Essays in Idleness


How to lose

One of the many disadvantages of having money, is that it exposes the keeper to paranoid impulses. For instance, he fears it might all be taken away. Some of these impulses are currently on exposition in the stock market, where more damage to goods and services, if not to healthy soap-loving lives, is now being performed than by any pandemic. Or at least, this is the purport of reports, which present the bull market as a form of collateral damage from a health panic. Whether Natted States Mericans are panicking, in fact, is a separate question: my correspondents assure me there is no sign of it anywhere they live; but clearly they are panicking on Wall Street.

This might be taken as a sequel to my last Idlepost, as gentle readers may surmise. This is because I write only from my own slow-moving experience. Consider Tuesday’s opening line, from Ibn Hazm. I recommend that you consider it carefully, for it offers the key to happiness, as he says.

Now suppose that you are very rich, and have a million, billion, trillion or whatever in equities. It would be clumsy to lose it, by your own mistakes, but sometimes there is no choice. In my own case, with a fortune that might be more conveniently measured in the thousands, it was all taken away. This was twenty years ago, and I have been in the North American state of penury ever since, thanks to actions by others I will not describe. At no point was I accused of breaking any law, but could be “cleaned out” regardless, thanks to recent, trendy laws. Superficially, it was an outrage, and truth to tell, I grumbled on several occasions.

But in the clear light of retrospect, I am grateful, to have been freed from the trap of my bourgeois existence, and modest accumulation of wealth. I can now pray sincerely for the people who took it from me, though not yet for the bureaucracies.

As we learn from the Gospels, great wealth is a terrible burden, but as we might discover by extension, any comfort can have this effect. To worry about money is taken as bad, and it is, though not for the reason assumed. It reveals to the comfortable — and the uncomfortable, in parallel — that they are prey to the wrong kind of worry. It would make more sense (vide: the same Gospels) to worry about the fires of Hell. Many of our ancestors were more rational than we are, in this respect.

Given the great burden of human life — that things sometimes go bad — it makes further sense to discharge lighter burdens so we may concentrate upon such heavier ones, as sin and death.

I don’t like to burden myself with envy, for example. I have nothing against great wealth, per se. I don’t mind if my neighbour is filthy, stinking rich. Modern politics is based on cultivating this envy, and I am eager to have no part of that. But I will allow some pity to fill the space that envy has evacuated: I feel sorry for people who must rise every day, and consult the Dow Jones Index for hints of what they have lost. It is a miserable fate, and in many cases without compensating joys, such as spring sunshine. They are working too hard to notice.

Should gentle reader himself be quite rich, he might understand me better than a poor person. It is a little too late, however, for those who leapt from high buildings, after their fortunes evaporated. (Did you know it is easier to lose a large fortune, than to give up cigarettes?)

But some will claim that being rich makes them happy. There are moments when it might do so, but almost by definition, such happiness is shallow. This is a Christian reflection (borrowed from a Muslim sage): for what kind of happiness is it, that involves the loss of one’s freedom?

Listen to Ibn Hazm

“If you wish to live happy, never be in a condition that would not allow you to be satisfied with another.”

The book, Hispano-Arabic Poetry (Baltimore, 1946) fell into my hands years ago, and I have since failed to part with it. It is by Alois Richard Nykl — dead these last sixty years or so, but prior to that a remarkably learned man. The point of his book was to show the relation between Muslim Spanish poets and the Troubadours of Aquitaine; that in many ways, the former precursed the latter. He was an assiduous translator, and in the course of his survey we take glimpses of the last moments of Granada, and the periods that passed before: the Almohad, the Almoravid, the Muluk At-Tawaif, the Emirate, and Khalifate, looking backwards. For the generous Christian reader, there are moments of nobility to be treasured in their own right, throughout; too, of wine and song.

Some know of the previous Visigothic (and Christian) polity that was conquered by the Arabs, and therefore understand that polities come and go; or they might know of the cultured pagan Roman Hispania which preceded that, with its own famed dramatists and poets; or of the fascinating Iberian caves and prehistory. History flows, we might say, always downhill, but along many paths.

We are often told, by scolds, to appreciate the Andalusian glory, and to remember when an inferior Europe drew inspiration from it. In our attitudes, curiously Islamic ourselves, we celebrate their philosophers principally, both Muslim and Jewish, yet ignore a fine lyrical inheritance. (The Arabs did the same thing with the ancient Greeks. They were mesmerized by Plato and Aristotle, yet from Homer forward the Greek poets were ignored.) We attribute to them a wise tolerance, which they would never have attributed to themselves; for everyone tolerates what he has learned to love.

Iberia is a place, with ghosts as well as people; she leaves her mark on all who pass through. Someone should eventually write on the influence of ancient pagan and Christian Spain upon the later Muslim occupiers: how it made their civilization different from the classical Arabic; how it brought the best (and sometimes the worst) out of them; how it put them in a new encounter with Europe, which persisted for centuries, and persists still, even within the phantasies of Al Qaeda terrorists.

The verse maxim I have cited is both lyrical and philosophical. It falls out of a body of work to rival the great Persian Islamic tradition in literature, music (nota bene), architecture, painting. The thundering truth embodied in that line is intensely Islamic, and could have been Persian, or have come from anywhere in that realm. It also happens to be intensely Christian, and could have come from anywhere in ours. By stealing it, however, I risk the wrath of another mediaeval Muslim Hispanic poet, who would suggest that my tongue be cut out, as it is “the right hand of the verse thief.” (The Islamic propensity to chop right hands off thieves is well attested over space and time.)

All I wished was to hold it up, and consider it for itself. It is a good question for worldlings of all faiths and denominations. Happy, perhaps, for the moment, could we be happy in another, when everything in our surroundings has changed? Or are we just like frogs, instead, blissful only in one corner of a pond, and apt anyway to be eaten if we move?

“For the days of man’s life consist of brief moments, / They pass as quickly as the lightning flash: / And I, now prepared to unload my burden, / Like the camel who hurtles me towards death. …”

I have perhaps taken liberties with my re-translation.

The pandemic prattle

Not being gentle reader’s “news hound,” I have nothing to add, nor even subtract, from mass media reports of the coronavirus pandemic. (In China, Iran, and Italy, we already have three dispersed regions to justify that label.) I have my suspicions on how it started, and even how it first spread, but these could not be useful, now. I lack exact medical knowledge of the pathogen and its behaviour, and have otherwise no way of guessing its future course. No one yet knows the death rate, or can master the epidemiology, until the disease has run more of its course.

From the (partly legendary) history of “plagues,” I know that human efforts to stop them will generally be counter-productive, and that confidence in new methods is misplaced. Some, today, are impressive, nevertheless, and the speed at which medical labs have been responding creatively in the United States, Israel, and other free countries, is encouraging: within months we may have working firewalls and a “cure.” But within weeks the whole population of our “globalized,” “interactive,” “synergetic” world will have been infected. The virus has already landed in hundreds of global locations, and that was all it needed.

We can know that panic is, not seldom, but never helpful, and we live in a time when the technical means of spreading panic have advanced suddenly and tremendously. They are intentionally abetted. The crisis will be — is being — used for political ends, which must necessarily undermine the blesséd “stay calm and carry on” impulse. On the other hand, there is no more way to stop a panic, until it has burnt itself out, than to stop a novel virus; at best we can slow it if the public authorities are factual and candid. But what will be, will be. Such pain as may be coming, will come.

Pain, in the broadest sense, including the imaginary, is the issue. Our modern societies have been, we might say, trained to cope with it poorly. Our anxieties about quite modest forms of physical discomfort, are often no longer in our control. All traditional societies were better in this respect: both Christian and non-Christian. Without being explicitly stoic, people were raised to embrace “coping mechanisms” which range from purposeful distraction from the pain at hand, to fatalist assumptions.

We were once raised to expect pain, to accept it as part of having a living body. It came with nature, and so, living there, we were prepared to endure it. A distinction between pain, which may or may not be “objective,” and suffering, which involves a commanding element of choice, is common to all previous societies; ours are actually innovative in this regard. We want instant relief, and even demand it, propelled by our absurd faith in technology. We distribute blame when it doesn’t arrive, as if every disaster were the product of a plot. I get this from the tone of so much media reporting: malicious allegations of malice. I’ve been guilty of it myself.

For us, the virus is a useful growing up experience. The world is still the world, though we thought we had changed it. Events happen which we didn’t foresee. Live with them, or die, as necessary. For Christians, neither should impinge upon our overriding joy.

Fun with figures

First, we reduce everything to numbers. Next, we lose the ability to do math. I’m not sure what comes next after that.

I was thinking this when informed that 500 million dollars, divided by 327 million Americans, makes $1 million per American, with enough left over for lunch. This insight, working from a twittertweet, was provided by a member of the editorial board of the New York Times — always a malicious newspaper, but once a respected one. I learn from a blog that at least one prominent TV personality leapt upon it, too, and many lesser souls then copied. The “500 million” was the number these polymaths had taken, on the usual hearsay, as the amount rich meejah-mogul Bloomberg had blown on his badly failed attempt to buy the Democrat primaries. People, they imagined, would have preferred to take his cash directly. (At $1.53 actual, per head, it might buy them each a coffee, but they’d have to shill out for the doughnut.)

In Republican comments, the comparison was of 500 million, to the hundred thousand or so that semi-literate Russian Facebook trolls had supposedly spent, to swing the last election to Donald J. Trump. But a voter would have to be a more sophisticated arithmetician to follow this joke.

Up here in the High Doganate, where we currently lack a panel of experts, but once got a prize for doing sums in school, we (in the sense of, “I”) are seldom surprised. We’re used to progressive, non-binary, politically correct mathematics, and the many headlines they generate. We’re used to blocking them out, and only wonder why the general electorate hasn’t developed this skill. But when told that “the rich” are going to pay for whatever The Peeple wish to appropriate today, they are quickly gulled.

This is a minor matter, however, compared to the numbering itself. Their world — ours — is now apprehended through a thick fog of digit(al)ized numerals. These have replaced things. Judgements, on everything, have been simplified, by reducing each thing, absurdly, to a composition of numbers. We have little machines to do any requested calculations. (“Statistics don’t lie.”) This is called scientific reasoning. True, some of us are still locked in pre-scientific boxes, wherein numbers only bounce off the walls, and things are still apprehended in and of themselves.

It is a poet’s world, if gentle reader relearns the use of his eyes, ears, smell, taste, touch, et cetera. The late Marshall, then his late son Eric McLuhan also counted. They were trying to enumerate how many senses were acknowledged by mediaeval men. The number was in the dozens when I last checked with Eric.

By means of this backward way of looking, our distant ancestors could detect subtleties that made each thing unique. They, like artists, could know plenty that we would judge to be of no importance.

In order to recover this exalted state, under present intellectual conditions, one must try very hard to ignore numbers. Try instead to “see” things, just as they are. Even within numbers, the felt distinction between big and little was worth noting. (This was one of those “senses.”) That anything with more zeroes after it than one has fingers to count, is meaningless to the human observer, was once understood.

For instance the question, “How far away are the stars?” was grasped as irrelevant. They were known to be very, very far away. (The “sense of distance.”) They also knew the Earth was, comparatively, very small. That we couldn’t visit the immensity, was no occasion for regret.

But once we have numbers, the “how to” spirit surfaces. The desire to extend our control over things that are, in their nature, none of our business, comes with the new techniques of calculation. (How many sea miles west, from Huelva to China?)

It is interesting (to me) that about the time Columbus was reporting on the Indies, Queen Isabella was presented with a proposal to establish an academy, that would regulate the Spanish language. She rejected it, not on grounds of what it would cost, but because unlike Latin, or Greek, Spanish was “the language of the people.” Therefore it didn’t concern her. It was instead something outside her reach, a “thing” apart, like the circumference of the earth. Some things, irreducibly, were.

Politics of Gethsemane

Canadians are, as the Irish were described by Jonathan Swift in his day, “A servile race, in folly nursed, who truckle most when treated worst.” Whether either were always so, I will open to debate; my experience is more with the (former) Dominion of Canada.

As has been confirmed, by the recent interruptions in our transport system, or the government’s extension of the “MAiD” (euthanasia) programme to kill off the least convenient portion of our population, we will stand for anything. We take pride in our obedience to the authorities of misrule, so long as their measures come with the fatuous label, “progressive.” We will even condemn what we’re told to condemn, should anyone express an intelligent objection, for it is a country where, as David Frum once explained, “There is always one side to every question.”

Our police will not even put out a fire, set by “native peoples” along a railway track that most certainly does not belong to them, for fear of a political incorrectitude. (The term in quotes is a malicious falsehood; it is designed to apply only to a select racial group.)

While I think it is over-polite, this statement from Archbishop Collins describes the latest expansion of the country’s horrific “euthanasia” laws. (Again, quotes around a poisonous euphemism.) Yet there was no Lenten appeal to Christians, for conspicuous penitential prayer. Must he assume that we are all saltless?

This item, by the Canadian poet and thinker David Solway, makes a summary of our situation, five years into the management of a contemptible prime minister. The statement on our “Dead Country Walking” has not the fault of excessive politeness. I endorse every line.

Through all my adult life, which began in the age of Trudeaumania, Canada has been in the forefront of “progressive” innovations. Indeed, an American deacon long in residence here, commented that the craziest Democrat pipe-dreamers back home, proposed policies that were legislated in Canada decades ago — such as a “single payer” medical bureaucracy, and compelling taxpayers unambiguously opposed to pay for abortion-on-demand. Objections of conscience are simply no longer acknowledged up here, and the old saw, that this is a “free country,” is now in disuse.

We are in the vanguard of public evil; yet in saying so I imply that the same “trends” have advanced throughout the Western world. The innovations are rarely if ever voted upon, here or elsewhere. Instead, the public are exhaustively “re-educated” to the new position, by organized propagandists in media and state. The “debate” on each issue consists of demonizing and smearing the few who offer any kind of argument. They are few because they know what happened to the last person who stood up — for what had through thousands of years in all human cultures been accepted as the good and the true.

In the end, each innovation is effectively confirmed by the great tide of “low-information, low-intelligence” voters. They confirm the agents of “progress” in power, on the basis of their own virtue-signalling postures. Those who express the slightest reservations, such as Canada’s retiring parliamentary opposition leader, are drummed out. (Although he promised not to do anything about them, he was accused of harbouring non-progressive views.)

My only reason to vote “Conservative” is to keep the “Liberals” out of power, thus slowing the rate at which new affronts to civilization are introduced. In some other Western countries, something more ambitious is being offered by the “Conservative” parties, and is proving quite successful. But even our “progressive” pope has openly condemned such “populists,” demanding that government bureaux and international organizations ignore them and press ahead on “climate change” socialism, ruinously open immigration, and so forth.

I cannot think of a response besides, don’t fall asleep. It was the agony Christ conveyed to his disciples in the garden at Gethsemane. The worst may yet happen, but will be transformed.