Essays in Idleness


In praise of rigidity

My Chief Buncombe Correspondent (from the county of that name in the Carolinas) writes:

“An odd analogy presented itself while I was in the state between wakefulness and sleep. It came to pass that in youth I spent many Saturdays at a road course race track. It was a two-and-a-half mile course. I often chose to view the action from corner two. I would be looking down a short high-speed straight section that fed into a tight right-hand turn. It was an excellent vantage to see both the skills of the driver displayed, and the way the machine responded to his inputs, on the undulating surface of the track. I was a Ford man in the day, although I drove a VW Bug for economy’s sake. Being a Ford man, I took special interest in the Mustangs.

“The Mustang had uni-body construction. There was no frame. The members of the body acted as frame to carry tension, compression, and torsional loads.

“It worked well enough for driving to the market. …

“On the race track, however, the design was flawed. Coming into turn two, decelerating as hard as the brakes and tires would allow, and riding over lumpy asphalt where thousands of previous racers had braked, on much stickier tires that had rippled the surface, the Mustangs would dance and skitter. They would leap sideways, buck, shudder and chirp. One could plainly see the driver slashing the steering wheel from side to side — while still on the straight section, not yet into the turn. He fought to save control before entering the turn, where the real test of man and machine would be encountered.

“It was exciting to watch, but also upsetting. No one really wants to see the tightrope walker fall. The more obvious the danger, the less the enjoyment for the non-ghoulish.

“By contrast, the cars that were purpose-built for racing, were completely stable under hard braking. The driver’s hands were still as the chassis damped out the undulations, and the rigid steel tube ‘space frame’ kept all useful parts in their correct relations. Making time through turn two was still a test of skill, judgement, and feel, but it was not the existential threat faced by Mustang drivers, who rode random forces into the turn, like a bronc buster in a jackpot rodeo.

“And so it came unto me that rigidity has its purposes. Pace our current apostolic spiritual leader, rigidity is not an inherent evil. When man and his constructions are put to the test, rigidity is what allows for clarity of action. Instead of reacting to random fluctuations made worse by complex and unforeseeable rebounding, one may concentrate on the matter at hand. …”


One finds this principle, too, in wild nature. Creatures including men have spines, and a skeletal arrangement, whether it be internal or external. Bones do not bend. They are flexible in the joints, true enough, but within limits. The turtle has his carapace, the beetle his shell, neither of which benefit from cracking. And every creature, without an exception, is endowed with structure, finely adapted to his tasks. Not one can afford to be compromised. They are rigid and stable when it comes to the test, and not likelier to survive when broken. The Intelligent Designer made them that way.

For sure, there is a place for worms, whose design is well suited to slithering from sight, but I think the celebration of invertebrates has been overdone. Let us also celebrate the rigid.

More merciful than Jesus

Asked once if he were a happy man, Charles de Gaulle replied, “I am not stupid.”

It was a direct reply to a direct question, and it was superb. For the French general and president would not diminish the concept of happiness to what it has become in our modern world; to what I would call the “happyface” idiocy. The burdens of state are not happyface, and the jollying rhetoric of cheap politicians does not lighten them. I love Charles de Gaulle, by the way, in the same way I love Winston Churchill: the man for the job in each case. But I have never mistaken either for a saint.

Gethsemane, to be plain, was not a happyface story. Neither was the Crucifixion.

The Gloria is not a happyface proposition. Nothing that is bottomless could be so.

The moral stench of our contemporary, “progressive” worldview is not founded on anything. It floats in an air of glibness — the very glibness that denies the existence of Hell. It presents itself as more merciful than Jesus, more tolerant than the madame of any brothel. Its happiness is a false posture, shallow and neurotic; a mask over something unspeakably grim.

What troubles me most is not our current pope’s repeated contradictions, of the Catholic doctrines that are his duty to uphold. This troubles me a great deal, but even more, his refusal to answer direct questions about what he has said, or is reported to have said. Instead he leaves his staff to issue “plausible denials” — sophistical obfuscations — then goes back to playing conventional pope again, for the conventionally faithful, until his next irruption. He is playing a game with us — a game with the heart, mind, and soul of every Catholic. By now I am convinced that he is not an honest man.

He is not even a sincere heretic. The venerable heresy of Apokatastasis, attributed to proponents of universal salvation, from Origen to Teilhard, is not what he is selling, contrary to what several intellectuals claim. That doctrine is not glib. It does not involve denial of the existence of Hell; it rather affirms that the souls in Hell will be, somehow and eventually, brought to salvation. It further contradicts the pope’s Peronist notion that inconvenient souls can be made to “disappear.” For however we imagine Hell, or its duration, the idea that God did not make every human soul immortal is actually more offensive to Christian teaching.

I have been accused, by several correspondents, of being a bad Catholic, for showing the office of the papacy disrespect. This is upside down. It is exactly what the pope is doing — forcing us to choose between himself and Jesus Christ.

The modern post-heretic

It will be the thesis of this Idlepost that there are no heretics today — not even in Rome, alas. The classical heresies are alive, and repeated, but not with the virulence of old. We are protected from them by a secret not yet discovered by medical science: that you can’t get the plague when you’ve already got a cold. Modern error is like the common cold, or drunkenness: a condition which afflicts so much of the human organism simultaneously, that there can be no cure, no elegant diagnosis. We are enwrapped, or enfogged, by all the symptoms. Some may die from the development of effects — from pneumonia, perhaps, or cirrhosis of the liver — but most experience only general debilitation.

The attempt to define the heresy of “Americanism” — a noble effort on the part of Leo XIII, in his Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae (1899), developed from the noble effort of Pius IX in his “Syllabus of Errors” (1864) — is indicative of this. There was, by those days, no “silver bullet” for the modern condition, nor even a spray of silver bullets: the Enemy was already too heterogeneous for that. Scholars debate what the “real targets” of these documents were (was Leo badgering the Americans to get at the French? &c) but cannot agree among themselves. The first thing we see in reading them again is that they seem dated, since Western society has since “moved on” — though precisely in the directions predicted. (The great encyclicals, including Humanae Vitae, have this prophetic quality. They seem “dated” today because they were so true.)

Implicit in modernity from the beginning was what we call post-modernity today: something irretrievably irrational and post-Christian, though from a host or legion of causes; a swamp within which we cannot trace any single spring. Mud, quite impossible to drain; though as ever we remember that God could do it.

Some tidsear sgoile (Scots Gaelic for “schoolteacher,” I hope) once told me that modernity consists of two poisoned streams of post-Christian thinking, one of which can be traced to Descartes, the other to Hegel. And that we are the fish carried along by them; not actually dead, but close to it. It was, I thought, the beginning of a brilliant clarification. But then the mud infills on every side.

When I call myself a “man of the thirteenth century,” I am not really claiming to be eight centuries old; only expressing an aspiration. It has seemed to me from the beginning of my journey into Christianity, towards Catholicism, that the challenge is to overcome — if only in one’s own mental outlook — the catastrophe of the Reformation. And by this I mean the Reformation in the broadest sense, not merely as the origin of Protestantism, for the Catholic realms were almost equally altered by it. As I once put it, the Protestants had walked off with some of our silverware; getting it back would require getting them back. But the analogy isn’t good enough; for the whole (“Catholic”) vision is larger than any sum of its parts.

What entered on all sides was a “rationalism” that irrationally denied the mystical, the miraculous, and the boundaries of reason; which finally denies reason itself, and leaves each man in utter isolation. Our saints in their visionary experience could get it back; but our people were being taught not even to look for it; to reduce the visionary to optics, as it were; finally to discount everything divine as forms of superstition. Progress was conceived: towards some point at which God could be eliminated entirely.

The task of righting what seems capsized in the Church is of course beyond any human capacity, individual or aggregate. We can only turn to Christ for that. But that turning is, in itself, a challenge beyond the reach of modernity. To follow Him, we must verily give up everything we have.

Of ducking & plucking

Methinks I am a prophet new inspired, and do foretell the use of ducks in rice fields. More precisely, I am reminded of this clever practice by an item on the Beeb this morning. It is what that BBC is good for, by the way. Skip immediately over their canting and pernicious news pages, and go to their earth and nature pieces. They are endowed with a huge budget, and one way that they spend it is on these mildly informative and passably entertaining “features.” Often I am slightly uplifted by them.

Their piece this morning on a French rice farmer, whose son happened to visit Vietnam, was in that class. There are pretty pictures of the now duckherd farmer, leading his flock through his paddies. The more paddy, the better for the ducks; the more ducks, the better for the paddy. God is bountiful.

The ducks, you see, do not like rice. They eat everything else while the rice grows, at all of its stages: weeds, insects, and many wee creatures which the moderns would restrain by truckloads of pesticides. They also replace the fertilizer truckloads, having been designed by nature to distribute their wealth evenly and lightly. This saves the expense of fuel, in a waste of heavy engineering.

On the other hand, it requires some art, and prayer whenever, as sometimes happens, the time is out of joint.

With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder; or once he gets the knack of gobbling, it makes him fat. By end of season, it is true, your ducks become so heavy, that they would trample the delicate seedlings for the next crop. This would be a problem were there not a simple and elegant solution: duck paté. Thus have we two full crops, in the space of a single beleaguered one.

Three, once we draw some fish into the picture. For the farmers in the wet monsoonal downwinds of south-eastern Asia take them at the flood; encourage them to stray from the swollen rivers into their rice fields. Fine, free-range fish these would be. Your children can catch them with their hands for dinner, or supplement the supply from dip nets in the streams and klongs. Such happy memories I have, of rural Thailand: delicious fresh fish, with the appropriate sauces.

And how I love to see small children, joyously at work. (Schools only make them sad.)

Now, before gentle reader abandons his good sense, to take up rice cultivation, he should consider whether the parking lots around him would be so easy to adapt, or if the local climate is tropical enough. He should also know, or perhaps does already, that the life of the traditional farmer on all our continents was never quite continuous Arcadian bliss.

Who, now, seeing Her so
Happily married,
Housewife, helpmate to Man,

Can imagine the screeching
Virago, the Amazon,
Earth Mother was? …

(Auden, 1965.)

Still, we might rethink our politics, our economics, and the other dimensions of our complacently destructive ways. And this before, in addition to our own sorry spectacle, of yammering and slammering and hammering and grinding, we get the screeching Virago back.