Essays in Idleness


An update

This is Jonathan, David’s son. David is doing well – he’s had heart surgery and is now in recovery. From a heart health perspective, he is already doing much better, and was very lucky to go in when he did. I’m sure he will be posting again very soon with much more detail! Thank you for all your kind wishes and prayers.

Writerly thoughts

I may be absent from this space for a few days; we’ll see. Just an old-fashioned medical issue; nothing to do with the Batflu. Unless, of course, they are giving it out at the hospital.

Always write your Idleposts with melodrama. That is my principle. Compose each one as if it were your last. Eventually, one will be. Oremus.

The secret strategy

“Live by the gun, die by the gun,” I imagine the second-best gunslinger thinking, as he relaxes into the dust of an imagined Wild West town. This is an image, not an argument; for anyway he will not have the time for further philosophical reflections; or perhaps even for remembering Hamlet’s observation, that death is a fell sergeant. Nor comes it up in the Spaghetti Westerns, nor the Macaroni Westerns of Japan, where by some happy coincidence, the superior moral agent is invariably the quicker draw.

Or let us adapt this to a more Christian theatrical experience. “Live as a Saint, die as a Martyr,” we might say. In this scene, the missionary is being prepared for the cannibals’ stew. With luck, he has been saying his prayers beforehand, and has thus had time to consider the matter in its philosophical implications.

The priest, whose penitent I was, said that we imagine a cheering section. But if there is one, it is more likely to be back home in the cinema. God, said Father, often lets us die alone, friendless and in pain. The faithful shouldn’t feel surprised, or disappointed. This is the world, and it is the way of the world. “Suck it up,” as the more annoying sort of Catholics like to advise.

Yet in the least edifying circumstances, we find a moral written, into the dusty texture of the universe. He who seeks the credit, and the bragging rights, for his little accomplishments, generally does not get them, even from the world. Rather they go to one’s rivals, or to people who have accomplished nothing, that was not manifoldly counter-productive. They are the ones whose overheated egos needed to be made “cool,” and if Christ’s analysis can be trusted, “They have their reward.” (I am partial to Christ’s analyses in these Idleposts.)

The converse of this is also interesting. Not only in the Bible, but in the Tao Te Ching, he who does not seek the credit can accomplish more. He can do quite miraculous things, if he is adept; such as write out all the secrets of success in five thousand Chinese characters, and let another man sign it.

It is a brilliant tactic, if you think of it, and makes a brilliant strategy, if you stay the course. By avoiding the applause, we do not excite envy, or mark out an existential position that the Devil’s henchmen are bound to oppose. Our clever tricks, on behalf of goodness, are likelier to come off. The chiefmost trick is when they are not tricks.

And if no one is watching, who is not supernatural, it is not even necessary to disguise one’s virtue. We can rely on it to stay invisible. For sometimes, in the days when I was “following the politics,” I would notice a politician trying to do some good thing, but having to mask it as a bad thing, in order to get it through. He gets the applause, but for the wrong reason. This is because the public usually prefer the wrong thing. They are all descended from Adam, after all.

Doing good, secretly, would seem to be indicated. Or doing it publicly is fine, too: but only if you are prepared to accept the consequences.

A backward glance

One cannot retrieve people from the dead: not family, not lovers, not friends. This will not come as news to most of my gentle readers, though some (me, for instance) may be infected with romanticism. The Greek myths and legends are ruthless with people like us. It is why I respect them. For centuries before the Judæo-Christian traditions both conquered and melded with theirs, they were the West’s torchbearers of truth. They told us of the impossibilities, and they prepared us for irretrievable death. They could not tell us of the conquest of Death by Love, because they could not know it yet; but they did know what it was not. They — the Greeks with their legends — were not just pessimistic. They were heroic pessimists.

Orpheus descends into Hades to retrieve his bride, Eurydice. In the account we read in Virgil’s Georgics, the point of the tale is already slightly smoothed, blunted. Orpheus has made the mistake of looking back on her countenance, when he is almost home. He has emerged in the sun, but she is still in the shadows. As he looks back, she recedes, disappears; she is now lost forever. In modern “education” we used to weep for the tragedy. He almost succeeded. It is a tragedy, strictly in the Roman pagan sense.

But it was a tragedy in the Greek sense, first. If we go instead to Plato, and listen to the aristocratic Phaedrus in the Symposium, we learn that Orpheus was thoroughly in the wrong, in his attempt to retrieve Eurydice. He was bound to be punished. His mistake was not a technicality. His living descent into Hades was a challenge not only to the gods, but to nature, and to the truth of things. His love for Eurydice, so affecting in his mournful dirges — moving everyone to tears — was not true love. A coward, he would not die for it.

Hades has presented him with a wraith, in Eurydice’s outward form. Inevitably, this illusion would dissolve in the sunlight. And the fate of Orpheus was now set — the fate of an eloquent softie, who loves an imaginary woman — a woman he had created from the start. He will die at the hands of the real ones he rejected. He will be torn apart by the Maenads, as by wild beasts. His lyre will be destroyed. This is the fate of our shallow romantic star; the pretty boy whose lyre and whose voice had once been an enchantment.

Boethius deals with that backward gaze, in the Consolations of Philosophy. We who seek to lead into the light of the upper day — we triumphalist philosophers — are bound to look back into the Tartarean cave. And when we do, the clarity of our “vision” will be obscured; then ruined, totally. To guide we must be guided; or all will be lost.

Rilke, the “German Orpheus,” in writing his “mystical” Sonnets to Orpheus — as a grave-marker to a beautiful young girl — tries, I think, to recover the romance from Plato’s wonderful wreckage. Can poetry be divine?

Yes, he seems to answer, yet he cannot escape the No. Robert Musil somewhere tears Rilke apart, for his very accomplishment: an achieved perfection, that nothing underlies. Rilke is a magnificent modern (“the Saint Francis of the will to power,” another of my heroes called him). He creates the fabulous appearance of a “there” where there is no there. (I love Rilke, incidentally.)

We use Greek myths to escape from Christian reality. The Germans have been doing it since Goethe and Hölderlin; and yet, to my mind at least, without a final conviction. Goethe went Apollonian, Hölderlin went mad. Rilke brilliantly hovers. For when we look back upon the Greek imagination, we should see something that oddly anticipates the revelation to come, in which “true love” does, actually, triumph over death.

The Greeks said everything that could be said, short of this paradoxical revelation; Saint Paul brought them the key to it.

Repeat after me

Here is a fun fact for gentle reader. Without “fossil fuels,” Canada would be uninhabitable.

This is not a “rhetorical” assertion. The human body cannot endure, below a certain temperature. It varies between individuals, but when it stays below freezing for an extended period, the depopulation becomes universal. True, winter coats can help to delay the inevitable.

And true, our Indians and Eskimos could live here, in very small numbers, with wood fires and other technology of that sort; and bully for them. But thanks to coal, oil, and natural gas, there are probably more of them today than when the white man (boo! boo!) arrived. You see, even in Iqaluit they are now living in heated buildings.

Well, I am on record speculating that God put the polar bears here for a reason: to warn migrants off. And then he gave us Justin Trudeau, in case anyone hadn’t got the message yet.

But He also put extraordinary quantities of “fossil fuels” under the ground, in case we insisted. And we could all pray, that Justin Trudeau’s hair will fall out. When he looks in the mirror, his narcissism will take such a hit, that he will retire from politics and go into hiding. (I owe this suggestion to a gentleman from Nebraska.)

My Chief Texas Correspondent, who likes Canada for some perverse reason, quotes a piece by David Yager that he found somewhere:

“In the past twenty years, millions of Canadians have chosen to mentally leave Canada and relocate their minds to a fantasy northern country that can somehow wrestle the global climate change monster to the ground singlehandedly. This will be accomplished by a genius combination of virtue signalling, carbon taxes, renewable energy subsidies, expanded government, important conferences, passionate retelling of the enormity of the challenge, and ensuring that pension funds, mutual funds, and universities don’t own shares in fossil fuel companies.”

Down Stateside, a new president is taking a deep draught of this “climate change” kool-aid. Granted, it is usually warmer there, and people may survive in states like Texas. But let me guess they won’t be driving electric cars.

For it is a little-known fact — among progressive environmentalists and urban-dwellers generally — that batteries do not generate power. They have to be loaded, as it were, and after huge government subsidies, the solar generation of power has yet to reach one percent. There is hydro, but we’ve dammed everything already, except our toilets. There is clean, improved nuclear, but progressives are too superstitious to touch it. The amount of nuclear waste is already far exceeded by the landfill of solar panels, which contain a witch’s brew of rare, poisonous chemicals, and need replacement every few years.

In order to make these “sparky cars” move, we must generate huge amounts of electric power — overwhelmingly from coal, oil, and natural gas. And this is less efficient than using “fossil fuels” directly. Net of transmission losses, we will have to burn a lot more.

High-tech windmills also increasingly scar the countryside, killing off our bats and birds at an unconscionable rate, while generating landfill on the solar scale for a power supply that falls to zero when the wind isn’t blowing.

Perhaps I have overused the term, “batshit insane.” I need to research some elegant variations.

And did you know, that carbon dioxide is an essential constituent of our planet’s atmosphere? It is at historical lows, if we consider the long history of this planet before yesterday: a fraction of what it was in prehistoric times when the world filled with life. The Amazon rainforests need it to grow. Ditto for other plant life. We hose it into greenhouses to make our tomatoes grow bigger and faster.

One could know these things; or think that soymilk and quinoa grow under the pavement out behind the brightly-lit Whole Foods supermarket, while we are guzzling our fair-trade Starbucks. Good luck to the people who are “following the science” to the latter conclusion, and have forgotten to factor in the petrochemical styrofoam and shrink-wrap.

The sad thing is that these virtue-signallers are numerous in cities, and most of them have the vote.

Chronicles of hirsute

“I don’t want a covid vaccine. I just want an effing haircut.”

The speaker is a dear man, once a tax accountant or something awful like that. Well, try to think of Saint Matthew. And like the Apostle, my correspondent has come around. Now, at the respectable age of eighty-seven, he hates the gummint as only the knowledgeable can hate it. Slightly deaf in his advanced maturity, he is blessed with half-Maltese descendants who speak very loud; and in the face of our seemingly perpetual, and mostly contrived, “crisis,” he observes that, “The Rosary is the only way out.”

For the irreligious, there are other, partial remedies. Telling the truth is highly offensive to the liberal, progressive types. It won’t do you any good to annoy them, but it is fun all the same, and sometimes they forget to punish you.

I’ve never met this correspondent, although he lives not far away. But as I have indicated, I love him dearly, and eagerly turn to his emails for each new instalment of diary and memoir. Indeed, I am blessed with other correspondents who “keep me in the loop” of their lives and adventures. I am a wretched correspondent in return, but a voracious reader, and quite touched when anyone trusts me. When quoting, of course, I do not give their names and addresses. But by now I’m sure the RCMP has files on all of us, which they share with the FBI.

Most are optimistic, in the sense of mildly indomitable; but also optimistic in the sense that they think the Batflu will end, whenupon things will return to “normal” (whatever that was).

A priest forwarded a link that alarmed him. It was from Israel, and explained that international travel will not be deemed safe until some time in 2024 — by when the whole world (including Antarctica) may have reached “herd immunity,” by multiple redundant tests. This, according to bureaucrats in Israel — who are not among the world’s most anal-retentive.

Sir Priest asks: “What is the point of living in a crumbling imperial civilization if the goodies are no longer within reach?”

My own sense is that the Batflu will “just go away,” like other plagues, at its leisure; probably quicker than the Spanish Flu, which was forty times worse. (Another year of it, slightly more or less; possibly less with the dangerous vaccines.) But the lockdowns and restrictions will not end. Our gummints love them so much, that with the help of the “health nazis” (no apology) they will extend them indefinitely, on one excuse or another. There is always a Doktor Fauci for hire.

Did you know he is paid better than the President of the United States? Though if you count perks, the President comes out ahead. For instance, Fauci still lacks a fleet of helicopters.

“Climate change,” too, while it is B.S., offers endless opportunities for the control freaks. And vast populations have proved they can “adapt.” Natted States Canada grow every day more like a less successful Red China. (Our “social credit” system is already coming in, courtesy Big Tech.)

So yes, no more goodies.

But, I assured him, the Catholic Church will survive — the way it does in China.

In praise of nutjobs

Some years ago, I participated in a vast rightwing conspiracy (there were three of us), to insinuate the word “nutjob” into American newspapers. This was to replace the words “nutbar” and “nut case,” along with any cognates. “Nutter” could be used on an abbreviated further reference, but “nuts” was discouraged as a subjective completion. If you meant insane, you should have said so. If you mean “differently opinionated,” say nutjob. And always affectionately.

Anglophiles to a man, although 67 percent of us were American citizens, we conspirators set out to subtly alter public attitudes towards jolly fanatics and the more entertainingly crazy. Rather than implicitly condemn their eccentricities, the word would present them as a source of redemptive mirth, and an (underestimated) intellectual resource. Too, there was the question of free will. Where “nutbars” were presented as if they were victims of some disease, or disorientation, externally imposed — a “nutjob” was a self-made man. He could wear buttons proclaiming, “Proud to be a nutjob,” or, “Nutjobs rule, okay?” Although, being a nutjob means never having to boast.

All of our great artists and scientists began as nutjobs; and the greatest remained so to the end. Unsatisfied with the glibness of so much human enterprise, they ignored, or defied, demands for public conformity. They would not be regimented in a shallow tradition, who would be loyal to a deeper one.

I was thinking this while watching a lecturer, immaculately besuited as a concession to his audience, but in bare feet. Why wear shoes if you despise them? Why, for that matter, wear a Batflu muzzle, when you know it is useless against the plague? Why get a haircut, when all the barbershops have been closed down by the health nazis?

I mention minor eccentricities, because they are misunderstood. As I argued at greater length (in the Idler, long ago), there is a common misconception that eccentricity is a product of absent-mindedness; of trying to do things at half-attention. But the truth is quite the opposite. I have observed that the most unusual behaviour comes from doing things with much more attention than “normal” people will devote to a task. It comes from not taking the commonplace for granted. It is radical, in the sense of returning to first principles.

As an admirable Australian lady reminds, the place to live is beyond the pale. It may be lonely out there, but at least it is not false.

Of course, the nutjob will be mocked. This seems inevitable, given the caliber of the persons who are mocking: people of narrow internal diameter. They become unsettled, in the presence of originality or genius. It is a nervous laughter. Let us widen them, if we can.

We have, throughout the West at the moment, an unprecedented clampdown on persons who think for themselves. The essence of that snoring “wokeness” is a kind of allergic reaction to intelligence in any form. It begins with the suppression of free speech and religion, but ends where such things always do, in the silence of the grave.

But as a true reactionary, I favour — dogmatically prefer — a society that can cope with reason, and faith; which does not call for the Gestapo, when someone tells a good joke; who are inclined to celebrate, rather than to imprison their nutjobs.

Of parasites

Up here in the High Doganate, we are reactionaries, not squishy “conservatives.” True, there is only one of us up here, but I speak for the majority. The number of politicians we trust is even smaller. We don’t think there is a political solution, to anything.

There are, however, better and worse, among the unacceptables, and that is why we came to heartily endorse that Trump fellow: the least political among major politicians. But let us not get carried away. His political outlook is rife with unexamined progressive notions. His conservatism is itself rather modest. It is something that he has been acquiring, and it will take him at least five more electoral cycles to possess. He might be ready for office in 2040, as a compromise candidate with the squishies of the Left. At his present pace, I don’t think he can hope to become a genuine reactionary until about anno 2200, and by then he may not even be running for office.

Meanwhile, to his credit, he has served as a fat bludgeon against the vilest beasts in the rest of his trade. For how can one look upon such lowlife as Biden, or Harris, or Schumer, or Pelosi, without acknowledging their moral stench? Compared to them, Trump is a holy innocent, doing only what he thinks right and necessary.

But nature is not full of venomous snakes. Look deeper, through the microscope, and perceive a world of “fleas, flukes, and cuckoos,” as the naturalists say; of mites and tongue-worms who invade society’s very bronchial tubes; of Protozoa destroying the red corpuscles in our veins; flagellates dispersing into every organ; trypanosomes burrowing right into our bone marrow. Gentle reader cannot begin to enumerate the illegal immigrants, passing through our human walls; and as one of those naturalists said of the birds, they are “aviating zoological gardens.”

Which is not to be uncharitable. Parasites have to live, too, and even the greatest parasites have parasites on them, and within, descending through the great chain of being. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, said someone pretending to be Nietzsche, and my own family doctor (whenas I was a child), said we must learn to look at things from the parasites’ point of view. They’re just trying to get on in life, and if their behaviour results in their host’s death, they have rendered themselves homeless.

Indeed, this is the problem with the Batflu, so far as I can see. If it had really been contracted in a wet market, it would probably have been harmless, or at worst, perhaps killed a few diners, here and there. But being a human-created thing, from an American-sponsored laboratory in Wuhan, all bets were off. The researchers there are dedicated to enhancing viruses, for study. The Doctor Frankensteins are often the first victims, in their attempts to create new life.

Or, to be fair, the parasites are their first victims. No self-respecting parasite aspires to be a killer, like Governor Cuomo of New York. He didn’t actually intend to wipe out so many inhabitants of that state’s nursing homes. He was merely inattentive, except to the celebration of himself.

On the much smaller scale, most parasites are like this; except that they omit the political grandstanding. They are part of an ecosystem, and when they foolishly bring it down, they must look for a place in the revised one. It isn’t always easy to be a parasite. Have a thought for them.

As a reactionary this appeals to me — charity towards one’s worst enemies — even though many of them are appallingly squishy.

The Cilicia

There follow some confessions of a white man. (Notice the lower case.) He wasn’t born yesterday, as I now remember. It is as if I once lived on another planet: Earth, it was called. It was different from the planet I live on today.

Under lockdown from our current commie masters (who call themselves “Progressive Conservative” in Ontario), I trawl the Internet sometimes. Last night I found some stray items on the motor vessel, Cilicia. She was built in the Fairfield works at Govan on the Clyde, in 1937. Converted to an armed troop carrier through the War, she reverted to the Anchor Line, soon after; and was refitted for commercial service on the India run. For another score of years she sailed, with passengers and some cargo — Liverpool, Gibraltar, Malta, Suez, Aden, Karachi, and Bombay, then back again; unvaryingly. In her old age she became a training ship at Rotterdam, under the name Jan Backx. In 1980 she was scrapped at Bilbao. For her final run, she was named the Cilicia again.

We (my family) boarded her at Karachi, for our return home from my childhood in Pakistan. Our home was not actually in England, and so there was a further voyage on a Cunard liner, across the Atlantic. How I remember when the scent of conifers reached my nostrils, in the Strait of Belle Isle. For once upon a time, there was a Canada. Later it receded, towards another galaxy.

My father had been a teacher in the College of Art, at Lahore; an institution founded by Rudyard Kipling’s father. He was a white man. My mama was white, too, with blazing red hair. So was I, for biological reasons; and my little sister, although she was blonde. Adored by his (all-male) students, papa stands out in old photographs, tall; a white man ever surrounded by brown men, all wearing white shirts; papa looking professorial and yet young, so young.

The other white man in the college was Principal Sponenberg (an American, but British Imperialist at heart). In the one photo of him I still have, he is rubbing it in with a cigar, in what looks like a Hawaiian shirt.

I can only hope that any BLM members among my gentle readers have averted their eyes.

The ship was very large, for a small person. It was my first experience of being truly at sea. I remember the docks of Karachi, fading away. Crossing the Indian Ocean, there was a gaggle, or choir, of little pasty-fleshed Anglo-Indian girls, dressed in sailor costumes. They were on deck, singing a song whose refrain was, “And when I grow up I want to be a sailor.” (Forget it, you’re a girl, I thought.) They were nevertheless enchanting, to my eyes; although, sixty years later, I still can’t get that infernal jingle out of my head.

Aden was still a British Protectorate then, and not yet a socialist hellhole. Egypt was full of trinket salesmen, who forced their way aboard. I slept through Malta. Gibraltar was a tremendous uplift to the spirit. The Bay of Biscay was designed to make one seasick. From Liverpool, we would take a train to London, which in its immensity was very heaven. On the upper deck of a London bus, I told my mother that, “This is my city.” But I was prognostic in only a minor way.

We had gone out to Pakistan in aeroplanes. My father knew ships — real passenger ships, for getting you somewhere — wouldn’t be around much longer. This wasn’t the last ride, but the end was near. There will be no ships to Mars. But once there were ships to India.

Great minds are interchangeable

The more one knows, the more one discovers that he doesn’t know. This is what makes “settled science” such a farce. You may take a photograph of nature, and think that you have captured it, but nature keeps moving. It has not agreed to hold still for you.

I noticed this in the days when I could use my balconata. No photographer, I was trying to depict a particularly glorious sunset, with the help of watercolour pigments. There was a moment when I felt quite chuffed. It seemed to me that I had indeed captured something, for a change. But by the time I had taken another deep draught of tea, the whole vision had been transformed. The colours themselves had been altered, and redistributed, dramatically. Now they were even better. It was as if God were telling me to give up the competition.

It is easier to follow a murmuration of starlings, or a school of fish. They may congregate in huge numbers, but having done so, they behave as a single, highly complex, beast.

Or a tree-snake, who combines the complexities, within the one reptile. I watched one climb a tree in a video. His body looped around the trunk, and every inch of it adjusted independently, wiggling the whole snake up to the branches, where the birds’ nests were. It was a dazzling rumba.

The geese in these parts — sophisticated birds, with Tory inclinations — have formal social conventions. Once or twice a year, they gather in their thousands, in coherent family groups, forming herringbone patterns. They skirt Humber Bay at an altitude of six feet or so — always counter-clockwise. It will be a day when the Bay is placid, so that its surface doubles them in its mirror. This procession circles, three miles or so, then they all ascend at the west end, to fly eastwards. Twice, from that same lamented balconata, I then saw them descend for another go-round.

(Ahem: the question is not why, but how did they decide on this encore?)

Who tells geese to do things like this? The whole activity looked quite gratuitously ceremonial — and grand, as any good ceremony should be. How did they all get the same idea, at the same time, to fly in from all over the Lake, and organize themselves so elegantly?

As I was just telling an Argentine correspondent: “great minds are interchangeable.” (Suddenly they all make the same mistake.)

On Friday, I mentioned Alister C. Hardy (1896–1985) in my Catholic Thing column: the great marine biologist, whom I have been rereading during Batflu lockdown. All his life, but more and more as it proceeded, he was fascinated by such collective phenomena — happening in immediate space and time, but also over long expanses of time through integrated evolutionary adaptations.

Recently, for instance, we have seen colonies of honeybees, discovering how to repel murder hornets (Vespa mandarinia). None have graduate degrees in chemistry, or physics, according to my best information; yet they unerringly devise new defences that should require them. Perhaps our honeybees have been receiving emails from their Asian kin, for hints cross the Pacific in record time. But the hints themselves are quickly revised, for circumstances over here. My favourite is collecting dung around their hives. They’ve learnt what scents drive murder hornets away. But which scents, in the dung? Their human students are still at the shovelling stage.

Predators also use science to assist them. One thinks of the “community organizer” whales, that combine to shape a school of herring into a ball, then shrink it until it is very dense, whenupon one of the hungry whales abruptly swoops in and gobbles them all down. Are they smarter or dumber than Newfoundland fishermen — who absolutely refuse to hunt in submarines?

Mr Hardy (once perfessor at Oxford and elsewhere) thought there must be telepathic forces at work, of a kind he could only hope to explain by their effects. Nature is populated with creatures who just know things they have no conceivable way of knowing; for the individual creatures are far less clever than the Newfoundland fishermen I’ve met.

But our human reason is one step up on the plant and animal kingdoms. We have the capacity to deny what we know. I don’t think the other creatures can do this. Humans, alone, have the ability to make fools of themselves, and achieve disaster, even when everything is going their way.