Essays in Idleness


Fecunda ratis

The mediaeval peasant had a worldview — a response to the universe around him — more thoughtful and much deeper than our urbanized peasants of today. And this, notwithstanding few could read. All but the deafmutes could hear, however, and all but the blind could see, and there were many other senses to support or compensate for these — more than our urbane would acknowledge.

Things are as they are: this, one might say, is a beginning to wisdom. In our modern desire for change, we never make a start. Take the indissolubility of marriage, for example. There is a work-around, through sin, as every peasant knows, but the fact of marriage is ineluctable. (Here I am using that vexatious word “fact” properly, for a change.) One may pretend to escape it, but one can’t escape vows witnessed by God and one’s neighbours. It is a contract, perhaps enforceable by law, but more than a legal contract when the two are made one.

I give this as the sort of thing a mediaeval peasant could understand, but his distant descendant has trouble mastering. To us, romance comes into the bargain. To them, it was hardly unknown, but could be dismissed as “feelings.” A man governed by his feelings is a proper idiot. A woman governed by her feelings is downright scary.

Now, let us consider the Ten Commandments, briefly in the news this week. In my olden days, when I was youngen, I used to visit churches. This was part of walks, across England, and Europe, where by rights-of-way established in the far past it is possible to walk for hundreds of miles, away from paved highways. My fascination in those days was not with prayer, at first, rather with art and architecture. Give me the remains of an ancient parish church and I was all eyes.

In England, I noticed that the Anglican Protestants, and even the non-conforming ones, would hang tablets of the Commandments on pillars or on walls. I did not then quite realize that this was a mediaeval custom, which had survived alterations of regime. (How often what seems most Protestant turns out to be most Catholic!)

Ditto, on the Continent.

My modern, arithmetical mind, aware that the Commandments numbered ten, expected five and five on the facing tablets. Instead, they were almost invariably arranged three on the left, and seven on the right, with variations in wording to make them fit comfortably. A little prolix on the left, but on the right, tight concision. “Must be a reason,” I guessed.

And yes, through the generations, there had been. The first three Commandments expound our duties to God; the last seven our duties to our neighbour. An illiterate might need a literate to read them out, but he knew what they were, and why so divided. The tablets were mnemonic: and more a picture than a text. They would be absorbed, in a pictorial way, along with the stained glass, the icons and the murals — things we moderns progressively tune out. But this mediaeval peasant could not do that.

Three Commandments on the left board corresponding, if one thinks them through in the Christian manner, to God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. To see that is already to penetrate beneath the words. It is to grasp that this is no mere recital; that there is Mystery.

The point is brought home to me by Egbert of Liege. His book, The Well-Laden Ship (Fecunda ratis) is a collection of proverbs, folk tales, little homilies and words to the wise, all arranged in dactylic hexameters; with plenty of light humour mixed in. It was written almost precisely one thousand years ago, and a clean copy found in the cathedral library at Cologne.

Now dactyls — hard to sustain in English, but natural to Latin or Greek — are quite memorable, and one notices that these include a boat-load of little sayings that come down to us in one form or another. For, “the apple falls not far from the tree,” et cetera. The book was for the teaching of children, and simple souls; and designed to help them remember what I’ll call “the facts of life.” (How seldom we realize that the deepest things are also the simplest.)

It was republished (Babcock, editor) in 2013. So now it is in the hands of “mediaeval specialists.” Which is good, but better were it in our nurseries, to teach the children of our urban peasants a thing or two. And then they could teach their parents.

Five years & no concessions

Today, the Dedication of Saint Michael Archangel for 2017, would thus also be the fifth anniversary of these Idleposts. I chose the day from the traditional beginning of term, at Oxford and other once-great universities, and because it would be wise to invoke angelic powers for the protection of my mendicant enterprise. Observe, gentle reader: still no advertisements. Few mayfly links, no blinks nor pop-ups, no buzzword scramble to push the thing up the search charts at Google. No illustrations neither, though had I the technical skills, and the patience to seek copyright permissions, I might have decorated the site with art reproductions. Instead just grey words, words, words — well over a million, in more than a thousand short “essays,” even after quietly deleting those hundreds I have found most obtuse (often in advance of posting them).

Would it be possible to write something resembling journalism that could be at least honest? Over at Catholic Thing today (here) — about the only other place where I am welcome — I touch on what I mean by honesty and truth in writing; on why the poets come closer to truth than the hacks who fill the spaces between the advertisements in the mass media.

Journalism itself is, or should be, under a permanent cloud of suspicion. The topical is, in itself, a trap. The real and true is immutable, but conventional journalism is focused exclusively upon the passing. It may be “the first draught of history,” but after at least five hundred years of experiment (dating back to Fugger’s and other counting-house newsletters first set in type during the sixteenth century) we may say that the first draught needs to be discarded. The telling of history itself has been contaminated by the pleadings of all the special interests; by the pamphlet flurry from the explosion of cheap, and generally lying propaganda (from all sides) that came into the Western psyche with the Reformation.

The five-hundredth anniversary of Lutheranism, which our pope will “concelebrate” next month, might also be counted as the five-hundredth anniversary of journalism. As we fix the date to the Ninety-five Theses, nailed to the door of All Saints at Wittenberg, we might count it as the anniversary of PowerPoint, too.

One might argue that no Catholic should participate in those media which bind what I have called the Age of Bullshit together. Yet they are so pervasive that even the Church has had to seek a voice within the torrent. How to articulate stillness, within all this noise?

From that Fugger newsletter, dateline Madrid, I cite this yellowing item. It is from 1581:

“In the county of Palamos, in the Kingdom of Catalunia, upon the first day of May, the day of the holy Apostles Felipe and Jaime, in the hamlet of Calongo there were seen by all the people a terrifying storm and a huge cloud, in which could be perceived a whole legion of evil spirits of various shapes and most loathesomely deformed. Some were like lions, others like wolves, others again like dogs, men, wild animals. Many were also like ravens and other black birds. The clergy proceeded with cross from the church to the cemetery, to exorcize them. But all to no purpose: the spirits paid no heed. When the Praepositus saw this he carried forth the Blessed Sacrament. …”

He carried this to the top of the belfry. The spirits rushed into a pond, which then ignited in fierce flame and smoke, the frightful birds circling round. A billow of sulphur spread through the orchards, kindling trees, and the Cross upon the church blew down. Yet it descended floating, harmlessly, and from the skies descended a healing rain.

Frankly, I would not believe this story (gravely discussed in the Supreme Council of Spain) were I not witnessing the equivalent at the present day.

Gentle reader, pray for me as I pray for you. Saint Michael defend us in battle, be our defence. Let us, when we speak at all, try to make what we say compatible with what is true not only now, but always.

On high horses

I have often thought (well, not that often) if elected to public office, I should ride in on a horse. Verily, if elected Her Majesty’s chief servant in right of England (“Prime Minister” I think they call it), I should wish my whole cabinet to clopple down Whitehall to the Palace of Westminster, astride these noble animals, resplendently attired. I am bored with cars, and think them an undignified way to arrive anywhere. A car in livery is ridiculous. It must be a horse.

So my congratulations to Mr Roy Moore, who has been living my phantasy in the State of Alabama. A populist twice elected sheriff of some sort (“Chief Justice” I think they call it), then twice removed from office for quite literally keeping the Ten Commandments (carving one set himself, I’m told), he is now the Republican candidate and thus presumptive Natted States Senator-elect. The primary wasn’t close. Thirty million dollars and the counter-endorsements of the entire Merican political class could not defeat him. A magnificent troll of Southern defiance, Moore rode to the polls on his fine horse, with his wife on the fine horse beside him.

As a Siamese kickboxer, and former cowboy in the Australian outback, he will bring some much-needed diversity to that Washington Upper House. As a stalwart of the First Baptist Church of Gallant, he will also abet the trend to catholicity. Too, and most happily, he will drive his hapless opponents in the Southern Poverty Law Centre, and the American Civil Liberties Union, bananas. The media are already apoplectic. God must be in this somewhere.

I am, of course, personally opposed to populism, and “democracy” for that matter. They are divisive forces, as the mediaeval scholastics warned. A society divided into two parties (or more, the way the Europeans do it) is a society at war with itself. Mass voting is an invitation to class warfare. Moreover, by the time it comes to blows, all sides have undermined themselves by concessions to the “smelly little orthodoxies” of the political life. That which binds a society — principles such as those expressed in the Ten Commandments; the patriot love displayed in flag or crown; the central and abiding symbol of the Cross — have been obviated in the electoral horseplay.

As Simone Weil observed, the British and American democratic arrangements almost worked, because the political parties were of aristocratic origin, and in their outward manifestations flaccid and bourgeois. There were no originating ideological differences between “conservatives” and “liberals”; both once agreed on mom and apple pie. Whereas, the European parties were revolutionary in origin, and thus essentially totalitarian. Not one, but all, needed to be destroyed.

She died in the course of the last World War. Had she lived she would have seen the irruption of the totalitarian impulse in Anglo-Saxonia, too. All the principles of public order and human decency have been challenged, at an accelerating pace, because the poison of “political correctness” has seeped into all our parties, and throughout what Steve Bannon calls the “elites.” The beauty of it is that “po-co” views are so false, that the opposites tend to be true.

With his genius for picking enemies, Donald Trump is currently at war with football kneelers. (The polls show he has overwhelming public support for this.) Roy Moore will indulge campaigns of that sort, with less of Trump’s shrinking-violet bashfulness. My sense is that the public at large (even in Europe) has got powerfully sick of being micromanaged by the besuited knaves of the upper middle class. And Bannon is right: their days are numbered.

What follows won’t be pretty, however. But can be made prettier upon a high horse.

On the “Correctio filialis”

“No matter what they do in Rome, I’m staying Catholic.”

The quote is from Czechs of beloved memory (through one exiled to Switzerland), and thus from drinking circles forty years ago. I am not the only survivor to remember that wonderful saying, declared in the freedom of a public bar; and what often went with it, from Scripture. “If God is with us, who can be against us?” It was a motto among them, surcharged with youthful enthusiasm. The years pass, people age and die. The young are subject to replacement.

In the mid-’seventies Catholics loyal to magisterium and tradition had already long endured the fallout from mindless “reforms.” The liturgy had been desecrated, yet remained valid. Something similar was happening in all other fields. Pope Paul, a learned and gentle man, hardly taught heresy. But he tolerated it, from all sides, and especially from northern Europe and its echo in post-Protestant America. The faith was being “updated.” Modernism, a comprehensive theological error condemned under many names since the French Revolution, was no longer ascending but apparently triumphant. (I define it as the belief that dogma can “evolve.”)

Against this, even in the heart of modernity, the old Catholic adamant was holding. It continues to hold at the present day, for as I have witnessed, it continues to attract characters who are young, intelligent, deliberate, and brave. Their “reactionary” attitude towards Holy Mother Church is the carriage of a hundred generations. She will be there, and she will be defended, no matter what. She will be in her turn, as Mother Mary was to Christ in the Via Dolorosa, and as every mother to every son in the hidden order of this world — saying, “I am here.”

Sometimes there is nothing more we can say, even to Rome: that we are here, the faithful Catholics, and we will be here, no matter what you do. Should the pope himself ignore Catholic teaching, and ramble instead over his own quaint political and subcultural obsessions, men will arise to correct him. He will or will not be corrected; he may pretend not even to hear. But in the end God deposes all popes, and the Holy Spirit will oversee all necessary repairs and renovations.

For us, the definitive answer is to persist in being Catholic, according to the teaching of Christ, and to its reiteration through twenty centuries. To continue: not in rebellion, or even in rebellion to rebellion, but in reverence to Our Lord, present through the Mass; and too, in every gesture that extends from ancient liturgies through everyday life.

Put not your trust in men; this is part of the immortal teaching. Who can mistake it? If a million men are united in error, be not intimidated; trust in God rather. Remember that one owes a death, and that at the last day, one must make an account of oneself to no human tribunal, but to that singular Christ who knows what it is to be human. And who knows His own.

Crucially: do not despair. What is wrong shall be righted, in the fullness of time. Faith Hope and Charity shall be vindicated. One way or another, those who think these terms can be “updated” will come to see the error of their ways.

A good shove

There are lines which are old, worn, and commonplace, but to hear them delivered to the General Assembly of the U-nighted Nations is pure joy:

“The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented but that socialism has been faithfully implemented.”

The President of the Natted States Merica fleshed this out, as obviously: “Wherever Socialism or Communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish, devastation, and failure. Those who preach the tenets of these discredited ideologies only contribute to the continued suffering of the people who live under these cruel systems.”

The only way I can think to improve that, would be to have a pope say it.

Now, up here in the High Doganate we’re inclined also to criticize the Capitalist ideology, in its current recension, but not for its failure to generate material wealth. Trump’s remarks were spot on, as far as they went, and as a bonus we got to sit back and watch various progressive heads explode, starting with Maduro’s. So we can’t say nothing was accomplished.

Trump, it has been noted, can be “politically incorrect.” To my mind this is his signal virtue. While I understand the need for diplomacy in mumbling and grumbling with one’s putative allies, it is good to speak plain truth sometimes. And since the gliberal media dare not quote such lines, they travel through the aether unadulterated.

Cue Belloc, and Chesterton: not “an army of Davids” but single Davids with their slings.

There is no reasonable immediate prospect of progress in the right political direction — towards the dismantling of Twisted Nanny State, and the restoration of Christendom. And it is true that words are just words. But they may carry the power of Heaven when truthful, even when spoken by morally imperfect “artists of the deal.”

Indeed, so greatly do tyrants fear truthful words that they go to extravagant lengths to suppress them. Yet murder will out, and so will sharp phrases that cut to the heart. This is what Solzhenitsyn was saying: that if everyone spoke the truth of a morning, the Soviet system would collapse by noon. It took another fifteen years, but by the accumulation of such trumpet blasts the wall came down.

I have been writing lately about “pushing back.” Some gentle readers imagine by this that I am proposing some sort of violence. So I give this as an example of the sort of violence I approve: to speak the truth plainly.

And why should we leave this pleasure only to Trump?

The push-back chronicles

My idea of Christianity came from reading the Gospels. There was the Christ of Hungerford Bridge (whom I have mentioned elsewhere), but too, the Christ of intellectual apprehension, upon whose acts and sayings one might make notes. Or if gentle reader will indulge, the Mystical and the Theological, respectively. These are not contraries. As very God and very Man, they are not two natures.

I had been subjected to some Bible reading as a young lad, though not much. Most came from a New Testament, with Psalms, published by Messrs Gideon, that had been set into my pocket by the school authorities. I would take it hiking with me, and there was a brief phase of fundamentalist Christianity around the age of ten. This washed over quickly, however. It was when I came back to the thing as a curious adolescent — an atheist reading “the Bible as Literature” — that it began to make sense, the way books do, when they are coherent.

The Christ I met then came as a surprise.

Already, by the ’sixties, in the time after Vatican II — or by the ’twenties, according to plausible sources — the Milquetoast Christ had prevailed in the “freethinking” popular culture. By 1970 at the latest, complete fatuity had been achieved. The Good had been reduced to niceness; coupled with sanctimonious moral display. Moreover, Christ had become a team player, a kindly captain (as of a team that always loses) accommodating of our little foibles; a benevolent figure of smiling encouragement. A kindergarten teacher.

But this was not the frankly confrontational Christ of the Gospels. Several times, before I embraced Christ as Christ myself, I recall thinking, “Has anyone actually read this stuff?” If He wasn’t the Son of God, He was a dangerous madman (as C. S. Lewis explained, in a widely circulated tract).

The puzzle is that I know many who have read Scripture; and either I have missed the point, or they have. For like old age, the Christ of the Gospels is not for cissies. Often He is not even charming. Ask the money changers outside the Temple if he knew how to crack a whip. Ask the Roman soldiers if He could take a beating. Ask the thief on Golgotha what kind of man he was. For the mob that had followed to the foot of the Cross couldn’t tell you. They were too busy laughing.

Christ’s followers weren’t cherubs, either. They did not, unarmed, take over the Roman Empire, by being shy or “engaging in respectful dialogue.” The dialogue in which they did engage was, by any standard ancient or modern, rather edgy. It got all but one of the Apostles killed.

My Chief Western Ireland Veterinary Correspondent claims in email this morning that he is a coward. However, he does not consider his cowardice a virtue. That, I would say, would be a difference between him and several other self-declared Catholics in old Eire at the present time.

Me too, me too. Total coward. Or rather, we are somewhat incomplete, for sometimes we see some unpleasantness in which we must intervene, or forfeit our claim to be Christian. And we do it flinching; my own prayer being: “O Lord, do I have to?” When the answer is obviously, “Yes.”

I feel sorry for the miserable munchkins of modernity. They had no good examples, growing up. I’d have had Christ, had I stuck with Him. But meanwhile I had my papa, who though no formal Christian had the lionheart Christian sensibility, and was not inclined to tolerate evil. Got himself fired innumerable times; might get himself gaoled were he young today. Flew Spitfires against the Prussians in his time. I think of him every day, and of how inadequate I am to his example.

Politics of the risible

You have to laugh.

That is an actual instruction, gentle reader. Please obey.

Through long-settled bad habit, I look at “the news” every morning. Sometimes I have the wisdom to leave this until I have swallowed the full pot of coffee; sometimes my will cracks early. What I find, every day, is a farce. True, there are “tragic overtones,” drawn out with hyperbole. But then the hype itself, and the theatrical gravity of the newscasters, undermine this effect.

We have not “fake news,” in the sense of false information. Or rather, that fakery is elevated in significance by the choice of fake (i.e. media-manufactured) “issues.” Conversely, anything which constitutes a genuine threat to life and liberty, to health and longevity, will be ignored.

Passing example: North Korea’s latest missile over Japan. We exhausted the possibilities for yammering on the last such lune-shot. Now that “Rocket Man” shows he really has both the means and the will to trigger an international conflagration, words fail us. So we ignore it. The story slipt “below the fold” to accommodate the latest jejune terror attack in Europe, and the posturings of our Hollywood stars. Stephen Colbert, who is no threat to anyone in his right mind, currently gets more airplay than Kim Jong-un. Verily, Kim Kardashian beats him out in this morning’s Google-count.

In my opinion, Donald Trump watches too much television. (How would I know this?) Moreover, he keeps tweeting about it. In the world I came from (yes, another planet), presidents were assumed to be fairly well informed. They were thoroughly briefed on the hot topics; they carried hard information in their hearts and minds. They had not the time to prattle. Mr Trump seems to get his information, instead, from the same places we do — from the tabloid media — and while he tweets back with commendable good humour, one is left with the impression he isn’t all there. Who is following whose agenda?

The same could be said of all the other national leaders, whose sound bites fill our air. Each has devolved into a talk show. They seem powerless to influence the course of events. Far from being a new kind of politician, Mr Trump has merely taken the old kind one step farther, into the lunatic unknown. We escaped Mrs Clinton, and whew. But next election, maybe we’ll get Mr Colbert.

I was amused to watch Trump sell out his entire populist base in return for a few moments of Washington flattery. And yet that base doesn’t care. It’s a gameshow to them, so after his deal with the Democrats they want to know only, “Who suckered whom?”

Under current mass-democratic arrangements, I see no prospect for recovery of normal civic life. It can’t be sold. The public and their politicians can be persuaded to accept tax cuts, on the one side, or the reckless expansion of government programmes on the other. Anything else ends a politician’s career. But only God could fulfil the promise of something for nothing. Who, in office or aspiring to it, can withstand the overwhelming public demand to be lied to?

Here’s an amusing item. There is a homeowner in a low-lying Houston neighbourhood who has successfully billed the government twenty-two times for flood damage. It’s his entitlement, he can’t be cut off. (Think of the media outrage when anyone is cut off anything.) The authorities want to buy his house, and demolish it, but he won’t sell. Why would he, with a goose that lays such golden eggs?

Now here’s another giggle. In this “fine province of Ontario” I see that our government (which carries a larger debt than California’s) is establishing a monopoly on marijuana retailing, to match its monopoly on liquor, and gambling. They will open 140 “drug stores” soon. They are desperate for revenue, and this is a new way to tax the mentally and morally disabled.

Let us consider, for one brief moment, the evolution of government in our time: from protector of society, to monopoly racketeer.

You have to laugh. … Now! … Laugh, I tell you.

The long march

There is a secret about the Devil that I propose to share with my readers. I hope it doesn’t get me into trouble.

It is an interesting secret, which emerges from the careful study of Catholic doctrine, as it has been articulated through the centuries. If we want to understand the Devil, that is the first place to look. The Church is the expert on demonic activity, having been in active competition with the infernal powers all this time. She is kept on her toes as their principal target. Until recently, she spoke with one clear voice, the words of Our Saviour, and indeed, were it not for divine assistance she would have succumbed to the satanic service, long long ago.

The Italian cardinal, Carlo Caffarra — outspoken in defence of rooted Catholic dogma, and in his demand that the Church teach the same — was unusual in his clarity. He died, as we learn, in holy desolation, appalled by what is happening in Rome; yet not without a useful reminder that the game is not up. There will always be faithful bishops and priests; the gates of Hell will not prevail against them. God will not abandon them, nor us, if we are faithful. And note: it is His Church we must defend. We’ll never be alone in that.

Which brings us to the Devil’s embarrassing secret: the flaw that must finally bring him down.

The secret is that, he can create nothing. He is utterly powerless in himself: a blank, a nullity, a zero. He can compel us to do nothing; his threats and taunts are empty. Any Christian, indeed any human being can, if he wills, have the upper hand. All it takes is to refuse the Devil’s bidding. (The harder part is to identify it.)

A crocodile can eat you, as a young Financial Times correspondent discovered the other day. (Sad story from Sri Lanka.) But a crocodile is a thing, with a body. It has fierce jaws, claws, and so forth. It can be quicker and quieter than one might expect. But it can occupy only one place at a time. The question of evil in nature is for another day and a thousand books. For the moment: all animals are good, except when they’re not. That they can be inhabited by “spirits” is, curiously enough, confirmed by Our Lord in the Gospels. But there’s only so much a demon can do when he gets at the controls of a dumb animal.

Much more can be done at the controls of a human. Which is not to say the Devil’s task is easy. He needs the man’s cooperation just to get in, and must manoeuvre carefully to avoid setting off various internal alarms. Yet as a fallen angel, he can be quite adept. Once in the driver’s seat, he can do incalculable damage. He can now do whatever a human can do; even use the human’s brain to strategize mischief. (Humans are suggestible; often we can improve on a suggestion.)

Worse, he can “network,” with other humans of demonic inclination.

Of old our ancestors created many institutions. In my own lifetime I have seen a few set up, to resist an evil or advance a good. One may see the good intentions, however naïve. The creative powers with which we were endowed, in the image of our Maker — the ability to “co-create” through art, music, poetry, and marvellous acts of charity — must be something that excites the Devil’s envy. He wants power, and finds in us a power that he lacks. How to turn it against us?

Too, he needs to disable what most interferes with his own operations: to pervert men and twist their institutions. For this reason he takes the Church far more seriously than the average Catholic. If he can somehow twist that — even mix its messages for a season — he can disorient millions.

But the same is true with lesser institutions. The Devil does not, because he cannot, found human institutions. (Only humans can do that, with God’s help.) But by tireless effort, he can take them over, and by “progressive” increments adapt them to serve the very opposite of the purposes for which they were established.

The phenomenon to which I refer is, of course, der lange Marsch durch die Institutionen (“the Long March through the Institutions”), conceived and successfully executed by the Left through the last few generations. It is a conscious effort to infiltrate and subvert organizations both public and private, then like a cancer, metastasize. The better the reputation of the institution, the better the weapon in diabolical hands, for it can play on a heritage of trust, to sucker the innocent.

So that finally we must either purge or extinguish the very institutions upon which the good for man and society once depended, and start over modestly again. For the Enemy now controls the media of news and entertainment, our schools and universities, all government departments and increasingly, the law.

Note: men who create nothing; only seek to appropriate what other men have made.

The strait, and narrow

Well, I suppose a lot of people are selling swamp land in Florida now.

In other news, the school year has recommenced, and I find myself once again modestly deranging the minds of innocent young seminarians, on the topic of Literature. Catholic Literature. (All great literature is Catholic: did you know?)

Here are five things I like to emphasize, from the start. Each is the most important.

Item. … Keep your thinking “inside the box.”

“Inside which box?” the clever one may ask.

“The Box of Reason and Revelation,” I then reply, smugly.

For everyone else is thinking “outside the box,” these days. This leaves the box empty. But it is a handsome box, and it is warm inside, and winter is coming.

Item. … Avoid “lateral thinking.” It is linear thinking we need. To which end, lock your laptop away, and write with a pen. Not only should each sentence “flow” from the last, it should be internally coherent, too. Provide a beginning, a middle, and an end in all you write. Keep everything in that order.

The West was able to conquer the whole world, thanks to linear thinking. We aced all the sciences, thanks to linear thinking. We will get to Heaven by the strait, and narrow.

Item. … Eliminate ring binders. You need a notebook so bound, that the contents cannot be re-arranged, and you can’t take pages out except by ripping. Retain all your stupidities. Date the pages. Flag keywords if you still can’t find anything, and create an index.

You want to make something substantial, that will be truly worth burning on the last day of school.

No scanners or copying machines, either. Everything you want to retain, write down, in an increasingly legible and elegant longhand. Anything you are tempted to underline in books: write down. If the quotation is three pages long, faithfully transcribe it. And learn to draw, so you can provide the illustrations.

This is how you become intimate with the written word, and gradually engage memory and attention. It is a method that will help you stay inside the box, and on the linear trail. Within weeks, you will find yourself beginning to remember things. Eventually, you might even become articulate.

Item. … If there is anything you fail to understand — such as a play by Shakespeare — read it six times. To discourage yourself from looking too much up (which is a distraction) use only heavy cumbersome dictionaries. Keep reading like a tank, with no reverse gear. Blast through the obstacles.

Soon the pennies will begin to drop. Pennies from Heaven.

Item. … Read with your lips. Sound everything in your head. Read passages aloud, to each other. Perform them, with gestures, and hands. Recite them in the shower. Use the exclamations to scare the cat. Chew lovingly on each delicious phrase, over dinner.

Soon you will be able to understand what is meant by rhythm, in prose and verse, and even the rules will become comprehensible. Soon you will discover that half the meaning is in the music. And the other half is between the lines.

Remember: “Only the lover sings.”

Timor mortis

A poet from the other side of Lake Ontario, John Ashbery, died last week. I’d been so busy not looking at the news, and finding it full of air when I saw it (weather news, mostly) that I didn’t know until a poet in California tipped me off this morning. Ashbery himself — who like all aspiring poets, and the accomplished ones, too, had to take jobs — feared death. We all fear our own, but he also feared the deaths of others, as he explained. As art critic for a nasty rag called Newsweek, in some previous century, he especially feared a major artist would die. This meant he would be called into the office in the middle of some dark and dreary night, and not allowed to go home until he had written the obituary.

Only recently did I begin to appreciate Ashbery’s long, almost Egyptian meditations on death. They weave through all his poems, but unlike Death himself, Ashbery is never confrontational. He wasn’t political, either, and in his prime, would get in trouble with the Official Guardians of American Literature by, for instance, not mentioning Vietnam. He praised other poets for not doing so, either; yet still won all the prizes because he was so large, and articulate.

He wrote an incredible amount of verse– two thousand pages of it in Library of America editions so far — and to my own frustration, I never catch him nodding. Clichés of popular speech wink from here and there, but they are never slips. He had the gift for elevating the plain and common to a fine opacity, in glinting sea-light rich and knelling strange, in the ding-dong of his internal half-rhymes and sparkling assonance amid, as he put it, the weird fragrances of Persian and Aramaic. Sight, sound, smell: but all in American English. And all to no purpose, no purpose at all, that was not poetic.

I can’t explain why I avoided him so faithfully, until what seems just the other day. He was a poet’s poet, I suppose, and I’m not clubable. As allusive as a Chinaman, and insistent as a Goan, he would threaten to flood out one’s mind. Young poets, in particular, should probably avoid him until they have become strong swimmers. Those who try to “surf” him (as I am doing now) wash in pummeled, drilled, and axelaxed.

From the next poem in his exquisite collection, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), he writes by the open window where

… the air pours in with piano notes
In its skirts, as though to say, “Look, John,
I’ve brought these and these” — that is,
A few Beethovens, some Brahmses,

A few choice Poulenc notes. … Yes,
It is being free again, the air, it has to keep coming back
Because that’s all it’s good for.
I want to stay with it out of fear …

Ninety he was, when the air stopped, and he gave the “curt greeting.”

Of providence & order

Trust in Providence is an attitude of mind, installed at conception, but later it becomes a choice. On this Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary we recall the place of choice in human history: of God’s choice of the path to redemption for fallen, sinful man. It was not our choice. God chose Mary; and then, Mary chose God.

Much would follow, along this path, but in this moment the miraculous die is cast, and events beyond the comprehension of this world are set in motion. To my poetical imagination, it is the most extraordinary possible course. God will continue to surprise us, by doing things in the most unlikely ways. His providence is founded in unutterable mystery, yet it is plain and simple. A Savour will be born of a perpetual virgin, in the mystery of the Incarnation. What could be simpler than that?

The Feast, I gather, is much older or earlier in the East than in the West. In some respects we Catholics are still catching up, not so much with the East as with what is called the Deposit of Faith. Such information as we required was there from the beginning. Yet after two thousand years, and more, it is still surprising us. Nothing in this world makes sense, until it will be ordered in the womb; our own little lives can make no sense. Providence, for the heathen, is unaccountable. Good things happen, and bad.

There are floods, hurricanes, earthquakes. There are terrible plagues; there is war and death. There is not only the fact but the history of human suffering — none of which could ever have been felt had we not existed. And there is also Love, which I type with a capital L, for in the absence of Incarnation it is strange beyond inscrutable. We live in this odd, and in the ancient sense comical circumstance of, “Love among the ruins.” (It is the title of a poem by Robert Browning.)

Our Holy Mother, this Theotokos, “Mother of God,” is our guide through wilderness of our own making — the wilderness not of this Earth, but in the heart of man. She will show us to Our Lord. Always there was Providence; always there will be. In the beginning was our end; in the end is our beginning. We live in a place that is indestructibly ordered.

On pushing back

I beseech you, gentle reader: abjure the bait of praise and the dread of blame. I can see no other path to recovery from constant retreat in the Culture War. For there is an even better option than the “Benedict” one, currently in fashion among the Catholic genteel. It is to stop sulking, and win the War.

Dysopia (no relation to “dystopia”) will be our Greek word for the day. It is from Aristotle via Plutarch; a term held to be untranslatable into our modern tongues. By the dictionaries it is defined as “the embarrassment that compels us to grant an unjustified request.” The closest we come in English is “compliancy.” They get no closer in German or French. Philemon Holland, in his lively and learned Tudor translation of Plutarch’s essay on this topic (number 96 in the Lamprias catalogue; volume VII in your Loeb Moralia) called it the “unseemlie and naughtie bashfulnesse,” the “foolish and rusticall shamefastnes”; Erasmus in his hammerblow Latin, vitiosa verecundia.

In the traditional opthalmic jargon the Greek word survived with its ancient etymology. It is a defect of vision, triggered by the sight of unpleasant things. The sufferer cannot see what he doesn’t want to see; he gets a pain in his head when he looks. Alas, we have ceased to appreciate that psychological causes spawn physical effects; that a mere eye-roll may induce the dysopic to dissolve. Pills will not cure what requires a goodly will.

So mark it down in your commonplace books, my dears: dysopia. Pour a shot of rum, and swear off it entirely.

Compliant, complaisant, acquiescent. Docile, submissive, ingratiating. Servile, tractable, obsequious. Ever deferential, glad to be of use. This is what my fellow Canadians have become, though we were not in the past, according to my elders (now mostly dead). When unreasonable demands were made upon them, their inclination was to stiffly resist. Ours is to be chumps, patsies, dupes, treacle saps. In our vanity we think that we are “nice” people, and celebrate our own gormlessness.

And that is why what we too mildly call “political correctness” has advanced so far, through barrier after barrier, erected by our ancestors against perversion. It begins with a small minority of fanatics, bent upon turning our world upside down. It continues not by conversion but by dysopia. We look upon those making the demands, and can no longer see what they are, owing to the pain in our heads. We think we can buy peace with concessions. But the devils are encouraged by our every retreat.

“Stand your ground” is the useful American expression. Be not embarrassed into compliance by importunity. Let not the shameful “shame” you. Wear their smearing froth and spittle with some pride. Succumb no more to that unseemlie and naughtie bashfulnesse. Push back hard.

Calcutta, my love

Gentle readers sometimes ask, and a few asked yesterday, where they can find my works prior to the inauguration of this Idleblog. The answer is generally, I don’t know. There is much on clippings, collected mostly by my late father, and discovered in his files when he died. I had no idea, until then, to how much trouble dear papa had gone to collect every word of pieces which I casually threw away. I keep all that now, from filial duty; but have not the technical means to digitize it, nor the time to exhume, given the great bulk. I leave fate to fate.

Much exists, since the later 1990s, in the computerized memory banks of the publications for which I wrote, to which I no longer have access. In almost every case, anyway, the copyright belongs to them — even if they never got around to paying me. I am constitutionally unable to retrieve the rights to my own work. This is because I cannot bear to deal with the present holders.

Or to push myself on publishers, for that matter. If any seriously wanted a book from me, he would find me and make an offer. From experience, I ignore vague suggestions. Most of what I wrote was journalism, only for the moment. The poems and more pretentious literary works are not of the first order, and deserve to die.

As I mentioned in a Thing column the other day (here), the public libraries are divesting themselves of all printed matter not in immediate demand. The university libraries, too. It seems to me the height of insolence to print anything new, when the works of e.g. Homer, Aeschylus, Pindar, &c, are (as in the case of Toronto’s Central Reference Library) going to some landfill in Indiana. (I’m still trying to establish which.) That is where we should now look for the heritage of Western Civilization.

What follows is a short patch transcribed from one of my Calcutta notebooks. Or rather, I transcribed it four years ago on this website, and bring it forward, shorn from the context I gave it then. Let it stand for everything I wrote from Calcutta.


A little man came by me in the shadows of the early morning light. It was raining. He came by, through the slime, under the dissolving colonnade of an old Raj building. He was less than 5 feet high, a wisp maybe 80 pounds, maybe 60. And his wife was thinner & much shorter. I think less than 4 feet high. He was holding her hand, she was slightly behind him, her head was turned away in a cloth; she is blind, I realized. Only he looked at me: human eyes.

O God have mercy.

He was leading her along the street. Their children are all dead — somehow I knew this. The depth of experience in those eyes; it is a perfect love. They live out here in the open, in the rain, in the slime, in the gutters, with the rats. They eat what they can find.

O Christ have mercy.

He is leading her by the hand, his bride; he loves the mother of the dead children. O how did they die? He loves this filthy little woman, who has no eyes! He is Jesus, I think. Surely he is Jesus. He is leading his bride through the streets by the hand!

O God have mercy.