Essays in Idleness


On political pugilism

Further to yesterday’s Idlepost, and by way of reply to several correspondents, yes, the news is crazy-making. One could go mad if one were to take it seriously. I can remember myself, from some half-forgotten time when I was playing journalist, in some side-plot of an ill-constructed play, going perilously close to insane in response to the odd news “lede.” I would take my desk copy of Roget’s Thesaurus and hurl it against a wall. Almost always, it was Roget’s. I hated that book. Finally I dropped my battered copy in a public bin, with the Coke tins and candy wrappers. For that is where it belonged. Next, I turned on Fowler’s Modern English Usage.

I shall give an example from today’s newscasts, of the sort of thing that used to get me going. It is the “story” of Trump’s tweet against two low-information broadcasters, whom we shall call Joe and Mika. I think they are lovers, as well as co-hosts. What he said about Joe was rude, but Joe is a boy, and one may say anything one wants against boys. But he made a remark about Mika, too, which I found rather ungallant. Something about still bleeding from a facelift. Of course we must remember that all humour is in bad taste, but Churchill could do these things more elegantly.

Still, it wasn’t the tweet that turned my crank. It was instead the media response to it.

Twitter is anyway full of foul; and I first observed that Trump is exceptionally crass, long before he ran for public office. I have never expected better of him, and as we say, pessimists are never disappointed. Rather I’ve noticed that he uses his indecencies to clever effect. For he is intentionally driving his opponents crazy; counting on them always to take the bait. This works better for him than any other tactic. Take his Twitter account away, and the Democrats would soon have him cornered. Instead they stay too angry to land a telling punch.

Today, I just smile at the antinomian craftsmanship.

I used to like boxing, when I was a kid, including the first-round knockouts in which Trump specializes. Liston versus Patterson, 1962 and ’63. Clay versus Liston, ’64. In the latter case the media had predicted a one-round outcome, but said it would go the other way. Liston, whose manager had been a mob hit-man, learnt boxing in the Missouri State Penitentiary, and never played cat-and-mouse. Imagine his surprise when Cassius Clay connected. The young lad had sparkling reflexes, on very quick feet, and was secretly more ruthless than the evil-eyed thug who’d come the hard way from Arkansas. It was all in the stars Hillary Clinton was seeing the night of the big match. I meant, Sonny Liston, who thought so little of Clay, that he was drinking the night before Clay flattened him. For Clay combined arrogance with a devilish sense of humour — and “we all know” funny people are ineffectual.

What might have driven me crazy in the old days was not Trump’s tweet, but seeing it at the top of the BBC World News, and played for all it isn’t worth by the various other “commie” networks. Their humourless malice against Trump is like Liston’s against Clay: something they don’t bother to hide. But malice is not the same as ruthlessness. The ruthless strategize; the malicious merely lunge.

Why object? The media are playing right into Trump’s fist. I score another knock-out, and guess that in the murky subconscious of the American mind, poor Joe and Mika will be bleeding for the rest of their lives. Be kind to them, they’re finished.

The age of smear

There is, according to a Jewish essayist, whose principal work is included in our biblical canon, nothing new under the Sun. This is worth bearing in mind, for when I describe our times as “the age of smear,” I do not mean to suggest that smearing has not been a feature of politics in all times and places; only that former generations were acquainted with a wider variety of techniques. The occasional positive argument would be introduced, then clinched or refuted. The British parliamentary arrangement assumes this to be possible, and the concept of a “loyal opposition” proposes gentlemen capable of goodwill, or even noble intention. The rules do not carry this assumption beyond reason. A Member of Parliament cannot be sued for what he says on the floor of the chamber — hence taunts daring him to say it outside. But meanwhile the Speaker may shut him up, and has a duty to do so promptly.

Under the American system, where the Speaker is openly partisan, the relation is more vexed. Often it is the Speaker who needs shutting up. But the notion of civilized debate did cross the Atlantic, if not in the Mayflower, then in some later vessel.

Glancing at the news, I see there is a new book by Sharyl Attkisson, an old-fashioned journalist in that she states her “facts” in ways that may be checkable. I have not read the book, entitled, The Smear, and won’t (at my age, I thirst more for poetry), but from an excerpt I see her thesis is that the reduction of politics to smear campaigns dates from the early ’nineties of the last century, when the Clintons went to work pre-emptively smearing the various women with whom Bill had fornicated, and those who knew too much about Hillary’s sleazy real estate deals, in anticipation of Bill’s run for the presidency. (A smear is incidentally not a smear if true, as our libel laws still formally acknowledge.)

While I’m in favour of putting “facts” before the public, which the news media ignore or suppress, the subtitle, How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote, strikes me as long-winded. The hint of conspiracy might err on the side of extravagance. From my own experience of mainstream journalism, the implicit bias of an established social and professional class is sufficient to the evidence, and we should sometimes avoid attributing to malice what stupidity can adequately explain.

This is called Hanlon’s razor, a variation on William of Occam’s; neither always apply. Humans are malicious beings, and pure stupidity is fairly rare. My analogy would be to demonic possession. It is true the victim is no longer entirely responsible for his acts, but he did invite the devils in to start with. Or like drunken misbehaviour. One should learn not to drink more than one can handle, as journalists should learn not to report more than they can know.

Or less than they are wise to. It emerges for instance that Messrs CNN knew perfectly well that their Trump/Russia covfefe was, in the word of one of them, “bullshit,” but ran with it anyway to please their rabidly Trump-hating audience. He and his allies reply with aggressive, equally smearing tweets. The swamp grows and is full of alligators (and illegal immigrant Burmese pythons, I gather).

But my point would not be to endorse that half or more of the story that Mrs Attkisson reports. It would instead be to observe that no good comes from obsessive smearing, unless gentle reader considers violence a good thing.

Alas, the loss of our “Judaeo-Christian heritage” involves the loss of other things.

Big red & shiny

Ansa was scioness of a prominent Fennoscandian wood-milling family. In the days before “Scandian” furniture acquired its reputation for knock-down cheap and flimsy, she carried her company flag to the Far East. Youngest of her brood, she was probably the pertest, too, and conducted a Sunday salon in Bangkok to which all mischievous foreigners were invited. There were more than a dozen. Though still a teenager then — already on my own in the world — I was tolerated as an “amusing” guest. “Or at least he is trying,” she would add, in a voice turned suddenly maternal.

She was proud, I think all Scandihoovians were proud, of the quality of their wood manufactures. The joinery was exquisite, the finishing immaculate, the designs fastidious in their apparent simplicity. My father the Canadian industrial designer had long held them up as a model, of craftsmanship in the machine age.

And Ansa, though cynical, was proud of her family’s achievements, to the point of snobbery. She imagined herself on mission to Asia for certain “aesthetic values.” She was, however, disappointed of success.

“I am trying to sell superbly understated goods, but what the market wants is big, red, and shiny.”

The phrase has stuck in mind, as an explanation, and perhaps an excuse, for capitalism in its mass-market forms. What can you do? The serfs have been freed, and have the vote, and cash, and what they want is crass. Ah well, next time be more careful.

As the Sesquicentennial of the Canadian Confederation is approaching (thanks to global warming, heavy rains are now predicted for Saturday), I think back also to our Centennial Year — memorable for Expo ’67 in Montreal, and a general irruption of national goodfeeling, checked when General de Gaulle dropped in, to mutter the words, “Vive le Québec libre.”

Those were the last moments of Montreal as one of the two great cosmopolitan cities of the Western Hemisphere (the other had of course been Havana), and hope was in the air, to say nothing of change.

It was, in retrospect, an unintended celebration of the old Canada, which had worked heroically to produce a splendiferous World Fair, and felt that it was taking its rightful place in the cosmos, as full graduate of the British Empire. We were on our own now, entirely, and we had our own flag (that was big, red, and shiny). Our youthful modesty was at an end: the world must take notice. I remember it through the experience of my father, professionally active in the preparations for Expo, and working round the clock with so many others to make it somehow come off in time. But we were Canadians: we pulled it off, we made it work, against all odds, just as we had done at Vimy and Juno.

It is nice when patriotism is based on something.

The old Canada I remember, from the days before the Martian occupation, was rather stolid and rural. English Canada was instinctively puritan and grim; French Canada otherworldly and Catholic. Montreal was where they met in a miniskirt. (Except, in those days men wore trousers.) It is gone, gone, on both sides; even the miniskirts have gone out of style.

What we have today is big, red, and shiny. And our pride is based on nothing at all. And the strange thing is that we know it, which accounts for a Sesquicentennial party that is, just like old times, restrained.

The eye is in the beholder

Yes, yes, gentle reader: my heading this morning is some kind of joke. One too many times — the first was too many — I have heard the glib, the idiot expression, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I have adjusted it, to make some room for truth. For nothing is in the eye of the beholder, until something is put there, and his apprehension of beauty is an acquirement. He has the native equipment to behold it, if he is a man, as opposed to, say, a salamander. But equipment is useless if one does not learn to use it; and this knowledge requires training, apprenticeship, experience.

“Taste” — now there’s a word to provoke a fit, from the democratic totalitarians. The person with “taste” must be an “elitist.” So is anyone with competence, in any field at all. A capable house-breaker is an elitist; the kid who gets himself caught on first outing, is not. For house-breaking is potentially a craft, and should be done with some style. Smash and grab is not style. The home invasion that leaves no traces, and consists only in the removal of a priceless diamond: now that is style. There is art in it, and as I say: training, apprenticeship, experience.

Even the initial deduction of where the diamond is kept, requires a fairly high order of art-critical judgement. Or if in some obvious place, like a safe, what kind of safe and how to make it open, without unnecessary harm. Then close it, correctly, so the theft will not soon be discovered; patiently wiping all fingerprints, including those which might spoil the elegant thank-you card, which one has left behind. There is much to be admired in a high-class thief, who doesn’t waste his time on candy stores. There is much to be condemned in the amateur of shoplifting, such as we find around Parkdale, here.

But as De Quincey said, in his glorious essay, “On Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” everything in the world has two handles:

“Murder, for instance, may be laid hold of by its moral handle (as it generally is in the pulpit, and at the Old Bailey); and that, I confess, is its weak side; or it may also be treated aesthetically, as the Germans call it — that is, in relation to good taste.”

There are many fine arts, and as De Quincey hints, the most modest and unlikely works may be raised to an exalted station, as the Chinese have done with calligraphy and pottery. Moreover, the sublimities of Nature — of landscape and its creatures, animal and botanical — may be grasped in a spirit of connoisseurship. For long before men began making art, God was doing so, at a level of accomplishment we can admire without ever understanding.

A skunk, a rattlesnake, poison ivy: these are beautiful things, seen in the right light, when one rises above self-interest. None can be “explained,” in the manner of a Darwinist, who thinks he knows “how God did it,” as village idiots have been claiming since time out of mind. There are secrets of craft which must necessarily remain unknown, to him who did not make it. And this is so of the finest human art: though perhaps the adept forger comes close to understanding in moments of inexplicable grace.

For the rest, the beholder can only appreciate, what is not in his eye but in the object presented. That eye is instead within the beholder — within his body and soul — and speaks well of him, or poorly.

Hoo sez?

The only thing original on this planet is sin.

I can document that. A gentle reader or two might reject my scriptural and patristic references — may say that the whole idea is bosh — but in old-fashioned journalistic terms, I’m home free. I can source my claim. Alternatively, if I didn’t source it, I could be had for plagiarism.

Often I was, towards the bitter end of my strange, accidental, journalistic “career.” Or at least it would be “tried on.” There seemed to be a little committee of liberals and progressives who went to work with their Internet search engines after each column I wrote, in the hope that I had casually delivered myself up. They would search for some source I had not exhaustively identified (mere mention wasn’t good enough); for a phrase I might have copied; or failing that, perhaps an arithmetical error.

Best of all: some politically incorrect phrase or idea might be spotted, that had somehow got by my liberal and progressive editors, in which case the usual “formal complaint” could be made to the Press Council, or some Human Rights Tribunal.

In consequence of their ministrations, I must have become the most neurotically careful hack in the country. In surely ninety-nine cases of a hundred I was vindicated by the time-consuming “formal complaints process,” and never once nailed for anything deceitful. But their hopes sprang eternal.

I was the unique beneficiary of this editorial service, for the complainants ignored the innumerable liberal and progressive columns which appeared around mine on the editorial pages. And this notwithstanding whenever I read them, I found appalling moral judgements and egregious factual errors.

But the bread-and-butter work was for plagiarism. This is considered the most deadly of modern journalistic sins, although the guilty only copy each other’s clichés. They are supposed to change the wording slightly, especially when the cliché runs on for several paragraphs. Should the writer entertain “inappropriate” ideas — i.e. those which can’t be characterized as leftist twaddle — the standards for sourcing are extremely rigorous, and a fact, however obvious, must be backed up with reams of statistical data. In which case, they have you cold, for use of “inappropriate” sources.

At its worst, the Spanish Inquisition was more lenient. Blasphemy required some effort, and heresy precise wording, along with frequent repetition. Even then, you got plenty of warnings. Should one happen to read something about the actual history of the Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición, one discovers that it was a pushover, except when some powerful operator behind the scenes was using it to settle a personal score. In its heyday, Hollywood censorship was tighter. One has more or less the same experience in reading of Joe McCarthy: more sinned against than sinning.

But neither of these were much interested in plagiarism. Indeed, no one until recent decades cared to enforce the wilder demands of footnote culture, as result of which a writer like Shakespeare could get away with literary theft on almost every page. All the English writers, as all the Europeans, were lifting stuff from the Bible holus-bolus, as well as from each other.

Language, you see, is a communal enterprise, and it forms on mimetic principles. So, for better or worse, is thinking.

Meditation on an electric lamp

As a Goethean, sometimes almost Hypsistarian, Mehr Licht! kind of guy, I am a great fan of electricity. I love the way it can light up the interior of one’s dwelling, without setting fire to it. Or, usually without doing so. If there is one thing by which I am captivated, in looking upon a post-modern city, it is the bright lights. From a distance, if one could only make some distance, it is most impressive. Sometimes it is possible to come over a hill, and see all the lights together suddenly.

From a ship, as a child, I so vividly recall the waning lights of Karachi; the approaching lights of Aden, Suez, Valletta, Gibraltar. Or flying over New York, London, Tokyo, in the dark: as in a space ship, passing a galaxy by.

Modernity isn’t all bad, you know; there are parts of it to keep when we move on, and perhaps we should be planting brass plaques here and there that explain how to make a light bulb, and how to wire up a lamp. (I’ve been making a hash of it in the background.) Alas, it is when we must explain how to make a hydro dam, or a nuclear fusion reactor, that this starts getting complicated and we begin to need more plaques. But perhaps we start with the simplest rotational dynamo, and leave our descendants to figure out the rest.

Goethe’s deathbed cry for more light is often misunderstood. Our spiritualizing contemporaries assume he was asking for “enlightenment.” In fact he had been discussing optics with his daughter-in-law, and if one reviews his entire final sentence one realizes that he was asking someone else to open a window shutter. The statement was “edited,” to make it less prosaic.

Similarly my wild claim, and his, to be some kind of Hypsistarian, cannot be consumed without the superaddition of a quantity of salt. He was not, and neither am I, a member of the cult which flourished around the Black Sea, from a time preceding the Descent from Heaven, when Our Lord told us everything about the Hypsistos that we needed to know.

The cultists had been partly acquainted with the doctrines of the Jews, and with the more exalted ravings of the Pagans, and were syncretists determined to worship the most elevated Godhead that could be defined. They must have persisted six centuries or more, because Gregory of Nyssa mentions them in the Christian fourth century, and others too, I think. Moreover, they left enough plaques or votive tablets to keep our modern archaeologists entertained.

Light of light, “the light of the world,” is a different thing than electrical fixtures, as perhaps gentle reader knows already. (Most of these latter made I suspect by prison labour in China, and no better from the hardware than from the dollar stores, just more expensive.)

The light that can be seen even by the blind, who by analogy need no eyes to know from where the sun is shining. And we who are quite spiritual, but spiritually demented, are in need of this more singular, solar guidance. It is possible especially those who are sighted become confused by all the lights of the city, which bleach out the stars, and make the Sun seem unnecessary.

O Sun of Justice, teach us sometimes to extinguish our own lights, and bathe in Thy glory.

The ha! chronicles

There are reasons for everything, yet the reasons are not always the first to occur to a glib and unphilosophical mind.

“In the early twenty-first century, satellite-derived tropospheric warming trends were generally smaller than trends estimated from a large multi-model ensemble.”

This earnest attempt at bafflegab comes from the abstract of a paper just published in Nature Geoscience, by Benjamin D. Santer et alia, et alia — a list of “global warming” respectables that is almost a who’s who. It means they are now conceding, as quietly as possible, that there “was” an “hiatus” in the warming trend perceived by their instruments in the previous generation, despite their best efforts at fudging the data. The “sceptics” had already pointed this out, and were persecuted for it.

In plain English, the computerized climate models were wrong. Rather than continuing, or even accelerating, the global warming stopped. They assume, perhaps desperately hope, it will resume shortly.

I don’t. I don’t assume anything, except that the world grows gradually warmer after the trough of each Ice Age, then cooler towards the next; that there are trends within trends within trends through the centuries; and that the Sun has something to do with it. Moreover, I aver that if Man thinks he can undo God’s work in the Creation, he is optimistic. For the planet was designed to cope with us.

We can have some transient effect, however, through our urbanization, and our gardening. This makes common sense, and I fully believe that our aggregate efforts have contributed to the measurable increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. I don’t believe we can predict temperatures from it, however; and computer modelling strikes me as an exceptionally naïve dead end, for it requires assumptions piled upon assumptions. The meteorologists’ computer models cannot tell me if it’s going to rain in the next three hours. (I was soaked to the skin for believing them the other day.) The chances the climatologists can predict overall weather patterns through many decades, by elaborations of the same methods, are — I would estimate — zilch.

Meanwhile by long experience we should be prepared for warmer or cooler or just the same; more rain or less in the fluctuations; and Arctic icecaps that expand and shrink. The mean sea level, barring some astronomical event, will rise and fall gradually, as it has done through the ages, and archaeological enthusiasts such as myself note that land levels do that, too. And this quite apart from the fact that every non-buoyant human construction is sinking into the ground.

A lot of government money — both directly, and by regulatory piracy — rides on “anthropogenic global warming,” and the Trumps of this world are right to cut it off. If the sky does not fall, Chicken Little should not receive another grant.

The best part of the satellite surveys, is the evidence that carbon dioxide may be having some effect. The planet has been overall greening, these last fifty years or so. You see, plants need it, and flourish when it is more plentifully available. To identify this colourless and odourless gas as a pollutant was what we call a “try-on.” The trees do not appreciate it, however; and I like trees. I also like food, and am in favour of growing more.

Now, were this Idlepost to meander beyond my current self-imposed daily limit of two handwritten pages, I might begin trying to explain why liberals and progressives will continue to bank on scare-monger stories. It’s not just the money. They are working on a conception of “science” from out of Descartes and Bacon, that should have been discredited for good by the quantum mechanics of the twentieth century. In a word, they are victims of their own scientism.

Is Realism realistic?

A priestlie friend forwards the review of a beuk about John Senior. (This one.) He was a figure in American religion and pedagogy (died 1999). He was the author of two works that have been extremely influential in a small but persistent circle: The Death of Christian Culture (1977), and, The Restoration of Christian Culture (1983). In a time of what Senior called “The Dark Night of the Church,” he proposed a return to basics — to the Greek and Roman classics, to those of Christendom, to poetry, music, architecture, art, and joy in pursuit of wisdom, centred on the Mass. He conceived of higher education as a glorious boot camp; as the philosophical life restored.

The reviewer calls him “a romantic,” which I think is fey. The original Benedict — not of Option, but of Nursia — would be dismissed by that standard. You assemble your plan, compose your Rule, and just do it. The Word spreads among those who are listening for it, and others copy.

Cutting TV and drugs isn’t actually impossible. Neither is getting up at five in the morning, I’m told, once you get used to it. At Natrun in Egypt they’re still getting monks, having changed nothing in sixteen hundred years. You just keep it up until ISIS arrives to saw all your heads off.

But that is joyful, too. For as Senior explained:

“It is not enough to keep the Commandments, though we must; it is not enough to love one another as ourselves, though we must. The one thing needful, the unum necessarium of the Kingdom, is to love as He loves us, which is the love of joy in suffering and sacrifice, like Roland and Olivier charging into battle to their death defending those they love as they cry, Mon joie! — that is the music of Christian Culture.”

Though one can see how, to the contemporary academic, this might not seem the most prudent advice, or how Senior’s scheme of teaching as if the Truth were knowable (it is, incidentally) might constitute resistance to the Nominalism and Relativism of the established regime. The very idea of a moral compass is taken by these rogues as a moral affront; for the nominalism must be cheap, and the relativism total. To add a reinforcing appreciation for beauty and “poetics” must seem to them absurd; as a gratuitous threat to their malice and ugliness. Of course they will try to suppress you.

But to hell with them all. As Jordan Peterson, a mere psychology professor, has been demonstrating at the University of Toronto, when you are surrounded you make a stand. Marshal Foch advanced on similar principles. (“My centre is giving way, my right is in retreat; situation excellent. I shall attack.”) The enemy may collapse in surprise. For the whole tendency of post-modern education is to tranquilize the brain. They have police, but aren’t ready for any kind of intellectual challenge.

The task of advancing philosophical Realism — and the life of gallant sacrifice it supports — is never quite dead. Like Christ, it keeps popping up again. Even Sartre, I was reminded recently, had a deathbed conversion — according at least to Simone de Beauvoir, who berated him for it. And this after an entire lifetime of constructing defences against such a thing.

Already, in the America of today, there is a network of small, potent universities, graduating people who become priests, monks, and nuns; or if they don’t, become subversives within the liberal and progressive order. The Church herself may be trying to enforce her own decline, but she has no stamina for it. Real, and very traditional Catholicism keeps emerging.

No cure for a broken heart

The assertion in my heading comes to us via the Journal of the American Society of Echocardiography, via the Daily Telegraph, via the Drudge Report. Which is to say, by the usual route from the labcoats through the tabloids. We, or at least that portion of us who take our news on the wing, sans prayer, are told that victims of “tako-tsubo cardiomyopathy” (named for a Japanese octopus trap that resembles a broken heart) may never recover from their vasospasms or infarctions — which, with a little journalistic licence, we might associate with being jilted in love.

Of course the whole thing is nonsense, as one discovers by reading the originating article with attention. The truth is, almost everyone whose left ventricle suddenly dilates, in a way that brings the trap image to a Japanese cardiologist’s mind — though he might look at first like a goner — will recover from it in a few days, and is as likely to live to a ripe old age as the next ippan-jin. Few are permanently impaired. He will probably be a she, since the condition most commonly affects women, so that with a little more journalistic licence we may cite the old stereotype that women suffer more acutely from broken hearts. (And like most ancient stereotypes, it is almost certainly true.)

Here we had been thinking of a broken heart as a spiritual rather than material condition. Because it is. And like most intense spiritual conditions, it may have physical consequences, and some of the victims drop dead. This is especially the case with those who hurl themselves off bridges, auto-defenestrate, or leap over cliffs; though other medical emergencies are possible.

Modern science, delivered through the tabloids, will have the latest word. It delivers what was once detected only in the stars, or by casting straws. (Which is not to mention the daisy-plucking method.) “Oh look, science!” the ignorant reader may conclude, without having assimilated details. The “discovery” then spreads by word of mouth.

One cannot really blame the scientists for doing their research. I only blame them for publishing it.

My own heart has been broken several times — several dozen if I count the more passing fancies — without any perceptible cardiovascular complications. It began when I was fifteen. No, it began when I was six. For all I know, it may happen again. Perhaps I have broken a few hearts, myself; men can be terribly clumsy.

But this is to make light of the grief some others have endured, such as the loss of a mate, or of a child. I shall never forget the look on the face of a young Irishman, whose fiancée had been (quite literally) backed over by a truck. No witty expression came to mind. Or rather one did, about how this had the makings of a classic C&W song, but I was able to suppress it.

Today, that man has been happily married (to another woman, I should explain) for two score years, and the lyrics that come to mind are those of A. E. Housman. Though I am sure some part of his heart remains broken. We pass through our lives with broken parts, that time can never mend.

There are moments when people want to die, and the human body will sometimes oblige them. It has a broad repertoire of ways to do this. It probably works upon some pre-existing flaw: the chain usually breaks at its weakest link. We ought to know that by now, after so many millennia of human experience. We ought not to need any scientific studies. Medicine can focus on repairing the weak link, if that is still possible. Only elderly and wise family doctors could ever hope to do better.

King Kohl

Saumagen is stuffed pig’s stomach. I deeply regret I did not know of it when writing my “Gimcrack Gourmand” pieces, some years ago in the Tottawa Zit. Placed in a Wednesday food section among innumerable hints on healthy eating, and moderate drinking, I decided to lead the opposition. This was the most Catholic thing I could do. (Granted, I was still an Anglican at the time.) My maiden column was entitled, “Why Vegetarianism is Morally Wrong,” and concluded with a recipe for Serbian sheep’s head. (I believe Clinton was bombing Serbia at the time.) I took it from there; and within several months was removed from the section, by the unanimous demand of my fellow writers, and all the supermarket advertisers.

Ah well, back to the editorial page, where it seemed that my function was to make nice liberal people choke on their coffee over breakfast each morning, and spit up their corn flakes.

Had I only known at the time, I’m sure I would have worked in a column about stuffed pig’s stomach. I was then in the possession of several hundred cookery books, and one or another would have contained a recipe; perhaps an historical one, untreated by the modernist airbrush. Then I could have attempted to make it in my Kingston test kitchen (shared with my wife, now alas estranged).

“Sow’s stomach” is I think a more accurate translation of the German term. It is no mere sausage casing. A pig has a formidable, muscular stomach — a meat course in itself.

A Scotsman will immediately think of an haggis, which also comes in a stomach, albeit a more prim one that formerly belonged to a sheep; stuffed with more oatmeal and suet than any other sort of Aryan would think proper.

Now, being myself somewhat of the Gaelic genetic persuasion, I had a recipe for that. (The Western Islands, then farther west to Cape Breton, on my maternal side.) An haggis is a marvellous savoury thing, sadly confined to celebrations of New Years, and tragically combined with unintended parodies of Robbie Burns. Whereas, your saumagen comes full of what appear to be partially digested vegetables.

Helmut Kohl, the former chancellor of Germany, deceased this week at the sort of age picky eaters never live to, loved to serve saumagen to foreign guests. He did not ask them if they wanted it. He was very tall, and large, and could probably make them eat it.

My more immediate ancestors had some “issues” with the Germans, during historically recent World Wars, but the country was allowed some place in the world, and Kohl knew how to occupy it. He was a tactical genius, as his domestic foes would eventually concede, yet like others with his skills he benefited from not looking very agile. Not at all. More like a gigantic smiling peasant, or meandering buffoon, though with enough vanity to resent the caricature.

Apparently, Kohl was despised, across Germany, and even in his native Rhineland-Palatinate, but “the peeple” consistently voted for him, and he did manage to choreograph the German reunification, and dance his way through Maastricht.

I am perversely impressed by politicians who can keep getting elected, without ever being “approved.” This Kohl had in common with Margaret Thatcher, but not with Attila, nor even Genghis Khan, whom I gather were quite popular with their respective hordes.

Against innovation

We are pressed on every side by the “demands of modern life,” to which, as gentle reader will understand, I am generally opposed. Not entirely, of course, for I am on record allowing the use of electricity, and certain labour-saving devices, on the one condition that they do not disturb the background audio-visual and tactile quiet. Even at that, I am a reasonable man. I have allowed into the High Doganate, for instance, a manual coffee-bean grinder; and there was already a similar device, used to grind spices. There is the grinding sound, when one uses these inventions. But it is not unpleasant. The turning of the crank is physically satisfying. Whereas, an electric grinder makes an extremely unpleasant noise, and is the devil to clean.

In a sound-proofed room in a factory, we might perhaps tolerate powered, specialized equipment. Circular saws and the like: the Shakers allowed them (indeed, invented them), and what was tolerable to the Shakers is tolerable to me.

It is possible to construct an electric fan that is essentially silent. I know, because I have seen and heard such a thing. One is conscious only of the whoosh of air, put in motion by the blades. I’m with the pope on this one. Higher ceilings, ceiling fans, and natural ventilation (including wind shafts) should make whining air conditioners unnecessary. How often the noisome device was installed, to compensate for design errors: to force a result that could have been obtained peaceably. Marble floors, or terra cotta for the poor; thick walls of stone, or adobe — it is possible to create the cool of a cave against the baking sun. And conversely, as the Romans taught us, hot-water pipes can be run through the masonry to spread warmth in winter, and the walls then store heat. Stoves can be adapted to burn all manner of rubbish; Stirling engines to quietly generate power. Intelligent design is possible, that seldom requires service or repairs, and once made, costs little or nothing.

True, any of these measures will have what the hucksters call a “positive impact on the environment,” by which they mean, a slight reduction of some screamingly negative impact. They speak sometimes of “passive technology,” which is what humans were using since time out of mind. Many of these greenish people are unstable, however, and should not be trusted. They are apt to recommend technical “solutions” uglier than what they replace (e.g. those vile, bird-killer windmills). Aggressive commercial interests have no trouble cashing in, with tawdry and unnecessary “eco” products.

Whereas, tranquility in domestic and common life requires not more but less. We should edit what is ugly out of the picture, gradually in the calm of a benign outlook.

Is it sound? Is it moral? Is it beautiful? These are the questions to put before the court. Is it proportional? Does it fit with the location? Is it “ergonomic” and otherwise humane? Such questions were routinely asked by all workmen in all cultures before the Industrial Revolution, which had the effect of suppressing them. To recover sanity, children must be raised to know serenity, and the aesthetic means to “peace and quiet.”

And this can begin in no other way than with the prayerful apprehension of God. For God is to be found in the Real Presence, yet also in the unspoken liturgies of work, meals, play. Homo ludens is in his element, in a mimetic dance within the time He has ordained. We learn the harmonious steps, we fall into order.

Perhaps I am not even against innovation, but against the forced innovation that is characteristic of our age; the totalitarian impulse at its root. Men wish to impose their own order; but God’s order was sufficient to the day.

Prophets without honour

John Galt’s Annals of the Parish is not towards the top of any college reading list, yet read patiently through its very mild Scots English it gives a good account of the Revolution that came to industry and society towards the end of the 18th century, and into the early 19th. Moreover, it does this in a manner cozy and compact, as the diary of a country clergyman in Ayrshire, far, far from any world-historical events.

It is the book in which John Stuart Mill discovered the word “utilitarianism,” putting it to use many decades later in the service of liberalism and progress; whereas Galt’s decent if vain and rather conceited narrator, the Reverend Micah Balwhidder, knew better. In the rural Jacobins of his age he saw the wicked appropriation of all Christian ideals to the new materialist creed, and with that the formation of the Big Lie that has governed every “enlightened” machination through the two centuries since his time. Not all Galt’s many novels are strictly readable today, but he left an half-dozen whose gentle irony is seriously addictive. He was what we call “a natural” in the art of prose fiction.

With Galt himself (1779–1839), and his “Canadian angle,” I will hardly deal. Yes, on sojourn from his native south-west Scotland, as superintendent of the Canada Company, he pioneered settlement of the Huron Tract in southwestern Ontario. Founder of Guelph, Goderich, and so forth. Recalled to England, he was rewarded with imprisonment for sloppy bookkeeping. His services to the British Empire elsewhere were significant, and his earlier adventures with such as Lord Byron in Europe, add to the largeness of his biography; but as I say, he is forgotten. We now live in a society that has no use for great men, whether living or in recollection.

My interest of the moment is Galt’s depiction of “a natural,” plural capitalized as “Naturals,” of the Ayrshire landscape; “haverels” in Scots. The term refers to the village idiot or fool, there being by reputation one in every place. They were by ancient custom not allowed to travel, both for their own good and the public weal; as wandering they would tend to collect uselessly in the cities. Davie Gellatley is the male model in the Annals, Meg Gaffaw a female equivalent; “Daft Jamie” is memorable in another work. Each plays the part of The Fool in the mediaeval tradition preserved in Shakespeare — being given the ancient liberty to “speak truth to power,” and to be fonts of paradoxical wisdom and wit.

For, Davie was “no sae silly as folk tak’ him for,” or rather, from frequent contact, folk would often tak’ the “puir fellow” for a kind of prophet. And this is only possible among people who may glimpse Christ in him.

Today, in for instance greater Parkdale, his descendants are placed on the welfare rolls, and offered the attention of social workers, when not simply left to the ministrations of the weather. They are defined as “homeless” and as “social problems.” Sympathy is directed to them as a class, but in a cold, abstract way. Our ear buds help us to ignore what they are saying. They disrupt the sterility of conurban life, get in our way on the sidewalks, and should they become more a nuisance can be drugged into docility as outpatients of our “mental health” bureaucracy.

Knowingly, or perhaps unknowing since he was himself somewhat prophetic, John Galt celebrates an aspect of that antediluvian world, before utilitarianism was legislated. What to us is a bother and worriment for the authorities, was to the mediaeval and earlier modern mind instead a community resource.


Perhaps I should clarify that the above has nothing to do with the character “John Galt” in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged; or any other garage mechanic from Ohio. Nothing whatever. I’m sorry to have to mention that woman’s name in an Idlepost. I hope it will not be necessary again.

Avoiding traps

I know a lady — a real lady — who has mastered a most useful virtue. Let us call it, “incuriosity.” Recently it was tested when she was informed — by the usual electronic means — that she had become the subject of conversation among certain “friends.” Pressed for reply, she announced herself bored. Tempted further, she disappeared.

Her strategy is all but infallible. They will soon move on to someone who cares.

The birds have incuriosity. Here I am touching on the science of ornithology, but my observation could be extended through much of the animal kingdom, and of course, expressions of indifference from plants are nearly universal. A sparrow will look you over, and not decide if you are friend or foe. He may flee you by an abundance of caution. But unless bearing food, you don’t interest him.

Pitfall traps, flypaper traps, snap traps, sucking traps, and ah, the notorious no-exit hairs, have been employed by Mother Nature in her sometimes sadistic design to keep the food chain moving. Or perhaps she is merely unsentimental, filling our world with aphorisms which, like human proverbs, can be read different ways.

Now, here is an aphorism nature can supply. To work, most traps supply an attraction.

Consider the sweet-scented pimpernel sundew of Tasmania. It combines the snap and flypaper routines. The little ones eat mites and the big ones eat flies, that spring their tendrils. These catapult the luckless insect into their sticky-goo. This shows great enterprise, in a plant. A fly should be more careful where he lands.

If sheer size is requested, I recommend the giant montane pitcher plant (Nepenthes rajah), to be found on the fog-dampened serpentine, about half way up Mount Kinabalu in what we used to call North Borneo. The mountain, a thousand miles from the nearest to approach its height, offers a freakshow for Darwinists and other tellers of imaginative “just so” stories. This plant’s lidded urn holds more than a gallon of water and digestive fluids. It will take frogs, lizards, shrews, and small avians, showing a locational partiality for other endangered species. Mostly, however, it subsists on rare insects and spiders.

Except journalistic fabrications, there is nothing big enough to trap a living man. He must be dead first, before his nutritive properties can be appreciated by the scarcely mobile.

So that men are compelled to make traps for themselves, which range from the military, to the legal, to political conventions of slander and defamation, often quite satanic in a considered way. And it is true, one must walk carefully through the jungle of e.g. any tax code, for all are designed to drain the lifeblood from people, no matter what they do. Each is made intentionally complex, so that an auditor will always find something to drop, stick, snap, suck, or pierce one with. The departments are naturally staffed with “sick puppies,” who get their kicks from watching the struggle of their prey.

The dangers of incuriosity are well-advertised, however. Gentle reader could spend all his waking hours weighing dietary risks, or what people are saying about him on Facebook. One might even fret about such as “global warming,” over which one has absolutely no control. Or a pope, or a president, who will be forgotten in another fifty years. It is all time wasted, and what is worse, nervous energy wrongly applied.

Eventually, something will get you. Against obvious threats, precautions might be taken, but for the rest, who cares?