Essays in Idleness


Upmarket & down

According to the estimate of one of my correspondents, about one-third of the Alberta economy is gone, since the collapse of world crude oil prices began to engage with the regulatory destruction of the province’s fossil fuel industries. This is good news, to those who envied the province’s “excessive” wealth, and Calgary’s “corporate power.” (Per capita income in Alberta was until quite recently higher than that of any Canadian province or American state.) The decline is statistically masked, however, by the disappearance of imports (the “tar sands” required a lot of high-tech equipment) and the skid of the Canadian dollar: the trade balance has technically improved. Likewise, the unemployment rate may actually fall, as people give up seeking jobs entirely. It is only in reality that businesses are closing or radically downsizing; that the economic pilgrimage of labour to Alberta from Canada’s poorer provinces has turned the other way.

Decline is never distributed equally, and while the capitalists take so many hits, that it becomes possible to find “affordable housing” in Calgary, the government town of Edmonton is still visibly booming. This is where the new socialist government presides, in succession to the spendthrift “conservative” government held responsible for a downturn beyond its control. Albertans have long been known as decisive people. They decided that if they were going to commit suicide, they would do it properly.

In the same way, after years of economic stagnation across much of USA, Washington DC and its surrounding counties remain an island of remarkable prosperity. Nothing yet impedes their parasitical growth, and one may easily understand the horror with which a businessman like Trump is greeted when, as president-elect, he threatens to apply a form of chemotherapy to America’s metastasized bureaucracies. (In the recent election, Trump and Pence took 4.1 percent of the popular vote in DC: a minority of the 9.5 percent who did not vote for Hillary.)

There are no mysteries here. Wealth is generated by human work and investment, and the purpose of politics, like piracy, is to suck it dry.

I mentioned Alberta first, however, for the USA economy remains the world’s most formidable, and therefore complex, even in decline. Alberta’s resource-based industries make it simpler to understand. Before oil and gas there was beef and wheat, and before that, furs. The population is diffuse, and the conditions for the development of manufacturing and services — traditionally dense population, and thus a massive labour pool — only recently emerged, and only in the small corridor of the province that bridges its two dominant cities. (Warmer Texas, by comparison, has acquired far more population.) Live by the sword, die by the sword, has ever been the destiny of the resource-based, and the “blue-eyed sheikhs” are now suffering the fate of Arabia. For like Saudi, Alberta became a vastly inflated welfare state, which with the collapse of the oil price can be quickly deflated.

Every government’s first spending priority is itself. This becomes painfully evident as the revenue stream dries: the consumption of a nation’s lifeblood becomes more centralized. Paradoxically, what is bad for Alberta is, for a time, good for Edmonton; as what is bad for America is good for DC. As the body decays, the parasites flourish, though not indefinitely. Eventually there is no more lifeblood to be sucked, and we have an economic corpse like Venezuela. With that comes the last stage of societal disintegration, and violence in the throes.

Now, our times are more interesting (in the classical Chinese sense) for the technological developments I’ve touched on (here, for instance). Human labour is becoming outmoded. It is a problem that cannot be ignored — a consumer society must retain some money-earning consumers — yet can only be aggravated by government intervention. Human creativity might conceivably rise to the occasion, but inanition can be the only response to the palliative drug of welfare.

To this survivalist end, I think, the bloodsucking must stop. It precludes the very possibility of recovery.

Light reading

At a recent meeting of a secret society to which I belong, the name “Raymond Chandler” came up. Gentle reader may know him for one of those detective novelists. I gather he’s been dead since 1959. But oddly enough his works, in the Library of America edition (two volumes), were then found lying in a flea market, like a pair of unclaimed bodies in a morgue. Although I have never been much of a hoo-dunnit fan, I remembered being quite entertained by Chandler in my youth; that Auden had good words for him; and that Oscar Wilde once provided an excuse for low behaviour. (“I can resist anything except temptation.”)

I was slanging “conventional” novels just last week, but will admit they have some historical uses. In this case, the books evoke an earlier generation of greater Los Angeles, and Chandler’s sharp eye for objects and interior decoration, for clothing and mannerisms of speech and gesture, beat anything that might whip by in a televised period drama. Indeed, one must read about these things today, because it is beyond the acting abilities of a later generation to capture what adulthood was like, before it began to phase out in the ’sixties. Old photographs are useful, too, in presenting faces one does not see today. This was a time when, even in Hollywood, a girl in her early twenties could have elegance and charm, and it was possible to imagine a virgin.

There are a lot of evil people in Chandler, as there always are in every generation, and the hoo-dunnit writer must, by trade, contrive a few murders. Gangsters, too, are a commonplace of society at all times, and seem meaner when they can provide a more vivid contrast with everyday life. The background dullness of the older and much smaller (but already sprawling) Los Angeles conurbation stands in for the dullness of all North American cities, or all parts built in the automotive age. The emptiness of all attempts at glitz was more striking against a greyer background, before glitz was normalized. By now it is enchanting, and for those of a certain age (moi, for instance) there are nostalgic pleasures. There was much of quiet, timeless beauty still in the countryside; the cities were aesthetic hell-holes already; but the ugliness did not yet scream.

Conversely, some things haven’t changed, and there is a certain immortal likeness in all human society prior to, or functioning outside, the Internet globalization. Let me call this “the universality of the local.” From my own memory, which now compasses a third generation, three stages can be discerned. In nice quarter-century increments, there is a post-War ending about 1970; a middling stage from then until about 1995; and now the “millennial” stage. The first and second have much more in common than either with this latest, in which those once accustomed to mere telephones and letters are necessarily rather lost. “Change” was accelerating all through, but speeds have been reached to which the human psyche was never in all history adapted, so that the very notion of “future” is slurred. Nothing holds still any more, for anyone to begin to understand it.

Chandler’s plots are entirely unbelievable; his characters, too. The “tough guys” he takes such delight in depicting aren’t scary any more, and probably weren’t when they first saw print. His women are unnecessarily gorgeous and sly; there is no relief from Hollywood cliché. The blondes are too blonde, though I must say there is a fine Aristotelian inventory of the species of blonde, early in The Long Goodbye, and other delicious attempts at cataloguing stereotypes. Philip Marlowe himself, our hard-boiled fictional private detective, could not in real life have survived all his beatings, though possibly his alcohol consumption, matched, I’m informed, by the author’s own. His much-celebrated moral code would not stand up to candid analysis, but then, it was not meant to. Entertainment only was proposed, and the literary flourishes are aimed at the first generation to absorb mass post-secondary education. In this sense Chandler’s novels are cloyingly pretentious, though relief comes from the occasional poetical image or simile that is thrilling in a comical way.

He is pulp fiction from beginning to end, where the attraction is in the props, and a “camp” effect is sought that might be as addictive as Sherlock Holmes. There is tension enough to keep us idly turning pages, but in the end a very modern reduction of human life to the condition of the movie or cartoon.

Crooked timber chronicles

[In the hope of being better understood, I have extended my prologue.]


We have apparently in Canada now — as too, in many other Western jurisdictions — a legal “right” to suicide, together with something more consequential (for those with brains to think this through). It is what amounts to a “right” to be murdered. It is among the products of the progress of progressivism: that “transvaluation of all values” that Herr Nietzsche wrote about; or as I’d rather put it, the inversion of that moral order which, through human action by the grace of God, Christian civilization achieved. This strange, incremental but accelerating inversion, in which old premisses are replaced by new, becomes ever more openly demonic.

The premisses being overthrown — an example being the sanctity of human life — are not only moral but intellectual. What was grounded in nature, clarified in men’s minds by divine commandment, and carefully presented on the principle of non-contradiction through centuries by our most learned and wise, is replaced by arbitrary atheist assertions, in a chaotic jumble of self-contradictions. In the new totalitarian “rights language,” laws are rewritten ad hoc and holus-bolus, depending on what progressive fashion requires, each new “right” necessarily false because it will acknowledge no corresponding duty, as all classical reasoning required. The new premisses are one-winged, and tightly circular: “This is your right, therefore this is your right, therefore the world must be changed to deliver it, regardless of cost or consequences.”

We confront arguments today that operate on reason as the terrorist’s bomb on human flesh, or a bulldozer across a garden. Progressive thinking provides no principles to resolve contradictions beyond the vanities and whims of progressive commissars. It expressly denies the cardinal virtue of prudence, and all allied restraints; it expressly refuses to answer any question with the candour of a Yea or Nay; indeed mocks every demand for consistency, and seeks the punishment of anyone who asks.

Resistance to the constantly “evolving” progressive agenda becomes a pitched battle in which reason can, sadly, find no purchase — you cannot argue with howler monkeys. Each clash reduces painfully to: Can they do it, or can we stop them? For we are dealing with an Enemy — principalities, powers — who does not hesitate or relent. He has cracked the front line of civilized defences, and advances with an insatiable hatred, focused finally upon God. This Enemy does not intend to allow his opponents time to recover, or to grant them refuge anywhere.

I am not saying that the politically “progressive” are all inhabited by devils. Many are not, and the great masses only jounce in the contemporary moral and intellectual pandæmonium. I am saying that we have lost “politics as usual.” It is not a contest between adversaries who, in good faith, propose honourable means to honourable ends. It is a contest over the ends themselves; the kind of contest of which Our Lord said, “He who is not with me is against me.”


Through the casual review of polls, over the years, I have become aware that the general public can itself be moved from approximately 80/20 to approximately 20/80 (four fingers and a thumb to four thumbs and a finger) by any specious argument, if it is repeated constantly, and the Left are able to impose a fait accompli through the courts. Among intellectuals, the swings may be wider and quicker. They are not pendular, however, for once various civilized taboo lines have been crossed, there is no inevitable return, and the only way back is through a field of carnage.

Today, unlike “yesterday” (i.e. a few short years ago) there is 80 percent support for what goes in Canada under the euphemism “assisted dying,” and everywhere under the older euphemism, “euthanasia.” As loyal Christians (or Jews, and many others) we must never surrender to public opinion of this kind. Yet we must recognize that it is pointless to argue with the great mass who, in Canada as in places like Nazi Germany, can so easily be persuaded that down is up, and that words now have new meanings. They simply haven’t the equipment to follow a thread longer than the short slogans in which progressives specialize. Not if their moral schooling was defective, leaving consciences deformed.

People can be “educated” or “catechized” or awakened only one by one, and with their own participation. There is always hope, for as Thomas Sowell says, though everyone is born ignorant, not everyone is born stupid. But in practice, they are retrieved from catastrophic error, only by catastrophe.

At this point in our societal degeneration, “the people” are obedient to what beloved Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism.” This is understandable because few were raised in anything else. The very concept of a moral absolute (e.g. “thou shalt do no murder”) is alien to them. At the gut level, they may still individually recoil against an evil, but only if they have watched, and found the spectacle “icky.”

Hence what I noticed in the recent Planned Parenthood “debate” in neighbouring USA. People got quite excited about the sale of “baby parts” who had no strong objection to abortion. It was not the murder of the child itself, but the subsequent details that disgusted them. This was made the worse, for agents of the Left, because another fallen aspect of our human nature is ghoulish curiosity. The complete triumph of “tabloid” over “broadsheet” journalism was enabled by technology, but at a more fundamental level, by the exploitation of this sick human desire to (as we see on the streets) stop and gawp at the traffic accident, or the shooting aftermath, or whatever seems to be on offer.

A morality that depends on the perception of ickiness becomes a danger in itself. It may seem at first commendably anti-intellectual, but the loss of reason entails unpredictable developments, regardless of the direction taken — whether superficially Left or Right.


From my mail, on yesterdays’ Idlepost, I discover that in nursing homes where “assisted dying” executions are now taking place, management has a problem that was not anticipated. The executions must be performed in strictest secrecy because many of their staff want to get a look.

They want to be in on the drama. They’d like to watch someone die.

In the past, long before modern tabloid journalism, the State would exploit this human quirk, by making capital punishment very public. A beheading, a hanging, especially with drawing and quartering, would attract a large audience. This in turn would be good for business, too, as everyone from street vendors to pickpockets cashed in. The historians’ assumption is that the purpose of a public execution is to warn the general public against breaking the law. But I think often a larger purpose was the old populist provision of “bread and circuses.”

Today we have the relatively bloodless alternative of professional sports. But as our society returns, by progressive increments, to its pagan roots, we may expect the emergence of something more gladiatorial.

Already, Islamic terrorism produces scenes that are horrible, and for that reason intriguing to the common man. Sooner or later the marketing people discover the sales opportunities. Indeed, through the medium of cable television, they already have found a way to monetize it. And like the pornographers, the newscasters come to realize that by posting “warnings” they can not only exculpate themselves, with characteristic hypocrisy, but also attract a larger crowd.

My point here is that by each “transvaluation,” or inversion, of the ancient received moral order, we do not get the new one we expect. We get developments beyond anything that anyone could have expected, as the various forgotten evils that lurk in the human breast come to engage with each other.

The downside of killing people

A Filipina, an Ethiopian, and a Pakistani walk into a nursing home. …

This is not a joke; instead a recollection from several years ago as my parents were exiting this world. The institution, providing a form of terminal care, with bed and board, continues around two corners in Parkdale here. It is “the last place on earth” for 128 patients at any given moment; never less, for there are waiting lists. It has a better reputation than some nursing homes.

The three in question stand out in memory because in two cases they were outstanding nurses, and in the third, an outstanding administrator. Each, in her particular role, had the grace of what I suppose our pope would call “mercy,” if he means by it the ability to go somewhere beyond the rules in offering comfort and fellowship to the dying. Two Christians and a Muslim.

I am thinking, partly, of their services to my parents, who had also the luxury of frequent visits from their children and friends, and the company of each other until my father died. We appreciated them; but other inmates of this nursing home were in a position to appreciate them more. For those had been more fully “warehoused,” by families with money, signing off on “a problem.” I knew several who were never visited at all; who had only the fear of death to interrupt the bleakness of their days; and memories tormented by those who, having acquired legal custody of their savings, left them there, and skulkily walked away. In age they endure something of the experience of a conscripted soldier on the battlefront — long stretches of debilitating boredom with short passages of terror for relief; and such new companions as they might find, dying all around them.

But there is no mud or cold in these trenches. Instead they find the sterility of a modern, hygienic, institutional environment, with distracted keepers — a professionally-trained staff. Anything resembling blood and guts will be cleaned up promptly; cadavers are removed with speed and discretion.

Under the state’s new “euthanasia” provisions, those who have decided on, or been persuaded to “assisted dying,” will be executed in a cool and professional way. A priest I know walked in unexpectedly on a rehearsal of this process. His spontaneous expression of outrage was condemned as an unconscionable disturbance.

So where was I? Yes, thinking of three nurses, each (by no coincidence) seriously religious according to her traditions; and each a conductor of kindliness, patience, warmth and concern — beyond the medically urgent or necessary. Their very presence on a shift, especially in the night, was a source of strength to many poor old customers; of that feeling of safety, founded in trust, that a soldier might have when he discovers that his superior officer is genuinely competent; that he also cares what happens to his men. Conversely, their absence could be a source of anxiety.

The word for this in English was once “condescension”; a usage that would be inconceivable today, for it acknowledges that people are and will ever be unequal in power. In any moment, you depend on persons “above”; those “below” depend on you. (I put these words in quotes to convey that the relative positions are not always fixed; they may even change at different times of day.) Trust is involved as a condition of every mediation. And when it breaks down we have the horror of equality: Hobbes’s warre of all against all.

I think of these three particular nurses, each to my knowledge a universe in herself, on this vexed question of “euthanasia.” I am reasonably confident that each would accept being fired, rather than participate in regulated murder. One might call them “selfish” or “rigid” in a very narrow, and sophistical sense: willing to part with career and livelihood, rather than agree to the dictates of Hell.

The post-modern mind cannot understand them. It asks, “But what about all the other patients who rely on you, who turn to you for such comforts as they have? How can you abandon them? Why can’t you just suck it up, the way we all have to do sometimes, and keep your religious opinions to yourself? Tell your ‘god’ you were just following orders.”

This is, all should see, a vacuous argument, to which only silence can respond. It serves only to reveal the void of conscience, that follows from law in which conscience has no place. It speaks of a future when all human decency will be driven underground, and every decent person will be isolated; and of a fleeting present when the response to evil was fluffy and lax, professionally accommodating, and demonically glib.

One thinks of the ultimate act of condescension: when Christ came down from Heaven. And of what He taught us: be rigid, hold your ground!

Underground Europe

As these Essays are short, I like to indulge in oversimplification. Gentle reader should understand the plan. In the absence of omniscience, we look at the world from successive angles. The truth is sculptural, not a flat picture. Gradually one assembles the more comprehensive view, by tracking around, at various elevations, and moving closer then farther, in different conditions of light. Too, there are the phenomena of texture, and others corresponding to our senses five (really twenty-seven). It should also be allowed that this sculpture moves, in some ways that do and others that do not respond to human interaction. And that it is alive; and that it will outlive us; and that like every other, my analogy falls apart.

So back to oversimplification. An article ping’d me this morning by my Chief Texas Correspondent, from behind the paywall of the Wall Street Journal, touches on political developments in France.

François Fillon, the presidential contender, will find himself in the middle between the “far right” (meaningless leftish shorthand) Marine Le Pen, and whoever becomes the socialist standard-bearer in a primary later this month. Fillon surprised all the experts (as usual) by winning the soft-right primary, by a landslide in the run-off. It was thought he couldn’t win because he is an overtly practising, believing Catholic in the land of laïcité (the principle of ungodliness established in the French Revolution). He goes to Mass, quite publicly, and quite memorably went to the Benedictine abbey of Solesmes for the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, telling media afterwards not only to smell the coffee but also, hear the bells.

My European readers will be already familiar from their mass media with what the WSJ is now reporting in the USA. In short, the public profession of Christianity, in a political context, has not been heard in Europe for some time. It is shocking to millennials, especially. Among the old there is the distant but still audible tinkle of l’après-guerre.

It should be recalled that Continental Europe rose from the ashes under the political direction of overtly Christian, predominantly Catholic parties. The “Christian Democrat” movement was the means by which, in country after country, western Europe embraced anti-communism and NATO, free markets and deregulation, the baby boom and general reconstruction after World War II. The “economic miracle” that began in the late ’forties did not descend from the clouds; it was propelled by bold decisions made by consciously Christian statesmen — among the few politicians untainted by the immediate Nazi/Fascist/Collaborationist past. (Britain, which missed Occupation, instead followed her Labour Party in the alternative direction, delaying the start of her post-War recovery until 1979.)

Only after this Christian tutelage had achieved great prosperity and societal peace, did the “Social Democrat” movements prevail at the polls, pouring the molasses back into what became fully-fledged Nanny States in the ’sixties. (This had been on the agenda of all Left parties since the beginning of the century.) At the same time, Christianity was itself receding as a social and moral force, partly in consequence of monied decadence, partly due to the hideous self-destruction of the Catholic Church in “the spirit of Vatican II.” And what began as a coal and steel free trade agreement, and was expanded into a Common Market, was itself transformed into the dirigiste pseudo-religion in the black heart of the European Union.

More detail might be supplied to expand this into a book, but my ambition for this morning is limited to sketching the broad outline of a post-War history which, I think, is widely ignored. Take Christianity out of the mix of factors — as the ascendant “secular humanists” have succeeded in doing — and not only antique but contemporary European history becomes incomprehensible.

In the spirit of the economist, Schumpeter, one might play with the idea that prosperity is itself the killer. Once people are economically secure, and the necessary minimum of civilized institutions are quietly ticking over, they are free to entertain bullshit again, and start undoing what they have accomplished. Schumpeter held that “liberalism” in the European sense — free markets and free inquiry — contains the seed of its own demise. One might even argue that, next time we have a chance, we should find a way to sabotage prosperity, without government help. Perhaps people need to stay a little hungry, to retain their common sense, and their appreciation of individual liberty. Or perhaps they need religion if only for the pragmatic purpose of keeping their minds off politics.

On some other day I might try to explain why I am not so cynical.

Let it be observed, nevertheless, by those whose minds are not disordered, that Europe once again finds herself passing through the stages of collapse — as in the “post-Christian” 1910s, and 1930s. The Islamic invasion, by way of open immigration to replace a contracepted and aborted generation of pension-funding workers, is only one dimension of this process. At every public level, throughout the West, bureaucratic micromanagement on “progressive” principles has lured us into converging blind alleys. For instance, our ideological “environmentalism” isn’t sustainable, either. Nor is the rampant consumerism it only pretends to challenge.

The experts, as I say, are defeated by any prospect of a trend reversing. (“All trends are reversible” was my old pundit mantra.) The apparent success of a François Fillon, as of a Donald Trump, is a nightmare to them; more because they cannot understand it than because they are mortally opposed. (Neither of those gentlemen has yet proposed to do anything truly radical or unprecedented; both propose to “fix” rather than to dismantle universal welfarism.)

Le Sens Commun (roughly, “common sense”) is the name of the grassroots organization that put millions in the streets to protest the French gay marriage legislation, and in defence of other life issues. They and Fillon have discovered in each other the means to a formidable campaign, to reverse the national political direction. Parallel events in other European countries are contributing to the revival of an explicitly Christian sense of ancestral identity — something a little more subtle than nationalism. I do not like to make predictions; we will see where it leads.

Thomas Sowell

Would that all God’s pundits were like Thomas Sowell. My paraphrase of Moses is a little awkward. God made people, but pundits make themselves, with or without God’s help. They might nevertheless be prophetic, in a tightly limited way. Sowell being an exquisitely trained economist, from the glory days of the Chicago School, his prophecy took the form of economic reasoning. Both from “theory” and a broad experience of the world, he at least knew which economic policies had (and will always have) a one hundred percent failure rate; and he had the gift to explain why this is so to readers of average intelligence and modest attention spans; along with some aphoristic flair. (See here, for instance.)

Yet his opposition to socialism (or “liberalism” or “progressivism”) was founded not upon some mysterious professional or aesthetic dislike of dysfunctional bureaucracies, per se. Rather, the tyranny of statist micromanagement animated his resistance. Consistently through the decades, he has been one of those stubborn American champions of human liberty: most notably against the entrapment of blacks, other minorities, and all materially poor, in the cat’s cradle (-to-grave) of the Nanny State.

Born in the rural poverty of North Carolina, raised in Harlem, he remained personally acquainted with the fate of his race. A disciplined and unexciteable controversialist, he rose closest to exhibiting passion when discussing, for instance, the destruction of the black family by the Great Society of Lyndon Baines Johnson — how it arrested the social and economic advancement blacks had been making by their own efforts to overcome the monstrous history of slavery. By its “helping hand” the government rewarded unwed motherhood, punished enterprise, and promoted crime. In addition to family, it undermined religion, and finally helped instal the abortion mills which disproportionally reduce the black population. And all of this by legislation drumrolled from the start with pseudo-Christian moral posturing.

Sowell could understand this through the economic analysis of moral hazard. Reward people for making irresponsible life choices, for discarding prudence and embracing victimhood and dependency — the result may be predicted. The question whether the policies were the product of invincible stupidity or demonic inspiration is moot: for stupidity is among the devil’s excavating tools. He is a master policy analyst, to whom men are merely statistics to be crunched; and to the stupid man he proposes the job-ready shovel, by which to dig his own grave.

But this is my view; Sowell proceeded in the fixed habit of ignoring the diabolical intention, taking the enemy at his own self-flattering conceit, and accusing him of no more than ignorance and hypocrisy. In person, a true kindly gentleman. In thousands of newspaper columns, and thorough books, he expounded only natural causes and consequences. He has retired from that, and in his farewell column mentions that he will now turn his attention to the happier pursuit of photography. (Examples here.)

On the worthlessness of novels

By “a few days” it seems I meant the whole Christmas octave: among my longer disappearances from the Idlesphere. I have enjoyed this absence, which did not constrict my writing, for I caught up with correspondence, pinging my last owed message on the eve of the New Year, indeed just at the stroke of midnight, so that I assumed the fireworks, car horns, and noises within the building were in celebration of my heroic deed. As an old hack, a man of deadlines, I was in fact racing to complete the tasks of MMXVI, and settle its debts, within the calendar year; with the exception of those debts which can never be settled, and for which forgiveness and absolution must be sought.

A “hack journalist” to be sure (I love the biblical redundancy in this term), and a graphomaniac, from years of habit. For in the middle of a peaceful week, which I might have devoted more constructively to drinking, I wrote a long short story, or short novella. Verily: I was tempted almost to post, here, what I would describe as a “modern” ghost story — in which none of the characters die, or are dead, but succeed nevertheless in haunting each other. My title was, “The Curse,” and the whole piece could have been read as a chapter of memoir by anyone who knows me well enough. Fortunately, no one living knows me that well.

Of course, one changes names, locations, small details, to protect the guilty and the innocent alike; skips particulars irrelevant to the story, inserts events which might improve it, and both consciously and unconsciously toys withal. A story is a story, and in defence of those who tell stories not strictly accurate to events, they may not be merely trying to purvey “fake news.” They may also be trying not to bore the reader with facts he neither needs nor wants to know. Homer’s “angle” on the Fall of Troy would disintegrate under the ministrations of a professional fact-checker, and the wanderings of Odysseus which enchanted my youth beggared “literal” belief even then.

Yet it fulfilled the requirements of a tale, “which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney-corner.”

Stories, “myths,” are in this sense truer than life, or easier to remember. Life is just a mess, and in trying to recall, precisely, what happened (in last week’s case) thirty-six years ago, and in exactly what order, for the purpose of retelling in an ordered way, I found even old notes of limited utility. Some have better memories, some worse; some, as I’ve discovered in conversation with old friends, have almost no memory at all, and I pity them on the Day of Judgement. For as I tell my students, it is good to be at least partially prepared for an Examination. Notwithstanding, earthly recollection is through a fog of emotional interests, seen and unseen, and by evidence that is quickly lost.

Much of what we attribute to “tradition” goes back only to the last century, or at best the century before. This has always been so: authority is sought by fathering our whims on imaginary ancestors. The next British Coronation — which I fear to be approaching — will be presented as an impossibly ancient rite, when in fact the model was cut from whole cloth at the accession of the late King Edward VII; and the wrinkles later ironed out for his son. Or so I was once told by a supposed expert on this topic. A nation state is inherently unstable, and must constantly recast not only its present but its past in order to keep up with the times. (How very human.)

Indeed, every attempt to subtract God from our proceedings, and insinuate our own profane needs, involves fraud. That is among the uses of Scripture, or other historical documents for that matter: to correct our fluctuating notions of “the record.” Writing was worth inventing for that cause.

The same is so in the history of our storytelling. Prose narrative had, by the early Victorian era, moved against deep truth to nature in the direction of the narrow veracity of “realism.” In the hands of a Dickens or a Dostoyevsky, the new genres could be turned to old effects; but the contemporary “realistic” novel does not descend from Boccaccio, Rabelais, Cervantes. Instead it descends, or might be said to degenerate, from the periodical journalism of the eighteenth century. It was and remains a bastard form, much closer to journalism than to poetry. It must always entertain in a cheapened way.

The legitimate form is that of the tale, which eschews the mundane, and aspires instead to the elevation of poetry. Beowulf, among the unexpected miracles of literature (the manuscript recovered less than a dozen generations ago) is noble; any attempt to recast its essential content in the plausible environment of an historical novel would fail ludicrously. Grendel would shrink into a case study.

Aristotle understood this, and the catharsis he represents is not the Freudian thing we have come to prize. Moreover, he grasped that the plausibility of a tale does not rest on our everyday experience, remembered or projected; instead upon an invisible order that is true to life in the manner of music. Each of the sensible Greek terms he employs — crucially mimesis, hamartia, melos, peripeteia, anagnorisis, dianoia — escape simple English translation, and require serious contemplation to be retrieved.

Modern scholars admit that Aristotle’s categories are largely irrelevant to modern literature, but this is a condemnation of the latter. He is not presenting a “creative writing” formula for successful authorship, incidentally. He is describing how “the tale” works, in its mysterious movement. It is, if gentle reader will, a spiritual organism. Mythos and opsis (too easily translated as “structure” and “spectacle”) are not, as for a modern, the same thing. They are different organs for different functions. The world is not being transformed into “myth,” nor stylized, nor appropriated in any other way; it is instead being visited, Told.

I have never wanted to be a novelist, any more than I have wanted to be a journalist, and in writing my oppressively realistic novella I realized that while it might (or might not) amuse others, I was actually indulging in a therapeutic act that pertained to me alone. As I passed through layers of ethos and lexis, I was discovering for myself how little the protagonist (who was really and inevitably moi) understood about the events in which he once participated. It became an exposé of his selfish blindness, his ham-fisted tampering with hearts, and the consequences not only to others but finally and comprehensively to himself. Had I been writing such garbage from the beginning (I have a talent for describing erotic tension), I would probably be rich by now.

The modern novelist deals in phantasms of the living; he projects himself as if onto a cinema screen. Gentle reader might offer the pop-psychological “narcissistic,” but this word is also widely misunderstood. The image of Narcissus was reflected in water, and “discovered” by him there. But to understand the myth one must understand his tragedy: that Narcissus did not recognize himself.