Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

The vice of tolerance

A lady of my acquaintance has been called a good liar. My informant says that this is not only her private opinion; that “everyone knows” it.

If “everyone knows,” I reflected, then the lady must actually be a poor liar.

Now, I will not take lying from its ethical handle, but only from the “aesthetic,” as De Quincey would say. To my mind, a “good” lie must be convincing. It should be believable, on its own terms, as any work of art. It should cohere within itself, and fit with externals believed to be true. It should fit so well, that no joins are apparent.

Practice makes perfect, as we say, and I will assume that a good liar has had plenty of. A bad liar may be new to the game. His lie may fall apart by internal contradiction, or for want of plausibility. Children, lacking experience, start this way. The clever child soon learns what will or will not fly; that a half-brick carries farther than a whole one, and so forth; that a non-brick will not fly at all.

Behind the skills obtained through practice, however, may lie natural talent. Great liars, it could be said, are born, not made. They rise to eminence, in business and public affairs, thanks to their gifts, which may not extend to competence in their trades. Notwithstanding, people believe, and rely on them — though everything they touch turn to ashes. Many, I suspect, of the captains of industry I have glimpsed, and most of the politicians, are such products of nature: genuinely talented in the arts of trickery and deceit; good cheaters, and even better thieves. Roguish charm is their defence against exposure. They must be good at something, or how did they get so big?

Are they good or bad liars? I should think success an important criterion, in scoring their achievements. On this view we might give the lying lady, above, another chance. Perhaps “everyone knows” that she is lying, yet none will challenge. Mere convenience may dictate silence. In the present environment of “political correctness” — in which lies are piled openly on lies — telling the truth becomes downright dangerous. You could be brought before a Human Rights Tribunal.

Not all salesmen are liars, incidentally. I discovered this long ago. There are those who sincerely believe in what they sell, and the mark of their sincerity is that they need not lie, knowingly or half-knowingly. Their products may be as splendid as they say. Often this is a critical factor. The more evil the product, the more lying is required — including selectivity with the truth, for there are lies of omission as well as lies of commission. “Hype,” generally, consists of lying in both modes. I have noticed it has become the unquestioned basis of our economy. Without hype, the Industrial Revolution itself would have failed.

Thus, assuming this lady were a persistent liar, I would need to know just what she had gotten away with, to make a fair judgement on her accomplishments. It is the same in many arts, I perceive: bad artists often succeed, the good ones often fail. Their audience, the “consumers,” should be held to account. You can’t get away with something, unless someone lets you.

I do not think lying a social problem, however. For the habit began with Adam. Rather it is, like all other sin, a matter between the perpetrator and God, and as such, extremely foolish. But “society” does not come into it, until we are out of Eden.

It is the widespread toleration of lying that I count among our social diseases.

By this I don’t mean that we should be more suspicious: for trust is the very thing lying undermines. Why spread its effects? Why be tempted to counter lies with lies? Rather, we should be less tolerant of both lying and suspicion, and more alert against ourselves. The best remedy against public lying, is not to lie; which includes not co-operating in the lies of others.

For while true, in some instances, that tolerance may be argued “a necessary evil,” we should not forget that it is always a vice.

The long sleep

Children, I should think, are guests in any house, and should act appropriately. If it does not occur naturally, some gratitude should be instilled in them. Granted, we feel a special regard for our own, and it would be wrong to torture or kill them. If we did not know this by some animal instinct, our species would not survive. But there are limits to anyone’s hospitality. A time comes when the welcome wears thin, and the little people (somewhat grown) should be off to weave their own nests. Much comes from overlooking this schedule, which as ever cannot apply to the superbly rich and entitled, whose nests are big enough to accommodate grown babies. But even among those, a certain spirit of adventure should lead to the occasional flight.

The quality of children is in abject decline. Partly I attribute this to their smaller numbers, compared with generations past. The single child receives no sibling examples. His parents draw upon a much narrower field of experience. Family customs lapse. Too, owing to the prevalence of public education, and the control of it by the mad and perverse, one must make allowance for intellectual disabilities.

Combine this with trends in entertainment and technology which leave that single child (whether he can read or not) with an extremely short attention span. He is unable to think any proposition through. For instance, the idea, “it is time I found my own way in the world” requires more sentence than he has patience to hear, for it may easily involve subsidiary clauses. Therefore, it is lost on him.

I am glad to see, from Tony Esolen and others, a revival of the notion that kids should “drop out.” Mr Esolen bravely focuses on the plight of boys. (Not that girls are unimportant; but they should give more thought to the unique functions of motherhood, which include the generation of babies.)

Most should get out of school for the sake of their own intellectual and spiritual stimulation. Merely going to university — where the moral corruption of their childhood is radically extended — cannot be the answer. It is true that some (I estimate one in twenty) could benefit from the specific forms of brain-training which universities were designed to provide; but any others who go there are getting in the way. A large proportion, upon graduating with their worthless degrees, will only go home again, often enough to parents themselves rendered passive by immersion in the drug and media “culture.” Dead loss all round.

Among the birds, however, and other animals, the settled procedure is to kick them out. Room must be made for a new litter, or for any other cause. One day the grown baby circles back, opens wide his beak for the fresh worm, and mommy tells him to get lost. (As I write, two young starlings on my balconata rail are discussing this very topic.)

God, or whatever subsidiaries He employs, invented hunger for a reason. It is a useful goad. Winter makes a nice clincher for us northern folk. Without hunger, no one would be free — free as birds, at least. We would all live like modern children, who expect Nanny State to assume parental functions when their own parents, as so commonly, fail.

I found that my own youthful experience with this goad — the need to find food and shelter, to say nothing of the means to acquire more books — was quite instructive. Once found, there is a certain relish in extending one’s independence, and shaping the immediate environment to one’s liking. Alas, most exchange this for the security of a truly boring and pointless job, and the social homogeneity of urban dovecotes or little suburban boxes, becoming, in effect, lifelong pensioners.

They weigh on me. It is not my business how they live, except, their distaste for freedom enables tyrants. I do not know what proportion habitually prefer an easy life and economic security to anything more fully human. I only know they are the overwhelming majority. Although it may never occur to them, the long sleep of inanition — slavery, in a word — is a choice. I only wish that, by their predictable voting, they wouldn’t choose it for me.

Now playing

Politics, it has been said (by me, I think), is the art of the hardly possible. One demands, or promises, things that cannot be delivered in this world, and that no one could want if they thought through the consequences. The successful politician does not lie, except when cornered. Rather, he fantasizes, “dreams,” and seeks a constituency that will dream with him. To my mind, Barack Obama was near to the perfect politician, and while lacking his class and cunning, Canada’s child prime minister, “Justine” (see the 4,000-page novel by the Marquis de Sade), has attempted to offer the same billboard attractions. It is what all modern capitalism has aspired to: nothing, in a very spiffy package; a triumph of pure advertising.

The perfect politician, as the perfect salesman, sells this “vision” — dwarfing any specific programme with its stated assumptions and checkable facts. Details, details; to the uninitiated, these are always boring, and the voting masses will never be initiated. The people, especially in this Age of Netflix, want entertainment, and what they call “leadership.” A leader is a person who does your thinking for you. In politics, he has a rôle like that of film director, in a movie where he will be the principal star. We must go through the movie emotionally on his side; grieve his little setbacks, feel that we participate when he wins. Black hats, white hats: his opponents are clearly marked and can be seen at every moment to be deplorable.

Of course this works both ways. “Liberals” think “conservatives” are deplorable; but vice versa, too. The divide is there to be manipulated. Each side knows the other side is wicked; and both sides have overwhelming evidence. The perfect politician will command the soccer-crowd loyalty of his own side, and appeal to a sufficient number of fence-straddling nincompoops (“independent voters”) to carry all before him.

Mister Trump drives me crazy with his vulgar garishness. His “MAGA” vision is perhaps the most expansive of all, having that tiny twitch of plausibility to make it more compelling than mere “Hope and Change.” Yes, surely Merica was great once. The slogan combines the edenic with the utopian, distracting from realities on both sides.

But his biggest draw is novelty. It is not just the brashness of his rhetoric — delivered in electric sentences that do not quite parse — but the content. There is no feint towards diplomacy or dignity. He says things that would be astounding for any politician to say. And this because, much of what he says is true.

Not the whole truth, of course, but true enough, as far as it goes. He has been, at NATO and now in Britain for instance, saying things so simple and obvious that he leaves his opponents in utter disarray. The USA has been carrying the can for the defence alliance, true; it has been gooed by arbitrary tariffs, true; it is invaded by illegal immigrants, true; it is stifled by unnecessary regulations, true; its bureaucracies are massive and dysfunctional, true; its people are overtaxed and cynically exploited by retail politicians who get rich in office. Et cetera. Some European politicians have been making the same observations and in the same tone, but most aren’t yet in power. Trump is, unbelievably, in power, by open election, in a country that is not, shall we say, small.

As everyone agrees, a disruptive force. He disturbs the holy cows — the vested interests, that had been peacefully flatulating in their fields. People hate him, but other people love him for this, even in Europe — the smell was becoming unbearable. “Hope and Change” masked a programme for, “more of the same.” It was just perfume. Mister Trump’s vision is the meat packer’s.

Take a world turned upside down, and turn it upside down once more. The deck is muck and reeds, but ah the excitement as it turns above the waterline again. People are mesmerized by this. It is even better than the last movie.

In the next instalment, watch it split up and sink.

Jus gentium

Rabbi Emil Fackenheim was once a power in this town. Well, no thinker is a power in this town, but there were days when dinosaurs walked the Earth, and when a few intellectual giants strode the campus of the University of Toronto — men of the stature of Gilson, Innis, Conacher, Frye, Havelock, McLuhan, Carpenter, Fackenheim. They met in coffee shops that are long gone; and my list is hardly complete, for now I think of the remarkable number and quality of immigrants we gathered from Europe: exiles from countries such as Hungary and Czechoslovakia and Poland, even England, whose talents were mostly invisible to the public at large. For Toronto was notoriously a provincial town. As Leopold Infeld put it: the finest city in which to die, especially of a Sunday afternoon, when the transition from life to death would be “continuous, painless, and scarcely noticeable.”

This was post-war Toronto, of the late ’forties and through the ’fifties — asleep in her inscrutable majesty; the Toronto into which I happened to be born; and not the self-advertised “world class city” of later real estate developments.

Fackenheim spent his Sunday mornings teaching confirmation classes in a liberal synagogue. As he remembered, he would ask each new class if anyone could present a Jewish belief to which he personally subscribed. After a long dreadful silence, someone might offer “one God,” or “the brotherhood of man.” Asked why he agreed with that, he would say, “That’s what I was taught.”

Next question. “Then how about people who believe differently?” To which the inevitable answer would be, “That’s what they were taught.”

“Then who is right?” would be question three.

Fackhenheim admitted that the response to this question — continuous dead silence — drove him close to despair. What about cannibalism? Or, Nazism? Does anyone have views that are absolutely wrong?

Most would blankly surrender at this, but some would stick up for relativism. Yes we believe this, and they believe that, but who is to make an impartial decision?

This did not happen yesterday, or last year. This was towards seventy years ago, among Jewish kids, within a decade of the Holocaust. These adolescents were more-or-less all under the impression that reason and truth were the exclusive property of Modern Science. Not one of them could explain why this should be, either.

I mention this as a reminder that the struggle today against scientism — against the Dictatorship of Relativism and the liberal and progressive forces that sustain its tyranny — is not new. It has roots that go below the World Wars, below the Enlightenment, even below the Protestant Reformation, to the Nominalist philosophers of the later Middle Ages. We aren’t dealing with some passing fashion trend. The “kids today” may believe things that are monstrous, because “that is what they were taught,” but everything in this world has a history.

As the blood of our martyrs (both Christian and Jewish) will attest, the old Pagan Romans were not relativists, in any recognizable modern sense. They knew our beliefs were in conflict with theirs. But they didn’t want to kill us, they only wanted us to shut up; to knuckle under; to assimilate. We were, in effect, troublesome multiculturals.

They had the equipment with which to think each case through. The jus civile might not apply to us, as we were usually not full Roman citizens. But the jus gentium, or something like “the law of nature,” provided a further backstop for the Roman magistrates. It was, as the Greeks had taught them, the law behind the law — what all men, if even partly civilized, acknowledge to be good and true; and as Henry Maine once expounded, the Romans were capable of being disturbed by conflicts between their own highly codified jus civile and the philosophical jus gentium. This was a key to why, in the end, they cracked, and became Christians themselves.

But we, in our time, have been dealing with a more fundamental challenge to right and equity. We face contemporary “authorities” who believe that things may be asserted with no reason at all, and therefore imposed without any reason. When one comes up against an assertion such as, “gender is a social construct,” one must realize that there are no holds. We are dealing with an “alternative worldview,” which may be enforced by law, and yet which is demonstrably insane. Things cannot be resolved as easily as they were between us and the Romans.

Justin the groper

As everyone in the world must know by now — if not the blesséd souls in paradise, cut off from the meejah — our Canadian prime minister, Pierre Trudeau’s little boy, has been plausibly accused of groping.

Well, at least it was a woman, as the dirty old men used to say.

The incident occurred in anno 2000, at a “music” festival on Canada’s Left Coast, and the “victim” was a local newspaper reporter. (Poor choice!) Her description of the event appeared in the paper, immediately thereafter, in a short “tut-tut” editorial. It became news again when someone dredged it up. I don’t doubt that person had a political motive. (Alas, it wasn’t spotted during the last election campaign.)

The Trudeau lad — still a young man on the make — now says he can’t remember. Or if he can remember, nothing bad happened. Or if something bad happened, it must have been hallucinated, because we should all know that Trudeau is a heroic feminist, who decided at birth that he would never invade anyone’s personal space. (He has been invading mine for several years now.)

We are all chortling.

No need to search for evidence; it is already there in black and white. But even were it hearsay, we have often been told (by little Trudeau himself, among others) that the woman must always be believed. This is the advanced feminist dogma: that only men misbehave, and only men lie. (By contrast, sugar and spice and all things nice: that’s what little girls are made of.)

Innumerable careers have been ended for less, and the Trudeau child was himself instrumental in ending several. His virtue signalling has been stellar — twinkling in the manner of a starry night, across the bowl of a cloudless Prairie sky. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

Do I feel sorry for poor Justin? No. Do I wish him political harm? Yes.

It has been suggested that he hasn’t handled the matter with political finesse. But that’s the beauty of it. He can’t. It isn’t possible. He is hoist by his very own personal petard.

Rejoice! Another proof that liberalism destroys itself. It will destroy a lot of other things first, but in the end, it flames out. No abnormality can endure forever.

____________

In response to queries: Yes, I am a wicked, wicked gloater.

Defective shoppers

By some happenstance, I often find myself in the company of booksellers and book buyers. It is only human to prefer some to others, yet recently I found myself developing a more than human dislike for one book buyer in particular. He was, and to an ill-chosen audience, boasting of his negotiating skills. Apparently he had managed to get the price of some once-valuable tomes knocked down to laughable levels, and was expressing his glee. It struck me that the (young, inexperienced) bookseller in this anecdote had been suckered. He did not know that the books in question were in fact still valuable.

Now, as a man who has driven some fairly hard bargains in my time (and been hard-bargained in return), there must be a limit to my moral unction in this case. Too, I must confess a bias, for I am generally in favour of high book prices. This is in my personal interest, though to understand why requires a bit of explanation. For I am not a bookseller myself. I am however searching for specific books, and while I rejoice when I am able to afford them, and will haggle as much as I can, I am less likely to find them at all if they are too cheap. People who know nothing, or care little, are more likely to snap them up at low prices. A higher price keeps the book for which I am searching on the booksellers’ shelf until I get to it. It also keeps the bookseller in business.

This in turn reveals, I’m afraid, my shockingly unmercenary values in the used book trade which, thanks be to God, still tends to reward such behaviour, notwithstanding such post-modern catastrophes as the invention of pulp paperbacks, and the Internet. New (freshly published) books are a meat market like any other, but the economics of the used book trade defy plausible economic thinking. The relations between supply and demand are too strange and wonderful.

And by his thuggish breach of the unwritten rules, the gentleman mentioned above powerfully annoyed me. His whole attitude was appalling. He is not a reader, as his conversation made plain; rather a “book collector.” As such, he is indulging in sumptuary acts which any advanced civilization must discourage. I hardly mind if titled Lords and Ladies keep or collect libraries of this sort — in which the leather bindings form a kind of wallpaper within an ancient and decaying, palatial house. The contents of the books hardly matter, if the titles on the spines are gilded prettily. But for a person of no title and low class to be building such a library, for his suburban home, is obnoxious to reason. And people like him are driving prices down!

I could go on. It has been too hot to go on, these last few weeks. Let me skip a few paragraphs in which I would only further disburden myself of my views on book buyers of this sort, and as the Americans say, skip to the chase. We need sumptuary laws.

A nightmare

“Heat wave” is among the latest long-established terms to endure official persecution (along with “father,” “mother,” “son,” “daughter,” “sister,” “brother,” &c). From Al Gore down, the weathergirls are instructed not to use it, for it is not “scientific.” This, I suppose, is because everyone knows what it means. A scientific term should be comprehensible only to scientists. They may not understand it themselves, but the important thing is that we can’t understand it.

Let me provide the old definition, in a spirit of nostalgia. A “heat wave” is when the temperature stays abnormally high for a long time. The subtlety here is that, if it goes on long enough, the night temperatures also climb, so there is no relief. Still, or dead air helps rub it in: no breezes. And humidity: let’s not forget that. And then the pope comes along to tell you that air conditioning is wrong. Well, okay, that was not part of the original definition.

There are heat waves currently in both America and Europe. In Canada, a few dozen people have died as a direct result: mostly oldies living up high in unairconditioned urban apartments. (People like me.) But only a few dozen. We have had heat waves here, there, and elsewhere in which thousands have died. God cool their souls. We lose thousands each year from commonplace influenza, and more from traffic accidents. It is no big deal; the meejah haven’t made an issue. For as Stalin said, a single death is a tragedy, but a million is a statistic. He understood the meejah well.

Everything gets boring if it is repeated long enough; even pain can get quite boring. I, for instance, am getting comatosely bored with the current heat wave. The fact I have also contracted some kind of common flu, with heavy nasal congestion, and cannot sleep, adds to the tedium.

Well, there I go, exaggerating. I do get some sleep. Why, last night I must have been asleep for more than an hour, at one stretch, until awakened by a memorable nightmare.

As a good Catholic, always obedient to the pope, I don’t have air conditioning up here in the High Doganate. I do, however, have a watch-battery high-tech oven thermometer gizmo, left me by my late mama. Hardly ever use it, but curiosity got the better of me. It told me the air in here is 116F. And yet it is only 93F outside, on my balconata! … Let me hype this for a moment, as if I were a weathergirl.

Wonderful heat retention qualities, this 1962 masonry edifice. Classic death row design, to prevent cross breezes. Marvellous greenhouse effects, from giant, industrial, west-facing windows. If the architect were still alive, I should like to have him up for tea. And, you know, lock him in for a week or two. He would be beating on the door, begging to be put out of his misery. But ha, I’m pro-life!

In this dream, some unpleasant person — no doubt a liberal or progressive — or architect of some sort — perhaps a city planner — had locked me in a coffin and buried me six feet underground in the trackless Amazon forest. He had, however, driven a narrow pipe from the ground through a hole bored in the coffin, so that I could get some steamy air, and he could utter taunts, and slide down stinging insects. I was beginning to feel something like claustrophobia, which I’m sure, like other phobias, is now against the law. I could shout up the pipe, but decided since the only one to hear would be the unpleasant person, I would save my breath. Rather, stay perfectly silent, in the hope he might get curious, and dig me up again. (“Strategy, strategy.”) Meanwhile I was thinking, no lavatory down here; and wondering how long it takes to die in such circumstances.

Happily, I woke, and while still oppressed by heat and stuffiness I reflected, it’s not so bad up here. Things could be worse. Thank you, O master of dreams, for that reminder.

Chronicle of things to read

There are a lot of schlusses in German literature — Schillers and Schillingses and Schlafs and Schefflers and Schimmelmanns and Schallenbergs and Schallücks and Schickeles and Schleiermachers and Schlageters and Schiebelers and Schlegels. I can remember having difficulty telling them apart when, in High School, I was trying to learn German, desperately in the hope of getting the attention of a celestially beautiful German girl named Schlillvia, I mean Sylvia. As ever, all my efforts failed. (Alas, she was a Pferdeliebhaber, and finally fell for the scion of a horse-breeding family.)

It would be well if there had been only two or three Schlegels, but as I found there were at least half-a-dozen quite prominent ones in the alphabetized annals, to say nothing of their several famous wives. And these in only one genetic line of Schlegels; I despaired to think there might be other Shlegelian family trees. But the sincerity of my efforts were recalled to me several years ago, when meeting an old childhood chum. He returned several books to me in which, through the intervening decades, he had shown no interest. As a consequence I have one Schlegel back on my shelves, up here in the High Doganate: a course of lectures, printed in 1846.

Alas, it seemed to be by the wrong Schlegel; though it has proved slightly useful in my autumn dayjob, teaching Shakespeare to seminarians. This would be August Wilhelm von Schlegel, and the book his Vorlesungen über dramatische Kunst und Literatur. Translator not only of Shakespeare into German, but of works from Sanskrit; formulator of Romantik ideals. Dramatist and poet in his own right, and author of some deliciously bitter satires, he had a memorable bust-up with Schiller, but stayed wisely on the good side of Goethe.

No, not that Schlegel, but his little brother Friedrich. Another Romantik formulator, and distinguished orientalist, yet mainly an assiduous professor of Classics, and author of the Fragmente — a collection of scintillating aphorisms that remind me in moments of everybody’s hero, Don Colacho. This Schlegel, too, was a self-acknowledged “reactionary” — the way they made them, two centuries ago. He was received into the Roman Church, moved to Vienna to work for the Habsburgs, then travelled Europe delivering wonderfully learned diatribes against civil and religious freedom, from within an inspiring cohort of priests, monks, canons, and other pious persons.

It should be mentioned that Friedrich Schlegel was a greater Indologist even than his brother; a pioneer of Indo-European linguistic discoveries; and in earlier life the champion of the literary trinity — Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe — not for purposes of idol worship but to broaden the popular conception of what is possible in creative art. To his end he was developing a conception of The West, percipiently informed about our place among other, deeply respected civilizations. (As was his wife Dorothea, the exhilarating mediaevalist, and his fellow convert.)

Normally, I have used Romantik as a term of abuse, but in my present dotage, I have come to find the old school of Jena more interesting especially for this Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel, easily the most brilliant of that constellation, and preaching no commonplace romantic fluff and sludge. Rather, he was espousing a return to the principles that had animated Europe through the High Middle Ages. Not to go back in time (of course), but to bring those principles forward.

Of course, in our contemporary drive-in universities, where they do all those drugs and babble incomprehensible slogans and behave in a manner unspeakably vile, he is, if known at all, simply dismissed as dead, white, and “backward-looking.” But that is the whole point. As Newman said, we walk to Heaven backwards. It is the path also of self-knowledge, acquired only thus, along the way.

____________

Perhaps with the intention of sabotaging my happiness, a reader mentioned the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, Herr von Schlegel’s contemporary. I have thought of him, sometimes, but not in a good way. He is in my Salvador Dali class of painters. That is to say, chocolate box but with a dead pigeon inside. I would not go so far as to say that the bombing of Dresden was worth it, if only to reduce the supply of Caspar David Friedrich paintings — the “collateral” was too large — but if gentle reader were to call him the embodiment of brooding Nazi kitsch, I would not object strenuously.

As to the current popular conception of the Romantik, as “a sentimental branch line of lust,” yes, that is another thing that needs putting out of mind.