Essays in Idleness


A new year

Advent began, overnight, with a magnificent snowfall upon Vallis Hortensis (my presumptuous Latin for “Parkdale”). It is the first substantial snowfall of the new Catholic year, and forms a blanket of apparent purity over a country and neighbourhood that was formerly Christian. The more distant objects, especially the recent suburban tower blocks, are deleted by the gentle whiteness, and even the Lake is invisible. All is made ready for another start.

I am reminded of a calendar, that some now deceased friend had given me, published by a now defunct typographical studio, half a century ago. The pages were filled with mediaeval depictions of the works of the seasons — but not the clichéd Très Riches Heures — with a single row of day-symbols across the bottom of each monthly sheet. This was decoratively punctuated with the kalends, nones, and ides for each month; and Dominical letters rather than numbers marked the other diurnal spaces. The reproductions were extraordinarily crisp, and I kept them untouched, except for the mottoes I scrawled in the several compositions that seemed to invite them. My calligraphic hand in those days seemed to complement the paintings, and I felt that, by these inscriptions, I was assimilated into each scene.

The pictures were details, not of the full paintings, but were very cleverly cropt, to suggest a beauty that was not narrowly mediaeval.

What I remember was the joy of it. The sight of the snow this morning brought it back, as if I were turning a page onto a new and splendid composition.

To the mediaeval mind, or the classical, the calendar is an immortal, unchanging thing; to the modern mind it requires constant revision and updating. We are perilously falling “out of date.” Good to be reminded of the ages before this was possible.

Black Friday

The day after Thanksgiving — America’s most religiously profane holiday — would seem to be an appropriate time to celebrate Wokeness. It symbolizes the height of ingratitude, and the culture of narcissism and complaint. The violence and rioting that interferes with life on other days, could be transferred systematically to this one day; and various other typically leftist displays of viciousness and spite could be permitted on what we might continue to call “Black Friday” — rather as working class demonstrations were once fixed upon Labour Day (or, May Day, in Europe).

With time, we could hope Woke celebrations will become more lazy and vague — forgotten, like Christmas. For the Woke grow older, and more mentally feeble. Their followers are usually sterile (their efforts become focussed on indoctrinating other people’s children). Thus we can hope that, once their fashion craze expires, they will themselves become extinct.

But by proclaiming a distinct “Carnival of Wokeness” (as mediaeval societies recognized Festivals of Fools), we might reduce objections to the arrest of the Woke for anti-social behaviour on the other days. Since Woke nastiness against the non-Woke happens throughout the seasons, it would provide a nice reversal. We could, for instance, declare “open season” on Woke people for the duration of their special day.

This would provide us with two celebratory events for Black Friday. The other is that it continues to be the day when the author of the Essays in Idleness begs his remaining gentle readers for their financial support. This year, perhaps, he asks a little more earnestly than in other years.


Suppose, for the sake of having an argument, that there is a God, that he exists in His Trinity, and has such characteristics as are attributed to Him by Saints, Prophets, Apostles. To a modern person, of course, this is quite a stretch. He would ask me to leave out all those things which are not “scientific,” because they are specific, and so can be specifically denied. And, “Please,” (I’ve heard him often), “… don’t use caps.”

That is what our natural theology has come to — using our own natural means to establish what is good and real. We have reached Nowhere, having drained all certainties; and what we know is, Nothing. We haven’t enough faith to rise from bed in the morning, unless other motives come to mind.

But let me not generalize. I am hardly speaking of every “modern person” in the world today; only of the vast, uncountable majority. I, for instance, tend to mix with people who are a bit strange, by comparison.

Many of us suffer from nostalgia. By this I do not mean we long to return to the old days, when modern people were less apparent, or at least less aggressive, and more placid and polite. This is a common mental failing, or limitation, for our species — that we can’t reverse the direction of time, and move thoughtfully backward, when that appears to be the best option. It never happens, and in fact cannot happen, until the faculties of this world are turned about.

But that could only be done by God, whose very existence is doubted, even by his “lip servants.” I am “following the science” when I say that the only possible way to visit the past is by memory, sometimes aided by fragments of the past that have survived — usually for no good reason.

If there is God, I imagine that nostalgia is useful, however — if not consistently pleasurable, or pain-free.

It should be considered as one of the six official senses, or one of the forty-three primary aspects of memory. It restores nothing, though it may sometimes inspire the recreation of things good, true, and beautiful. But purely in and of itself, it offers a way of looking at moving, compendious things, which had otherwise become invisible and inaudible and untouchable.

For there is a close relation to lamentation, which is also a sense of what is, not what was. We recall what is lost, and summon to mind things once loved, and however secretly, appreciated. For often these are things we did not appreciate when they were physically present to us, and which we mishandled. Now they begin to communicate coherently to us.

As illness and another Canadian winter shuts me in, I welcome the idleness in which nostalgia will flourish. Even from events which I now properly regret, there will be fresh learning.

Perhaps, in nostalgia, God is opening our eyes to what we never noticed; that life, even in the most miserable conditions of squalor, created by ourselves — is good, is worth living, is filled with happy “accidents.”


Hermann Hesse, I must surely have mentioned or suggestively failed to mention at some point before, is among my favourite hippie novelists. The statement is also misleading, for I encountered Hesse during his first period of international posthumous fame, when he was first being unforgotten; and he was heavily “sold” to me by a good, young, arguably German (less arguably American), friend from Mainz. My literary tastes of half-a-century ago are not reliable indicators of my preferences now, but they aren’t necessarily opposed to my current judgements. I have picked up Hesse, including Narziss und Goldmund (which gives an unreliable depiction of the Middle Ages, and the monastic life), and found him still entertaining, and many of his attitudes to life still attractive.

I call him a hippie novelist even though the world he was born into (in 1877) was not ready for his kind. But in a way more telling, he was not a hater. For instance, he did various bold and brave things, to subvert the Nazis (from 1933), and assist the Jews. (His third marriage was his most eloquent essay against anti-Semitism).

He detested them all (the Nazis, not his wives), and yet was criticized for never having made a formal condemnation of the Hitler regime. One thinks of popes who courted unpopularity with the unthreatened progressive types, from the same cause: unwillingness to arrange the martyrdoms of others.

Hesse detested Nazis from his first sight of them, and before that, in the heritage of Prussia; and he wasn’t afraid of their habit of persecuting people like him (beyond occasional exhibits of tact that could be read as fear). He made enough statements that implied that his detestation was profound. But he was not a political showman, like Thomas Mann, or Bertolt Brecht, both of whom he helped to escape from Germany.

Like recurring figures in his (hippie) novels, his inclination was just to do what seemed right, if necessary under difficult circumstances; and then, different things under different circumstances. If someone had ever asked him to sign on to the principles of Antifa (unknown through the fascist generation), he would have detested them, too.

For he detested the ideological sort of haters.

My point here is that detestation is not the same as “hate,” or hatred, and therefore cannot constitute a “hate crime,” whatever the political busybodies decide that is. In fact, it is more compatible with love; and the number of things a man hates (I will be a man, in this instance) that he also loves (Germans will be our token objects) may be quite formidable. Indeed, I hate everything I love, so far as I can enumerate; at least, every nationality and culture, and most of the individuals I have come to know.

All great novelists are in some sense “hippie novelists.” In future, I fear, all will be charged with hate crimes. In the spirit of Hesse, let us read and praise as many as we can.


I used the controversial term, “dignity,” at the end of my last effusion, and I might apologize to those whom it offends. I won’t apologize, of course, “I have too much dignity.” Rather, I shall explain the eccentric way in which I use the term, in this world from which it is largely retired.

To us, at least to those who are woke or equivalent, dignity is something that can be bestowed. It is frequently given as an order, with legal implications. If you don’t recognize, and celebrate, the “dignity” of another person (a sex pervert, for instance) then you are guilty of a “hate crime” and may be prosecuted in law. In this limited sense, dignity is flourishing; there is a huge number of persons who, previously objects of indifference or mere disgust among their neighbours, now qualify for police-enforced dignity.

In my own view, we should follow the hint of Friedrich Hölderlin, the German poet I am now reading through his “later odes.” True, he went mad, either from his anxieties or from his lack of them. Like other harmless madmen of the past (whether or not they could write first-rate Pindarics), he got into the habit of greeting his visitors with an excess of polite deference. Everyone, including rough and semi-literate workmen, and all but his several genuine friends, he addressed as “Your Highness,” or “Your Majesty.”

My own adaptation of this practice is to confer landed titles, in great variety. But this is immodest, for it assumes, from the point of departure, that I am the royalty.

Giving acceptable pronouns to the masses must invite confusion. “Highness” and “Majesty” are, neither of them, gendered terms, and ought to be safe and generally acceptable.

But dignity, in principle, is not something that can be bestowed, let alone demanded, or even earned. It simply is, in and of the person. (Perhaps we could include certain other animals, such as lions, or walruses.) He is dignified if he is not undignified, and the distinction is quite easily made, at a slightly prolonged glance.

The term doesn’t exclusively apply to Christian humans, necessarily, or to members of any other group — whether apparently alive or dead. The worth of it does not extend beyond itself, for the highest award that can be given to a dignified person is (invariably silent) recognition of his dignity.

To the Christian, or to the gentle, all human beings have dignity, or should have, whether born or not yet born, and we live and interact with the world in recognition of this (astounding) fact. We recognize silently, the presence of dignity, and to those determined to conceal their dignity, we offer “no comment.”


As the son of a veteran of World War Two, who was the son of a veteran of World War One, armed for Canada in England and France, I look upon “modern history” as a participant. By a miracle, neither father nor paternal grandfather was killed. (The maternal grandfather risked his life piloting coal trains.) Yet grandpa ran up Vimy Ridge, and across many once-famous mud-puddles. My father had it easy, by comparison, flying Spitfires. That way you sit through all the more violent bits, and witness most carnage from the top.

Both are gone now, and mama too, at advanced ages. Their children should soon be gone. We all fade, and must expect to spend a million years dead and forgotten for every evening that was memorable.

It is on this broad view that I forgive my countrymen — at least those in this part of the country — for neglecting to wear a poppy pin today. I did not spot even one, among all the transit customers, and only one in a medical waiting room (a very old lady). I was looking for poppies, obsessively, while riding buses and walking through crowds, on my way to and from the doctors’ appointments this morning. At the moment of eleven o’clock, there was nothing to be heard.

Except very softly, beating inside me: the echo of great wars. There was a time when we were capable of remembering, at least the more recent conflagrations; and knowing gratitude for those who had leapt to our defence. But now, after a short interval, we, the nominally living, have found our place with the dead. There was no passage in which we attained dignity, and no one will remember us, even briefly.