Essays in Idleness


Brexit Day cancelled

Oh look: today is the 29th of March, anno 2019. This is the day the British were to have a huge street party to celebrate their escape from the putrid, dark, inhuman bureaucracy of the European Union.

We have got it in a string,
And the Whigs can all go swing …

— as Jonathan Swift wrote of a similar occasion, back when Britain was emerging as the world’s great power, at least partly for good. “All their false deluded hopes, will and ought to end in ropes, and the Queen shall enjoy her own again.”

Except, this time, and rather characteristically, they’ve made a mess of everything, and caught themselves deeper in the very sticky goo they were trying to exit.

It would be simplistic to blame the delay, the sabotages, the sordid compromises, the incompetent political conspiracies, on Britain’s own putrefying, dark, inhuman establishment — on her bourgeoisie, and the straitjackets in which they feel comfortable. It would be unfair to suggest that even if they lose, the Remainers will win, by extending Britain’s own vast, intrusive, Twisted Nanny State, to fill any gaps in regulation and surveillance from which the EU was to have been evacuated. (But at least their decisions would have to be made closer to home.)

Allow me to be simplistic, and unfair. At a distance, I have watched their whirligig in the molasses. The vote to “leave Europe” was clearly won, but it wasn’t a consensus. On the other hand, Britain got stuck into “Europe” without any referendum vote.

The argument for maintaining, at the highest possible level, the monstrous and profane machinery of modern state control, is easily answered but not defeatable. As I am reminded by my own quaint dealings with Canada’s version of jackboot “nice,” one wrestles not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore, one must take unto one the whole armour of God, and stand.

People are persuaded that the demons who rule them are indispensible. (Strictly speaking, not devils but their servants and slaves.) They provide the “safety nets” to those who might fall from the Temple. They make sure, like Holden Caulfield, that we will never hurt ourselves. They take responsibility for a nation of children, who will never be adult enough to take care of themselves.

The unambiguously evil book to which I allude — Catcher in the Rye — was taught in the Canadian high school I briefly attended. Even then, my proposal was to push Holden Caulfield over the side. But my classmates were all mesmerized by the niceness, by his (fraudulent) “idealism.”

The best way to leave Europe was, all along, to walk. And in the best British tradition, to walk like Charlie Chaplin, and do as much damage as possible to the dark European machine, thus helping other nations to escape its clutches.


More of my political rambunctiousness this morning, over here.

Notes from the underground

With a name like “Warren,” gentle reader will guess that I have an affinity to rabbit holes. I like to go down them, especially when pursued by notorious coney-catchers; I applaud the safety of a domestic cavern. I had a friend named Burrows (alas dead, from drowning) who shared my joy in excavation, and the ability not only of the family Leporidae, but of moles, gophers, groundhogs, meercats, certain pelagic seabirds, countless beetles, ants, clams, crustaceans, worms, and small dinosaurs, to disappear in one place and then, quite possibly, pop up in another. Meanwhile the pursuer may stick his proboscis down, to learn whether the creature can defend himself.

“You can run, but you cannot hide,” according to a common taunt (see here), but ho, what if you can dig, and be swallowed by the earth. There are limits to everything on this planet, however, and not even cautious trench warfare is safe for all participants.

The equivalent in politics is not necessarily a lethal sport, but at some point one must stick one’s head out of the trench, and then the meejah are on you. Best to remain invisible to them.

By exposure to the (illustrated) “Pookie” books at a very early age, I became aware of the elaborate, furnished chambers of a rabbit family, entangled in the roots of a mighty oak. This is where they entertained their fairy guests. I have not the book before me just now, but may assure gentle reader that it was an architectural wonder. (A remarkable rabbit, Pookie grew wings — tiny flimsy fly-like wings, but angelically curved and pointed — which proved useful to escape an oppressive lettuce farmer.)

If I recall correctly, Pookie was a rabbit who:

— made himself unpopular by being a little different from other rabbits and got teased for the wings;

— went on journeys with a sack of his belongings on a stick over his shoulder;

— refused to take anything on faith such as Santa Claus, believing only in the fairies with whom he played;

— demonstrated imperfect ideas about capitalism for instance despairing because the little shop he opened in the woodland had too many customers;

— indulged in fanciful schemes for putting the world right such as banishing winter.

Who, moreover, had a delightful little camp follower named Belinda.

Nature, “the environment,” with many a niche, is well-disposed to the disappearing animals, and among the themes of my favourite biology teacher, whenas I was a lad in school, was the high population of concealed beings, just where you think there are none — under the sands of water-polished beach or wind-polished desert, but too, everywhere else. Walk in the stillness of the woods: a hundred creatures are watching you, but not even one of them can you see.

The bowerbird, for instance. Let us suppose ourselves hunting for one (in New Guinea, or Australia). We find an abandoned bower, soon enough, but if the bird thinks we might mean him ill, and that he has been glimpsed, we will subsequently only hear him. And it will be a trick. Most bowerbirds are good mimics of other bird calls, and better yet, they are ventriloquists — leading you where you don’t want to go. And this after having visited your home, to obtain such sparkling items as tinfoil, rings, jewels, car keys, with which to impress his lady.

Most birds do not warren in the ground, however, but make their own burrows in the eaves, leaves and branches, in the tall grass, or as the woodpeckers in the hollows of the trees. In every case, an architectural wonder, were we but small enough to see inside.

Lent is in a sense a time for hiding, or may I say warrening, from the wickedness and snares without and within, from all the wicked spirits that prowl about the world. We seek a place of prayer where the Devil cannot get us.

The cosmic duh

Question for today: Does God exist?

It is a difficult question. For as we read in the (Svetasvatara) Upanishad, “He is not a male, He is not a female, He is not a neuter. He neither is nor is not. When He is sought He will take the form in which He is sought, and again He will not come in such a form. … It is indeed difficult to describe the Name of the Lord.”

It is also a silly question. Of course God “exists,” in a sense that is prior to all existence. The more interesting questions concern those attributes, discernible to us. Has He personhood? Does He will good or evil? Why were we created, and what will happen to us? But answers to such questions will require Revelation, and command action on our part. Today’s question is only about existence.

There are some things that cannot be verified, or falsified. These would include all axioms of logic; even those of post-modern “paraconsistent” logics, wherein the very Law of Non-Contradiction is (implausibly) denied, but which are axiomatic on their own terms. We are out the door of “science” when we discuss logic; or the principles of mathematics for that matter. All we can say is that the world makes sense on axioms; and not otherwise. Otherwise it is incomprehensible mush.

For science, or human knowledge more broadly, God is not an hypothesis, but an Axiom. Start in Aristotle, if you will, to see that the world has no purchase on sense, without the Unmoved Mover. The “Five Ways” by which the inevitability of God was demonstrated by Thomas Aquinas, and the related ways in which this was done by others before and after him, are easily misunderstood, because they are not proofs of an hypothesis but recursions. They show, without the “God Axiom,” that there can be no causation, no change, no being in itself, no gradation, no direction to an end. We need a Still Point, from which to depart. It cannot be hypothesized. It is too simple for that. You need to assume it even to contradict it.

I should think that “post-modern” developers of “natural theology” (not the theology of nature, but theology constructed without Revelation) are onto something when they refuse to attribute “causation,” “being,” “ends,” and the like, to God. But they are onto nothing new; just a new way to express the old inexpressibles.

There is not merely a huge difference between our being and God’s beyond-being. For He is prior to being; being’s ultimate cause; and end beyond all ends. These are not relative terms. They have nothing to do with the plaything of “infinity.” To my mind, it follows that God does nothing without angels; or nothing without mediation; as it were, the “absolute idler,” Who does nothing at all. “I am that I am,” in Hebrew Scripture. In no way does He need the Creation; in every way, it needs Him. There can be no gradations, such as, we are small and He is large. That is mere metaphor. Any attempt to get around this, plunges us into pantheism, which is atheism by halves: it affirms immanence by denying transcendence.

Yet we must affirm transcendence without denying immanence.

“Created in His image.” … What can this mean but that we are endowed with an irreducible “spark” of the same axiomatically perfect Stillness, from which we proceed, inerrantly but for the subverting Adam within us all. But that “spark” remains, ineradicably. (Or one might call it freedom: which is what makes the evil we do terrible, for it is not involuntary.)

Too, we were made to resemble Christ: the perfect self-giving of this self-revealing, Triune God, prior to all being. The embodiment of Christ is beyond thinking. But so are we. For even to begin thinking of ourselves as being, we must consider ourselves from a standpoint of not-being, which is unthinkable. The situation resembles what they call a “singularity” in physics, but is more fundamental. An “is” requires an is-maker.

Observe, now by Revelation, that God is Love, not being; and that on Love, all being depends. That in persona Christi, walking as He did, when and where, we see Love, embodied. God, beyond all being, brought Himself even into being, for Love.

A thought not reductive: this is what I’m trying, haplessly, to articulate. Our universe may be reduced to some primordial egg or atom. God cannot be reduced in such a way, by our glib scientists — the “global village idiots.” At one hundred billionth the breadth of a proton, that cosmic egg from which we were hatched would be far too large. Ditto, at one hundred trillionth, and with a whole multiverse tucked inside. We are NOT dealing here with gradation, and the relativists can all go fly.

Or, to bring out paradox in a season of folly: to be an atheist is to believe too much.

Kristin Lavransdatter

[I bring forward this old tweedjacket essay, for a low motive.
But I will not tell gentle reader what that motive is.]


There are two translations of Sigrid Undset’s remarkable trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter. That by Archer and Scott came out promptly after the Norwegian originals in the early 1920s. Undset had lived in London, spoke English fluently, and knew the translators. She would have been consulted on fine points. I am told by a native Norwegian that the (mildly) archaic English these translators used nicely echoes effects in the sentences of an authoress who was steeped in Old Norse, and intimately familiar with the old sagas.

The other, commissioned by Penguin Books three generations later, is by Tiina Nunnally, award-winning translator of several dozen (mildly) fashionable Scandihoovian tomes. I’m sure it is quite accurate, but I put it down. I’d read the older version years ago, but did not return to it from nostalgia; at first the new version seemed a breath of fresh air. But Nunnally’s very “modern” English changed the atmosphere. It obscured nothing — passages touching on physical sex were if anything belaboured and spiced up — but everything seemed wrapped in cellophane. The protagonist Kristin herself becomes more “modern,” too, where in the older version she had struck me as “timeless”; and rather more immediate.

I dwell on this, for in articles and interviews, Nunnally sneered at the old translation, insinuating that it was grinding, stilted, anachronistic, loose, and bowdlerizing. She is herself a creature of “Scandinavian Studies” in current academia, who knows how to alienate readers from a rival text, by telling them they will be alienated.

For as long as I can remember, readers have been trained to associate literary archaism with the stuffy and Victorian. Shielded thus, they may not realize that they are learning to avoid a whole dimension of poetry and play in language. Poets, and all other imaginative writers, have been consciously employing archaisms in English, and I should think all other languages, going back at least to Hesiod and Homer. The King James Version was loaded with archaisms, even for its day; Shakespeare uses them not only evocatively in his Histories, but everywhere for colour, and in juxtaposition with his neologisms to increase the shock.

In fairy tales, this “once upon a time” has always delighted children. Novelists, and especially historical novelists, need archaic means to apprise readers of location, in their passage-making through time. Archaisms may paradoxically subvert anachronism, by constantly yet subtly reminding the reader that he is a long way from home.

Get over this adolescent prejudice against archaism, and an ocean of literary experience opens to you. Among other things, you will learn to distinguish one kind of archaism from another, as one kind of sea from another should be recognized by a yachtsman.

But more: a particular style of language is among the means by which an accomplished novelist breaks the reader in. There are many other ways: for instance by showering us with proper nouns through the opening pages, to slow us down, and make us work on the family trees, or mentally squint over local geography. I would almost say that the first thirty pages of any good novel will be devoted to shaking off unwanted readers; or if they continue, beating them into shape. We are on a voyage, and the sooner the passengers get their sea legs, the better life will be all round.


This is peculiarly so for Sigrid Undset. And the paradox here, in Kristin Lavransdatter, is that we must become fully immersed in the 14th century — mediaeval daily life in the interior of Norway — to begin recognizing the timelessness of her characters and their situations. She is using the form of the historical novel to an extremely useful purpose: to slit through our “modern” superficiality; to take us out of ourselves in order to look about, in the strangeness of a strange new world, then to find ourselves again, in the costumes. This is Tolkien, for adults.

Undset was a formidable mediaevalist. Her father was a reputable archaeologist, and both her parents historically learned. From childhood she had heard the antiquarian aesthetic call, and succumbed to the true historian’s fascination with what lies under things. In that field and from her eventual home of Bjerkebæk at Lillehammer — surrounded by the landscape in which Kristin Lavransdatter is set, which Undset described with such crisp poetical exactness — she is on home turf. Scholars to this day acknowledge her as genuinely expert: there are details in her 14th-century reconstructions that were speculative, at the time she was writing, but have since borne out. She knew, as it were, where the old, pre-Reformation Norway was buried. For this alone, the trilogy — and the tetralogy that followed it, called The Master of Hestviken — is a pleasurable education.

It is partly because of this expertise that Undset is free of romantic illusions about the Middle Ages. She needed the background “Age of Faith” to depict human passions more sharply, to strip away the clutter and insulations of technologized, urbanized life. But her purpose was hardly escapist. By thirty pages in, we are not only bathed in this exotic environment, but exposed more directly to hard facts of life that are ignored, today, until it is too late. We feel the winter cold and the demands made to survive it; we begin to understand that if the crops fail, we will starve. The consequence of every human action is amplified, in the absence of our “safety nets.” The politics which Undset depicts are personalized, not abstract and ideological: men of all classes take counsel of each other, not from lofty principles but out of necessity. The dependency of man on man, of woman on woman, of man on woman, and woman on man, was no parlour game. We are about as far as we can get from the fatuities and asininities of “human rights.”

The book is about motherhood. It is also about everything else that comes into human moral experience — about childhood and fatherhood and priesthood and nunhood, belief and unbelief, marriage and aloneness, love in the kaleidoscope of shapes and angles, the power of eros beyond lust, sanctity and devilry, work, dreams; and in multiple dimensions about sin and grace. But everything is refracted through the prism of motherhood, and by this a huge background statement is made. More than any novel written since, this one slaps me in the face with the Fact of Woman.

It is for this reason that it is never taught at Harvard or elsewhere in the Ivy League, as part of “Women’s Studies.” For Undset absolutely refuses to be shallow. She grew up as a feminist; her own mother had been by 1880 well ahead of the “sisterhood” today. Our authoress had written when quite young various feminist tracts, and short novels meant to be “contemporary” and alarming. In the face of reality, through the First World War, she had grown out of it. And from her own difficult life, full of man problems, and children not only her own, she was in no possible doubt that women are moral agents in the fullest truth. Not only most spectacularly in her protagonist, Kristin, or in Kristin’s mother Ragnfrid, or later her daughter-in-law Jofrid, but in the little galaxy of other characters through the passing scenes, the theme of motherhood is revolved. Moreover, not only Kristin in the foreground, but other females in the story are wilful souls. As we will see, for better and for worse, they will not be shackled. In the relations between the women, Undset tackles issues that even our best woman novelists tend to ignore: because Undset’s women live also through their men, their sons and their daughters, and therefore through time in a way our post-family microwave life has forgotten. This does not diminish but enhances their place in the world.

Yet too, this is no book “for women,” no chick-lit. For I would also say that I have never read a novel in which I could see men so clearly through a woman’s searching eyes; in which, as I hinted above, I felt so judged. The failures of men, and at the most painful, the failure of men to be men, is presented in light that is often excoriating. Indeed, the manner of a woman’s judgement must come as a revelation to men: not only the grown women but the girl children. Through that prism of motherhood, things are seen that men might not want to see, including centrally the scandal of being loved not for our virtues but in spite of our appalling weaknesses. And in this sense, women stand in for God.

Conversely, the nobility of a man — Kristin’s father, Lavrans, in the first instance — is revealed in and out of season, and through all his naiveté and frailties. To me, the conclusion of the first volume, where the good will of the ageing Lavrans is breaking down, while the ground of his trust shifts beneath him, leaving nothing on which he can rely, was a terrible reckoning. There is a moment of weakness, at which he cracks into pettiness over something so minor as the failure to return a cart promptly; and the whole world seems to be lost, along with his heritage and a life’s labour. Then to top it off, in his occluding despair, his wife selects the worst conceivable moment to tell him that when she was young, she had been as false as his daughter.

And how does he react? Incredibly, after absorbing this final blow, his first thought is for his poor wife, who has carried this burden so long and so secretly in her soul.

Rather, not incredibly. It is the extraordinary gift of Undset to make that moment credible. And too, to make it pass as lightning that has illuminated all the landscape, and then, with the storm, it passeth away. How many novelists can depict sanctity, or the truest of true loves?

It is on this level that Undset operates. Her Kristin is not only wilful but “deeply flawed”; we cannot help identifying with her, nor fail to see objectively what is going, and is bound to go, wrong. She has set her heart on a man who lays waste to everything he touches; she allows herself to be seduced. She sticks by him even when he has proved his irresponsibility and unworthiness, again and again. This lover and eventual husband, Erland, must remind every male reader of what is small and faithless and predictably unreliable in his own soul; yet Undset also comprehends all of his excuses. She makes us see what Kristen sees in him; see even the virtues that correspond to Erland’s vices, for in his recklessness, he can be a knight. His love, and their love, is neither casual nor empty. It raises the stakes in every common endeavour, as they try to raise children in the world. Tragedy will necessarily befall them, but out of this tragedy Kristin’s redemption will be forged.

No: it is better than this. Kristin is no fool. She sees with a frightening feminine clarity precisely what she is getting herself into, and the growth of her contrition likewise follows the searchlight turning on her own soul. She sins knowingly, she makes what she inwardly knows is a catastrophic mistake by jilting the good man her father chose for her, and who loves as her father loved: selflessly. At seventeen, she is throwing herself away on a man well over thirty with a known, murky past and the earned reputation of a Lothario. She has, in every critical moment, enough “information” not to do what she will do, but does it anyway. In crisis, she does not seek help or absolution. Somehow Undset makes us understand that this is how it must be; that the smartest girl will do the stupidest thing; and it will make sense as part of something larger.

One might say, “life is like that.” This is a pretty limp cliché that Undset is confirming, but she raises it repeatedly to the visionary level. And in the second volume, where Kristin is now married and mistress of an estate, puzzling in her heart over the vagaries of her boys, who puzzle over her in their boyish understanding, the theme of motherhood deepens and deepens. She is left with very male responsibilities, by her wayward husband — the running of her husband’s estate, an enterprise for which she was never raised or trained, and on which the very survival depends, not only of her growing family but of retainers and families beyond them. And thanks to that feckless husband, that is lost, too.

She is reduced by circumstances again and again to one woman against the world; but she will not be reduced. Through that prism of motherhood, through the extension of family, through the finally mysterious relation of man to all men, soul to all souls, and through every adversity, she is rising. In the end, we may discern that it is a divinely-assisted passage.


The book is far from painful to read. As I’ve said, the “archaic” earlier translation will only be in the reader’s face for thirty pages or so, and the discovery that he is now at home in it will come as a pleasant surprise. As in the reading of any fine saga embracing generations, he will soon feel almost part of the family, emotionally invested in its fate.

There is a moment — and O Lord is Sigrid Undset the mistress of moments — when our heroine is “leaving home” for what will be the last time. This is the home she left by marriage, and to which she had returned for refuge with her children. Those children have grown, and scattered. A dark cloud of plague is descending upon Norway, but this is not so apparent yet. Kristin Lavransdatter is entering old age, but still has her health. She is setting off on pilgrimage to Trondheim — the grand mediaeval cathedral of Niðarós, shrine of Olav and tomb of kings, capital and spiritual seat of pre-Reformation Norway (still standing in its Gothic stone, by the Arctic Circle).

On the first leg, she is accompanied by her son, Gaute, now master of the manor and its future, carrying her “wallets” up the rise on his horse. She will not ride, being Kristin. They must part, Gaute in an explosion of tears, for the mother he will never see again; Kristin in mysterious containment. At the height of land, she looks back over the valley that has been her life, spotting in the far distance, her home. As Undset puts it, she is torn back, for one last home-sick glance; but also torn forward, by something very much like a home-sickness for heaven:

“It seemed as if these yearnings burst her heart in sunder — they ran hither and thither like streams of blood, seeking out ways to all places in the wide-stretched land where she had lived, to all the sons she had wandering in the world, to all her dead beneath the moulds.”

The story is not yet over; but I will leave it there. It is more than a thousand pages, and I have not even mentioned beloved Brother Edvin, or so many other characters brought to vivid life. Yes, it is an unambiguously Catholic novel, though Undset was not yet a Catholic when she wrote it. Yes, it won the Nobel Prize, ninety-something years ago. Yes, there are many other works of Undset’s worth reading, including her extraordinary biography of Catherine of Siena, and many other penetrating essays and stories, should there be world enough and time; but this trilogy is all of a piece.

One might read, I suppose, any sort of novel; but this is one of those novels that reads you.

Decide, comrade

“What is to be done?” asked Lenin rhetorically, to himself before the crowds, in the grand tradition of Russian revolutionism. Those with some slight knowledge of history (a tiny diminishing minority today) will have from the history of the Soviet Union his approximate answer. It was revolutionary terror. Marx had said that communism was inevitable. A Fukuyama ahead of his time, he thought it was the End of History. But as the times continued too slow, Lenin thought to speed them up a bit. Even in this 21st century we continue trying to end it all. One is on the right side of history, or the wrong side, as the late Trotskyite, Christopher Hitchens, liked to declare. He thought George W. Bush was on the right side of it. I wonder what he thinks now.

The notion that we should “do something,” collectively, led by a vanguard of the self-advancing elite, is not confined to the Left. Reading Georges Bernanos, I was apprised of what Franco and company were doing in Majorca, during and then after the Spanish Civil War. The island was exceptionally apolitical, its inhabitants indifferent to who was winning the battles, either by blood or by toil. A droll population. There were not more than one hundred Communists and Anarchists in the Balearic archipelago, according to one unreliable estimate. (All estimates are unreliable.) The Falange had to create a few more, when they ran out of people to slaughter.

Generally, civil fanatics are created by their enemies. Of course, until they are created, they don’t know who their enemies are. But should they finally link their suffering, real or imagined, to those who are causing it (see Venezuela today), they want to do something about it. We have the pendulum swing of events, in which the glass is successively shattered on both sides of the street. This is almost a force of physics. Once the pendulum is in motion, holy friction — of the air, and of the chains rubbing — gradually slows it down. As an Indian girlfriend once explained: “Too much peace only leads to war. Too much war only leads to peace.” She had a better understanding of history than Lenin.

Bernanos I mentioned not as a civil, but as a religious fanatic. Most of his novels feature (apparently ineffectual) priests. They do nothing, or very little beyond what is their duty, day by day; then (for instance) die of stomach cancer, uttering: Tout est grâce.

“Grace is everywhere.” … Even in the prison camps of history, as we learn from the best literary sources; and on the scaffolds. Too, it is in less obvious places, such as our supermarkets. One must develop the ability to see it against the disgusting background that Bernanos also described — though with the subtlety of a great master. One is cured of this blindness also by grace, from the moment one decides to receive it.

Which leaves the question, What is to be done?

Decide, comrade.

Has gentle reader ever witnessed, by happenstance, an act of kindliness? By this I mean an authentic act, that seeks no reward; an act unintended as an example to others, as “a teachable moment,” or to win public praise? Perhaps even something the recipient will not recognize as kind, until his benefactor is well out of sight? Or done without his knowledge.

It is the most radical thing I can currently imagine.

Strange but true

There is a man named Sam Brownback (I kid you not) who is the United States Ambassador to Religious Freedom (which I am unable to find on a map). Leaving this aside, I am happy to inform gentle reader that, as far as I know, he is a good and honest man, which is an unusual thing in diplomatic circles. Anyone formerly the Secretary for Agriculture in Kansas I assume will have the down-home virtues. But I’ve heard other good things about him. As Governor of that fair state (elected then re-elected) he made himself viscerally hated not only by Democrats, but by all liberal and progressive Republicans, radically cutting not only state taxes but spending on their various statist schemes. And then he refused to retreat when they spread politically-correct lies about him, his policies and his record, with the active cooperation of the media. How to endure an adversary who can’t be manipulated or intimidated?

This is the most we can hope in a rightwing politician — guts — and they are still on display. Brownback is now in the news for a speech he gave at the Hong Kong press club, detailing what is happening to Catholics under the still professedly Communist Peking regime. They are being persecuted, their churches demolished, their children orphaned and brainwashed, their own hierarchy systematically infiltrated by Communist agents, all with the permission and cooperation of men in Rome who, as Cardinal Zen — still among the most impressive and courageous living bishops of our Church — says must have come “from another planet.”

The recent Sino-Vatican Accord was a surrender. Among many other things it instructs members of the underground church in China to out themselves to the authorities, tells their priests to register with the mortal enemy, gives to the “official” church (a front for the Chinese state) the standing within the Roman to advance their anti-Christian subversion all over the globe. And, none of this is subtle.

Liars and press officers in the Vatican bureaucracy say that as a result of the Accord, the Communists are now going easier on the Catholics. But as Brownback and many others have reported, their campaign against these Christian faithful has actually stepped up since the Vatican sold them out.

Sam Brownback is a Trump appointee, however, as the progressive types eagerly point out. He is not Red, but Red State. They, who excuse moral monsters from Xi Jinping to Nicolas Maduro, faced with an opinionated Brownback, fall into apoplectic rages.

To me, standing harmlessly on the sidelines, it says something, that Trump and his administration are more reliably Catholic than Bergoglio and his. The latter has Cardinal Filoni, “ambassador for evangelization,” as it were, touring the planet to sell the Sino-Vatican deal. I do not think it possible that a man of Filoni’s background and eminence can be so ill-informed. He is “only following orders,” as they said at Nuremberg.

Filoni says this deal will be a good thing in the future, implying the admission it is a bad thing now. He should also know that the future is unknowable, by men. Perhaps he will prove right: that the Vatican-approved torment of China’s longsuffering Catholics will lead paradoxically to some unforeseeable good. But meanwhile, I am inclined to condemn, with horrified outrage, a grave and present evil, of just the sort we must expect when our own shepherds cut deals with the wolves.

On heroic obedience

I will tell you a secret about Canada, but you must promise never to tell another living soul. We are secretly quite sane. We do a good job of hiding it, lest anyone notice and start asking us to assume adult responsibilities; for instance, we elected Justin Trudeau. But when no one seems to be looking, we do the right, or at least the practical thing. Then pretend it isn’t happening. Publicly, we may do something quite visibly insane, but just for a distraction. The Justin lad was good for that purpose. But then we act just as if we hadn’t done that, either. We have mastered the art of ignoring cause and effect. But privately, we can still tell most hawks from most handsaws.

Even here in beautiful downtown Parkdale — where everyone might live, if they didn’t overvalue their lives — I have met sane Canadians. They understand that, for instance, if the price of something is two dollars, and you have only one, you can’t buy it. Nor is there much point in pleading. You’ll have to borrow the other “loonie” (what we actually call our fairly worthless national currency). This will create some bother, so you might as well get a job. The general principle is to get away with anything you can, until the game is up. But then, instead of starting a revolution, get on with your life. In chess terms, all that we require is to recognize checkmate.

There may be foreigners who understand these things, but I’m sticking to the people I know. Even in this new epoch of social media, demand-making has limits. The Olde English concept of “fair cop,” where you stick up your hands and go quietly with the policeman, instead of trying to steal his gun and shoot him, is deeply implanted in the Canadian soul. (Like I say, I’m not going to speak for Americans.)

The trick, as all Leftists have ever understood, is to engineer a fait accompli. Give them no choice, and they’ll choose what you want them to, every time. This is how “democracy” functions. From non-smoking regulations, to single-payer medicare, just say we voted on it; even though we didn’t. People will even pay taxes voluntarily, if they can’t see a way to avoid them. I’ve seen them pay trolley fares on this principle; when the machines are broken, they stop. (Happily for us, the machines on Toronto trolleys are usually broken. Otherwise, we might switch to taxis.) This is sane behaviour.

Your average primitive in, say, the mountains of New Guinea or the backwaters of the Amazon — with, say, a spear and a bone in his nose — is also quite sane. He reacts to stimuli different from those we react to, and probably never rides transit, but when a threat appears, he knows what to do. I’ve heard a lot of smears against primitive people. But one must learn to look at things from their point-of-view, before passing judgement on their peculiar mannerisms.

Civilization (remember that?) is not built on sanity, after all. It is built on obligation and duty and habit. One gets so used to doing things in a civilized way, one doesn’t think twice about it. Class comes into this. As a member of the Middle Class, for instance, there is a whole world of “options” beyond one’s wildest imagination. But staying in the Middle Class trumps them all.

You don’t have to be sane to observe Lent, don’t y’know. You just have to be obedient. Forget the arguments for it; just do as the millions around you are doing. Or a little more, if you’re feeling like a hero; thus presenting your obedience to a higher command.

The millions around you are not observing Lent?

Bit of a problem, that, I’ll admit. You’ll just have to be a hero.

The freedom of Lent

One should be careful with the word “freedom.” It is full of mischief. Is it freedom for? or freedom from? or the freedom that is the opposite of freedom, adored by our progressives, who use old words with nice associations whose meanings they have gratuitously inverted.

If you hear a word like “tolerance,” run for your life (often it is used with the qualifier, “zero”). “Diversity” means punishment for those who deviate from the current party line. “Racism” announces an attack on white people; “sexism,” an attack on males; “gendered” means de-sexed. A “homophobe” is a person who disregards the demands of ruthless, aggressive, homosexual activists; and likewise, an “Islamophobe” disregards their Mussulman equivalents. Freedom, in each case, is identified with slavery; as war with peace; and among the “radicals” who populate our universities (the opposite of radicals because they are incapable of thinking anything through), ignorance is strength. Take almost anything coming from the mouth of, say, a “feminist,” or a “socialist,” and one may be reasonably confident that the opposite is true.

But gentle reader probably knows this already; and will know from experience if he is “on the far right” (i.e. endowed with sane judgement, moderation, and candour), that freedom is something that gets you in trouble, and therefore ought not to be casually indulged. It is a “human right,” but has become the freedom to be mobbed and persecuted by savage political hyenas.

Whereas, my idea of freedom is old-fashioned. Had I been around in the age of the great weasel (Eleanor Roosevelt), I would have been among those who ineffectually opposed her use of such phrases as “freedom from hunger.” From the founding documents of the United Nations, the list grows of “freedoms from” to justify bureaucratic intervention in every aspect of normal private life. Indeed, what I call Twisted Nanny State (the collective matrix of regulation) goes back to Bismarck, and to tyrants long before; though the inversion of evils to goods, and goods to evils, is a product of the modern imagination, detached as it has become from common sense and reason. It will recognize nothing holy: as of intrinsic value, divine and untouchable by the dirty hands of men.

The “freedom from” we need involves poverty, and abstinence from mad earthly schemes. It requires us to live not in a progressive, but in a timeless space, working for what one can know will be good at several complementary levels, but shy of all material ambitions and public awards. Confucius in his “Book of Songs” quotes an ancient Chinese lamentation (Waley’s translation):

Don’t escort the big chariot;
You will only make yourself dusty.
Don’t think about the sorrows of the world;
You will only make yourself wretched.

Don’t escort the big chariot;
You won’t be able to see for dust.
Don’t think about the sorrows of the world;
Or you will never escape from your despair.

Don’t escort the big chariot;
You’ll be stifled with dust.
Don’t think about the sorrows of the world;
You will only load yourself with care.

Contra mundum

This item brought forward and subtly amended from only three years ago. (I’ve been looking through old Idleposts, and am utterly appalled.) I think I may be doing this a lot through Lent: revising old items that seem topical again; trying to fix them.


“Flapjack Tuesday” has been a day for maple syrup, these last few centuries in the Canadas, up here. “Mardi Gras,” or “Shrove Tuesday” — the last day, before Lent — is assumed to require some exuberance. The pancakes were, by tradition, made to use up household supplies of eggs, milk, butter; last year’s syrup; and other non-Lenten things. Sausages come to mind; and alcohol.

Dairy was going off the menu, should the point not yet be twigged. “Abstinence,” to our Catholic ancestors, was more like what we’d call a hard fast; a “fast” was total. In these northern climes, Lent fell conveniently towards the end of the winter — when we were running out of everything, anyway. And the contrast, the vivid truth in the notion, “Drink, for tomorrow we die!” — is lost on this age, with neither feasts nor fasts, but blueberries from Chile. Our days and weeks and years go by in one continuous upbeat blur, until each, alone, comes to his disaster. Death has been homogenized. But it is still served cold.

At the Quebec winter carnival, they still wear sometimes the old ceintures fléchées — the colourful woollen “arrow sashes,” in memory of the Habitants, long gone under the asphalt of Mammon. It was worn by men of all classes, in styles by region, not by rank: Charlevoix, L’Assomption, Acadienne. It pulled one’s coat together, against the bitter cold. It stiffened one’s back for heavy labour. The ladies made them for their men: in bright gorgeous patterns, by a method of finger weaving the Indians had taught them.

Knot it tightly to one side, and know that you are loved!

But they are ours to remember, who understood Ash Wednesday. Who knelt so timid before the Cross; and waited so humbly to be shriven; the women with their clutches of young, the burly men with caps in their hands. Ours to remember them that prayed, and I believe pray still, for the wayward children of children of children, riding the asphalt.

Today, the Church for our weakness asks little. (The State demands more, far more.) And now I have grown so old (past sixty!) that I am canonically exempted from any penitential diet.

Little is expected of anyone. A friend, who became convinced of Roman ecclesial claims, “after a life on the lam from Jesus,” complains: too little. “Please turn up for Mass sometimes, and drop a fiver in the basket.” And in return, a smileyface heaven will be yours to share, with the pornographers and the psychos, because “everyone is beautiful in their own way.”

To be shriven is to make one’s Confession, be assigned one’s Penance. Then to be Absolved, in the name of Christ. To be freed of the weight of one’s sins. People who have wrestled with their souls in darkness, and dwelt in anguish under Hell’s weight, today are most likely to receive in their churches a quick collective gumdrop mercy. Heavily they come, and sadly walk away.

The churches (Protestant and Catholic alike) emptied out when they ceased to expect much of people. They were full, back when they made demands, of those whose lives were materially more demanding than ours have ever been — pitted, as once, directly against nature. And the churches will start filling again, when the demands resume. For I will tell gentle reader a great secret I have learnt from a long course of empirical observation. All men need Christ.

They do not come to Him as an option. A tiny few seem almost born into His arms; many more come because they are defeated, and all “options” have expired. But those do not come to have their heads patted.

Bind them with the sash, with the ceinture fléchée! With the toughest Love, against the winter storm. Inflame their hearts for the battle, and set their minds to Victory: against the world, the flesh, and the devil.

A rant for Saint David’s Day

The distinction between how things look, and how things are, was the subject of my column today in Catholic Thing (here). With my accustomed modesty, I began by dismissing all literature, art, music, et cetera, that is not “visionary” in some sense I did not adequately define. Then I proceeded through rhetorical hoops to the conclusion that the same pertains to worship — omitting the thick square book that could have intervened, for I had not the time to write it yesterday morning. The column should of course, like most of my writings, be read backwards. (Some are meant to be read sideways.) The point I was making was itself quite backward.

The foreground question, that has been disturbing me for some time, and obsessing me lately, is whether what we call for shorthand “Western Civ” is salvageable. That it would be worth salvaging (we live in the age of gerunds, don’t we?) I take for granted. We are alive; we have to live somehow; better that it be in the highest of civilizations, than in barbarous filth. Not everyone agrees with me on this. The great majority, even within my Church, would prefer to live in a moral, intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual pigsty of consumerism, in which the swineherds are provided by Twisted Nanny State.

Now traditionally, pigs had extended sharp tusks, and were death on swineherds. They still have them, but diminished in size by breeding, and sometimes even the wee vestigial bumps are removed, at the risk of cracking our jaws. This does not mean the captive suid is perfectly contented; only that he has been disarmed.

(I have a theory that humans are descended from pigs, not monkeys. I don’t actually believe it, but the argument can be developed in a way that will drive the village Darwinist crazy. Note: the average pig is smarter than a monkey; and can’t be bothered climbing trees.)

But I seem to be distracting myself into zoology, and my purpose was hardly to advance naturalism. Indeed, my self-assigned brief is for supernaturalism. My affection for pigs is just an aside. In the end it must be said there has never been a pig civilization, and the prospect that one may emerge by the ministrations of animal rights activists is, to my mind, dim.

Nor has there been a human civilization without unambiguously religious foundations. There can be no order (for good, or when it fails, for evil) that does not require reference to something higher than itself. This is as true for the headhunters of Borneo (where the pigs are bearded, and ought to be carefully avoided in the mangrove swamps), or the short-statured of the Congo jungle (formerly known as pygmies). Among the definitions of “faith” must be that which holds the tribe or a people together, without tyranny. When it is lost, everything is lost.

(The “red-river hogs” of the Congo swamps are an exceptionally beautiful species, incidentally, with their gorgeous orange fox-like fur, adorable whiskers, decorative black and white facial patches, and thin white stripe along spine and tail. Though as any pigmy could tell you, they are terrible yam thieves, can defend themselves even against leopards, and would not make good family pets.)

Where am I? … Faith. … Our own once unambiguously Christian civilization has been typical in its embrace of a supernatural order. The phenomena of collective worship are not unusual, as civilizations go. What made Christendom unique was the attachment to a God who can actually deliver us from cosmic perils. The hand-held devices we now worship cannot do that for us. Nor will they induce order of any kind.

Even at the most incontestably pragmatic level: it is time we returned to something that was working. Serve God, in Christ, and He will look out for us. Serve some other gods, and He won’t.


BONUS POINT. — From that Thing column: “A prophetic vision is not visual, or necessarily visual: the author could be blind. Nor can it be communicated in language alone.” … I am unsatisfied with the latter sentence. Yes, it can be communicated in words alone, but in words that go beneath and beyond themselves. For space, I cut a paragraph more reasonably explaining that anything worth reading, though it be only words, must participate in a dimension of poetry. Anything that doesn’t, needs to be destroyed. It is of the devil. That which is of God will be poetic of its nature. This is why the introduction of “Novus Ordo” was such an anti-Catholic crime: by desecrating the poetry of the Old Mass, it also undermined the content. Or consider Esperanto, for that matter: the invention of a language in which poetry would be impossible. As Baudelaire said, a man can go without food three days; but without poetry, Never!