Essays in Idleness


In convertendo

A correspondent in Brazil replied to my Idlepost last night by, as we say, “blowing up the trumpets in Zion.” He sang back one of the Songs of Ascent:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
     we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
     our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
     “the Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
     and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, Lord,
     like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
     will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
     carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
     carrying the sheaves with them.

This canticum graduum needs little commentary, because it explains itself. Picture the Hebrews singing, in their ancient pilgrimages, mounting the hill to Jerusalem, and the steps to the Temple. Bear, too, in mind, the idea of restoration, as in this instance Zion was restored, and the people Israel delivered from their captivity.

We deal here with an aspect, or dare I say a reality, of the Christian teaching that is overlooked: that of victory and deliverance, by the grace of God. We do not hope to be “tolerated,” and left to our own business alone, as my friend Bruno Galli Cicconi explains. Our Lord, creator of the universe, is not looking for some special dispensation.

Quite apart from the liturgy, I associate the “gradual canticles” with Advent, and the long march rising, towards the shepherds, and above them the angels on high. The whole sequence (Hebrew CXX to CXXXIV) speaks to me of this rising, this announcement, this restoration of the Kingdom, from our “vale of tears.”

Cicconi: “May the sacrifice of the Vendeans not have been in vain, because the whole world has forgotten what was perpetrated there, but the Lord forgets nothing.”

Encore une fois

It is among the tenets of our faith that zombies can be cured. And there are a lot of zombies in France, according to the political sociologists. These are the people from the more traditional regions, which long resisted the Revolution and the lashings of laïcité that followed through nine or ten more generations. From materials sent me by a concerned priest, I learn that they are now called “Catholic zombies.” This because, while among the walking, spiritually dead, who no longer attend the Mass, or otherwise engage with the living Church, they still have basically Catholic attitudes. Many were even baptized, once upon a time. Which is to say: they are a bunch of terrifying reactionaries, who don’t kill their babies and think marriage should be cross-sexual. (Sometimes a million or two of these zombies march on Paris.)

Verily, it is the teaching of our Church that anyone can be saved, even Hitler. Though truth to tell, it may be too late for him. A religion which holds that the dead rise will have a natural affinity for zombies. Though I’m not sure I would want to take that theological observation too far. Rather, I would rephrase it to say, once a Catholic always a Catholic, even if a Catholic who is bound for Hell. It does not follow he will get there, however; for as Father Brown put it:

“I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

This may strike my non-co-religionists as abstruse. But they may always read G. K. Chesterton for themselves. (Or Brideshead Revisited, wherein it was famously quoted.)

Indeed, I would say it of the whole of Western Civ, and cite myself as an example. For my people took their leave of Catholicism five centuries ago. A very long thread, to be sure. But look, I am back.

Verily, we live in a zombie civilization, which seems sometimes to have severed itself from its origins in Our Lord Jesus Christ, and yet is at the present day still hacking and thwacking at the invisible thread. And why? Because secretly it knows itself to be still attached — that it is still Western, and even Roman in the strangest freaky ways. The zealotry, the frenzy of the progressives, who never can believe they have freed themselves, so that they “move on” from one outrage to another, is curiously the best evidence for this. Little things — even a little thing like Trump — can drive them to hysteria. They thought all that was buried; they thought they’d put the stake through it. They thought they were on the right side of l’histoire.

And there it is, trailing with ghastly wounds and swaddling gauze — the undead, vestigial Christianity.

The stuff to which I was referred (here, for starters), wanders along this line. The mere rise (from retirement) of the politician, François Fillon — self-declared Thatcherite, but also notoriously practising Catholic — was the occasion for this delightfully shrieking headline in the progressive daily, Liberation:

“Help, Jesus has returned!”

But of course, they overstate the political significance. The zombies are for the most part still zombies; only some of them are cured. Patience, patience. They make only a blip in the demographics; enough perhaps to turn an election or two, but not and never enough to “change history.” Here today and gone in the next newspaper headline. Put not thy faith in demography.

Instead, consider what would be the effect if, instead of merely voting their frustrations, they returned by the millions to Holy Church. It has happened before in the chronicles of nations, and Lord, I would like to see it again.

On a question of taste

It has been observed, in some book I was perusing which I can recommend to no one, that in the old Roman literature, the views on gardening are only those of a literate male elite, and that moreover, they have more to say on the “male discourse” about gardens than about “women’s lived experience in them.” … Well, I’ll be.

Perhaps the academic authoress understates her case. To the pagan Roman eye, I should think, a woman in a garden was more part of the scenery, than part of the conversation. Rather, her place was in the kitchen.

Not that I take this view myself. My gardens are Edenic; I am a Christian and an Augustinian and, as I proceed from the antediluvian to the historical, the garden I imagine is the one in Milan where Augustine met God. (Women he had met before.)

I daresay members of the “literate female elite” mucked about in Roman gardens, too, though we do not seem to have inherited any of their manuscripts. Only the “mansplaining.” For male-hating harpies I can imagine that’s a source of real irritation, and that the advice, “suck it up, buttercup” will never be taken well.

Well, Homer touches on gardens (ah, Nausicaä!), and I think the ancient Persians had more to say, and the Babylonians and Egyptians and Indusians and Chinese — though all oppressively male. What interests me here is not “gender studies,” however, but the Roman aesthetics. In my view, perhaps subject to modification, their gardens must have been rather ugly and awkwardly contrived, until they fell into delicious ruin.

Those Romans spoke most suggestively, it seems to me (the caudillo of this website), of the garden not as paradisal retreat, but as “art for art’s sake” — illusion for the sake of illusion. I find implicit, especially in old Pliny, the dangerous idea of an enveloping illusion — the aspiration towards a “virtual reality.”

In Virgil’s Georgics, on the other hand, I feel this encroachment being subtly resisted. In Horace, subtly satirized as he glances upon the garden of his patron, Maecenas. (In Seneca the Younger, it was satirized less cautiously.) That, and worse, the gardens of the Emperors, and others among the Roman nouveaux riches, contained many California touches, including oversized swimming pools and necropoli worthy of Evelyn Waugh’s flourishes in The Loved One.

If I am not mistaken (and I often am) our modern, Western conception of an enveloping illusion begins with those Roman writers on gardening — with Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia, and his adopted nephew Pliny in his Letters, too; with Columella before them, and even back to Cato the Censor, and that polymath, Varro; all, to my over-sensitive mind, conveying a notion of “escape” that is suspiciously worldly.

But forward, leaping the centuries, we come to Rutilius Taurus Æmilianus Palladius who, when the Roman Empire was winding down, wrote a most useful treatise in twelve books corresponding to the months of the year — in prose but breaking into elegiacs at the mention of trees. (I love the works of Late Antiquity, more than those of Late Postmodernity.)

And very useful it was, this last, through subsequent Darkish Ages, and into the Middling ones, too, as we find it still copied and circulating in e.g. mediaeval England. One may read it in Middle English (here), and in doing so gain partial entry to a surprisingly refined and sophisticated agricultural environment, with rural hicks far from the clod-busting oafs we suppose them to have been.

But that was the Rome for all ages; the cornucopian Rome; the Rome that is living still and always, from an Empire that was the boilerplate for Christendom.

There is decadence here, but it works in the reverse of our usual chronological assumption of a descent into decadence. The earlier writers — the more dignified and grave — are also the more infected with the desire to spiritualize their materialism. It is the more fully pagan Rome — Petronius, the somewhat sick arbiter of elegance, wrote near the prime, not near the fall, of Roman urbanity — that aspires to the trompe-l’œil, to the showy opulence, to the show-and-tell of Hollywood and Palm Springs. (I use California only as a placard, for while it is being fancifully exceeded by the stage-hands of Dubai and Red China, it remains for us the Disneyland par excellence.)

Not only in our cybernetic fantasia, but in the concrete world of our metastasizing glitz, we express a desire for enveloping illusion. It is the flip side of the old Roman, stoical gravitas: the desire for a Garden the opposite of Eden, where we may construct our own reality-denying “safe space” — apart from an inquisitive God.

In the words of the late Scottish philosophical gardener, Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006), “Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.”

On the speed of mercy

Father Mark A. Pilon’s piece in The Thing this morning (here) gives an unusually frank account of the mess Holy Church is now passing through, which (Warren opining now) may yet prove a blessing. Sometimes war offers the only way forward; or in this case, the “moral equivalent” thereto. There are acts — there could be acts even by a pope — that must be confronted and corrected. Surrender is not an option, when one has Christ’s own Church to defend, whether the enemy be from without or within.

In his refusal to reply to the Dubia of the happily-dubbed “Four Cardinals” — Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke, Carlo Caffarra, and Joachim Meisner — all learned, sober, and impressive men — Pope Francis has displayed a shocking insolence, a caudillo hauteur. His very job, as pontiff, is to uphold the teaching of Holy Church, never more needed than in a time like this, when it is taken frivolously. It is to end confusion. In the five questions addressed to him – straightfoward, concise, and each answerable with a yea or a nay — he was requested to do that. These questions were not only about divorce and communion. They drew attention to five distinct points in Amoris Laetitia, at which a grave contradiction could be construed between what the pope was teaching, and what the Church has always taught.

On that marriage question alone, it is worth reading with attention Ross Douthat’s comments in (of all places) the New York Times (here). Douthat shows, with admirable precision, the consequences of Bergoglio’s doctrinal adventure for Catholic life, and thus, in the souls of a thousand million living people.

From the beginning of his pontificate, it is now clear to many, whose trust he has squandered, Bergoglio intended what amounts to sabotage; to rekindle the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” that Pope Benedict so eloquently condemned; to undermine the courageous work of Saint John Paul, to restate for our age Catholic moral teaching in his Familiaris Consortio and other writings. We cannot simply ignore the consistency with which he has insulted reliable Catholic teachers, and the longsuffering Catholic faithful — in his words, in his flighty and irresponsible gestures, in his persistent appointment of craven liberal mediocrities to vital Church offices. He has been described, aptly, as a papal wrecking ball.

The justification for the cardinals’ action in these circumstances has been stated (here, most accessibly).

A pope serves the Church, and not vice versa. He is servant of her servants. He is charged to defend the Faith, not to revise it. Beyond the specific issues, in which Bergoglio has toyed so coyly with doctrine and law, he has set an appalling precedent for his successors. It cannot be allowed to stand.

Yet all this may prove, in the long view which Christians strive to maintain, a blessing in disguise. We are coming to a juncture in which a glib, smarmy, and false account of Catholic Truth is widely accepted — even within the Church, where it is expressed in a slapdash liturgy. The parallels with the Arian crisis of the fourth century become ever more striking (see here).

It may take a few more decades to extinguish the Hydra-head modernist heresies. Without intending, I think our current pope draws the reckoning nearer.

Our Lord is not indifferent to the fate of His Church, and we may be surprised by what Flannery O’Connor called “the terrible speed of mercy.” (Not the fake mercy of laxity, but the divine action, which includes the admonishment of sinners.)

A path will emerge; may have emerged already.

A path will emerge

As I have perhaps mentioned before, somewhere or other — I write a lot, you know — there is a saying among the drivers of Delhi three-wheelers that deeply appeals to me. I have cited it in my headline.

Some context is necessary to understand this saying. Gentle reader must place himself imaginatively on the bench behind the driver of one of these frail, motorized rickshaws (as these). He is going around one of New Delhi’s innumerable traffic circles (worse than Washington, I think), along with many other tuk-tuks, cars, proper taxis, little trucks, buses, bicycles, big trucks, motorcycles, and possibly farm animals. Or rather, he is hopelessly caught in their jam, with an appointment to get to, that is gradually receding into the fog of history.

The more enveloping and immediate fog is of intense petrol fumes and of smoke discharging, into which is mixed the rich tropical scents of rotting fruit and vegetables, and other odours unhappier to describe. The sides of the little cart are open. The temperature is in three figures of Fahrenheit. It is also quite humid, and there is no breeze. One is wearing a tie, which one might mistake for a garrote vil.

But one’s driver is serene. He has, to understate the case, been here before. He reassures his apparently distraught Western passenger that the destination — some several miles away — is nearly in view. “A path will emerge,” he observes, sagely.

I recall being myself once in the position of this passenger, approaching one of the Shajahanabad gates, through which, if we ever passed, the streets would become much narrower, and twisting. But I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. Instead, I noticed, with growing alarm, that two Delhi transit buses — whose diesel exhaust I was now tasting — were closing in upon each other, from our either side. It struck me that their drivers were mounted so high that they would not see us. I pictured the mangled metal in which we would die. Perhaps my alarm was communicated.

“A path will emerge,” repeated my tuk-tuk charioteer, Krishna to my Arjuna.

I queried him on the likelihood of our being crushed.

His philosophical serenity undisturbed, he added, “Death is a kind of path.”

It takes some work, some hard-earned life experience, to attain such a degree of fatalism. I had yet to climb that mountain. I still have not climbed, these last twenty years, to the upper reaches, in which the truth, in its seeming inevitability, comes in view above the clouds, and one may accept the Gloria. My mind instead craves more oxygen. But if you can’t breathe, you can’t breathe — what could be simpler than that?

Actually, gentle reader, I draughted for today a long and rather stern post, touching upon the behaviour of our Holy Father, who, to my mind, is leading our Church into the equivalent of the space between converging Delhi buses. And this, on perhaps a dozen levels, which I was attempting to enumerate. But the same information can be had from elsewhere, so why add my vexation to it? Hardly for the first time in the history of this anti-blog, I deleted my disconsolating words.

Let us consider the matter from a different perspective.

A path will emerge.

In defence of economic backwardness

[Have, truth to tell, slightly extended this since first posted.]


The last generation of Communists in power, in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, suffered from a debilitating foible. They did not themselves believe in the ideology they were preaching. Their efforts were thus directed to getting around the realities their forebears had not anticipated. They thus became their own enemies, working against their own unworkable socialist principles, and in the course of their tireless if frazzled ministrations, the Berlin Wall came down.

Capitalism suffers from the same problem today. The principles of Adam Smith are not seriously believed by any of its nominal advocates. They are not even known. Nor could they be, for like Marx, Smith is not even read. I have derived pleasure, on many occasions, from pointing out to some ideological enthusiast for Capitalism, that its supposed author was refulgently opposed to joint-stock companies. Which is to say, to the form of business ownership that controls — oh, I don’t know. Ninety-five percent of the so-called “private sector” economy today?

I observed that, apart from any consideration of morality (and he was, after all, only an amateur economist, but a professional Perfesser of Moral Philosophy), Smith believed that joint-stock companies were inefficient, because essentially bureaucratic. This is inevitable when ownership is separated from management. “Growth,” or Bigness, subtly replaces profit (both mercenary and non-mercenary) as the principal aspiration.

The perfessers today believe in “the evolution of Capitalism.” I don’t believe in evolution at all. I think, for instance, that “the hidden hand,” also known as “the law of supply and demand,” is absolutely static, like all the other “laws” that seem to govern our universe. Anything that happens to be true in economics, as in any other branch of scientia, was always true and will be true ever, in the world to which we are accustomed, regardless of the language used to describe. What “evolves” is rather our hallucinatory rhetoric, whether towards or away from the plain facts of life.

Within a nice Smithian economic order there could be no mega-mergers and buyouts; there could be no “megas” for that matter; companies would rather be born, live, and die, on the human scale; with economic decision-making leading up by an irresistible subsidiarity from living, twitching, irrefutable “consumers” (or “customers as we used to call them), uncontaminated by ubiquitous “lifestyle” advertising, or other wicked goads. Companies would by necessity fully adapt to the specific needs of their localities. There could be partnerships, and inheritances; exports and imports for sure; but no “free market” in stocks, of the kind we associate with Capitalism today.

For that matter, there would be no paper money (Smith despised it), let alone electronic — designed, as such things always are, to disguise debt. The moral hazard implicit in most modern, conventional business practices would be flagged and could be prosecuted under common law; as opposed to the cat’s cradle of universalized “rules and regulations,” imposed on the small by negotiation between big government, big business, big labour, and … big media. We could dismiss “limited liability,” too, leaving owners fully accountable for their delictions, derelictions, misdemeanors, and crimes.

And of course, we would all be poorer, by any abandoned statistical measure; and much happier, too, for having extricated ourselves from the global rat-race of “creative destruction,” leading only to Hell. For yes, if one thinks them through, Smithian economics are inherently conservationist, or as they say today, “ecological.” You work with what you have, rather than with what you can “leverage.”

Often I have read these moderns mocking mediaeval ideas about usury, about their notions of supply and demand, et cetera. But as a man of the thirteenth century, I feel perfectly at home in The Wealth of Nations (1776). Florentine double-entry bookkeeping is fine with me; whereas credit cards are an abomination. There is real solid wealth, denominated in real solid things, which neither appear nor disappear overnight; and then, there is the “wealth of numbers.” Presently, it is public policy to pursue the wealth of abstract, manipulable numbers. This includes wild swinging speculation on anything that happens to be real and solid.


An old friend of mine, among my bosses in late ’seventies Bangkok — Antoine van Agtmael, genuinely admired and loved — was the genius who invented the expression “emerging markets,” to replace that downer, “developing countries.” (Which in turn had been the euphemism for “backward countries.”) It was by such creative hocus-pocus that attitudes towards “Third World” investment were dramatically changed, in the era of Thatcher and Reagan. A man of indomitably good intentions; charitable, selfless, and a brilliant merchant banker; a little leftish in his social and cultural outlook — I give Antoine’s phrase as an example of the sort of poetry that changes the world. I took pride, once, in editing a book of his astute investment “case studies.”

Thirty-six years have passed, since in my youth and naiveté I was draughting a book of my own on what is still called “development economics.” (I was a business journalist in Asia then, who did a little teaching on the side.) It seemed to me that “free enterprise” should be encouraged; that “government intervention” should be discouraged; but that the aesthetic, moral, and spiritual order in one ancient “developing country” after another was being undermined by the success, as also by the frequent failures, not only of foreign but of domestic investors. This bugged me because, like my father before me (who had worked and taught westernizing subjects in this same Third World), my well-intended efforts on behalf of “progress” were ruining everything they touched; everything I loved.

My attempt to explain this, if only to myself, ended in abject failure to answer my central question: “Why does Capitalist success make the world ugly and its people sad?”

Only now do I begin to glimpse an answer; and that part of it could be expressed in the imperative, “Let us abandon Capitalism, and go back to Adam Smith.”