Essays in Idleness


The road home

“And when I get home, there will be tea.”

I do not know when I first uttered these uplifting words to myself, but more than forty years ago. (Forty-four? Forty-five?) It was a cold autumn evening in London, when I was underdressed, and also underfunded. Hungry, too. With neither tube nor bus fare, a six-mile hike lay ahead. Well, the cold would make it invigorating; and from Highgate to Vauxhall is mostly downhill. I remember, too, how I’d got into that fix: emptying my pockets on some much-wanted books I was now carrying in my satchel.

Since, whenever walking, with miles to go, this line returns upon me: “And when I get home, there will be tea.”

“Books or cigarettes?” Orwell once asked, in the title of a pamphlet. I did not smoke in those days, so might instead think, “Books or dinner?” Indeed, bibliophilia can be a serious addiction. But I did have a roof to sleep under, and usually at least bread and cheese, and tea, always tea. Looking back over decades I retrieve the happiness of those irresponsible days, when I was so young.

This evening in Toronto, the chill again, the sun setting early, and me jacketless. The same experience repeated, except that now I am somewhat older. Worry about the future has still not settled in; it will be as it will be. The important thing to know is that there will be tea.

“He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. …” (Newman’s prayer.)

Recently, a burglar took away my money, such as it was — poorly hidden within the High Doganate. But no modern burglar would take my books, I reflected, “Don’t let it change your mood.” And worse, much worse things can happen, as visits to the dying helpfully remind me. I don’t mean to be glib. On the streets, I glimpse worlds of pain — and the terrible loneliness of the friendless and abandoned. The eyes of the defeated seem everywhere these days. Were they always?

“The homeless,” they are called, by media trolls, who use them to score political points. As ever, the term is misleading. Hardly one of them has no place to stay. What they characteristically lack is a home where they are cozy; people by whom they are loved. Social workers can’t provide that service. If they wanted to, they wouldn’t have the time.

On my walk home this evening I saw a panhandler with a dog. He also had an iPhone, which he was diligently consulting. Even the beggars in this city are computerized! And there are places where anyone can go to get warm. Food is available for the harder cases; Guvmint Nanny has programmes for that. What the poorest of the poor in fact lack, is any sense of belonging.

I remember London; how cold it could seem; closed doors as if nothing were behind them. Shop windows with goods for the cash-plentied. And as today, once again, living entirely alone.

But no, no one does: for there is God, and inmost grace, in gladness or in sorrow. It is there when it is sought, never failing; as a nest or lair, which one may make cozy; and within, a soul which God created, and can never be thrown away.

“He has not created me for naught. …”

Consider the matter in its eternal dimension. For, “When I get home there will be tea.”

Hydraulic society

There is a danger, when telling the economic history of the Earth in half a column (half of this one), that one may omit some significant detail. Fortunately, I have readers eager to correct me.

When I write that the human family — nuclear or extended, but ever reproductive — was the basic economic or productive unit, from the last Ice Age until quite recently, I did not mean that everything was strictly a family business. There have been (even to this day) family alliances — for instance, the “chains” I mentioned, trading one unit to the next right across Eurasia.

Technology (with a capital “T”) cannot be blamed for everything, or more of it would have been present in the Garden of Eden. But it can be blamed for a lot. Here I am not thinking of the machine humanly created, much as it may be intrusively ugly, but of the “mindset” that views nature as machine.

Descartes and Bacon may come in for a ritual kicking here, but the attitude long precedes them. It built the Pyramids, as we say, and many thousand miles of irrigation ditches and navigation channels through ancient Mesopotamia, India, and China. Verily, the latter Grand Canal, equivalent to a wide river with feeder tributaries right across Europe, was no paltry scheme, and for comparison, knocked the construction of the Great Wall of China into a cocked hat.

There and elsewhere, I allude to what Karl Wittfogel called “Hydraulic Societies” in his entertaining book on Oriental Despotism (1957).

Centuries these megaprojects required, though each may have begun with one bright light of a bureaucrat, and his big idea. Not family businesses at all, though one might be cute and refer to Pharaoh’s family business. This conceit will fail farther East, however, where systems of government that have lasted a millennium or three (as in China) were fairly consistently non-hereditary, indeed positively meritocratic and “elitist.”

I am not against irrigation or navigation, incidentally; though my enthusiasm may wane on such monuments to Power as oversized tombs and presidential libraries. Monarchs and magnificent Lords should make themselves useful, and infrastructure projects seem, at the first blush of plausibility, a harmless outlet for their energies. Let Roosevelt build dams, Hitler his autobahns. I will not even raise environmental concerns.

Rather, the question of corvée labour. It exists in many forms, short or long of duration, seldom with decent pay, or entirely voluntary. The great robber barons, both public and private, might compel it by sheer brutal force, or by exploiting hardship. What we call today “economic migrants” are an old story. The world is cruel and full of tyrants.

Moreover, we may look at the deeper history of Western “capitalism,” as my Chief Spinning and Weaving Correspondent has invited me to do:

“I think that you have overlooked the development of commercial undertakings in the Middle Ages, and these were real and regulated by government (meaning the king). Millers ground flour and were famous for thievery, as were weavers. But bakers baked and sold bread to the populace and were required to give fair weight, hence the ‘baker’s dozen’. Trades were widespread and established, and it was not nearly so much ‘every man for himself’, as every village or demesne for itself. This produced a great deal of stability, until the plague, &c. Even wars seemed not to interfere, except for killing and pillaging and the usual; but the mind of the people was still on the survival of their village, after all the horrors had wandered by. …

“In the new world, children in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were required to produce a certain amount of spun fibre under the contracts governing the colony, which were of a decidedly business nature. As I recall, it was reckoned that five or six children could (meaning must) produce enough spun fibre to clothe thirty adults. (I assume this was per year.) This indicates that the thread was turned over to weavers, who were of course under contract to send back certain amounts of cloth to England, along with certain numbers of felled trees, &c. …

“So while the paterfamilias governed the household, the governors of the colony called the tunes he danced to. Children, male and female alike, were apprenticed during their adolescent years, and were under the command of adults in whatever household housed them. It was paternal, but it was not really the family as we define it.”

This is all true, or close enough. Yet even so, the essential generative function of the family (as some of us still define it) underlay everything, and was the school of loyalty. Bust that up, and you have what we (increasingly) see around us.


One of my gentle readers, currently hiking in the Faroe Islands, writes in defence of Zen masters. He comments on my Idlepost of 2nd October, and the broad topic of Attention, which is necessary for any kind of human renewal. He says,

“It is exactly this that the Zen master aims to teach to his adepts. Zen parables, when read with attention, should make the reader laugh. Their aim is to make us appreciate irony (in the English conception of that word) and to appreciate how serious the world is even when at play. The Zen master’s reproach to the struggling adept is to whack him hard across the brow with a stick, in the hope of that way bringing him to attention. … It seems Western man as much as his Eastern counterpart needs a big stick across the brow, to at least momentarily bring him to attention.”

Well put. I am fingering my lathi as I write. Actually it is a cricket bat, which I hesitate to use, lest I put the struggling adept in hospital. I don’t know what the laws are in Japan, but in Canada we are obliged to treat struggling adepts gently. Certainly this is the rule at the seminary where I (arguably) teach. I fall back on rhetorical overkill instead.

Homo Ludens — the extraordinary masterpiece by Johan Huizinga from the 1930s — was a stick that hit me in my adolescence. This study of “the play element of human culture” strikes me still today as the place to start when it comes to Attention. It still whacks me hard.

Play is what men do best; and women, too, if we let them. It is the formator of rules, and their strict enforcer. It is thus the purest expression of freedom. There is nothing ordinary about it, nor any overlap with “real life.” Nothing in it stinks of profit or gain. When applied to love or war it is above such considerations, for it can be accepted as divination. The result of each contest is out of our hands. We will see who wins.

Well: there is a start. Our modern minds are trapped in slavery to false forms of Reason with no access to Faith. We have developed an allergy to poetry; like the allergy to peanuts, but often worse. Take allegory, for instance. In the modern mind, it can induce a stroke. Most of the Bible, to say nothing of other significant literary works, has become unreadable or incomprehensible to us, because we cannot take “play” seriously. Yet play is deadly serious at all times. It requires all of our Attention. We pretend to have no time for that.

Travel, even in the Faroes, should be without purpose. This is something that no tourist will ever understand, though every genuine traveller will. The tourist always has a purpose, some “vacation” to perform, if not something sillier should he also be “on business.” Whereas, the true traveller is a pilgrim. My understanding of travel, when footloose and young and under the influence of Huizinga, was the opposite of touring. Let us hit the open road — and see what we find there.

This attitude, I realize looking back, was thoroughly unmodern; and wonderfully unscientific. The scientist sets out to confirm his theory. As a young Frenchman once explained to me, sneering, “Every American east of Istanbul is an anthropologist.” But not that young Frenchman (Patrick, of beloved memory, son of a Paris gendarme or “aubergine”). He had gone to Asia to learn and not to teach. He refused to teach, except by example. For him, all life was play, and the “game” would require his complete Attention. You could see it in his eyes.

An unusual hippie: he refused to take drugs. He knew that would be cheating. He would not even take aspirin. “It would put me off my game.”

This is a very important topic. I try to return to it, again and again.

A Pareto curve

As a general rule, I like to avoid two kinds of people: fascists, and anti-fascists. Both will have programmes for human improvement. At least, keep either away from power. Of course, it would help if we had some intelligible idea of what fascism might be. If anyone has one, he is keeping it to himself. The term is now flung casually about. It is meant to smear anyone it touches. It is tossed like mud. This is because it is mud, and I won’t say pure, because according to my definition of it, mud cannot be pure. As for “fascist,” my generous definition will be, any dirigiste seeking power.

I imbibed, young, some of the thinking of Vilfredo Pareto, while trying to understand how “society” works. This is the man who invented the “80/20” rule, which I prefer to call the “rule of thumb.” Into his hidey-hole in Switzerland, towards the end of the 19th century, Pareto gathered statistics on the distribution of wealth, from anywhere, going back through the five centuries before. He noticed a recurring pattern. Twenty percent of the people own eighty percent of the land, everywhere and always. Other inequalities of wealth follow logarithmic pattern. This wasn’t entirely true, but by the time his critics had the upper hand, Pareto was dead and safe from their revenge.

Nature works in certain ways. She isn’t much interested in human equality. Her laws cannot be successfully altered. Pareto trashed the utilitarian principle — “the greatest good for the greatest number” — proposing an alternative “optimality.” He also trashed democracy, liberalism, and several other forms of economic brigandage.

His (unfortunately) enduring accomplishment was the mathematization of sociology, economics, and all other disciplines which had once been moral sciences. I would have been happier to stop at the observation that the distribution of fingers to thumbs tends to the ratio 4:1 (not always, but almost so), and to agree with Pareto (a “free market” phanatic) that any statist, Procrustean plan to make them equal is unlikely to end well. Why don’t we accept reality, instead?

Approximately five books could be inserted between that last remark, and this next one:

Let us compare Donald Trump to Benito Mussolini. The comparison works better than one might expect. Both want the trains to run on time. Both are total pragmatists when it comes to making this happen. Both realize that “pure” socialism cannot work, ever. Both then think: surely dirigiste something. Mussolini swoons to the siren song of Pareto, actually attending his classes in economics at Lausanne. Trump forms his Pareto view of unions in the New York City real estate market. The ideal of unobstructed economic growth is shared. The application of a sledgehammer to perceived obstructions is also in common. Where both deviate sharply from Pareto is in their further fondness for unobstructed nationalism.

Now, Mussolini is reputed to be a Fascist. This seems fair, for he invented the term, as a party label for his masterplan to Make Italy Great Again. Yet, insofar as the term is used more broadly, to convey the centralized application of sledgehammer reforms, he was also an anti-fascist. It is a little-remembered fact that Mussolini was a deadly enemy of inefficient bureaucracies. (I myself much prefer them to efficient bureaucracies.)

By descent from Pareto, it could be said, both Trump and Mussolini acquired an obsession with numbers. All efforts are focused on making the national statistics move the right way. In material terms, this works for a while. Everyone in the 1930s, including all progressive politicians, thought Mussolini’s Italy an economic and social success story. Superficially it was: productivity up, unemployment down, and so forth.

But here I will stop my provocation, with a reminder that history never repeats itself. Only the laugh track is on a perpetual loop.

Against the news

“Most people are other people,” as Oscar Wilde used to say, before he stopped saying anything whatever. To which Fernando Pessoa adds (in his Book of Disquiet), that they spend their lives in pursuit of something they don’t want; or do want, but which will destroy them.

I am more inclined to Mr Wilde’s view, though he’d serve as the Pessoan’s Exhibit “A.” It took me some time, in youth, but finally I came round to the view that most people are other people. They see things quite differently, even when, verbally, they see things the same. By this I mean that there are aesthetic, spiritual, even moral dimensions of human life — in addition to the dimension of Jonas Dryasdust (the antiquary in Sir Walter Scott’s Antiquary), provisioner of “background,” “history,” “facts.” These last can be written into footnotes and fine print, and are, like most contracts, boring. But the former things aren’t easy to compose; are impossible to convey entirely, from one unique sensibility to another. Illusion is actually required, to effect any transfer at all.

Or let us call it “art,” although the term is dangerously abstract, ersatz, and factitious. This can’t be helped. It means something different every time we use it. But whatever it is, it comes off the page, and begins to swim in the imagination. Audaciously it passes, through walls and skulls.

Between two people — let us narrow our range — there can be not so much communication as resonance. This is what makes the sacramental, Christian account of marriage interesting. (I’m aware that sometimes the resonance is dissonance.) It is linked directly not only to child support, but to the mysterious relations of human beings within “the Body of Christ.” It serves not only as ideal, but as analogy. It is one of those bottomless things — that hat, from which rabbits keep emerging.

Or widening again, there is a large field of correspondences, as the French poets call them, producing symphonic social effects, with crashing and kettle drums perhaps, or the harmonies within a string quartet in a side gallery.

Or duo, as when two viols talk to each other. They are not, strictly speaking, communicating news. I’m not sure what they are communicating, but I love to listen. I am thinking especially of gambas, my image of two old men on a bench, in a scene with peanuts and squirrels. (I took note, t’other day in a park, of two old men who looked like gambas.) They play to each other; they resonate together.

Or two old guitar virtuosi, as Julian Bream and John Williams — each an enigma to the other, and with techniques that seemed quite incompatible, until they began playing duets. (Had they met to discuss politics, say, it could not have turned out as well.)

And yes, there will always be news. As an old Czech friend used to say, “Always, there is something going on. For this I do not need newspapers.”

Homiletic review

To my reasoning, there must have been some changes in the style and substance of parish homilies, over the last thousand years. I am no expert, as usual, but will consider two points in respect to which things have changed, externally. The first is the spread of literacy, compounded by book printing, mass education in the Scotch Presbyterian manner, and even the appearance of a periodical press. In electronic media, too, the oversupply of “information” has not altered the nature of human consciousness (some things never change), but has seriously twisted it.

The second is the art that was not merely on the walls of our ancient chapels, but in every dimension that could be seen, heard, touched, or in the case of incense, smelt and tasted. It was a composite art (as William Blake tried to recreate, if only around himself), and in this peculiar sense a “virtual reality” for the mediaeval pew-sitter — in which even shaped spatial volumes, materials and their acoustical properties, were deployed to a single, focused end.

I could not say this of any church I have entered, parish or larger, built in the last hundred years, or more. Notwithstanding Victorian attempts at period revival, and spiritual aspirations among certain major artists, architects, and musicians since then, we now have churches which are big boxes with decorations tacked on — themed, here and there, but still a jumble to the sensory organs in human head and hands. (I do not wish to condemn “best efforts,” though.)

To the creature alighting from a spaceship, perhaps, the mediaeval chapel would also be a blur. Too, this would be true for the newborn baby. He looks at what might as well be modern: a kind of pop-up “comic book” of unknown meaning. With “acculturation,” however, it becomes an integrated story, culminating in the Host at Mass.

In the absence of general literacy, no guidebooks or pamphlets. Preaching does that job, from the mother’s knee to what is delivered at the pulpit. The homilist provides the captions for the pictures all around: on glass and plaster, carved in wood and stone. He explains the narrative divine, in harmony with the music, the poetic liturgy. (“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”)

Always, there is narrative, whether or not it will be coherent. We, the over-literate spawn of much simpler and more reverent ancestors — less inclined to doubt God, and thus more inclined to fear Him — can see this even while glancing at the news. Crass ideology and salesmanship have replaced religion in our society; but storytelling remains in all content streams. We are surrounded by a cacophony of little dramas, that make little sense. We are, as the audience for stories, still mediaeval and will always be. The great majority continue to be peasants, however high-tech and urbanized. The worldly distribution of intelligence and talents continues as before.

From this angle, the only “evolution” consists in the quality of our attention. As I know from having travelled in illiterate realms, the unlettered man has a power of watching and listening which is extraordinary to an over-literate, like me. He need not take notes because he sees and hears directly. His memory for details is almost frightening, to a texting modern with camera and all our other recording implements — cripples’ crutches to the more natural man.

The world is full of stories, however disintegrative, but the homilist of a thousand years ago (give or take many centuries) is telling, in images and chapters, The Story itself. Our contemporary homilist assumes his auditors have that story recorded somewhere — “have the printout,” as it were, whether or not they will ever consult it. Rather than tell it, he comments on the story. For the modern mind is not attuned to things, but to comments on things. This facilitates his preference for quarter, half, or complete inattention, except in moments when money is involved.

The reconstruction of the Catholic Church, it seems to me, will require more than driving out the perverts, correcting heresies, or waiting for the last modernist to die. Rather it will need a recovery of attention, and restoration of distinctly Christian habits. The artists and musicians must get back to work. The homilist must resume his task, as moralizing narrator, rather than as a kind of Sunday pundit, with his fifteen minutes to compete with all the rest.