Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

Cancel culture

As the latest reports from our universities confirm, we live in an age of juvenile anachronism. So far as the past is acknowledged at all, it is to be judged, by the incredibly narrow standards of “social justice,” itself two words of a lie. Anyone who tries to resist this — even tenured professors — will be demoted, fired, or “placed on probation.” In Soviet universities, this was enough to keep most dissent secret. There is, after all, at least one mouth to feed, and not everyone is equipped to become a martyr. Among the better academics, some particles of truth can be snuck into lectures, past the inquiring minds of ignorant thugs.

But as technology has now blessed us with portable, and easily concealed recording devices, teachers must stay constantly on guard. A slight ideological slip could end the most promising career, apart from surrounding the speaker with shrieking Antifa blackshirts who, if they manage to injure him, will not be prosecuted by campus or municipal sensitivity police.

Am I exaggerating? Probably. I have also seen evidence of little islands of sanity, where happily irrelevant scholars continue as before.

Too, after family breakdowns and the re-education of a generation of public school teachers, the crop of new students are so dull and docile that, unless they are radicalized, they will sit there aloof, like zombies. There are “conservative” students, whose complacency can serve any mission. Many have “common sense” enough to play along. They are only there to acquire the minimum credentials for paid work on the outside. It is a prison term. Once graduated, they will then adopt the customs and tone in their workplace environment which, except for “professions” like journalism, are unlikely to be radical. The feigned “social justice warrior” is transformed into a feigned enthusiast for capitalism, by self-interest, almost overnight.

Leftists knows this. To know the Left is to know that it isn’t motivated by ideals, except in those who are abnormally stupid. It dreams of power, on the large scale, but also on the small. (Once they have power, they can take things like money.) This involves manipulating people, whenever their consent is needed. A mildly intelligent leftist doesn’t really care what people believe, only that they are useful and obedient. He may frankly deny being an idealist. He is a practical person, after practicable ends, and often patient as he works to their attainment. His motto might be, “Try, try, and try again.”

To some degree, the leftists can control what people think, thanks to their progressive infiltration of media and education in all their many forms. The programme, however, is not to enforce slavish thought — that would be an ideal — but to inculcate slavish behaviour. As the Left knows from its long, post-Enlightenment history, and as all tyrants have always known, the key to this is not dialectic, but intimidation. It is not to eliminate politically incorrect thought — which simply can’t be done. It is to limit “incorrect” speech, so that it will only be spoken among one’s most trusted friends. The rewards for those friends, if they rat you out, are always substantial.

How does one resist this? It can be done.

The strategy is to speak up, and face the consequences. The enemy, being morally vacuous, will often back down. Even if he doesn’t, he is shaken. As veteran dissidents in the Soviet Union discovered, sometimes the authorities don’t know what to do. They must call meetings. The most devastating subversion was, not to lie. The very survival of the system (“politically correct” was formerly a Soviet term), demands protection of the big lie with supporting ones. It is the bodyguard principle. But suppose they crack.

So my instruction to resisters is to make cracks, with the sledgehammer of Truth.

Aside on beuks

My intention was to write a long and learned treatise on the Islamic concept of “People of the Book,” but after a sip of tea I forgot about it. My classical Arabic is not up to requirements, and my understanding of Islamic jurisprudence is, quite frankly, slow.

For instance, I am easily defeated by the question, “What is a Sabian?” Having been told that Christians, Jews, and Sabians were “people of the book,” I wanted to meet a Sabian. According to the (safely dated) sources I consult, they might have been some gnostic, middle-eastern sect, but according to the Hadiths, they were all “converted to Islam” anyway.

But I’m still curious. Can I see their Book?

Or, “Beuk,” as I like to spell it, to imply a Scottish brogue. Rhymes with “neuk,” “nook,” or “nuke,” depending on one’s state of civilization. Presbyterians do not, so far as I know, admit to being “people of the beuk,” even if it is the Institutes of Calvin. But most other Protestants seem happy to use the phrase, of themselves. They would be referring to the Bible, though in point of fact, the older sort of Muslims (say, 10th century), would be indicating the Gospels alone, as distinct from the Psalms, the book for the Hebrews.

There are liberals in all religions, and eventually even the Sikh Adi Granth was accepted, by India’s Muslim conquerers, as a bona fide “Beuk”; and this although most Sikhs deny that it is scripture.

Skipping forward, there seems to be a consensus among the scholars that Monotheism, not a book per se, was what would save the neck of an infidel, so long as he also paid the jizya. This confuses me because they eventually half-tolerated the Hindus (who had them seriously outnumbered); and in light of the Trinity, considered Christians to be polytheists, too. I often wish their phanatics would try harder to establish some dogmatic consistency, before they start blowing people up.

But I’m with them when they attribute a kind of magic, to Beuks in the abstract. In this, they were like all the simple, and complicated, peoples of the world, until the invention of printing. It was not only a question of labour. (It took time to copy a manuscript, legibly.) I think Prospero’s attitude towards his precious books conveys this ancient superstition. One could use a book to perform magic.

Nobody understands this today. Consider, if thou wilt, gentle reader, our modern distinction between matter and spirit. It was a Cartesian breakthrough. Ancient people could hardly understand a distinction they’d never heard of, and even if a slicker like Shakespeare had heard, he didn’t trust it.

Neither do I, and in particular, I strongly doubt that books are not magic. This naturally applies to books that contain falsehoods, or may be composed entirely of falsehood, as well as to books that are true. They all have magical properties, as can be demonstrated by the continuing influence of many from the past. They should be treated with reverence (which includes respect), until they are discovered to be evil, in which case they should be burnt.

This is, I confess, an unmodern view. It is not because a book is “useless” that it should be dispensed with. It is rather because the book contains the wrong sort of magic. It encourages, nay empowers, its owner to do wrong. It should not be burnt casually, therefore.

The reason no one agrees with me, is that they don’t take books seriously any more. Thanks to printing and further technical developments, they are turned out today very cheaply. The quality of printing and binding is low. I am myself disinclined to let any book printed after, say, 1970, into the High Doganate. This is because they are ratty. All will be pulped or landfilled, in due course, with the newspapers and magazines. (I once adapted a wood stove for this purpose.)

Instead, we should insist on fine paper, crisp typography, adequate margins, stitched gatherings, strong board covers, or better. This will make burning them an event.

____________

A reader argues that the texts of beuks will survive on the Internet, but as nobody reads those, it is not a problem. Moreover, the Internet itself doesn’t last, and after a few years, it is the electronic equivalent of trying to retrieve old banana peels.

Simplicity itself

To fight with the enemy on the enemy’s own terms. I’m against this. I think it is poor strategy; what I might call the strategy of pre-surrender. While I might disagree with many, actually most of his policies, one thing I like about this Trump fellow, who seems controversial even in his own country, is his fixation on Victory. We should not be planning to lose. We should not be trying to “manage decline,” though in my view the stakes are not economic but civilizational. Our overall plan should be to win, and as for the demons who are getting in our way, to leave them in humiliated silence.

This is why I don’t call myself a “conservative,” although the word is sometimes useful as a collective for “everyone who is not actively resisting the good.” If I had a quibble with the late Sir Roger Scruton, it began with his failure to be Catholic, and thus a thoroughgoing Reactionary. (I loved the man, incidentally.) He was right about most practical worldly things, even when he had the context wrong. He was “instinctively right,” as it were.

By his Wicked Paedia entry, I am reminded of Sir Roger’s complaint against the modern university, which in the name of “relevance” seeks to replace “pure by applied mathematics, logic by computer programming, architecture by engineering, history by sociology.” That is how it has produced charmless philistines to replace men of breadth and learning.

Of course, to consult any Wickish article on a “conservative” writer is to ask for an insult. Their policy will be to present his life “warts and all,” with a strong emphasis on the warts, many of which will require invention. They will flatulate their “smelly little orthodoxies” (Orwell’s phrase for “political correctness”), in order to elevate something quite unexceptionable into a high crime and misdemeanor. The subject’s views will be labelled “controversial,” sometimes as often as the old Peking Review used the label “running dogs,” in case you hadn’t detected their bias yet.

But that is to be distracted by the dogs, or since I like dogs, by the termites. The trick is not to answer to their arguments, but to shut them out. Getting entangled with intricate malice wastes everyone’s time. Better to confront intellectual termites with the literary equivalent of boric acid, plus Trumpian bait stations.

The “virtue of irrelevance,” as Sir Roger advanced it, is in some limited sense a key to the worldly version of the reactionary view. We may see a distinction from conservatism, with its wearisome emphasis on economic growth. To pretend that the GDP will improve, as a result of our cultivated irrelevance, is to live a lie. Of course it will not. I am not against economic activity, but it can take care of itself. Apart from the need to criminalize certain kinds of economic activity, and put the perpetrators in gaol, “trade and investment,” per se, should be no part of a government’s mandate. Let those who want such things as money, shill for it themselves.

What concerns us all is our salvation, and here the distinction between “conservative” and “reactionary” comes immediately into play, along with the unarguable transcendentals — the good, the beautiful, and the true. What we call “the arts” barely describes the art in what we do — that is positive, not passive or negative. The good, even at its most general, has nothing to do with the gymnastic contortions of “tolerance,” for human action will always be intolerable to some — even the high activity of contemplation. The building (not destroying) of a civilization is a by-product of all efforts, though it is not the end we seek at all. God is that end.

What leads towards Him is good. What leads away is evil. It’s as simple as that.

Sir Roger Scruton

The loss of England’s last conservative thinker makes a new addition to our chronicle of death. Sir Roger Scruton had been quite ill, from a cancer, submitting to chemotherapy and the like, yet nevertheless stayed in the news, always with a new book (he wrote around eighty, according to one obituarist, on about as many subjects), in addition to being an accomplished pianist, enthusiastic fox-hunter, and so forth; and most recently in the news from a vicious, deceitful attack on him by a leftist thug, “interviewing” him for the New Statesman (where he had once been the wine columnist).

This cost him, for a while, his remarkable work as (unpaid) chairman of a British commission to promote better-built and more beautiful housing. Fortunately, a recording was found of what he actually said. This did not resemble what the leftist thug said that he had said, so the paper apologised. But in the course of the (widely publicized) “scandal,” Sir Roger was able to discover, hardly for the first time, that the “conservative establishment” are gutless pantwets. Their first instinct was to abandon him for their own personal safety.

I remember Roger Scruton (as he then was) from the start of The Idler magazine, in Toronto. He was editing The Salisbury Review, in London, where some of the people can read. Both were reckless start-ups. Naturally we corresponded, and taking each other for fellow “young fogeys,” were mutually helpful. I was surprised by his command of detail, including subscription and distribution arrangements. He was operating on a shoestring, as I was. Incredible application and industry made him a success, so that his name was soon known across Europe, and even in the United States.

His name is best known in Central Europe, and especially in former Czechoslovakia (which he loved), from the “activist” part of his life before, and then after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In such parts, everyone not a criminal was anti-Communist, but he was thinking in larger terms. In the end, with the ideological degeneration in the West, I thought of him as an English dissident.

The word “conservative” has been used here before. Sir Roger was unashamed of it. He took it to be a philosophy, but finding its adherents somewhat dim, worked heroically to instruct them. He was not a man of one idea, nor as I have mentioned, of one book; he was habitually a teacher. His cause, in a word, was Civilization: its preservation. He was quite unpretentious about it, though his attention to modern “Enlightened” thinkers and use of their vocabulary made him seem, often, to be learnedly dense; but never so much that he could not be followed by a reader who remained conscious. He was exact: something that “perfessers” don’t bother with any more. He was, methodically, independent of mind; and unexcitable. Those who’ve read broadly have, in effect, seen it all before; and he was willing to explain it.

A Burkean conservative, I suppose we could call him, though I favour the term, “reactionary.” Edmund Burke reacted to the French Revolution, grasping that it was evil. Sir Roger’s reaction was to the Paris streets in 1968, a later explosion of “self-indulgent middle-class hooligans,” with an ambitious agenda they can’t articulate, except in gobbledegook and slogans. He realized, on the spot, that he was a builder, not a destroyer. He must get to work, defending things. He did, and paid each price in full.

From the start, he was “obsessed” with beauty. His first books were on art and architecture, and from these objects his interests spread. I won’t go into my disagreements with him — this would take eighty books — but we agreed on most things. We are, or were, both proponents of the “Endarkenment,” in opposition to the Lords of Misrule. Let us say the parting prayer and continue: Backward ho!

Morbid insecurity

Among the advantages of illness, is the opportunity for contemplative thought. One may think of a subject, for instance deaths — by my age, I have encountered plenty. Or just about one’s own death, a non-statistical fact. Or displace this, by thinking of, say, the death of one’s father.

A famous Welsh poet told his father to “rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” I would not make this suggestion to gentle reader. My own father, who had lost most of his marbles in the course of events, went quietly. He was seraphic towards his (biological) end. But he had thought of death thoroughly, before, back when he was fully equipped for intellectual adventures. He was impressively courageous, and took the view that, “Death is exciting. One wonders what comes next. There will be something, I’m quite sure.”

His daughter once told me that the fear of death is overdone. “Suppose you knew that you were going to die tomorrow afternoon. You could still do stuff in the morning.”

To which I would add, forget the expenses. Either your papers are in order, or they’re not. If not, they are a problem for other people. And lo: death puts an end to taxes, at least for you. As to your worldly goods, why worry? You won’t be needing them any more.

I am taking a “practical,” rather than philosophical view. I was discussing this matter with an Atheist, recently, and found we were, neither of us, worrying at that moment. If your consciousness becomes extinct in perpetuity, there is nothing to think about at all. If it continues, transformed, one is nevertheless free of this planet. In many ways that would be a good thing. But even if one is a “clinger,” towards biological life, it is still over. No matter how shamefully one has lived, there will be no biological consequences. You left your life as an author leaves his book. The book itself has no “feelings.”

For the Christian, of course, one’s life is just beginning. One’s reputation is on a different thread. One had, from the beginning, a much different Reader. But for either Christian or Atheist, what people say either no longer matters, or never did. Anxiety becomes as pointless as it was before. Your biological death was on the cards, all along.

Should everyone around you also die — from instantaneous climate change or whatever — it won’t increase the drama. No one will be checking the news, next day. Those who looked forward to a dramatic martyrdom will be disappointed, but the disappointment won’t last.

It was all in the prospect.

Everyone believes in God, even when they are in denial. (I am quite sure of this.) They can’t help it, they were wired that way. Atheists suffer the most. This is because their theological opinions are the most primitive. The kindergarten God is petty. He is ruthless, basically, always out to get you. One way is by killing you off; though another was by making it rain today. The joy in existing is muted, at best, because Something would have to take credit for that. For even Atheists secretly realize, they did not create themselves.

To my observation, the triumph of the “Nones” (i.e. people without religion, the large majority today) is revealed less in statistics than in this joylessness. And behind it, a very real pathology, based on a theology in which God, though apparently powerful, is small and somewhat mindless. He likes to punish people, often for no reason. We are anxious about what he will do to us today. Maybe He will give us cancer. Maybe He will make the stock market plunge. If He’s in a mood, He may shoot down our aeroplane.

But God is not petty.

Security

Is gentle reader secure? I would hope not, for it must be a terrible curse.

Speaking recently to an elderly gentleman, who had once however been much younger, I was told how he envied the young today. He spoke especially of university students, of whom he had formerly been one. This was about the time I was contriving to be born, or very soon after — towards the middle of the 1950s. He came from a rural community in eastern Ontario, or rather two such communities, but in the same location. One was Scotch, the other French, in our county of Glengarry.

More completely, one was Scotch Highland Orange Lodge Presbyterian; the other, slightly more sophisticated and poorer, French Canadian Peasant Catholic, with a church somewhere. (Nobody knew where it was.)

They got along well. The French spoke English, and the Scotch spoke no French. This helped them to understand each other. (Had the Gaelic been retained, there might have been fights.)

Perhaps I have given too much background, already; but gentle readers in New Zealand must picture the scene. My informant is old enough to have come from somewhere. It was from a little village that was more like a crossroads, where all the buildings (houses, barns, &c) were painted grey (except those which had never been painted).

The Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould, once commented on this. He said if you had a house in the suburbs, where all the doors were painted grey, and a neighbour was painting his door red, you would be under a moral obligation to plead with him.

Now that is one sort of security, which can be powerful when it is community-enforced, or as we say today, “a community value.” But Frederic, or Fred as I shall call him, assured me that the rural place he came from, and of which he had the fondest memories, was catatonically boring.

If one drove through that intersection today, which still has arguable remains, though not of the highest archaeological standard, one would not remember one had been there. This is because one would not notice passing through. Today it has no commercial enterprises, and the Orange Lodge is gone. Does it still have Frenchmen? No one knows.

Now, Fred was a bright ambitious boy, who learnt how to read. He got good marks in school, and in the course of time, went into a university. This was in a town, where he met other university students, and professors, though no one as smart and well-informed as his first grade teacher. Finally, he graduated. (The subject wasn’t important: English or whatever.)

This was the big event of his life. After that, he could get a good job, and did, here in the big city. He could make a good multiple of what his income might otherwise had been — easy work, regular hours, no heavy lifting. There were annual vacations.

The next big event in his life was his retirement. After this he could collect a pension. Decades have passed, and he is still collecting it. There was something about a wife and family, but they seem to have gone away.

Well, I wouldn’t want to tell you more; I’d feel I were invading Fred’s privacy. My one point was going to be about security. Fred himself said he had a lot. And he was envious of “the kids today.” He was referring specifically to the university students.

“When they graduate, they might not get a well-paid job. They might not be able to find any job at all, or will have to find a new one every few years, or weeks. They won’t know what comes next, or even if, forty years from now, there will be a pension.” Fairly certainly they will start and end with a mountain of debt, &c.

For sure, they live interesting lives. They have been freed from the curse of security.

 

Still lifes

The Twelfth Night of Christmas, wherein I am writing — the Eve of the Epiphany — is another of those evenings when the ghosts walk. The date is my father’s birthday. He would be ninety-five, were he with us still. Through the day I have felt as if he were present, and whether my eyes be open or closed, moments from what I saw of his past recur to my apprehension. Vivid still pictures that were never photographs — appear before me unbidden.

I can’t know other minds except by acts of the projective imagination. I don’t know if others, or how many, have my ability to recall scenes. I mislead by calling them “stills,” for often they include motion, especially characteristic gestures. It is as though I were looking at the living person, as he was, or as she was, with all intervening years cut away. My old feelings towards that person are aroused, even when they are in conflict with my present feelings. I am able to describe the picture, though not with the detail to draw a portrait, or move around the frame.  Nevertheless, the image has power, to reproduce scenes long forgotten. Always, the subject is someone who was close to me, if only in the moment of my recollection. When it is my father, there are many, many scenes, some of which I don’t “remember having remembered” before. I can’t summon such an image at will, however.

My mother described these experiences, and like her I could, with the aid of them, produce checkable facts. She could summon the memories, and had an extraordinary ability to do so. Were she still alive, she could give demonstrations.

Because I live alone, these days, I have more time for drifting thought than most people. Too, I have been quite ill lately; some seasonal flu I assume. Fever explores parts of mind usually unvisited, or so I guess. Beyond this, there are several kinds of idleness, at which I am proficient. And I am nostalgic, by nature, although what I see from the past is seldom accompanied by nostalgic longing. It is like being back, however briefly, in a previous present. It is usually some long-ago, for instance today my father driving a car when I must have been two or three. I have never had a prognostic “epiphany,” as some claim to have had; nor have I dabbled in past lives.

Or perhaps I have, for with eyes closed, towards sleep, I sometimes vividly “see” a face that I have never seen before. It is the face, as if of a living person, but no one I could name; sometimes in rather dated clothing. Or a succession of strange faces pass quickly by.

On the Day of Judgement, by Christian consensus, we will be able to remember everything; simultaneously, I suppose, or anyway outside time. We will not need an accuser, being so perfectly placed to judge ourselves. That will be when we need an advocate, if I may use temporal terms for the timeless. Better that we start preparing now.

But even in this world we proceed with “flashes,” of recollection, to remind us nothing that has happened can be scrubbed, though we might wish. Not scrubbed, at least, by us. Guilt in our own failures and purposeful misdeeds return to haunt us. But this is not the whole of it.

There were times when it seemed I glimpsed paradise, in some earthly moment of incomparable beauty and peace. I imagine that others, perhaps all, have known such things, and they are not deleted, either.