Essays in Idleness


Milady Sue K.

Sadly, I lost my girlfriend this week (funeral today). She was Milady Sue K., among my late mother’s friends at the oldie home around the corner. She was only ninety or so (never parted with her age), flirtatious through all of her several marriages (by her own account), and a bundle of consistently mischievous good humour.

I write “girlfriend” with some confidence, for once, when asked who I was by some rather severe and starchy grand niece, she explained:

“This is David, my boyfriend.”

Then reached over to caress my knee.

I first encountered Sue jammed in the automatic door at “Lakeview,” as she was coming in from a smoke in the snowdrifts. (Unusual cheroots, by preference with wine.) Her wheelchair was locked into the glass and metal by the closing mechanism. It required all my cruelly limited engineering skills to extricate her.

Upon wheeling her towards the elevators, I asked if she liked to go fast.

“Oh yes,” she replied. “I’m a very fast woman.”

Arriving at the elevator, I said that I must abandon her now.

“Oh yes, and I have often been abandoned.”

An indomitable spirit; entirely indifferent to rules and regulations. We put young Father E. on her case, and she quickly converted to the Catholick Faith. Then proved almost as earnest as he, peppering us with embarrassingly difficult theological questions.

My mama and she were buddies, while they lived. I had chiefly Father H. (a Czech of superb height) on my mother’s case, but like cricketers the two priests often switched over. (I once entered mama’s room to find Father H. apologizing if he was being a plague. “Nonsense,” my mama replied. “I have no objection to being harangued by tall, handsome, Slavic men.”)

Both of these ladies uncharitably dismissive of the “mental corpses” around them, “especially on the staff.”

Both incurably vain. Never seen except fully made up, and by custom regal. Except, Sue’s lipsticks were alarming. She said her dream in life had been to become the mistress of some profligate French monarch; or now that she was Catholic, perhaps a Borgia pope.

She had the ability to quote reams of English verse. Sometimes she improved it in recitation, with little word substitutions to update the comic effects. A Wodehouse could easily have transformed her into a magnificent aunt. Indeed, anyone could. … Aheu!

Took the name Scholastica (whose feast happens also to be today), and was for her last eight years, without ceasing to be lively, a very sincere and devoted Roman Christian.

Requiescat in pace.

My life in the movies

This is admissions week in the High Doganate. I shamefully admitted to not having read Wodehouse on Tuesday; today I will admit to not watching movies. Never say never, however: I did see some movies as a young man (mostly with the object of taking girls to them), and am aware that they are still being made. I read about them sometimes. Why, just this week I have read two such articles. (This one, and this one; both recommended.)

In the event of war crimes trials, I shall have to admit that I reviewed movies once, for a daily newspaper. But that was a very long time ago, and let me assure gentle reader I made a fool of myself trying, and was soon fired.

My last effort in this regard was in 1987, when CBC Radio asked me to review a version of Little Dorrit that went on for six hours. Or maybe it was eight, or longer. They’d heard I had read the original novel, which no one else had, and perhaps thought I could sit still for the duration. My review consisted of explaining how much of Dickens’s sprawling, sentimental epic had to be omitted to fit the time; how unconvincing the (celebrated) actors were in the principal rôles; how inappropriate the Verdi soundtrack; how badly the director had captured a kind of poor-house Gulag, within which, as in Solzhenitsyn’s, the human spirit is rising. More generally: everything of value in the novel had been lost, and what a waste of time and money. I did however praise one passing animated backdrop of early Victorian London, so scrupulously accurate that it made me think, “Good Lord, this place once existed!”

Unfortunately, it turned out, the New York Times had just exalted the production, and so dissing it was now forbidden. I could not be persuaded to change my own views. At the last minute my pre-recorded comments were canned, and I was replaced by the programme’s producer, who used all my material to give the impression he had seen the movie himself, but methodically reversed each of my critical judgements. This did not bother me, for by 1987 I already knew what the CBC is, and besides, they paid me.

The last movie I had seen before that was, Blade Runner, in 1982. I was impressed by that but, alas, no one asked for my opinion. I would have said it was a brilliant and entirely successful depiction of modern urban life. Looking back, I still think so.

Snippets of movies I have seen on the Internet, when curious to discover what people around me are talking about. It takes about three minutes, I find, to gather everything one needs to know. Longer would involve unconscionable self-abuse. (Well, I think I slipped and watched several snippets of The Big Lebowski.)

Perhaps I have seen another movie, in the last thirty years. If so, I have forgotten.

Table manners

“Dining with sinners,” I am told by one of my neo-Southern correspondents, “is far more enjoyable than dining with the morally earnest, puffed hypocrites of the elite.”

I’m sure this was true twenty centuries ago, for some things on this planet never change.

Judging from the Gospels, Our Lord seems to have made something of a show — of his preferential option for dining with sinners — by way of subtly undermining pharisaic claims. He did not waste much time on the self-satisfied and “fulfilled”; focusing instead upon the hungry.

Of course, Holy Church proposes to feed everyone; but not everyone likes her food. It is prepared specifically for those customers who know that they fall short of moral and spiritual perfection.

This is not something that should be hard to know, supposing we have any idea of what moral and spiritual perfection might consist. (Hence the divine Example.) Today, this is a real puzzle, to our children exhaustively indoctrinated, from first contact with media or schools; as also to our parents’ children, taught that the only real crimes are the icky ones, and that those are entirely subjective. Each begins with a conscience unformed, but most continue to a radical deformation, so quickly that from an early age they are unlikely to detect the source of so much psychic pain.

It can only be found by that guided self-examination, which the “modern” is encouraged to avoid. Instead, he is launched on a career of blame-seeking.

The worst thing a doctor can tell a patient, in urgent need of help, is that his illness is imaginary. This is what the Church does, when she invites her members to approach the altar in an impure state. She is presenting the Mass as a quack prescription. By representing the Host as a remedy for what ails us, she is selling sugar pills. Or rather, the Church herself never does this; only the hucksters among her human agents.

A man aware that he is dirty will not be outraged by the prospect of a wash. Only the man who thinks himself clean.

Let him also consider the nature of the Feast to which the dinner bells call; and in Whose company he will eat. The Confessional “shower stalls” are on the way into a Catholic church, for benefit alike of rich and poor; because all carry in the dirt of the world.

The Muslim must both ritually and actually purify his hands, upon entering his mosque. The Christian must both ritually and actually purify his soul, upon entering his church. He is not entering a common diner. Neither is the Muslim, God save his soul.

Christ, in the Last Supper, was not doling out hypochondriac medications. Rather as He explained, His own flesh. Let us not pretend this wasn’t a shocking thing to do. We call it “the Sacrifice of the Mass,” and have so called it from time out of mind, because we take Christ at His word. We find him hanging above the very altar, the scapegoat for us all. There is no glib interpretation of this that can make any sense to the formed Christian, thick and sinful as he may otherwise be.

When, on the other hand, Christ dropped in for a common meal, He arrived as a man among men. I do not know how even the latest experts in Rome, can fail to distinguish a church from a diner.

The Bertie conversions

Today’s confession — I tell you, gentle reader, things I really ought to keep to myself — is that I have never read P. G. Wodehouse. I am surrounded by people who have, so that I sometimes feel as if I were the only person in a large room of jollies who does not get the joke. Have never read him at all. And this although there are among these Wodehouseans some with proselytizing zeal. At least one has called me a “classic” Wodehouse character, then added, “Not Jeeves, but Bertie Wooster.” Now another adds, “A Bertie lacking a Jeeves.” Verily, from his further explanation I learn that I may have been Woostering, these last sixty years — a Hamlet without a solid Horatio; a Don Quixote without a Sancho Panza. Arjuna without Krishna.

I mention all this from a peculiar coincidence. In email, over the last few days, in three, now four unrelated screeds, the name of this British comic author has come up, in each case without the slightest tip from me. And in each case, Wodehouse was mentioned in connexion with the Catholic religion, and even with conversion. It is a dark mystery.

The more when I reflect upon the little I know of the personal history of a Swedish friend: a refined, almost dandyish, pipe-smoking intellectual. Oddly, he is a Catholic. Very Old-Mass, too. With a beautiful Swedish wife, also very Catholic, and innumerable perfectly behaved, Swedish-looking children, whom she carries about, three or four at a time.

Converts! … No, no, far weirder than that. … Swedish converts! … I had to ask him what led to his conversion: what had he been reading? what thinking? who inspired him? what could possibly turn a harmless Scandihoovian, soap-loving, post-Lutheran secularist boy into a red-meat mediaevalizing Papist?

To which he smoothly replied, “P. G. Wodehouse.”

“Um, I don’t think of Wodehouse as especially Catholic.”

“True, but while I was reading him, I discovered what is meant by ‘a sense of humour’. Being Swedish, I had no idea such a thing was possible. But when that penny dropped, it all made sense. Everything fit together: I must go to Rome.”

Let me add that I am still assimilating this information. I have met many Chesterton converts, and C. S. Lewis converts. I have even met an Evelyn Waugh convert, which I can understand. I should like to put myself down as a Hilaire Belloc convert. That would be a lie, but I think, a good one.

There are days when I wish that I still had a Comments thread. This, for the purpose of eliciting reader suggestions on “how this could be so.” For we have Wodehouse converts, who aren’t even Swedish. (I am thinking of four Bangladeshi brothers just now, who, as all Bengalis, were born laughing at the ludicrous nature of life on this Earth.) So curious, that I am toying with the exercise of reading this P. G. Wodehouse myself.

For it would be just like God, to use a low-brow, popular farcical humourist as the means to accomplish profoundly serious, heavenly ends.

Of close-run things

Trump lied. He predicted the Patriots would win by eight. They only won by six. And anyway the result of the game should be overturned by the courts, for the Falcons clearly won on yards rushing. (I stole this from some Comments thread somewhere.) And Brady, the Patriots’ quarterback, is a friend of Trump’s. He should never have been allowed to play. And Edelman’s pass reception should not have counted, because it was too good to be true. Ditto for White’s final touchdown. Or his previous one. Or the one before that.

Notwithstanding, the Patriots won.

Yes, I was watching the game, having found a livestream that worked on my laptop, though not until late in the third quarter, when the score was New England 3, Atlanta 28. I don’t usually watch American football; or any other kind of football; or any other professional sports. I especially don’t watch a game that’s not close. I can’t exactly say what glued me. My prejudice on behalf of the Patriots was mild, founded in a long dislike for the city of Atlanta, going back half a century to my hitchhiking days. Too, in my belief that of the two sides, the Patriots were less politically correct. But Sherman burnt it down once, and now Brady has burnt it down again. (Sorry gentle reader in Atlanta; the rest of Georgia I adore.)

I am wilfully biased by nature; I don’t need much to get me started. By the beginning of the fourth quarter, I was a New England Patriots fanatic; and by the time the score was 20 to 28, I was muttering prayers and reaching for my Rosary.

According to an American proverb, it ain’t over till the fat lady sings. (And this Gaga lady wasn’t fat enough.) To other counsels against ever giving up, I now add Tom Brady.

As he said himself, after the game, there were thirty plays that could have gone either way. If even one of them had not gone right, the result would have been different. That’s what Wellington noted after Waterloo: that it had been a close-run thing, “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.”

Should we ever be saved, gentle reader — you or even me — I think it might be a close-run thing. And as the next lap could be our last, remember to ask for divine assistance.

Nothing in this world is perfect (except Our Lord and Our Lady). But we wouldn’t even be here today, were it not for many million close-run things.

Granny dumping

From some newspaper or other, found on a trolley seat, I read the latest on granny dumping. This is when your granny has Alzheimer’s, or a similar dementia, to the point of forgetting family names, and needing a lot of unselfish attention. You take her to England on a family vacation — or any other welfare state will do — and leave her at a bus stop somewhere. (Or grandpa, as in the item I was reading.) But should your budget not go that far, you might just “lose” the inconvenient progenitor, over a few county lines. With luck, no one will recognize the face when some busybody posts it on Instagram or Snapchat. Having legal guardianship, and most likely low intelligence, you might even continue to cash granny’s cheques.

Let us not be too harsh. This is better than “euthanasia,” as the progressives call it; or senicide, or homicide, or “whatever.” And it probably puts an end to the physical abuse that granny was experiencing back home. By emerging Catholic standards it might count as merciful and merit a gold star. From Rome we are after all now hearing that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Why do the journalists reporting such stories sound so judgemental?

In Japan, according to the paper I was reading, the operation is called ubasute, and involves carrying granny up a high mountain, or to some other remote place. A quick check on standard references indicates that this custom is associated with the distant past; but then, a further electronic search indicates that it may be reviving. It is a country whose welfare and tax authorities recently discovered did not have almost a million centenarians, after all. More like 65,692; and some laxity in reporting bereavements.

I recall many similar legends, on the topic of senicide, circulating in my youth: Eskimo grannies floated off on ice floes, for example. As I grew, I learnt that such accounts were not necessarily true. Later, that they were not necessarily untrue, either. (Last known case in 1939, according to the Wicked Paedia.)

Whichever, and in defiance of political correctitude, my darling children were able to acquire this last detail of Canadian lore, in the form of a modern urban trope; the elder one especially. Hence a memorable remark, when his father admitted to age and mental enfeeblement, by way of explaining some eccentric act. I believe the lad was being droll. Nevertheless, I resisted his subsequent proposal for a family vacation in Nunavut.

From Procopius, we learn of the eugenic practices of the Heruli, a Germanic tribe, who assembled their sick and elderly in woodpiles, mercifully stabbing them to death before setting the piles alight. The Heruli were, incidentally, quite democratic, as were most if not all pre-Christian tribes. Everything by majority decision. (Electronic voting makes that possible again.)

A more thorough review of the annals of anthropology would yield a fairly thick dossier. We are reminded that in pagan cultures, including those of urbane Athens and Rome, Christian ideas about abortion, infanticide, suicide, senicide, were not yet in place. Today, we observe that they are slipping.

Under an Executive Order of a former German chancellor (also 1939), the Aktion T4 programme provided a one-size-fits-all solution for the incurably ill, the physically and mentally disabled, the emotionally distraught, and the irretrievably old. Soon this was extended to assorted Slavs, and all identifiable homosexuals, Gypsies, and Jews — entirely without what our liberal intellectuals call “informed consent.” The sort which might today be at risk of granny dumping would be accommodated under one category or another; and with Teutonic efficiency, house calls were arranged.

Did I mention this wasn’t Christian? Oddly, it became labelled as unprogressive, too; for while eugenics was all the fashion with the Darwinian avant-garde, before Hitler, after it went briefly out of style. I say “briefly” in the deeper historical context, for after only a few decades it is coming back in. Indeed, granny dumping might be given as an argument to make these policies more efficient and hygienic. It is (exactly) like demanding state abortion, so that women don’t have to make more hazardous arrangements to free themselves of their unwanted children, and go skulking about in fear of getting caught.

But of course, we now have “informed consent.” (Try getting it from an unborn baby.)

I have noticed that the truly doddering aged will agree to almost anything. For they are no longer following the plot. And some I have met in the oldie homes, even among those who recognize their descendants, may be so glad to see them again. And after such a long time! They’ll do anything for a smile.

We can make a law to permit something, or remove a law that gets in the way. We could also make a law forbidding it again, or restoring the status quo ante. We could have a lot of discussion about this, and the sort of Burkly riots that become easier to imagine, as a national entertainment, every day. For it’s not a pretty sight when the progressives stop smiling, because they haven’t got their way.

And yet as I realize from a clump of stray newspaper on the seat of a trolley, they are probably quite opposed to granny dumping. For it adds a fiscal burden to the state’s already mounting healthcare costs. Perhaps we’ll get new regulations against it; but I shouldn’t think anything too serious. For as I have elsewhere observed, the only “pro-life” position that progressive legislators are willing to support is on behalf of the convicted perpetrators of what were traditionally capital crimes.

To my mind, such laws are a secondary consideration. We can argue and riot until the pigeons come home to roost, in our dense intellectual smog; we can watch young, “politically aware” faces contorted with rage, carrying signs declaring their opposition to “hate,” and calling for assassinations. That is all quite irrelevant. The choice is really between a cultural reconversion to Christianity, and continuing our slide into murderous savagery. Meanwhile everyone has an opinion, and everything is up for grabs. We vote.

Civilization is oppressive. It makes certain acts unthinkable. You hardly even need laws, once that is established. But they are kept on the books, all the same, and the hangman’s noose still stands as a paradoxical reminder of the sanctity of human life. As Doctor Johnson said, it helps to concentrate the mind.

That was the “dead-white” Euro thing: oppressive Christianity. Before that we were like the Heruli. Now we are becoming like the Heruli again — albeit with much improved technology.

On knocking

How do we know that the Earth was created by God? Because it exists. The same can be said for the universe in which we are located: our little universe, quickly expanding but still less than 93 billion light years wide, at the broadest estimate. It exists, and continues to exist, even when we close our eyes; or die, for that matter.

This naïve little “proof” first occurred to me about forty years ago. Or rather, first occurred to me then as an irrefutable proposition. It may not satisfy gentle reader, to say nothing of Saint Anselm in Heaven, but it pleaseth me. I found Descartes too subjective. I was trying to get behind cogito ergo sum. You may think you are, but what about a machine that thinks, but has no consciousness, and has parts that can be switched on and off? A Cartesian machine that has nothing but brains, and thus no way to anchor? How could it ever know? How do earthworms know? Why are humans privileged?

We are, if we can ask the question. Animals may be problem-solvers, too, but I rather doubt even those clever (and sometimes vicious) dolphins spend time on problems like this. They know what they know; had they the philosophical capacity, they would have walked out of the water by now. For that matter most humans don’t, until there is some tease, such as looking into the face of death: one’s own in particular. Does this universe continue when I check out?

“Well, what do you think?” I asked myself, sardonically. Of course it does. I’d watched other people die. The “fact of life” was ineluctable; clinched, as it were, in the fact of death. There it lay before me.

It struck me, in the darkening London twilight, on the steps of the V&A Museum, that the choice between is and is not had likewise been made before me. Consider: the universe “ought” never to have existed, and nothing ought ever to have been. This would be sensible. It would solve all metaphysical quandaries. But as in fact there was something, not nothing, one must deal with a miracle. A rather large one. Modern men do not care for miracles, but there’s a whole chain of them to contend with, and we might as well start here. The “IS” just where we look for an “is not” provides, if nothing else, an outrageous scandal; for with that IS we have the unavoidable authorship of meaning. We have Being, Life, things that Exist. Even an atheist is stuck acknowledging them, and suicide can provide no escape. We might have some Becoming, too, but in the face of such truths, it is an homeopathic dose; I wanted my Reality straight up.

That it all “just happened” is no explanation; that one thing led to another is lame. Being does not come out of nothingness. It eradicates nothingness. It establishes for fact that nothingness never was. One cannot even aspire to restore what is unrestorable: for it is nothing, not something, that never was. One might preach that “God is dead,” but it will be just words. That IS, is prior, and it seemed to me then that I could see where even “godless” Buddhism, and very godful Christianity converged — in an undeniable immortality. Or to take this to the Upanishads, something that “neither is nor is not” unmistakably IS. He might be prior to male and female and neuter, prior to many other distinctions, but too, He is prior to prior.

One might even say, with Jean-Luc Marion and the cutting-edge theologians, that there is “God Without Being.” Notice one must say that this IS.

“Live with it,” as they say. Or as Isaiah put it, “Choose life.” We are stuck with IS for as long as we should live, and infinitely before, and after. We might as well start coming to terms, with the elephant in our cosmos.

Thoughts like this began to afflict a young man not quite twenty-three, who had done his best to be “an evangelical atheist,” with whatever bells and whistles came to hand; to deny everything that could not be proved. My intellectualism had defeated itself, and now I would be prey to the suggestions of the greatest poets and philosophers, saints and doctors — whom I had previously noticed were never on my side. My unconscious lie had become a conscious one, which meant, sooner or later I should have to abandon it, and tuck into minds greater than my own.

Add a few more thoughts, some time in a hospital with a collapsed lung, and a great deal of intellectual and emotional confusion, ending in a question asked ever less sarcastically, ever more candidly, to wit: “Christ, if you exist, why don’t you just show yourself to me?” and answered finally with the most personal sun-burst of unearthly Love, accompanied by the words, “I will cross this bridge with you.” The story of my conversion and subsequent development into a “born-again Catholic” has been told elsewhere. I don’t like to repeat it, because I cannot do justice to the experience, only awkwardly report my inadequate response to it. But if gentle reader is looking at his watch, let me add that from IS to Christ took about three months, and a half.

As I think back, I realize, one must start somewhere, in this universe full of starts and finishes. “If you came this way,” &c. (See: The Four Quartets.) One must try to get behind what is, to what IS. One must find one’s way out of the “box” of time; walk through its walls. There is no door, no material key to be found, and yet, knock and it will be answered.