Essays in Idleness


Zygotic developments

“Before I formed thee in the bowels of thy mother, I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee.”

This passage, from the beginning of the Prophecy of Jeremias, is one of the many that echo the initial theme of the Bible: “in the beginning.” All of them have this simple truth in common: that to the thinking mind, the beginning comes before the end. For the end is also conceived, in the beginning. It is, to speak glibly, the means to the end. But to the human, both means and end are unknowable to reason.

Can we understand anything? For we would have to go back to the time before the beginning to give a scientific account; in other words, to a time that does not exist. It is not science, to deal with things that are not, or cannot be. That is to say, we must acknowledge God, in the moment of creation. For even God has no being, “before He exists.” He is creator, not creature. He had to exist from the beginning.

The zygote of a creature is, but just barely.  This is true of mice and elephants and men. The zygote is a tremendously complex single cell, that comes into being for a moment, with all the genetic equipment a man could wish for. And as instantly, it begins its singular, but multicellular life. This fertilized egg, which already comprehends the union of male and female, unquestionably is. It is irreducible. We may have academic discourse on what is a man; on when he becomes real and when he ceases to be; but this is all nonsense. We moderns confuse the issue with such empty concepts as “the quality of life.” A question preceding this must be, what is the life we are discussing? And how do we presume to pass judgement?

In chronological terms, a zygote is the first man. That he does not resemble the “complete” man, is an irrelevant test of perfection. He is, and cannot be other than a man; he is not “potentially” a human. He has been created, human, and the potential is in him, not in something else. In our world of strange instruments, we view the matter backwards, or rather inside out. We may become whatever, imaginatively; we do not become something that we are, already.

We cannot be transformed from an earlier condition. We were transformed, rather, from the condition of non-being. The matter is too absolute to be analyzed in degrees or stages.

But this is to get confused by ourselves. The mystery has already been accomplished.

Cyril of Jerusalem understood this better than Thomas Aquinas, more than a thousand years before the Angelic Doctor; later, Thomas was still fussing about the moment the embryo quickens. Our own understanding may be more hopelessly backward; for the truth goes back a long way. We get it or we don’t: there is, immortally, life in us. It is a culture of life or a culture of death that we are supporting.

Salutary neglect

While Dignified Flippancy gives the best summary of the means by which the British Empire was extended — especially in its later stages (after the loss of the southern bits of British North America) — we need a phrase to explain the philosophy of government that allowed it to prosper through years of sublime peace. As so often, the Irishman, Edmund Burke, supplied this phrase, in his second speech on the Conciliation with America. It was “a wise and Salutary Neglect” that permitted the American colonies to succeed; as it had been the relaxation of the Navigation Acts and many other Cromwellian schemes and encumbrances, that removed the chief impediments to the growth of their manufacturing and trade.

This did not require any legislation to negate, however. The laws were simply not enforced by the neglectful authorities. And this method worked more generally through the rest of the Empire upon which the sun never set.

Sir Robert Walpole should be given some share in the credit, for his corrupt and Whiggish nature had been pleased to stuff the colonial governments with his incompetent political shills, who did not apply what the mercantile theorists had long suggested. Too, they were often corrupt themselves. Men who are busy making money “unofficially” are more likely to forgive the unofficial behaviour of others. This is what makes corruption such a welcome relief of tyranny.

Indeed, I have often thought that the current progressive, democratic regimes, in the United States and Canada, offer a better excuse to violent revolution than anything extant in the 18th century.

Salutary Neglect was the shining principle (to be distinguished from “benign neglect,” a mere policy of urban planning), by which the British were able to rule the world’s most extensive empire, with a small fraction of the soldiers and bureaucrats employed by the French and others in their European empires.

It was a method not permanently infallible, however. It allowed the Dominion of New England (my maternal ancestry) and other flourishing colonies to become independent. This was a natural development, once they became habituated to free trade. Alas, that is where the politics of nonsense re-enters the picture, metastasizing within each newly created domestic cell. For men will be men, as boys will be boys. They will rule themselves, even to destruction, as the instinct to freedom becomes an instinct to tyranny.

But suffice to say: the earthly paradise is formed with dignified flippancy, and sustained through salutary neglect. And yes: Rule Britannia!

Dignified flippancy

A potentially universal virtue — dignified flippancy — was the signal by which great wealth was amassed in the British Empire, and in select locations elsewhere. It was also what made the imperialists “cool,” and could do so again. One immediately and instinctively granted their requests, without feeling the need to consult the distribution of power. Yielding to their will was simply polite behaviour; it was a question of etiquette.

This is (of course) a masculine virtue, requiring on the part of the exemplar of flippancy an heroic restraint, from crude self-assertion. Display of weapons would, after all, betoken pride, and might give the game away. Even the catechism need not be consulted, for jingo is never appropriate in a gentleman. It is tasteless.

But we live in simplistic times, when the presence or absence of testosterone is all that can be understood. The idea of a gentleman is too complex to be explained; it must instead be demonstrated.

I think of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore and almost viceroy of the Malay archipelago of island Indonesia until the Foreign Office thoughtlessly gave it away. He once found himself in the embarrassing position of having to negotiate some treaty or other with a tribal chief in remotest Java. He was accompanied at the time by a single aide-de-camp, whereas the tribal chief had brought his whole innumerable retinue, armed and postured for war. The chief was sitting upon an elevated throne, that put Sir Thomas thus at a negotiating disadvantage.

He did not waste time whining about this, however. Using his considerable linguistic gift, for the languages in that part of East Asia, he instructed the chief’s apparent lieutenant that there had been a mistake. Sir Thomas was in fact the senior officer, and so the tribal chief had been incorrectly seated. He must move from the throne to the very low seat beside it; Sir Thomas would then be pleased to ascend.

After a moment of confusion, it became clear that dignified flippancy would prevail, and his Javanese Majesty climbed down (literally). Everything could now go smoothly.

Looking down

I have seen no evidence that the Russians are ten feet tall; nor their some-time Chechen allies; nor even the Ukrainians, measured on the military height chart; although each may be around three metres in each other’s estimations. All, and especially those still within the perimeters of eastern Ukraine/Crimea/Donbas, are suffering as we did not think people would suffer in modern life: the aggressors as much as the defenders, in miserable pain.

Take Mr Putin, for instance, who seems abnormally short for a world leader. He is reported to be approximately 170 centimetres, which is five-foot-six, below even Mr Modi from India. One begins to see this as the first of his several psychological influences. Short people “got no reason to live,” according to an American pop song that was suppressed at the demand of a makeshift alliance between the Lilliputians and Blefuscudians (who police American pop culture). Mr Putin has demonstrated the soundness of this cliché, by his ambitious intervention that, in addition to its murderous effects, has driven Ukraine into the hands of NATO, together with Finland and Sweden — two countries we thought would never join. Mr Zelensky, in his turn, has manoeuvred his enemy into a position of wilful obstinacy.

We are obliged to feed heavy, high-tech weapons into the conflict. Even Canada was able to find four tanks to send, over Mr Trudeau’s environmental guidelines. Mr Biden has summoned a sum for weapons larger than the defence budget of both sides, and the Germans more lethal equipment to give away than they had done since the collapse of the Tausendjähriges Reich.

For, as I was explaining to one of my correspondents, “World War I wasn’t very sensible either. Of course, once it starts you are stuck with your side.”

And of course, I myself prefer the Ukrainians, although I’m disinclined to wave the gold-and-blue. Indeed I know several ethnic Russians who are equally disinclined, but in their hearts they are rooting for their new national enemy. Taking sides is at least emotionally satisfying. But how to orchestrate a ceasefire? How to champion peace?

The solution used to be Donald Trump (190 centimetres), who during his presidency kept Putin and other aspiring tyrants from trying things on. He was among the greatest post-war messengers of peace, in our diplomatic annals. A pity that he was brought down by the Lilliputians and Blefuscudians.

Tall tales

The average height of a man was five feet, five inches, about 1969. Do not ask from whose authority I gleaned this information, for I can’t remember. I think it was in some statistical manual of world affairs, for I was addicted to such publications, then.

I would guess that the average height of women was shorter, and of children if separately measured, shorter still. That the averages have been increasing, almost everywhere but exceptionally in Asia, I would also guess, but on still less authority. You see, statistical surveys no longer entertain me.

Nevertheless, they may entertain some readers. I read somewhere that the average height of a Persian had increased by more than six inches over the last century. I’m not sure whether to credit the nutritional skills of Shahs or Ayatollahs; or perhaps Iranians (including their minorities?) just expand over time. Everyone is doing it, in modernity, I hear. (Too much sugar?)

But I shall drop these particular speculations, for they will lead to distinctions of race and sex, which trouble some of our other contemporaries. Suffice that, without them, all of our numbers are meaningless: even if our average might happen to be spot on.

Hélas! … the trouble goes deeper. The truth requires context.

I mentioned inches, at the outset, thus implying my use of British Imperial, or American Customary, units of length (approximately the same), in both of which we have twelve to a foot. I would therefore exclude classical Chinese fractions of a chih, or classical Greek, which chopped the foot into sixteen daktyloi, or the modern habit in the Oriental building trades, of counting three “feet” to each (Système International d’Unités) metre, each consisting of ten round, but still illegal, “inches.” Even with the more conveniently divisible twelve, I might have chosen this metre for the length of my yard, giving it thirty-six parts.

Alternatively, my own joyful adaptation of the nautical mile. By this, it is divided into sixty plethra. Each of these is subdivided into ninety-six feet, so the foot is precisely one five thousand, seven hundred and sixtieth of a nautical mile. (It was designed, in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, to defeat glib decimal calculations.)

This even before we consider variations that might offend “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” (or DEI might stand for “Divide Et Impera,” as they said in ancient Rome). Or we might consider the matter as an average over the time since humans were invented. For even at its most objective, context can be rather subjective; as well as unknowable (to humans).

News agents, or “journalists” as they call themselves, seldom deal with anything so cut and dried. Most of their concepts are wet and slippery.

In writing about Ukraine, for instance, I am not surprised that they get nothing right, in any context. True, Putin is unreasonable and psychotic; Zelensky is unreasonable and corrupt; and there is a background history of sinfulness on both sides, and elsewhere. (Father, forgive!)

We suffer a brutal war, in consequence. What we don’t have, and cannot hope to get, is any reliable information.

Reality bites

Fortunately, I do not believe in years. I make empirical exceptions to my disbeliefs, which anyone may accept as an admission of error, but seriously, one must have faith in other things. That the Earth goes around the Sun is among my many exceptional beliefs, and the distance until it returns to the same point in space is not even believable, for as I understand it is unlikely ever to return to that place. For on slightly sharper thought, that would anyway be impossible. Space is not full of locator points; it is rarely even full of planet. Fullness itself is, in the better physics leading into metaphysics, rather an empty concept. Humans may “get it,” but only because we are full of emptiness.

But to repeat, I disbelieve in years; this one for instance. One might say it is proving to be a very bad year. It is the year that began from the death of our last reliable pope, and has deteriorated not only with further deaths, but with general disintegration. However, to believe that a year should have any kind of significance, is to believe in numbers.

Who could be so foolish as to believe in silly numbers?

I read in the news that the young (61) and foolish German bishop, Heiner Wilmer, is about to be appointed prefect of the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith, in succession to Ratzinger, Mueller, and Bergoglio’s Ladaria. The late Cardinal Pell was, when he was alive just the other day, warning Pope Francis about Wilmer’s many deviations from Catholic dogma. His appointment would mean the replacement of “official” Catholic teaching on various subjects with the latest fashionable “synodal” blather from north of the Alps.

The alternative, long-settled view, was that Catholic doctrine exists outside human legislation. It is something which, like the criminal law, or the movement of the planets, we discover, and do not make. It may appear to change, when we discover some subtlety we missed before. But it does not turn about. Dicasteries and other institutions of judgement may inquire, or be corrected, when we discover that the previous reach of our understanding was ham-fisted. We do not, however, insert ham fists into the workings of nature, and nature’s God, for sport. Reality, as it were, bites the arrogant hand.

Translating into words

I am a typical (North) American, with his disability for languages. This comes from our collective occupation of much too large a geographical area, and speaking English over it every day — or an unreasonable facsimile thereof. We do not benefit from the virtue of necessity.

In Canada, we should speak French by preference, in its late mediaeval form, in solidarity with our pioneering, mostly Norman, ancestors — French, in the floral, formal tone of Pierre de Ronsard, or Joachim du Bellay, the restorers of the classics. Or we might follow the advice of my (Cape Breton) grandmother, who acknowledged Canada’s “two official languages” — and mentioned that they were Scots Gaelic, and Ecclesiastical Latin. By now, even the teaching of these vernaculars has declined (almost to extinction) in our public schools, where the students are taught to reject any manifestation of class or culture.

This leaves very little demand for poetry in translation, or poetry at all. So I have put them on my list for anti-Woke revivals. Indeed, I think back on the heroic age in which I came to mindfulness, when Poetry in Translation was among the foreign journals available at any branch of the (now defunct) Lichtman’s newsstand chain. Penguins and the other mass-market paperback series also catered to this taste, and I was especially enamoured of their original texts, with prose translations in small type at the foot of each page. But to raise amour through excitement, there were many (actually American) poets doing shockingly splendid translations into verse: all the progeny of Ezra Pound. And they were not writing exclusively for deadly academics.

One could not acquire a language through reading translations, but nevertheless, might learn it better by this technique; for following the rules of poetical translation, the best work was obviously not word-for-word. That is what Google or AI robots can do — provide a crib for idiots and the terminally lazy — but literature, even in prose, continues to require the human touch.

In my own lost, abandoned ventures, I would take care to make each transformation reasonably complete. Even line-for-line was usually beyond my competence (in the few languages I would attempt); and I came to think it should be beyond anybody’s. The best will gather the most telling imagery, and their many sharply converted acts of speech, in the order commanded by the new language; and will not neglect the rhythms that emerge with those commands.

All of this comes before confronting such pesky little problems, as rhymes.

After making fine concessions, with all the leisure that requires, there will be no time left. It takes a hundred hours to make a new poem, properly; sometimes it takes several years more; until one’s success is no longer ambiguous, and one discards all evidence that one ever laboured. The old poem has become, astoundingly, a new poem; that sings in a voice that we had longed to hear.

Health nazis

Canadians, and Dutch people apparently, have been told to stop drinking alcohol. This does not mean, “cut down, you’re drinking too much,” as your dreary aunt might tell you, but cut it out entirely and immediately, as Big Sister says. The health bureaucracies in both countries — the  ones that brought us the Batflu lockdowns and facial diapers — have now published their “recommendations.” In the time until they have drafted legislation, they “recommend” that, if we drink at all, we must limit ourselves to two units per week, consisting of 12 ounces of 5% beer or 5 ounces of 12% wine; or whatever that is in the communist measurement system. We had already been told to avoid tobacco; and I see posters in the subway advising us not to assault transit workers and other government officials.

The late Auberon Waugh once suggested that, “it is time for all of us decent, reasonable, moderate types to rise up and kill these people” — after some milder suggestions by the English bureaucracy. (This is not the first time I have recalled this quote; the last time I got a warning from the RCMP, when tight-assed newspaper readers cloyed their switchboard.)

Perhaps we could get this extermination funded under the new “Medical Assistance In Dying” programme.

In my own recent encounters with the provincial faux-nursing agencies (I call them “health nazis” for short), I was particularly advised never to drink alcohol, eat anything containing sugar, or salt, or fat, or anything else that had been previously discerned as edible by human beings; and to spend my day doing rehab exercises. So I’m a little ahead of the kerb, on state regulations, in which I find only one advantage: that it makes me appreciate, indeed crave, these substances which I once took for granted. My own recipe for long life and happiness remains: to ignore the prigs, puritans, and killjoys; and die only when instructed to do so, by God.

One should try to observe universal moral laws, rather than fussy rules imposed by the local health nazis. One could philosophically and scientifically dispute the use of statistical premises on which governments and Big Pharma pretend to operate, as well as their assumption that everything is an emergency; their advice is all tyranny and bare-faced, self-interested lies. But such journalism is probably unnecessary, for in the near future, God will sort it out.

Death of a straight shooter

The news this week, or at least the news I noticed, included the sudden death of Cardinal Pell; an excellent Australian exemplar of Christian “white martyrdom.” (Look it up.) He was one of the few living bishops of the Church in whom I could repose complete confidence. Like many before him, he was imprisoned on false charges, and in a black moment of Australian history he was denied even a memorial this week, on the ground that his many imaginative non-victims might suffer hurt feelings. They, of course, would have preferred to see him executed; and indeed his impeccable honesty had made him violent political enemies among the perverse and corrupt, in the state of Victoria as around the Vatican. Now, may he rest in peace.

I had just read the late Cardinal’s magnificent piece of journalism, published in this week’s Spectator. He condemned the moral toxicity and incoherence of the Vatican’s planned “Synod on Synodality.” The official booklet presenting this, by a bureaucracy sworn to papal obedience, is “full of Marxist jargon,” is “hostile to the apostolic tradition,” and “ignores such fundamental Christian tenets as belief in divine judgment, heaven and hell.” It is such a rare thing, when a major prelate under the present Franciscan regime in the Church, tells the truth.

Fr Gerald Murray, writing in today’s Catholic Thing, surveys the late Cardinal’s worth, and frequently heroic deeds. I don’t do links (any more); go read that instead of this.

The year has not started well, and I choose silence for the moment, neglecting to take on the many phantasms that have been insinuated into the Church, and around the world, from the desire not to be too dark at our funerals. For George Pell, like Papa Ratzinger, would remind us that God is ultimately in charge. We must endure these minor privations, with Christian fortitude, until Our Lord shall come again. They, our examples, were not wimps. And now they are in a better position to pray for us.

Dear friends

“Dear friends, may no adversity paralyze you. Be afraid neither of the world, nor of the future, nor of your weakness. The Lord has allowed you to live in this moment of history, so that by your faith, his name will continue to resound.”

This snippet was of course from the late Pope Benedict XVI, and comes to me courtesy of the new Musk Twitter, where it has been put in a decorative panel and re-posted by several nostalgic Catholics. I have tried to edit it, slightly, by cutting short the concluding cliché, but otherwise can find no objection. “B-16” was not only gentle, in his otherworldly way, but marvellously eloquent, as will be discovered in any attempt to read him more comprehensively than in a single, isolated tweet. On the other hand, I have yet to find a single passage in his works, which I would judge to be contemptible. (This puts him slightly ahead of Shakespeare.)

The remark in question appealed to me as an answer when I was asking the “internal rhetorical” question, “Why don’t we just give up?” — on the Church and Public Life in general, or on human biological existence specifically, as formal environmentalism finally demands. The official “green” answer is Canada’s, for instance (or at least Justin Trudeau’s) to our catastrophically overfunded health care system: it is Medical Assistance In Dying. If you are no longer in a position to pay taxes, the state will graciously see you off. Papa Ratzinger’s recommendation was (and is) the exact opposite. It is, so to say, “pro-life.”

Curiously, it is the only answer, that is fully rational, as opposed to an hypothetical answer, i.e. one based on a theory. Any other would be compatible with the condition of entropy, that is “rationally” (but falsely) said to describe the universe. We were all born to die, according to this limited view of physics. That we were born at all makes a first contradiction. That there is something instead of nothing takes this reasoning back to the first conceivable moment.

We are stuck with life, and very probably with eternal life, according to my information. It is a profound nudge to realize that we should make something of it, and that this is possible so long as life exists, i.e. always.

Towards Epiphany

Like many of my readers, I imagine, my mind has wandered this last week of the Christmas festival with the thought of Pope Benedict XVI, travelling away, to eternity. He was the closest we had, in our time, to a universal pastor, a reliable shepherd of souls. His teachings as Pope, but more completely as a Christian man, harmonized with the most ancient music.

He did not have or use a preachy voice, such as we endure from the present incumbent, who has dangerously confused Catholicism with some experimental form of revolutionary politics — founded in the heretical “liberation theology” of a generation ago. He had rather a philosophical voice, and made his commentary from the crossroad of faith and reason, expounding that strange and miraculous historical triad — the intermingling of the Hebrew Scriptural inheritance, with the vivid fact of Greek reason, with the coalescence of Roman law. All the three strands were woven together in actual human history, and came to maturity as complement to the revelation of Jesus Christ, as BC intersected with AD.

No marlinspike ropework will ever unravel this complex miracle that occurred in the West; no multicultural scheme can replace it with alternative cultural markers; it is the mystery of Catholic Truth. We are not proceeding towards some future, man-made Utopia, but with the rudiments of this organizing truth already laid down as our guide.

Papa Ratzinger — as learned a man as the ages produce — could explain this heritage to those capable of listening, in clear, calm, penetrating language. He has left a broad, astounding record in his published books. His earthly testament of faith and reason has not disappeared; it is open before us.

Papa Ratzinger

The “Pope Emeritus,” ill, aged, and feeble, has now died. This closes the year as it closes his era: for this pope remained the living symbol of continuity through the years of his retirement. By some, he will be remembered as alive.

Papa Ratzinger faced a Church, and a Catholic congregation, many parts of which showed “signs of age,” and had fallen into desuetude and disability. This was true even when he wrote, more than fifty years ago, that in future the Church would be contracted. He had no illusions about the reality, in which the media, artificial intelligence and technology, had displaced the Fathers as interpreters of the Word. Notwithstanding, he took on “the overriding priority” with which Christ had endowed the papacy, from its beginnings. He brought strength and direction to the faithful — remaining and reclaimed — who turned to him as they turned to Christ, whose love could not be hidden by encroaching human blindness.

He died on the nineteenth anniversary of my own reception into the Catholic Church; for I am among those reclaimed by hope. Papa Ratzinger had been, through most of my adult life, a singular hero. I had long before his elevation come to regard him as our best mind in Christendom. I read all of his writings as they appeared, and subscribed to Communio. I was elated — staggered — when he was elected to replace Saint John Paul II.

The Italian prime minister, Mrs Giorgia Meloni, who often ignores the rules of political theatre, is the one world leader who used the future tense in remarks on the departed pontiff:

“He will continue to speak to the hearts and minds of men with the spiritual, cultural, and intellectual depth of his Magisterium.”

Beginning again

Saint Stephen’s Feast has not changed much over the years. On the day after Christmas, we begin to celebrate our martyrs. From all over the world, we read that Christians are persecuted; especially in those countries most fashionable to the Left. In North America the prejudice is more genteel than murderous — it belongs to the self-styled “smart people” — although the enemies of Christ have grown more restive.

The “spirit of Christmas” is more and more under attack, and among the Woke, the definitions of prejudice have tended to invert victims and executioners. In America itself, among other declines, the custom of singing Christmas carols, hymns and other choral music, has died out in the cities. The spirit against Christmas is growing, the spirit of statism and disbelief now predominates.

I just listened to a lecture from a self-declared “conservative,” who thinks we should “continue” to celebrate the good feelings of the winter “festive season,” while pitching away all of the embarrassing, sentimental religious paraphernalia. Commercialization alone should survive, he seemed to propose; the reasons for it should be discarded; and persons not participating in the business of accumulating wealth should be subtly punished, to put them in the new spirit.

At large, Christianity continues to be (by far) the most persecuted religious faith, very obviously by many Muslims, but also by Hindu nationalists, Communists, animists, and believers in scientism. The Christians meanwhile retain their near monopoly on forgiveness, such that where it fails there is usually media coverage. It is not that Christians are made of better stuff than the various tribes of the unchurched; they are certainly not more, nor less, human. Rather, they have received the gift of a higher religion.

With forgiveness comes the possibility of innocence and joy; childlike qualities that can perhaps be shared only by those who love children. It is missing from those who, on principle, don’t have children. Our leading politicians tend to be childless, as well as post-Christian in their attitudes. The contraceptive culture embodies their commitment to sterility. For them, the unwelcome task is to train other people’s children. They do this grimly, and selflessly, through progressive education systems, built around the denial of God. The children of the faithful are legally rounded up, and submitted to their grooming.

We may have to use physical force, to keep our children out of these schools; and prepare them to eschew anti-Christian universities.

For in the Christian religion we must take the consequences. Martyrdom has always been necessary, and should be embraced.