Le Monde

There was a memorable moment in Paris, oh, some forty-something years ago. The late Mr Nixon had just agreed to depose himself as President of the Natted States. I was drinking coffee, from a pretty metal press, and ingesting a roll slathered with “cultured” (deliciously bacteria-infected) butter from the Norman north, and fig jam, full of the warm Provençal south of that large and splendid country; and reading Le Monde, the French national journal of Leftish unctuousness. Their reporters and commentators were puzzled; all of them it seemed. They loathed Nixon to a man, but were trying to get their heads around the fact that a President of the Natted States could be deposed for doing, perhaps just the once, the sort of thing French Presidents did every day, for sport even when for no political purpose. The news was good, yes; but it was also incomprehensible to them. This amused me.

I was, even in those days, a fan of this “Richard Nixton” (the misspelling of his name was a smug convention). I didn’t actually like him, but in the words of a Czech friend, “he gives those liberals heart attacks,” and that seemed a good enough reason to support him. For those were the days when I was just discovering that a lad with my views is not called a “liberal,” but a “conservative” instead. (I’ve since moved on, to “reactionary.”) It was a question of mere labels, “truth in advertising” as it were. An old-fashioned “liberal” like my father to start, I was already in favour of liberty and small government, against totalitarianism and thus, gung-ho on Vietnam. But I had also already noticed that most people who thought themselves “liberals,” were otherwise insufferable.

But I digress. Those were the days before Empörungsgesellschaft had established itself as the European and American cultural norm. Even in Paris, and even among the students still settling from their antics of 1968, there were many who could go a whole day without a single expression of rage. The millennials among my gentle readers will have to imagine that such an age was possible. The young could be reasonable, in other ways, too. Even the girls. I remember!

We are shocked, shocked to discover that men in power (including women more masculine than the men) are capable of self-interest and corruption. When formerly, we would have been shocked if they were not. Saints were believed to be the exception, not the rule. Only (from a Parisian perspective) in the strange and unaccountable lands of Anglo-Saxonia were there people who did not know this. But it scrambles one’s entire Weltanschauung, not to know.

Now, personally I carry no brief for corruption, in its myriad forms. Too, I do not consider myself to be an agent of the Devil. But I have come to recognise his existence, as a de facto power, constantly wheedling to make himself de jure. Indeed, it is a principle of my religion that I oppose evil in every form. This would theoretically include the little things, of which one makes a heap for each Confession.

Still, most sin is just sin. It seems almost nothing compared to the monstrous evil of presenting sin as if it were virtue; or virtue as if it were sin; or peccadilloes as if they were grave apocalyptic matters. For that is what unstrings a society.

Men in power are surrounded by temptation, and not being saints, they frequently succumb. Indeed, I should think the great majority of them are approximately half insane, from the cultivation of worldly ambition. I feel sorry for them, because they might go to Hell. But much of what they do is on the petty-cash level — embezzlements and pay-offs, break-ins and frame-ups, lies and rather wild exaggerations; that sort of thing. Surely our present-day obsession with such trifles argues the sin of scrupulosity in us, when there are matters of real moment — and in our own lives!

Read Ecclesiastes, if thou wilt, at least once every year. Learn how things are in this lachrymal vale, and cease to obsess about the Fires and the Furies. Coffee is good; buttered rolls are good; and fig jam, all good; including Le Monde — but for smiles, and not to be ingested.