Essays in Idleness


Norcia again

“If it falls down, it will have to be mended.”

The words are recalled from a French Canadian builder, and pertained to a chimney, not the whole house. A mason of worldly understanding and broad reading, he was not commenting upon his own work. I learnt that the words, in their original French, were from some Quebec City building instruction of the seventeenth century. (The drollness was probably intended.) That’s about as close as we get to the Middle Ages, in Canada, and it is indeed fascinating to look into the builders’ practices, and the codes and regulations which applied to them, three and four centuries ago, as Peter Moogk did in his fine volume, Building a House in New France (1977).

It is a mistake, incidentally, to think that they were libertarian in the past. Towns, back as far as we can see, were always run about with building restrictions; and craft guilds were once quite particular in seeing regulations enforced. Today we have national building codes, which are so general as to be ridiculous; and cities have by-laws that can be bought off. Freedom doesn’t come with loose laws. Rather it comes with laws that are precise and constant. But that is just an aside.

We were working on some old house I had bought in Kingston, Ontario. It was a true fixer-upper, in four storeys of limestone. The work cost me more than the house, as I was determined to restore it properly. This involved much amateur archaeology, as well as rebuilding. Over a year or two, I became closely acquainted not only with the ways of contemporary builders, but also with those of the 1840s and the decades in between. My chief lesson was of the importance of inspection: that it is unwise to leave any workman entirely to his own estimation of the soundness of his work. Encouragement is good, too, but inspection is crucial. And this would have been as true in 1841, as it was a sesquicentury later.

Now, to my limited understanding, the northern French traditions, carried to the New World, also provided that work be guaranteed for twenty years after it was completed. So that, if after a decade or so, the roof leaks, the roofer must repair it at his own expense. If the chimney cracks — well, the New World was “progressively” cutting corners. The idea of “contract law,” and court enforcement, was developing in new ways, and a clever workman would propose contracts in which the twenty years of fading “tradition” was quietly replaced with e.g. “one year plus one day,” and did not apply to “acts of God.” (To lawyers, those are always mendacious.) So that, by the time poor workmanship were discovered, the home owner could fix it himself.

There are natural limits, to human life. I’m aware, from reading splendid authors such as John Harvey, that long before the Reformation, decendants of a builder might find themselves embarrassed by their ancestors’ little foibles, when these were exposed. Standards, gentle reader must understand, have been in decline for some time now.

I’m looking at pictures of the damage to Norcia in Italy, from the latest earthquake over the weekend. It would seem that, except much of the façade, and the wobbly remains of a bell-tower, the Basilica of Saint Benedict is now … down. I flinch, at the fine art now mixed in the rubble.

No one was killed, this time, thanks to repeated warnings from the groaning earth; but it was touch-and-go. The sight of Saint Clare nuns emerging from a cloister, in which they had been for many years secluded, was to me especially heart-rending. The town looks much the worse from this latest six-point-six shaking, centred near the surface only a few miles away; and the geologists have every reason to expect more is coming from the local faults, as they (the stone faults, not the agile geologists) seek a new equilibrium within the crush zone between the continental plates of Europe and Africa.

As five centuries have passed, I doubt we can hold the builders responsible. Nor could they be thought entirely to blame: the buildings did hold up through the last few thousand shocks and aftershocks, in that quake-prone region. There are limits to all materials and joins. One might design a building that would survive turning sideways, or upside down; but it would look too much like a ferris wheel. The good news is that with the quakes continuing, we might take our time, planning the reconstruction. So we’ll have the opportunity to think it through.

But it will have to come. Everything must eventually be restored, much as it was before, though to an even better standard to resist all these geological convulsions. The thought gives one a certain satisfaction, at a time when one needs also to restore morale. Surely we can build it again, even better than it was before, and even more secure against the whims of nature. And more beautiful, except the loss of some patina; but that will eventually grow back. It is exciting to think how we are going to do this; and how much craft we will re-learn in the process.

This thought applies to all the facilities of Holy Church, moral, material, intellectual, and spiritual: that, “if it falls down, it will have to be mended.”

Saints in the mists of antiquity

The two Saints Simon and Jude have been linked together in the Canon of the Mass, since time out of mind. We continue to celebrate them, this day. Our missals suggest the reason: for these were Apostles, “brethren of Our Lord,” who went off to Mesopotamia, then into Persia. From hints in Bible and Tradition, Simon was a converted Jewish Zealot; Jude the sage author of the short New Testament Epistle, preserved in his name. (More fully, Judas Thaddaeus, pointedly distinguished from Judas Iscariot.) There is e.g. an apocryphal Passion of Simon and Jude, on their fate in Persia. We have hints of them in conflict with Zoroastrian priests and court magicians; of their previous success in making many converts. We cannot tell at this distance of nearly two thousand years, any more than we can of other major events, exactly what happened. For that matter, we cannot tell exactly what happened yesterday, this side of the grave. But we can see that this Simon and this Jude were famous, and easily guess what they were famous for.

We see from the news that the conversion of Persia is not yet complete. Indeed, it was farther ahead at several times in the past. To the modern mind, which takes Christianity as a brand, and may compare its spread to that of a global corporation, setbacks can be attributed to bad management. I like to mention the less-appreciated factor of market resistance. It is interesting to me that the objections raised against the Gospel account of Jesus, by Parsees, Mandaeans, Nabataeans, Manichees, and others, are only to his death and resurrection; otherwise they are happy to appropriate Him.

In other ways this habit of easy assimilation — but only on the condition that Christ is not Absolute — carries back to the old Persian, and Arab tribal religions, and forward into Islam. What the Arab historians called the Sabians — lumping together miscellaneous “peoples of the book” (of one book or another) — are always strongly dualistic. The Judaeo-Christian outlook is not. We all perceive a War in Heaven; for them it is more evenly matched.

To my mind, the significance of this is large. At the deepest level, to the mindset of this East, the Good Lord needs our help; to our more startlingly “Hebrew-Hellenic” outlook, we need God’s. Contemplation reveals that our respective notions of “will” (and “free will”) are founded in these different soils. To our prophets, there is no question that God will prevail. To theirs, even after the radically monotheist corrective of Islam, there remains a sneaking doubt, and I attribute a recurrent fanaticism to this recurring demand, in effect, for Allah to prove that he is still winning.

From ancient Sasanian to modern Salafist, they have been betting on the strong horse; and therefore, instinctively, on conversion by force. We, by contrast, have been betting on the weak one — which would be foolish, had we not some inside knowledge.

But now I am going deeper than I can dive, in pursuit of some pearl beyond me.

Short item

A couple of years ago, a friend sent this link (here) to an artsy little flick on an old man living in the California mountains. He was ninety-three; still making violin bows, with gout-knobbled fingers; and chopping wood for his stove. The cabin itself, which he and his adoptive son had built many decades before, was itself a craftsmanlike beauty. The man, Jack English, was the surviving half of one of those immortal love stories, his wife’s ashes still with him, waiting to be mixed with his own. In the film, he explains that he doesn’t want to be in any “convalescent home.” He was lonely, but people did come to visit, and he liked people, though not in swarms. Well, all that’s in the film, I think; perhaps I should have checked, before writing this.

Gentle reader may agree that the man was memorable, however. His voice was unforgettable, too. Suddenly remembered his name today, and Google-searched my way to his obituary. He made it to ninety-six; died last March.

A long day, today. Once again, the Sikorsky helicopter did not arrive, to lift the High Doganate out of this apartment building, and set it down in a remote location. Just as well, I suppose, because I still haven’t figured how to unbolt it from the structure it is in. And you don’t want to keep helicopter pilots waiting: they charge a fortune. Maybe I’ll get that together next week.

The voice, the face: time to watch it again. I can remember old men like that, from childhood. Not so many since. But some day there’ll be more.

Epistolary arts

A young man of my acquaintance belongs to an interesting club. The members communicate with each other in an unusual way. They write letters, by hand, and fold them into envelopes, onto which they affix postage stamps. They eschew email — except for communication with institutions and strangers. Telephones might also be used in emergencies. They also meet, physically, from time to time, when their busy young lives allow it. (Being generally Catholic, and much blessed with children, they tend to be busier than most.) But their conversations are sustained by letters. Urban members of this “cell” may live within a few miles of each other, but still, pen and paper is preferred, along with coherent, linear thinking. Gentle reader might want to know more about them. So would I, but I’m not in their loop.

On the other hand, I am now so old that I can remember when such behaviour was normal. One received a letter in the mail; one replied with another letter; and often these were kept; which accounts for the wonderful correspondence of Charles Lamb I was recently reading, surely meant for the ages. Today it would all be lost.

When my father died, and I inherited what was left of his files, I discovered all these letters written by his son, from far and exotic places. Being that son, I had an almost unhealthy curiosity about them. What had I written twenty, thirty, nearly forty years before? Much came back to memory that I had not forgotten, simply not thought about since. On balance it was an unpleasant experience, as with the eyes of a greater maturity I could see myself posing one way or another, selectively omitting relevant facts, or boasting of things that make me cringe today. But there they were, these letters, to my perpetual benefit, in preparation for the Last Day. … “Father, forgive.”

Faces came back to me, with their names. Had I recalled names only, the faces might be lost, and vice versa. But from a letter, people are recollected whole, and come back to mind with the poignancy of the relic in one’s hand. I cross myself and pray. What has happened to this man, this woman, this child? Lord, keep them, whom I will not see again on this Earth; be with them in their hour of trial. Fates that meant nothing to me then, mean something to me now, as I see a human soul more clearly for the distance.

Much of the substance of letters — physical letters on paper with ink, kept in envelopes with the old stamps and the scent of past time; handwriting that was once familiar — is not “rational.” (I am using that word as it is abused today.) But the academic term, aesthetic, will not serve either. Something larger is systematically eliminated by computer. Iris Murdoch invented the term, “touchment.” It can be restored from raw text only by memory and imagination, but these are crippled when all their stimuli are stripped away. We lose details that go beyond words.

People write to me because of this Idleblog, whom I have never met, never seen; and they leave no clue even to where they are writing from. Seldom do they sign their full names, and if the email is full of abuse, all clues to source will be missing. Several times I have asked, “Who are you?” — then been told, smugly, it is none of my business. My reasoning was, you know who I am, why shouldn’t I know as much about you? Even with the friendliest correspondents, I should like to know, am I dealing with Charles in Melbourne, or Charles in Topeka, or Charles now working in Dubai? I must search for clues in a (highly mutable) electronic archive.

These “accidents” of location are thought, by the implicit rules of globalization, to be of little consequence. But they are of consequence as more than mnemonic. A man is more than computer coding.

And besides, there are practical reasons to revive the epistolary arts. In the world to come — our world, not Eternity — it will be useful to master forms of communication that cannot be computer searched, nor recovered from hard drives. The post office may also become too dangerous for Christians to use. But by means of trusted messengers, and secret document stashes, we may once again, as in former times, be able to convey humanity and truth — through space and time — right under the noses of the “progressives” and their thought police.

On life & death

Archbishop Chaput’s recent punch-in-the-nose speech, at Notre Dame (text here), has been widely reported but little read. I link it because it is worth reading through. A dozen major themes in contemporary Catholic and Christian life are thoughtfully woven together. Chaput, among my favourite Roman bishops, overflies the territory staked by Rod Dreher and others as the “Benedict Option” — named for Benedict of Nursia, founder of Western monasticism and symbol, East and West, of a certain aloofness. All these gentlemen remind that as Christians we must keep some distance from any worldly power that tries to legislate “above its pay grade” — to arrogate the divine jurisdiction. (With results we now see all around.)

By the nature of Christ’s claims — and they are not modest — we cannot “fit in” to a non-Christian, or “post-Christian” society. At most we can hope to be tolerated. If we are not tolerated, so be it. The hardships will then have to be endured, as they have been endured, in many times and places.

We are not, were not, and can never become some sort of ethnic group, adding flavour to the stew or witches’ brew of “democracy.” (No one is a Catholic by birth.) This is not some discovery, made under the pressure of current events; it was part of the teaching from the beginning. Our loyalty, which necessarily exceeds our political affiliation, is to a Kingdom not of this world. Our voting, if we vote, is done in that context. We may have opinions on the best way to proceed, but to ends that are not negotiable. There is no possible compromise between a view of history as Salvific, and a view that is “liberal” or “progressive” in denial of Our Lord.

This needs to be said again and again, in current circumstances, when Christian ideas that formed Europe and the West are pointedly disowned. It is more than the disavowal of “a past,” for we are still living, and thus ourselves disowned. We cannot pretend to be part of any “inclusivity” that the State may offer, after it has rejected the premiss of our being.

Our Lady was pregnant with the Christ, we believe. She was not “half pregnant,” or “symbolically” pregnant, and the consequences of Christian faith are similarly not half there. Though Very God of Very God, in us, that Child lives or dies; and we live or die in Him. This is how things are. On what can we compromise? Which corners can we cut?

In his composition of the phrases “Culture of Life” and “Culture of Death,” Saint John Paul laid out the alternatives. We cannot choose both. It would be well to state clearly that a Catholic who advocates for abortion, or votes for someone who does, excommunicates himself. For that is an issue of life or death. The same extends throughout the “life issues” on which Christians have been comprehensively defeated. We are pariahs not only in the eyes of a Clinton, but those of Podesta, Biden, Pelosi, Kaine, Anthony Kennedy, Justin Trudeau — apostate Catholics, collecting “ethnic” Catholic votes, as Chichikov collects “dead souls” in Gogol.

Nothing changes. The Christians of the first centuries had to decide whether they would bow to the divinity of Caesar. They would pay taxes, but those with courage would not bow. The same choice confronts us today, when we are asked to bow before the State’s new ideological and “gender” gods, in rejection of Christian teaching. This is not a small matter, and we must show it is not small, by refusing to do it.

Let the Church shrink; let her become more “exclusive” to those who profess a genuine Christian faith. We are not in a contest for numbers. Our strength is rather in the living Christ; and him crucified.

The invalid gourmand

People do silly things when they are ill. The worst thing is, to consult the Internet. The medium is a magnet for fad-mongers. As no method has yet been invented to screen against idiocies, and only an infinitesimal fraction of Internet content is of any value — actual or potential, material or spiritual — it is best generally to ignore it. But as this advice comes to gentle reader from the Internet, he’d be wise to ignore it, too.

Let us be plain. Human beings, as other species, would not have survived as long as we have without certain useful instincts, natural curiosities, and latent compulsions. Men (a category which includes the women and children of our kind) have been discovering remedies for various conditions by observing animals, from time out of mind. Too, by the reckless method of trial and error. We also take counsel from our own prophetic fleshly bodies, which were ingeniously designed by our Maker to submit cravings to our brains, in response to corporeal disequilibrations.

The neurological roads must of course be kept clear of highwaymen, such as conceal themselves in junk foods. One thinks, for instance, of the atrocities committed by chemicals masquerading as sugar; or others that omit calories, for stealth. Never stop for them: all are malign.

Modern medical science cannot understand colds. This is because they are too complex and disparate for the logic-chopping machines, and unpredictably interactive with each unique organism they invade. Which is why one person gets the same sort of cold, from quite different germs; and why the treatment that benefits one, may not benefit another. (I uphold the germ theory with many reservations.)

It should be understood that the pharmaceutical industry — successors to the ancient pedlars of snake oil and occult spells, whose remedies were often more effective — do not deal in cures. This could not possibly be good for their business. Their research efforts are directed to suppressing symptoms, instead. Their medications are thus more likely than not to impede the body’s natural immune responses. Best to think this through. (Is it moral to spread a contagion, the more effectively because one’s symptoms are masked?)

Best, in most cases, to leave one’s metabolic soldiery to get on with the job, and simply suffer until the enemy is either defeated, or prevails. For at the minimum, suffering will improve the character. Focus instead on providing the good soldiers with the resources they need, and have asked for, to carry on the battle. These are what they communicate through the cravings; cravings that might too easily be ignored if one is expecting miracles from some shiny little pill, and thus trusting to its placebo effect.

Of course, old wives’ tales are also worth consulting.

In extreme cases, one might try prayer.

Being fairly ill myself, at the moment — something to do with long walks through chill and drizzle, I suspect — I did the sensible thing. In stillness, I asked for their shopping list. My soldiers wanted Florida lime juice, Portuguese garlic, English mint, Naga chillies, and Greek olive oil, so far as I could make out. They wanted nor seeds nor nuts, for some reason, and so for transport I employed chickpeas, but dropped the tahini. Thus I boiled and mooshed an hummus from these ingredients, to be scooped with soda crackers. Chicken broth was also requested (in moderation), and if possible prune juice, pressed in the Scottish way. Fortunately all were at my quartermasterly command. Green tea was ordered in preference to black. By the soldiers on my metabolical front line, I think the prune juice was especially welcomed. Half pint of that, and they were much invigorated, boldly advancing with their bagpipes sounding.

Other resources may be requested for the later mop-up operations. This is as one would expect; the cravings for them will be issued in due course.

As hunger is indicative of an effective diet, so physical suffering goes with fighting a disease. Foolish is he who tries to avoid it. One may increase it with plenty of physical exercise, thus speeding the battle along. There is no such thing as a painless remedy. This is as true for society at large, as for any individual. Fight requires discipline and perseverance, with strict obedience to signals.


Next morning update. … And so, a gentle reader wonders, of my inspired hummus concoction: Will it work for other people? … I don’t know; perhaps. … All I can say, with confidence, in light of my experience this last night, is that it hasn’t worked for me. …

What & how to read

Never judge a book by its contents, I was reminded the other day, by one of my worthy acquaintances. There is much wisdom in that. People buy books because they are interested in the topic. They are fools. They buy books by fools.

The intelligent reader will first look about, to discover which authors, or more immediately which singular author, might be worth reading on the topic in question; or on any topic at all. Look for primary sources, for “classic accounts,” ignoring what is “up to date,” and therefore very dated. Laugh at the credentials of specialized “experts.” If an author does not have, in addition to his area of known expertise, a broad general education, and many other specific interests, then he is worthless. His account of his own subject will be facile, narrow, thin. One risks being poisoned by him.

And be sure to avoid “popular” writers, especially in the sciences. These people are journalists — sludge pumpers, pointing their hoses. Professionally giddy. The moment you detect the “upbeat” tone, toss the book in the fire; or on your woodpile for the winter months ahead. (Not nearly enough books are incinerated these days.) Nothing exposes an author quicker than this tone of false advertising. Read carefully: the first sentence will usually be enough to secure a conviction.

Rather, as when learning to swim, get right in the water. Dive in primary sources first, leaving the secondary until after you are dead. Far more can be gained by struggling with a “hard” author, who disappears below surface sometimes, than getting coated by a “hoser.” Read, and drive through the obstacles; do not be slowed by dictionaries. Those may be consulted when you read the book again. For the book not worth re-reading was never worth reading to begin with. Let yourself grow, and experience the joy that comes with return to an old favourite, with an understanding less murky than before. For life and letters are woven, and will weave, in the graceful pattern.

Currite ducentes subtegmina, currite, fusi. …

Know that you don’t know. Never forget that you don’t know it. Keep remembering what you don’t know, and learn to appreciate it. A time may come when you do know a little. Wait for it. …

This, anyway, is what I tell students when I have any: don’t waste your time. Ask stupid questions. They are the only questions worth asking, yet moderns always sneer at them. Wait patiently for the answers to grow. Let the matter of a great author unfold, and meanwhile sing the words and rhythms. (Of course you must, like the plague, avoid authors with no poetry in them.) If you can’t at first, then by self-training, make yourself ever more naïve, and receptive. Listen with both ears and both eyes, and all the other fifteen senses enumerated by the mediaeval inquirers. (More on this some time.) Best to read with your lips moving, mentally pronouncing, as an actor learning his lines. Add a few plausible gestures. For you will never master what you haven’t taken in; and only so much will fit through your eyeballs.

Languages are important! Every author speaks a different one.

Many different styles of poetry have been discovered. The Summa, for instance, is in one style; the Divina Commedia in another. Each genre has its own perfections; its own peculiar means of guidance. Drift from one to another for range.

As I insist, this applies even to novels (which are a poor substitute for tales). A good novelist, for instance, will spend the first thirty pages seeming to shake you off. For what can be picked up at half attention, isn’t worth having; and “light reading” can be left to float away, like a bad gas. It will prove unchaste. And I do not mean by that, only lubricious, for the scent will spread through every moral layer. Read what is clean. In anything too easy, suspect a trap.

True love is hard; true love is enduring. This much at least can be known.

Bear constantly in mind this motto, taken from that fine Swiss perfesser of Germanistik, Emil Staiger (1908–88), exquisite commentator on Goethe and others. By the grace of God I first encountered it when still young (in the front of Albin Lesky’s enthralling history of pagan Greek literature); and by a further grace soon realized that it was entirely and unanswerably true:

“The organs of recognition, without which no true reading is possible, are reverence and love. Knowledge cannot dispense with them, for it can grasp and analyse only what love takes possession of, and without love it is empty.”


One is surrounded today by reductionists, and reductionism. It is a form of magic, or rather, prestidigitation. The man dressed in the labcoat makes his move and, poof! … There is no rabbit any more. But I tell you there is a rabbit and — poof! — it is back again. Anyone who follows pop science will be familiar with these sleight-of-hand tricks, in which unsolvable mysteries of mind and matter — the existence of rabbits is just one of them — are explained away. Then cleverly brought back for the next demonstration. (Perhaps this reproof is a little over-condensed.)

But I prefer other forms of magic. An example would be the Nereids, dancing on the waves when the world began. Dancing, still.

Wandering though the back alleys, homeward from the latest Trinity College book sale this evening, in gorgeous dusk and drizzle, I was carrying in my satchel a glorious book. It was published by the British Museum, in anno 1928. Verily, a grand folio, with 52 large gravure plates in sepia on fine art paper, shewing classical marbles and bronzes from that museum’s remarkable collection. I saw this book only once before, in Luzon’s, when it was in Great Russell Street, London, forty years ago. I had not seen another copy since. I seem to remember it was priced at 90 pounds, in 1976. Poor autodidactic scholar that I was, I could not dream of paying so much.

But today, for 15 inflated Canadian loonies, it is mine; thanks to that Trinity book sale. This makes me quite happy. For today I am rich beyond the dreams of avarice. Indeed, I must have about three thousand books accumulated, up here in the High Doganate. That’s at least ten times as many as the richest person I know!

Enough of my boasting. (I am getting worse than Donald.)

Upon returning home — to tea, tea! — I find one of my sea nymphs, on Plate XIII. There she is carved in marble, yet also in wind-blown drapery, running over the waves. There are three of them in the British Museum, astride: I used to walk past these dancing Nereids almost daily, on my way into the old library rotunda (now sadly gentrified). Though a slight detour from the front gate, I did this because they thrilled me. The truth is that, twenty-three centuries before, they had stood between the columns of a splendid tomb, above Xanthos in Lycia. And billions of years ago, they danced on the waves at the beginning of the world.

Examining the plate carefully with a glass, I discover something I never knew before. Between the feet of this Nereid there is the fragment of a sea bird, floating on the waters. Head and wing broke off long ago, but I had not discerned this in the remaining jumble. In the reproduction I can see it. To the mental image I have carried all these years, one more part is added, that will not be taken away.

For the whole thing is irreducible. She, and they, are dancing on the waves. And at the beginning of the world. I can almost hear what they are singing.

Don’t think twice

There were two reasons why I did not immediately comment on the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature (Kipling, Tagore, Yeats, Undset, Mann, Eliot, Perse …) to Bob Dylan. One was that Mr Essays-in-Idleness does not feel the need to comment on every passing item of news, and has not done since the last mainstream media organization gave him the flipper. And the other was, I couldn’t stop giggling.

Like the Queen, and the late King of Siam, the singer-songwriter in question has been around for as long as my semi-quaver generation can remember (I think I first became aware of him around 1962). He is prehistory to our little ones, though I can easily imagine literature perfessers in Scandihoovia thinking he represents the new, the cool, and the revolutionary. Mr Dylan (formerly Robert Allen Zimmerman) is seventy-five years old, which is to say, older than many of the customers in a customary old folks’ home. Given his loucheness with personal memoir, he may actually be eighty.

Old enough to know that it is never wise to take messages from the Norselands. (My deep-historical Gaelic ancestors already understood this.) Those would include Sweden (as any ancient Pole could tell you). There is a history there, indeed, and it is no surprise that those inaccessible wastes were so quickly lost to Mediterranean civilization and the Catholic Church, after centuries of patient, spiritual conquest. For most of the Middle Ages, our humble adherents in much of the Continent were preoccupied by the security questions they posed; and the Nobel Prizes, founded by a liberal dynamite salesman, are among their more recent efforts to intimidate us.

Now, in addition to possibly being one myself, I am surrounded by self-admitted, super-annuated Dylan fans. For many it was the first love they could not explain. And all, from whom I have heard, are united in belittling the Nobel committee that awarded this ridiculous prize. Similarly, all are delighted that our hero is apparently refusing to take calls from them. “Let them stick it where the sun does not shine,” was the view expressed by one of these old friends. He went on to remark that no Christian has any business taking fillips from those post-modern savages. And that, after all, Bob Dylan is a Christian. And,

… it ain’t no use in turnin’ on your light, babe:
The light I never knowed.
An’ it ain’t no use in turnin’ on your light, babe:
I’m on the dark side of the road.

All about Nothing

The point of Confession is not to mortify one’s pride, but to disable it. Of this I am reminded by an old philosophical friend, on the second anniversary of whose death I happened to be born. Pride can be mortified easily enough — you don’t need any religion for that. In fact, it tends to be self-mortifying, as one might notice in looking around, or in reviewing one’s own case. But that would require a little reflection.

Today, we are dealing with the Problem of Evil. Or at least, I am. To my perhaps over-Miltonic understanding (a danger in becoming an English-speaking person), it begins in Pride, and specifically in the proud rebellion of the first Angel who got it in his head that he could go to Heaven in his own way. And wouldn’t go there on any other terms. (In fact, Milton was fairly Catholic on this.)

It was, from the start, a contradictory sort of thing to be doing, with its strange corollary — “if I can’t have it nobody will” — but there, if you will, you have it. At the very bottom of the wishing well, when we have fallen into it, we realize an act of incredible stupidity: the conscious choice of Nothing. (With a capital N.) For the truth is, being is somethingness, at least. And the bad news is also the good news, if one happens to be a little devil. It is the discovery that “Nothing” isn’t available. That becoming a None was the wrong move. Unfortunately for the devil in question, making this final discovery, the bad news is for him and the good news is for others.

But there are people — or more precisely little devils in human flesh — who just won’t get this, no matter how patiently it is explained. A rose may be a rose to them, but they miss the next proposition: that it will always be a rose (or, always will have been); and that, a nothing is a nothing is a nothing.

In that sense, I think one goes to Confession to confess … Nothing. One goes to fess up to this, and get it corrected. One’s pride may provide considerable resistance, hence the need to get it disabled — to rebel, as it were, against one’s own personal rebellion.

The same holds for the other Deadly Sins. They are all nothings, so sadly pointless. We can try to rebel against God; but we aren’t going to win. It is worse than that: we won’t even be able to explain to ourselves, plausibly, why we have been so stupid. For in the end, like Iago, we’ll have nothing to say — nothing to say about Nothing; and nothing that could be said in favour of Nothing, given the existence, even in Hell, of the eternal, conspicuous, somethingness. The inmates may desire Nothing — to become nothing, to somehow escape the oppressive somethingness of things. They could pray for it, but that would be absurd. (How do you ask Something for Nothing?)

Any way you look at it, they can never have the Nothing they want. And this because it cannot be had, now or eternally ever.

Or perhaps, cancel the last few rebellions, in the time since one was last there, and set out once again on the path of loyalty, obedience, and decent behaviour, towards the boundless citadel of Love.

Which takes me to my other point about Confession. It is a Sacrament. That is to say, it is not only a something, but a font of somethingness. It is, one might say, the thereness in There. It is life restored: one should go to it sometimes.

For you see, Sartre had it all backwards.


(BTW, the answer to that opening quiz was, “Wittgenstein.”)

An anti-globalist tirade

Why do people want what they don’t want?

This could be confused with a fundamental Platonic question, but I want it to be only slightly confused. If, arguably, people could see the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, there would be no evil. They would know better than to entertain invidious thoughts; or commit imperfect acts. That, however, would make the whole people like God, or at least like godly angels, with various unfortunate theological implications, which I’m eager to avoid. The question I’m asking is much less ambitious. Why do people ask for one thing, when they’d rather have another?

Economics can never become a “science” because people do not act from rational self-interest (whatever that may be). They act instead from impulses, as the advertising agencies understand, and those impulses depend on whether they are being watched. By whom they think they are being watched comes into this. Curiously, their “self-image” is determined through what they imagine to be the views of others. Or rather there is nothing curious about this, since we are a social animal, and our happiness depends on the happiness of the tribe (until the tribe happily decides to destroy us). We try to please, which is why, I would suggest, even the deranged who surround me in Parkdale are outwardly “nice” when they are on their meds — those not prescribed meds having mastered “nice” without chemical stabilizers.

Parkdale, incidentally, is where I live. It has no park, and is not in a dale. Notwithstanding I call it Vallis Hortensis, just to get along.

“Nice,” in this sense, is a bundle of (highly predictable) habits and opinions. It extends to little acts of edginess, that are currently encouraged; and will do for as long as they are. Canadians, for instance — who are among the nicest people in the world; who wouldn’t hurt a fly; who won’t complain about anything, however painful; and will spontaneously apologize to inanimate objects if they happen to collide with them — will suddenly become downright stroppy if one expresses an idea which their betters have ruled to be “not nice.” They will tell you that they “have problems with that.”

One must resist the temptation, simply to give them problems, e.g. by using non-euphemistic language. (Example: you are allowed to be abstractly opposed to abortion; but you are certainly not allowed to be against killing babies.)

Yet, under delicate cross-examination, in the spirit of Mr Socrates’ kindly niece, one finds that they might do it themselves — might express many of these not-nice ideas — if they thought they could get away with it. (We have free speech in Canada, but only between consenting adults.) Their disapproval is an anxious concession to the requirement for niceness, with its comfortable mental and spiritual inanition. It is the line of least resistance when any third party might be within hearing. Alone, with only the not-nice person to talk with, their “problems” begin to disappear.

Secretly, I suspect that across a range of issues, and commercial products, people pretend even to themselves that they like things they actually abhor. Or rather, I think this openly, even though it may not be nice.

The advertising agencies (which work with equal enthusiasm on commercial and political products) know this. It is why Democrats and Liberals exist. It is why products that are obviously not good for any conceivable environment are sold as “ecological” and “organic.” It is why new subdivisions are called “Mountainview” when there is no mountain in sight. Or, “Meadowview” when they are in the heart of an asphalt jungle. It is why politicians, who advocate schemes that will bankrupt the polity, recommend them as “investments in the future.” The trick is to remind people of what they really want, while substituting something the client really wants to sell.

And so forth.


There are many virtues I lack, but among them Patience, which I take as a species of Fortitude, is conspicuous for its absence, perhaps even to some of my gentle readers. This is especially unbecoming in an advocate of philosophical Idleness, who holds that we direct our energies habitually towards the wrong things. There is nothing so misdirecting as Impatience, which, with such conspirators as Hastiness and Superficiality, are bound to spoil the dinner.

I was reflecting on this several evenings ago, while watching an accomplished cook of my acquaintance patiently prepare steak and potatoes for a little spontaneous gathering of old friends. We were sitting around her kitchen island with cheese and good drinks as she, for instance, sliced a formidable heap of onions, before lowering the gorgeous mass into a skillet carefully warmed, with butter gently melted into oil to dissuade the milk solids from burning. This while keeping an eye upon four or five other heating elements, and carrying on at least two overlapping conversations, with imperturbable calm.

Women are generally believed superior in “multitasking,” but it is seldom done with the serenity I witnessed — that passed almost unnoticed, as effort is meant to pass unnoticed in all fine art. Suddenly there was a dining table groaning with magnificent dishes, including a variety of vegetable sides, which miraculously delivered themselves all at the same moment.

A typically impatient person, living understandably alone, I tend to avoid making dinner until I am famished, then cook too much, too fast. My only defence is that I leave no witnesses. Against this, I must confess that it is often a curry I am rushing: in culinary terms, a grievous mortal sin.

Invariably, a curry is ruined by haste, which a fine Punjabi lady such as my heroine the late Mrs Balbir Singh could have made sublime, by small labours distributed through the day, with exactly the same ingredients. For Justice is important — it precedes even Mercy. In a curry, as in any other dish, justice requires that we treat each ingredient, including each spice, as it deserves to be treated: pounded in the right way, roasted or otherwise prepared for its entry into the pot at the right time, in the right order. Toss everything together in a blinding blaze and one will make what might better be called not a curry but a shameful Pandaemonium. Even with the humblest ingredients, the poor of India find leisure to eat well. Or once did.

Reading, thinking, prayer, and gardening, all benefit from careful, slow attention, and a spirit I associate with connoisseurship. It is true, Chesterton told us anything worth doing is worth doing badly; and the proof is that eating is better than not eating, over an extended period. But nutrition is available from any hamburger stall, supposing one likes to throw around money, as surrogate for time. The joy increases as one learns to cook better — and from it a satisfaction that goes beyond the material. God, for instance, did not make a mess in his patient preparation of the universe, and should be emulated long before that Sunday (or was it the Saturday?) when He saw that it was good.

So it is, that I account the writings of Brillat-Savarin holy, for he says dinners are a means of government, and that the fates of nations are decided at a banquet; that dinner is the final business of the day (apart from Compline). That frying gives cooks many ways of concealing what appeared the day before. That it takes little more time to fry a four-pound carp than an egg.

And Lichtenberg observed that coffee is miserable when drunk out of wine glasses, or meat when cut at table with scissors.

And both note that toast not buttered with artistry, is deleterious.

Hard rain chronicles

History will never repeat itself, precisely, any more than two sunsets will be exactly alike, or the wind will blow everywhere in the same way. Yet there are patterns, themes, human habits, that are extremely repetitive, and the intelligent student of history will notice them. There is “nothing new under the sun,” and the wise know it.

For the statesman, versed in some history (though never enough), and supposing him to have some goodwill, there must be the equivalent of weather warnings. He will know there are limits to what he can achieve, and he will know that these limits are externally imposed. Therefore he will focus on what is attainable. If the hurricane is coming, then the hurricane is coming. He cannot divert it, for no man can once it is swirling; his task is instead to predict, to the best of his knowledge and experience, where and how it may land, and look out for the safety of his people. And after it has struck — always in ways not quite anticipated — he must be ready to pick up the pieces.

All of this should be obvious, and yet it is lost on any democratic polity, once politicians begin to hold each other accountable for the weather itself. The people must choose between gangsters, as they are now preparing to do in the large republic over the Lake to my south. It is a sordid and demeaning spectacle, this contest between two candidates, neither of whom should ever have been let near any public office. Such is the disorder in the world around us, that a hard wind is going to blow, and neither has the resources of character, the chaste prudential judgement, the intelligence, the knowledge, the “temperament” or stability of mind, to be useful in a crisis. Both are shameless liars, whose lives have been devoted to self-promotion alone. Neither can be relied upon, except to increase the impact of the storm; to become, in effect, part of its fury.

The die is cast, in this respect, for the election of either is a national disaster, to compound that of the previous self-regarding fool; the fallout from America’s abjuration will continue to spread around the world. In the absence of capable leadership, there is, practically, nothing we can do, besides suffer the consequences. Americans must not vote, or if they do, only to choose the ash flavour they’d prefer; for what could be done to avert disaster was ignored, a long time ago.

No constitution, or other technical instrument, can save a people from ill fate, once the entire ruling class of a country has abandoned “the spirit of the laws,” and reduced themselves to naked lust for power. We might call this “decadence,” though the word is insufficiently strong for a condition that permeates all Western society, and is merely reflected in rulers no longer restrained by tradition and ethical norms. For generations, now, and for historical reasons we hate to explore, “consumerism” (both in market and the distribution of public services) has advanced, to a point where pleasure and convenience determine every consideration of right and wrong. Who is left with the moral authority to declare, “This you may not do!”? (This was the power of the king mentioned yesterday, a mere “constitutional monarch,” but an effective one; now gone, and we will see the consequences.)

It will seem ridiculous to offer the prescription, fast and pray. That it seems ridiculous, today, is a measure of our moral disintegration, the result of which is that we have lost the capacity for self-government in any form. We can no longer look to leaders we can trust to discern, less defend, our real interests. And so, there are no guardians of public safety; or none we would, without compulsion, obey. Wherever we look, we may see the consequences of this.

Our real and immediate interest is to rebuild the character of our civilization; to recover that common understanding of up and down; of right and wrong; of what is worthy and what is unworthy; of what is godly and what is ungodly; along with the telling power of example. Let the world titter in its cynicism: the recovery begins when we fast and pray.


(Bonus Warren essay, here.)