Essays in Idleness


The poppy chronicles

“You must work harder on your choice of targets,” I vaguely recall overhearing in Vietnam, from a young officer noted for his dry and deliciously black sense of humour. It was directed to a fresh draftee, inclined to shoot at anything that moved. Let me identify with this latter, who might himself have been targeted by the World Wildlife Federation, great friends of the spindle-horned Saolas.

If it is any comfort to my vegetarian readers, the animals (especially those hard-to-hit snakes) took their toll of the draftees, too; though disease-carrying insects probably took more; and the Viet Cong most of all. I can easily understand why so many, who did not fly in body-bags instead, returned to America traumatized. It is so from all modern wars. The human psyche is not well adapted to unrelieved horror; though oddly it is the contemplation of this that does the damage. The episodes of participation are comparatively brief, and almost exhilarating.

As we approach the centenary of the Great Armistice, I see the plastic poppies circulating from the little boxes in the liquor stores. My thoughts turn to war qua war. Though sometimes necessary, it is not a good thing (“bad for children and animals” as the peaceniks say); and given the ambiance of our high-tech weaponry, little heroism is left to raise the tone. Contemporary battles are not confined to the soldiers, as once they could be. The devastation of cities and towns, the routine destruction of infrastructure, the civilian suffering that follows from that, may match or even exceed ancient measures of conquest and rapine.

While I’ve never thought war should be avoided at all costs, I recognize that the cost is very high. Opportunities for peace should not be overlooked, even while the carnage is in progress.

When, for instance, the newly-enthroned Karl I — Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary; “fanatic” Catholic Christian — discreetly proposed a separate peace to the allies in the spring of 1917, his agents were rebuffed, outed, and mocked. The Americans were coming to tilt our fortunes, the Germans were distracted overrunning the Russians, and while the Western Front was in catastrophic stasis, our nationalist politicians could now hope to utterly crush the foe. They would demand unconditional surrender.

This all-but-forgotten diplomatic event haunts my historical imagination. It was a serious opportunity to restore something close to the status quo ante, while resolving casus belli (very much plural) from Belgium and Alsace to Serbia and Constantinople on the principles of sweet reason. Drowned in the gunfire was this Blessed Karl’s expressly Christian plea. In an instant the decision was made, in the West, to persist till millions more were slain, and the conditions assembled for international violence and totalitarianism through the next seventy years.

The gentlemen I call “the three stooges of the apocalypse” — Wilson, Lloyd George, Clemenceau — were all modern democratic politicians, whose nationalist ideals were now buttressed by the vast constituencies of countries at war, goaded on by the screaming headlines of a paper mass media. They wanted a New Europe, a New World Order, in which antiquated empires and all the sleepy old aristocratic polities would be smashed and replaced — with modern, ethnically homogeneous, democratic States. The consequences were unforeseeable to them, wrapped in their flags and the rhetoric of liberté, égalité, fraternité.

It was a war to end all wars! … Both the malice and the naivety were astounding.

Yet this takes nothing from the bravery and stamina of the men like my grandfather (and his horse!) who fought in their trenches, went bloodily up their hills, and who far from exulting in their final victory, sailed home heartbroken by all they had seen. We are right to honour them.

And we’d be right to despise all political ideals.


Whether the Sun goes round the Earth, or the Earth goes round the Sun, wasn’t the issue. At least, it wasn’t to start with. Ask Copernicus, that mediaeval Pole, and a man of broad learning not only in mathematics and astronomy, but in classics and the humanities; a Latinist of sublime style, and a polyglot, fluent in five other languages; doctor of Canon Law; diplomat, mediator, statesman; defender of traditional civic freedoms against the empire-building Teutonic order; economist, even monetarist, and pioneer of Gresham’s Law; student of medicine, too; Chapter Canon (for which he surely had to be ordained); diligent guardian to his sister’s orphaned children; and more that we might list, were this morning’s Idlepost about Copernicus. (There are books on him, though none I’ve seen that give justice to his range, or his depth; most only celebrate the poster-boy of heliocentrism.)

I have asked Copernicus what his motives were, in pursuing the extraordinary work behind his famous and little read treatise, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. Listen as he answers: “To clean up the Ptolemaic mathematics, which gave inexact accounts of the movements of moon, planets, stars.”

The heliocentric inversion was not original: Aristarchus of Samos had preached that eighteen centuries before, and we merely assume the conception was original to him. Copernicus the scholar was well acquainted with the Greek authors, both Ancient and Byzantine. Claudius Ptolemy had himself reversed Aristarchus, adding an astrological flavouring, in late decadent Alexandria.

So much of science, properly so called, consists of housecleaning. Things are discovered in the course of that, including, as in this case, things that had gone missing a long time ago. The astrological, or dare I say “gnostic” mind, is forever hiding things, that disappear under the dust of the centuries.

Science as a whole was receding, in Ptolemy’s time, from its earlier Hellenic splendour. The Romans, with their engineering or technological bias, had no taste for it. They preferred “settled science” with its rules of thumb. They were practical people, like our computer technicians today.

Indeed, we are descending into another dark age of “settled science,” whose adepts dress in labcoat robes, claim a priestly monopoly on scientific reasoning, and are applauded chiefly for the gizmos they assemble. It has become a parody religion, for the god and doctrine of material Progress; a return, on this circuit, to the pagan Roman condition. Of course, we know how that ends.

Now, a practical man, with two feet on the ground, can see that the Sun circles the Earth, as too, the great bowl of stars. He never thought that the world is flat (a ridiculous smear circulated by the Darwinists), because he has seen the sea, and ships’ masts sinking below the horizon, then rising again as they return. And besides, the heavens themselves are revolving; it makes no sense for them to revolve around an anchored disk. Ours must be the round stone at the lowest point of this celestial machinery, tiny in comparison to the stars’ vast distance. (Mediaeval man, as the Ancients, had no doubt that the stars were very far away.) There can be no point lower than the centre of our globe, deep underground, towards which we are mysteriously, we might say hellishly pulled, as everything in our sublunary sphere. Yet there are men on the surface of our planet, greatly in need of salvation, and that is where its significance lies.

Things move back and forth; around and around; nothing ever changes. In the cosmology of our modern “scientific” age, now passing, we began to glimpse how the Earth and its inhabitants remain central to the overall scheme. Our uniqueness requires the adumbration of the entire universe to comprehend — having completed which, we are then no closer to God.

A man like Copernicus could understand this. Those who shout “Copernicus!” cannot.

On Robin Hood

I suppose it should have served as a warning to my kindergarten teacher, that I did not approve the behaviour of Robin Hood. (This was “High Kindergarten,” age-equivalent to North American Grade II.) Today, I’d be at risk of a report to Children’s Aid. For I was opposed to highwaymen; a proponent of law and order; a shill for the landed and the wealthy, as it were — though it took years, and “events,” for me to fully realize that God had made me not a Whig but a Tory.

The ballads we have are from the fifteenth century — the beautiful decadence of the Late Middle Ages. The character may or may not have been an historical figure from an earlier epoch. There were actual Sheriffs of Nottingham, however, and I’m sure some of them were corrupt, for that is often the case with humans. I trust sheriffs almost as little as I trust highwaymen, though at least they don’t dress in Lincoln green. (It was once high fashion; give me shepherd’s grey.) The political subtlety in the legend is lost on most modern children: that Robin Hood, returned from the Crusades to discover that his property has been impounded, becomes an enemy of the rich, but a friend to “the people” — and loyal henchman for the King.

We might call him a Disraelian, “two nations” Conservative. It is a formula that will always appeal to the romantic: the King as champion of the People; the very top of society in alliance with the bottom against the self-interested middle-men. Our own NDP in Canada (the “Nastily Demented Party,” representing populist socialism) was, at its start, instinctively monarchist, as well as cloyingly Methodist. Or in Catholic fantasy, the Pope and the People against the high-living Bishops. Whereas I, a more traditional mediaevalist, am for a unified hierarchy: a place for everyone, and everyone in his place. (Shakespeare is on my side, incidentally; see his Histories.)

My childish disapproval of Robin Hood, however, was not from opposition to “equality,” per se. Rather I was against crime. It is not right to take things not voluntarily offered, whether by stealth, or by force. Redistribution to “the poor” does not justify the crime, but compounds it. This undermines the whole concept of Property, to the ultimate disbenefit of rich and poor alike. I note that Mr Hood also became anti-clerical, in the Protestant developments of the legend. To my mind the Merry Men were a bunch of thugs, Friar Tuck a lickspittle, and Maid Marian a ho.

I’m opposed to the “welfare state,” or as I call it, “Twisted Nanny,” not because I oppose helping the poor, but because I’m against theft and robbery. And theft is not improved by moral unctuousness, or “virtue signalling” in the progressive mode. The fact is that the State, whether or not it actually gives to the poor (and most “social spending” goes to those who control them), demands enormous taxes to pay for this dubious generosity, and invades all our lives to collect.

Robin Hood, by comparison, was limited at least to what he could obtain as a talented archer. A moral evil is not made good when imposed by massive force, hyped by incessant propaganda, or procrusteanized by sadistic auditors.

Though simple, this point is easily misrepresented. I have never been in an argument in which my opposition to the Income Tax was not depicted as heartless indifference to the supposed beneficiaries of the State’s largesse. Nor have I heard the slightest curiosity about alternative means to charitable ends, that do not involve jackboot procedures.

The poor themselves are robbed by State lotteries, by hidden taxes on all their little comforts, by regulations that drive up the cost of such necessities as food and rent. But most important, they are deprived of their innocence by being made the receivers of stolen goods.

Ta-ruth & consequences

The “liberal mind” (as it has become) is instinctively on the side of the criminal. It is averse to justice, and obsessed with “mercy” — to the perpetrators of criminal acts. Or so I have often observed, and am currently observing, “offline” as it were.

Consider the phrase “social justice warrior” — used to best effect when most facetious. The insertion of the qualifier gives the show away. For generations, the term “social” has been used to confuse, with a view to bring sludge and statistics into every political conversation. “Social justice” is the opposite of justice in any intelligible sense. It is justice not to persons, but to abstract groups. It is invariably a programme of State intervention, and it will invariably bring real and often acute injustice to most of the individuals it touches. There is no coincidence that those who cry for “social justice” not only engage in thuggish, brownshirt demonstrations, but call their opponents “Nazis.”

Of course they are Marxist, themselves, and necessarily so. This is because the great poisoned gift of Marx to the world of the sub-intellectuals was the concept of class action. He sharpened the tool which, in the French Revolution, could be used only as a bludgeon. The (old-fashioned) liberal economists who came before him could not think like that. For them, statistics were a means to describe, not to target. As late as the 1950s, such intentions still existed, but even those avowedly non-Marxist were drinking from the cup. “Social policy,” though formed on class illusions, was now “a thing.”

To my mind, the most wonderful act of Canada’s last “Conservative” government was its attempt to crimp the country’s statistical bureaucracy. This made liberals more openly insane. As they argued, in moments of unintended candour, they needed those statistics to lobby for more “advanced” social policies. Without them, they were naked.

Not everyone will agree with my characterizations, but then, this antiblog is not for everyone. I am, after all, a reactionary, thus committed to the voluntary principle. I instinctively oppose any act of compulsion that cannot be justified by clear arguments. In my “ideal State,” only those proved to have appropriated what did not belong to them (from another man’s wallet, to his life) could be put under compulsion. Mere traffic and building regulations would be decided at the most local level, most of it customary; “welfare” would depend on voluntary gifts of time and money, and not be extracted from taxpayers by force. The State would be restricted to police, military, and ceremonial functions (the judiciary being entirely independent). Involuntary taxes could support only those. The Church would be among the many public institutions beyond the reach of State oversight and regulation. Only those individual members properly charged and convicted of breaking known, published, and straightforward laws, would be eligible to become wards of the State, by admission to its prisons.

In our present state of topsy, we have something close to the opposite of that. The State regulates everything, except criminal behaviour, which is constantly redefined to reflect “social priorities.” “Democracy” means everyone votes on how to spend the audited contents of their neighbours’ pockets, and the huge entrenched bureaucracies decide which desires they will satisfy. Like modern “Capitalists,” our modern Politicians thrive on the public promotion of Envy, and other deadly sins.

We have a system practically designed to enable crime and corruption — on the large scale, and not the local, where the benefits can be more easily discerned. Only petty theft is left to the lower ranks. It is also a system allergic to truth, with an interest in suppressing open discussion of a long list of topics, starting with faith and morals.

Or, “Ta-ruth,” as an old acquaintance pronounced it; whose great insight — uttered in a bar some years ago — was that telling simple truths was the most subversive act available to her.

Her name was Tonia, incidentally, and she died a fortnight ago. Say a prayer for her.

Of tolerance & friendship

Fortunately, so far as we are Christian, we do not have to worry much about injustice in this world; only about the injustices that we are personally committing. It is a simple point, but I’ve noticed that it extends beyond the intellectual range of many smart people. The world is the world, and while we were not warned at birth — only a little later when we abandoned Gibberish for other “native” tongues — our power over this place is really quite limited. Even ambitious mass murderers will find that all their best plans go awry, and as the old saying has it, many a slip between the cup and the lip.

Ye olde Law of Unintended Consequences — not yet acknowledged among the laws of physics — guarantees that the most slam-dunk no-brainers will end in embarrassment for the dunked no-brain. And oddly enough, this is because the world is, with respect to action and consequences, not complicated at all, but almost every day, simpler than anyone imagined.

I should like to cite Thomas Aquinas here, but I lack the learning and precision of mind that would be required of a good Thomist. Notwithstanding, I think this was what he was getting at in his teachings on Ethics. Metaphysical questions finally defeat us because they pass beyond the possibility of human understanding. But questions of how to live, and what to do, require much less thought, for they are, in most cases, dead obvious. Scepticism is required only for the exceptions.

We are perversely wilful. The answer being so obvious, our problem tends to be, that we want another answer. This is where extravagant thinking comes in, as we try to find a way to prove that the pig has wings, and is really an angel. “The end justifies the means” is only the beginning of unwisdom.

The ethical precept, “do as you’d be done by,” betokens a right worldly relation to the unworldly God. It was taught by Christ only in passing. It long precedes his coming down from Heaven. It has been known in every culture for as long as we have known of any culture, and has been unanswerable for longer. It is that simple point where mercy and justice meet.

With worldly experience, it indeed becomes deeper than the words portend, but still not complicated. One must know one’s neighbour to do the good for him — and yet, this begins in the most elementary knowledge of pleasure and pain in ourselves.

In the end, our neighbour may not know what is for his own good, or eventual pleasure, and be outraged when we don’t give him what he wants; so be it. It is common knowledge, or should be, that people often don’t know who their friends are; that they count as friends only those who are pliant to their wishes, and may come to detest those who most love them.

There was a lady I once met, a German, who had been raised rather poorly. Her father was a monster whose death brought relief, her mother the kind of aimless woman that monsters “acquire.” From a very early age she was on her own, and predictably fell in with bad company. She became pregnant, and that more than once. Some angel kept telling her to keep the children. This was difficult, because children cost money, and the only way she knew how to make it was through crime. She was not good at this calling, however, so had to spend time in gaol. An unpromising outlook, as any social worker might observe, but what do they know, compared to the angels? Four months “inside” a woman’s prison, at one stretch. That got her to thinking.

She emerged with a will, to recover her children. This involved a dispute with the father of at least one of them. The dispute warmed, until one day it took a physical turn — and as I’m glad to report, she put him in hospital. She was also physically harmed, but less seriously. Since the altercation had begun with him trying to kill her, there were fewer legal consequences for her, this time. Now freed of him (he inside gaol, and her out in this reversal), she gathered up her children, and left town, intentionally for a better one, having dedicated her life to raising those children in as close as she could create to the tight and loving family embrace that she herself had been totally denied.

A “single mom” she became. And one of the best.

I mention her because, in her simplicity, she had detected the error in her parents’ ways. They made poor friends. They were extremely tolerant. They’d let her do anything, including anything that was bad, sometimes even acting as her facilitators. (They “accompanied her,” in the present vicious phrase, the use of which helps us to identify our worst bishops.) But she loved her own kids, and wasn’t going to tolerate any bad behaviour from them. She became the most intolerant mother in her new neighbourhood. When I last heard, the kids were turning out quite well.

Parents must be parents but they must also be true friends.

Saturday night thought

A humble, indeed an obsequious, verily, a grovelling apology is owed to gentle reader for the reduced number of my Idleposts lately. This is an idea I have not formed alone: for I am in receipt of much mail expressing “concern,” and asking what is up (or down). One wishes to give a simple answer; for instance, I have died. But I can’t say this because, on my honour, it is not the truth.

Rather I have been at a loss for something to say, that I could think worth publishing. I am in the habit of rising fairly early each morning, and draughting an Idlepost is my first item of “work”; though not the first thing I do. I may return to this task as the day passes, or as evening descends, give up.

Among my self-destructive habits is glancing at the news. This was never a good idea, and with each passing year it becomes more wounding. News, as every journalist knows, was never meant to be good. That wouldn’t sell. Thanks to modern communications, we can now be demoralized by bad news from everywhere on Earth. In the past, there were villages where one might not hear that the Emperor had died, until the next one was on his deathbed. I daresay people were happier then. Whole months might pass in which not a single shooting or terrorist incident was noticed.

Which takes us to the Pope in Rome. A Catholic did not need to know what the Holy Father thought about anything, because he was pledged by his office to say nothing new. His job was to uphold the Faith; not to revise or adjust it. A Synod or Council or equivalent might be called, say, every century or two, when there was a mess truly worth sorting out, or an accumulation of heretics overdue for burning. The current arrangement is daily, and the object now is to create a bigger mess, or give the latest heretics our blessings. I can say with some confidence that every single instruction from the incumbent Easbaig Ròmais (excuse my Gaelic), since he took office in 2013, has been subversive of Catholic order. He makes pronouncements that are, at their best, inane; an acrid smoke of politics doth suffuse the incense of worship. There is a constant stream of insults to the “rigid,” i.e. the longsuffering faithful. He is on whose side?

The alert reader will notice that, when I was last “uploading” frequently, almost every Idlepost had become about the Church, and none were celebratory. Then I fell silent on that topic, and on others less than a million miles away. While I do not encourage psychologizing, I suspect there is a relation between that silence and my inability to find anything to say.

I discard one essay after another, thinking, “this can do no one any good.” Specifically, comment on the state of the Church has become “an expense of spirit in a waste of shame” — a kind of lust in which we perversely desire a greater outrage today than yesterday, and go hunting for ever more sordid details. Since we’re going to lose, why don’t we lose big?

Worse will come; we have only to be patient. Meanwhile we should get on with our lives. And I, for my part, must get over my funk, and find topics on which I can write, constructively.

Reactionary thought for today:

It is wrong to long for the recent past — to wish we could go back to the ’nineties, the ’seventies, the ’fifties. We are enduring today the consequences of just such rotten decades. We must go back to Christ; or forward to Him, which is the same thing. The only alternative is to go to Hell.

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.