Sunday, April 28, 2013

Another Horror Story

A few years ago, I spent about two years trying to write fiction. None of it was very good. My first effort, which was truly terrible, was a fantasy novel called The Black Feather, which was an attempt to write the standard fantasy story, but this time taking the side of the generic Dark Lord, who was a kind of arch-conservative trying to stop the fantasy world in question from becoming modernized, plutocratic and banal. My second effort was a more reasonable stab at a fantasy novel-- a children's fantasy novel, this time-- called The Bard's Apprentice. A publishing house mulled over it for a good while, before sending it back to me with a "no thanks" and a savage reader's report. That was the closest I came to being a novelist.

After that I wrote a horror novel called The Snowman. It was set in a Dublin suburb which was being controlled by an extra-terrestrial being. This being, summoned by the wish of a terminally ill child, had taken the form of a snowman, and (with child-like misguided kindness) had decided to grant the suburb's residents Their Wildest Fantasies. This, of course, resulted in all kinds of chaos and carnage. (I thought it made a cute title and subtitle, though. The Snowman: a Horror Story.) I actually think it was a pretty good concept, and the first few chapters were passable, but it was terribly executed on the whole.

Then I wrote a series of a hundred short-short horror stories called A Hundred Nightmares, and finally another children's fantasy called The Man Who Could Make Worlds, which was about a boy trapped within his own fantasy world. After that I gave up fiction as a bad job, especially since I didn't write it with any enormous enthusiasm (for all my determined industriousness). I never even read fiction with that much enthusiasm. It wasn't till I was in my thirties that I realised it was actually OK to prefer non-fiction to fiction. (I still feel vaguely guilty and unbalanced for not reading novels more often, and more enthusiastically.)

It was an interesting time in my life, though. I just wrote all the time. I pretty much wrote all evening, and all weekend. I even stayed at home on my summer holidays and wrote, wrote, wrote. I thought I would have to get better eventually. I wrote ten thousand words in one day once-- although that was as a challenge to myself, and it was probably ten thousand words of the purest rubbish. My imagination had been kindled by reading about the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who famously said "If I was told I had a month to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster", and "I think through my fingers". I guess I was play-acting a bit-- but when do we ever stop play-acting?

I do think God made use of this interlude in my life, though. The more I wrote, the more I found myself wondering what any story was ultimately about, and then (which is really the same question) what life itself was about. By the time I had finished my collection of horror stories, I had written and thought myself into a deep depression, and a spiritual crisis. But that crisis had a happy outcome, since it led me to faith.

I was going through some files on an old computer just now, shaking my head at how bad most of my stories were. But I did come across this horror tale, which I think is fairly good in a twisted kind of way. I guess I want to have something to show for all those months of effort.

The Story of Life

Roddy stood in the lobby of the cinema, studying the posters. Now and again he glanced towards the attendant standing in a small space between two cordons, waiting for the first of the morning’s customers to appear.

It was a tall, skinny guy with wavy hair and heavy-framed glasses. He was gazing into the middle distance, dreaming. Then he smiled to himself, obviously thinking of something funny, and walked towards the shop to share it with his buddies.

Roddy strolled through the cordons, breezily.

He could have easily paid the price of a matinee ticket. He had three hundred euros stuffed in his back pocket. Roddy was twenty-three and he had never worked a day in his life.

He found it perpetually astonishing that anybody did work. Making money was easier than gathering lint in your pockets. How could the world be so full of smart people—people who could speak several languages and operate complicated machinery and understand pages and pages of legalese—and yet contain so few souls that had realised that great and simple truth, the childish simplicity of getting money for nothing?

Roddy had walked into warehouses and carried out bags of CD players. He had dressed in worker’s overalls and been given the run of solicitor’s and stockbroker’s offices. And everywhere, everywhere, there were wallets and purses just begging to be taken.

Roddy rarely bought anything if he didn’t even have to. But there was a pretty girl behind the counter of the lobby shop, so he strolled over.

“Could I’ve a bag of Suckers and a medium Zesto, please?” he asked, drinking in the scent of popcorn and hotdogs. He had always loved the cinema.

“Sure”, said the girl with the nice skin and the sandy hair, barely looking up.

“What’s the best thing on right now?”, he asked when she’d returned with the overflowing foam cup and the brightly-coloured bag of chocolates.

“Don’t know”, she said, curtly. “I hate films. That’s seven twenty.”

“Service with a smile”, said Roddy, in a sing-song voice. She glowered at him, snatching the note he held between his fingers.

“Hey, what’s this?”, he asked, when she dumped his change onto the freshly-polished counter. “I gave you a twenty.”

The girl shot him a stony stare. Roddy stared back at her, all indignation. Nobody had ever stared him down. It only took a second for the self-doubt to creep into her eyes, and a few seconds later she was opening the till again.

“OK,” she said. “Sorry about that.”

“No worries”, said Roddy. He grinned at her as she stuffed his change away. He felt a pang of pity for the girl. She was so cute. It seemed hard that she’d go through life like all the other cattle, the bulk of her time spent waiting, wading through the day, watching the hands of the clock go round.

The cinema was still empty, apart from some a few kids. They were waiting to get into a film called Hillbilly Heroes. Roddy took one look at the poster to their right and decided he’d give that one a miss.

He went from door to door, glancing at the posters. Rage on Wheels. It’s a Girl’s World. The Spy Who Purred. Doomfighter Three: The Black Planet. He sighed.

Here was one, though. The Story of Life. The richly-coloured poster showed a pair of pterodactyls flying above a primeval forest, superimposed over a DNA-like pattern. The Story of All Stories! read the tagline. It was just about to begin.

“That’s more like it” muttered Roddy, pushing the door open. Funny; he flicked through the cinema magazines every month, but he hadn’t heard of this one.

There was nobody inside. Well, what could you expect, with competition from Doomfighter Three? He settled himself in a middle row and waited for the ads and trailers to end, sipping his Zesto and munching his Suckers.

Then the screen went black. Slowly, an image appeared on the screen, fading in from darkness to a fiery orange. A pond glistened in a rocky landscape, under a sulfurous sky. A flash of lighting filled the screen, making Roddy blink.

Captions, in rude black Roman text, appeared on the screen.

Earth, some 3.8 billion years ago. The planet has already been in existence for over almost a billion years. In a shallow pool, chemicals bombarded by electric storms have formed amino acids. From these basic building blocks, the first simple bacteria are about to come into existence.

The captions faded from view. Roddy sat in the darkness and waited.

And waited. And waited. Nothing was happening on screen.

Perhaps ten minutes had passed when he rose from his seat in irritation. He walked to the edge of the aisle, turned, and then stopped.

The door he had come through—glowing EXIT sign and all—was gone.

Oh, my Prophetic Soul!

Aodhan O Riordain admits to his own hypocrisy on tape. See second post below. (And I worried if I was perhaps being unfair.)

This is also a man who backed a motion, at the Labour party conference, which included a proposal that Catholic civil servants should be discriminated against. He later claimed that part of the motion had escaped his attention, but how can he be believed now?

Our home-grown militant secularists don't even have the courage of their convictions.

(I don't approve of clandestine taping, but it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.)

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Corpse

Saturday morning. Me and the world were fresh
As I made my way, my usual way, to church.
The Mass on Saturday morning was the one
I liked the best in the whole week. No choir
Crooning out banal hymns, no schoolkids dragged along
And sniggering in the pews, no rambling homily
Larded with clichés; some old girls, and me,
And a dozen other regulars, all bent
Upon our silent, sacramental task.

Except today, it was a different scene;
The church was thronged with people, young, well-dressed,
Self-confident, entitled to be there.
I stood outside the gate, not knowing what to do.

A funeral Mass. I didn't know the corpse.
But wasn't it still Mass, in spite of that?
And who would mind another mourner there?
And why should death disturb my sweet routine?

I ventured in. I'd never seen the church
So full of life. The pew that I sat in
Was full of teens and twenty-somethings. They
Were not the least bit awkward, even though
They'd no idea what to do or say.
This is their house as much as it is yours
I told myself. Don't be a Pharisee.

Then came the homily. And it was plain
This was no heart attack or accident.
It had been in the news; a violent death.
Senseless, the priest said. But I sat there thinking
How every death is violent, anyway.

And there the coffin lay, exposed to view,
Awkward before the altar. One more trip
And that was it; the guy would just be left
Stuck in the ground. The knees that had been grazed
So many times, the hair that had been cut
So many times, the body that had grown
So slowly, and required such looking after,
Would be deposited into a hole
And covered over, and left there for good.

Stop the proceedings, I felt like protesting,
This is a travesty. This can't be done
In half an hour
. It felt downright obscene.
A man is a million men. A life is a million lives.
Each death should get a hundred funerals
A thousand funerals, or none at all.
How don't these people know the world has ended?

Of course, I didn't care a hoot for him
And they all loved or liked him. But so what?
My horror was untinged by sentiment.

I didn't sign the book. I fled the scene.

If only death was terrible! But death
Is trivial as a cancelled train. Death is
An incident, the business of a day.

Oh Christ, the tears you shed for Lazarus!
Teach us those tears, teach us those tears, oh Christ!

The Hypocrisy of the Labour Party

I logged on to the online edition of the Irish Times just now, and this headline really jumped out at me:

Restrictive Regime on Abortion will be Agreed by the government, Rabbite Says.

Why did it leap out at me? Because of the conjunction of the terms "restrictive", "abortion", and the photograph of Pat Rabbite directly underneath.

The report says:

Speaking in Dublin today, the Labour Party minister acknowledged the “delicate and sensitive” nature of the issue but said he believed the Government would produce “a workable solution”.

I would guess that pretty much every Labour TD, and most of the active members of the Irish Labour party, believe in abortion on demand, and further believe that the issue is not "delicate and sensitive" but clear cut. The fact that they are willing to use the Savita Halappanavar case, and professions of concern about women's mental health, as a pretext to establish the principle of abortion in Ireland is pretty hypocritical and cynical.

They should come out and say what they believe in loud and clear. At least Ivana Bacick does that much.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Fear Itself (1)

Last night, I met up with an old friend, who shares (amongst other things) my interest in horror movies and horror books. As usual, the conversation touched on the horror genre (though it also took in political correctness, the Office, weird customers-- we both work in libraries, after all-- Woody Allen, and lots of other stuff.)

So, coming home through the rain today, I found myself thinking about horror-- and fear.

Lots of people have asked the question; why do people enjoy being scared? It's one of those wonderful questions which is never in any serious danger of being answered. I've read and heard so many attempts to answer it, and none of them satisfied me in the slightest.

In fact, I'm not going to make any effort to answer it here. I just wanted to talk about fear, and the enjoyment of fear.

First off, I want to say that I think a lot of the appeal of horror has nothing to do with fear at all, at least not directly. To a great extent, we enjoy horror because of its atmosphere. There is a charm to darkness, and solitude, and mists, and moonlight, and shadows, and all the other props of the horror genre, that has little to do with fear. Perhaps the charm might be better described as romantic, or Gothic (even Gothick, if you like), or melancholy.

Horror is also about the outsider, and almost everybody (at one time or another) feels like an outsider, or wants to be an outsider. I think the horror genre appeals to the eternal teenager inside us-- the part that never stops feeling misunderstood, and not listened to, and a misfit in the sunlit, cheerful, everyday world. Vampires and werewolves and witches were paradoxically seductive creatures long before the Twilight saga, or even Interview with a Vampire, came along to labour the point so painfully.

(I was going to write that the physical transformations that so often feature in horror-- turning into a werewolf being the most obvious-- would also speak to adolescents, since their bodies are going through a rather dramatic process of change. But, you know, I think that's the kind of psychological claptrap that is bandied about all too freely. I don't remember being in the least bit traumatised or disoriented by the physical changes of puberty. Of course, it's probably a bigger deal for girls-- and one of the best horror films I ever saw in the cinema, a werewolf film about two teenage sisters called Ginger Snaps, had the rather witty tagline: "It's not called the curse for nothing.")

But I think that horror appeals to an even earlier stratum of our personalities than our teenage selves-- it awakens the child in us. Childhood is magical because it is full of wonder, and how can you have wonder without dread? When everything looms larger, how can it not loom more threatening too? Is there ultimately any stark distinction between wonder and dread? Are they both not simply the state of our spiritual pores, so to speak, being open?

I think everything that awakens a sense of wonder tends to appeal to us. The horror genre inspires us with a particular sort of fear that is especially coupled with wonder; it is very often the fear of the not-quite-known, the shadowy, the partially-guessed. For my own part, I find that horror stories that deal with some very concrete fear-- for instance, a maniac stalking somebody-- are less satisfying than horror stories that feature strange happenings and unearthly disturbances.

I have more to write about this, but not right now. I'll just publish this and then expand it later.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Atheist Peril

A thought struck me today. (This rarely happens, as I keep well out of range of most thoughts, but it's impossible to be entirely protected.) Some time in 2010 (I can't remember exactly when) I began to seriously practice the Catholic faith, having been an agnostic tending towards atheism for as long as I could remember. Even before that, I did a lot of reading and thinking about religion-- I came across an email I wrote to an agnostic blogger in 2007.

To me, for all that time, the great adversary was atheism. Of course, the New Atheism was at full tide at this period (it has receded somewhat since), but it wasn't just atheism as a body of opinion that seemed daunting to me. It was atheism as an intellectual position, since there seemed to me then such a lot to be said for the theory that there was no Deity of any kind. Atheism seemed like the argument to beat. The conflict between faith and atheism seemed like the great drama of our era.

Today I realized how far, without even noticing it, I've drifted from this attitude. I no longer think of atheism as the great intellectual fortress to be stormed, or the grand adversary in a cultural war of ideas. I do not believe that most of the post-Christians in Europe are people who have thought through the arguments for and against religious belief, and for and against Christianity, and who have thereby become convinced atheists. I think that, for the most part, they have simply imbibed an atmosphere that is antagonistic to Christianity-- in fact, an atmosphere that is hotile to any kind of serious philosophy of life whatsoever.

And insofar as there is a serious intellectual adversary to Christianity in modern society, it is not atheism or scientific materialism, but liberalism. And atheism is merely a flag of convenience for liberalism. People embrace atheism because it gives (or they think it gives) a metaphysical basis to their liberalism, rather than embracing liberalism as a consequence of an atheism to which they arrived independently.

Atheism, to be blunt, doesn't seem a very big deal to me anymore.

Vocations, Vocations, Vocations

Today is Vocations Sunday. Our priest gave us the depressing news (well, it was news to me) that there will be no priests ordained in the Dublin diocese this year. He also mentioned that two Dublin men entered the seminary this year-- which is better than nothing, but there's no guarantee that they will actually become priests in seven years.

The dearth of vocations is definitely the most depressing part of being an Irish Catholic today. Vocations are so rare now that a new vocation to the priesthood, diaconate, or an order of nuns or friars is a news story in the Irish Catholic newspaper.

Our parish priest today raised the matter of clerical celibacy in his homily. He said that he thought priests should be allowed to marry, but that he personally couldn't imagine combining family life with his responsibilites as a priest. I wonder why he thinks other priests would be able to do so.

I am entirely opposed to the abolition of priestly celibacy. I know that even many conservative Catholics like John Haldane have made the case for married priests. (See here.) However, I think this concession would be a terrible mistake.

People sometimes claim that clerical celibacy was only introduced in the eleventh century, sometimes adding the claim that it was all to do with inheritance rights. But the truth is that clerical celibacy was the ideal from the early centuries of Christianity (there was a proposal to make it mandatory at the First Council of Nicea in 325) and Popes made strong efforts to enforce it for many centuries before the First Latern Council in 1123, when the discipline was firmly established.

Vocations are actually going up in England and America. The director of vocations for England, Fr Christopher Jamison, was quoted in The Catholic Herald last week as saying: "Celibacy is not something that young men...say is their biggest obstacle on the path to priesthood."

Celibacy emphasises the specialness of the priestly vocation. It ensures that only men fully committed to the faith and willing to make great personal sacrifices for it will enter the priesthood. It allows priests to focus more fully upon their calling. And it gains tremendous respect from secular cuture, even when that respect comes in the disguised forms of sneers and mockery and criticism.

I sincerely believe it would be better for Catholics in the West to have to travel long distances to attend Mass than it would be to abolish clerical celibacy. Perhaps we would prize priests and the priesthood and the sacraments more than we do if our access to them was less easy.

How, then, do we reverse the decline in vocations?

Above all, by prayer. Every practicing Catholic in Ireland should pray for new vocations every single day.

But we should also help encourage more vocations by being more vocal about our faith, more willing to talk to people about it, and more evangelistic. I never agree with the people who say that faith should be a private matter. Surely every vocation begins in the imagination-- by the imagination being fired in childhood or in the teenage years, most probably. How will boys and young men be drawn towards the priesthood if they see Catholicism as a kind of hobby or social club? But if they witness that the Catholic faith is the most important thing in the lives of grown-up people they admire, then they will also see it as something to be taken very seriously, something worthy of a life's work.

Prayer and profession, not panic. That is the way to go.

(It should go without saying that this is simply the opinion of a Catholic layman, with no theological training whatsoever.)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Sex Lives of the Great Dictators

Across from Furniture De Luxe
And next door to The French Connection
There stands a shop called Bargain Books
That has no Social Studies section;
It stocks The World of Sherlock Holmes
And The Britannia Book of Traitors
But foremost out of all its tomes
Is Sex Lives of the Great Dictators.

The world is very, very world
And very, very complicated
And packed with wonderments untold
And masterworks by celebrated
Poets and painters. Adam's seed
Has walked among the lunar craters
But man can still find time to read
The Sex Lives of the Great Dictators.

Did Pol Pot like his shoulders rubbed?
Did Stalin like hair straight or curly?
Did Hitler like 'em primped and scrubbed
Or did he prize the frazzled girly?
Did him and Eva take it slow
Or were they frantic, noisy maters?
If all these things you wish to know
Read Sex Lives of the Great Dictators.

I know and love full many a shop
Whose shelves are crammed with dog-eared wonders
Where Kipling cracks his riding crop
And Shelley sighs, and Belloc thunders;
These places all deserve their shout
But I am glad that someone caters
For those who want to read about
The Sex Lives of the Great Dictators.

The Irish Times is Indignant

"Anti-abortion pundits have berated the “pro-abortion mainstream media” for “deliberately ignoring” the case because it casts a poor light on abortion. There were even calls and letters in faraway Dublin to this paper demanding to know why we are “suppressing” it, why we cover Savita but not Gosnell, suggesting that we too are part of a liberal media conspiracy."

Perish the thought! How dare they!

How could a story that puts Silence of the Lambs into the shade possibly be worth one tenth of one tenth of one tenth of the coverage afforded the Savita Halapannavar case?

(The word "conspiracy" is a wonderful word to use when you want to make your critics sound like paranoid nutcases. As Peter Hitchens often points out, there is no need to claim a conspiracy in cases like these-- merely a shared prejudice amongst like-minded people in positions of influence, in this case, newspaper editors.)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Another Repeat-- On Books

I wrote this post months and months ago, and I quite liked it, so I am giving it another spin. If my doing this annoys you, please send your complaint to I_couldn'

On Books

Somebody recently gave me an anthology of Catholic poetry that she had lying around the house and didn't want to keep. I've just been glancing through the introduction, and I felt an oh-so-familiar surge of delight; delight in book introductions, delight in the printed page, and simple delight in books themselves.

I've worked in a library for just over ten years, so by a depressingly familiar logic, I should have lost any romantic view of books by now. This is the same logic that operates when people knowingly assure me I would get tired of snow if I lived in a snowy climate. Well, I wouldn't ever get tired of snow, and I haven't lost any of my starry-eyed view of books.

Encomiums to books are always in danger of being a little irritating, or even more than a little irritating. They can seem rather self-congratulatory-- hey, look how well-read and cultured I am!

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) I can't engage in any such posturing. I am not well read. I have never read Ulysses, Don Quixote, or The Anatomy of Melancholy. I am a slow reader. I don't like Shakespeare all that much (apart from The Tempest) and one of my favourite books is Hollywood vs. America by Michael Medved, a polemic against violent and cynical and anti-religious movies. What I love are books, not Books.

I sometimes think that the sense of glamour that hung over writing, back in the days when few people were able to read and write, must still survive in some residual form. All written words seem magical to me. In the era of emails and podcasts, writing still seems like a novelty. How can a scene, a story, a personality be captured in marks on paper? That fundamental miracle is much more impressive, much more of a leap, than sending a message from New York to Melbourne in an instant.

I remember how once, sitting on a bus and reading a ghost story by Sheridan Le Fanu, I was struck with overwhelming force by the idea that this person who was telling me a story had lived over a century ago. The reality of that gulf of time, and the fact that the gulf simply disappears when a reader loses himself in the text, suddenly seemed real to me. Le Fanu died in 1873. Nobody who was alive when he was writing is alive today. And yet I can re-enter his world through his words, not only looking in from outside, from a distance, but I can become a part of it-- a world that was just as real as ours, in which time passed at a second per second, and in which people gossiped and yawned and moaned about the weather.

There is a wonderful line in the film Shadowlands, the CS Lewis biopic: "We read to know that we are not alone." I don't think it could be put better than that. How absurd-- but how true-- that we can be lonely in a city buzzing with millions of souls, and with voices endlessly coming at us from radio and television, but that this loneliness can be assuaged by words printed on a page! There is an intimacy between reader and writer that I do not think is matched by any other intimacy. The writer puts so much of himself into his words, the reader opens himself to them so fully. There is nothing half-hearted or perfunctory about the encounter. Reader and writer have each others' full attention, and nothing comes between them.

I like a book to take itself seriously, even if it's no more than a volume of fishing anecdotes. I expect a book to make an effort. I want the title to have a bit of swagger (like a wine-themed book I once came across with the Biblical title Stay With Me With Flagons). I feel cheated if there is no dedication, and disappointed if the dedication is no more than a terse To my Uncle Ned.

More than anything else, maybe, I look for an Introduction or a Preface or a Foreword-- and not simply a "Note on the Text" or a few purely explanatory lines. I want an Introduction that begins The book you are holding in your hands or So much has been written about or maybe I first had the idea for this book forty-five years ago. Sometimes I think the Introduction is my very favourite part of the book, just as the trailers are my favourite part of the movies. I want to be welcomed into a book.

Sometimes there are several introductions. It doesn't get much better than that.

Footnotes, however, are another story. They are good if they are rare and gratuitous. They are bad if they are copious and essential. Nothing is more irksome than to be jerked out of one stream of text continually. It is like having somebody repeatedly tug on your sleeve.

I feel a bit bashful admitting my next requirement, but here goes. I want the author to be my friend. I do not want an author like the ideal author Stephen Daedalus describes in Portrait of the Artist: "within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails." I want the author to be chatty, effusive, enthusiastic, chummy, conspiratorial. I want him to be on fire for his subject, whether his prose style is folksy or urbane. I want personality, even in a book of history or philosophy-- even in a reference work on old postcards or a guide to my consumer rights.

I was blessed to grow up in a house with hundreds of books on the bookshelf. I was even more blessed that these books were utterly diverse in character. There was an account of jungle warfare, a tract by an obscure religious cult, a drawing manual, a book on dream interpretation, a guide to publishing your own magazine or newspaper-- and of course any number of novels, poetry anthologies, history books and so forth. I think this kind of dizzy diversity of books gives a growing child just as much of a sense of the world's wideness, of life's teeming possibilities, as growing up in a circus or as an army brat.

Those books on the shelf! How can I write their tribute, or what they meant to me? I used to love to take a random book from the shelves, open it at a random page, and bask in the sense of mystery and enigma and excitement that gave me. I loved the idea that these silent voices were forever talking, even when they were not being read-- that the bookshelf was full of things happening all the time, between the covers.

And nothing will ever exceed the sense of gravitas that the "grown-up" books on the shelf held for me. I mean books with earnest, magisterial titles, like Portugese Africa and the West or The Hidden Persuaders or A Nation Writ Large? Somehow-- goodness knows from where-- I got the idea that such books were written by middle-aged to elderly men who knew everything about economics, poetry, history, psychology and everything else, and who saw all the connections between those different fields. Their titles gave me the feeling-- the strangely pleasant feeling-- that I was missing about 98 per cent of what life contained, that life was deeper than I could even hope to understand, but that it all lay before me.

When I grew up, I would learn that many "serious" books were works of scientific or economic or other reductionism, dedicated to the idea that life is much more trivial and simplistic and dull than anything which could live in a child's imagination. But the sense of wonder, of the sublime, that those titles evoked in me all those years ago has never faded.

Books. They are one of life's chief delights, and anyone who thinks of them as simply containers of information, like a computer programme manqué, is to be pitied rather than despised.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

I am by Temperament Such a Rationalist...

...that I get annoyed when (as happened today) I hear someone invoke "Murphy's Law" or "Sod's Law".

There is no such law. Your phone battery is no more likely to run out the moment you expect an important call than it is any other time. You are no more likely to run into traffic the day you are going to a job interview than any other day. (I do understand that people who invoke "Murphy's Law" actually know this. But that doesn't make their remarks any less irritating to me.)

There is no "law of averages", either.

Asking, "Does this seem like a really long week to you?" is a stupid and pointless and dull question.

Computers don't hate you and you don't put a hex on them. You're just awful with them.

Saying "I wish it was Friday already" is a completely futile and uninteresting comment.

I am waayyy more tolerant of UFO's and moon landing conspiracy theories and crop circles than I am of this kind of vacuous conversation.

I think one of the reasons I am a supernaturalist is because I am such a rationalist. Anyone who really thinks about the universe for any amount of time must see that, unless we posit an intelligent force behind reality, there is hardly anything left to say about anything.

"It's a beautiful day" doesn't mean anything. It simply means, "The day pleases me".

"That's amazing" doesn't mean anything. The improbable, when viewed dispassionatey, is no less probable (on the whole) than the utterly routine. Some events happen a lot, some not so much, some very rarely. All of them will happen eventually.

"Life is wonderful" doesn't mean anything. Life simply is. Some people enjoy it, some are driven to despair and suicide. Who's to say who's right?

"The world is crazy" doesn't mean anything. What world are you comparing it to?

"People are basically good" doesn't mean anything. What norm are you judging them against?

However, the more you view the world with coldly rationalistic eyes-- the more, in a sense, you simply step outside existence and look at the whole thing from the outside, including the patterns of nature, and the nature of the human mind, and time and space, and all those basic ingredients of being-- the less you will accept any of it as simply given, and the more you will think that it is the creation of a transcendent Will. At least, that has been my experience.

Fun with Fintan

Today, in The Irish Times, Fintan O'Toole claimed that he didn't respect opponents of same-sex marriage since they were all bigots with no serious arguments to make. Read the screed here.

I wrote to the Irish Times in reply. I wonder will they print my letter? Here it is, anyway.

Dear editor

Fintan O'Toole (Irish Times, 16/4/13) ridicules the idea that legalising gay marriage "will diminish all marriages", and brands all opponents of same-sex marriage bigots. Three cheers for liberal tolerance! He fails to see something so simple that many champions of same-sex marriage also miss it; that traditional marriage respects the obvious, and unique, complementarity between man and woman, a complementarity that is biological, psychological, spiritual, procreative, and cultural. Everybody, in practice, accepts this reality every single day, and it is plain to the youngest child-- but we are to pretend not to accept it, or its implications for marriage, on the grounds of political correctness.

Gay marriage will diminish all marriages because it makes marriage a mere social convention, not the awesome and ancient and independent reality that it is. Most likely, after marriage has been further redefined and devalued in decades to come, only marriages solemnized by orthodox religions will be taken seriously by anybody any more.

Mr. O'Toole believes all opponents of same-sex marriage are bigots. Presumably this includes pretty much every human being (many of them non-religious and anti-religious) who ever lived up until the last few decades, as well as the hundreds of thousands of people from across the social and political spectrum who recently demonstrated against the redefinition of marriage in France. Add to this the overwhelming majorities in Africa and Asia. That's quite a lot of bigots! Could it be that Mr. O'Toole's passionate intensity is unwarranted, and that liberal dogma has blinded him to reality?

Yours sincerely

Maolsheachlann O Ceallaigh
74 Sillogue Gardens
Dublin 11

A Better Review of a Book I Reviewed

Here is an excellent review, by Shane of the Lux Occulta blog, of Fr. Vincent Twomey's book The End of Irish Catholicism?, which was published in 2003. I reviewed it here. (My review saw its way into print, via the Australian Catholic magazine Annals Australasia. Embarrasingly, I state in the review that the decline in Irish priestly vocations has levelled out, which is not the case.)

Shane's review, though not a hatchet job, is much more critical than mine. I have to admit that my own review was rather gingerish, since I was perhaps overly impressed by Dr. Twomey's standing. Nor would I pretend to possess a fraction of Shane's erudition when it comes to Catholic history, especially Irish Catholic history. In my review, I am saying some of the same things as Shane, though in a more muted way and with less knowledge to back up my points.

I am most strongly in agreement with Shane when he defends what we might call "traditional" Irish Catholicism from the charge of being insular, shallow and unsophisticated. He points out that the Catholic Truth Society had a book and pamphlet stall in most churches in the pre-Vatican II era. Recently, when I complained that somebody walking through O'Connell Street on a Saturday afternoon might encounter Muslim preachers, Evangelical Christian preachers, Jehovah's Witness preachers, and even the Falun Gong, but no Catholic voice, my father told me that the Catholic Truth Society often had a stall outside the General Post Office in former days. When I raised this point in the letters page of The Irish Catholic, another correspondent replied that The Legion of Mary evangelize in the streets of Dublin. I don't want to take anything away from them, but I have to say that I have never been approached (as far as I can remember) by anybody, anywhere in Ireland, seeking to convince me of the truth of the Catholic faith. (Why don't I street evangelize? I don't think I would be up to it. I try to evangelize in my own way.)

It's not just a matter of evangelization. Go into Veritas Publications on Abbey Street, find a book published in Ireland in the last thirty years or so, and flick through it. It will almost certainly be full of vague "spiritual" and therapeutic musings that make little reference to the New Testament or to Catholic teaching. From my own experience, Catholic writing in Ireland of previous decades was far more substantial and intellectually sophisticated.

One quotation in Shane's view, from the memoir of Cardinal Cathal Daly, struck me as interesting:

"It was not long before I came to realize that the problems of the French Church came in great part from the profound cultural changes taking place in France in the post-war period and especially in the 1960s. Quickly, too, I reached the conviction that the same changes would affect Irish society too before long, and would consequently confront the Church in Ireland; and that French pastoral experience would be illuminating for us and French pastoral strategies beneficial for us when that time came."

This strikes me as interesting because I don't get any sense that the Catholic Church in Ireland had steeled itself for the juggernaut of secularization that it might have seen surging towards it. I don't ever remember, in Catholic religion class in primary school or in my secondary school run by Dominican nuns, ever being told why I should believe in God or in Christianity in the first place. Nor do I remember very much public discussion along this lines, although it is true that I would be less aware of public debate as a child and a teenager. I think it is a good thing that today we have writers like John Waters and Breda O'Brien and David Quinn making the basic case for Christianity in the public square. Perhaps there were such figures in the eighties and nineties, but I don't remember them. And I think that the eighties and nineties were the time when Catholics, lay and clerical, really ducked the challenge of secularization and abandoned the defence of the Faith. I don't think we can keep blaming our grandparents for our own failures.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Someone Has a Pop at my Father on The Irish Times Letters Page

This letter from my father recently appeared The Irish Times and The Irish Examiner:

Sir, – Much has been written and spoken in attempts to explain the ignominious collapse of the Labour Party vote in the Meath East byelection, but as yet I have not heard even one commentator refer to the fact that under his leadership Eamon Gilmore is making it ever more difficult for a practising Catholic to vote for Labour.

Tens of thousands may be emigrating, dole queues may be at record levels, the poor may be shivering in the Arctic-like conditions that overhang the country, yet Labour persists in its crusade to consign the Catholic Church to the dustbin of Irish history. Such fundamentalism is positively frightening.

There can be little doubt that the byelection result was hugely influenced by Labour’s abandonment of the pre-general election promises, yet even the most diehard Labour voters who share the Catholic faith must be asking themselves, in good conscience, can they continue to vote for a party whose leadership holds their faith in such naked contempt. Not alone Catholics, members of the other Christian churches must be asking themselves the same question.

Surely within the Labour Party itself there are Christians who are beginning to wonder whether or not they can remain in a party which is so openly hostile to their faith?

There was a time when its critics used to claim that the Labour Party was the political wing, not of the trade unions, but of the Society of the St Vincent de Paul. How laughable would such a criticism be today. – Yours, etc,


Sillogue Gardens,

Ballymun, Dublin 11.

Today, a letter from a Madeline Stringer of Dundrum appeared with the following response:

Sir, – Peadar Kelly (April 4th) says he cannot vote for Labour because it is “making it difficult for a practising Catholic to vote for [it]”. Does he not have the confidence in his own religious belief and practice that he needs it to be backed up by the State?

The early Christians would not have got far if they had taken this attitude. You can be a perfect Catholic in a secular state. You are not obliged to get a divorce, use contraception, attend gay marriage ceremonies, or eat meat on Fridays if these things are against your personal ethics.

How can it benefit Catholicism to know that non-Catholics are being forced to follow its rules?

The theocracy which stifled Ireland for too long should be allowed to wither away, but this would not stop the faithful from consuming only black tea and dry toast during Lent if they so wished. – Yours, etc,


Meadow Grove,


Dublin 16.

How do you even start on this? First off, she is missing the point that my father was making. He was not saying that Labour are making it difficult to be Catholic in Ireland. They are trying to do that, of course, although nobody will pretend Ireland bears any comparison to China or Saudia Arabia in this regard. What my father asserted was that Labour are making it difficult to be a Catholic Labour voter.

Secondly, even the examples she gives can be shown to be fallacious.

You are not obliged to get a divorce? Well, if your spouse insists upon it you might be. I don't know the intricacies of divorce law, but how many divorces are really a matter of mutual consent?

You are not obliged to use contraception? Perhaps not. But you will be exposed to government propaganda for it nonetheless, and if you have children, so will they. There is one advertising campaign recently, featuring a bandana-wearing, guitar-playing character, with the slogan: "Johnny has you covered". I think a lot of heartbreak and tragedy has entered a lot of lives through the false impression that Johnny has you covered. Also, if you work in an Irish pharmacist, you will be forced to sell the morning-after pill.

You are not obliged to attend gay marriage ceremonies? Maybe not, but how long before Catholics and Christians are prosecuted for refusing to accept their legitimacy-- in the same way that Catholic adoption agencies have been forced to close in Britain because they would not place children with same-sex couples?

As for the point about eating meat on Fridays, this is an obvious gibe, playing on the perception that meatless Fridays were (and are, for those who still practice them) a form of superstitious taboo like Pythogoreans not eating beans, rather than a small symbolic sacrifice. But I could even make a rather facetious response to a facetious statement, and mention how Friday has increasingly become a day of celebration in our society, being the beginning of the weekend (and leisure is increasingly the only thing anybody has left to celebrate, since nobody believes in anything anymore). In my job, Friday is usually the day chosen for presentations, coffee mornings, and for general bringing in of doughnuts and cakes and other assorted goodies. I could complain that this shows a lamentable lack of sensitivity to those practicing Friday absintence-- perhaps even a deliberate attempt to tempt them into breaking it. Perhaps this is the sort of silly reply that such a silly letter deserves, after all.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

What a Shocker!

Labour's pet hobby-horse, the Constitutional Convention, votes overwhelmingly for same-sex marriage.

This might be a terrible thing to say, but I don't have much respect for the independent-mindedness of the people of Ireland. I think we are probably one of the most easily brainwashed countries in the world. I'm pretty sure that, if a national referendum asked the same question tomorrow, the answer would be the same and would be quite emphatic, if not so resounding. And why? Through our national horror of appearing "backward", that's why.

"It's not the role of the State to pass judgement on who a person falls in love with, or who they want to spend their life with," said the Tanaiste, in enthusiastic reaction to the vote. But surely that is exactly what the whole push for same-sex marriage assumes-- that the State can and should redefine marriage, on the basis of a new morality?

New Picture

I got sick of looking at the old picture under the title of this blog. I might bring it back at some stage.

What's the new one, you might ask? Well, it's a clock-tower in Brighton, England. Me and Michelle wandered through these almost-deserted, fairy-light-filled streets early in the New Year of 2011. It was a magical evening. And I like the picture.

The good thing about having a blog about everything is that you can have a picture of anything.

Another Fun Breakfast Conversation with my Father

We had been talking about "save-the-dates", which (as you may or may not know-- I didn't know until I heard the term on the US version of The Office) are a kind of pre-invitation that comes before a wedding invitation. We were pondering over this concept, which seems a bit odd to both of us. Yesterday (for a bit of background information) we had been deploring the modern proliferation of acronyms.

My Father (completely innocently): "Of course, they'll probably be calling them STD's soon."
Me (smiling): "I don't think that's going to happen".
My Father: "Why not?"
Me: "Well, STD already means something else."
My Father, after pondering for a few moments: "Oh....single trunk dialling?"

Can you imagine? "Hey, Jill, did you get the STD yet? I thought I gave it to you at the party! Never mind, I'll give it to you later."

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The LGBT Sandwich

Yeah, yeah. I know that lots of people who are attracted to people of the same sex hate the acronym as much as I do. So, probably, do lots of men who think of themselves as women, or women who want to be men. And so on.

But really-- it's the accepted term now, so I think it's fair to criticize it.

And what struck me about it recently is that it really means everybody except heterosexuals who are happy with the sex they were born into. It's a clumping together of various persuasions which are very different and whose only commonality is that they are not the traditional norm.

Exclusion, anybody?

(I remember, the first time I heard the terms "heterosexual" and "homosexual", as a kid, I thought the first meant someone who sleeps with lots of people and the second meant someone who stuck to one lover. I'm kinda proud of the guess, in retrospect. I also remember that the first time I became aware of the sexual meaning of the term "gay" was when I was about ten, in school, when we were learning a poem with the lines:

And all the world went gay, went gay
For half an hour in the street today

Lots of kids started tittering and the teacher started probing as to why they were tittering, obviously curious as to what their level of knowledge was. I don't think I even really got it then, though.)

This is a Wonderful Site

Live video feeds from churches around the country, as well as some abroad.

Some of them only broadcast during Mass times. But many of them broadcast round the clock. I absolutely love this idea. I love the idea that you could log onto the site in the early hours (I've done it) and see the inside of a church, as it actually is at that moment. It's very comforting.

I have become more bold about telling non-religious people I am keeping them in my prayers. They usually seem touched. As well as its supernatural effects, prayer and worship has such a strong emotional power, too. I find an endless pleasure in the knowledge that, at any given moment, Mass is being said somewhere, and rosaries are being recited, and the Eucharist is being adored, and the Bible is being read, and someone is kneeling alone in a little chapel before the solemn glow of a Sacred Heart lamp.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Kind of Thing You Come Across Working in a University Library

The first sentence of Male Masochism by Carol Siegel (1995):

In the wake of Michel Foucault's discussions of the construction of sexualities, much important work has been done in recent literary theory to historicize theory's primarily classic psychoanalytic, and thus synchronic, vision of textual representation of gender difference and, relatedly, heterosexuality and homosexuality.

You can't beat a snappy first line, can you?

And the blurb of The Church A Demon Lover: A Sartrean Analysis of an Institution by Roberta Imboden (1995, too-- that was a good year):

The New Testament message of love has been distorted in the process of being mediated by the institution of the Roman Catholic Church. [Of course!] Through interweaving Sartre's theory of historical categories in his Critique of Dialectical Reason, and his concrete personal relations in Being and Nothingness, one sees that the structure of the institution breaks the structure of love, a sovereign, free, reciprocal relationship among equals, and establishes in its place a structure of domination, that of sado-masochism. The intentions those who are involved in Church praxis are subsequently deviated. But herein lies the hope. The ability to reason dialectically [whoo-hoo!] rather than analytically, offers the possibility of transcending the various distortions of the Gospel message, for dialectical reason helps one to understand the structure of Leonardo Boff's Trinity [tell me more!], which is analogous to that of Sartrean love in Being and Nothingness. Through the use of Boff's paradigmatic Trinity, it is then possible to postulate a concrete structure for the "new" Church that is capable of being a proper vehicle for the expression of the Gospel message.

Christianity was waiting one thousand, nine hundred and ninety five years for Roberta Imboden, professor of literature in the Department of English at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto, to come along and set it to rights. God sure works in mysterious ways, doesn't he?

Why I am No Longer a Nationalist

Some months back, this blog played host to a friendly exchange of views between me and fellow Irish Catholic blogger, Young Ireland. It starts here. (This series of posts were among the most often viewed on this blog). In that discussion, though I was defending nationalism, I admitted my views were tentative and in flux.

Now, I have come to the conclusion that I am not really a nationalist of any sort-- not even a cultural nationalist. I come to this conclusion reluctantly and rather sadly.

What is nationalism?

Well, obviously, the definition could be discussed all day long, and into the early hours, and for the rest of the weekend, with black coffee and loosened neck-ties and three-day shadow all round. (I'm not wilfully excluding the ladies, it just seems a more striking image if my debaters have loosened neck-ties and three-day shadow, that's all.)

But I think most people would make a distinction between patriotism and nationalism, although there would be no broad consensus on what that distinction actually is.

For my part, I would say that patriotism is rather more casual than nationalism. Patriotism is cheering for your soccer team in the World Cup, hanging out the flag, taking pride in your national heritage and history, and so on. It is rather a happy-go-lucky kind of sentiment. It doesn't really go much deeper than the fellow-feeling you might have for the people in your office, or the attachment you might have for your old school.

Few people would object to this kind of patriotism, though there are always some ultra-leftists (and others) who dislike any display of "tribalism", as they call it. But to be entirely devoid of such sentiment seems rather inhuman.

Nationalism, I think, is distinguished from patriotism by the depth of feeling involved, and the importance it plays in the mental life of the nationalist. A nationalist doesn't, like a patriot, simply feel national sentiment when he comes across something (like a football match or a visit to a musuem) that stirs it up inside him. The thoughts of the nationalist dwell upon his country. It is a big part of his life, perhaps even the most important thing in his life. It is a major part of his identity. It might even be the dominant factor.

A nationalist also wishes for his nation to retain its national identity, and probably to strengthen it, too. He feels a sense of loss when national customs are lost, or replaced by those of another nation, as in this extract from an article by Peter Hitchens about the Americanization of England (I don't know whether Peter Hitchens would call himself a nationalist):

And so, with our games of street baseball, our cricket trying to look like baseball to survive, our politicians running rather than standing for election, our coffee-consumers asking "can I get?" instead of "Please may I have?” and our Presidential politics, we quietly become America without in fact being American. Is this is a good thing? In some ways. The pettiness of class created much stupid misery (see Nevil Shute's charming wartime novel 'Landfall' for a witty and kind examination of this problem) and wasted many good lives.

But we lose other things too, and one of them is our specific sense of who we are, of place, history and belonging.

That seems to me to be the biggest difference between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism more or less accepts one's country for what it is, and celebrates it. Nationalism has a definite vision of what one's country should be-- not a vision of what society in general should be, but of what your particular country should be.

I see nothing whatsoever ignoble in this attitude. I have simply ceased to be a nationalist because I no longer believe it is possible to hold onto that vision of nationality. National identity, I have come to think, is simply a matter of historical happenstance, and not the outward manifestation of some essence such as "the Irish soul" or "the American psyche". It is a particular combination of climate, history, genetics, culture, demographics, politics, and so on. As such, it is doomed to change.

You might as well have a love affair with a cloud, as give your heart to the spirit of a nation.

Do I sound like a disillusioned lover? I guess that's because that's what I am.

I tried to be a nationalist, but I could never quite convince myself. I couldn't convince myself that there was something called "the Irish condition" that was significantly different from the human condition. I couldn't quite convince myself that the "saga of Ireland" was one overriding narrative rather than a succession of stories set on the same stage, which do indeed overlap but are not really the same tale.

More than anything else, I became exhausted by the emotional toll of knowing that the whole developed world was being submerged in a tide of suburban housing estates, round-the-clock television, indoor supermarkets, multinational franchises, industrial farming, and other forces of homogenization-- and knowing that nothing could be done to stop this. To be a cultural nationalist was simply to defy the executioners of history-- noble, perhaps, but heartbreaking.

Why did it seem so important to me to be a nationalist? There were three main reasons.

One was filial piety. Not only do I come from a family of Irish nationalists going back generations, but it seems to me that all of the people of Ireland-- apart from the Unionists, who have their own traditions-- have inherited a national aspiration which meant an enormous amount to their forefathers. It's not just a question of the lives lost in the struggle for independence. It's all the yearning and effort that went into reviving Irish traditions, from the time of the Gaelic Revival and after-- the ballads, the Irish dancing, the efforts to save the Irish language, the study of Irish mythology, the poring over Irish history, and so forth. It would be unnatural (I think) not to feel a certain reverence for all this, whatever attitude you take towards the Easter Rising and other controversial matters.

The second is a reverence for tradition in itself. I like old things because they are old.

The third is the deeply-rooted desire for a world full of interesting and distinctive places. Even if I never go to China, it makes me happy to know that China is so very different from anything I know. I thought it was up to everybody to do their bit for the world's diversity by keeping their own homeland as distinctive as possible, and trying to save it from losing its specialness. I thought this was worth a fair amount of effort and mental attention.

I still desire a world full of special places, and for one place to be very different from another. But I have stopped yearning for it so arduously-- because it hurts too much, since the tide seems to be going in an opposite direction.

When I started practicing my Catholic faith, a few years ago, this had a big impact on my attitude towards nationalism. And this for several reasons.

One was the Christian conviction that we are not of this world. "Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him." "For the fashion of this world passeth away". Measured against eternity, all the kingdoms of the Earth were like a puff of smoke.

Another was the recognition that nationalism had usually been either an opponent to Christianity, or an even more unfortunate ally. Hadn't the mixture between nationalism and Catholicism in Ireland ultimately been baneful for the Faith? People should come to Christ out of love for him, not as an expression of national pride. "Catholic" terrorists had sullied the name of the faith by bombing and shooting their enemies in a sectarian feud. In our time, the artificial buoyancy that religious nationalism gave to the Catholic faith in Ireland through so many generations has disappeared-- and rather more than the Scriptural seven demons have come to fill the house that was swept and cleaned through all that time.

Another reason my Catholic faith made it difficult for me to maintain my nationalism was because of Catholic social teaching. As a cultural nationalist, I felt a hostility to supra-national institutions such as the European Union and the United Nations, and I was also hostile to mass immigration. (I do not feel that cultural nationalism is compatible with widespread immigration.) Although a faithful Catholic might still be able to hold onto these positions without offending the letter of orthodoxy, I ultimately came to feel that the tension between the drift of Church teaching and my own isolationist views was too strong. Papal encylicals and Church documents have more and more emphasised the interdependence of nations and peoples, and the need for international cooperation. I do not want to pick and choose from my Church's teaching, especially by the contrivance of quibbling over what is authoritative teaching and what is not.

And so...I am a nationalist no more.

But not an anti-nationalist. And certainly not a mocker of the ideals and aspirations that animated previous generations of Irish people, and for which they were willing to strive, sacrifice and even give their lives.

But I remind myself of Pope Benedict's words: "If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great." Everything that was noble and lofty and sublime about Irish nationalism, is to be found in a fuller and truer way in Christ. Heaven is our real homeland, and McDonalds will never build a restaurant there.

Thursday, April 11, 2013


When I was a boy
A very little boy
Star Wars was everywhere.

There were Star Wars pillow cases
Star Wars annuals
Star Wars lunchboxes
And Star Wars action figures.

(Especially Star Wars action figures.)

I remember a boy who sat beside me in infants' class
Staring at a photo in his Star Wars annual
Of Princess Leia, wearing very little,
And how entranced he was by her grown-up beauty.

The films themselves
Were a few years old by then
And may as well have belonged
To a galaxy far, far away
And a time long, long ago.

I didn't see the films, but the action figures--
How eagerly I collected the action figures!

And then, one memorable day
I was explaining to my older sister
(With all a child's oblivious intentness)
The identity of one particular toy.

And my sister, snarkily summarizing, said:

"Teebo is an Eewok. He's a stripy Eewok. He's the leader of the Eewoks."

The utterance, euphonic and triadic,
Went down in family folklore straight away.

And now, when I am thirty-five years old,
And I know that Teebo was not the Eewok leader

And that society needs the profit motive
And that the world will carry on without me
And people that you actually know can die

I cling to this old wisdom all the fiercer:

Teebo is an Eewok. He's a stripy Eewok. He's the leader of the Eewoks.

Reader, I offer it to you-- repeat it:

Teebo is an Eewok.

He's a stripy Eewok.

He's the leader of the Eeewoks.

Remember this, and it will serve you well.

The School in August by Philip Larkin

Here is a piece I wrote for the Philip Larkin Society website, back in 2006, about one of Philip Larkin's more impressive pieces of juvenelia.

And here is one of my own poems on Youtube
, narrated by a lady called Kirsty Clark and set to a video by the people who run the website This is Hull. I holidayed in Hull around this time, partly out of my interest in Philip Larkin (he was librarian at the University of Hull), partly out of sheer perversity. Who would take a holiday in Hull? I would. The very week I was there, it was voted worst place to live in Britain. The poem has nothing to do with Hull.

The Second Best Argument against the Ordination of Women

Yesterday, I went to a meeting for new ministers of the Word in my local church. I arrived a little bit early (I am chronically punctual) and I was alone in the sacristy with the deacon, who was the one running us through exactly what we are supposed to do. I felt slightly awkward while we waited for the others to arrive, as I don't know him very well.

We fell to talking about Pope Francis, naturally enough. At one point, the deacon wondered aloud whether the new Pope was going to "do anything about women in the Church" (or something like that). I didn't feel like getting into a debate, so I made some non-commital noise. He then said, "It's not good to be seen to alienate fifty per cent of the population". Then another new minister of the Word arrived, and the brief exchange was over.

Now, the deacon didn't actually say he was in favour of the ordination of women, but that was the impression I got. I also get the impression that quite a lot of practicing Catholics, and even of clerics, would agree with him.

It's difficult for a man to argue against this, because it seems as though you are simply siding with the boys. (Of course, a woman opposing female ordination would face the stigma of being an "Uncle Tom", or perhaps an "Aunt Tammy", but I think she would have more credibility at the same time.)

The best argument against the ordination of women is the one put so concisely by Pope John Paul II in 1994: "Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful."

Such a ruling should be inarguable for those who consider themselves faithful Catholics. Unfortunately, it is not (although perhaps many of them are not aware of it). Also, many Catholics hold themselves free to dissent from magisterial teachings, and many people who are not Catholics criticize the Church for its refusal to ordain women.

So I think that the second best argument against the ordination of women is simply this: the massive loss of credibility the Church would suffer, not only amongst traditional and conservative Catholics, but amongst everybody, even its most liberal and "progressive" critics.

The most cursory glance at Church history shows us an apostolic succession composed exlusively of men. If this were to change, who would not feel in their heart that the Church was simply not the same institution?

I would argue that the Catholic Church enjoys a de facto acceptance as being the authoritative voice of Christianity, even amongst those who would vociferously dispute this. In horror movies, it is always a Catholic priest who comes face to face with the demonic, not a Methodist minister or a Presbyterian elder. When the Pope makes a statement about life on other planets or ouija boards, it is seized upon by the media in a way that pronouncements by the Archbishop of Canterbury of the Patriarch of Constantinople are not. Spiritual biographies and books of prayer by Catholic monks and nuns seem to be accorded a respect that is not given to spiritual writers outside the Catholic Church.

People feel that the Church is different. At the risk of sounding infuriatingly condescending, I think that even the Church's liberal critics would feel a vague sense of loss and disorientation if it conceded to their demands. I think the world doesn't really want the Church it says it wants. It only respects a Church that will say "no" to it.

I am reminded of a scene from The Office (the American version), one of my favourite TV shows. The receptionist Erin-- who is an orphan with an unsettled childhood-- takes the manager, Michael Scott, to task for not liking her boyfriend (quotation courtesy of The website):

Erin: Why don't you like him?
Michael: What is there to like? He's just, he's a weird little skeevy guy with no waist, why do you care whether we like him or not?
Erin: I care if you like him.
Michael: Why? I'm not your father. [Erin looks sad] All right.
Erin: Okay...
Michael: Go to your room.
Erin: What? [confused]
Michael: Go to your room young lady!
Erin: [slowly getting it] Uhm, I'm not going to my room.
Michael: You listen to me. You listen good. You are are not, to see that boy, anymore.
Erin: You listen to me. You are not to tell me what to do.
Michael: As long as you are living under this roof you are going to do what I say.
Erin: I hate your roof!
Michael: Oh do not raise your voice to me!
Erin: I'll raise it how I want! I'll raise the roof!
Michael: Gahh, I will pull this car over!
Erin: I hate it! I hate your car!

Of course, the comedy of the scene is that Erin is loving every second of her long-delayed outburst against a father figure.

Deep down, I think we are all like Erin.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

This is an Interesting Article

On why there is no dignity in euthanasia, written by a man who has worked with the terminally ill for many years and who has himself been on dialysis for twenty years.

This paragraph is especially interesting:

Medical research in this area indicates that the desire for euthanasia is not confined to physical or psycho-social concerns relating to advanced disease. As many researchers have found, a request for death often incorporates hidden existential yearnings for connectedness, and care and respect. Euthanasia requests cannot be taken at face value but require in-depth exploration of their covert meaning, in order to ensure that the patients' needs are being addressed adequately.

I try to avoid demonizing liberals and liberalism on this blog. I see many good aspects of liberalism and, in a sense, everybody is a liberal-- just as everybody is partly a conservative, and an anarchist, and a feminist, and so on.

But, to me, the fundamental problem of liberalism is this matter of consent. The whole social philosophy of liberalism is built upon an overriding respect for consent, but consent is a very murky issue. Is someone who agrees to work in degrading conditions of labour really consenting? Does a prostitute consent to her work? Does a teenager who gets involved with sex or drugs really give a full and free consent? Does a marriage that breaks up because all of the social pressure and social messages are in favour of the break-up really represent the will of the couple in question?

Obviously, in all those questions, the answer is both "yes" and "no". Strictly speaking, in all of these cases, there is consent. But it is a very problematic kind of consent.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Wonderful Gerry Adams Shows His Deep Humanity Once Again

What better time than the day a woman passes away to launch a blistering attack upon her memory?

This from the man whose mantra, some years ago, was that he refused to engage in "the politics of condemnation".

You don't have to agree with somebody's politics to show a proper respect for the dead and for bereavment. It would seem that Sinn Féin have little respect for either end of life's journey-- seen more recently in their shameful blocking of anti-abortion legislation in Northern Ireland.

I despise everything about Sinn Féin. Their philosophy has nothing to do with patriotism, nothing to do with Catholicism, nothing to do with freedom, and nothing to do with liberality. It is instead a philosophy of hatred and negation-- anti-British, anti-tradition, anti-Church, anti-life.

On Our Curious Tolerance for Visual Litter

Advertising bothers me. It bothers me quite a lot. Maybe it's wrong that it bothers me so much, in a world where so many people are hungry and homeless and otherwise lacking basic human needs. Maybe my preoccupation with the triviality of advertising is itself lamentably trivial. But it seems to me at least as important a subject as many others to which the public devotes a lot of serious attention-- gardening or sports, for instance. (And I have nothing against either of those two worthy activities, by the way.)

Yesterday I saw a billboard advertisement promoting a well-known Irish beer. As is common-- and as is strangely accepted-- the advertisement itself had absolutely nothing to do with beer. Instead, it had a rugby theme, exploiting the international success of Irish rugby in recent years. It showed the torso of an Irish rugby player, who is in some kind of action pose. (I don't have much time for feminism, but I do find interesting the observation of some feminist writers that, in advertising and in visual art at large, men are generally show doing something while women tend to be shown in elegant repose. Then again, I cherish the difference between the sexes, so I don't see anything awfully wrong about this.) The lighting and colour of the advertisement was dramatically vivid and full of contrast, and the caption was rendered in big blocky letters. It read: "Studied Arts. Chose Drama."

I found this advertisement extremely irritating and troubling. What was the point of it?

I suppose it is the height of naivity to ask, no matter how rhetorically, how it is supposed to persuade anybody to buy a particular brand of beer. I accept that the people who commissioned the advertisement are hard-headed men (and women) of business and that they had at least a reasonable expectation that it would sell beer. I understand as well that, in the case of major companies like the one who commissioned this billboard advertisement, simply keeping the name of the brand in the public mind is the goal, since everybody knows about the product anyway.

(When I visited America, I noticed that the American attitude to advertising is much more direct. They don't really go in for the oblique approach. They are less likely to make advertisements where there seems to be little or no discernible link between the product and the advertisement. Instead, you are much more likely to see a face on the screen explaining to you exactly why you should buy this powertool, or this life insurance, or this chocolate spread. Perhaps this comes down to American lack of squeamishness when it comes to talking about money. All in all, I don't know whether their approach is better or worse. At least it seems rather more tethered to reality, and less inclined to veer off into embarrassing irrelevance, but advertising seems even more pervasive and pugnacious in America than it does here.)

I accept that all advertising is not going to be a direct sales pitch. In fact, I can see how moving away from the direct sales pitch gives greater scope for advertisements to be works of art in themselves. They can be-- they often are-- pleasing pictures or vignettes in their own right. They can be-- and again, they often are-- amusing skits.

For instance (and staying within the realm of alcohol advertising) I remember a television advertisement for another beer which ran in the late eighties or early nineties. There was no dialogue, and the song "Caledonia" played over the whole thing. It showed a London office worker making his way to work, through the anonymous crush of the Tube and the casual aggression and discourtesy of the streets, and taking his place in a crowded lift up to his office. Before the doors close, he impulsively steps out, throws his identity badge down at the reception desk, strides into the street, chucks his briefcase into a passing dump-truck, and is next seen ambling into a pub in Scotland, where everybody is more relaxed and down-to-earth.

Now, that little film seems to me to express something admirable. It may be unfair to London. It may romanticize Scotland. And I appreciate the irony of an advertisement, produced by a corporation that almost certainly employed identity-badge-wearing cubicle slaves of its own, condeming corporate bureaucracy. But still, in spite of all that, the basic message is a worthy one. We should prefer a rooted, local, down-to-earth life to a big city, fast-paced, careerist existence.

But what is "Studied Arts. Chose Drama" holding up for admiration? Not patriotism. Not athleticism, per se. Not the history and traditions of rugby. Not the prospect of a family outing at a sporting occasion. No, it seems to me that the advertisement was appealing to the fantasy of being a professional rugby player. I think this is the least admirable way to advertise using a sporting a theme. Professionalism and winning and competitiveness are an inevitable part of sports, but wouldn't it better to stress loyalty, sportsmanship, and the dedication of fans rather than the prestige of elite peformers?

I accept that advertising is a fact of life. I'm not even even anti-advertising, since I think a well-made ad can be a work of art in its own right. What's wrong with standing at a bus-stop and having an idyllic tableau to daydream upon-- say, a tourism advertisement showing a sparkling blue ocean, or a bread advertisement showing a golden wheat field? But I do wish advertising would follow certain principles, which I would happily see imposed either by self-regulation, consumer power, or government imposition.

And here they are, for what it's worth:

1) Advertising should be restrained, not obnoxious. It should eschew silly voices, infectious jingles, flashing lights, enormous captions, the salacious use of sexuality, bizarre imagery, and other tacky devices.
2) Advertisements should strive for some kind of artistic value in themselves.
3) Advertising campaigns should be of longer duration; years rather than months. One of the more unpleasant aspect of modern society is a sensation of constant novelty and dizzying change. Longer-running ad campaigns would be a soothing thing. And I do believe that, when advertising campaigns enter the collective memory, they can enrich it. Captain Birdseye, the Milky Bar kid, and similar figures have almost attained the solidity of legend. Advertising is ephemeral, but it doesn't have to be that ephemeral.
4) Advertising should appeal to worthy emotions like love of family, or reliability, or tradition, rather than tawdry emotions like prestige, popularity, desire for novelty, or snob value.

I realize that these are rather quixotic standards, and I'm not holding my breath waiting for them to be applied. But I do think, if the customer and perhaps even advertisers themselves would bear them in mind, everyday life might be made a good deal more tasteful and aesthetically pleasing.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Crisis of Faith Theme

There is an interesting page about the Crisis of Faith theme on the website TV Tropes. (TV Tropes is a site that identifies various conventions and common narrative devices in TV, cinema and books-- you know, like the convention of the bomber not even looking around or flinching when the bomb he's planted goes off.)

Sometimes I think that almost every story is about faith lost and regained, or else faith discovered for the first time-- whether that be religious faith, faith in makind, faith in oneself, faith in a loved one, faith in a cause, or faith in the future. So this subject is of very compelling interest to almost everybody, but especially religious folk.

I remember I went to see a film whose central character was a cleric who had lost his faith. (I won't say which, for fear of spoiling the ending if you haven't seen it.) Eventually this former cleric does regain his faith, but he does so as a result of various events in the story which seem obviously Providential. I felt annoyed at this at the time (I was an agnostic-atheist back then, but not a fervent one by any means, and not in the least hostile to religion.) I felt that a story of faith regained should not trade upon improbabilities or coincidences or miracles, that this was cheating.

I am more often surprised by the hospitality of the world towards faith, than I am by its hostility to it. I am often struck that even those people I know who are rather hostile towards religion, or towards the Catholic Church in particular, tend to be very respectful of my religious beliefs. Of course, this is just good matters, to a great extent, but it seems to go deeper than that. I am constantly expecting to be taken to task for my gullibility/weak-mindedness/bigotry. But the anticipated challenge never really appears. I am fairly regularly challenged about particular Church teachings, but nobody ever really accosts me for believing any of it in the first place. In fact, I even detect (I may be wrong) a funny kind of sympathy for my beliefs, even amongst those who absolutely do not share them. I often ponder this. It is accounted for by a latent religiosity in the sympathizer's own soul? Or is it simply that the great religious traditions of humanity have a certain dignity in most peoples' eyes, as being (at the least) beautiful and profound myths?

Faith is a funny thing. We walk by faith, not sight, and if you practice a religion, than you are building your entire life on something whose very existence is extremely controversial. And yet, it seems fitting and noble at the same time. It is dramatically satisfying. The love lives and working lives and social lives and intellectual lives of human beings are so very disparate, and in truth the builder of a business empire has a much more satisfying and exciting working life than a security guard. But the adventure of faith is the same for everybody; it gives grandeur and poetry and sublimity to even the plainest and most uneventful of lives. Nobody is going to invent an app or a device of some kind that solves the mystery of the universe, or that saves your soul. This drama is blessedly immune to such plot contrivances. That the ultimate adventure of life is one in which intelligence and wealth and beauty and connections avail you very little, if at all (and might even be a hindrance) seems to me to be a wonderful source of human dignity.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Late Roger Ebert's Thoughts on Catholicism

How fascinating that the eminent film critic, in one of his last pieces of writing, should have turned his thoughts towards his Catholic heritage. In an artice called How I am a Roman Catholic, he describes his attitudes and feelings towards the religion in which he was brought up.

Even before his last illness and death, I found myself curious about Ebert's religious opinions. I'm always curious about everybody's religious opinions, but with most people, you can make a pretty good guess at what they are. Ebert, however, intrigued me. His view of the world could probably best be described as "liberal-humanist". His view on homosexuality seemed entirely accepting. He wrote a review of a euthanasia-themed movie that accepted that euthanasia was a morally problematic issue, and praised the film for not simplifying it. He does not seem to have believed in the supernatural at all.

Ebert was my favourite movie critic because he tried to appreciate a movie on its own terms. He didn't write damning reviews of popcorn action flicks because they weren't comedies of manners or high drama. He steered clear of artistic snobbery.

In a similar way, he seemed to me the best sort of liberal-- the sort that is liberal enough to accept that liberalism has its own limits and pitfalls, and that there are other honourable ways of looking at the world than liberalism.

It seems to me that few people possessed of strong imaginations, and of any kind of sense of mystery and the sublime, are inclined to be dismissive of Catholicism, or of any kind of religious faith. Those who entirely scorn religion seem either wilfully blind to life's depths, or genuinely doomed to see only the surface of existence-- the bare physical facts. (Although, since I am a believer, I cannot believe that God has deprived anybody of the capacity to intuit His existence.)

Roger Ebert RIP.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Love Equals Sex, Condoms Stop the Spread of HIV, the Catholic Church is Nazi by Association...

...Yes, Gabriel Byrne is giving us the fruit of having "read a lot on the subject and had many conversations" and declares "The Catholic Church is a force for evil".

Amongst his other comments, which are entirely predictable, he makes this slur against nuns:

"The nuns were vicious because you have all these women living together in denial of love.

They turned inward on themselves, became twisted creatures. I saw nuns being awfully cruel to me and to my sister. Horrific. Horrific.”

Yes, I've encountered some bitter and angry nuns in my time. I've also encountered plenty of nuns who are cheerful, good-humoured, giving, caring and apparently entirely fulfilled in their vocations. Byrne's assumption is that there is something morbid about vows of chastity. This I have not observed to be the case.

Letter from my Father in the Irish Times today

Sir, – Much has been written and spoken in attempts to explain the ignominious collapse of the Labour Party vote in the Meath East byelection, but as yet I have not heard even one commentator refer to the fact that under his leadership Eamon Gilmore is making it ever more difficult for a practising Catholic to vote for Labour.

Tens of thousands may be emigrating, dole queues may be at record levels, the poor may be shivering in the Arctic-like conditions that overhang the country, yet Labour persists in its crusade to consign the Catholic Church to the dustbin of Irish history. Such fundamentalism is positively frightening.

There can be little doubt that the byelection result was hugely influenced by Labour’s abandonment of the pre-general election promises, yet even the most diehard Labour voters who share the Catholic faith must be asking themselves, in good conscience, can they continue to vote for a party whose leadership holds their faith in such naked contempt. Not alone Catholics, members of the other Christian churches must be asking themselves the same question.

Surely within the Labour Party itself there are Christians who are beginning to wonder whether or not they can remain in a party which is so openly hostile to their faith?

There was a time when its critics used to claim that the Labour Party was the political wing, not of the trade unions, but of the Society of the St Vincent de Paul. How laughable would such a criticism be today. – Yours, etc,


Sillogue Gardens,

Ballymun, Dublin 11.

(Lest it be thought that my family is a hotbed of Papism, such is not the case. My father, myself and one of my sisters represent the religiously orthodox side of the family; I have another sister who tends towards the 'spiritual but not religious' outlook; one of my brothers believes in revolutionary Marxism; another believes in UFOs and Area 51; and I have a final brother who seems to think all religious belief is nutty and whose firmest belief might be that he is surrounded by idiots. And when we move on to my extended family, it's anybody guess. I have one nephew who was experimenting with Buddhism but I don't know how that went.)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The More Materialistic Science Becomes, the More Angels I Shall Paint

I came across that quotation from Edward Burne Jones while watching The Victorians, a documentary series by Jeremy Paxman. It's haunted me ever since.

I'm a Catholic because I believe Catholicism is true-- objectively, universally, timelessly true. Catholicism should not be a fad, a pose, a form of self-expression, or a mere rebellion against modernity, or against anything else. It is as relevant to 2013 as it was to the reign of Charlemagne. Pope Benedict was right to encourage believers to use social media to spread the gospel, and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is an entirely noble expression of the belief that faith and reason are the two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.

And yet-- and yet-- I have to admit that I have a very strong personal inclination towards this reactionary attitude. Something inside me would happily grow a long beard, wear sandals and a robe, and pointedly refuse to know anything about current affairs, new technology, pop culture or politics. I would take enormous relish in presenting myself as a survivor from the Middle Ages, in striving to be as otherworldy and out of touch and doggedly archaic as possible.

It would be hard to hold down a job if you behaved like that, though. Or to have a sociable drink in the pub.

(Wedding plans proceeding apace, thanks.)

Monday, April 1, 2013

A Fine Point by Harry Crocker...

...writer of Triumph: The Power and Glory of the Catholic Church, in a Youtube video on what books conservatives should read. In his discussion of Burke, he says:

A lot of the principles that Burke lays out, which seem to me vital and crucial and true, are things that I think rub a lot of people today in a kneejerk way. We have the famous line, “The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded.” How many conservatives today actually have no problem with that?

How many indeed? I am not a Burkean, nor do I even think of myself as a conservative anymore, since the term has so many meanings it is essentially useless. But if conservatism is to signify anything worthwhile, surely it should be a defence of noble, fragile and vulnerable things-- like chivalry, tradition, courtesy, civility, culture, and community. Instead, it seems to me that plenty of people who would style themselves "conservative" are more in the business of glorifying power and success-- identifying with big business, technological progress, military power, hustle and spin and go-getting, and the gratification of every appetite whatsoever.

Here is the video, in case you are interested.

And if you want to know why I'm not a Burkean, Edward Feser explains it all here. Edward Feser is right about everything. Except dorky superhero comics, that is.