Essays in Idleness


Stochastic Easter

My interest, indeed admiration, for Denis Noble — the great living master of physiology, in the widest sense — began, happily enough, long before I knew anything about him. For I had been interested in the Provençal or Occitan troubadours, since the days when I could reach them only through Ezra Pound’s translations. In Vimeo or some such place I discovered that this Oxford authority in biological sciences was a performer of these romantic (in the old sense) hits. “Arron d’Aimer,” he sang, — dreaming of the laughter of children, and a country where lovers are forgiven — with his memorable voice and guitar. Dr Noble is about ninety years old, and let us hope to be so lively if we kick around till then.

Given my parallel interest in evolutionary questions, and more particularly my joy in trashing Neo-Darwinists, in favour of vetus-Darwinians, Mendelians, Lamarckians, and Aristotelians, it is odd I had not extended my fandom before. But now I find myself killing a part of the Easter Vigil listening to recordings of his lectures, and consulting Dance to the Tune of Life (Cambridge, 2016).

His account of “systems biology” is thrilling. Multi-level functionality is the rule throughout God-created nature, and multiple-channel communication between the most unlikely parts. The provisions of inheritance are not ruled exclusively by DNA code, and there is no privileged level of causality. There are no genetic, or any other sort of cybernetic-like “programs,” in the brain or elsewhere in the body. And note this profound, almost Kantian, truth: the self is not an object. Such is what one learns about the bravura new world of life-science that has been opening nonplussedly before us.

And the physics behind the biology is inseparably connected. What we once called “random,” and now call “stochastic,” is not the means by which we all came to be. It is instead a part of the divine method, conferring direction across all the constituents of reality, in ways that we just begin to understand. Life as a whole is not determinate, even on the sub-molecular scale. It is actually the opposite of determinate, and was designed to be opposite.

This is why Christ is rising: to show us that we need not go to Hell.

A very Good Friday

The late Mary Douglas is among my favourite researchers and thinkers in one of my least favourite disciplines: “social anthropology.” As it is a day to put last things first, let me suggest that Dame Mary gave the lie to anthropology’s pretensions, once the adjective “social” is affixed to it. A product of the British colonial service (and also of a mother and father), she was brought up in Subcontinental surroundings where social anthropologists were dominant. Fortunately, she was also raised a Catholic, and curiously, did not forget.

It is from her writings that we, or at least I, ceased taking religious affiliations for granted: assuming that they do or do not exist, at any point in historical time. The most savage aboriginal tribesman, concealed in “heathen darkness,” may be unambiguously religious; or he may actually be utterly indifferent to religion. We cannot guess which without intimate evidence. At the extreme of modernity, we may encounter real piety, or an escape from it.

What is not progress isn’t regress, either. There is, in this important sense, no difference between decadents and primitives. What we respectively worship is essentially unknowable to science; although anthropology can produce some entertaining illustrations of what we don’t know.

But as its domination becomes more complete (in university faculties, for instance), social anthropology still contributes nothing to what is commemorated by some of us, on this day. The facts can only be expressed as facts. (As the poet Auden, an opponent of bigotry and ignorance, patiently explained to anti-Semites: “Christ was crucified by the Romans. … Or, to bring it up-to-date, by the French.”)

In the larger scheme, Christ was not crucified because he was a Jew, or not a Jew, or defectively Roman, or unFrench, but in response to apparently presenting himself as the Son of God. What made this bestowal the more disquieting was, that it was true. And it was demonstrated, as the Paschal Triduum unfolded.

This is a fact that can be confidently affirmed, or denied. Or, if one is thoroughly modern, it is a fact to be ignored even before it is avoided. But it is not a fact of social anthropology, in any of its compartments. Rather, it is the circumstance in which, whether we know it or not, we live and have our being.


Allow me once again to repeat an old Idlepost, and somewhat rephrase it, in light of the season of “March Break,” formerly known as Holy Week and Easter.


Arguably, the Enlightenment gave precedence to the abstract, and withdrew it from the concrete. That vicious assault on the human soul, known as “liberal education,” is the dry wharks of that heritage. From kindergarten through post-graduate studies, students are taught to be abstract, that everything as fungible, to eliminate anomalies in light of “theory.” And these theories, although usually false, are not necessarily so, for e.g. the colour wheel does abstractly represent certain miraculous prismatic qualities of sunlight. But when imposed upon the extraordinary breadth and variety of pigmentation not only in paints, but in every creature and object in nature, this theory becomes fatuous. Like Darwinism, or Marxism, it explains everything by proving nothing.

It is not only watercolour that I am discussing here. For every other discipline, students are taught “the theory.” The systems of tutoring and apprenticeship by which concrete knowledge was once imparted were systematically replaced, by the schools and colleges of the Nanny State, in the name of “democracy.” The result gentle reader may see all around.

Christianity does not flourish in such an environment, for this religion speaks to actual men and women, not to “people” in the abstract. In order to become a Christian, a person must today begin to disengage himself from this “culture” of (not science but) theory, and — given the refusal of the post-conciliar Church to teach the Faith — usually on his own. To some degree the scattered Christian communities offer mentoring or advice, but the novice must make his own stand with supernatural courage; which is to say, abandonment to divine grace.

It is for instance “theory” that now requires Nanny State to lower the jackboot on the human face of marriage. For humans have been systematically reduced in “rights theory” to interchangeability. Such particular expressions as husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter, uncle, aunt, have been struck out of all laws in the Province of Ontario, and many other jurisdictions. They were an embarrassment because they showed that human beings are particular, in ways defined by nature and her God.

Symbolism — you think it is abstract? — is rather plain and concrete. It can be removed like a bridge in Baltimore. Christ, for instance, is frequently removed. Through the hours of Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, to the Easter Vigil when the lights come on, and the full Gloria is sounded — we traditionally contemplated a world in which there is no Christ; and no salvation; and no absolution for our sins; and indeed, no sins: only departure from theory. Now we live like this, through the whole year passing. Christians are abandoned to the mockery of the State, and may be punished unless they bow before its fanciful constructions (sodomy; “re-assignment”; infanticide; self-murder).

God is effaced, we can no longer be in His image. Our race is reduced to animals — to roadkill in the passage of time. We are, according to the “deep ecologists,” one among more than eight-point-four million species on Gaia. We humans alone are too numerous, take more than our abstract share of planetary resources, and are thus due for radical culling.

The apes and dolphins and whales, who have not the equipment to rule instead, must wait patiently for the Antichrist — whose reign of terror will free them from subservience, and grant them their (theoretically) equal rights.

Even within quite “mainstream” Christian folds, Christ is reduced to an abstraction. The Gospel Jesus is too particular; a generic Christ will treat everyone the same. He will not be objectionable to the authorities; He will mind His own business and not create a scene. A democratic Christ, who blesses everyone equally, will preach multicultural homogeneity if he must preach at all. He is a Christ who, like the Islamic one, would not have to be crucified; whose case would never come before Pilate. He is a “nice” Christ, who embodies our own frequently proclaimed niceness, and looks faithfully the other way whenever something disagreeable is happening. Not man in the image of God, but God in the image of deracinated man.

And please, let this Christ not rise from the dead. For that is so disruptive.

Against this, what to say?

What John said, to the seven churches that are in Asia:

“And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead. And He laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last. I am He that liveth, and was dead; and behold I am alive for evermore; and have the keys of Hell and of Death.”

Veritas iubet

In his Homily on the Gospels, Pope Saint Gregory the Great (died 604) said yesterday in the old Liturgy that: “Truth Himself tells us to long for the heavenly homeland, to blunt the desires of the flesh, to pass up the world’s glory, to stop seeking after what is not ours, but be generous with what we do have.”

He is the pope I am currently listening to. He makes as much sense today as he did more than fourteen centuries ago.

Moreover, he tells us: “He who is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear is that you are not of God.”

It was a fine triggering, as we enter the Passiontide. This command from on high, and on low, is the very thing that can be heard, or not heard. And when it is heard, and obeyed, as true commands should be heard and obeyed, the problems of the world evaporate. But it is the heart that hears, not the ears, even when, thanks to a “miracle” of modern medicine, we are cured of deafness.

The living dead

My last glimpse of my physical father was on Sunday, the 16th of November, 2008, at St. Joseph’s Hospital, here in Parkdale. He was in the most ancient wing of that hospital, which has an unfortunate reputation. For even from the newer wings, “no one gets out alive.” This reputation is surely exaggerated, and my papa would be the first to laugh, on any day when he wasn’t dying. It was a question of energy, however: and he had little left.

From that day to this, my father has been looking at me through a hundred peep-holes, scattered about the High Doganate. These are the many common objects, that he gave me or that once he touched. It is surprising what an inventory collects, in a few decades of father-and-sonship, and with what vehement fervour each object is retained. For in each there is the presence of the man; and as one looks, the absent other seems to look back.

A time will come when I vacate Parkdale. My flat will be cleared, the books crated off by an impatient dealer, and other items junked. My sons will keep a few relics. The things that were papa’s will mostly disappear, for with me gone, there will be no one to explain them.

In a vivid dream, last night, my father was struggling with a nasty, spindly, flimsy, writing desk, of the kind we both hated. It was a very specific desk, for the original was discarded when I was in high school. But here it was again, in my dream, and my father was pushing it towards his little beige Volkswagen (also repudiated long ago). Several other things were retrieved from my faded childhood; and even in the dream, I knew I had not spoken with my father in a long time.

So I called out, “Papa!” But he did not hear. And again I called, and again, offering to help. But he was struggling with that Sisyphean little desk. He could not hear.

Musk repellants

An African immigrant in the United States has been much in the news, these last few years; and often, under bigoted attack. I do not reverence this Mr Elon Musk, myself, although my statement could be misleading. Like Mr Donald Trump, and a few other controversial figures, I do enjoy his ability to provoke derangement in those who hate him.

This is a skill very close to what Christ showed, when he exorcised the Gerasene demoniac. (Can pigs fly? The ejected demons, who then inhabited a herd of swine, soon found that the answer is: no.) Unfortunately, neither Musk nor Trump seems to have cured any demoniacs, yet.

My own, essentially aesthetic, limitation upon love for Mr Musk, is that I don’t like rockets, or electric cars, or brain implants, or most other tunnelling. As I discovered a few years ago, I don’t even like tweets, unless they are funny, or by Nicolás Gómez Dávila. If Musk had listened to my advice when he arrived in North America (and in Canada first, at the age of seventeen), he would have invested chiefly in acquiring (second-hand) printed books. In consequence, he would be no wealthier than I am, today, which were wise: for surplus money is an affliction. (It tempts the government to steal it, and they use force.)

But what of Musk’s politics? In a recent tweet, he summarized them. He writes that he is in favour of secure borders; that he prefers safe and clean cities; that he is opposed to bankrupting the United States; that racism against any race is wrong; and that there should be no sterilizations below the age of consent.

How the Left twitches in indignation! For this African-American is such a provocateur.

Narcissus army

My Chief Hoosier Correspondent writes (from Indianapolis) to assure me that the daffodils will soon be out in Ontario; and I’m inclined to believe him, because he has been right in the past. Moreover, he keeps daffodils himself, who give him the news of their northern campaigns. The prospect for daffodils, and the other narcissi, may seem grim at the moment, up here where an abnormally warm winter has “transitioned” into a frozen spring. God is not dead, but Wordsworth, wandering lonely as a cloud, may need some attention from the medical authorities.

“What matter if the sun be lost? What matter though the sky be gray?” — asked Bliss Carman, among the mandatory Canadian poets. “There’s word of April on the way. …”

The daffodil army, fluttering and dancing in Wordsworthian drill, and more lovely than any human army, may soon appear on all horizons. The thousands of their cultivars come in Divisions.

Galantaline, extracted from the plentiful bulbs of daffodils, is the cure for Alzheimer’s, it says here. How very useful.

But contractile bulbs are the daffodil key to surviving the Canadian winter. They pull themselves deeper into the soil, after their superficial vegetation has been killed off. But the army re-assembles itself, deep underground — sextuple tepals preparing to unfold in battle array.


POSTSCRIPTUM. — Today is the solemnity of Saint Joseph of Nazareth, “foster father” of Our Lord, and the patron saint of Canada. This was declared more than three centuries ago by Fr Joseph Le Caron, of the Recollects (gray habit, pointed hood), to the Hurons. He came to Canada with Samuel de Champlain, and as part of his evangelical efforts, wrote the first dictionaries for the Huron, Algonquin, and Montagnais languages. St Joseph of Nazareth, for his part, orchestrated the apostolic success of the first Canadian missions.  As I was remarking to a priest, after Mass this morning, “At a time when woke activists are setting fire to Catholic chapels across Canada (ninety-six have been enflamed, so far), it is good to remember when they were founded.”

Strong leaders

The gift that the Trudeaux have brought to Canada — Monsieur Trudeau, père et fils — is, or should have been, the gift of bad experience. It is the gift of demagoguery. Both were once popular, for shallow reasons, and both proved contemptible over what was, in politics, a long stretch of time. Unfortunately, as a low-intelligence country (at least east of Wawa, Ontario), we did not realize what we had done, and persisted in our democratic error. Had we given Trudeau père the boot, all the way down the stairs, in 1972, we might have avoided a long plague of misery and debt, or made room for some misery of a more entertaining kind. But we kicked him only half-way down the stairs, in the indecisive election of that year.

It is now the fiftieth anniversary of the reversal of this half-recovery. In 1974, the Liberals swept back into majority power. Stanfield, the opposition leader, an intelligent man but not too much, had proposed to legislate a price freeze in answer to the oil-crisis inflation. This was a very stupid “plausible” idea, which Trudeau mocked effectively, and then, upon winning the election, did it himself. For Trudeau the elder had been lying, as he was habitually, or what in the end is worse that lying — what in French we call, the “bowl-sheet.” Canadians had been, as usual, very easily suckered.

What Sir Herbert Read, the anarchist, called “the cult of leadership,” was displayed in this case. It is an invariable constituent in all political catastrophes. “The peeple” think that a Strong Man will fix their problems. He comes to power because he is arrogant, and knows how to exhibit the Strong Man style. He is indifferent to personal liberty, to the integrity of the family, to tradition and the rule of law, &c. He promises “change.” He parades, and seems wonderfully “cool” to the persons at the broad bottom of the intellectual pyramid.

And if he is lucky, he dies in his sleep, surrounded by his appropriated wealth. “The peeple,” whose ruin and poverty he also achieved, will die more modestly.

Prisoners enchained

Towards the end of the last century, I was offered a (free) “Blackberry.” This was by an executive of the Tottawa Zit (or, as they called themselves, the Ottawa Citizen), and whether I took it or not was up to me. The advantage, if I took it, was that I could be contacted by the company at any time, for instance three in the morning, and as a journalist could be made aware of “breaking news” — presumably, as it was broken up. After careful thought, to which I devoted fully five nanoseconds, I resolved to decline.

Others were accepting, for they found the little devices “cool,” and the possession of one would identify its owner as a member of the privileged class, qualified to work “24/7.”

This, of course, was the world of almost thirty years ago. In this time, I have fought off the gifts of several smart- and cell-phones, and still refuse to own (or be owned by) one. It is not just reactionary, Luddite views that inhibit my enthusiasm for the latest technology.

I would also decline the offer of a slave — a sentient slave, capable of innumerable chores and functions — who would follow me around day and night, walking beside me on the sidewalk, doing my bidding, carrying my groceries, and when not in use, could be folded to slide into a pocket. She might beep whenever her battery ran low, but otherwise promise not to disturb me. For even the chance of a sudden beep, would impinge upon my consciousness.

It is odd. A large majority of my neighbours now belong to shiny gadgets. Since this is Parkdale, where housing is provided for the criminally deranged, one might expect them to have electronic devices affixed to their ankles, or be compelled to clank iron balls and chains. Instead, they have accepted the hand-held monitors, voluntarily.

Relieving man’s estate

Francis Bacon was unquestionably a Protestant, and I think that my dislike of him begins there. And yet, he may be twinned with the Frenchman, René Descartes, a nominal Catholick. Both of these characters were put at the head of the Western, “secular,” scientific “revolution” of the XVIIth century, that underlies our modernity. In the case of both Bacon and Descartes, we are dealing with a new spirit in human affairs, for both are liars of a new, and extremely subtle, sort. In order to present themselves as the continuation of philosophical reasoning, they misrepresent the thinking of the past, inverting the inherited works of wisdom.

In the works of Descartes, as Étienne Gilson showed, the task consisted of using scholastic vocabulary for anti-scholastic (and ultimately anti-Christian) ends. At the extreme, in the Meditations on First Philosophy, he strips away the very possibility of objective, sensory knowledge. It was Descartes who “finally” overthrew Aristotle, although the Greek “master of those who know” is still waiting in the wings, like Trump.

Bacon discarded everything except sensory knowledge, and launched the vain project “for the Relief of Man’s Estate.” This he of course mentioned after “the Glory of the Creator,” but it was just words. It was a special kind of glory, omitting Faith. And it was at the root of our modern obsession with artificial technology, and by extension, the scheme of creating an impersonal, bureaucratic culture in which everything has been reduced to numbers. (And doing this strictly for pleasure.)

But it is the Things that have been created, as opposed to the numbers which decorate them, that bespeak the Glory of God.


A Gray Whale has been spotted from an aeroplane, off the Boston States. The flight was taking a census, to illustrate the whale decline in the North Atlantic, “owing to global warming” — which is the cause of everything on the weather channel. Cetologists were surprised.

Gray Whales of the North Pacific, last of the family Eschrichtiidae, are fifty feet long and forty tonnes heavy and can live for eighty years, we learn from the Wicked Paedia. But there was no entry for the Atlantic version, because no one had seen one since the XVIIth century (when the whalers called them the “Devil Fishes”). Given their size, and tendency to persist, and reputation for showmanship, how did they hide for such a long time?

The scientists must speculate. They think a Gray must have slipped through the Northwest Passage, “owing to global warming.” But he would have encountered fewer obstacles if he swam directly from the planet Neptune.

One of my idle hobbies is noting new species that are discovered around the world; often in quite public places. Some, for instance, appear right off Nantucket. If we do a census, we find that more new animals are discovered, than old ones are reported extinct. And those extirpated then show up, after the good-byes. Should we attribute this to global warming?

MLXVI & all that

Having supper last night with dear friends of the Anglican persuasion (not their fault, they were raised that way!), I felt, among them, a particular Christian warmth, in which Newfoundland was crossed with the far east, of Ontario. The parents are, by citizenship, both Canadian, but there are deeper cultural traits — which I share with them. They, we, are of British ancestry, with a Protestant history, preceded by a misty Catholic one, “beginning” with Normans, who spoke French. But prior even to this there were the indigenous English, who ruled over themselves, except while they were being overrun by Vikings.

Their English is, alas, a language we must now learn, for it looks as strange as Althochdeutsche, but has a poetry and a prose immediacy that makes the effort worthwhile.

When the French wish to insult us, they call us “Anglo-Saxons,” and this serves also as an abusive racial term to hurl at any “white man,” ignorantly. Our enemies were (sometimes still are) under the naïve impression that we habitually colonize and enslave the gentle, virtuous peoples. In truth, we were colonized and enslaved ourselves, nearly a thousand years ago. I do not complain about this, for it would be pointless: “history happens.” We were “got” by the Normans, to use a fine old Norse part-of-speech.

But the genuinely Catholic “old England” was of a kind with the old Ireland. Christianity was sprung on western Europe through missionary efforts from these islands — in days when England and Ireland were instinctively in league, rather than at each other’s throat, as imperial politics later put them.

My Anglican friend is a perfesser in the university here, who lives in the past, most impressively. He is a student of the Old English liturgical forms, chiefly accessible through Latin manuscripts. Under them we find Anglo-Saxon (or, “West Saxon”) speakers, in a national culture that would be utterly transformed by the Norman invasion.

The dynasties followed. One thinks of Angevins, Plantagenets, Lancastrians, Tudors, Stuarts, succeeding to the conquered estate.

And one contrasts them not only in language but with the monarchs of the authentic Old England. For these “furriners” changed the essence of the islands, from a religious into a political reality.

The earlier kings — Alfred, Aethelstan, Edmund, Edgar, Edward the Martyr — had been infused with a different spirit, and with an unambiguously Christian conception of kingship. Sanctity was not impossible for them. They made an England in every sense superior to the Englands that superseded.

Art in everyday life

A crumbling book, published by the Macmillan Company of New York in 1925, written by Harriet and Vetta Goldstein, and intitulated Art in Everyday Life, can now command a splendidly pretty penny on the Internet, as will several of its subsequent printings. This is one of the achievements of the Internet: to make second-hand books impossibly expensive, so that only specialized collectors may afford them; or else worthless, until all but a few of their owners have had them pulped.

Harriet was the elder of these two spinster sisters, and the book was in its time the “Emily Post” of art and design. The authoresses were twinned fixtures of the home economics department, in the University of Minnesota, before exactly gauging what the mass market would bear. My father obtained his copy as a boy of fourteen or so, and was inspired by it to become an industrial designer (though a Spitfire pilot first). He said this to me, sans ironie, while feeding the book to me as a child.

While in subsequent editions the book’s advice, especially on women’s fashions, was watered down towards inoffensiveness, the first had just enough edge to awaken the curious reader. It was the age of Picasso, and the Bauhaus. Yet the advice is not now entirely out of date, nor has it receded into flea-market camp.

Most important, the book contained moral-aesthetic reasoning against ludicrously costly clothes and furnishings, assuring the young lady that a tasteful cloth coat could outshine a cumbersome fur, and the young gentleman that his devices should be useful. It explained how to be artful, in line and volume, without the conspicuous consumption that had been condemned in Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class.

John Ruskin (also from papa), and then Bernard Leach, confirmed my own attachment to simplicity, an “ideal” that is not always simple to comprehend. This is because it is pre-modern.

But the Goldstein ladies retain their place of honour.  For, they were the occasion of a delightful argument I was able to pick with my father. For the first time, perhaps, I was myself inspired — to the observation that modernity is prim.