Sunday, January 14, 2018

Endeavour and Repose

“Two things have constantly pulled at cross-purposes in me: one a deep homing instinct, a desire beyond all words to be at home always, with the same beloved faces, the same familiar shapes and sounds about me; the other an impulse to seek hard things to do, to go on quests and fight lost causes. And neither thing, neither the quiet home life nor the perilous adventure, has ever brought me any content.”

P.H. Pearse, unfinished autobiography

I recently announced that I intended to write fewer idiosyncratic blog posts. Well, that is my intention, but I'm going to set it aside right now. This is going to be one of my most introspective pieces. Perhaps my regular readers especially enjoy those....I'm not sure. Anyway, here goes.

I've been pondering on idylls of repose and security, as well as their opposites-- idylls of endeavour, exertion and risk. It's extraordinary how powerfully both of these idylls speak to my imagination, and also (I believe) to the collective imagination of humankind. 

Take a look at this image:



Now look at this image:



Don't these two images pretty much sum up the gospel story? Perhaps the image of Christ on the cross is more iconic than the image of Christ carrying the cross. But I think the Crucifixion is also an image of exertion and strain. Apparently, victims of crucifixion have to continually push their bodies upwards in order to breathe. Our Lord, it seems, would have been struggling on the Cross, rather than immobile. But even aside from that, the pain and humiliation of the Crucifixion is certainly at the opposite end of a spectrum to the serenity and security of the Nativity.

For as long as I can remember, my imagination has been beguiled by the thought of perfect safety on the one hand, and of the utmost adversity on the other. (I don't know what other word to use than "adversity"-- "danger" doesn't seem to fit, neither does "exertion", although the atmosphere I'm evoking includes all of them. I hope the idea will become clearer as I go along.)

I'm not the first writer to ponder the duality of these two themes. It seems to pervade the poetry of Lord Alfred Tennyson, as I will show with reference to a couple of his mots famous poems. Ulysses and the Siren by Samuel Daniel is another poem which dramatizes the opposition between struggle and repose.



This whole theme came into my mind because I've been haunted, over the last few months, by a line from Edgar Allen Poe's poem "To Helen" which I've put in bold:

Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicean barks of yore
That gently, o'er a perfumed sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.

On desperate seas long wont to roam
,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome.


As the reader will notice, the duality of delicious safety and thrilling peril is present in this very poem. (I think this is one of the greatest poems ever written.) The last three lines of the first verse express, as well as any words ever written, the bliss of gaining sanctuary and refuge after storm and strife. The reader of the poem can vividly imagine the gentle lapping of the waves carrying him home.

The line "on desperate seas long wont to roam" excites me more than any other line of poetry in the English language, with the exception of only one: "The wild fingers of fire are making corruption clean" from Laurence Binyon's "Burning of the Leaves". I would put them on a par with each other, as my joint favourite lines of poetry.

In fact, "On desperate seas long wont to roam" combines the poetry of peril and the poetry of repose in a single line, since the desperate seas are being seen in retrospect.

I've been repeating this line to myself, over and over, for months now. It gives me a hunger for stormy waters. Whenever I'm facing some intimidating prospect, meditating on this line changes my perspective on it, so I actually relish rather than dread it-- or relish it and dread it!

However, I'm being carried away by my theme, rather like the narrator of Poe's poem being carried by the waves. So I'm going to be more methodical, and examine some images of repose and endeavour, respectively-- and how they've excited by own imagination.

First off, I'm going to take the example of repose, since that's the more challenging theme. It's easy to admit to a thirst for adventure, but less easy to admit to a thirst for safety.

And yet, I will readily admit that I have felt this all my life-- a deep yearning for safety, for shelter, for repose, for seclusion. I find this idea, not only pleasant, but actually thrilling.

I've had a vast number of fantasies on this theme, from my childhood onwards. Perhaps my favourite was the fantasy that I was the master of a huge network of underground tunnels and caverns. I knew my way around this network, but nobody else did. Nobody could find me there; I could easily escape from anyone pursuing me. I used to fantasize about this at the age of ten or eleven.



Another favourite fantasy is that I'm aboard a space station orbiting the earth, or somewhere in outer space. I'm either alone on this space station, or accompanied by a completely trusted crew (though they are out of sight). In these fantasies (all my fantasies are vague rather than vivid), I'm usually monitoring what's happening on the earth, or in the space around my station, on a bank of video monitors, while being delicious invulnerable myself.

in my childhood, I also fantasized about being the Dark Lord Sauron in the Lord of the Rings books. It wasn't that I wanted to be evil. It was rather that I liked the idea of Sauron sitting "on his dark throne", and sending his minions out across Middle Earth to do his bidding. Sauron was the unseen primary antagonist, and that gave him a much greater air of mystery and dark glamour than any of the other characters.



For the same reason, I admired Professor Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes stories. I remember being incredibly excited by these words in "The Last Problem" (the story where Sherlock Holmes was killed off before being resurrected in a later story). They might have excited me more than any piece of prose, before or since:

He is the Napoleon of Crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows every quiver of each of them.”


In my early teens, I discovered poetry. One of the poems I fell in love with, and one that is very relevant here, was "The Chorus of the Lotos Eaters" by Lord Alfred Tennyson. As I've mentioned already, the conflict between the contemplative life and the active life was a central theme in Tennyson's work, and is frequently highlighted in Tennyson criticism.

In "The Lotos Eaters" (of which the "Chorus" is a part), some of Ulysses's retinue returning from the Trojan War are urged to remain on an island by its inhabitants, who eat the lotos flower and thus remain perpetually drugged. The poem is a wonderful evocation of safety, refuge, escape, the dream-world, and sleep.

The poetry of languor has never been expressed better than in this poem. I'm tempted to quote it all, but I will merely quote the opening lines:

There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass,
Or night-dews on still waters between walls
Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass;
Music that gentlier on the spirit lies,
Than tir'd eyelids upon tir'd eyes;
Music that brings sweet sleep down from the blissful skies.
Here are cool mosses deep,
And thro' the moss the ivies creep,
And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,
And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep.


At the time I discovered this poem, I was continually fatigued and sleepy. I was about thirteen years old. I don't know whether it was the physical changes of puberty, or whether it was the fact that I wasn't getting enough sleep, but I kept struggling to stay awake in class. The lines

Music that gentlier on the spirit lies
Than tired eyelids upon tired eyes

spoke to my depths. They actually made me feel even sleepier than I was already. I had a recurring fantasy, at this time, of simply walking (magically unnoticed) out of a class-room during a lesson, stepping into the class-room next door, and sinking into a four-poster bed with silk sheets which happened to be there, waiting for me.

I've said that nobody ever expressed the poetry of languor better than Tennyson. Perhaps not, but Algernon Charles Swinburne comes pretty close in his "Garden of Proserpine":

Here, where the world is quiet;
Here, where all trouble seems
Dead winds' and spent waves' riot
In doubtful dreams of dreams;
I watch the green field growing
For reaping folk and sowing,
For harvest-time and mowing,
A sleepy world of streams.

I am tired of tears and laughter,
And men that laugh and weep;
Of what may come hereafter
For men that sow to reap:
I am weary of days and hours,
Blown buds of barren flowers,
Desires and dreams and powers
And everything but sleep. 


(....)

From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.

The typically Swinburnian flourish brings us to another aspect of this languor, this desire for perfect repose. In it strongest forms, it is very close to a death-wish, to the fantasy of the ultimate peace and the ultimate escape. Quite surprisingly, this desire was put into very eloquent words by the poet Philip Larkin, who is well-known for his fear of death:


Beyond all this, the wish to be alone:
However the sky grows dark with invitation-cards
However we follow the printed directions of sex
However the family is photographed under the flag-staff -
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.

Beneath it all, the desire for oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,
The costly aversion of the eyes away from death -
Beneath it all, the desire for oblivion runs.


If this seems grim, it might be borne in mind that the fantasy of death is rather different from the reality of death. The fantasy of death is to "pass upon the midnight with no pain", perhaps not so much into oblivion (to say nothing of the afterlife) as into some idealized dream-state.

Dreams, indeed, are another form that this yearning for perfect seclusion and refuge might take; or, more accurately, the idea of dreams rather than the reality of dreams, since dreams themselves are often anything but a refuge.

On this blog, I've often mentioned my love of Prospero's "Such things are dreams are made on" soliloquy, from The Tempest. The first time I read that speech-- in a bookshop, as it happened-- I was overwhelmed by the most delicious and dizzy sensation, as though I was floating, or as though the entire world was lighter than air:


Our revels now are ended. 
These our actors, 
As I foretold you, were all spirits and 
Are melted into air, into thin air: 
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, 
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, 
The solemn temples, the great globe itself, 
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve 
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, 
Leave not a rack behind. 
We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life 
Is rounded with a sleep.

Dreams are a sanctuary like none other, because they are utterly private and inaccessible. Indeed, the same thing could be said of all our thoughts. Consciousness is the ultimate sanctum, and no surveillance or embarrassment or political correctness can penetrate it.

I'll make one final observation about my fantasies of safety. They always involved some antagonist, some outside force, which was unsuccessfully seeking to "get to" me in some way. Indeed, I enjoyed the idea of hiding from my enemies, and of having enemies to hide from. And this seems typical of the idyll of security. For instance, the impotent malice of Herod lies over the Nativity scene itself. In a less dramatic key, the very notion of cosiness always seems strengthened by stormy weather outside, or some other adversity which unsuccessfully assails us.

So much for security. What about adversity, exertion, strain, risk?

Well, this fascination seems less difficult to explain, since it's the basis of every adventure movie, every computer game, and almost every piece of fiction ever written.



In my own case, the Easter Rising of 1916 may be the tale of heroism which had the biggest influence on my worldview. At the back of my mind, always, this story lingers; a small "band of brothers" make a stand against an overwhelming force, encounter little but derision from the public, put up a heroic fight, suffer a glorious defeat, and are ultimately seen to have achieved a moral victory, or at least to have passed a torch on to another generation. Perhaps this is why I feel so much at home in an embattled minority, or fighting a losing battle.

Ireland's participation in the 1990 soccer World Cup in Italy also watermarked my imagination. This event was significant to me in so many ways; my memories before the 1990 World Cup are fragmentary, while afterwards they are more continuous. The sense of national togetherness which gripped the Republic during the World Cup (we had never qualified before) has remained my ideal of national life ever since. This is the first time I saw that a nation could be like one extended family, or at least seem like one.

But it was the action on the pitch which is most relevant to this post. I was impressed at the way the games were replayed and analysed, over and over, on television. It's very similar to the way the 1916 Rising is "replayed" over and over in folklore, ballads, and historical writing. Such events seem to happen in a thicker, more concentrated, more vivid reality than the rest of life. Or even in a different stream of time-- we might call it mythical time.

The visual spectacle also had much to recommend it. The athletic male body straining with effort is a glorious sight. I realize that making such a statement might put me under suspicion of homoeroticism. I can only hope my readers are above such an interpretation. I specify the male body because the female body, although aesthetically superior in almost every other way, doesn't seem to have quite the same lyricism in this way. I read a lot of soccer magazines in my teens, and the photographs of soccer players frozen in action have lingered in my imagination as sublime embodiments of endeavour, of a man facing his adversaries and pushing himself to his limit (I won't add "and beyond", because that doesn't mean anything).



An important aspect of the 1990 World Cup was that it was held in Italy-- that is, abroad. Such moments of destiny seem best encountered in a strange land. The Iliad (a story which has had a profound influence on all of us, directly or indirectly) seems the perfect example of this. The Greek heroes went to Troy. Their defining drama happened in a strange and hostile place. It's as though a person only becomes fully themselves, and can be seen most clearly, when they are illuminated by the flames of war in enemy territory.

The combat, of course, can be rhetorical rather than physical. The same atmosphere is created by debates, whether they are formal events in a lecture theatre, or debates that are dispersed over time and place. One of the reasons I dislike the vogue for "dialogue" is that it denies us one of life's great pleasures-- that is, adversarial debate. (I hasten to add that "adversarial" doesn't have to mean bitter, angry, no-holds-barred, or all-or-nothing. Adversarial debate doesn't have to be any of those things. It can be perfectly civil, even cordial. An adversary doesn't have to be a hated enemy.)

The analogy between the 1990 World Cup (and the 1994 World Cup in America, for which Ireland also qualified) and the Iliad is a rather close one. The Irish players going to Italy would have all played for different clubs (mostly in the UK), and would have all played against each other, but were now united against a common foe-- just as the Greek heroes sailing to Troy would have been from different (and often warring) polities. The same is often true in debates; for instance, various "camps" of Catholics are united when it comes to a debate with atheists or secularists or Protestants.

In mentioning this, I'm not making some trite point about unity. (After all, such logic carried to its extreme would mean we should all be united all the time.) I'm, interested, rather, in the curious new perspective afforded by facing a common foe, and afforded also by seeing familiar figures in an entirely new setting. I'm reminded of a passage I came across as a child, in an intriguing kids' novel called The Coat-Hanger Christmas Tree:

Suddenly she felt she didn't know her mother at all. She felt the way she had once when, not expecting to see her, she came upon her in the museum the day Marianna's class was visiting. That time she had had this same funny feeling of knowing, yet not knowing her mother. Her heart had pounded. She didn't want to speak to her. She had pretended she had not seen her. She was awfully familiar and awfully strange at the same time..just like now, when Marianna had learned for the first time that her grandmother had died on Christmas Eve.

That experience, of seeing somebody familiar in an unfamiliar context, is both distinctive and (I believe) profoundly significant. It's almost as though we are seeing the person for the first time. They seem, at one and the same time, smaller and more precious.

And the same thing applies to our own selves. The old chestnut about a backpacker going off to "find himself" in India or Tibet or the Australian Outback is not completely ridiculous. The paradox is that, for all the lure of security and solitude and familiarity, we really have to venture into the unknown to encounter our deepest selves. Our own outline is sharpened against the strange backdrop.



We can see examples of this in intellectual history-- for instance, the history of Christianity. Catholic doctrine became more itself, more sharply defined, as it encountered Greek philosophy, gnosticism, Arianism, Protestantism, rationalism, and so forth. To call all of these encounters "dialogue"would be ridiculous, but that's rather beside the point.

When it comes to the poetry of adventure, let me once again turn to Tennyson. His poem "Ulysses" is one of my favourites, and one I've often discussed on this blog. I particularly love this passage (note, again, that it's adventure and adversity seen in retrospect):

I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.


I'm also greatly moved by St. Paul's words in the Second Letter to the Corinthians:

Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.


It isn't just adventure and danger which belong to this part of the discussion. I'm similarly excited by adversity and opposition. Being a life-long contrarian, I've always been exhilarated by the spectacle of (almost) anybody going against the stream, braving ridicule and stigmatization and hostility. (With this caveat: that they should be really going against the stream, and not only in a superficial and relative way. For instance, when the Russian feminist band Pussy Riot desecrated a cathedral, they weren't really going against the stream, even if public opinion in Russia was outraged and even if some of them were jailed for it. In international terms, they were emphatically going with the stream. The same principle applies in the case of some left-wing priest outraging his parishioners or his religious superiors, but winning adulation in the media. Well, you get the picture.)



The spectacle of somebody going against the stream is not only exhilarating, but strikes me as world-creating, world-preserving. The world is a bigger place because somebody has made a stand, because someone has defied some effort to contract it. The contrarian holds the sky aloft.

This is why, even though I find the idea of safety thrilling, I'm just as thrilled by the idea of going deep into enemy territory. (The very phrase "deep into enemy territory" delights me.) I can't really understand someone who wants to escape to an enclave of traditionalism. In terms of the Irish situation, I would find no pleasure in going to live in some thatched cottage in an obscure village, where everybody went to Mass and perhaps even spoke Irish. That seems to me no more than a hold-out, a retreat, hiding in the last pools of tradition before they also dry up. (If, on the other hand, a new community was to be formed from devout Catholics and/or Irish speakers, especially in the very depth of modern suburbia, that would be something quite different...)

In any case, I enjoy being in enemy territory. I love arguing with everybody in the room, when it comes to a matter of principle or belief. I wouldn't do it simply for the sake of it, but-- luckily-- that's never been necessary, since I've generally found myself in that position spontaneously.

The phrase "in at the deep end" is one I find tremendously evocative, as is "cast out into the deep" (Luke 5:4), a phrase St. John Paul II often quoted in discussing the New Evangelization.

And I love reading about other people who've gone against the stream in their own day...for instance, Malcolm Muggeridge, the British journalist and Christian convert who died in 1990. Or Mary Whitehouse, a British campaigner against smut and graphic violence on TV, who was utterly excoriated by the liberal media. Or even my own father, who campaigned against Ireland's entrance into the European Economic Community in 1973. I enjoy listening to first-hand accounts of battles of the past-- especially losing battles.



Finally, in terms of the atmosphere I'm trying to describe here, I should mention exertion, industry, effort. This stirs my imagination primarily in the case of some creative endeavour. To take one example, I'm tremendously impressed by writers such as Isaac Asimov (or G.K. Chesterton) who were incredibly prolific, and who produced a massive corpus of work.

And so...

Having said all that, how do I finish? Having described these twin fascinations, I'm reluctant to drum up some kind of final message to leave you with. After all, I'm not trying to point a moral. I'm simply trying to paint two atmospheres which I find endlessly compelling. I suspect that others also find them compelling, given how often they feature in human culture. To come down on either side, or to try to reduce them to some sort of synthesis, would be both anti-climactic and insincere. If none of this means anything to you, you are doubtless bewildered; but I hope that, in some breasts at least, I have sprung an echo.



Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Thank you!

Thanks to the reader who went me the picture calendar. Very much appreciated and a lovely surprise. Thank you!

It's always nice when people send me things, but I'd hate to think anyone ever felt obliged to dig into their pockets...I'm very appreciative that people read the blog, comment, pray, etc. 

This year I'm planning to try to make the blog a bit less idiosyncratic and hopefully a bit more solid, with more researched and informative articles, on the subject of Irish Catholicism. I might try to push it more on Facebook and Twitter. So sharing there, or elsewhere, would be appreciated.

I have another article coming out in Ireland's Own soon, about C.S. Lewis. The editor said it would come out at the earliest opportunity in a monthly issue (as opposed to a weekly issue). That would be my third article in Ireland's Own, which pleases me.

 

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Sale-of-Work

On several occasions, I've obliquely mentioned a sale-of-work that I attended in my childhood and its significance to me, without explaining what that significance actually was. It's even become a bit of a running joke (to me, if to nobody else). Well, today is the day....it's been a while since I wrote a proper post on this blog, and now in the fading embers of Christmas, it seems like a good time to get back into it. And this seems as good a subject as any.

I'm assuming everybody knows the term "sale-of-work"....lots of other terms are used for the same thing. Jumble sale (probably my favourite), bazaar, bring-and-buy, and rummage sale are the ones I can think of right now. In fact, the sale of work I'm recollecting here was not called a sale-of-work at all, but rather a "margadh saothair", which is the literal Irish translation. The reason the Irish language term was used was because it was taking place in my school, which was an Irish language school.

It wasn't just one, actually. I can remember attending at least two, and perhaps more. 

Given my dislike of drawing things out for effect, I'm going to tell you straight out why I was so inspired by this sale-of-work. It was its informality. I was enthralled to see things being bought and sold outside the usual setting of shops, supermarkets and shopping centres. The absence of officialdom and bureaucracy thrilled me.


But "informality" doesn't really do it justice. Whatever is at the back of a child's delight in play, or indeed an adult's delight in play, was at the back of my delight in the jumble sale. After all, a child playing with a toy house or a toy car is not playing with it simply because he can't get his hands on a real one. The toy is not simply a substitute. The fact that the thing is a replica, a scaled-down version, is part of the pleasure. At least, that's how I remember it from my childhood...and indeed, it's how I feel today, contemplating something like a doll's house or a model ship. There is an inexplicable delight in seeing something recreated in another mode. Keith Waterhouse wrote an excellent article on a local "button fair" in which he makes the same point....the appeal of the button fair, he claims, was not the rides themselves (which were terrible) but the miniature replication of a cash economy using buttons.

And yet, my fascination with the sale-of-work goes even deeper than this delight in replication.

I think it boils down to the sociological distinction between Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society), a distinction explained in this Wikipedia article. Another website explains the difference thus:

In the rural, peasant societies that typify the Gemeinschaft, personal relationships are defined and regulated on the basis of traditional social rules. People have simple and direct face-to-face relations with each other that are determined by Wesenwille (natural will)—i.e., natural and spontaneously arising emotions and expressions of sentiment.

The Gesellschaft, in contrast, is the creation of Kürwille (rational will) and is typified by modern, cosmopolitan societies with their government bureaucracies and large industrial organizations. In the Gesellschaft, rational self-interest and calculating conduct act to weaken the traditional bonds of family, kinship, and religion that permeate the Gemeinschaft’s structure. In the Gesellschaft, human relations are more impersonal and indirect, being rationally constructed in the interest of efficiency or other economic and political considerations.


I suppose that, if I'd grown up in a rural village, a school sale-of-work wouldn't have seemed any great matter to me. But growing up in a sprawling suburb of a capital city, where all public places were impersonal and rather daunting, made it seem a very great matter indeed. The intimate scale of the event, and the fact that most people knew each other, gave it a very different flavour to most events I'd ever attended.

And I think this may have been the source, or one of the sources, of my lifelong yearning for a society that is bound by ties of sentiment rather than ties of expediency. This is why I am a nationalist.

I can imagine somebody arguing that it's simply impossible to recreate the atmosphere of a village over an entire nation, that modern conditions don't allow for it, that our society has become impersonal and formalized by its very nature-- a supermarket rather than a sale-of-work.

But I'm simply not convinced of this. I can remember growing up at a time when Ireland remained basically a Catholic, nationalist country. It made a difference. At least, it made a difference to me. The starting-point of public discourse (by which I mean everything from a televised debate to a newspaper cartoon) was that tradition and community were things to be cherished, rather than a threat to one's individuality. I do honestly believe that a difference in perception, in imagination, can make a profound difference to everyday life.

Well, my discussion of the sale-of-work has been entirely abstract so far. I will turn to discussing the actual event, although I should warn the reader that there was nothing distinctive about this sale-of-work.

It was held mostly in the hall at the centre of the school. Stalls were ranged all around the sides of the hall. There was a wheel of fortune, which impressed me greatly. There were home-cooked goods. I think there was candy-floss, although I might be imagining that.

One year there was a bouncy-castle in a class-room, although this ended badly when one girl smashed her head against a corner where the ceiling turned upwards, and began to bleed profusely.

There was also a Santa's grotto in another classroom. A long tunnel draped in black plastic led to it. This excited me as I've always loved tunnels, corridors and passages of every sort. By this time, I was too old to visit Santa. In fact, I passed my childhood without ever paying a visit to Santa's grotto. I don't regret this-- I think I would have found it embarrassing, as I found most experiences back then. But it does make Santa's grotto somewhat exotic to me.

It was at this sale-of-work that I first learned the word "bargain". It was used by my cousin (whose mother is Filipino, incidentally). She told me she'd found lots of bargains. I understood from the context and filed it away mentally.

I manned one of the stalls temporarily. I was wearing a comically enormous pair of shades that I'd won as a spot prize. Some kid asked me where he could buy a pair. I was surprised at his implicit approval, because I was wearing them rather nervously, thinking I might be mocked for it.

I can remember some of the things I bought in the sale-of-work. I can remember a kind of model shop, which was little more than a rack. It was made my Bluebird. I can also remember buying a huge toy bull, upon whose back I could fit an extraordinary number of my action figures. Most of all, I remember a Transformers annual (or yearbook, as Americans might say). An "annual" is a special edition of a comic-book. This particular annual contained the story of the "Headmasters", a particular type of Transformer whose head detached and turned out to be another figure. The story of their origin (as related in the annual) began on the planet Nebulos, and I can remember it featured a parliament called the House of Peers. "Peer" was another word I'd never encountered before, but I took the wrong meaning from it-- I thought it meant noble or aristocrat. Well, I suppose it does, in some senses. Eventually my sister had to put me right.

Everything I acquired in the sale-of-work had a particular atmosphere attached to it, ever after-- I was acutely aware that it had belonged to somebody else before me, and that gave it a certain glamour. It was an early example of my fascination with the folk-life, with everything that is handed down, transmitted, passed along from hand to hand, or mouth to mouth, or soul to soul. Rather than decreasing a thing's value, that tends to increase it, in my eyes. Hence my traditionalism.

But you know what? I don't think I've been to a sale-of-work since those dim and distant days on the planet Nebulos.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

My Official Christmas Message

Accept no imitations.

Apologies for the crooked collar, which I didn't fix even when I tried. My inability to straighten out my collar drives everybody crazy. I don't think there's anything Chestertonian, intellectual, artistic or clever about it. It's just me being a doofus. I'll try harder.



If I do expand beyond the written word, podcasts might actually be the best option, as I'm not sure how to upload any video longer than a very short one like this.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Nollaigh Shona Duit

Happy Christmas to all my readers! Thank you so much for visiting the blog, for commenting, for answering my prayer requests, for emailing me, and for all the other kindnesses you have shown me in the last year, and indeed before that. Thank you. I hope you all have a good Christmas.




So here's another Christmas repeat...I posted a link to this video before, but it's appropriate to post it again on Christmas Eve, since it comes from Christmas Eve 1986. (The relevant section, which is a short religious meditation called Night Light, begins around 2:05). It fills me with an overwhelming nostalgia for something I can barely remember myself.






Only thirty years ago, a priest could come on Irish national television and speak confidently about "our profound faith in Jesus Christ" as a nation. Note also how the supernatural aspect is the first aspect he draws out. Even the "tradition of hospitality" isn't put in overtly political terms. Today the entire thing would simply be more open borders propaganda.

But I don't want to dwell on the negative. I like the kindness and gentleness in this priest's eyes.

Isn't that kindness and gentleness the essence of Christmas? The paradox of God Almighty as a little baby never loses its power over the human imagination. This atmosphere is nowhere better expressed that in G.K. Chesterton's famous meditation upon the Nativity scene, in The Everlasting Man. (The reference to the "inner room in the very heart of his own house" is particularly appealing to me, since I've always been fascinated by the idea and the metaphor of discovering a hidden room or passage in one's own home, and indeed I've dreamed about it at least once):

No other story, no pagan legend or philosophical anecdote or historical event, does in fact affect any of us with that peculiar and even poignant impression produced on us by the word Bethlehem. No other birth of a god or childhood of a sage seems to us to be Christmas or anything like Christmas. It is either too cold or too frivolous, or too formal and classical, or too simple and savage, or too occult and complicated. Not one of us, whatever his opinions, would ever go to such a scene with the sense that he was going home. He might admire it because it was poetical, or because it was philosophical or any number of other things in separation; but not because it was itself. The truth is that there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature; it is not in its psychological substance at all like a mere legend or the life of a great man.

It does not exactly in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness; to those extensions and exaggerations of humanity which are turned into gods and heroes, even by the healthiest sort of hero worship. It does not exactly work outwards, adventurously to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being; like that which can sometimes take us off our guard in the pathos of small objects or the blind pieties of the poor. It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within. It is if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into good. It is not made of what the world would call strong materials; or rather it is made of materials whose strength is in that winged levity with which they brush and pass. It is all that is in us but a brief tenderness that there made eternal; all that means no more than a momentary softening that is in some strange fashion become strengthening and a repose; it is the broken speech and the lost word that are made positive and suspended unbroken; as the strange kings fade into a far country and the mountains resound no more with the feet of the shepherds; and only the night and the cavern lie in fold upon fold over some-thing more human than humanity.


Nollaig shona daoibh go léir!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Christmas Repeat

It's become a Christmas tradition for me to blog about "The Burning Babe" by St. Robert Southwell S.J.

I'm going to reproduce my post from last year, and then add some extra thoughts.

So last year I said this:

I do so much rhapsodising about tradition on this blog, how can I fail to observe the blog's own traditions? One of which is posting 'The Burning Babe' by St. Robert Southwell at Christmas. (OK, maybe I've only done it once before, but twice makes it a tradition.)



St. Robert Southwell was a Jesuit priest in the reign of Queen Elizabeth who came to England (having been trained on the continent) fully expecting to be martyred-- as indeed he was. He was also a poet, and wrote this classic poem.

I love sentimentality, and I love Christmas sentimentality. But there's something even better than sentimentality, and that's awe. Fire imagery has always appealed to me, and this poem is full of it, as the title indicates.

It's also (in my view) a rare non-tedious example of a conceit. A conceit, as the reader may well know already, is an extended metaphor. Conceits are the reason I find John Donne and the Metaphysical poets nigh-on unreadable. However, the conceit works here, perhaps because the poem is a short one.

The theological density of the poem is also very impressive. I wonder if anyone has ever compiled an anthology of poetry by saints?

As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surpris’d I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
“Alas!” quoth he, “but newly born, in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.”
With this he vanish’d out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I calléd unto mind that it was Christmas day.


Well, welcome back to 2017. I'll just add a few comments about fire imagery. I really do love it! Right now, I'm listening to "Burning Love" by Elvis Presley, whose lyrics are full of such imagery.

The stories that move me most in the Bible often involve images of fire or intense light; the burning bush, Pentecost, or the Transfiguration.

I've often written about the poem "The Burning of the Leaves" by Laurence Binyon on this blog. My favourite line of that poem, and quite possibly my favourite line of poetry of all time, is the line: "The fingers of fire are making corruption clean." That line sets my imagination alight!

Another reason I love this poem is because nothing jars in it. This may be a "negative" reason to love a poem, but it's good enough for me. None of the similes are incongruous or ridiculous, and the metre is smooth throughout. I like "smooth" poetry-- Tennyson, Yeats, Swinburne, Larkin and Christina Rossetti are outstanding proponents of smooth, polished verses. It's rare to find such smoothness in an Elizabethan-- whether that's due to changes in pronunciation over the centuries, or whether it was as true than as it is now, I don't know.

Edit, later in the day: I've been memorizing this poem, or rather re-memorizing, in order to recite it. Memorizing a poem may be the best way to savour it! I'm struck even more by how well-constructed it is.

It has one line that, in my view, is very awkwardly phrased:

As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.

This doesn't trip off the tongue-- rather, it trips the tongue up, so to speak. And that's a fault in poetry, in my view.

But the rest of the poem does trip off the tongue. The lines all fit neatly in the verse structure-- enjambment is sometimes a worthwhile technique, but I think it should be used rarely. There's something very satisfying in parallelism such as this:

Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns; 
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals, 
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,

"The Burning Babe" wouldn't be in the front rank of my favourite poems-- it couldn't rival "Ulysses" or "Locksley Hall" by Tennyson, or "To Helen" by Edgar Allen Poe, or "The Burning of the Leaves" by Laurence Binyon. But it's pretty good!

Friday, December 22, 2017

Ride Like the Wind

Three years ago, at this very time of year, I was visiting a house of a couple I'd never met before. They seemed nice, but they turned out to be complete and utter jerks, and to have a very baneful influence on my life. I like to boast that I'm the fairest-minded person I've ever met. It's a joke, but it's also kind of true. I really do try to see things from every perspective, and to take criticism seriously. I'm easy meat for jerks like these. As they got to know me better, both became extremely critical of me-- "candid friends", that kind of thing-- and it took me a long, long time to realise nothing they said was true, fair or reasonable.

That's all by the by. They had music on. It was on some kind of computer programme, and the titles of the songs appeared on the screen as each song played. One particular song that was playing took my fancy, and I made a note of the title; Slow Boat to China.

However, when I sought it out later on, I couldn't find it. The song I heard wasn't Slow Boat to China. The songs and titles must have been out of synch.

All I knew of the song was the refrain: "Ba-ba-ba-ba, ba ba BA ba!". Bashfully, I tried humming this to various people, pop culture savants who I thought might recognize it. None of them did. I tried searching on the internet, but I had no luck. (To be honest, I was rather pleased I couldn't find it. In our information overloaded age, it's nice NOT to find something.)

Then tonight...I heard it, completely at random! The song is "Ride Like the Wind" by Christopher Cross. It's a song about a convict fleeing to Mexico. I was surprised at the subject matter, as the tune itself is quite jaunty.

Of course, I was very pleased to hear it. And I can't help hoping it's an omen. The entrance of these jerks into my life heralded a steep dip in fortunes. They can't take all the blame for that, but I do associate them with it. I can't help hoping, now, that some kind of curse is broken.

I have these fancies all the time. I don't want to see ET, which I've never seen, because I didn't watch it on the last day of school in 1988, when it was being shown in one class-room. (It was an undisciplined day when we were allowed to wander from classroom to classroom, and I chose not to watch it.)  As long as I haven't seen it, I feel that both the eighties and my childhood aren't entirely over.