elderly gentlemen had had the opportunity to watch a good catfight from up close.

At some point, the one young lady who happened to be sans jilbab fled into the pub. This was not to order a drink, I should explain — which any of us would gallantly have stood her. Rather, it was to pace back and forth like a caged lioness. It became evident that she was the focus, the protagonist of the drama. Providence had supplied her with this sanctuary from a seething, teetotal mob.

Wanting a cigarette, I went out, skirting these thrashing women who, for a pleasant change, were not after all angry with me.

Three young Somali males then arrived, with smiles on their rather irksomely smug faces. I was delighted to note that the girls ignored them, and continued to convulse in their pre-classical manner, as might the Dionysian priestesses in an hysterical, maenadic dance. Eventually all moved away; but not before I was able to determine, from English locutions whizzed within the storm, the efficient cause of their lively disputation. One of the girls had accused another of stealing her cellphone. It is pure speculation on my part that the lioness, still pacing, had been presumed guilty.

She, too, disappeared, after a kindly fat old Ryerson professor had gone out on her behalf, to find the coast clear.


A more attractive spectacle, I must say, than the previous week’s entertainment, when a man who might answer to the anachronist’s description of “a drug-crazed hippie” slammed a heavy, spiked chunk of builders’ wood against the window of the shop next door. The Chinese proprietor then emerged, twirling a golf club — a four-iron, on later inspection of its remains. Alas, for him: a high-tech golf club, with its flimsy graphite stalk, of use in battle only as a sling. The wielder became much the more gashed as the contest progressed into an alleyway.

Several public-spirited lads stepped smartly forward to break them up. A shrieking jury of multi-racial girls, with accents unmistakeably Canadian, continued to debate among themselves, on which contestant had “started it” — until reaching their uninformed consensus. Meanwhile, a Chinese shop assistant led his bloodied employer away, while begging onlookers not to call police. I doubt anyone had thought of that, anyway: the police in Toronto generally having “more important things to do.” (By one estimate, paperwork takes up four-fifths of their time.)

Bear with me, gentle reader, even though I may seem to have wandered off-topic.


Returning to the table, of my fellow elders, French and English relics of Canada’s placid, suffocating past — when cops were easily diverted by a bust-up — I was in both instances carefully debriefed. The conversation moved on. Pierre, let us call him (for that is his name), asked me after the latter occasion what I would write the next morning. I told him my title would be, “Torments of the damned.”

“What torments for which damned?” he asked, with the sangfroid of a Cardinal Archbishop’s nephew.

“I don’t know, I haven’t written it yet.”

It is a point of pride with me, an axiom of craft, that having selected a title, I must write an essay to justify it — even if in a gratuitously obscure way. Gentle reader may judge from the archive of the Catholic Thing whether I succeeded.

On several occasions, when my (dubious) services have been requested as a “literary adviser,” I have had to pronounce on the question of titles. “Which is more important, the title or the book?” I have been asked, by wide-eyed novices.

My answer is, “The title, of course. A good title can make a book chart; it can move otherwise immovable stock. Whereas, the book itself will interest no one.”

Verily, write a memorable title, and people will have to buy the book, to back up their claims to have read it already, and make their admiration of the author’s bold originality the more plausible, even to themselves.

It follows, I should think, as night the day, that the aspiring author should expend all his best energies in composing and polishing a brilliant title. His “downtime” may then be exercitated upon the provision of some decorous bulk.

The poor wealthy

While I seldom approve the cheap argumentative tactic of guilt by association, it has its uses. Like circumstantial evidence, there are stronger and weaker forms. If you are Goering, I should think guilt by association with Hitler a reasonable charge. But if you are just a small-town politician who kisses babies, as Hitler is known to have kissed the little Aryan tots, and dawdled them about for the cameras, I would hold fire for a moment or two. The comparison might prove inapt, in other respects of behaviour.

Weaker yet is innocence by non-association; so weak that it is usually kept to oneself. Like a Pharisee, I congratulate myself for not being among the mass murderers of history; for never having carried out a bank heist; for not having tortured even one kitten; for having thrown no grenadoes into crowded places, and shot none of the people I dislike; notwithstanding temptation. I consider myself better than many I could name who have done such things, with whom I have been in no way associated. But now that I am arranging my file for the canonical process, I see that it is thin. For what have I done on the side of charity?

The reverse of this is more formidably damning. One discovers that one has performed some shameful act, or adopted some reprehensible opinion, in common with a notoriously Bad Person. The realization may, to a man of moral sensibility, occasion some brief thrill of remorse. Why am I kissing this baby? — he might ask. Or, do I really share a worldview with Attila the Hun?

Little Deng Hsiao-ping, chief commissar of Red China, so paramount a leader that he didn’t need a title — father of communist capitalism; butcher of Tiananmen Square — famously averred that, “It is good to be rich.”

Now, Deng has been praised, even privately in China, for having been not as bad as Mao Tse-tung. That is to say, his arm was dipped in blood only to the wrist, not past the elbow. (Mere thousands; not thirty million and up.) By my own standards for sanctity, however, he left much to be desired. By a more worldly standard, one might commend him for living to the age of ninety-two, in an environment that did not foster longevity. (Is it good to be old?) I will allow myself a sneaking regard for people who, though evil in themselves, impede the odd horrible crime, whatever their motives. For here, the Catholic doctrine must be, that in a time and place where things have gone downhill, and are yet going, it is good to prevent the worst from happening.

Still, he was a monster — anyone who rose to the top of that system had to be. And so, the prescriptions for good and bad, in what we might fancifully call the Book of Deng, are to be taken with a grain of salt, and perhaps a vat of some powerful cologne. If the man says, “It is good to be rich,” my instinct is to say the opposite.

The remark is too vague, to be examined logically. Good for whom? In the poetry of classical Chinese, the point could be left open. Good, arguably, for those who get to eat thanks to Chinese Communist trickle-down economics. Good, potentially, if the wealth is employed in a genuinely philanthropic spirit (remembering that most formally philanthropic acts are morally and aesthetically disgusting). But good for the owner of the wealth? And if so, good in what sense?

If the purpose of life were sensual indulgence, as a man like Deng might be compelled to uphold, it is not necessarily better to be rich. For even the narrowly sensual have capacities for enjoyment quite separable from wealth; and water to the desert trekker might taste better than the finest wine to him who lives in bloat. Thus even in the shallowest analysis, “good to be rich” is too shallow.

Great wealth is a great weight, moreover. It must be carried every hour of every day, and worried about while sleeping. Those who envy the very rich may value it more than the rich themselves.

I see, for instance, from some little media item, that two in three Ontario lottery winners are utterly destitute within five years; and I should think a larger proportion are ruined by such “good fortune.” Their lives become a shambles as their expectations of pleasure constantly outstrip the pleasure itself. (Surely Casanova was afflicted by the thought, okay, one more, but just for the record.) Having had no apprenticeship in the management of wealth — in all of its material and spiritual aspects — they go in over their heads. They would have been wiser to keep just enough to quit their miserable dayjobs, and give the excess away.

But here I will segue to the 6th Duke of Westminster, Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor, among the richest men alive. Or rather, was, until yesterday, when — at approximately my age, I noticed — he was “suddenly taken ill” at his Lancashire estate, and soon thereafter, pronounced dead. In this extremity he may or may not have had a moment to reflect, that his money was no use to him any more. Upon young Hugh Grosvenor, his only son, the mantle now falls. May he bear it lightly.

The wealth of the Grosvenor family originates in the clever ancestor who bought a few hundred acres of swamp and pasture, under what later became Mayfair and Belgravia. Or rather it was the Davies family who did that, but Sir Thomas Grosvenor who, in 1677, cleverly married in. A lot of other property was acquired over the years, across England and around the world; and various difficulties were astutely overcome, so that today the family business is worth, say, ten billion pounds.

It should be mentioned that, over the generations, the family did not merely sit in their pastures. They were property developers, of great energy; they built up a financing and investment consortium of considerable expertise. That they could survive e.g. the death duties and other tax piracies of viciously socialist governments through the last century, is to the credit of more than one canny Grosvenor.

For wealth, you see, has to be managed. Or else, as the lottery winners discover, it fritters away. And the management of wealth can be oppressively boring. To me, at least, having to spend much of one’s day in the company of bankers, corporate lawyers, and finical estate managers, would be an insupportable ordeal. (Well, maybe the odd spot of litigation would be fun.) Castles are nice, I will admit, but more to visit than to live in; for any castle beyond a somewhat rambling farm-house is the devil to maintain. (As a North American, I dislike having to deal with servants.) For the rest, who needs it?

They are the commercial properties that bring in the lolly. And those, to be successful, must be dull, dull, dull.

Pass me just one of those billions, and I’d be interviewing architects for unrelated projects, such as monasteries and cathedrals, and the strangest imaginable hospices and hospitals for the undeserving, transient poor. Or finding priests to mount wild missionary endeavours in exotic and dangerous lands (such as Canada). Or collecting libraries and Alexandrian museums to seat in remote and picturesque places. Within half a decade, at most, I would have blown the wad, and run short of cash for the endowments.

And meanwhile, my Presbyterian ancestors would be spinning even quicker in their graves, drilling long tunnels through the Gaelic mountains, and chambers deep beneath the turbid Atlantic Sea.

Everything I know about the late Duke of Westminster (not very much) suggests that he was, all round, what the British call a good egg. I suppose that I prefer those to addled ones. He did his best for various unobjectionable causes, not all of them ostentatious. Prince Charles will apparently attest that he was a loyal and reliable friend. I gather that he was an enthusiastic sportsman, and joyful participant in other merry games. We will see about Hugh in due course.

I have no objection to people of great wealth, until they start spending it on something ugly, as alas our post-modern Mansa Musas are likely to do. Nor do I pity them, as I might pity some of my neighbours in Parkdale, here. But speaking, as ever, only for myself, let me say that the possessor of a huge fortune has a life that strikes me as harder than mine, gentle reader.

Voting against elections

An overwhelming majority in Thailand have voted against “democracy.” Instead, in their referendum, they supported the latest of that country’s paper constitutions, which promises to give them a break from popularly-elected governments in the foreseeable future. Instead they may hope to enjoy a period of domestic tranquillity, under the authoritarian ministrations of the Thai army, navy, air force, and police. Unless, of course, these institutions fall out among themselves, as they have sometimes done in the past. True, there will still be a popularly-elected Lower House; but it will be in the power of an appointive Upper one, which will be in the power of a few generals. I have read little in the 279 articles of this latest constitution, but one gets the gist.

It will be the twenty-first new Thai Constitution since absolute monarchy was overthrown — by the military in the name of “democracy” — in 1932. That is according to Internet sources; as an old Siam hand, myself, I lost count thirty years ago.

My favourite military despot was, incidentally, Sarit Thanarat: whose coup in 1957 was followed by an earnest and quixotic attempt to turn the clock backwards, and re-establish the prestige of His Majesty the King. (Who remains to this day, it is marvellous to say, after seventy years upon the throne, Phra Bat Somdet — Bhumipol Adulyadej — Paraminthra, Chakkrinaruebodin, Borommanatthabophit!)

Unfortunately, a return to absolute monarchy — which had delivered peace, order, and unity, with minimal intrusive government or taxes, through so many preceding centuries — was never on any ballot. A terrible oversight, to my mind: for through the ’seventies, and probably later, this proposition could easily have won in every blesséd changwat.

By now, the decades have carried me too far away from the daily realities of the Bangkok in which I once lived, to have an intelligent opinion. The few old friends I am sometimes in touch with tell me things I only half believe. This is because they remain too close to the action. For there are two ways to misunderstand everything that is going on in a country. One is to be outside, and the other is to be inside.

This is the human condition, more or less. We cannot get near to understanding anything, unless we are partisans in the cause; in which case we cannot be impartial. Of course, gentle reader may think that I am joking.

A complicating factor is that a country, or any country larger than, say, Monaco (which has the prettiest stamps), is more than one place. In my day, those who lived in Bangkok looked upon the “upcountry” (many very different regions) with what could be described as benign contempt. It was known to be full of ignorant peasants (e.g. the skilled rice farmers on whom the city-folk depended, for their survival). But these could still be sentimentalized, and condescended to.

There were those upcountry who migrated to Bangkok, in the hope of getting rich. The rest might look upon the city (accurately, I think) as the Israelites came to look upon Sodom and Gomorrah. They were, as they had been from time out of mind, happy where they were, and with how they lived; they had no immediate interest in being de-moralized and de-racinated. People lived and died in the shade of the Buddhist temples, whose monks instructed them in the art of making merit, in return for propitiatory gifts.

On the other hand, thanks to our old friend Technology, modern media and advertising began reaching them with its constantly buzzing and drumming refrain: that one ought to be dissatisfied with one’s portion in life. And politicians were promising them stuff for nothing. Being ignorant peasants, lacking sophistication, they tended to associate all such works with the devil.

Meanwhile their young are bought off, one by one.

What amuses me now is the complaint, made against the Thai electorate by the international partisans of democracy. This electorate is held to be too stupid, and too poorly informed, to understand why they must vote for democracy; too weary, too easily put off by the chaos and violence it has engendered. Perhaps the advocates of democracy should think this through. If people are too stupid to do anything right, how are they smart enough to choose their own leaders? In fact, the Thai voters made a botch of that, and have now elected to pass on their next chance to make things worse.

Representative democracy is a system, as we learnt from the scholastics in the West, by which a nation is divided into rival factions, invasive of all private life. It is a way in which self-interested politicians can be elevated above all other classes, and enabled to divide all spoils. It is a means by which the mortal sins can be advanced, using the keys of pride and envy to open all the rest. It is a device for reducing order to chaos. But the scholastics had never experienced modern democracy. They looked upon it only as an hypothesis, a pure “thought experiment.” Had they been able to experience the real thing, I’m sure their condemnation would have been stronger.

From this distance we tend to look upon such Asiatic peoples as the Thai with what could be described as benign contempt. They cannot handle democracy, the way we can in the West. We alone have the maturity, the knowledge and sophistication to make wise collective choices.

Such as that between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Organized religion

Not for the first time in my experience, but for the first time in more than a week, I encountered a young lady on the weekend who told me that she believes in God, but fears organized religion.

“But it is very poorly organized,” I tried to assure her.

Normally I ask which god, or gods are favoured. There are so many in the marketplace today, I do not like to presume on brand loyalties. For whatever can be said against laissez-faire, one is compelled to admit that modern arts and sciences have stocked our supermarkets full. It is only when one looks at the fine print on the packaging, to read the ingredients, that one is inclined to scratch one’s head. None of these variously advertised gods strikes me as fresh.

The One into Whom I have bought, or more precisely by Whom I hope to have been boughten, “came down from Heaven” in a provocative way. Careful examination of the background, and also of the foreground of the Scriptures, has led me to the conclusion that they are authoritative, if often misunderstood. I note that Our Lord was personally guilty of founding one of these “organized religions,” and of appointing the deeply flawed Saint Peter as its first CEO. And that, whatever can be said against it, the organization is still around, with the same sales message never yet updated, and in as much of a mess as ever before.

Verily, the more I read of history, the better persuaded I become that Catholic Church, TM, has been on the brink of collapse, continuously, these last two thousand years. As Hilaire Belloc put it, and I do love to quote this:

“The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine — but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”

By comparison, I suppose, the Prophet of Submission could be accounted wiser, to have taken arms against his sea of troubles. His outfit would descend from the unattended dunes upon complacent strangers, in hours when they were unaware. (The whole process arguably in anticipation of the Welsh art of Llap-goch.)

For our “Christian” part, even in the colonies, it was the piratical State that arrived this way — with a disorganized gaggle of proselytizing priests, seldom in their baggage, under the impression they must save men’s souls, wherever the ships sailed — unarmed, and frequently alone, in circumstances perfectly unpredictable, except for the reasonable expectation of a grisly end. They were, in the Americas as elsewhere, more likely to be pleading on behalf of the beleaguered natives against the State, than exacting tributes to the State’s command.

There is a real contrast here in marketing strategies.

But yes, our religion is “organized” in the sense that it is formally hierarchical, and the Sacraments are “administered” in an aforethought way. That much has not changed, and even the architectural arrangement of our franchises has remained fairly constant on the crucifix floorplan, with the head pointing, at least in principle, to the East. (Not towards the Tomb, but instead towards the rising Sun, which is why the churches east of Jerusalem also point east, sort-of.)

And as Cardinal Sarah recently reminded, our priests are supposed to be pointed that way, too: ad orientem, as the saying goes. Verily, it is a mark of our current state of confusion, disorder, debilitation, attenuation, and horseplay, that so many of them are pointed the wrong direction.

Hence the rest of my reply to that sweet young ingénue:

“Please, lady, you do us too much credit. We are only trying to be an organized religion. We haven’t got there yet; your fears are premature.”

Zombie theories

When you look for something and don’t find it, the explanation might be that it is not there. At least, that is the case up here in the High Doganate. I have, for instance, satisfied myself that there is no woolly mammoth living in these rooms, no dodo ensconced on the balconata, no blue whale swimming in my tub, nor even an hippo wading. The case is more subtle with fermions and bosons — I am actually persuaded by the Standard Model of Physics that they must be here, though I cannot spy even one. And who knows what other subatomic particles. Many superatomic, indeed supermolecular particles I have been able to detect under a magnifying glass, but without announcing it to the world. Only last February I acknowledged in this space the possibility of gravity waves; and a Higgs’ Boson may have passed through without my noticing.

To be frank with you, gentle reader, I do not have the (U.S.) 13.25 billion that was required to detect this last; and may not have, unless PayPal contributions increase substantially. … (Hint.) … Nor, really, do I find space up here to fit another Large Hadron Collider. The one a little west of Lake Geneva in Europe will have to do for the foreseeable future.

I do not know what it has cost them to not find any other particles, but so far more than a billion a year.

Through the pop science media, I heard the fanfare that accompanied the possibility that the LHC community had found one such particle, in May. Since, the bump they discovered in the data has disappeared. They begin to forget, but at the time — ancient history now, three months ago — the world’s fund-providers were being told, with uncontainable excitement, that they were on the verge of nailing the first evidence of something beyond the Higgs’ Boson (which was predicted in the Standard Theory). The “holy grail” (as they like to call it, in celebration of themselves) was at hand. Visions of Supersymmetry abounded.

Now we are told we will have to wait, and in view of the complexity of their undertaking, possibly forever. Dark matter, dark energy, dark this and dark that filling the “96 percent” of the universe which the Standard Model cannot account for, must continue to tease.

Here is where it gets rather sad. All this expensive equipment, and several millennia of research-person lives, are premissed on a hope of showing that something from the last half-century of theoretical physics corresponds to “real.” Whole multiverses depend on it, to say nothing of the string theories. The very idea that pretty math is an infallible predictor of pretty events might be on the line.

Except, it isn’t.

Sometime during the 1960s, the age of “zombie theories” burst upon the planet. The previous scientific revolutions (say: Alexandrian, Mediaeval, Copernican, and Victorian), in which theory was adapted to the explanation of phenomena that had been observed, have been succeeded by an “evolution” wherein pure theory enjoys a life of its own. In the craved new world of particle physics, we have propositions as undisprovable as the tenets of Darwinian biology: the “plausible” ever more fully detached from the “demonstrable.” We have desert mirages that could be pursued indefinitely.

Galileo and Kepler both, to my recollection, distinguished the world on paper from the world of sensory observation, insisting upon the priority of the latter. Today, we have what could be politely described as a “semantic shift” — an inversion in the sciences that, at least to me (and who else writes these little squibs?) resembles the inversion of our moral values.

Which is to say, hard testable fact dissolving into somebody’s utterly unsubstantiated “theories.”

Chronicles of torment, &c

My piece over at Catholic Thing this morning (here) is once again assigned to my Idlepost readers. What I write for them is probably better than what I write here, for I’m compelled to stop after one thousand words. Also, there is “editorial oversight,” the anticipation of which makes one less wayward. The commentariat at the Thing is, for some, an attraction. I have noticed that certain self-established commentators hold court, and post not on my, but on their own, personal obsessions. Subsequent comments are addressed mostly to them, which has the effect of excusing one from any sort of liability. Choose a highly political topic, and one hundred comments will self-assemble around the usual nodes. Choose one that is narrowly “religious,” or “philosophical,” and maybe a dozen will appear. This is impressive, for at a more “secular” website (or as I like to say, “profane”), the ratio will be closer to a million to one.

We (religious nutjobs, such as myself) do not risk prison by our writings, because they are so easy to ignore. Believing Catholics, and other Christians, have managed to locate “the still point” in the moving media world. Those who would persecute, will first have to find us. Our views might be expressed in provocative language, but will be soon seen of no consequence, given present public concerns.

One might claim to be writing for future generations, but I doubt the Internet cloud will persist. Moreover, I am persuaded by my readings in history that future generations will prove as stupid, and incapable of learning from experience. Hope for the world’s future has always been misplaced. We are wiser to fix our hopes on Heaven.

By contrast, the views of the more flamboyant Muslims are noticed, but only because they are blowing things up. I should think that if a Catholic, or even a Presbyterian, were to detonate bombs in a crowded place, while citing passages from Scripture, we would be taken more seriously. It would also help if we had millions of refugees, from countries under Christian theocratic rule, to improve our demographics. But on checking I find that there are no such countries.

Our pope tells us — and here I should allow that his remarks may have been a sarcastic parody of the crazed, liberal way of thinking — that Catholics in Italy commit as many violent crimes as Muslims; and, I would guess, in Argentina, too. He notes that upon consulting his newspaper each morning (he claims to read only La Repubblica, the communist paper) he discovers that some possibly Catholic person has murdered, say, his accountant, or his mother-in-law. He insists that all religions have their fundamentalists — Catholics, too — and so, who is he to judge?

Perhaps if, while murdering unwanted tradesmen and relatives, Christians would remember to shout, “Jesus is Lord!” — they would get the rest of us more publicity. Alas, I suspect they do it for the tedious, customary reasons; their “hate crimes” focused on only one person at a time. Yet even there, the traditional Muslim may be tarred for his statistical advantage, for the poor man could have four mothers-in-law to deal with.

We are told, incessantly, that the great majority of Muslim people are peaceful and law-abiding. This is also true of the rest of the human race. Is it not unfair that this should be specified only of adherents to Islam? Again, one suspects some invidious special pleading: for surely the fact that Muslims are like the other humans — complacent, anxious, trying to get by — should not need explaining.

My piece at the Thing this morning has nothing to do with Islam, incidentally. It has more to do with that background complacency, in its Western, post-modern iterations. There are different ways to escape this condition, and let me clarify that becoming a violent psychopath is not the option I prefer.

Of bombs and bulldozers

Cyrene, Leptis Magna, Sabratha, Ghadames, Tadrart Acacus — are among the archaeological sites now being bulldozed or similarly molested by the Daesh, in Libya. While the destruction of populated Aleppo in Syria is closer to the front-page news, I saw mention of these Libyan places in a media “Style” section this morning.

From an economic perspective, I suppose, it is not much of a story: Libya has no tourist industry left to lose. Neither, for that matter, has any other North African or Middle Eastern country, except Israel and the disneylands of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, patiently awaiting their turn. As an opponent, generally, of the whole tourist trade, which everywhere overwrites the genuine with the virtual, one might think I would be more enthusiastic. But no, I should like to see the genuine preserved, including the peace of genuine pilgrims and travellers.

As I have written before, there are innumerable monuments, scattered across the old middle of the world, some of them extremely large; and the Daesh are inefficient. Those possessed by devils — so often misdiagnosed as “mentally ill” — usually are. (“Get away from me Satan” were apparently the last words of that murdered priest in France.)

By their end, the present generation of Muslim terrorists will probably have scratched only the surface of the world’s archaeological heritage, most of which anyway lies buried still. They can hardly compete with the ravages of time. And thanks to the assiduous work of European and American imperialists, we do retain records of what we found, and thus the materials to continue reconstructing the ancient world in our imaginations.

Why would the Daesh, under attack from armed enemies in so many locations, bother with such an expensive and time-consuming task? It takes much tireless work under the blazing sun to pulverize acres of stone, even with the help of modern, capitalist-supplied explosives and earth-moving machinery. Granting that, from their point of view, these wonders of the ancient world are idolatrous; granting even the traditional Islamic practice of destroying evidence of pre-Islamic culture (V.S. Naipaul is good on this politically-incorrect point) — why couldn’t they wait until they had consolidated their victory? For then they could go about the task with more income and leisure.

I don’t think they expect to win, in the shorter term. They embrace suicide, not only on the small tactical scale, but on the larger strategic. They are thinking ahead to what may be a more distant apocalyptic future, when in their view Islam will finally prevail. The struggle involves the gradual elimination of everything non-Islamic from the planet. As well, given iconoclast ideals, this triumph must eventually consume the most beautiful monuments of Islam itself.

The modern history of Arabia will help us understand. The fanatic Wahabi sheikhs, whom the British left in place to protect their oil interests, did not only scour the desert landscape of the remains of Ottoman rule. They also destroyed the legitimate archaeological evidence of early Islam, in Mecca and Medina, while building then constantly rebuilding their own ever glitzier “theme parks” over the top. The stuff they replaced was too piddling and small; they wanted the grandiose to impress the crowds of humanity on Hajj. Historical veracity never appealed to them: that is a distinctly Western conception. The heritage of oriental despotism is different in kind. In today’s Saudi Arabia, almost nothing visible survives that predates the 1960s; soon little will be older than the present young century. The Kabbah stone itself, at the centre of Mecca, has been successively enlarged, so that possibly nothing remains of the original.

The giant Buddhas, carved from the cliffs of Bamiyan, were demolished by the Taliban because they were so big, and also because the Taliban realized it might be their last chance. These extraordinary works of monastic enterprise had stood for centuries in their remote valley, as evidence of Afghanistan’s Buddhist past; but also of the failure of past Muslim rulers to be sufficiently thorough. They were one “scandal” — from the Wahabi point of view — that could be corrected for the rest of time.

In Afghanistan, as in Libya — indeed across North Africa and through most of the Middle East — there was a history of high civilization, through millennia before the Islamic conquests. There is hardly a place across the vast region that was not more civilized, two thousand years ago. In Egypt, for instance, the Islamists often declare their intention to blow up the Pyramids, as a grand symbolic act. With that goes the larger ambition of deleting all evidence of ancient Pharaonic, Graeco-Roman, and Coptic habitation. To the Islamist mind, all of it constitutes an insult to Islam.

Bamiyan, and the World Trade Centre, were hit for the same reason. They were not only “icons” in themselves, but evidence of civilizational superiority. By surviving, they provided a counter-weight to the blather of fanatical imams. We have in them the mindset that could conceive a Thousand Year Reich; a Qin Shi Huang or Tamerlane or Mao — dreaming a gigantism to crush all evidence of what had gone before — but weirdly displaced to a fanciful seventh century, to add another layer of madness.

And therefore they propose and enact an evil that must not only be defeated, but be seen to be defeated, and utterly wiped away. I have no patience for the dribbling “containment” strategies, now argued within the retreating West. Within days of 9/11, Bush took back the word “crusade.” He should instead have repeated it, to meet the propaganda of Islamism head on.

Now, here is the paradox. The Daesh work constantly from UNESCO lists, to choose their targets. They are looking for the most famous, the most widely known; for the biggest theatrical effects. (Through history, iconoclasts have always been theatrical.) In a larger view, we may see that the very success of the mass-market tourist trade creates the conditions for the destruction of the goods which it appropriates.

This is the story of post-modern “fame” — that directly or indirectly, we contribute to the destruction of whatever we purport to love.

Ye cloude of unknowyng

Among books of spiritual direction, that are short, and in English, my favourite is probably The Cloud of Unknowing — written in Chaucer’s day by some anonymous cleric, perhaps a Carthusian. He is not without personality, so that once we notice it we realize that a second treatise, The Book of Privy Counselling, must have been written by the same man. The full flavour of him requires familiarity with Middle English, and thus with that age: the colour and sparkle, tilt and lilt in each sentence. But there are some winning modernizations, such as that by the late Anglican vicar Clifton Wolters, quite free of bilge. Nothing in the little book is stuffy. It can even be satirical, as where it pricks the pretentions of showy religious fakes.

The book is Catholic as they come: entirely free of that grimness which arrived with the Reformation; that fixation or “enstaplement” as I call it — the sonorous preacher balanced on one foot, while the other searches for his gaping mouth; the bear with one foot stuck to the floor, attempting his dance routine.

One might read The Cloud simply to escape from the presumption and preachiness of modern religion; for a return to the mystical and exemplary, pregnant with silences. At the heart of the instruction for contemplative prayer is the hint from Augustine: that gentle reader, as gentle author, can know nothing of God from his own researches. For God is concealed, as it were, in a cloud of unknowing, penetrable only by Love; and as by analogy a beloved maiden is perceived not for her attributes but for herself, we might press ourselves upon The Lord without the usual want-list or catalogue of preconditions. Instead put God’s attributes right out of mind; forget about yourself, your past, and all nature. The cloud of unknowing lies above; let the cloud of forgetting close below.

The book is extremely encouraging, as it assures us that we are to do something that will last all our lives, and involve constant, often vexing difficulty.

Here, I must confess, it is a great pity the frescoes have so largely disappeared from the church walls, through these last painful centuries — for they, almost Chinese in their brush lines, but Italian in their peopling, were useful in lifting the Christian from the earthly plough to another realm. White walls with isolated pictures, statues or casts, make not the same presentation. They put us instead in a gallery or museum. Rather we need the draughtsman’s spirit of Lascaux.

But this is of course not what our “Cloud poet” would say; only what he would take for granted: the environment of prayer. That it must draw us away from febrile attachments.

“I truly believe that the Day of Judgement will be a lovely day.”

Now that is something he did say, and in a chapter full of paradox and surprises for the reader approaching from six-plus centuries away. He writes about a day on which, to our true merriment, we will find abject sinners conversing with the saints; and some who seemed so holy looking for a cave. This while we are still absorbing another counter-intuitive revelation, from a couple of sentences before.

Of course the “work” of contemplation, and of personal amendment through its effects, will be more onerous for the serious sinner than for the “quasi-innocent” woman or man, since the latter enjoys such a long head start.

“Yet it often happens that those who have sinned hideously and habitually come sooner to perfect contemplation than those who have not sinned at all.”

Well, I have touched only the surface of the book, and in only one place. But felix, felix, felix culpa.

Note for August civic holiday

“Any one reading the chronicles will find that since the birth of Christ there is nothing that can compare with what has happened in our world during the last hundred years. Never in any country have people seen so much building, so much cultivation of the soil. Never has such good drink, such abundant and delicate food, been within the reach of so many. Dress has become so rich that it cannot in this respect be improved. Who has ever heard of commerce such as we see it today? It circles the globe; it embraces the whole world! Painting, engraving — all the arts — have progressed and are still improving. More than all, we have men so capable, and so learned, that their wit penetrates everything in such a way, that nowadays a youth of twenty knows more than twenty doctors did in days gone by.”

This paean to globalization was (purportedly) written by Martin Luther, in celebration of the century that lay behind the moment of his own arrival on earth — the last full century in which the Catholic Church had her monopoly on the affection and consent of Western Christendom. And while I, too, am impressed by the achievements of the fifteenth century, I think the passage overstates them. In particular I note that a youth of twenty is a youth of twenty: now and in all times likely to be a fool, regardless of education.

(Perhaps the fault lies partly with the Benedictine, Gasquet, through whom the quote passed. He had the unscholarly habit of improving his quotations.)

Yet prior to the Reformation, the five-hundredth anniversary of whose launch our strange pope intends to puff in Germany next year, a youth of twenty had opportunities that were not yet closed. An English youth, for instance, in possession of universal Latin, could travel to any continental university and pursue his studies there; he could wander freely from one famous centre of learning to another. Vice versa, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge welcomed youth from all over the Continent, and sometimes beyond. Suddenly, with the Reformation, the gates swung shut, and Europe was divided into dominational zones, so that the youth who crossed the boundaries would not be welcome home. Wars, bloody wars, would further divide a Continent whereon Lutheran, Calvinist, and Catholic offered different “takes” on indivisible truth, and their intellectual energies were now expended on smearing one another.

The sixteenth was the century of the great narrowing, and the rise of the modern nation state; the great triumph of politics over charity, humility, and reason; a great age for martyrs and massacres, exceeded only by the centuries that followed. Henceforth the old containable dynastic conflicts, in which faith was not at stake, would mutate into the new ideological wars, ascending towards the Total War conceived in the Enlightenment era. Yet it was already a new age: of smashed monasteries and cathedrals, torched libraries and the destruction of the Catholic artistic and philosophical heritage — wherever the puritan devils in human flesh could lay hands upon it.

But also, a century of steady material advance, not only in the implements of torture and homicide, but in provision for men’s bodily comforts. Life expectancy might be everywhere shrinking (for a host of reasons), but while men lived, those sufficiently shrewd in politics could enjoy luxuries their ancestors had denied themselves, or been indifferent to. For as the property of the Church was seized and “privatized,” a New Class built themselves extravagant estates, using monasteries for quarries. Over centuries to come, by the “trickle down” effect, men were gradually liberated from the ancestral fear of God, as from earthly participation in the heavenly Gloria.

Did the technological acceleration of the later Middle Ages make such developments inevitable? This would be the argument of the historical materialists, the sycophants of “progress” in both Marxist and Liberal (“capitalist”) trains. One thing “evolves” into another, with them, and everything in the universe has a purely material cause. Darwin, to my mind, has significance not as biologist, but as synthesizer of the emergent cosmology, in which everything of interest — all beauty, truth, and goodness — can be explained away; can be rendered glib and meaningless; and the world is made safe for the atheism that grew out of the scandal of warring ecclesiastical tribes.

It will never be safe, however. Not even “technological progress” is safe, for while cumulative (it would have proceeded in Europe with or without the Reformation, though possibly slower in the absence of so much military patronage), it depends on continuity of use. It lasts only so long as its beneficiaries can sustain the superficial order through which it is transmitted. The ruin of many civilizations which enjoyed technological progress in their time is spread through the archaeological record which our own technological progress has enabled us to see, though not to learn from.

More fundamentally, a civilization is held together by intangibles; by what is called faith, or even “good faith.” Man may be ever so inventive — primitive man as well as urban man — but his fate is tied less to inventions, than to purposes for which they are applied. We use ours only to pleasure ourselves, and the squalour and ugliness of our lives portends the catastrophe that awaits us. Our bone, our spiritual marrow, deliquesces. Men who are “meaningless” soon expire.

Conversely, not even our decline is safe. For as long as that spark in man, which first lifted him above the condition of the animals, continues to be implanted by God, there is chance of recovery and renewal. And that spark, once implanted, is ineradicable. We might almost call it an imposition on our freedom: that men cannot satisfy themselves forever with the life of swine.