Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

Downsizing Satan

Critics of these belligerent and pugnaciously blameless, idle essays, have warned me, that in my low enthusiasm for the war in Ukraine, I stand to lose my carefully cultivated, decades-long reputation as a war-monger. And, not just for war in the abstract, as one of them argues. For if I won’t support a battle against Russia, what country would I go to war with? In the long view of history, would I have given a pass even to the Infidel Turk? Will I make a stand when we are invaded by Martians?

Well, I do like to pick my wars wisely. Some aren’t worth winning, and some (a smaller number) may not be worth even delivering a meaningless threat.

Was reading last evening, Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, by La Motte Fouqué — the glorious Prussian war-monger. I thought it might lift my spirits from this wan recumbent posture. Heinrich Heine wrote of Sigurd that he is “as strong as the rocks of Norway and as impetuous as the ocean that dashes upon them, he is as brave as a hundred lions, and has as much sense as two donkeys.”

Yes, there are great beauties in Fouqué’s little tales, and great humour though none of it is intended. One enjoys him as one enjoys an ice-cold shower. It was Chesterton, I believe, who pointed long before the Second World War, to the earlier modern Prussians as the proto-Nazis. As I recall, he didn’t even use the clinching argument, that they were Protestants. He did mention their Puritanical disposition, however. And like Puritans, everywhere, they loved to dress very smartly in uniform, beat drums and so forth. With some imagination, you might convince yourself to march along.

But also with Chesterton, I favour defensive wars, and discountenance the offensive variety. Wars of conquest do not appeal to me at all, and never did. You must fight, and die, for love of what is behind you. Hatred, even of Prussians, will not do as an excuse.

I thought my “soft power” views on Ukraine’s current predicament would be apparent. By all means, they should blow the Russkies away.

Thanksgiving in Canada

Thanks are usually given for something positive, not something negative, like not being a toad, or not being a woman. This is because we live within limited perspectives. We cannot really know how joyful and satisfying it might be, to hop with the Bufonidae, especially the female ones, covered with gorgeous, wart-like bumps above their paratoid glands, secreting neurotoxins. Indeed, no one could want to eat us, were we a toad.

But the toads must have their own prayers of thanksgiving, that we know nothing of, and having avoided the scandal of humanity, must pray with every heartbeat. It is a permanent thanksgiving for them. So, I came to think long ago, through all nature. The animals are joyful from the moment of their creation, to the moment of their cessation, in the wild. Grim humans assume that they feel pain and other inconveniences as we do. But I had it on authority of my balconata finches (who did not return after works on my building) that life is one long continuous feast and adventure.

In particular, they do not experience fear as we do. A fright to them is a delicious thrill, as it can be sometimes to us watching movies. Death, to them, is incomprehensible. For all we know, they are immortal by way of “metempsychosis.” Their souls transmigrate.

They will be reborn as other finches, or perhaps may slightly “evolve.” For as nature abhors a vacuum, so too does the spirit of life refuse the blankness of extermination. It pops up somewhere else.

No animal is capable of despair, I think. Humans alone are “deep” enough to approach the proximity of Hell, in their free will. And yet we need not go there; it is up to us.

Had enough war?

The attentive reader will have noticed that I have had nothing to say on the War in Ukraine, during the last few months. This, in addition to “no comment” on several other items of news. I propose to deal with one nothing at a time.

It is more difficult than it once was to tell what is happening upon the old Scythian plain. The effect of propaganda — the intention to deceive the captive audiences on both sides — makes reporting generally unreliable. The events will never be perfectly clear; and the right and wrong of battle depends on the interpretation of such news. The best we can hope for is a few indisputable atrocities; but most of these will be faked.

Ossetes, from one of a pair of ethnications within the blend of the Caucasus, are believed to be the nearest living descendants to the ancient Scythians (or Saka, Sacae, &c) who flourished three thousand years ago. They were in turn very far from being the first inhabitants. The latest “nation,” the Ukrainians, have just finished inventing themselves within the vast pool of Slavic peoples.

Human beings are not, in any political, moral, or historical sense, indigenous to any part of this world. In our arrogance we deny that we are creatures of God, whose past is as unknowable to us as our Maker. We demand science: a science which in nature cannot exist.

We read of ancient wars, between peoples long since dispersed, or annihilated, who left nothing but their orphaned children. Why did they fight? What could they gain? We cannot really know that either, for the past becomes incoherent as soon as any part of it fades.

In what way was their suffering redeemed? We don’t know.

Another of these grand and pointless wars is playing out, until one side or another acknowledges defeat. The fate of the victorious is often more poignant than the fate of the vanquished. We, who happen to survive (maybe there will be an exchange of nuclear missiles?) must confront the time ahead. We cannot know what that will be, either.

The progress of complexity

“Proper shame is now termed sheer stupidity; shamelessness, on the other hand, is called manliness; voluptuousness passes for good tone; haughtiness for good education; lawlessness for freedom; honourable dealing is dubbed hypocrisy, and dishonesty, good fortune.”

The speaker is Thucydides, and he is giving an account of the Greeks during the Peloponnesian War. It came to me this morning with Owen Barfield’s rejuvenating breakfast reading, his History in English Words. He was in the course of explaining how, in modern times, silly lost its old meaning of “blessed”; demure changed from “grave” or “sober” to “affectedly modest”; and the kindly officious came to imply “bustling interference.”

Conversely, he flatters the Roman character, for their word “simple” did not come to be used as a term of contempt, as it did in all other civilized languages. This, I speculate, is one of the mystical reasons that Latin became the (Catholic) liturgical language; it has the power of not changing. It is what it is, such that when the meanings of words are changed, they cease to be Latin.

Whereas, our words slip and slide. A moral degeneration will occur — within Greek, say, or within English — yet the language carries on glibly as before. Thucydides, the hero of political realism, lived in the fifth century before Christ, but his account of the way his contemporaries “slipped” does not appear dated. For moral decline is, in some sense, the same in all ages.

Ten years of “Tzurezuregoosing”

(This column has been recycled, against the threat of climate change, from the age before the Batflu, in line with the proposed nitrogen cutbacks of Justin Trudeau.)

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Today is again Michaelmas, the feast of Saint Michael and all the Angels. On this day, precisely ten years ago, I wrote my first “Essay In Idleness,” on the Internet, citing the detached, mountain-dwelling, 14th-century Japanese monk Kenko, his Tsurezuregusa, as my model. I acknowledged that I would no longer be appearing in print, in my native Canada.

It happened that my last “mainstream meejah” employer had found enough money in his budget to make me go away. It hadn’t been his first retirement offer; but as the money would be seized by competing government departments (long boring story) it was not the principal issue. Rather, I had tired of being ever on the defensive, against sleaze and liars; and having people promise to defend me, who would disappear when required.

Perhaps I shouldn’t let the devils shut me up so easily, I thought; it seemed I still had many loyal readers. But then I thought again. My columns in Canadian newspapers were “politically imperfect” — I was frequently accused of expressing “conservative” views — and as one complainant to the Ontario Press Council alleged, I “openly admitted to being a Catholic.” (They let me off on that one, however, though I pled Guilty.)

Over my last decade in the “respectable” meejah (ah, the irony), I had attracted more than nine hundred formal complaints of one sort or another, tying my editors up in red tape. (This is a longstanding Leftist tactic: “the process is the punishment.”) Verily, I could understand why those editors would want to shake me off, even if they sympathized with my opinions.

That they didn’t, could be guessed from the number of newspapers that carried my column. It shrank from more than a dozen to just the one that was contractually stuck with me. But that last paper was in Ottawa, “the city fun forgot,” where “liberals and progressives” are most lawyered up.

The world is as the world is, and one shouldn’t bemoan it, too often. We are commanded by the Lord, to deal with it for a season. Shrieking injustice, lewd wickedness, and vicious tyranny are commonplace down here, and it isn’t always possible to hide from them. In boxing terms, offering to resist is “leading with the chin.”

By contrast, the best way to deal with the Devil is not to antagonize him openly. It is to afflict him with poetry and laughter. Such whimsicality triggers all of his “efficiency experts.”

As gentle reader may have discovered, I particularly enjoy triggering Satan’s little minions. The conceit of writing these brief Essays, as if with an Oriental brush, then posting them on the walls of my cabin in the mountains, is perhaps too ambitious. For often I descend, downhill, as if drawn towards squalor.

But now it is irretrievably ten years later. The end is surely near.

In praise of high interest

Once upon a time, I had an amateur interest in economics, particularly development economics. Luck, or its absence, had landed me in a series of vaguely journalistic jobs with partially reputable commercial institutions in Asia. We, who worked there, used such terms as “monetary,” and “Euromoney,” and “investment,” to affirm our respectability.

We were advocates of wealth. If the “third world” nations on which we were reporting were to become good and modern, they would cultivate wealth in preference to all other intentions. Technology and speed were among the means.

My father, also — an “industrial designer” with an appreciation for craft — got caught up in this. In the generation before mine, he, too, sometimes worked in Asia. A more honest character than I, he discerned in less time that the well-intended tasks he had taken up were essentially destructive. He was paid, for instance, to analyze domestic handicraft industries, and suggest ways in which the craft skills they had refined could be transferred to modern industry. Success meant native and foreign investors would become rich, wage labour be increased immensely, and the cash economy expanded into places which it had never previously violated. Countless formerly free people, who had been living happy, honourable, lives, would now be placed under various kinds of mortgage. Note, it was not financial, but cultural impoverishment that made them ciphers in an immense, metastasizing, inhuman machine. It gave them the chance to die without love.

It took me, scandalously, many more wasted years to reach exactly the same conclusion as my father about what I was doing there.

The inhuman machine in which we are “taken care of,” back here in the West, malfunctions, usually from politically-programmed failures and disorders. “Inflation” is one example of the sort of thing I mean. To a modern, Keynesian economist, the oil in the machine lubricates the works, and the only question is whether it has been applied too excessively. But if it is too little, they recommend “quantitive easing,” in which we squirt more oil in. The economists have settled on 2 percent as adequate to their purposes. Just now it is riding high, to a level much above adequate. Interest rates rise to “flatten the curve” as we did for two weeks with the Batflu. This doesn’t, and has never, worked, of course, and the pain continues for months or years, as economic activity progressively ceases.

High interest rates are only a problem for people who borrow money. It is, for them, what usury has always been. Yet, those trying to save some fraction of what they may have earned, don’t mind it at all. I, for instance, adore high interest rates. For I like to give valuable things away; or to take other measures to prevent my wealth from falling into the hands of thieves and governments.

Inflation is incidentally one of the chief, though fairly subtle, methods of taxation. But one would have to be tedious to explain this obvious fact.

His Majesty

As I am not into statistics, I find it difficult to think of my new monarch as “Charles III.” But he is not only the son of his mother, who was our Queen, and became so even before my birth. He is also the son of his father, who exhibited all the characteristics that Her Majesty loved in a man, starting with being unambiguously a man. Of course, this was an easier prejudice to master, when she married in 1947. Charles, born in the fashion of those times (after the marriage, and “legitimately” as it were), came into a world where such conventions, together with other traditional proofs of sanity, would be set aside.

Not having been born so long after Charles, however, and of loyal parentage, I became aware of the heir in my own childhood. I still think him a bit young for the job — monarchs must need at least a century of training — and, quite inevitably, subject to the notions and whims that decorate or deface our common generation. This cannot be entirely to his credit, or to his fault. There is what the clever Germans call a Zeitgeist, a spirit of the times, for better or worse (mostly worse). We are all brainwashed in this stream of consciousness. Only a tiny fraction, of each generation, swims free of the great sinking wreck of ages. They have what my physician has diagnosed as “attitude problems.”

Charles, more than any other member of the Royal Family, clearly earned most of his eccentricities. Glancing in the amusing comic book, entitled Harmony (2010), written by Charles with a committee of his friends, I found many signs of this. It is, as one might guess, against the Disharmony we have created under the guise of “revolutionary progress.”

By coincidence, reading in the century-old tiny volumes of my Edmund Burke, especially from his last few years, I find him a spokesman for the same harmonies. That is what makes him a conservative — a radical conservative, like our new, gracious King.

He (Charles, like Edmund) has a preternatural attachment to reason. Also, a discernment of the limits of reason, not only in the present, but through all time. Still a third eccentricity is his characteristic modesty, with instinctive courage, for he does not impose his views but presents them for discussion, and listens as well as speaks. (My generation forgot how to do this, and the generation after mine is, for want of a better term, “Woke.”)

Charles is unlikely to make a fool of himself as our monarch; though judging by the careers of most politicians, this will be hard for him to achieve.

The reader will know I am a “constitutional monarchist,” who would keep the Royals in their — current, illustrious — positions, but eliminate the rest of our — incompetent, and generally malignant — bureaucracy. Having witnessed (through the BBC) how brilliantly the British can manage an unprecedented state funeral, with millions of voluntary guests, I am the more convinced that Charles and his advisors can be trusted in command.

Let us sing with heart and voice, all five stanzas: Long live the King.

Nativity of Mary

A French newspaper that came before my eyes today both cheered and disheartened me, when it described Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as “the last Christian monarch of Europe.” This may in fact be a fair representation of “public opinion,” but God in these matters ought to be consulted.

Her Majesty died yesterday, which was September 8th. That is Marymas, in both the Roman and Anglican calendars; and in the Byzantine Rite, and through Syrian and other Eastern churches, it is also the birthday of Our Lady. We count nine months from the Conception, which we celebrate December 8th. (Of course the Julian calendar runs almost a fortnight behind the Gregorian, where it is still observed.)

In other words, as the knightly Andrew Cusack points out, God took the Queen on His Mother’s birthday, thus reminding all those in the English Realm that they are still the Dowry of Mary.

Seventy years

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has been, for seven decades, the only reliable point of sanity in the English-speaking world. She did not slip into perversion or hysteria even once in all that time. How lucky, for the rest of us, that she has been Queen, throughout — and seen off the various mental cases whom we elected. The family she leaves is a mixed bag. There is still some chance that her successors will show the benefits of her example.

Even in her choice of mischief, which she shared so wonderfully with the late Prince Philip, she set an example — of decency, requiring good humour. I remember her speaking after an Archbishop of Canterbury, in public perhaps thirty years ago.

“His Excellency has just spoken to you on the subject of sin,” she began. “And he was: Against. … I wish to speak on the subject of the family. And I will be: For.”

Neither the Queen of England, nor little boys live forever. Perhaps dragons do. (I was born in her Coronation year.) But for good or evil they preside over us, in ways both official and unofficial.

I was fortunate to have been assigned to these last seventy years.

And now the Queen is dead. Long live the King.

The need for restraints

As my long-suffering, gentle reader must know, I do not like to choose between “the appalling outbursts of bestial ferocity in the Totalitarian States, and the obstinate selfishness and stupid greed of Capitalist Society.” (Dorothy Sayers in Creed or Chaos?)

I pay taxes to the latter, because I live in a “bourgeois” country where it is usually less painful than not paying taxes. This, I suppose, shows loyalty of some sort.

But I do not proclaim “Liberté, égalité, fraternité!” (the national motto of Haiti), or “Democracy!” (wherever it is invoked). These moments of hysteria are common to both sides, and I think uttered with equal sincerity, for both are essentially mad. Not living in the United States, I need not mention the “American dream” or “American exceptionalism” among the shopworn slogans. We have as tedious from the mouths of our politicians in Canada.

The world would do well to use geographical expressions to describe nations, or historical ones that cause no anxiety, rather than supplementing these with idealistic vapouring. For confusing the vapours with realities — things — leads to so many unnecessary murders. We must, from time to time, defend ourselves against the violently mad and their armies, when they are invading. This is an understandable and necessary task, so I would not have myself confused with a pacifist. But I have no use for other forms of virtue signalling, such as voting.

The adequate society is not ruled, or more precisely, misruled. It is a monarchy where no one can advance himself: one inherits, or is appointed from above. There is no tradition of electoral politics, or rioting of other kinds. For the King does not actively “rule,” either; rather Custom prevails. The judges the monarch appoints can of course depose him when he goes psychotic or senile, or “tries something on.” Customary law — which for the most part enforces itself once it is established — does not encourage madness all round. It is, indeed, the only alternative to the “fascism,” which all progressive factions are sworn to resist (and do so, in an unambiguously fascist manner).

Anyone who seeks power is a fascist, and should be customarily restrained with leg clamps from running for public office.

Newman on the art of war

Saint John Henry Newman, in his Essays on Miracles, and in the Grammar of Assent, calls attention to what Science and Revelation have in common. Both are rules-based. Religion is certainly, and science is apparently, immortal; neither admit exceptions.

Our current historical mania for “evolution” is in denial of this, from two directions. First, we believe that these generalities have the remarkable power to write themselves into existence; and second, having that singular power, they may also change themselves over time. In a word, they evolve, and did evolve or will evolve if they cannot be seen to be evolving now.

To my mind, however — the author of these idle essays — the interest of science is that its laws are impregnable. No matter how often the defiance of gravity, or of the conservation of energy, or of the sum of entropies, or of the fastidious speed of light, or of progress by perpetual motion, is proposed or promoted through such a place as YouTube, we know it cannot happen. There will be no variations in principle or fact. Indeed, a variation transiently observed will bring a better understanding of the law, for if it is genuine it will prove indefinitely repeatable.

Likewise with miracles, which appear (though seldom on YouTube) to break all the rules that pertain to religion, as well as science. They do not, however. They are only detectable because of the seeming breach in the physical order. But they remain perfectly consistent with the moral order, which thus shows itself to be “higher” that the physical.

How else can we tell them apart? The physical provisions of the universe are plausible. But the moral provisions are paradoxical in kind.

The rules of warfare belong finally to the moral. At the physical level, the power with the bigger army, and the better weapons, wins every time. That is “how the world works,” according to the military manuals, and the great majority of soldiers. The moral order is by comparison naïve, and is sometimes summoned as an implausible joke.

But what is this moral order?

“We advance by yielding; we rise by falling; we conquer by suffering; we persuade by silence; we become rich by bountifulness; we inherit the earth through meekness; we gain comfort through mourning; we earn glory by penitence and prayer. Heaven and earth will sooner fall than this rule be reversed. …”

To which I might add, that who dares, wins.

Apolaustic reflections

“Mankind must learn to serve beauty before we can faithfully serve freedom.”

True, I am quoting that radical Protestant, Friedrich Schiller, apparently with approval; but his view was shared, broadly, by such natural Catholics as Corneille, Burke, Plato. Alas, Schiller sometimes speaks with that repellant smile I hinted at yesterday. But fortunately it is not the happyface smile by which we are afflicted by naïve propagandists of the present time. He lived when the limits of “progress” had been illustrated by the collapse of the Revolution in France. His remarkable capacity for philosophical abstraction was freed by this disintegration of political ideals. He had no choice but to explore more deeply, honestly and awkwardly, the crossroad of philosophy and poetry.

His extraordinary work of 1795, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, swept me aloft many years ago; recently, I caught sight of its trajectory through the stars. The book was also written by a surprisingly young man, I now realize.

“Beauty is not an inductive idea; it is an imperative.” (I think that is a quote.) It is what moves us to right action, and to the making of good things.

The alternative inspirations turn out to be sordid. We could, most obviously, work for money, in order to get rich or perhaps just to get by; or we could be slaves of some other kind. We might not do much harm, while being paid “hourly”; but if we are idealistic, and work “for the greater good of mankind,” the result will be horrors.

Justice is, in this light, one aspect of beauty. I leave to some other discussion how beauty can be judged — Schiller refers to Kant, and for many of his examples to that other contemporary, Goethe. That each of us is born with some apprehension of the beautiful, quickening our heart, I accept almost as a point of dogma.

It is a command, an imperative. We must act upon it. It might be trivial to suggest that we should all be artists, but to be an artist is to be the opposite of a slave.

In the command of beauty, we rise to the discovery that we have been working for God. But when we don’t even make the attempt, to advance the beautiful into being, we find that we have created ugliness all around us.

This touches on what Prince Myshkin meant, when he said that: “the world will be saved by beauty.” In his novel, The Idiot, Dostoevsky sought to create this “perfectly good man” as a protagonist — this entirely positive, beautiful character. An artist, as it were.

The art of Jesuit-poking

Unscrupulous intrigue can sometimes lead to conspiracy theories. However, sometimes they grow imaginatively on their own. After the allegations have been often-times repeated, we begin to think that, as well as smoke, there must be fire. This is what gave the Jesuits such a bad name, for instance with Friedrich Schiller, and other Protestant writers; and even within the Catholic Church, for the last few centuries. For even inside, the Jesuits seemed “wicked,” in both the positive and negative sense. Yet most of the memorable incidents are ambiguous, or doubtful.

This reputation is a pity because the Jesuit order, in addition to little faults, has done so many noble things. These included their missions among the placid Huron Indians, and their sacrifices at the hands and tomahawks of the Iroquois — whose “Great League of Peace” once invaded the world of pre-Ontario, and bathed our current cottage district in blood.

Curiously, or perhaps there is no irony at all, the greatest achievement of the Jesuits, came when they were outwardly quite powerless. For a priest or missionary is radically powerless, I would say, while he is being burnt, flayed, or pickled. Yet oddly that is just when the most indelible mark is made — not only on himself but on his external observers, to say nothing of all-seeing God. And note that, the Jesuits did not need to intrigue to get themselves martyred, and probably did not lobby in this cause. Their most winning argument was made non-verbally, “in the flesh.” To this day, Christians need not sneak up on their assailants, or beg to be put down. It is the assailants who, normally, must do the sneaking.

Schiller is incidentally among my favourite Protestant bigots. He does not waste his time as a historian researching actual Jesuit conspiracies, which are frequently alleged. It is almost as if he doesn’t quite believe them. But in his dramatic works, he is quite free with dark Jesuitical legends. For instance, he paints their influence upon Spanish court and society in uniform tones of black.

He is the opposite of Shakespeare in his casting. Known Catholics in his plays are generally fanatics, known Protestants are morally upright; whereas in Shakespeare the Protestant exemplars go the distance to humourless priggery, and every faithful character depicted as a Catholic (starting with monks and nuns) is more or less a white-hat. We have the reverse face of Schiller’s lyrical display of smiling, tolerant, genial light and love — in which he settles scores like a Wokeman.