Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

In time

Among the advantages of major cardiac surgery — in addition to the marvellous paranoid-but-amusing dreams you get, and time off work — is a more fatalistic and accommodating view of the squalor and wretchedness of one’s community (mostly outside the hospital). It is just as urgent as it seemed before, and likely going to Hell — but urgent for whom? And going to Hell on what schedule? One feels strangely aloof from the multiple crises, just as one is strangely attracted to the most transient surviving beauties.

I came out in an Ontario still “reeling” from the Batflu hysteria. The ability of politicians and their appointed public health experts to maintain the panic, and spread it through a majority of the population, is impressive, in a way. Their destruction of the Canadian economy will have real consequences, even for them. But what can an individual do about it?

For in a formerly free country, “the peeple” have no say that is not manipulated, or ignored. The individual expecting justice will not find it when the monopolists of justice have no interest in allowing it.

The Batflu is the most current of public obsessions. From what I can see, the Chinese dictatorship is responsible both for how it was distributed, and how we should react to it through lockdowns. Yet the exercise was so successful (China comes out of it hardly damaged), that it will surely be the model for their future efforts.

But it isn’t the project that will send us to Hell. The modern world predates the Red Chinese tyranny by several centuries, and did little beyond making very evil regimes possible. The opposition to them is subverted by the growing number of glib distractions also supplied by the modern world.

Against which, the power of the individual is reduced to the farcical and counter-productive. We have only that, and God, with us; that God in whom the modern disbelieves, and mocks in most characteristic gestures. From this side, the prospect of recovery is hopeless.

Whereas, from the other side, in which the emptiness of the godless is visible, the agents of modernity are nothing. They perish. We can reasonably expect God, with his servants, to prevail in time.

You could take the bus

In minor news from the front of the Batflu hysteria, Greyhound has surrendered its bus service in Canada. It has withdrawn from the whole country, removing bus routes and bus stations. It formerly had sufficient government connections to enjoy monopoly privileges on most of these, but now the company will only retain routes from several large Canadian cities to the United States. These may reopen when the borders do.

The “temporary” shut-down began just after “Covid.” The permanent closure is one of many now occurring, in small and family-owned businesses generally, but also some large, specialized service companies. Frankly, I am not able to keep up with the liquidation news, which is not covered by Canadian media, which has focused on “happy news” and medical scare stories since the Trudeau government made subsidies for reporting more or less universal. “Unhappy news” is only available from Small Dead Animals, Rebel News, and a few other enterprising websites which refuse the subsidies. Business stories rarely interest them, if they lack the buzz of scandal.

No scandal followed the buses. The market had been dying out, thanks to the proliferation of private automobiles, and passenger-sharing schemes. The value of a rural bus, to make single users independent and car-owning unnecessary, is never mentioned. There is a shrinking official train service, the passenger part of which burns money wildly.

But actual “environmental” policies cannot be considered. Each invariably “impacts” a very small portion of the population, and in a modern democracy, the individual has only theatrical rights.

Nutrition

Before being released from the Ontario hospital system, the medical authorities did me the favour of diagnosing several supplementary conditions. I have for instance “Diabetes Two,” and Cataracts. That way I assured them of return visits; and with the cardiac surgery itself, there was already the promise that my relationship with doctors would not consist of sheer gratitude.

It almost did, and in my view, the Toronto General is, despite many government efforts to merge it into mediocrity, among the world’s greatest hospitals. But there comes a point where its customer has outstayed his welcome; and then, he must be loaded into a panel truck without suspension and delivered to some other hospital — where his treatment can be more tedious than in the halls of the General’s ICU.

Cardiac restrictions ban salt; diabetic restrictions ban sugar. Plenty of other things are denied — alcohol and tobacco hardly needed to be listed — but diabetes adds more or less constant blood-sugar testing, with the prospect of being poked with needles. Still, salt and sugar alone between them can devastate eating habits; so can the prospect of a diabetic coma, and the promise of further strokes.

But it is not clear, from the Canadian “lifestyle,” why death should be so neurotically avoided.

As I was reminded on the outside, the medicalization of Canadian life had already achieved unpredictable accomplishments. The Batflu Hysteria had advanced as far in Ontario as in Cuba, or Red China, and our simpleton premier was in a panic, locking down businesses and cancelling public events for the Third Wave. In most other, non-Canadian jurisdictions the panic seems to have passed after only two waves, but Canada is special. The demand for freedom here does not exist, except from a few hotheads in Montreal.

But medicalization certainly exists, as one sees from within the cocoon of professional medical treatment. It continues everywhere. “Safety first” is our national motto, and it enters the human animal with his nutrition.

Vacating sense

That the “personal is the political” was a piece of leftwing bafflegab that was first presented to my ears in High School — now more than half a century ago. It is what I would call, awkwardly no doubt, “a revision.” The word will be generally misunderstood, and might be taken as a revision itself. To revise something sounds like a harmless activity, and carries an implication of improvement. To tamper with the meanings of words and common phrases is to be “progressive” in some way.

Yet what one is doing is not. One is not replacing one definition with another, that has for better or worse a new meaning or nuance. (This may be necessary when circumstances change, and what one is describing has itself changed, however subtly.) In such cases, the old meaning survives, as a kind of ghost within the new machinery. Rather, one is negating the old meaning; sabotaging, or cancelling it.

Let it not be replaced. The word itself comes to mean anything. Slowly it is transformed not only into the opposite of its “narrow” previous meaning, by linguistic habit with a memory of what it meant, but a neurotic compulsion to turn it over. But eventually it assumes the opposite of meaning, altogether. It now means “whatever.”

By linguistic habit, the “personal” was previously the opposite of the “political.” This could be easily grasped, by the sane. The opposition of the two terms created a barrier between them; it was an invisible wall or border. Tear it down, and you don’t have a wall in a different place. You have no wall.

Most of our modern innovations are like this, even in manufacturing. Where once we, more or less, universally subscribed to contrasts and oppositions between things, reinforced “by nature,” we are now just as universally at sea.

Consider “male” and “female.”

These two categories are still accepted by most people who understand English, or other languages; but they are accepted as meaningless or (another word that has been “revised”) “controversial.” The distinction is being actually suppressed. But it isn’t being revised to something — new and strange — but instead erased. Girls, for instance, continue to be girls, but aren’t, simultaneously. They have become “whatevers” — something else. But nothing specific. The same sort of thing happened to boys. For that matter it goes for mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, daughters, sons, and so forth — distinctions now formally taken out of laws.

Feminism is often blamed for this. But while I would not endorse feminists in any way, I don’t think they can be held responsible. After all, feminists were ideologues who favoured women; but this is a movement that erases women.

I wouldn’t speak with confidence about intentions. If the definitions were being replaced, even systematically, I would suspect a “revolutionary” movement. But it is easier to have a revolution — which is after all something purposeful — without tampering with such phrases. It leaves everyone confused about what you are demanding.

The intention of “revision,” in my limited sense, is deeper. It goes towards the bottom of human experience — indeed, beneath the bottom — and touches on the insane.

The visitors

My mother visited me in the hospital. I was delighted to see her, but not what you would call surprised. This was soon after my by-pass operation, when the anaesthetic had not worn off. Mama had died eight years before, as I was vaguely aware. She was with my aunt, Mildred, who died thirty-two years ago.

The nurse, Harvey, came to say they were here to see me. He would clean me up first, for I was rather a mess. In fact, I seemed to be in a giant wheelchair, with bedding, my hands pinned; and I was at the edge of a steep tunnel. All the people below me — doctors and nurses and “support staff” — were moving about busily, but walking sideways as if the walls were floors, or upside-down as if the ceilings were. Those in my vicinity were correctly oriented, however.

Eventually I was wheeled to my mother and aunt. They were chatting cheerfully with each other; almost ignoring me. But then mama turned to me, with words of advice. These didn’t make sense to me, for I’d asked to have my hands released, and perhaps for a sip of water; not for what sounded like passages from Origen and Augustine. Could mama get me out of here? Apparently not.

There were so many questions I would have liked to ask, but I could not think of them. For instance, how did they get in?

The episode was made the more plausible because the staff were all wearing the muzzles, headbands, and plastic face covers of hospital gear in the Batflu regime. My mother wasn’t, nor was my aunt. Yet, they were not self-conscious. Upon leaving, they seemed familiar with hospital corridors that puzzled me.

Age of Revision

Reading Jacob Burckhardt at my leisure (enforced by physical and mental decline), together with other idle writers of history. I seem to have drifted to the view that we live in an Age of Revision. Not an Age of Revolution, as previously advertised, or at the forefront of Progress, as optimists continue to aver. Indeed, Burckhardt could be said to have partially predicted it.

Of course, it is difficult to know any history, and impossible to grasp universal history, for we would have to know where it begins and ends to say anything intelligent about it. As we depend on “outmoded” religious conceptions of why we are here, “theories of history” are the best we can do. These are uniformly silly, and more so as they become sophisticated. They are woven into the Age of Revision: the constant fluctuation of meaning. We can be “freed” of this only by accelerating the change of which we have an unwanted surplus.

Burckhardt pioneered the conception of our collective life, as consisting of three principal entities: the State, Religion, and Culture. (“Science” is a cultural thing, like pop or Gregorian music.) The more lively and recent historical sages (I think of Christopher Dawson) have largely worked within this scheme. It is serviceable, for it includes almost everything, and these are independent strata. None is permanently dominant.

In our Age of Revision, all three are in flux. Nothing can be relied upon. The task of making even transient sense of events, or facts, is sabotaged when even these become “relative,” or a matter of opinion. I have or had a general idea of what was going on in the world, but my scepticism even towards trusted sources has been growing, as I learn more about them.

For a fortnight or so I had the experience, in hospital under powerful drugs, of an Age of Revision in myself. I had dreams such as I had never had, including some which were frankly paranoid (though most contained comic reverses, which were fairly entertaining). Little fragments of real events and persons were worked into the narratives, often rather cleverly by my plot-composing mind. These dreams were different in kind from most, that are forgotten after waking. I still remember them, vividly, including those so plausible that I am still at pains to dismiss details and anecdotes.

This seems to me analogous to our present social (political, religious, and cultural) situation.

Things to do

My prospect of living to be sixty-eight looks very good at the moment, for tomorrow will be my sixty-eighth birthday. Granted, I continue to be quite weak, and somewhat addled, from my recent experience of cardiac surgery, but my son and sister have resolved to take me on a modest outing, which my son has described as an “adventure.”

I have decided, on balance, not to rename these squibs the “Essays in Addleness,” but my intention to add to them waits until I become more coherent. This, I know, will be a judgement call, but I postpone until I judge myself capable of even typing without gross errors. For instance I have noticed I had to correct several typos in the last sentence, and I have probably left more as a favour to my critics.

Reading is my preferred ambitious hobby. The books are my older inspirations, for instance Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, which previously enchanted my childhood in Lahore. And I have re-read the Tsurezuregusa, or “Essays in Idleness” (more exactly, “Nothing Better To Do”) by the 14th-century Buddhist recluse, KenkĊ — in those moments when I have found the Breviarium Romanum too taxing. Also, Dobson’s translation of Mencius, which is an almost exact transciption of my political opinions, albeit dated.

From other dippings into Oriental history I have constructed a universal account of the fate of this world. The poets and philosophers sometimes rule, very briefly. But they will be displaced, inevitably, when they create an opportunity for power-hungry thugs. Those who seek a worldly Utopia, do not understand this.

Latest news

David Warren continues — got back to the High Doganate yesterday; such a joy to be among the jackhammers again, the summer heat, and the jungle music from across the street. My son and sister continue their heroic work on my behalf, together with those doctors and nurses and physiotherapists who have improved my opinion of Canadian healthcare.

I continue to improve, but slowly; at least another two or three months of shameless leisure. Thanks for all letters and emails of encouragement, and reckless gifts of money. Very tired, and still in the mental fog appropriate to my condition, so I shan’t try to be acrobatic just yet.

Very sad to learn of the death of Fraser Sutherland, the splendid poet never sufficiently acknowledged; a less satisfactory cardiac outcome; my good friend through the last forty years. Yet all I can say is, aheu!

Supplementary

David Warren writes to apologize to the many correspondents he has apparently ignored. I’ve read them all now. Since my heart attack, triple by-pass, stroke, &c, I have been a bit under the weather. I expect to be down for another few months. God bless my doctors and nurses, and dear son, sister, and helpers.

Progress

I know it’s been a while, but there’s been very little to report. I finally got a chance to see David this afternoon, after a few weeks of COVID-related visitors restrictions. He’s still doing well — improving a bit more every day. His strength is back well enough that I’m going to bring him a laptop next week so he can start replying to everyone’s emails.

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.