Essays in Idleness


How to be old

Often, correspondents ask me what to read. I assume they mean, in addition to my own pellucid works. They leave me at a loss. If I knew them better — had met them personally, known them over time — I might have some suggestion. But one cannot seriously know an email correspondent, try as one will to read between lines, then read the lines again. Nor, unless one is saint or politician, can one hope to be on intimate terms with hundreds or thousands. I am happy with my small sprinkling of true friends; on whom I try to force books, constantly. In this anti-blogue I sometimes mention titles, and unless I have said specifically that they should be burnt by the public hangman, I am recommending them.

Here is an unlikely choice for the book club: The Diary of an Old Soul, by the Scotsman, George MacDonald (1824–1905). Today’s Christian reader has probably heard of him through C. S. Lewis, and he is also praised to the point of extravagance by Chesterton, Tolkien, Auden, de la Mare. Indeed, his first disciple was Charles Dodgson (“Lewis Carroll”), and I wonder if the conception of Alice would have been possible without MacDonald’s inspiration.

For he was a poet in a rather prophetic sense: a master of Myth. (Note the capital.) His sermons are hard-going (Lewis extracted many good aphorisms from them for a short anthology), but in the range of his prose fantasies and fairy tales there is a view of things behind conventional sight. Few, even among the poets, have this gift, which at its richest belonged to Dante. For much more than a century, imaginations have been shaped in childhood by The Princess and the Goblin, At the Back of the North Wind, Sir Gibbie, Lilith, Phantastes — all of which repay later adult reading. MacDonald said he did not write for children, but for the child-like, which I think is true of all the classic “children’s writers,” without exception.

Children are, as they have often called themselves, “the people in the playground,” and must be addressed as people. From age seven, at latest, they are capable of reason and thus independent thought. They must not be treated as pets, or lied to.

This is a point worth dwelling upon, briefly. There is a vast and remunerative “child market” which the capitalists are exploiting. As I have discovered reading to children myself, these specialized, “niche” works are all nauseating; like the Harry Potter books they stink with some subliminal Gnostic agenda. Children are addressed not as child-like, but as permanent mental and moral defectives.

Lord, what I once had done with youthful might,
Had I been from the first true to the truth,
Grant me, now old, to do — with better sight,
And humbler heart, if not the brain of youth …

Now the book I am recommending may come as a surprise, to those already familiar with MacDonald. He described it as “a book of strife,” and conceals nothing of the debility, crankiness, discouragement, and disintegration of old age. Yet he does not complain. He wrote it in seven-line stanzas pulsating with rhyme, in twelve monthly sections. Like a child, he looks consistently forward, and presents the theological virtue of Hope in fresh and startling turns.

It will be hard to read for a person of contemporary miseducation, who is taught to flinch at a Thou, a Thee, a canst, or a dwellest. When I’ve had students I have told them to read more, until they get over it. Those raised on the Romantics will be mildly distressed by an unexpected distance from them. Often, for instance, MacDonald begins to bound in a Wordsworthian way, but without Wordsworth’s stamina. We mistake, in some late Victorians, what is drawing from a deeper historical past; they are actually avoiding what we take for clichés; instead making allusions, like Browning. The ghost of Edmund Waller is among those being quietly acknowledged, and set to rest:

The soul’s dark cottage, batter’d and decay’d,
Lets in new light through chinks that Time has made;
Stronger by weakness, wiser, men become
As they draw nearer to their eternal home.
Leaving the old, both worlds at once they view,
That stand upon the threshold of the new.

Or as MacDonald, who can never lose that child-like wonder, shrives us:

Love will not backward sigh, but forward strain
On in the tale still telling, never told. …


God designed our world to be extremely inefficient. I daresay this was intentional. In all the seeding and spawning functions, we see that one in a hundred, one in a thousand, one in a million, take root or otherwise grow to maturity. The rest goes to feed the birds and the fishes and the pigs. Almost everything they consume is in turn wasted, spewed away. And this is true down the line from biology to geology. Fossil fuels and the better building materials take countless centuries to form. Now, look up to see that a trillion trillion stars went to the making of one habitable planet. He (God) takes His time, and makes the necessary sea room.

“And yet it moves,” as Galileo didn’t say. It works, and in glorious moments we glimpse some aspect of how it fits together; how every particle is cycled and recycled — from the bloated cow to the wee dung beetle rolling his gleaming pellet away. There is extreme inefficiency, and no waste at all. Often I am staggered by the scale of the thing; by the universal attention to microscopic detail; by the adaptability of every constituent part; by the constant interweaving relaxation and restoration of a purposeful order.

Humans, on the other hand, are efficiency freaks. We are always looking for a way to slash the costs, to eliminate redundancy, control the outcome, guarantee success. And in the course of this we bind ourselves in tangles.

Let us take milk for today’s example. We have a little crisis at the moment, up this way, because we are producing it too efficiently. In an effort to secure their votes, our politicians created marketing boards to assure a price to dairy farmers. Perhaps it did not occur to them that other jurisdictions might do the same; that each would create immense competing milk lakes of surplus. That they would have to enforce quotas to limit over-production. That they would then have to subsidize the milk for which they were overpaying, to sell any of it abroad. That such nonsense would result in e.g. the current feud between Trudeau and Trump, over who’s cheating whom. Verily, as in all government schemes, everyone is now cheating everybody, and consumers are paying not a small extra amount, but double or triple what they would otherwise be paying for a pint of tasteless homogenized cream, or a hunk of tasteless pasteurized cheese. And that’s before taxes.

An immensely cumbersome and self-defeating apparatus has been created to advance the cause of efficiency. It soon includes sprawling commercial networks, in which even if there is no technical monopoly, the large buyers squeeze out the small ones. And the system cannot be peacefully dismantled, because by now it is inhabited by vested interests throughout, each with the expense of maintaining a lobby. And after every negotiation the arrangements become more complicated, and the authority expands, until the last independent operator becomes a piece of the machinery.

One could spend one’s working life trying to master these complexities, in the invariably disappointed hope of making the system more responsive and “humane.” Or one could do what Mr Trump appears to be doing, which is to march in with a sledgehammer, and make a mess of it. I think that the best and most godly method.

Misuse of language

There is a subtle difference between guilt and shame. We ignore it today. Both involve “feelings,” which is good enough for us. For guilt, we must do something wrong. Infamy, disgrace, shame, is getting caught, whether we did it or not. And shame can be shared. The idea of “collective guilt” is rubbish. You either did it or you didn’t. It has naught to do with your precious self-esteem. Guilt requires atonement. Shame is just a form of social conditioning, that doesn’t seem to work any more. There is more, but let that stand as the start for some other essay.

Gentle reader may be aware that I have taken, and take, a dim view of old hack journalists (including, shamefully, myself). But I also feel a great affection for them. The older the flatfoot, the better. There was a time when most were at least fairly honest, before something resembling ideology swept the trade, and journalists became willing slaves to the “politically correct” conventions. I think of Charles Lewis, for instance.

“Charlie,” as he is known, spent decades filling the spaces between the advertisements in daily papers. He has a gift for plain prose and the telling detail, which puts him in the ninety-ninth percentile. He has principles, which are essentially Catholic. Latterly he became the religion reporter for the National Post, until disabled by his spine a few years ago. Rising through prayer above the question of excruciating pain (“Why me?”) he has since devoted his talents to the fight against “euthanasia.”

Lots of things drop into my inbox, but I found this item (here) exceptionally invigorating. Lewis comes to terms with polls that show the great majority of people who self-identify as Catholics — in Canada, as elsewhere through the contemporary West — have no idea what the faith entails. In Canada, for instance, the most recent poll showed seven in ten Catholics support “euthanasia” — a position that is absolutely impossible for a Catholic to take. Rather than quibbling with the way the question was phrased, or the counting was done, Lewis accepts the reality behind the numbers, and the implication.

If we do not get our house in order, our influence on the society around us will continue to be nil.

The great majority of Catholics today, half-a-century after the Church embraced modernist innovations, are not really Catholic. They pretend to belong, and the Church pretends to accept them. They have never been catechized, and live in a state of moral, intellectual, and spiritual squalor. Few ever see the inside of a church, let alone the inside of a confessional. None in this state should be taking communion, for it can only compound their sins.

Lives and immortal souls are at stake: we must stop being nice about it. Bishops who can’t handle the heat of the front line, should find other jobs. We must all stop blathering pretty lies about “mercy,” and start telling people the truth. Christ came to save us. He did not come to approve our life choices.

And as for the people, it would be useless to “shame” them. Guilt is the issue. Either be Catholic, and throw yourself on the mercy of Our Lord. Or, stop abusing the term.

Villagers & pillagers

My mind wanders through reading. Currently I’m in the sixth century, and somewhere in the East of Christendom, in those happy days when we were rid of the Arians, holding the Sassanids at bay, and hadn’t faced the Arabs yet. Well, things look rosier from a distance. (This was God’s plan, to lift our spirits.) The closer one gets, the better one focuses, the worse things appear. I have come to the view that at every moment of history — if you are there — everything has gone to hell, and the end is near for the world as we know it. Too, Holy Church is in crisis. And yet life goes on.

Pannonia is where I am, in mind. It is the old Roman province tucked inside the great southward bend of the Danube, sufficiently spread to cross seven modern national borders as it squiggles towards the Euxine (Black Sea). Ethnically, it is the usual mess. Huns, Ostrogoths, Avars have settled and (God help us!) here come the Slavs. These are the days long before the great schism, East and West. The pope is in Rome, we think, but the emperor is definitely in Constantinople. Sirmium, the ancient provincial capital, has seen better days. Ammianus Marcellinus, who seldom wrote promotional copy, had called it “the glorious mother of cities” two centuries before. Now it is a dive.

One thinks of shepherds in the pastoral vein. The ancients, like us, were given to romantic Arcadian fancies, and their urban folk loved to depict the shepherds piping. But if one lived down on the farm in Pannonia, one was more likely to think of them as marauders; as delinquents and barbarians — latrones — and perhaps illegal immigrants, too.

In the spirit of Gibbon, we dream of the Roman Empire, ever falling, and the troops out at the wild frontiers, lonely and afraid. The reality was usually different. They minded the borders, but mostly they were employed in police functions, on the near side of it, trying to enforce some civilized order. This was true not only for the pagan Romans but for the Christian Byzantines who succeeded them. Both had a lot of “West Texas” to defend. Pannonia was a bit like that, and by the sixth century, becoming more so. The people there did not like to be ruled, preferring to select their own vigilantes. Often it was farmers versus ranchers (“shepherds”).

I have never entirely trusted the police — I have lived in too many countries — but I can see the need for ordering force, paramilitary if it comes to that. Dress anyone in a little authority, and he will be tempted to personalize it. Humans are like that, we tend to appropriate things. And as Paul Valéry explained, “Power without abuse loses its charm.”

My reflection for this morning is that this is always so. There can be no permanent security, only expedients of time and place. It follows that justice comes and goes, and is often rather murky. The Byzantines sent irenarchs (beautiful word): peacemakers to knock a few heads. They changed them frequently, if they survived.

Overlooking questions of race, creed, and colour, the world is divided between traders and raiders, between villagers and pillagers: enterprise will never be confined to one side. And though we live at the heart of Empire, our children will find themselves at the frontier. I have before me an old postcard with the Delacroix painting: “Attila the Hun and his Hordes overrun Italy and the Arts.”

Against facts

Among the conceits of modern agnostic nominalist positivist scientism is the existence of facts. Mea culpa: for through inattention, I am often guilty of falling into this trap. “Facts and arguments,” or “facts and theories,” are phrases that convey a false opposition, yet are the tradestock alike of people who call themselves scientists, historians, journalists. They imagine there are “facts” on which everyone must agree (on pain of punishment), and that once they are “settled,” the fun starts. We can then explain them, or if we are technophiles, put them to work.

There is, I am persuaded by religious faith, such a thing as reality, and it is possible to distinguish what is external to ourselves. But I will not be reduced to a cogito-ergo-sum. I am also part of this reality, and in self-apprehension I become ever more aware that it is unified by the pre-existence of God, who made us, body and soul, out of nothing — as we may demonstrate from the evidence of a time before we were born.

To say that we “evolved” out of pre-existing matter is a grand evasion; an attempt to reinstate that material infallibility in which the Victorian agnostics put their trust. On misunderstood instructions from Kant, they constructed an imaginary universe from which only the Creator was excluded, because He was “unknowable.” Everything else could be known, at least potentially, through the dogmas of a sceptical empiricism.

From this they came to believe in the most extraordinary rot: the “settled science” of that age, long since blown away. Huxley, Stephen, Clifford, Spencer, Cockshut: the legion of High Victorian respectables. They were the fathers of a British Agnosticism which tried to omit the violent consequences of a more Continental Atheism, by creating something churchishly snug and bourgeois. They were seldom vicious. Their ambition was to save the world for “facts,” through disbelief in the monsters that revolutionary Frenchmen and other Europeans had summoned. Verily: their chief reason for denying Christ was that He preached the existence of demons. “Everyone knows better today.”

Not bad men — they were obsessed with the preservation of sound ethical behaviour, and all the good manners that could be lost through irreligion. Each was his own little sack of anxieties, but in the aggregate they were nothing at all. No one could want to read them today, yet we repeat their mistakes in a lazier fashion. For a belief in “facts” atomizes the consciousness. It makes us very boring. We need to be warned where it leads.

There is a marvellous book by Michael Polanyi, that does the “objective” fact-world in. Published in 1958, I think it among the great unacknowledged classics of twentieth-century thought. The title is, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. It is more than four hundred pages of continuous exposé, by a man who was himself among the greatest physical chemists, with a hold on all the other formal sciences that was remarkably broad and deep. He refuses to separate “scientific facts” from the arts by which they are known, or the purposes for which they are gathered, like flowers from the field to assemble our bouquets. He shows how the genuine scientific advances of our age refute the premisses from which they started.

We claim there is a “scientific method,” and teach some witless version to the young and naïve. Yet we know that, in practice, it is never followed. This is because it will never work. The world isn’t “facts.” It is not organized that way. No insight can be had by counting hairs or atoms.