Essays in Idleness


Drawing to conclusions

“This is the day of the Valour of Ignorance. It has been pathetic during the making of this book to discover how the mighty are put down and the mediocre are exalted in our midst. Ignorance is rampant; incompetence glorified. Every one has a message, few have knowledge. Doubtless with time all will be well, but it is almost certain that scarce an American of this pushing, advertising generation will be remembered. Notoriety and cash are all of America today. The little men who draw, or steal, are backed up by little men who write, with an itch for new things, the things of the moment that come and go in a moment. Nothing lasts, nothing is permanent. Everything is undermined. …”

My quote for the day is lifted from a manual on pen draughtsmanship that once belonged to my grandfather, Harry Roy Warren — whose steady hands, and steady eye as a dip-pen draughtsman (cartographer and illuminator) I recall with envy and pride. The book resurfaced in a flea market on the weekend, and I have it back. The passage is the opening of a “Postscript to Preface” which continues through a few giant pages, and concludes, “Thanksgiving Day, 1920.” The writer is Joseph Pennell, N.A., illustrator, etcher, lithographer, colourist, and incidentally friend and biographer of Whistler. His wife, Elizabeth Robins Pennell, orphan child of a Catholic convent, was also accomplished in the draughting and authorial lines. (Mr Pennell was a Quaker.)

His remarks on Prohibition are among the gems: he holds it responsible for more societal degeneration than the entire nineteenth century, and blames the spirit of “temperance” for the rise of golf. He notes that from the very moment they gave up drink, Mahometan civilization dried up.

The tone reminds me happily of Grandpa, who had similar views, though perhaps more radical, for Grandpa was under the impression that nothing of artistic value had been made for at least four centuries in the West, and rather longer elsewhere. Which was no reason not to do one’s best.

I am tempted to transcribe the whole essay: it is surely out of copyright by now. Perhaps the whole book, but the illustrations (in line, wood engraving, photogravure, &c) are the best part.

Perhaps a footnote is required for that title, The Valour of Ignorance. It was by Homer Lea (1909). Much derided by the (Wilsonian) liberals and progressives of its day, and for decades after, it was perhaps the most prescient tract on “applied multiculturalism” ever published. It correctly anticipated Pearl Harbour by decades; might even have given the Japanese the idea. It circulated the notion of cultural idiocy, and civilizational foibles that though worse now, are hardly new. The author, hunched and deformed, less than five feet high even by the tailor’s tape, had failed to graduate from West Point. (Such men are invariably geniuses, who become adventurers in China, if not Greece.) Though dead in 1912, Lea also predicted the aggressions of Kaiser, Hitler, Stalin, and so forth.

Verily, one of Pennell’s berations is of salesmen who claim that one may learn drawing from a book. He makes clear bright and early that for that one needs some natural ability (including the capacity for obedience), and a competent drawing master. All a book can do is give you something to look at.

I am, I suppose, a connoisseur of Reactionaries — religious and irreligious alike — so that I can appreciate both Gobineau and de Maistre; Nietzsche and (see Saturday) Baudelaire. They point our only way forward. It just happens to be backwards.

Dear Grandpa: another of his books I once retrieved was The Spiritual and Ascetic Letters of Savonarola (Mowbray’s Devotional Library, circa 1904). What a Methodist from rural Ontario was doing with the works of the arch-firebrand Dominican friar of quattrocento Florence is a topic on which I delight to meditate. For Grandpa was also a Freemason. But he rolled his own cigarettes (for more than seven decades), and liked his whisky neat.

Perhaps Reaction runs in my family; as madness in so many others.

Culture of fear

My heading is, as too often, inspired by a morning squint through the news. The phrase came up a couple of times; I had seen it before. I gather Trumpf’s gauleiters have been trying to isolate the leakers of (often fake) state secrets, from deep within the vast Washington bureaucracy. This, preparatory to firing and prosecuting them. A “culture of fear” has been thereby created, I suppose because the great majority of bureaucrats are Smug Left, and on the side of the leakers. Most would not themselves leak, however: they have not the cojones. Nevertheless they feel a “chilling effect,” according to the usual Smug Left media. Good news: I’m all for refrigerating these people.

One of the more important functions of civilization, is to create a “culture of fear” among criminal malefactors, and have upon their actions a “chilling effect.”

Gentle readers have been sending me links to the protests in Hamburg, for the G-20 meetings. Frankly I consider such meetings no use, except as excuse for a bibulous party. It is as Bergson said of philosophical congresses: the only reason to attend is to look in the faces of the authors of contorted prose. One glance, and you see it had no meaning at all; that they’ve been wasting your time.

And why give the sick seedy anarchists of Europe a place to congregate? Except for the purpose of performing a cull? But the Hamburg police have made few arrests. And even when they detain someone, they are so dainty about it. What are truncheons for?

I think of Baudelaire’s remarks on the street anarchists of Paris in 1846:

“You whose casual curiosity has drawn you into the thick of a street riot, have you felt the same joy as I, at the sight of some worthy custodian of the public slumbers, be he policeman or municipal guard, cudgelling a republican? And like me, you will have said in your heart: Whack on, whack a bit harder, whack again, oh! officer dear to my heart, for in this ultimate cudgelling I adore thee, and see thee as Jupiter, great dispenser of justice. The man thou cudgellest is an enemy of roses and scents, a fanatic of utility; he is an enemy of Watteau, of Raphael, an arch enemy of luxury, of literature and the fine arts; a sworn iconoclast; a butcher of Venus and Apollo!”

Now many of these Hamburg demonstrators are sweet: I mean those slathered in clay, depicting zombies, striking poses for the cameras and the mavens of fashion design. They would not hurt a fly, and reciprocally, our policy should be catch and release.

But what of those who throw petrol bombs, swing axes, smash windows, loot? To say nothing of their very foul language. I’ve been wondering what to do, and after long cogitation have a proposal to inculcate a “culture of fear,” that will have a “chilling effect” on that sort of behaviour.

We could tell the police to shoot them.

False humility

From my Thing column this morning (here) I excised, for want of space, and because it would distract from my main argument, a little divagation into “false humility.” It is among the contemporary forms of “virtue signalling” that most annoy me. Women do it more than men, but effeminate men also do it, and I have often thought both might benefit from public correction. They make a show of taking the inferior station, the lesser role, the slighter task, by way of showing that although lower than the gods, they are better than their “equals.” Hidden, or unhidden in each gesture, is a comment on the others: “I am humble therefore you are arrogant.” It is a subtle form of deprecation, that has enduring moral and spiritual consequences.

The example I gave — it has bugged me for years — is women who say, “I am more like Martha,” as if Martha were more humble. This from allusion to the passage in Saint Luke, where Jesus is entertained by the two sisters, Mary and Martha, in the house of Lazarus at Bethany. Mary takes her place at Christ’s feet, Martha is doing all the work in the kitchen. Surely gentle reader knows the rest. Martha complains that Mary is not helping, and earns the slapdown from Jesus that has informed the hundred generations of Catholics since that the vita contemplativa is to be preferred to the vita activa.

Today, this is beyond us.

Yes, we can see that Martha has her little foibles — she is a whiner, for instance — but she does get the lunch made, and the wine up from the cellar. Or whatever the arrangements were that day. My mind runs so quickly to the bodegón by the young Velazquez, that I have conflated Martha with the sullen maid of the painter’s foreground, mortaring the ingredients for a fine aioli to go with those handsome fish, while resenting an instruction from her mistress.

Somewhere in the Reformation, or perhaps through Vasari’s Lives, the weight of tradition uncomfortably shifted. We began to appreciate the worth of work, not to the ends of work but as a balance against the demand for “faith alone.” We began to think better of Martha, until this thought mutated into the horrors of the Industrial Revolution. The vita contemplativa became a dispensable afterthought. By now we vex ourselves over unemployment statistics, as if working for a living were an end in itself. But no, as Saint Paul saith, it is a means only to the end of eating. The emphasis should instead be on the compulsion; you do your work or you don’t eat. But man does not live for bread alone.

In the posturing of which I write, Martha is taken for the humbler soul, at the price of embracing her insinuation that Mary is showy and indulgent. And this when, as Jesus counter-insinuates, the reality is the opposite. For it is Mary who is looking up; Martha only looks sideways.

We see this in the Church today. Cardinals like Sarah, and Burke, are attacked with this sort of reasoning — mocked as dandies because e.g. they have dressed properly to celebrate the Mass; or dwelt upon actual biblical teaching, and abiding points of liturgy and doctrine, instead of hopping with the liberal and progressive agenda. We can’t imagine them having “dressed up” to any other purpose than personal ostentation. We despise them for persistently looking up, like Mary.

Even the very Protestant Oswald Chambers’s “My Utmost for His Highest” has been turned upside down, and shaken. We want Mary brought down to Martha’s level. We want a Christ who will take his lunch, then “move on.”

Some attitudinizing

Human beings are a rum lot (I am speaking generally, there have been a few exceptions), and it is hard to get anything good from them.

This is not an original observation; it is or ought to be a platitude; and here I call attention to the final corollary of Warren’s Iron Law of Paradox, which I call the Paradoxical Law of Irony. The paradox of paradoxes is that some things are not paradoxical, rather quite straightforward, and the man like me always looking for a paradox must paradoxically discern where the platitudes apply. Here, for instance.

Since mentioning Hugh the Primate, in my last Idlepost, and being mentally on the road among the Goliardic poets (a rum lot, generally), let me again revert to the “twelfth century renaissance.” One learns something of a society through its statutes, and by old scholars like Rashdall, and Haskins, I was introduced to the punctilios in mediaeval university towns.

Much attention is given to student behaviour, and from Leipzig, for example, I recall the carefully stepped fines that begin for threatening your professor with a missile. The fine increases if you throw and miss; doubles if you hit him; and further costs may be assessed, depending on the nature of his injuries. For this and for other infractions, it is useful to have things spelt out, so the student on a tight budget may know what he can afford.

It is not so on the modern campus, from what I can see. The penalty for any sort of slated wrongdoing — uttering an unwanted pronoun, for instance — is absolute. As now in the Canadian Criminal Code, there are no subtle gradations; it seems we must go to gaol for anything we do. And nebulous emotional factors (such as “hatred”) are bruited; there is nothing objective about it. As an author, I’d like to be able to shop for the degree of political incorrectness that suits me.

Moreover, I’m appalled by totalitarianism. For what lies not only under the surface, but upon it in plain view, is this notion that human beings must be “good” absolutely, and at all times. We can be good, sometimes, but it takes much training — ars longa, vita brevis, as they say. There is a ladder of good behaviour which must be gradually ascended from the raw savage state in which we are born; just as there are stages in our progression from baby gibberish to the higher linguistic functions.

I do not doubt that discipline is required, nor from my experience (if only of myself) that much of this discipline must be externally imposed. Religion, in the broadest sense (from religio), must be acquired, and in all societies there is social pressure. No one is “born Catholic,” nor born post-modern for that matter; one is steered or “socialized” into something passable, from something that is not. (The word “progress” is misleading, when it proposes inevitable movement towards an undefined goal; I prefer such terms as ascent and descent, rise and fall.)

My contemporaries, especially the so-called “conservatives,” seem to think the contest is between dictatorship and freedom. But this is true only at the extremes. Instead, the question for today has become: Which way is up?

Without hair, without skin

The early summer is a season for nostalgia, and though I claim to be a man of the thirteenth century, I find myself dwelling in the twelfth — with Hugh Primas, the French poet, who shared the coffee with me on balconata this morning. The surname is something ludicrous he appended to himself, like a silly hat. He was first among none, except perhaps a little batch of poets on the road; an ordained secular, but rather dodgy Catholic; a Kerouac of the 1140s.

Those were the days, when France in all her cathedral splendour was poor and suffered famines somewhere almost every year. A major function of the Church in cities was caring for the homeless — blundering in from the countryside, wherever crops had failed. But caring also for the learned, the wandering scholars, making their pilgrimages to the college centres of Chartres, Reims, Tours, Paris, Bourges, or to the famous letter-writing school at Orléans, rich with discussion of poetic theory.

News travelled the roads in those days as this, including the scandals that the poets satirized. The virtues of humility and obedience were everywhere promoted, and flouted, too; justice and honesty available, ditto — but always at a price, chiefly to their dispensers. They had spineless bishops, just as we do; the rich had trophy wives, as faithless as ours; they had smug “beautiful people,” with stalkers; there were homosexual subcultures, only half in the closet; and sexual crimes in the highest places; they had corrupt self-serving bureaucrats, and simoniac clergy; they had disaffected youff. People drank a lot. You don’t need newspapers for this: it was all in the poems, and in poets like Hugh, and others liquidly bilingual in chant-musical Latin and the manfully accentuated vulgar tongues.

They had everything to make ourselves at home in the 1140s — even some indoor plumbing, after a fashion, and the midday racket of commerce in the towns. But along with the background poverty — a bit like India from the hippie traveller days — they had also breathtaking visions of Christ, and heroic aspirations to Heaven, that we don’t much see any more.

I think that I might settle for the poverty alone, for food to the hungry tastes better than to the full, and life is more vivid in the heat and cold. In my rather free and inept paraphrase:

Poor cloak, without hair, without skin,
Be my guard against storm and north wind,
My shield against the piercing cold,
Let the two of us make our stand, bold …

But the cloak replies, that with nor fur nor wool, it cannot stop a javelin.

(“We are using our own skins for wallpaper and we cannot win,” as John Berryman used to say, in the days when he was still grinning sometimes.)

Coffee with Hugh Primas, and Peter of Blois, brought together in one tome of the Dumbarton Oaks series by the Harvard University Press (2010). That series of delicious brown books, properly stitched on smooth cream paper, makes up for a lot of nonsense at Harvard, and may I recommend that my wealthier gentle readers go buy them all before the winter sets in. (Then please, send the change to me.)

Happy Dominion Day!

Marvellous scene when I woke this morning: Mimico, across the Humber Bay, deleted by fog. The mists had settled in brilliant ways, to edit out everything else built since 1967, if not 1867. What a joyous pot of coffee on my balconata.