Essays in Idleness

DAVID WARREN

Fortieth day of Christmas

[This item is revised from first appearance for Advent, in 2014. The Prison Notebooks of the Jesuit martyr, Alfred Delp — executed at Berlin on Candlemas, the 2nd of February, 1945 — were first brought to my attention by my fondly remembered “Chief Far Eastern Correspondent,” at Halifax, Nova Scotia.]

*

“Advent is the time for rousing. Man is shaken to the very depths, so that he may wake up to the truth of himself. The primary condition for a fruitful and rewarding Advent is renunciation, surrender. Man must let go all his mistaken dreams. …

“The kind of awakening that shocks man’s whole being: … that is the necessary preliminary. Life only begins when the whole framework is shaken. …

“It is precisely the shock of rousing while he is still deep in the helpless, semi-conscious state, in the pitiable weakness of that borderland between sleep and waking, that man finds the golden thread which binds Earth to Heaven and gives the benighted soul some inkling of the fullness it is capable of realizing and is called upon to realize. …

“Once awakened to an inner awareness we are constantly surprised by symbols bearing the Advent message, figures of tried and proven personalities that bring out in a most forceful way the inner meaning of the Feast and emphasize its blessing.

“I am thinking of three in particular: the man crying in the wilderness, the herald angel, and our blessed Lady.”

*

Do you believe in God? Perhaps that is a silly question. A better might be: Do you trust Him? I have long suspected that even my “atheist/agnostic” friends believe in God. They can’t really help it.

My late mother was an atheist. Of course she believed in God. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t have argued with Him, for seventy years. She would have just “forgotten about the Guy.”

Instead she had a grievance. As a young nurse in training, at Halifax of all places — a good hearted, literal-minded Calvinist, raised to say her prayers — she prayed ardently for one of her patients, a little boy with a horrible spinal injury. It was ghastly, and she was appalled by the excruciating pain the little boy suffered: quietly, even sweetly. Modern medical science (circa 1940) could do little for him.

He didn’t get better, so she prayed more. She got so she was praying “every day, every hour.” Still no result. Finally, the boy died.

Why, why, why, why?

We discussed this when seventy years had passed, and my mother was herself in great pain: fiendish arthritis, Parkinson’s, and a few other things. This after heroically beating off a cancer, through eight rounds of chemo. For mama believed in “stoic.” (When the pain, and worse, the disorientation became insupportable, she would sing old hymns, from her choir-girl childhood, and recite the still-remembered Lord’s Prayer.) She was still vexed, however, on behalf of the little boy. That is what had made her angry with God, “forever.”

It had begun just after his death; she prayed. She told God her views very candidly. “All these prayers I said for him, day and night. And You did nothing.” She wasn’t going to play the fool any more. She blamed God for not listening, for not being there, for not acting when He was called upon. She drew up her account, like Jefferson’s Declaration; finally she accused God of Not Existing. And then, of not responding to that, either.

She would even spite Him. She decided this on a walk: that she would be a good person, without His help. She would show Him up. She would drop all these pointless prayers, and prove to Him, once and for all, that He wasn’t needed. For seven decades she kept this up, in the Gaelic manner, through thick and thin.

This was the way my own mother put it. She was vividly aware of the irony, and towards her own end, when there was nothing left for it, she just listened to a very young Catholic priest that I had “stuck on her.” (I caught this Father Michael once by her bedside in the middle of the night. The nurses told me he’d been on his knees, on the hard floor, well over an hour. They worried that he’d cripple himself.)

*

Unless the Lord. Unless the Lord build the house. Unless the Lord

Father Delp’s hanging, from a meat hook, in a cold little cell on the Feast of Candlemas, had been enriched by four months in solitary, and nine weeks of interrogation and beatings. He was offered freedom if he’d quit the Jesuits and join the Nazi Party. He refused. His body was cremated; the ashes dumped in a sewer. (This was standard practice for German “traitors” at the time.)

“It is the time of sowing, not of harvesting. God is sowing; one day He will harvest again.”

The Nazi judge who condemned Delp, predeceased him just before his execution in an allied air raid. … (Details, details. God attends to them.)

The German bishops who drafted defiant statements against the Nazis, re-drafted to tone them down. Like Dolan of New York, they would criticize those who went “over the top,” thereby courting trouble. Why would Father Delp himself feel the need, to make a big issue, from the pulpit in Munich, of the Nazi policy of euthanasia? After all, it was “humanitarian” — designed to put suffering people out of their misery.

The idea that suffering could be of any value is lost on most. Why should we trust God on this? That God, who sent his only-begotten Son into this world, to suffer on the Cross.

I sometimes think belief in God is entirely beside the point.

Baudelaire: “Everyone believes in God, though nobody loves Him. No one believes in the Devil, and yet his smell is everywhere.”

Fun with figures

A quarter-century ago I blundered into a public discussion about prisons for women. The nice liberal people were celebrating some guvmint decision to build new ones. Being very gullible, they bought the guvmint’s argument that the existing “PFWs” were crowded dungeons, and something more “modern” and fashion-conscious was required. Too, they were housing the female inmates too far away from their families and friends. Feminists were appalled at the treatment these women were getting, when all they had done was commit serious crimes.

It was left to me, as one of the four “token conservatives” in the Canadian media at the time (our numbers have shrunk since then) to point out that the guvmint wasn’t replacing women’s prisons, but adding to them. For thanks no doubt to feminism, the number of women committing serious, “masculine” crimes had risen substantially, both in raw numbers and in proportion to the men. The old dungeons would be “renovated” (i.e. expanded); in addition, more were needed to accommodate these surging numbers.

Still, even after the new building programme, there would be far more spaces for men — more than four times, if memory serves. As liberal and progressive thought had already concluded that statistical inequality is an unanswerable proof of prejudice, I called attention to the fact. Canada’s criminal justice system was, obviously, deeply prejudiced against men. Something would have to be done.

One answer would be to reduce male inmates, until numerical equality were achieved. Indeed, money could be saved by simply emptying existing prisons of men, and filling them with women, instead. The great majority of, for instance, rapists and murderers would have to be pardoned and released. But I could foresee objections from the same people who wanted nicer digs for women — they would find the old prisons for men even less upbeat than the prisons for women — so dismissed this proposal as too radical (in the sense of, extreme).

A more moderate approach would be to achieve equality from both ends. By only halving the number of male inmates, while doubling the number of female, the same end could be achieved, over time. The guvmint could establish quotas for equal sentencing between the sexes, and instruct the courts to decide cases and assign punishments on a 50/50 basis going forward. Perhaps we could have a moratorium on putting men in prisons for the first few years, as an immediate step in the right direction.

Thenceforth, men could still be charged, even nominally convicted, but would be immediately exonerated if the crime were non-violent (such as a peaceful bank robbery), or even if violent, so long as the victims were only maimed, not killed. Far fewer men would go to gaol as a result. Remember, the target was half, so if that goal weren’t met, the requisite number of actual recidivist murderers would also have to be discharged, until each judge had met his quota.

But as the number of female convicts must still be doubled, to achieve “equity,” women would be convicted and sentenced to much longer terms, for much lesser crimes. A woman guilty of, say, an illegal turn while driving, or a parking violation, would get approximately the same sentence as, say, a man who had murdered his wife, in order to correct this historical injustice — especially as it goes back such a long way.

True, I anticipated, feminists, who never stop complaining, would say that the treatment of these women was “unfair.” But their point could be easily ignored. For, “fair” is a subjective judgement, whereas statistics are perfectly objective.

How surprised I was by all the angry letters-to-the-editor. After all, I was using the same reasoning nice liberal people took for granted, in rectifying inequalities elsewhere. How could they just stand by, and let an historical injustice be perpetuated?

Time flies. My old columns seem dated now, for they only mentioned men and women. Were I making the argument today, I would have to propose that precisely equal numbers of cisgender males, cisgender females, and each of the seventy or so categories of the transgendered, be incarcerated. There can be no justice until this is achieved.

*

[A related piece in the Catholic Thing, here.]

Two items

Item, several readers have queried my location of the Existentialists on the Left of the 20th-century political spectrum. To call Gabriel Marcel, for instance, a leftist, would seem almost untoward. He was consciously faithful to the Catholic magisterium, and as the son of a revered Jewish mother, and an atheist through adolescence, not from any habit, but by smouldering convert zeal. He did not call himself an Existentialist, like Sartre, but a neo-Socratic, like Kierkegaard. And he was so, not only in The Mystery of Being, but as playwright, and literary and musical essayist. Indeed, Kierkegaard is called “the father of Existentialism,” and the label sticks — as a radical conception of the existence, the freedom and responsibility of the subject, who allows this also in the subjective will of The Other. Not, in other words, one of those “we the people” types.

The short reply is that, I am wrong. (I am often so.) It should be mentioned, however, that I love Gabriel Marcel, and that necessarily includes delight in a certain leftishness in him. It consisted of a sense of intellectual fashion. In ideological terms, he dressed well for the cameras. He was “in the swing” — as Heidegger, and Louis Armstrong, liked to say. He knew how to contend with leftists, without entirely losing their respect. He was a fine intellectual dancer.

Further, on my terminology, is my own sense of fashion. The primary distinction I make, between Left and Right, could be put in this way. Going back to the French Revolution, the Left has always been fashionable, the Right unfashionable. If gentle reader should wish to be more fashionable, at the present day, he will have to swing Left — to the “we the people” side. (I consider Mr Trump to be left-liberal-progressive, for instance; Mrs Clinton was, too.) And as I assure my leftish friends, if they should wish to be less fashionable, they must swing Right, towards self-denying faith in God. But just as we have cooler and warmer colours in painting, there are questions of tinge within the hues themselves. Marcel was on the Left-tinged Right. Sartre, by contrast, was a flaming Red until, it seems, he rethought his whole colour-wheel position on his deathbed.

Of course, anything that is fashionable in its time is soon dead. The “classics” in all fields — literary, scientific, more generally “cultural” — tend to be the reactionaries. They were the ones who, like Ulysses, had themselves tied to the mast, rather than succumb to the bewitching chorus of the Sirens.

Kierkegaard, incidentally — impressively unpopular in life — would, like Nietzche, have disowned all his supposed philosophical progeny. But then, so would Marx have done, and probably even Darwin. By now they must all necessarily realize that, without God, nothing makes sense. Kierkegaard, and Marcel, too, realized this in their own lifetimes.

I hope this makes everything clear.

*

Item, a crack ex-Vatican Latinist has taken me to task for my proposal to launch a daily Latin news sheet. (See here, then follow the link to my original article.) Let me reply to that reply.

I am criticized for having proposed “a little elitist island of sanity and spiritual calm.” Daniel Gallagher is onside with the Latin newspaper project, per se, and would “send the first edition to the printer tomorrow.” But he notes, from his own experience in the Latin translation bureau at Rome, and as a teacher in elite American universities, that many of the best students are what I would call “liberals.” He mentions prominent leftish-feminish classicists such as Mary Beard, who would have no difficulty expounding her views in the language of Cicero and Augustine and Spinoza.

I, too, would welcome op-eds from Mary Beard, for while I disagree with most of her opinions, she expounds them cleverly, and is (like e.g. Germaine Greer) not a party-line zombie, but a woman who thinks for herself. She also understands that the ancient authors were neither leftish nor feminish. Even slightly.

Moreover, if the effect of such a newspaper were to make Latin better known and more popular among the masses, I would not despair.

Gallagher accuses me of dog-whistling, implying that Latin is “for the smart, the sophisticated, the sane. It’s a secret code that separates those who are right from those who are wrong.” Here he is mistaken. I make this distinction quite openly.

So my response is: Good! I will be Publisher, and he will be Chief Editor, and then we will have creative tension between these poles. Too, as Gallagher’s Latin is surely better than mine, I would rather he did the copy-editing.

But he must be warned, that I have already promised jobs to quite a few people, including most recently a learned Swedish gentleman, who will be our Sports and Palaeography Editor. (He is a crack sniper and enthusiast for all blood sports. He has also many small children, to whom I have promised jobs in the mail room.)

Perfesser Gallagher should be assured, as he leaves his secure job at Cornell, that wages on the daily Brevium ad Principes will be very high and prompt, as I am rich beyond the dreams of avarice.

Signs of the times revisited

We do not know what is going on, in our own times, and we cannot know. What we imagine to be important, may not be, and vice versa. There are several obvious reasons for this, plus one less obvious but rather more substantial.

First, there is so much going on, in so many places, to so many persons; who could follow it all? Imagine a novel with more than seven billion characters and sub-plots, in the present chapter alone. That is why we settle for cheap blurbs, written by publicists who can’t have read the book, either.

Second, we know less about the past — “another country” — which each plot depends upon, but where all the (former) characters had minds attuned to environmental realities quite different from ours.

Third, we know nothing at all about the future (“know not the hour”), and therefore cannot see where all the sub-plots are leading. If we could see some temporal distance, we could know much more about the present; we could clarify many problems of interpretation.

Fourth, and least obviously, we cannot know anything (except by Revelation) about what is going on beyond our own dimensions of Space and Time — about events in other worlds, in dimensions beyond ours, which may nevertheless interact with diurnal events in our worldly dimensions. This may sound scientifictive, but gentle reader must remember I am a religious nutjob, not an extraterrestrial, and must therefore be referring to “spiritual events” including that War in Heaven about which we were anciently told. Saint Michael the Archangel is, after all, apprehended by this world only on its own dimensional levels. For all we don’t know, we are soldiers in one sector, of one battle, within a vastly greater Cosmic Campaign.

After the Second World War (on this planet), René Guénon wrote a book entitled, Le Règne de la Quantité et les Signes des Temps (“The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times”). It was a smash-hit bestseller among people picking up the pieces of France, which then became an international bestseller in translations. This was probably because the learned but articulate Guénon wrote of this mysterious fourth realm. He makes an attempt to view the cycles of history, including the satanic elements, from what is in fact the traditional perspective (traditional in all human cultures), wherein qualities, not quantities, are the focus of attention. His post-War version of the philosophia perennis differs radically from the other modern imitations, from Hegel through Heidegger to the latest post-post-deconstructionalism, whose cyclical systems are assumed to occur strictly within Time.

Yet Guénon is dealing with the fate of civilizations, uphill and down, in their circular “progress” from ages of “myth” to ages of “science” and back — Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron Ages: in that order. He warns (as did the Old Testament prophets) against the murderous glibness of our post-Ironic time in which, as it were, the price of everything is accounted, but the value of nothing is discerned.

Guénon’s hot fashionable book was in immediate competition with others in France, and elsewhere, back there in 1945. On the Left, the alternative sages were Marxist and Existentialist; on the Right, the sirens of bourgeois democracy and Free Trade. But there was nothing to choose between Left and Right, for all partook in the Reign of Quantity. Every one of these draughtsmen of grand visions was, essentially, painting by numbers.

Dead now, for nearly seventy years, this Catholic-raised Guénon was a heretic and gnostic. This is not an accusation: he embraced these things openly, and as a sometime cult-follower of Egyptian Sufis, took the name Abd al-Wāḥid Yaḥyā. He dabbled in Hinduism, too; Taoism; Theosophy; Masonic rituals; and any esoterica he encountered. Famously, he befriended Jacques Maritain, but it should be added that Maritain tried to get all Guénon’s works placed on the Catholic Index Librorum Prohibitorum. (Those were the days before, in effect, that Index was itself placed on the Index.)

I condemn Guénon utterly, of course; though also affectionately. But I also condemn (lovingly) the failure of our contemporary Church, to teach laymen and now even her own priests her traditional doctrine — that we are all participants in a Cosmic War, and cannot begin to understand our battlefront position until we grasp that there is indeed a War going on. It is by walking away from this crucial responsibility that she has made the world safe for gnosticism and heresy, socialism, and so much other trash. Too, a world in which all we ever ask is for the latest figures.

An aside on beaks

If you were a bird, gentle reader, and had been one for some time (a million generations, say), you would probably be quite adept at eating with your beak. And not only eating, I should think. You would also use your beak for most other purposes, for instance probing and pulling, grabbing and manipulating things, fighting, killing prey, preening, courtship and mating, nest-making, feeding your little ones, even breathing (through the twin holes or nares on your beak). You would take it for granted not only that your beak had a certain size and shape, but a distinct colour and texture; and perhaps be guilty of racism towards those with other physical traits.

This is how things are, for the birds. Beaks are big and obvious and right in the middle of their faces, as the purple’d finches who alight on the balconata railings of the High Doganate could tell you — who are frankly Accipitriphobic, uncertain about pigeons, rivals to the sparrows, though skittish and likely first to retreat. (Illegal immigrants to North America, these sparrows, as any house finch could tell you. The sparrows reply by calling the finches Mexicans.)  I am unable to tell if they are vain about their beaks, but for all I know they may be inwardly smiling, smugly, while staring each other down. The boys like to wear red hats. (They were doing so even before Trompe came along.)

Now, let us suppose that you are not a bird, but an evolutionist. You would be used to explaining how all the finches in Galapagos had adapted to life on their respective islands, through e.g. alterations in the shape of their beaks to suit the available food in each insular restaurant. Everyone knows about adaptation. It is illustrated in every evolutionary textbook. Though it can’t be proven, it can be repeated until every student is hypnotised, or numb with boredom and unable to resist.

Dr Jesús Marugán-Lobón of Madrid, or Prof Emily Rayfield of Bristol, would be the first to tell you about the relationship between beak shape and feeding ecology — or would have been before they had done exhaustive studies on hummingbirds, eagles, parrots, puffins, flamingos, and a broad assortment of other birds. What they found, according to my daily dose of science news, is that there is indeed a relationship — sometimes — or seems to be with a little imagination — but often the inference is a long stretch and, “many species with similarly shaped beaks forage in entirely different ways and on entirely different kinds of food.” The reverse — different beaks, same applications — is also commonplace.

A certain Guillermo Navalón (not a bird but another Spanish researcher) mentions the unreported scandal of fossil interpretation, in which the ecology and all that follows from it is based on the shape of an ancient bird’s beak, and nothing else. Take that plausible assumption away, and one is left with — nothing.

“Really, we’re just starting to scratch the surface, and a lot more research is needed to fully understand the drivers behind beak shape evolution,” he adds, modestly, while instinctively framing his next funding request. (Spanish researchers have to eat, too.) I wish other scientists cited in the media shared his reticence to assume knowledge they will never have. I don’t expect them to abandon the Darwinian evolutionary paradigm, of course — that would cost them their jobs.

But I have no job to lose, and will tell you what I consider obvious from the findings of natural history, wherever I look. A finch is a finch is a finch; and every mysterious species its own incredibly complex thing. I know this because my finches have told me, but it applies to each of the other birds, and all of the animals that come into view. They have the means to confute every materialist assumption, and do so in every moment of their being.

Hail patron

A reader from the Ontario boondocks (the word is from Tagalog) reminds me that today is the Feast of Saint Francis de Sales, patron of all journalists and hacks, as we near the fourth centenary of his burial. I think of Doctor Johnson, too, in this connexion, but the greatest of English hacks was no saint; just an honest, diligent and decent Christian man, of sound common-sensical reason. I think of Chesterton, too. Why this Saint Francis should be assigned this rôle, on behalf of the Church, is itself a subject for contemplation. All his writings (so far as I have read them) are to an immediate point. That is part of the reason he is still up-to-date; for the “breaking news” with which he dealt — way stops in the journeying of souls — is immortal.

Thrice in a single day, according to the legend, this scion of a noble family, that was grooming him for high station in law and public life, fell off his horse. Each time his sword and scabbard came off — how embarrassing! — and each time they came to rest in the pattern of a Christian Cross. I mention this as if it were important, because it is. We portray saints and mystics today as if they were Triumphs of the Will, heroes overcoming all adversities to win the main prize, each a spiritual Hercules. This tends to leave God out of the account, and thus the Will by which each was actually not only motivated, but directed.

Francis proceeded to the heart of the Calvinist country around Geneva, where precious few Catholics remained; tramped through ice mud clobber and snows; became accustomed to doors slammed in his face, and rocks thrown at him. He had the gift of poetry, and became a patient, tireless writer of — pamphlets. This was an innovation for a Catholic, for pamphlets were the “mainstream medium” of that early modern age. It was a genre the Church had surrendered almost entirely to the Protestants. Francis spoke, wherever he could be heard, with the highest and with the lowest of society, and conquered, soul by soul. He converted, or re-converted, some tens of thousands who, under his direct tutelage, returned to the old faith.

In worldly terms, a demographic change of historical significance was achieved by one man. By those writings on the fly, he continues his mission to the present day; and by other means of which only Heaven knows.

Eventually, the Church that Francis served appointed him to her throwaway position as Bishop of Geneva. This must have been divine intervention, too, for like any large, centralized organization, the Church tends to be run by incompetents on self-defeating principles. The “lifestyle” of this Francis did not change, however. He seemed happiest in a hovel.

Writing on the run, against pressing deadlines: this is a journalist’s lot. How odd, when it is ever done to some purpose, beyond interests that are unambiguously worldly. Perhaps God will send us more like him. We might think to ask.

The handkerchief tree

“Oh, please,” said I to an irritating person, with whom I was having a bar-room “debate,” from which I was trying to extract myself. “If you must insult my intelligence, would you have the decency to do it behind my back.”

I will leave gentle reader to imagine the topic, and the circumstances. There is a certain multivalent use in such phrases. I was confronted by a customer who was using angry emotional arguments in the hope of defeating syllogistic reason. We get a lot of that today. It appeals to the crowd, who share with the speaker strong views inculcated by brainwashing, together with gobsmacking ignorance of a wide range of subjects. Their arguments consist entirely of hurling epithets, of whose meaning they have also not been apprised: “fascist, racist, misogynist,” &c.

My epithet for them is, “liberals and progressives.”

There is no way to confute dirty words, and the only way to deal with their chanters is by not being there. Unfortunately, they come to you. Leaving would be cowardly.

One may answer a proclamation only with a better proclamation, dirty words with clean, and an unsound premiss only with a sound one. This may have, at first, only shock value. Maybe in the fullness of time, the very possibility that another view is possible, may have some effect on one’s opponent. Likewise it may have some effect on individual members of the audience, who observe that one party to the “debate” is more reasonable than the other. An auditor might come, and leave, on the side of unreason; but the medicine begins to work, later on.

*

Davidia involucrata. — I refer to the “handkerchief tree,” sometimes called the “ghost tree” or (by the Chinese, I think) the “dove tree.” As a breeze passes through the bracts and flowers (that resemble pinched white handkerchiefs), they rise and flutter as a cote of doves. Or, a flight of receding angels, “waving adieu, adieu, adieu.” This tree will make a beautiful ornament in any alpine garden, though without ascending the hills of western Hupeh, or making connexions with the Royal Horticultural Society, one is unlikely to find seeds.

Davidia at Kew, near London, once limned or illuminated for me a profound theological idea. It did this by a kind of liturgical dance, from a stationary position, corresponding to the opening of a waltz. I remain grateful to it.

Discovered by an intrepid naturalist, the French Vincentian missionary, Père David — then adroitly tracked by some Victorian Scotsman — this tree is a remarkable, a miraculous creature, the only species in its genus. It was also found near Drumheller, Alberta, but as a fossil there, buried a hundred million years ago.

The handkerchief tree is among the innumerable calling cards the divine gardener left in his wake, while preparing our world for human habitation. By contemplating it we may understand God, not as the watchmaker but as the constant sustainer of a world that is no mechanical device. In that specific sense, the “First Cause” — prior (in logic) to the merely chronological. One must be a hardened atheist indeed, not to fall upon one’s knees in the presence of that deeply unmodern, Davidia revelation. For men today are pinned like butterflies or beetles to Time’s flat board, no longer conscious of the movement of the heavens, or themselves able to float or fly.

The waving flowers are “a proclamation,” enunciating Life. (E pur si muove!) This works better than any argument. Defamation, insult, murder and blasphemy are ineffective against it. No sooner is it seen than it begins to lead, beyond the world of Time to which it is a signal.

The de-cluttering chronicles

The first step in Warren’s new de-cluttering programme, is to get Marie Kondo out of your life. This is the underfed-looking, perpetually smiling, ridiculously cute young Japanese fashion gurvi who, after taking a course in how to write a self-help bestseller, wrote, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Now, we are alerted, she has written an illustrated coffee-table version, under title, Spark Joy. According to my informant, this latest instalment includes instructions on how to fold underwear and shirts.

I refuse to buy it. Coffee-table books are exactly the sort of clutter we do not allow in the High Doganate.

You see, I was born and raised as a de-cluttering expert, myself. My father was an industrial designer, after all. He gave me my first tips in how to make things disappear, the way they did in the Bauhaus. He was a spatial organizer of the first water: “Ship shape and Bristol fashion!” he would call from the bridge. Anything that fails to “spark joy” in the High Doganate is already gone by sundown. This includes vital bureaucratic forms and court summonses, or would if I did not have an ancient oak cabinet as a depository for all such things as spark the opposite of joy whenever seen. (The folders that contain them are filed in the graphic art drawer.)

Few shirts and little underwear clutter the High Doganate, because wall, floor, and closet space is reserved for books. (Ceilings are left clear, for sorting.) Among the proposals of this “Konmari,” as she is called by her followers, is to jettison all books that have not been read. Too, all those which have been read already. The one you are reading may be kept, but only till it is finished, lest it create a temptation to re-reading. I would certainly apply this principle to self-help books.

But every book I have retained, sparks joy; and their spines alone may trigger an imaginative recollection of the contents, and the times and spaces among which it was once read. As Coleridge said, books are corporeal, living things; at any moment their wings may re-open, for another flight into one’s soul.

A correspondent in western Massachusetts was recently married. She moved in with her new husband, together with fifty cartons of books — an amount he may have deemed excessive. My advice: any number of cartons that can be counted, is too few.

“Have you read all these books?” I have been asked by visitors, so many times, that I have run out of clever replies. Among them: “Are you insinuating that this is all I’ve ever read?” … Or, “Dear me, yes, good point. All my other flats are like this, too.” … Or: “No, I can’t read, but I hired a highly literate interior decorator.”

The other day I was asked this by a policeman. He was gathering information on a burglar who had happened to pass my way. I hope he doesn’t report me for hoarding. Apparently there are now laws against that; Twisted Nanny State never sleeps.

I wish to be fair to the Japanese wench, however. Simplicity of life ought to be encouraged. Her idea, before tossing old nostalgic items, to conduct a little ceremony over them, is hereby endorsed. And I feel for her, in the clutter of money and fame that must come with her bestsellers. But really, my father knew best: “It doesn’t matter how much you own. It matters that you can find what you are looking for.”

A Catholic view must be largely pro-clutter. A man at his joyful work will be surrounded by the projects he is working on. And in the evenings, surrounded by his joyful family. Or for Mass, hustling them all over to a church that is full of joyful equipage.

*

[I have proposed an addition to the world’s clutter at Catholic Thing today, over here.]

A minority view

“Truth in advertising” isn’t good enough. We also need honesty and candour. The more familiar one becomes with products one is using, the more clearly this can be seen. Love also comes into the calculus. Regardless what they claim, do the makers actually love what they are doing? This will show in their works. Are their staff loyal, and proud of what they make, or the service they provide? Have they that joy in craft which lifts their occupation from the contemptible towards the noble?

Or are they only working for a buck, quick to cut corners to improve their margins, in a market that cares only for price?

Shoddy dollar-store goods (and like services) are what we think fit for the poor, because the poor, to us (the “middle class” and upward), are of little value, or none. They are defined by income, which is ludicrous. Often they think of themselves in the same way, preferring quantity to quality. They fill their high-rise hovels with cheap stuff, having surrendered their minds to advertising. The alternative would be to live simply. What you can’t afford, you do without, substituting not with an inferior pastiche, but by your own wit and labour. It is a moral imperative not to live beyond your means; and every penny saved on buying garbage contributes to that good end.

I am taking a position commonly dismissed, even mocked, as “naïve,” but I am taking it knowingly. The opposite in this instance is “cynical.” A world full of tawdry junk, is taken to be inevitable. To resist moral and aesthetic laxity is foolish to the crowd. The garbage-makers puff themselves with an inverted moral code. They claim to side with “the people” against “the elite.” They put on inverted airs. Anything done properly and joyfully is considered to be niche-market, for the hoity-toity types, and thus “impractical” for the masses. Craftsmanship itself is condemned as an imposture.

In traditional societies the “open markets” our economists defend were understood well enough, but usually rejected. The trade guild would enforce standards. These would not be conceived as “minimum standards,” such as a bureaucracy might enforce, but as essential standards. The product that fails to measure up is not put on sale. Rather, it must be destroyed, and be seen to be destroyed. The baker who sells stale bread at half price is not celebrated as a friend of the poor. Rather he is placed in a basket, and dipped in the pond, to freshen him up a bit.

The guild would of course look out for the interests of its members, but had not yet been reduced to a blackmailing racket, as modern trades union have become. It would restrict competition by establishing “fair prices,” to be neither exceeded nor undercut. The focus was upon the goods themselves, and the reputation of the trade. Modern “individualism” rejects this approach. The right to lie, cheat, and steal, is accepted as a fundamental liberty. Discipline is received as arbitrary punishment, and analysis reduced to whose side you are on.

My own, traditional, belief, is that morality and aesthetics are intertwined. Men are shaped by heredity, but also by environment. The making things ugly is an evil, because it damages the souls of men. Conversely, bad or obtuse moral principles are ugly in themselves. The notion that all work should be judged by cost-benefit in terms of money alone, is something every decent man must condemn.

This has nothing to do with government regulation. Instead, it has to do with custom, which governs through every human heart, and is founded not in legislation but in faith, reason, family and religion. It can develop only organically, over time, and only in a location; it will never benefit by abstract intervention, from the top, down. It actually requires subsidiarity: to be organized from the bottom, up. And from bottom to top, not agenda-driven lawmakers — power-hungry tyrants, impatient with the good, the true, the beautiful. Rather, the scintillating grace, of God.

Breaksit

I found more encouragement in the result of the Brexit referendum than in any other recent poll, and before changing my mind, judged it more significant even than the election of Mr Donald Trump. I always doubt an electorate (any electorate) has the courage of its apparent convictions, or can hold a course, so while I’m sometimes pleased, it is never for long. A few thousand examples could follow. Yet the mere indication that the British might still have life in them, on some days of the week, and the ability to distinguish “sugar from shit” (colloquial English expression), was rather thrilling.

That the bureaucracy, including amateur politicians like Mrs Theresa May, would move quickly to sabotage their own stated commitments, was hardly surprising. Such people “know,” instinctively, that anything the public wants must be wrong. I, by contrast, only know that it is usually wrong.

Enough cannot be said about the black heart of the European Union. By providing a single-size straitjacket for countries so various in size and shape, that they don’t even fit elasticized pajamas, the EU is a monument to modern monumentality. It is also, as Peter Hitchens put it, “A continuation of Germany by other means.” Yet to my mind, the Germans are as strangled by the straitjacket as any of their client states.

As a proposition in political economy the semi-defunct European Free Trade Association was a much less bad idea. The OECD remains as a clearing house for practical trade arrangements, as the EU dissolves. There were and there are international fora for other cross-border agreements, and while “it would be nice” to walk across Europe without a passport, just as one can across the Natted States (or Canada, if you don’t mind freezing to death), in this age of terrorists and refugees, nation states need borders.

These are general considerations, but Britain is a special case. Her deeply mediaeval traditions of Crown-in-Parliament, and personal liberties defensible in Common Law, were never compatible with the pagan, Teutonic, jackboot traditions of “Enlightenment” Prussia, whose aggressions launched so many Continental wars, and again contribute to lethal tensions, by their embodiment in the EU. That said, it should be mentioned that each of the other twenty-seven member states is a special case, too.

Of course, the gliberal commentariat do not care for such things as history or religion, and are exclusively focused upon macro-economic questions — which in turn blind them to actual economic questions, in a world where huge, faceless, indeed ruthless multinational corporations cannot provide for all human needs, and the human being himself is not reducible to pure consumer. As we are often reminded, the consequence of homogenizing vast populations is never what the Procrusteans expect. People want space to enjoy their own, and to be themselves, without alien invasion. They will always want this. It is why vast supranational aggregations such as the Soviet or the European Union always fall apart.

From the other side, attempts at essentially municipal legislation on the continental scale — without regard to local history and culture — also fail. Free trade itself only works when it is not imposed by a Colossus, but simply allowed to take place.

The original (1951) European Coal and Steel Community was conceived as a regulatory body to enable gargantuan economies of scale, though sold as a free-trade agreement. The tendency of any regulatory body is to extend and increase regulation. The course of “European unity” was predictable. It would get bigger, until it collapsed.

A majority of the British wanted out. And while they may have been successfully subverted and dishonoured by the Euro ruling caste (including those in their own government), they will eventually get their way. For the EU cannot last, as even its functionaries are beginning to understand.

The wisdom of sheep

I’ve seen a sheep poked by a shepherd. It was on some video from the Hebrides: South Uist, a windswept, Gaelic-speaking, Catholic isle, under the protection of Our Lady. (I’ve lost the link; but I beseech gentle reader to believe me.) It was an appalling moment. I was outraged. It must have taken me a full minute to recover my serenity. It took the sheep, on the other hand, no time at all.

You see, I was identifying with the harmless animal. As sheep go, he was what the English call “unclubbable” — stand-alone, unsheeplike; a goat in sheep’s clothing. The rest of his flock had been collectively sipping their fill at the lochan; “Frederic,” as I shall call him, having also drunk his fill, though a little to the side of them, wandered a few hoof-steps farther away. He adopted what, for a sheep, seemed a philosophical pose: nose raised, as if to receive the celestial ambrosia.

Woolly thoughts. The ruminations, of a ruminant.

Perhaps I should mention there were water lilies on this lochan: among my favourite invasive species. I glimpsed one at the edge of the camera frame. The Darwinists hold them to be primitive plants. As attentive readers must know, I love a basal angiosperm (and am given to pteridomania, too). Frederic must also have noticed them.

The shepherd and his dogs (he had two of them) wanted the little flock to move off in a new direction. The others did not have to be told. (A silent video; the shepherd might have whistled.) Frederic was considering their request. A little prideful, I imagine, he would not be hurried. He’d had enough purposeful walking for the day, not nearly enough lolling about. The other sheep could go, he would stay. No democrat, he was not proposing a vote. He simply did not care what the others were doing.

So the shepherd pokes him one, with his staff; really hard. And right in the ribs. “Ouch,” I remember thinking.

Frederic takes the message now. He does not retaliate, as I would. Indeed, he sprints to catch up with his buddies. (Colleagues?) His reverie is over, and he knows it.

That’s how you do shepherding, I reflect. It isn’t a sentimental trade, as reported in the Arcadian romances, which the city folk read, back when they read things. And I am no proponent of animal rights. Yes, a ram’s gotta do what a ram’s gotta do.

Still, having been poked in the ribs myself, I empathised with the animal. Power goes to these humans’ heads. Sometimes they poke you gratuitously.

In which case, you get poked. That’s the end of it. Retaliation would only make things worse. And besides, if you’re a sheep, what can you retaliate with? Wisdom requires us to ignore most provocations.

____________

I STAND CORRECTED (chronicles). I am persuaded, by a couple of my correspondents, that my view of the inner life of sheep is naïve. They are quite capable of revenge, against a disliked shepherd, who would be unwise, after whacking a delinquent with his stick, to turn his back on the creature. Said delinquent may return at considerable gallop to head-butt the offending party, before slipping into anonymity again. Breeds may be diverse in behaviour, and individuals more various still, but as a general rule sheep have keen peripheral vision, and a formidably horned ram, from the top of the dominance hierarchy, in the rutting season, may weigh hundreds of pounds. He can make his opinion of a perceived rival very plain. By Internet search for “aggressive sheep,” gentle reader may obtain some illustrations.

Pipeline issues

Asked, no doubt by some ignorant journalist, for the secret of her ageless maternal beauty, Sophia Loren, the Italian movie star, proclaimed:

“Everything you see, I owe to pasta.”

(Really, there is no improving on an Italian girl; so long as she is pre-Vatican II.)

I gather she made this remark or something like it several times, in defiance of the voracious dieting habits of her younger, bulimiac, stick-figure contemporaries. She goes to lunch with them and finds herself the only one eating.

Well, she recalled, from her own desperately impoverished childhood in war-time Campania, “Someone has to survive.” … Starch is important.

In my case it was beans and wieners. I suspected the wieners, too, were made of beans. Pythagoras (also well-known in Magna Graecia) would have been appalled.

My culinary education began with my mother, though she was not present for it. This because, she was a nurse. At a time of staff shortages occasioned by the Baby Boom (remember? it really happened!) she was volunteering nights in the local hospital. My father, sister, and I (to say nothing of my cat, Boefferina), still had to eat, however, and my father — like many XY males — could not be trusted to boil an egg. Anything more elaborate, he would have killed us all. My little sister, an XX female, showed more presence of mind in a kitchen, but having reasoned that the person who makes dinner may escape doing the dishes, I volunteered for cooking. This was of further benefit to my wee sibling, for it helped her to develop her operatic skills.

Mama gave me hints, though, and set out the raw materials, before herself disappearing. “You take beans from this can, here, chop in those wieners, and make them hot in a pot on that stovetop over there.” By trial and error, I got the hang of it.

By the time I had reached a riper childhood, I was delegated two recipes for fudge (dark chocolate, and blonde caramel, respectively), and given one for shortbread cookies (from the back of a baking soda box). Along the way I had mastered the mashing of potatoes, with abounding butter and cream; and how an English pork sausage called a “banger” could be substituted for the industrial wieners. Too, although my taste was not shared, I discovered that by stirring a scant tablespoon of Colman’s “mustard flour” into the beans, I could make them quite lively. By today, I am beyond Heinz Beanz (except on Fridays), and operating within a wider universe of Northern sausages, tinned gigantic Mediterranean beans, and additives herbal, oily, and miscellaneous.

But never too far beyond.

Once, gathered in a pub in Edinburgh with some engineering types, envelopes and pencils, we did some calculations from the known import volume of baked beans in tomato sauce to the United Kingdom, from the USA. The challenge: to calculate the diameter of a pipe that could be laid under the Atlantic Ocean, between Boston and Glasgow, to transport this substance more economically.

It wasn’t a professional job. Things like the flow-rate were merely estimated. The question of tunnelling through the Mid-Atlantic Ridge was dealt with in a most desultory manner. Indeed, we barely scratched the surface of the problem of pumping baked beans under a constant pressure for several thousand miles. But if you can do it with petroleum, it must be a breeze.

Hail Mary (pass)

Were it not for priests forwarding articles from obscure Internet websites, I’d hardly know what was going on in the world. The laity should be mentioned, too; but I have found the priestlie class to be the best-informed, and most adept at googlesearching.

Take, for instance, these two items ping’d to me this morning (here, and here). I had not been following events in Brazil with any consistency, and had, let me plainly admit, not even heard of that country’s new foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo. He was appointed in October, after the new “Trump-like” president, Jair Bolsonaro, defeated the latest avatar of Latin America’s incredibly corrupt, perverted and psychotic Marxist heritage — and by a wide margin.

In response to the usual commie hack bleating on television, how worried he was that the new president was “talking about God too much,” Araújo writes:

“So now talk of God is supposed to worry people. This is sad. But the people of Brazil don’t care. Bolsonaro’s government doesn’t care what pundits say or what they worry about: they don’t have a clue about who God is or who the Brazilian people are and want to be. Their worry is that of an elite about to be dispossessed. They are afraid because they can no longer control public discourse. They can no longer dictate the limits of the president’s or anyone else’s speech. The last barrier has been broken: we can now talk about God in public. Who could imagine?”

It was a remark that might rouse the sleepiest Catholic mind.

There are many kinds of populism, both Left and Right, and as gentle reader may be aware, I have never trusted The Peeple. It took me quite a few years even to trust God. Every electorate is fickle, as well as appallingly ignorant. But by creating a permanent underclass, dependent on hand-outs, the pagan liberal and progressive parties are able to maintain them as a permanent voting block, terrified of losing their pogey. Once in every tenth blue moon these victims twig to their predicament. In Europe and the Americas — throughout the scattered remains of Christendom — we would seem to be enjoying such a moment. Count me as a Populist, for as long as it lasts.

So everyone get busy. Talk too much of God. If nothing else, it drives the demons crazy.

*

For nearly half a century, Father James Schall (SJ) has been a light to lighten this gentile at least. I should think I have mentioned him before. Please read the dying man’s magnificent column in the Catholic Thing today (here). And join the rest of us in praying for this beloved man’s soul.

My understanding is that Father Schall declined further medical intervention, to let nature take her course — some weeks ago. I think of another kind old friend who, tiring of their ministrations, fired his oncologists a year ago. In both cases, the patient is still alive. This often happens. Killing off sick people is harder than most of the modernists realize. It takes a lot of technology.

Ditto, I would hope, for good old Western Civ.