Essays in Idleness


Down by the river

The Amazon is one of the world’s centres for hype. It is perfectly placed, the interior a vast (rather humid) jungle. There are piranhas in the water, and uncontacted tribesmen with blowguns and poison darts. I have noticed all the pictures from the remote forests are taken from aircraft and passing satellites. You can say anything about the Amazon, and who will contradict you? This makes it an environmentalist’s paradise.

By the latest hype, the Amazon is burning. Not the river, for by tradition only rivers in Cleveland catch fire, but the forest, containing X percent of the world’s trees, undiscovered endangered species and so forth.

It is not, of course. The small proportion of the Amazon that has been cleared for farming (did you know that farms produce food?) is where the fires are. And only a small proportion of those are in flames. This happens every year, and has happened since time out of the modern mind. It is an agricultural practice, that we may disapprove, but there you go: environmentalists disapprove of everything. We could have had this year’s hype in any year of the last many.

Now, hype seldom operates alone. It is for a purpose, after all. Malice and greed are sure to come with it. By now, a substantial part of the general population in places like Canada and the Natted States have begun to twig to this. Scare stories are the eco professionals’ principal source of money and power. The polar caps are melting, the seas are rising, there’s an invisible raft of empty plastic water bottles (and drinking straws) ten times the size of Texas. The snails in Banff are running for their lives. If any of this were really happening, there is not a thing we could do about it, beyond banning things. But around the world, hundreds of billions are raised through taxes on the basis of these various “just so” stories.

There may be something to them, however. CO2 levels are in fact increasing, in consequence of which planetary green is spreading, and forest cover is expanding splendidly. Perhaps that will provide the scare for the next generation: Killer trees!

Some workmen are just cutting a big one down across the street from me. It’s a start.

Judging from Hollywood, and the imaginative works of every human culture, people do like to be (harmlessly) scared. There will always be a market for apocalyptic narratives, as well as the utopian ones, and I should think with global village meejah, hype is here to stay. Some further reflections on that, here.

Back & forth

One looks back to look forward. This is a paradox, to be sure, but on several levels, among which Cardinal Newman (soon to be canonized) captured the main thrust by his notion of walking to Heaven backwards. He explained this, easily. We “progress,” we finally succeed, through error. It is as if Heaven were always behind us, and we approach through what seems like moving backwards.

But more, through his Parochial and Plain Sermon (on “The State of Innocence”):

“There is a very much closer connexion between the state of Adam in Paradise and our state in childhood, than may at first be thought.”

For we are “surveying Eden” when we do this. To look back upon this state of innocence is also to look forward, as it were, to our unworldly return, when all things are passed, and all works and trials have been accomplished. For the time, however, we are wrapped, and constrained, through our own Fall. And yet through the squalor of a sinful world, and our sinful selves, we are “aiming to be children again.”

This is the condition of being a Christian, as we proceed along our dangerous pilgrimage: to keep our minds fixed on futurity, in recollection of a past that returns to our Creation. And we look back through error.

Often we are compelled to look back in sorrow, rather than in joy. But either is the opposite of “looking back in anger,” which, I would say, is what the Devil wants: fear, not of God, and an essentially hopeless anger. Atheism may be proclaimed, but insincerely, for I have often heard atheists cussing at their Maker, and the Fate they imagine He has in store for them. The divine is not something that can be avoided.

Let me venture into theology. God is not petty. He does not settle scores. That is a very human perception, of vengeance and retaliation. The first thing to know about God, in Christ, is that He needs no power. He is not the schoolyard bully, or a trial lawyer. He does not punish men. By their disobedience, they only punish themselves; cannot break the law but only break themselves upon the law. We can see this ourselves, looking back, in love not in anger.

God made us for His own. He made none of us expendable, as we may sometimes glimpse in this backward glance, to Eden. Our circumstances may be complex, and grow in their complexity as we age. Misery, even in childhood, and more often than not human-caused — even by our own parents — obscures the backward vision. Yet in moments it is clear.

Our task is to recover this clarity; to see what has become invisible to us, because we have ignored it; to confess and be absolved; to suffer, even to suffer injustice; and then, unburdened, to approach the Altar. This, anyway, is what I have been thinking:

That from the beginning to the end, and through the miracle of our freedom, Christ has been waiting for us to come home.

Enviro tyros

My fortnightly disquisition in the Catholic Thing is now published (here). One thousand words is a “disquisition” today, when anything longer than a topical aphorism will overreach the attention span of most Internet readers. But there are tiny minorities that should still be served.

The point of my piece is that, thanks to indoctrination, the great majority have “the environment” backward and upside down. They think it is about waste, pollution, endangered species, global temperatures, sea levels, the latest green technology, and so forth. True enough, we should avoid spoiling our terrestrial habitation, and I do not favour poisoning it. But that’s why I am generally opposed to massive environmental schemes. Each simplistic project, imposed by centralized guvmint “mandates,” will make things worse. But it prevails when the general public are intimidated by repetitive slogans. Prudence would require us to carefully examine, and reject, vast white elephant projects, that can be “sustained” only by ruinous taxation, both direct and indirect.

Whereas, my dated “conservation” ethic does not fixate on such imponderables as the health of Mother Earth. Rather it is focused on the human environment. It is implicitly local, and asks such questions as, What is it like to live here? Does this environment encourage man to his best behaviour? Will our proposal advance or subvert goodness, beauty, truth?

And will it do this concretely? Will what we build be better than what was here, or was once here? Or does it merely answer to abstract, inhuman, statistical criteria?


Richard Doyle, John Stirling, Neil Reynolds, Robert Royal. That is a complete list of good editors I have worked for, in the course of half a century of scribbling. The rest were glorified sub-editors. The good ones have promoted what ought to be said, and courageously defended the freedom to say it. A good editor has thoughts of his own, from personal experience and broad reading. He is a blessing to his environment. Bad editors have editorial “mandates.” They are just functionaries (often incompetent).

Rather than afflict me with obtuse fact-checker questions, the latest of these good editors responded to my most recent submission by grasping its key point. By way of acknowledgement, he ping’d back a quotation from “Le Cygne,” by Charles Baudelaire:

Andromaque, je pense à vous! Ce petit fleuve,
Pauvre et triste miroir où jadis resplendit
L’immense majesté de vos douleurs de veuve,
Ce Simoïs menteur qui par vos pleurs grandit,

A fécondé soudain ma mémoire fertile,
Comme je traversais le nouveau Carrousel.
Le vieux Paris n’est plus (la forme d’une ville
Change plus vite, hélas! que le coeur d’un mortel) …

Yes, Old Paris is no more. The form of a city changes more quickly than the human heart, hélas!

Saint Cassian pray for us

Everyone knows that today is the Feast of Saint Hippolytus (I am joking); who, for his confession of the Faith, was dragged by wild horses. But not everyone appreciates that we also commemorate Saint Cassian, schoolmaster at Immola, disliked by his idol-worshiping boys. They put him to death by piercing, with their styluses. It was “long-drawn-out,” as the Roman Martyrology explains, with possibly unintended drollness.

Therefore he became the patron of — guess? — stenographers. As a (formerly) ink-stained wretch myself, who in his youth disliked several teachers, the story makes perfect sense to me. I, too, once worshiped idols. All the schoolboys did.

Do I believe it? Was Cassian actually slain in this way? I have no reason to doubt it. Truth is often stranger than fiction, and the whole of Christendom was founded on events the first listeners disbelieved. The Resurrection wasn’t plausible to them.

The idea of holy martyrdom itself is, today, somewhere out of reach. A little meejah tickle suggests, “Maybe he deserved it.” We want to know exactly what Cassian said to make his students so angry. Conditions during the Roman Persecution were, for people unexposed to history, quite unimaginable. Even conditions during Mao’s Cultural Revolution — when students also executed their teachers — are unknown to them. Everything becomes a mystery, to the thoroughly uneducated.

In a recent missal a man now styled Saint Cassian of Tangier, has been casually shifted to December. The backstory is also changed, to that of another Cassian in the Martyrology. The saint is identified as a court recorder, who at the pronouncement of a death sentence throws down his pen and declares, “I, too, am a Christian.” He is immediately arrested, and gets to share the martyrdom of his mentor. This is more plausible, for moderns, I suppose. But still, not plausible at all.

The latest version has Cassian of Tangier merely protesting the excessive use of the death penalty.

Glib plausibility is what we worship, today.

According to some poll, just published, 70 percent of living, nominal Catholics in the Natted States simply do not believe in the Real Presence. My first thought was, “No wonder they don’t go to church.”

But John Hirschauer, receiving this news, reminds us that some of them do. He recounts the reduction of the Mass, since Vatican II, to something glib, prosaic, tedious and painful. But let’s not go through the de-Catholicization of Holy Church again, it’s too depressing. Have Catholics been leaving the Church?

Often it looks more as if the Church has been leaving them. Many weren’t even told the doctrine, before they parted ways.

But give the last word to Mahatma Gandhi:

“If Catholics really believed that God Himself were present in the Eucharist, they would crawl towards the altar on their stomachs.”

The prognosis

No predictions are offered in these Idleposts, or if gentle reader is able to find one, he is instructed not to take it seriously. The question, “Where does this lead?” is often implied, but since matters must be considered one track at a time, or at most two or three, no safe predictions can be offered. Only facts can be attested (sometimes). When I look back over the “evolution” of any A into any B, this impossibility becomes obvious. Too many seemingly irrelevant factors come into the mix, and change it. One may say the whole trend was for the good or for the evil, but this involves blather.

Does anyone understand this? (Do I?) In colloquial speech and writing, we easily assume foreknowledge, and intentions that began as no part of the story. Even if we could understand what one of the characters intended, we cannot understand the combinations. It is hard enough to read one mind, retrospectively; and minds change, so that prospectively, we have no information.

Who, for instance, could guess that a girl (and if so, which one) would “trigger” mass hysteria in a Malayan high school, with her own sudden onset of what we used to call “the vapours”? (Some piece I was reading on the BBC.) We know that such events occur; that they are more frequent in some places than in others; that the hysterics are overwhelmingly young and female; but sometimes they are male. The hysteria starts explosively, the contagion is immediate; then like most things, it fades. Meanwhile, hundreds or thousands have participated, showing real symptoms for what had no medical cause. For no accountable reason, normality returns, and people have leisure to construct their explanations. But no one saw the irruption coming.

The same with mass shootings, knifings, and other violent acts. No policeman, nor any psychologist can see the crime coming, even if he has been tipped off about unstable persons. We will have to arrest everyone in advance. Even Comrade Stalin would be at a loss. We can however say that some places are more likely than others to provide a spontaneous “terror” incident, or that the overwhelming number of perpetrators will be young and male; though some will be female. (An incident that is planned can sometimes be interrupted by diligent police work, but the plan itself was spontaneously conceived.) In some circumstances, wild rioting may follow, but in most cases, no. “Copycat” killings, including suicides may happen, but again, who can guess where?

Social conditions contribute to such acts, but who can fully understand them? Who can consider them impartially, for each explanation must contain presuppositions, any of which can be made controversial. Often, I think, those who analyze the batty event are themselves batty; and sometimes a microphone is more dangerous than a gun.

Among our modern “myths,” or imaginings, is the notion that we can know what, in reality, only God could know. We assign motives, and judge, to suit our own convenience, at a given moment. We cannot judge the way God would judge, assuming the Christian revelation is true. (This is the presupposition of Faith, which I have certainly bought into.)

But if there is anything resembling a traditional moral order, as in all known pre-modern societies, we can easily know what is good or bad. We can make sense of the moral order, especially if like the Catholic one it is intellectually coherent; and we may praise or blame according to it. We can distinguish what is sane, from what is quite crazy.

The alternative to moral order is disorder. This becomes inevitable when conventions of good and bad are refounded not on reason and tradition, but on our messy, contradictory “feelings.” Things become bad not because they are demonstrably bad, but because we personally find them icky. We make ourselves the judges, and of course our judgements will vary, from day to day. We may not be mad, but will be able to mimic madness effectively this way.

What follows from this can be prognosticated, but only vaguely. A society will fall into warring, emotional factions. But this is not a specific prediction, rather an observation, of how things are, today.

Touch the Earth

Two thoughts that I simply must share with gentle reader, after examining this morning’s meejah. One is bigger than the other, though I’m not sure which.


Item: David Whitlock, gentleman and chemical engineer, observed horses rolling in dirt, near the beginning of this century. (I observed this phenomenon earlier, incidentally, and saw that it extends to many furred and feathered creatures.)

“Why do they do this?” he asked himself.

Too, I noticed that horses hardly ever take showers, voluntarily, and even when they do, they never reach for soap, or “sham-poo.” (Ditto, cats and sparrows.) Surely, something worth pondering. Consider, too, the humans in “developing countries,” not yet visited by the sales representatives of Unilever, or Procter & Gamble. Water, yes. Ivory soap, no. And instead of using peaceful laundry detergents, they beat their home-spun clothing against rocks. (Pre-industrial weaving can stand up to it, apparently.)

As an experiment, Mr Whitlock stopped bathing. After fifteen years, he denies having any body odour. He has also subscribed to the theory, that the skin is stripped of protective oils by soap and detergents — whereas, it was designed (by God) to preserve a rich, microbiomic heritage. True, Mr Whitlock developed quite a pong at first, but that was before he invented his own bacterial product: soil from a local farm, juiced with a nitrate from ammonia. Now, I gather, he smells pretty as a horse.

There is, I learn from the Grauniad, a flourishing cosmetic industry for other soap disenthusiasts. But surely gentle reader may save his money and avoid this bourgeois, extravagant trade. Just get out and roll in the dirt, occasionally.


Item: on tariff walls.

I was raised on the notion that “free trade” is a good thing, and that tariffs are bad, bad, bad. And true, I am still not a Socialist, Communist, or Democrat. But I do have a conservationist streak, and let me admit candidly that tariffs are good for the environment. Not only do they stop wasteful, carbon-fuelled, international shipping and transport. They should help close down innumerable, export-dependent, smokestack industries at home. A much cleaner Earth, and no more anthropogenic global warming!

Therefore I propose to nominate Mr Donald Trump and Mr Xi Jinping, to share the first Nobel Eco Prize.

A call to revolt

Patience is a virtue, one of many I sadly lack. My father, a serious industrial designer and thus a critic of modern industry, decried its general absence. There is a hurry to get things done. This has, no doubt, economic causes, using that term broadly to include deadlines of all kinds — the hurry to get to market, compounded by the incredible mass of tax and regulatory considerations that create a shallow obstacle course through which the creative are compelled to stumble. They function, in effect, as spatial deadlines, intersecting the temporal ones.

Sometimes arbitrary rules are necessary, of course, but the more they are centralized, codified, then subjected to chop and change, the more destructive of human ingenuity, and the more they encourage stupidity, waste, and corruption.

Leisure — in the sense crisply expounded by Josef Pieper and other penetrating Thomists — is eliminated or lethally crimped by these “deadlines.” (See: Leisure the Basis of Culture, trans. Dru, 1952. It has a fine introduction by T. S. Eliot, too, and should be on every idler’s most accessible bookshelf, until he has memorized it.)

Pieper does not say this directly, but I will: the opposite of philosophical leisure is glibness. It has other opposites, but I mention this one because it is involved in almost every form of ignorance, atheism, and sin. Rather than think anything through, to first principles, we race through the equivalent of a hop-scotch course, our minds fully loaded with distraction. We must “touch all the bases.”

Our modern conception of science is a bureaucratic mechanism called “scientific method” which denies the existence of human intuition, and thus our humanity. It is never actually followed — no scientist ever discovered anything in a time-serving, methodical way; especially not on billion-dollar machines. But still we praise and believe in this method, or such derivatives as Popper’s “falsifiability,” because we are easily pleased, profligate, and hopelessly glib.

It is the same in every section of art and design. A few, a very few, independent and searching minds, take the leisure to “build cathedrals,” as it were. They remain conscious not of arbitrary rules, but of Nature and the God who is the source for emulation. The conception of God may take various shapes in the human imagination, but everyone fully alive will know what he means by “God,” even while denying Him.

God is not glib. As evidence, let me cite the extent of the universe, and the complexity of its parts. Yet to the mind of a Darwinist, or other tomfool, God is imagined as a random, non-teleological process; as movement with no end in view. God is conceived as if He were glib.

Ditto on the moral, and legal, planes. We appropriate the divine; declare ourselves authors of goodness and truth; draught standing orders and legislation. We legislate “progress” by intellectual oversight, replacing what is changeless with things that are changing. It is interesting that not only the Christian but the ancient pagan traditions were free of this arrogance, in which we assume that chance and destiny lie within our power. But all human power is illusory. In the end every one of us is dead.

Finally, on the plane of poetry — the embodiment of the beautiful — our poetical feet are caught in catch phrase, cliché. We are going through the motions, like bonobos or bigger monkeys. We perform jingles.

Unless: we stand back from our little games, and take whatever time is necessary, to consult with the ages and the Master of the ages.

Make a stand now, gentle reader! It is time that we staged a Revolt Against Glibness.

August calmative

It is true, I have been dawdling, and am at risk of further dawdling, so long as this summer lasts. Hardly anyone reads me, though; who will notice?

Truth to tell, I have nearly lost my mind, so that it wobbles on the precipice of being, and I am under an arguably moral imperative to, if possible, fetch it back. But then, mental health is often overstated. For instance, I have caught myself taking “events” with untoward seriousness, and devoting an unconscionable amount of time to perusing such filth as the Main Stream Meejah. At the risk of contradicting Mr Trump, there is no genius who can do that very long, and remain “extremely stable.” Indeed, I attribute the fact that all of our politicians are mad, to their universal habit of following the news. How could anyone maintain equanimity, keep an even temper, even a straight face, in such circumstances? Invariably they turn into strait ones.

And when they are not following the news, they are generating it.

“Monkey see, monkey do.”

Voters should demand that they take long, reflective vacations, for their frenetic activity is idle in entirely the wrong way. It should be philosophical. I propose that presidents only serve, and parliaments meet, once in a while. Their bureaucrats should likewise be encouraged towards indefinite truancy. By way of giving them the hint, we could stop paying them. Let them go to the fields to watch the food grow, and ready themselves to help come the harvest.

The French are good at this, or were. In France, by tradition, nothing happens during the month of August, and the government shuts down. I spent that month in Paris, once, and found that the city had become, except for a few abandoned tramps and lunaticks — and some critically necessary wine merchants — completely depopulated. Indeed, even the Sorbonne was emptied of its usual rioting communists. Even feral pigs had disappeared from the suburban arrondissements, in pursuit of their neighbours, to carry on their culinary researches in the départements. Finally, even I left. It was just too hot — that year as no doubt every other — and when the plumbing failed, the prospect of bathing in the Seine did not appeal to me.

I may still write one thing or another, now or then through the month, should I find myself present in Greater Parkdale, up here in the High Doganate, and feeling perversely industrious. For even my absences are unreliable. But gentle reader should ignore these things. He will find, if he shuts down his laptop, and any other devices he may own, past North American Labour Day, that nothing will have happened in this world, at all worth his attention.

Unless something does, but should that be the case, he is likely to be apprised, direc’ly.