Essays in Idleness


What goes up

It has come to my attention that David Warren has died. Indeed, he has been dead for seven years, according to the forwarded information. I refer to David Ronald de Mey Warren, the Australian inventor of the Black Box, who is sometimes wantonly confused with me. I missed all the obituaries, published in late July, 2010. I had wondered why congratulations for this invention were fading.

My own view of aviation safety was (and remains) somewhat different from that of my deceased namesake. I think anyone who steps into an aeroplane has taken his life in his hands, and shouldn’t complain if it crashes. To be fair, few of them do. There is little so effective as the impact, after a fall of many thousand feet, to cure a whiner. The cause of death should be clear enough. No doubt the flying machine crashed for a reason, but as Hillary Clinton says, “What does it matter now?”

This other David Warren took a more hopeful view. He thought the causes would be easier to determine if a mechanical record of the flight’s last moments could be made and somehow retrieved from the wreckage. His own father had died in a plane that had descended too quickly into the Bass Strait, and he had been curious to know why. Just before that unhappy flight, father had given his nine-year-old son a crystal radio set, together with the enthusiasm for electronic communications he had acquired as a missionary in remote Australian locations. The son became a ham radio addict. Later he took an interest in chemistry, too, and became an expert on aviation fuel.

The pilots of the 1950s were against him. They considered his flight-data recorder to be an invasion of their privacy. They were especially opposed to the voice recordings, and their unions fought the introduction of Black Boxes tooth and nail. Finally they were persuaded to accept the things, on the condition that the recordings be wiped after every successful flight. (Promises, promises.) At the time, the new Comet jet airliners were exploding in the sky, and otherwise falling out of it, with distressing regularity. This is normal when new technology is introduced; one engineering feat leads to another.

I flew on one of these Comets with my own father (a WWII flyboy) as a small child, New York to London (via Gander). I still remember the wild fluctuations of cabin temperature and pressure. Even a five-year-old could tell that more work was needed. Had I known a Black Box was mounted in the tail, I’m sure my anxieties would have been assuaged.

Soon after, some friends of the family went down in a Comet over the Tyrrhenian Sea — to a place so far under the Tyrrhenian Sea, that the Black Box was never recovered. A wonderfully charming young newlywed couple, setting out in life; dead now, I realize, for three metonic cycles. I was relieved to learn that they had left their dog at home.

The medical advisor

If you want to die at home, my advice would be, don’t go to a hospital. Perhaps this will strike gentle reader as a remark overweighted on the side of the obvious; but there is some method in some of my madness. So I will begin with a careful qualification: my advice holds for Canada, and the United Kingdom, but not for all of those Natted States. (I realize there are other jurisdictions.) And even there, the impossibility of fixing “Obamacare,” without further extending its unrepealable “entitlement” provisions, shows the end is coming, soon. But in Canada and UK, the future has been here for some time.

The reason, of course, is that at these higher latitudes we have so-called “single-payer” “healthcare” systems in which, as we have been reminded lately, all decision-making is concentrated in the caring-sharing State, or as I prefer to call her, Twisted Nanny. Once the paperwork is complete, and the customer has progressed from the outer to the inner waiting rooms, he is entirely in her power. He may, after reviewing her apparatus (both surgical and managerial), want to go home and die there. But she is unlikely to release him, and it will require the assistance of loyal friends and family to effect the equivalent of a prison break. (Tip: staff tend to be at their least attentive during the conventional sleeping hours.)

You see, Twisted Nanny likes to watch people die. She can become quite annoyed when others appropriate this privilege. She also likes to kill people, and has gone to considerable trouble to establish a monopoly in this regard. And given her latest powers, under legislation for “euthanasia,” she prefers to do it in her own facilities. She doesn’t make house calls, the way they do in Red China.

My objection to her end-of-life facilitations is actually two-fold. On the one hand, I should rather not be slain before my time. On the other, I’m not sure I would like to have my life artificially prolonged, with the help of Twisted Nanny’s machines.

For “nutrition” and “hydration” I am prepared to beg; perhaps even for the odd pain-reliever. I might happily try a cure, if one happens to be on offer. But I am otherwise in favour of letting Nature take her course. For while it is true that Nature is a mass murderer, she does not provide that individual attention for which Twisted Nanny is so feared. No fluorescent lights to stare at on the ceiling; nor tubes nor syringes; nothing to distract one from one’s prayers.

Note a certain “synergy” here. Modernity may have hatched doctors willing to kill you, having dead-lettered the Hippocratic Oath. It has also hatched patients eager to die.

It is a little-known fact, at least to the current generation, that there was a time in history before modern bureaucratic hospitals existed — when the Church provided the equivalent services, but on a purely voluntary basis, sans formalités administratives. The nursing sisters were Christian; so were the doctors with any luck.

Life was shorter in immediately previous centuries, but this had little to do with medical treatment. I refer particularly to the time before Lister and Pasteur, when (for instance) surgeons had not yet discovered the advantages of washing their hands, and public health measures were possibly even less well-informed than they are today.

We won’t go into it again, just now, but let me remind gentle reader of the interesting product of researches into life expectancy, through the mediaeval parish books. People lived longer in those days when they were in the cultural habit of washing frequently, before the Renaissance idea came into vogue that water was the principal carrier of disease, so that perfuming made more sense to them than bathing. People began to live longer again when the earlier modernist assumptions were overturned.

The idea of “killing someone for his own good” is distinctly modern; or should I say “post-modern”? (It existed in embryo with the concept of a hanging.) It requires someone other than the customer, or his closest relations, to be calling the shots. I think it will be necessary to rethink this proposition. But that may take some time, to say nothing of unpleasant experience.

In the meanwhile, my advice would be, stay away from hospitals.

Indopakladesh at seventy

Lahore, the city of my early childhood — my romantic city of Kipling’s Kim, and of the Emperor Jahangir (“Seizer of the World”); of Anarkali his courtesan, her tomb, and of the Anarkali Bazaar; of The Mall and long-demolished Nedous; of the zoo, and Saint Lawrence gardens, where the bats flew out at dusk; of Mrs Abassi’s kindergarten (where the Persian alphabet was forced upon me), and Saint Anthony’s school (deadly Latin inflections) — was “ethnically cleansed” some seventy years ago. In my childhood, it was little over a decade since that had happened, and the memories, still fresh in adult minds, were never discussed.

This was, I learnt as I grew, one of the interesting characteristics of adults. They seemed to remember only what they wanted to remember. Yet what they tried to forget could not be forgotten, only gradually sanitized. The phenomenon is not peculiar to Lahore, and the greatest traumatic events of history are “cleansed,” along with their victims, in surprisingly short periods of time. They are fit back into a bottle and labelled: “The Plague”; “The War”; “The Holocaust”; “Partition.” Life becomes easy again, for the survivors; and often, the sins of the fathers are not visited even on the fathers. For they are “the fathers of their nations” now, bejewelled in myth.

Lahore, a city that was half Muslim, and the rest Hindu and Sikh, Catholic Christian, “Liberal,” and even Buddhist, became fully Muslim almost overnight. Those who did not make it through the massacres to the new Indian border near Amritsar, passed across another threshhold. Those who made it through the massacres, the other way, soon occupied all the cheapened real estate. The rail to Delhi, once among the busiest in the world, now ended at a severed bridge.

But life goes on, in a city for which the British left an infrastructure for half a million people, which with patchy repairs now serves ten times as many. With wealth and technology, all the problems will be solved. Human optimism is clear on this point.

“Indopakladesh” is my collective term for the successor states which replaced that extraordinary British compilation: the largest India accumulated since the age of Ashoka. It is, and was to start with, too large for anyone to make sense of. The Subcontinent, as it is also known, already has a population much exceeding China’s (in less than half the area), and roughly equal to that of all Europe (from Atlantic to the Urals) plus North and South America. The Republic of India alone may soon surpass them all.

While the biomass of humans may not exceed that of ants and termites, the people are all buying cars, and the crowding of huge cities, including Lahore, has become impossible to believe even for those who live there. A fertile paradise of nature (perhaps twice China’s arable land, multiplied by tropical climate) has been transformed.

And yet as recently as my youth and early manhood, I was able to travel across a landscape almost empty of mechanical traffic — a landscape of villages not yet electrified, emerging from the dark of night only by the light of the moon and the stars, and spookily silent; with broad regions hardly populated at all. I have not seen rural India in decades; am told by a Bengali friend that I would be impressed by the progress — impressed, and “quite deploring.” It is unlikely I will ever return.

The remarkable variety of the Lahore that was extinguished — before my time — is known to me through books and pictures. The Subcontinent contains more nations than Europe, and nations within each nation; unofficial castes within castes, and very official tribes within tribes. It speaks innumerable languages, so that the alphabets present a carnival to the eyes. Its power to resist “globalization” is formidable. Yet the cities — rather, conurbations — are powerful melting pots within. The tourist today will find very little that has not been tricked up for him; the heat will keep him mostly indoors, where air conditioning seals off all contact with the living past.

From this distance, the receding British Empire is “one with Nineveh and Tyre.” The India they hastily abandoned belongs only to the historians, now; those born into “freedom at midnight” have reached three score and ten. Indopakladesh today looks only to the future, where we can all see the same: a world that has been fully sanitized.

An anti-whateverist expostulation

There are, as the old saying goes, two kinds of people in this world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who do not. Let us call the first group binarists, and the second, multists, or as I prefer to call them, “whateverists.”

I belong consciously to the former group, and the smugness of the saying helps confirm me in my binaristical propensities. The pope, too, has had a hand in this recently. I mean our present one who is, as I calculate, one two-hundred-and-sixty-sixth of the papal component of our Roman teaching. The stated opposition of his self-appointed henchmen to the “binary thinking” of e.g. the Dubia authors, puts me more on the latter’s side. (I began almost totally on their side, wanting a few straight answers.)

Binarists accept both either/or and both/and propositions. Multists, as I have often been reminded, cannot cope with the first set, and may fail to understand the second, even as they giddily embrace it. For a both/and is a binary proposition.

Truth, to my duplexitatious way of thinking, is binary at heart, for a proposition may be true or not true — unless it is “partially true,” in which case it is false. The problem of philosophy is, whenever possible, to carefully move the line — to appropriate the true, disappropriate the false; to put the good with the good, and clean it (notice the binary division) — to draw, as patiently as we can, an infinitely squiggly but perfectly exact line, between ourselves and the people we can’t stand. Or so said my hero, T. E. Hulme, when pressed to an explanation by Bertrand Russell, or some other bug that needed squashing in the Cantabrigian universe before the Great War. Yes, I realized when I first read it, that is what philosophy is all about.

Good fences do not necessarily make good neighbours; but if they’re high enough, you can keep the buggers out.

Je suis là, vous êtes là! I remember a Frenchwoman explaining to me, after I had for the second time unintentionally nudged her in a queue for the Calais ferry. I marvelled at her distinction between two definable places, both shifting, less than two Paris feet apart. (Which is to say, twenty-five-and-one-half English inches, before the Revolution decimated everything.)

It is a wonderful word, . It could mean “here,” as I understand; or it could mean “there”; but it will never mean “whatever.”

Mock chicken

Years had passed, since I had seen “mock chicken” offered in a grocery cooler, in any form, let alone the tight-wrapped thin-sliced “baloney” packaging of my childhood. (See here.) But there it was in the No Thrills supermarket, and I seized a package, noting with pleasure that the price was half that of other “luncheon meats,” by weight. And sure enough, on return to the High Doganate, and after devising a strategy to break into the package, I discovered it was the “real deal” — as bland in taste and texture after all these years. Truly, a madeleine moment out of Proust.

I had always assumed that mock chicken was an industrial by-product, containing traces of poultry for flavouring, in a crumbly rind probably coloured with orange textile dye. I supposed that live chickens had been harmed somewhere in the manufacturing process, which had included the mocking operation. I guessed the managers at the industrial abattoir hired underemployed professional comedians to mock the chickens, prior to slaughter — doing satirical imitations of the way they walk, try to fly, express enmity towards those who steal their eggs — while taunting them with demeaning imprecations such as, “You’re not a real chicken,” &c — ideally in dactylic hexameters.

It turns out I was wrong. Unless the ingredient list on the package is fake news (I have just retrieved it), our contemporary mock chicken contains miscellaneous “and/or” meats, possibly but not necessarily including winged animals; plus potassium lactate and soy protein; sodium phosphates, erythorbates, diacetates, and nitrates; glucose solids; maltodextrin; “spices”; and of course my favourite, monosodium glutamate. The mouth waters even while trying to descry the five-point, all-cap, extra-light sans-serif, in white against the shimmering transparent plastic background. (You can do it with a spy-glass once you get the lighting angle right.)

Imagine my surprise, upon deeper research, to discover that the traditional product was constituted of finely ground pork, and veal, in a slurry of mushroom goop and secular cornmeal, with turmeric, paprika, and that sublime umami, isolated by German chemists in the nineteenth century and affectionately abbreviated, “MSG.” Urban squab might be the homemaker’s alternative or perhaps, leftover swan from the park.

For you see, in the depths of the Great Depression, or through the various great depressions, recessions, and financial panics that preceded it, chicken had been unobtainably expensive. Pork and veal were much cheaper. And in the days before “mechanical separation,” the little woman of the household would chop the less favoured scraps of those meats, marinate them in I don’t know what, then moosh them into a bun by way of anticipating the invention of hot dogs. This, I gather, is how mock chicken started, though at first it was called spiedie.

Gentle reader will remember that before the Great War, Americans liked their food much spicier than they have since, and indeed, it was in the interests of the big capitalist syndicates to tone down their enthusiasms, in view of their own cost/benefit analyses while developing economies of scale. They also found a way to make chickens not only tasteless, but very very cheap.

For sake of completeness I should mention Chinatown, where one finds another conception of mock chicken, that comes in a tin along the same shelf with mocked ducks, pigs, abalones, and other unlucky creatures. So far as I can see from those labels, all are made from tofu and dragonflies. The tins also mention “vegetarians,” but I think even in Red China there must be laws against using them as a food ingredient.

On the D-word

My Chief Texas Correspondent supplies this morning’s reading, which he found at City Journal (here). Very well put, by this Magnetic gentleman. I was getting at the same point in the style of my Saturday effusion (“An argument against arguing”) and will be returning to it. As ever, after posting that piece, I sat back to receive various mealy-mouthed comments from readers who say, “You will attract more flies with honey than with vinegar!” To which my boilerplate response is now, “I’m not trying to attract flies.” (And when I am, I will use flypaper.)

The part of Christian teaching that is most obscure to contemporary Christians and pseudos is the frequent reference in the Gospels to Demons, and Demonic inhabitation. Christ is Himself the source of this curiously unmodern “point of view.” Then Paul carries it the further nine yards. If you haven’t noticed this, you weren’t reading carefully enough. (Or maybe you haven’t read it at all?)

There is Devilry in this world, as most will admit at least in moments when it touches them, to their harm, and they ask some stupid question such as, “Why, Santa, why?” But in the moments that are more numerous, the idea of The Devil becomes a symbol, a parable, a narreme in the narratology, a simile, a meme, an “idea” — something to be taken not too literally for fear we will ourselves be taken as fanatics. The Resurrection is likewise not taken as fact, rather as some poetical way in which the Apostles and their chums expressed their “feelings.”

Ditto, finally, the rest of Catholic doctrine.

Modern biblical scholarship is full of this tosh, from the vaguely Christian, but squeamish. It would be convenient for them if Christ had taught more like a college perfesser, and been fastidious in his choice of words — instead of putting everything on the line, as if he were the Son of God, or something.

There are Demons, we must fight the Demons, starting of course with the Demons in us. We are up against Dark, not up against “misunderstandings.” The Devil of course thrives on stupidity — which is what makes Democracy so attractive to him — but his intentions are not merely stupid. He is actually trying to Destroy us. Without an active and vivid conception of evil (founded in opposition!) we become his playthings: agents and participants in our own Destruction.

Christ did not preach cornmeal.

We have “well-meaning” intellectuals, of course, who are genuinely embarrassed by such candour. Their attitude is, “Please, dear, put on some clothes.” (You can’t argue with prudes, either.) For words either mean what they say — even in the Bible — or they mean nothing.

You cannot argue with people who do not accept meaning. All you can do is reiterate, proclaim: “This is this and that is that.” And should that prove unacceptable, then, “Get thee behind me.”

An argument against arguing

Ah, gentle reader, what a wonderful summer we are having up here in the Canadas. It is overcast for seeming weeks at a time, and rains six days in seven. This prevents the heat from accumulating in my elevated, west-facing apartment. It pleases me — verily, I am chuffed — that the Weather Fairies would arrange things for the comfort of the Denizen of the High Doganate, and the inconvenience of everyone else. And even when the “muggy” heat doth rise (in this anniversary year, let us call it “lutherish”) I may take a stroll in the fog and endless drizzle, and imagine myself in Halifax, or perhaps in glorious old colonial Singapore, before the stupid British gave it away.


Now, I have preserved the heading from the piece I draughted this morning, which came out much too long and mouthy. Often my Idleposts end like that, in which case I toss them in psychic recycling, and the electrons are composted in an environmentally friendly way. Instead, the piece should have been short and mouthy.


I meant to write comfort to such as the parents of Charlie Gard — the innumerable who find themselves on the spear side of a legal and bureaucratic crusade, to enforce the statutes of the Culture of Death. Many, many people get cornered like that, today, in the equivalent to Great Ormond Street, though without the publicity that has happily attended this case; find themselves in a place where no reasonable argument is going to work; where ancient Common Law has itself been murdered, and they are in the power of men unambiguously evil. The authorities cannot be satisfied until they have killed your child, and driven you to despair. Every “single payer” system is designed to do that: to entrench the Fiends in positions of authority.

Rather, they cannot be satisfied at all, and will continue to seek victims. They derive no joy from what they are doing, for Joy has never been among the Devil’s rewards. We may pity the unhappiness of their miserable lives, from now through perpetuity. We may pray for their conversion, but without reasonable hope.

We can argue with no one who does not share our premisses; in this case “Choose Life!” — the premiss of Isaiah. We can only proclaim the truth to deaf ears. So do that until you have lost the battle; and then with Saint Paul, knock the dust off your sandals and proceed, along the Roman road. The liberals and progressives will do unspeakable things to you and to yours, but they have not the power to kill your soul. God will sort them out in due course; our business is to keep on the right side of Him.

Where argument fails, and reason has no standing, we fall back in a prayer. The one to Saint Michael is peculiarly apt.


The delight I take in the prints and paintings of Georges Rouault, is either too hard to explain, or too easy. Currently I wake each morning to Christ and the Apostles. Not the painting itself, which I understand belongs to some collector in the Distrito Federal of Mexico; mine is a large detail from the cloth cover of a cheap art book, published in the ’sixties. The shiny viscose coating peeled off, and the matt effect from the cloth ground makes it look like a frameless painting once again — not the visual confection we have come to demand in our “coffee table” books. And of course, there is no smiling in this composition, as there also is not on the Crucifix nailed into the white plaster, a few feet to the left. Nor on the peasant wood carving of a chalice-bearing Saint John, at my right shoulder as I rise — from my narrow, hard-plank, wrought-iron cot, rescued from a defunct Dominican monastery.

I am not very holy. Perhaps I arranged these things in the hope I might become more so. The High Doganate is not otherwise much dripping with Catholic impedimenta, thanks perhaps to my earlier immersion in Anglican “good taste,” and something of Bauhaus modernism before that. I have an allergy to sentiment, and imagery that is “soft.” Girlishness is for girls, in my non-negotiable opinion, and especially today, our hapless need cries out for religious art that is Christ-ish and masculine. This includes representations of Our Lady that are feminine, in an adult way: womanish not girlish.

It is true that Rouault apprenticed in the shop of a stained-glass restorer, and his work seems obviously to emerge from that conception of lead outline and tinted glass. Were that all, it would be a decorative nothing. Instead, Rouault has penetrated the surface of his effects, to what lies beneath or behind or is philosophically prior to the lighting of the great Cathedrals. He is, as it were, “edgy” in an heroically pre-modern way, that is also pre-Gothic.

Generations before the Lindisfarne Gospels, or the Book of Kells we have (and by some miracle still have, in Dublin) the Book of Durrow. A product of seventh-century “Celtic” monasticism in Ireland or Northumbria, it is ambassador from what we call the Dark Ages. I read subtle, post-Christian condescension into most art-historical accounts of it, sometimes abrogated by a sudden amazement. For it is not primitive work, and in its coloured patterns within vibrantly delineated fields, it presents the Gospels as we can no longer read them: without the slightest hint of what we would now call “romanticism.” The “carpet pages” are not frills; they pass intentionally across thresholds of our human understanding, into an unearthly geometrical abstraction.

Christ stands in the interstice of here and hereafter, as the Gate of Revelation; and the Man of Matthew, the Lion of Mark, the Ox of Luke, and Eagle of John, are hardly copied from nature. Our religion carries us from this world, into the face of Eternity, and the iconography by which this is conveyed looks not wistfully back. Sanctity does not do so, and the artists — to whom it never occurred to sign their work for commerce — are themselves involved in an activity that is solemn and liturgical. Humour they had, but never jokiness; gentleness and compassion but in a form we might call hard, for founded in Love not Pity. The illumination of this codex, the uncial, majuscule lettering, is itself, though wildly beautiful, hard and immovably bold, as if carved or engraved beneath the ink. The gold is enhanced in jewelled settings of a recurring, mystical earth red — the colour of dried blood.

Long, long before the outburst of stained glass in the High Middle Ages — in far insular West as in far Byzantine East — we had art which purposefully ignored anatomical modelling, foreshortening and perspective (they are different things), the dynamism of flow and movement; which was unrolled, flat; crystalline, rather than rounded and organic in its aspirations. It stands so opposed to our temper as to expose us for the “naturalistic” animals that we are.

I write this as gloss on my review of what may be the height of post-modern art, in another essay today (over here). Compare, if reader will, the black-line of our ancient Christian icons and frescoes and manuscripts, to what perfectly expresses our own techno-logic heart and soul: the aspiring naturalism of the sex robot.

The dispossessed

Time makes refugees of us all, and orphans. It was the discovery that animated Marcel Proust, and many others — “You can’t go home again” — and is the motive force, I believe, behind most novels and many long poems. The writer has become a stranger in a strange land. At length he may discover that, as Gershom son of Moses, he was born into this strangeness, and carries name and badge. The longing to return — even to Pharaoh’s Egypt — resonates beneath the Book of Exodus. One is proceeding to a home that one has never seen — a promised land, but incomprehensible.

Even the slave, escaped, along the old underground railroad, would feel a cold shudder in transport to the North, and recall the warmth of his old plantation life, that was at least filled with the familiar. And in his mind, the haunt of old beloved faces he will never see again. Who knows what lies ahead, among these strangers? But there is no turning back.

The poster image of the refugee burnt into imagination — of the woman in kerchief, forging forward, with babe swaddled in one arm, pulling an older child along with the other — is a figure of sentiment, but real through all the layers of propaganda. The husband dead, or if he still lives, emasculated in the course of events. Driven from home, by monstrous politics, abandoned to an unknown fate —

Disenfranchised, widowed and orphaned
By an historical mistake:

Europe was crawling with these through and after her twentieth-century wars, and one of the attractions of Louis-Ferdinand Céline is the sharpness of his depictions — the smashed landscapes of roofless walls, the busted boxcars, the broken roads and rails to nowhere; perpetrators and victims, often one and the same. He shows humanity in scenes from which all sweetness and light has been extracted, the dark humour in our monkey cage. He was a deeply religious atheist, in his misanthropy the chronicler of crucified mankind. I find enfolded in his shadows the glimmer of a liberating Catholic truth.

For we who live in bourgeois comfort cannot go home again, either. The world is laid waste behind us, too; all the past is wreckage. This has become the less poignant in our high-tech urban world, under constant reconstruction, even without a war. All that was quaint or lovable is scheduled for demolition, and one finds yet another old familiar row of shops and houses replaced by glass and steel. Blank transparent walls, and people, “wired” or now wirelessly fixed to the machine.

In a corner of my building there are two children, whom I have watched grow through thirteen years (the older is now fourteen). Not the free-range children of my own childhood, but raised like chickens in a coop. Yet with coloured chalks they drew faces, and the grid for hopscotch on the sidewalk outside, and I have heard their childish laughter in the halls. They will move away, and remember this some day, with all the nostalgia from that further displacement; and think back on this, perhaps, from old age. For all of this, too, will pass.

Where are we going, refugees and orphans, in a world ever ceasing to be our own? Where is the hope in a life from which finally everything will be taken, as memory itself withdraws in the encroaching darkness? How shall we, with all our human longing for a home, find our way to a place of belonging, that will not crumble around the next turn?

War, war, our world is all war. And unless our sight is fixed upon the Heaven, there can be no peace.

On science

The first thing to know about Science is, that it doesn’t exist. By this I don’t mean that it doesn’t exist in the way unicorns do not exist; rather, it doesn’t exist in a more fundamental way. For any child can know what a unicorn looks like, or can know once the thing is drawn for him. Whereas, no one can ever know what Science is, no matter how much explaining. It will always, and necessarily, be gummy wool and bafflegab; and it will always be sold to some disreputable purpose.

Which is not to say that sciences, in the plural, don’t exist. They are innumerable, legion, and many if not most are perfectly legitimate, within their respective boundaries. But each has its own history, and follows its own rules, and must be glimpsed in the totality of that historical existence if we are to avoid speaking nonsense about it.

“Poetics,” for instance, is (or, are) among these sciences, but in the absence of real languages and real poetry it becomes the kind of gummy wool and bafflegab that is taught in our universities today. Like all the other sciences it is essentially applied. If there is nothing to which it can be applied, then it is tosh some tenured fool is putting over. “Literary theory” is almost all like that: done by people who could not read with attention to save their lives.

At the other extreme, mathematics exist, but again note the plural. Too, that maths are not sciences. They (keep noting plurals) come closest to the gods, in their abstraction from material realities, and thereby form a kind of unity, in opposition to the sciences. Maths are never messy, the way sciences always are.

Now if, like me, gentle reader likes to embrace heroes, and one of them is, say, Archimedes of Syracuse, or Apollonius of the Conic Sections, or Euclid for that matter, he will perhaps have noticed something “backward” about them. These stunningly ingenious Greeks did not think arithmetically, the way we do. Rather they thought geometrically. And thus they never fall into the swamp of statistics, where the modern scientistical scientists live. Rather they live where the unicorns dance, and the Houyhnhnms reason, on the solid ground of the Arcadian uplands, where the shepherds pipe, in the clean air, and the wool is fairly free of vegetative gunge, muck, sand, grease, suint, urine stains and dung locks.

Let me refer again to a name I mentioned recently, that of Michael Polanyi (1891–1976), who did a superb job of disentangling sciences from “Science”; though my own master in this regard was the Scotsman, Arthur David Ritchie (1891–1967), and the book I recommend, should you ever find it, is Studies in the History and Methods of the Sciences (Edinburgh, 1958). As he says near the outset:

“I have spoken of the sciences in the plural, not only because they are manifestly plural but even more because singular Science is the sacred cow of twentieth century idolatry, from which the worshipper procures his magical milk (sweet or sour) and other magical bovine products.”

One of which is “Scientific Method” — which doesn’t exist, and could never exist and, as Ritchie said, can be advanced only in the absence of that fine old Athenian (and later, Edinbourgeois) sense of the ridiculous.

Consider, if thou wilt: “One difference between religion and science is that science assumes humankind does not know the answers to many of life’s biggest questions. Religion, however, assumes that the important stuff is already known.”

This was my inspiration for this morning’s Idlepost. It comes from Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuvah Noah Harari, currently perched high in the New York Times bestseller list, and teeming with similar fatuities and clichés. He and his ilk assume “religion” has no answers, then assume “Science” has a few.

Only if God does not exist are they safe in their assumptions. For then reality does not exist, either, and nothing actually matters, so you may utter any unconscionable blather that comes unbidden into your wee head.

A thought for Bastille Day

Several correspondents have recently asked me to supply them with reactionary “talking points.” (Have I not been doing so?) They take me at my own estimation, as a “reactionary” — then ask what “policies” go with that. They think maybe we should start a Reactionary Party, and contest the next election. I think, how weak. For even if we did such a thing, and won the next election, we might lose the one after. Having proudly accomplished nothing in four years, beyond quietly undoing the work of previous governments, we’d be replaced by a pack of “doers” again. All would be lost.

For the first principle of reaction is Truth, and that is in its nature unchanging. (The same may be said for Beauty, and Goodness.) If something is true, it is always true, and vice-ah verse-ah, by tautology. If something is false, it remains false. A government grounded in truth cannot change. It deals with nothing but passing accidents (as much in the philosophical as in the material sense), and with those always in the same way. A reactionary government would be perfectly predictable at all times, at least to its friends. To its “progressive” enemies, perfectly unpredictable, for they would never understand it. Surely it would never agree to be elected.

While it is probably better for one’s soul to lose an election, than to win, one’s supporters are likely to think one selfish for taking such a view. They don’t care about your soul. They want to win. In other words, they are not true reactionaries.

There are anyway hardly enough reactionaries to fill all the chairs in the High Doganate, or all the offices in the Borborygmatic Club (a secret society to which I belong). So the threat of corruption is not imminent. Nevertheless, a sudden tide of applicants persuades me that one can never be too careful.

Have there been any reactionary governments in the past? Oh yes, plenty. Arguably, we had one running Egypt for three thousand years. (Alas, even there, some brief interruptions.) Absolute monarchies tend to be reactionary, which is why I am well disposed to them. The hereditary principle weeds for ambition. All change is for the worse, including change for the better, from an absolute monarch’s point of view. This is what makes him the opposite of a tyrant. The best sort of ruler promises nothing, and delivers on his promise every time. The worst sort of tyrant has “plans.”

I am for government of laws, not men. Monarchy is compatible with that. The law itself should prevent the monarch from doing anything that requires imagination. By “absolute” I only mean to distinguish from “constitutional” monarchy, for in this latter the king is merely prevented from doing anything himself, so that someone else can make a hash instead. It is just more zoocracy, or government by politicians.

But the best sort of society I can imagine is one in which there are no politics at all. Nobody even thinks of such a thing, it is so long since anything changed. Criminals are hanged in due course, and the rude are inhibited by custom. Life goes on, and each selects his own path, to Heaven or to Hell, in a voluntary way, without the slightest government assistance. The State would be all but invisible (except on parade days), leaving the Church with the monopoly on dropping hints. (The symbol of the State has always been the hangman; but in a well-ordered society he is merely a backstop.)

“That government is best which governs least,” said Henry David Thoreau. Well, yes and no. The statement is used to champion weak government. But I am for a government that is unbreakably strong.

Chinese sages understood this, too, including the mystical Lao Tzu and those old Tories, Confucius and Mencius: that it takes tremendous power to do nothing. Voting whittles that power away.

An aside on acting

It is an old saw among actors, that those who star in films are not actors.

The point is easily proved. An actor performs on a stage before an audience. The audience varies from night to night. So, in the course of nature, must the performance of the actor.

If, for instance, the audience throw tomatoes, his performance will be adjusted. Not, “is likely to be,” but, will be adjusted — on that and subsequent evenings. And this will also happen if the audience is entirely docile. Weirdly, it will happen in response to wild applause, for actors are strange fish and crooked timber. They might even try to render exactly the same performance, but they are human and will certainly fail.

And let me specify that what I have just said of actors, applies to actresses, too. Maybe double.

Not so film stars; and this regardless of their sex, or these days, their “gender.” Go to a movie on two consecutive nights, and you will not see the slightest variation. And this, even if the audience threw rocks at the screen, the first night. The screen itself might be the worse for wear, or old celluloid a bit choppy from attacks on the projectionist, but the acting doesn’t change. It will be as flat as the scenery behind it. The whole thing is anyway just a smear of moving patches, plus a soundtrack of loud noise.

Do not doubt what I am telling you, gentle reader. I have mixed with actors, even backstage. I have written lines for them, and watched the variations. I may not hang out with actors, very often, but only because they are crazy people, less stable than musicians. And because, like Doctor Johnson, I find the actresses too attractive.

(As a stagehand in England, many years ago, I found myself surrounded by naked ones. They were members of a chorus line, quickly changing costumes between “vaudeville” scenes, at the old Victoria Palace. I for my part was stretched on a psychiatrist’s chaise longue: the prop from a previous skit. I was reading an ancient folio of The Rules and Exercises of Holy Living (1650), with its companion, Holy Dying (1651), from the London Library, gallantly pretending to be otherwise-gendered. But one of these nude snuck stealthily up behind, seized the book from my hands, then read most of its long title out to the other girls, in an exaggerated Oxonian accent. They almost missed their next cue in consequence, and their mocking laughter must have passed through the curtains. Yes, backstage in a theatre can be a dangerous place.)

Now, in a film, the scenes are shot a few seconds at a time. The “actor” who cannot remember his five-word line may have a placard held to help him. He may have thirty goes until he gets it right. There is no art to this. The actresses are as likely to undress before the cameras as behind them. Their make-up is quite odd. They must endure close-ups and other perturbations of their spiritual poise. Verily, none of this resembles acting.

Too, they are paid excessive amounts, for playing the same part in movie after movie.

That Brague again

I don’t know about you, gentle reader, but I would rather read this exquisite essay by Rémi Brague (here, over at First Things), than anything I could write today. Indeed, I would surrender my bus seat to Brague almost any day. I think I flagged him before in an Idlepost, for his essay on the question, “Are non-theocratic regimes possible?” (The answer is of course, no.) That was back in the days when I was bantering with a Commentariat, and let me toss this link in (here), for good measure. (My policy is never to provide links. Another policy is to ignore my policies.)

Near the start, Brague lets fly something profoundly true. The Catholic Church created Europe. But that is not the aphorism. Instead: the Catholic Church does not need Europe. She particularly does not need the European culture. That is because she does not need anyone’s culture. She creates cultures without thinking or intending. She can inhabit cultures she did not create. As I say, read Brague, he’s good at explaining.

A similar thought has been afflicting me recently, on my mysterious walks; a suspicion that I have been wrongly attributing an effect to a cause. It touched on those “Middle Ages” — a term that is quite meaningless, so that everyone thinks he knows what it means, and no two people have the same understanding. For a thousand years is not a thing. It is instead only a stretch of time, with things in it, that come and go. Chartres, by contrast, is a thing. A thing that could be gone tomorrow.

The Catholic Church, for instance, was not formed in the Middle Ages, as everyone must know. She came before. But neither did she “develop” in the Middle Ages. She isn’t temporal like that. She merely converses with temporal things. As Joan of Arc said, “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.”

This is true, and lies behind what Rémi Brague is saying; and what Joseph Ratzinger was saying, too, at the Paris talk Brague recalls. The “creativity” of the historical West — or more largely of “Christendom,” if you will — is not the product of a culture. It is the product of a Christian attitude to culture, which happens to be unique among the religions of the world.

Now, Western Man, even in his current rather degenerate form, is the creation of the Church in the Middle Ages. In that sense, we might say they’re not over yet. The thing may be scratched to hell, but we’re still working from the same cultural template; still babbling with the same (much obscured) vocabulary; still following habits of mind and feeling that were settled many centuries ago. Hence the desire of some of us to fix and restore it — to make it clean and beautiful again. But of course, it can’t be restored. It is beyond fixing.

The creation was unconscious. The relation of Christians to ancient Greece, or to Jerusalem for that matter, was different in kind from the Roman or Islamic formative relations. Ditto our relation to our own distinctive past. There was and is, as it were, a continuous non-continuity.

The “cultural materials” of our past were chastely appropriated. I say “chastely” because no ownership was claimed. Chastely, these materials were transformed. But Christians did not invest, even in the culture they were creating.

To misparaphrase Saint Joan: “About Culture and Religion, I simply know they’re not the same thing, and we shouldn’t confuse them.”

For we might all be Cultural Christians today. But only a tiny minority are Christians.

Or have it Brague’s way: To hell with Christian culture, let’s sing.