Friday, August 30, 2013

Vocations Once Again

There's a very interesting letter from Fr. Gerard Dunne OP, the Vocation Director of the Dominican Community, in this week's Irish Catholic. It's an open letter to the bishops of Ireland, and it doesn't pull its punches.

Fr. Dunne believes that not enough is being done to promote vocations in Ireland, and that the subject is not taken seriously enough by the Irish hierarchy.

I found this passage especially interesting:

In 2009, you courageously supported and promoted the 'Year of Vocation'. The original concept to have the year to pray for and support priestly and religious vocations soon became a Year of Vocation for all types of vocation. The year quickly lost focus as the church decided to include the valuable vocation to marriage and single life and others. To me, it appeared that there was a fear in promoting vocations to priesthood and religious life - we dare not offend anyone! A great opportunity was lost. Why are you afraid of singling out the joy of vocation to priesthood?

It's all too easy to criticize the Irish bishops, and I don't like doing it. God knows the enormous task they face, and we should never forget that a tone of respect and even deference is appropriate towards them.

But the excessively wide focus that Fr. Dunne laments-- the apparent refusal to concentrate upon vocations to religious life, and the need to drag in all the other forms of vocation on every occasion-- is frustrating.

I think the same thing applies to evangelization. It seems that every discussion of the New Evangelization ends up being about everything except evangelization. It becomes a discussion about prayer, about the family, about listening-- all of which are important, and a part of evangelization, but at some point the Gospel has to be proclaimed to unbelievers.

(I'm amused at how often Catholics quote the words attributed to St. Francis-- "Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words"-- and claim that they evangelize through the way they live, while at the same time-- or rather, at other times-- insisting that they don't think they are morally any better than non-Christians. If that's the case, then what is all this silent evangelization that is apparently going on?)

But back to vocations. The good news is that this year there are twenty men entering the seminary in Maynooth, which is higher than the last few years-- especially last year, when a mere twelve entered. The bad news is that this is (obviously) not even nearly enough to meet the needs of Ireland's Catholics-- and also that only about sixty per cent of seminarians, or so I have read, go on to be ordained.

It's hard even to imagine what will become of Irish Catholicism in ten or twenty years or thirty years. Unconsciously, we all imagine that things will pretty much go on as they always have done, but that seems hardly possible. We have hardly any young priests. Our congregations are mostly white-haired (though it differs a lot from parish to parish, even in Dublin).

What will happen? Will Catholics who are now in their forties and fifties start going to Mass when they hit their sixties and seventies, replacing the current bulk of elderly worshippers? People often get more serious about their faith as they age (as indeed they should), and this is a possibility. Will the tide turn, and will more people of all ages start going to Mass? There's no reason to rule this possibility out.

But it seems all too possible that we will plunge over the precipice, that the current generation of elderly Mass-goers will die and not be replaced, and that the same thing will happen in an even more drastic form with our priests. Will there be daily Mass, outside the cathedrals and a few more prominent churches? Will the Church have to relinquish control of its schools, hospitals and universities? Will Catholics have to travel long distances to attend Mass? Will RTE and The Irish Times even bother bashing the Church any more? Will the Church even be able to hold onto its churches, never mind find congregations or priests for them?

I'm reminded of a time when I was visiting my now-wife, Michelle, in Richmond, Virginia. Richmond is plagued by extreme weather and hurricanes are not at all an uncommon part of life there. So it was no novelty for Michelle, but it was certainly one for me, as one evening intense winds raged about the apartment and we sat in front of an all-day weather channel, where presenters were excitedly discussing animated maps and keeping a track of the places where power had been lost.

At any moment, I knew, the electricity could cut out. And up until that moment, we had light, and the comforting voices on the television, and all the conveniences and diversions of civilization. But the moment the power went, all of that was gone, and we were in a completely different world. (As a matter of fact, we were never cut off that night, thank God-- power cuts are not the worst of it, and reports of falling trees crashing into houses and even of fatalities are not uncommon, after these storms.)

As long as you were in a lit-up house, with television presenters excitedly discussing the storm, it was all kind of fun, and the danger seemed unreal and far-away. Even the prospect of being plunged into blackness seemed unreal and far-away.

That's how I feel about the crisis in the Irish Catholic Church today. Collapse may be only a decade or two away but it's hard to really appreciate the reality of this, as long as we regularly hear Archbishops on the radio and see crowds filing out of our local church. We accept it in theory, when we are thinking about it, but we can't really envisage an Ireland where the Catholic Church has as much cultural importance as, say, the Methodists. (Although it's difficult to find a suitable analogy because even a drastically-diminished Catholic Church would have a unique status in Ireland, given its history.)

But enough gloom. An increase in the number of seminarians is cause to be thankful, and above all we should remember to pray for new vocations every day. As Fr. Dunne puts it: " The men who have presented themselves as candidates to test their vocation are brave. They are the product of their faith communities, parishes and families. Most of all they are the product of prayer of the very many Irish Catholics who fervently pray for vocations on a regular basis. Without their prayer, you can be certain that there would be fewer vocations."

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Chocolatey Thoughts

One of the worst things about a consumer society is the perpetual tizzy of new products that surrounds it. It induces an unpleasant vertigo. This seems most noticeable when it comes to chocolate bars, soft drinks and other sugary snacks.

Most of us feel a certain attachment to Mars bars, Twix, Dairy Milk, Galaxy and so forth. They are steeped in nostalgia and pleasant associations. They have become (to use this horrible term) "iconic". And they are rather classic, and classy, in their design. The same goes for Coca-Cola (whatever other reasons for hostility you might have towards it), Skips, Monster Munch, Jelly Babies, and all the other familiar brands.

But haven't you had a certain unpleasant sensation when you stand at a sweets counter and see product after product that you don't recognize, and that are entirely lacking in those warm, fuzzy associations? Personally I am appalled by these parvenus. When I go to buy a chocolate bar or a packet of crisps-- or even when I come across them, while visiting a shop-- I want to be greeted by old friends, not by brash upstarts.

Even worse are the infinite variations that are played upon the old favourites. It's only a matter of time before there's a toffee-and-treacle Twix, or a strawberry Star Bar, or a blueberry-and-banana Bounty bar. Actually, this impertinent ringing of changes on beloved snacks has moved on from flavour to format. Some day there will be square Maltesers.

I am not being a nostalgist here. I have little awareness-- in fact, a scandalous ignorance-- of the history of chocolate bars and fizzy drinks. Perhaps there twice as many different types of chocolate bars on the market in 1985, or 1905, than there are now. Maybe there was a line of Duke of Wellington bon-bons in 1850. I don't care. I still think there is something horribly unsettling about standing in the queue at the shop and looking at Lord of the Rings bubblegum, or Zombie Apocalypse glow-in-the-dark fruit gums.

But I do think the snacks that have endured have a sort of classiness. Take a Mars bar. It could hardly be simpler. The wrapper is not at all loud, or tacky, or gimmicky. Even the typography on it is restrained. And, though I understand it was slightly redesigned in recent years, it seems pretty much the same Mars bar I remember from my childhood.

Not being paticularly bothered about economic freedom, I am all in favour of a licensing system in order to foster stability at the sweets counter. Time-honoured chocolate bars and fizzy drinks would be protected like whales, or rare flora. No interference with their recognized forms would be permitted. Let a Yorkie bar remain the beautiful thing it is-- uncomplicated, trusty, ever the same. And when it comes to crisps, think how much more innocent and contented we'd all be if the traditional triad of Salt and Vinegar, Cheese and Onion and Smokey Bacon had never been upset by the introduction of Prawn Cocktail, Sour Cream and Onion, and the bewildering array of other new flavours!

As for entirely new products-- well, after a lengthy period of investigation, and provided there was nothing tacky about the design or the concept, I would allow them to go on sale in a limited market-- perhaps one town or suburb. After a year or two, and if they remained profitable, they might be expanded to a region, and finally to a national market. But the overnight mushrooming of bizarre confectioneries and other sweets would be stamped out altogether.

Isn't our society bewildering enough? Can't our sweets counters, at least, be places of comfort and calm?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Are You Stupid?

An interesting article in Christianity Today looks at a recent meta-analysis of social science studies which finds a small but significant negative correlation between intelligence and religious belief.

Since it's mostly believers who'll be reading this, I'll translate that. Some university professors took all the studies that have been made of whether religious folks are more stupid than atheists, mixed them together in a pot, and found that, yes, on average, us church-goers are ever-so-slightly dimmer. (That's self-mocking humour, by the way.)

I read through the presentation of the study in Personality and Social Psychology Review (squinting with intense concentration as I did so). I won't quarrel with the methodology, which seems sound enough to me. The writers seem to have allowed for the obvious distorting factors. But I was indignant at these lines, in their discussion of the findings and what they could possibly mean:

As noted hereinbefore, the most common explanation for the inverse relation between intelligence and religiosity is that the intelligent person "knows better" than to accept beliefs that are not subject to empirical tests or logical reasoning...But why would intelligent people know better? It does not take a great deal of cognitive ability to understand that religion does not arise from scientific discourse. One does not generally hear from believers that their faith is based on fact and logic, but they continue to believe anyhow.

Rrrr! It does not take a great deal of cognitive ability to see that the number-crunchers were straying outside their area of authority when they made such airy generalizations.

Never mind that, though, and let's turn to the bigger question. Do you have to be of inferior intelligence to be a religious believer? Obviously not, since so many blindingly brilliant people have been devout Christians (and Jews and Muslims).

But what if religious belief is tilted towards the less clever, as the majority of studies have suggested? Well, this would seem to be in accordance with Christ's own words: "At that time Jesus said, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children."

There's no reason to assume that intelligence is the key that would unlock the deepest secrets of the universe. It may well be that the universe is deliberately rigged to frustrate that approach.

Of course, many other factors could account for this correlation (as the authors admit)-- the intellectual fashions of the academic elite, for instance. It was the intellectuals who fell en masse for Marxism in the earlier part of this century, and intellectuals who continue to champion avant-garde art and literature.

Society's attitude to intelligence intrigues me. Almost everybody would consider himself or herself of above-average intelligence, even though-- by definition-- that can't be so. We get angry at people for being "stupid", even though there can hadly be any shame in this-- it's not really something that a person can help. (Would you chide somebody for being short or blind?) We praise a person's intelligence in a way that we would be slow to praise their looks, their health, or their social status-- even though intelligence is no less a gift of fortune. The heroes of books and movies may be poor, ugly, vicious, or otherwise deficient or afflicted, but they are almost never slow-witted or dim.

If there is any lesson that Catholics should draw from this finding (such as it is), it is that we should be slower to boast about Aquinas and Augustine and the whole Catholic intellectual tradition. Yes, Catholics (and Christians) have intellectual giants on their side. But so do atheists. The question isn't who's smarter. The question is who's right.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

All This and World War Two

I remember when I was a little boy, looking at a field of grass and reflecting that the bodies of countless soldiers were buried underneath. I assumed that the War had happened everywhere and that every piece of ground had been a battlefield. I don't think I even knew there was a difference between World War One and World War Two. This was when I was very young. But it shows how, even in the early eighties (and indeed, still today) we are all living in the shadow of the two World Wars.

Come to think of it, though, I'm not sure that "shadow" is a good term. When I was a boy, I was conscious of the World Wars without having any notion that they had been a cataclysm or a Valley of Darkness. It was a very matter-of-fact awareness, based upon war comics, Action Men (doll-size soldier figures with moveable eyes, real hair, historically accurate clothes etc., much like the American G.I. Joe) and little plastic soldiers that came in packets of fifty or a hundred or so. Americans were deep-green, the Germans were grey, the Japanese were yellow (of course), and the Russians were a very pleasant purple colour. I can't remember what colour the British were. I seem to remember them being yellow, too, but that would make them the same colour as the Japanese. My favourites were the Russians, because of their colour, but I was also fond of the Japanese. They were less widely available, giving them an air of exoticism, and I liked the Japanese flag which often came in the packet. (I still think the Japanese flag is one of the nicest national flags, along with that of Canada and Israel.)

I can remember playing soldiers with some other children in the school yard once. I imagine I would have been eight, nine or ten. First the commanders of both sides were chosen. I volunteered to be the German commander, and was surprised nobody else did. Then I was surprised that nobody would agree to be a German soldier, even though I theoretically had the authority to conscript them. I realised, even then, that the other boys did not want to be Germans because the Germans had been the bad guys and had lost. I remember looking down on them for this-- so obvious, so predictable!-- and thinking I was very grand and original for wanting to be the bad guys, the losing side. I think I also liked the German uniforms and helmets.

(I still like the Nazi uniforms. I will go further and admit that I like all the National Socialist regalia, symbolism and style. Nor do I think I am at all uncommon in this. Can anyone look at the footage of the Nuremberg Rallies and be absolutely sure that they would not, if they had been alive back then, have been in the crowd cheering? I am not at all sure that I wouldn't have been. This is one of the reasons I am not at challenged by the concept of Original Sin.)

War comics in my childhood were a curious mix. Some were as jingoistic and crude as you could imagine, with Allied troops shouting, "Eat lead, Fritz!" (and much worse), and German soldiers popping off like flies left, right and centre. Others were more sophisticated, and yet others were downright anti-war. (The most famous was Charley's War, which I think might have achieved the difficult feat of making World War One seem worse than it actually was.) It only occurs to me now that having anti-war comic strips in comics whose whole purpose was to draw entertainment from war is rather hypocritical.

All this makes it sound as though I was fascinated by war, and by the World Wars. But I wasn't. That is what I find so interesting about all these memories. It was simply assumed that boys would be interested in war, soldiers, war comics, and so forth. My elder brothers were interested in it, and that's why we had the toys and the comics. The other boys in school were interested in it. But I was never very interested it.

The funny thing is, I felt rather ashamed of this. I thought it was very grown-up to know the names of fighter planes and rifles, and to understand those maps with arrows showing the fortunes of military campaigns. I noticed that when grown-up boys, and men, and people on television, spoke about the nitty-gritty of the world wars-- the tactics, the equipment, the squadrons-- they spoke in a particular voice, at one dispassionate and absorbed, that I recognized as the voice used for Adult subjects. Or more particularly, for those Adult subjects that were interesting and important for their own sake, as opposed to all the horrible stuff like money and sickness and jobs.

All this has been on my mind because, a few weeks ago, I had some pretty heavy things on my mind and I was eagerly looking for some distraction. I found it in a "World War Two weekend" on the Discovery History channel. It was episode after episode, all weekend long, of a documentary series about the war-- not The World at War, but obviously modelled on it, with non-stop archive footage and an unseen narrator with a Laurence Olivier-like accent.

It was exactly what I needed, and after decades of having no interest in World War Two I was suddenly enthralled and couldn't get enough. What really intrigued me was how comforting it was. Why should a documentary about the most awful period in human history be comforting?

I think I know why, though. Even though, by all rational standards, everything to do with World War Two should carry with an air of Apocalypse, and darkness closing in, and the future of civilization hanging in the balance, the atmosphere that actually seems to hover over the War is quite the opposite. The best word I can use to describe it is "boyish". Documentaries about World War Two don't seem to show us a civilization coming to an end, but-- somehow-- the bright light of morning.

I don't seriously believe that this is how people felt during the siege of Leningrad, or the Battle of Berlin, or the bombing of Dresden, or indeed any other combat situation. If I had people shooting at me or dropping bombs on me, the only emotion I can imagine is pants-wetting terror. But I also believe this perception is based on something real.

Partly, I think it has something to do with the footage itself. I can't separate World War Two from the footage we have of it, which I find very aesthetically appealing. I like the grainy black-and-white. I like its rather jerky, slowed-down tempo (or does it just seem slowed down?) The sky always seems cheerfully bright. The lack of colour gives it an internal harmony that colour footage lacks.

And the footage all seems so dispassionate. Soldiers go into battle with impassive faces, even smiling and laughing faces. Outside the battle-zone, everyone seems implausibly cheerful. I don't for a second believe this reflects the realities of war. But the fact that it's what you see on film can't help producing a certain effect.

Most of all, I think there is this air of boyishness about the history of World War Two because it's all so matter-of-fact. Everybody was thinking about the same thing, and busy about the same thing, and the thing was something self-evidently important. Most of the time (I think it's fair to say), there's an air of unreality over everything we do. Is it important? Will it amount to anything? Does anybody else care about it? None of this seems to be true of war-time, at least seen from the outside. Everything then is public, outward-looking, solid.

I begin to feel like a fascist, writing all this. But all I'm trying to do is understand why the footage and documents and records of World War Two carry this oddly brisk, even cheerful air about them. Of course, it could be that it's simply my perception, but I somehow imagine it's not just me.

(One exception to all this-- the actual monuments and memorials to the dead of both World Wars, which I've encountered in both England and America. Somehow, it's only standing before these soul-chilling monuments and reading their inscriptions that awakens me to any sense of how unfathomably awful and macabre the whole business really was.)

Q: What's the Only Thing Worse Than a Male Chauvinist Pig?

A: A male anti-chauvinist prig.

(And every other sort of prig, too.)

Friday, August 23, 2013

Prayers for Michelle

My beloved wife is miserably unwell right now. Your prayers for my most precious gift from God would be very much appreciated. Thank you.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Poem About Sex

The campy comic does his best
To make the viewers laugh again
With stories of the way he dressed
In Mother's clothes when he was ten.
A titter from the audience;
They've heard this old routine before.
Oh, don't you start to get the sense
That gender-bending is a bore?

It seemed that all we had to do
Was share the lip-stick and the pants
And suddenly we would break through
Into a limitless expanse
Where men were women, women men,
The ceiling had become the floor,
The sky the limit; that was then.
Now gender-bending is a bore.

A rainbow is a pretty sight
But nature makes them rather rare.
We thrill to watch a bird in flight
But not much happens in the air.
Oh my dear drag queen, do not knock,
There's nothing much behind that door.
This might come as an awful shock
But gender-bending is a bore.

When Jilly Jackson, PhD,
Has finished putting bullets through
The myth of masculinity
What is there left to say or do
In Gender Studies seminar?
Can that dead horse be flogged some more?
Though Grandma thought it quite bizarre
Now gender-bending is a bore.

Although we've had a century
Of your subversive bacchanals
Boys still play soldiers, stubbornly,
And little girls still reach for dolls.
So you've thrown out the pink and blue--
What have you found to swap them for?
Nothing you make is really new--
Your gender-bending is a bore.

NOTE: Some smart-aleck will probably point out that the convention of pink for a girl and blue for a boy is a relatively recent phenomenon, that blue used to be the colour for girls because of associations with the Virgin Mary, etc. etc. Yes. Yes. I do know all this. It's completely beside the point.

An Attempt at an Epigram

Heresy is like communism. Wherever it's been put into practice, it's failed dismally, but people keep thinking it's worth another shot.

The Bookshops of Dublin (2)

In which I continue my "biblio-crawl" through the bookshops of Dublin. This might be of interest to a bibliophile coming here on holiday or a Dubliner curious to see how his or her views compare with mine. I don't understand why there are so few reviews of bookshops, when newspapers and magazines and the internet are crammed with restaurant and hotel reviews.

Veritas Books, Abbey Street

Considering this is Dublin's city centre's premier Catholic bookshop, it might be expected to feature pretty highly in my favourites. Alas, such is not the case.

First of all, the good things. Veritas Books is clean and bright and well-laid out. It smells and looks nice, because of all the ornaments and candles and calendars and other decorative items on sale. (The giant nativity sets and rosary beads and the enormous holy statues are especially striking.) It's fantastically well-stocked and the staff are helpful and pleasant.

But I can't spend more than ten minutes in this shop without getting strangely depressed. It has many interesting and scholarly and worthwhile books, but the vast majority of its books seem to be of a rather wishy-washy, bland, candles-and-muzak type. Pluck a book from its shelves at random and its likely to have a title like: "Rediscovering Celtic Christianity". There will be a soft-focus cover of a ripple in a pond, or a bird in the sky. The blurb will probably begin something like this: "In our fast-paced society, many increasingly feel a sense of emptiness..."

Now, I'm not necessarily dismissing this type of publication. Goodness knows our society is lacking in gentleness. The last thing I would ever want to do is sneer at this sort of "Thought for the Day" spirituality. But such perfume, pleasant enough in moderation, positively makes your eyes water when it is present in such overpowering quantities.

In short, Veritas Books seems too much like the Mind, Body and Spirit shelves of an ordinary bookshop, except with a little bit of Christianity (as Fr. Brian Darcy might put it) sprinkled on top. It's a good port of call if you are looking for a particular Catholic book, but not somewhere I like to browse.

Dubray Books, Grafton Street

Every Dubray bookshop is pretty much the same as every other Dubray bookshop. You are unlikely to find anything even a half a step off the beaten track in Dubray. The classic literature section is usually quite extensive. The Grafton Street branch has a fairly wide stock, and if you are looking for a particular book that was either recently published or that is a classic everybody has heard of, you'll more than likely find it here. It's a bit pokey, but not in a pleasant way. Again, anything but a browser's paradise. They pack the shelves uncomfortably tight.

Eason, O'Connell Street

Everybody calls this shop "Eason's", even though the name is quite clearly spelled Eason. An odd Dublin quirk.

This shop, of course, is more of a municipal institution than a mere bookshop, being in the centre of Dublin's main street, and under whose clock generations of Dubliners have arranged to meet. Considering its size, it's not as well-stocked as you might suppose, and it's often surprising what books you can't find there. On the other hand, it has more of a grab-bag flavour than the drearily predictable Dubray Books (and such like stores)-- especially on the basement, where the classics, poetry, religion, philosophy, and all the other more chewable subjects are shelved.

It has probably the best selections of newspapers and magazines in Dublin, and a walk around this area is quite depressing-- there seem to be any number of publications devoted to karate, soap operas, TV vintage tractors and record collecting, while the more literary and philosophical magazines hardly make up so much as a drop in the ocean.

The first floor is full of stationery and greeting cards, while there is a Tower Records shop on the top floor. Both of these are pleasant to walk around.

There are other Eason bookshops scattered around the country, especially in train stations and airports. You're unlikely to find anything outside the latest bestseller lists in these. Recently, Eason have taken over the Hughes and Hughes chain of bookshops, which was (I always assumed) an Irish version of Barnes and Noble and was even more soulless than Dubray Books. They can't get any worse under the new management.

(There is one former Hughes and Hughes shop, now an Eason shop, which is not entirely soulless. The branch in Stephen's Green Shopping Centre has a discount section downstairs that throws up a fair amount of surprises. The "For Clearance" shelf especially is worth checking out.)

Years and years ago, Easons used a very distinctive and attractive combinaton of colours on their branding-- navy and emerald stripes. They have replaced this with a blander, brighter green. I think it's a shame.

More to come!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Patriotism and National Character Again

The Much-Vexed Question

The subject of patriotism and national character is one that I have discussed at great length (or perhaps tedious length) on this blog. I had a long discussion about it with another Catholic blogger, Young Ireland, starting here. I've also had many other posts about it.

Indeed, it's a subject that I've been discussing all my life, since my family (going back several generations) is steeped in the Irish republican tradition. I can't remember a time when I wasn't aware of debates and discussions about republicanism, Ireland, patriotism, nationalism and so forth-- debates that went back many generations. Over my own life, my attitude to the subject has gone all around the houses, from the most ardent romantic nationalism imaginable (at one point, in my teens, it seriously bothered me that foreign embassies were not technically Irish territory), to a predictable reactionary phase where I became positively anti-Irish. I've also become utterly bored by the subject for years at a time.

More recently, I've come to the point of view that I expressed in this post. Basically, that view is that I wish Ireland (and every other country) had a vibrant national identity, but I don't believe that it does, and I don't expect that it will regain one. I fully expect the process of cultural globalization to continue and accelerate. I don't think there's any point grieving over this.

After all, what do we have in Ireland that makes us so different from the rest of the world? Our national sports, hurling and Gaelic football, are more popular than they've ever been, that's true. Traditional Irish music seems (from what I can see) to be in fairly robust health. But the Irish language has been on life support for almost a hundred years now. We don't really have a national cuisine or a national dress. We mostly shop in multinational chain stores, we mostly watch American TV and movies, we mostly read non-Irish books, and so on.

So, not so long ago, I decided I would stop fretting about this-- it hurts too much-- and just resign myself to living in the global village.

And yet, and yet...

Surprised by Patriotism

Sometimes, the pangs of patriotic feeling take me by surprise. Yesterday, I was sitting watching television with my father, and he was (as usual) flicking from channel to channel.

He flicked onto the Rose of Tralee, and instantly I was back on my aunt and uncle's farm in Limerick, sitting with my mother and aunt in the front parlour, with buttered scones and strong tea and the Rose of Tralee on the television.

Most of my readers are not Irish, and may not know about The Rose of Tralee. I suppose you could call it a beauty contest, but it's a world away from Miss Universe (though I've never seen Miss Universe). The organizers always stress that the winner is chosen on personality as much as looks. It's very much family viewing, and about as erotic as wellies. Young women from all over Ireland and across the world come to Tralee in County Kerry, stand on stage to be asked a variety of innocuous questions, and then recite a poem or sing a song or do some performance of some kind. The most insipid girl wins.

I sat on the couch, feeling I had been transported back to my aunt's parlour, with my uncle's glass and porcelain fish decorations standing on the cabinet, and my aunt's country-wife accent breaking the silence every few moments. (My aunt's naive style of television commentary lingers in my mind. Once, when she was watching Roots, she said: "I hope he doesn't try to escape again for he will be severely reprimanded." That was probably more than twenty years ago and I can still hear her exact tones. God rest her soul.)

"You can see that girl couldn't be anything other than Irish", my father said. He often makes this observation, both about Irish people and people he suspects of having Irish blood. I don't know if he's right of if he's imagining it.

But if he's imagining it, I'm imagining it, too, because I looked at the girl on the screen and I also thought that she looked utterly Irish. He said it was in the eyes. Personally, I think it's in the lips. I think Irish people tend to have rather thin, mobile lips that protrude a little in the centre of the mouth. Maybe I'm seeing something that's not there.

Elusive Irishness

And at that moment, as I sat watching The Rose of Tralee, the most delicious sensation of being an Irish person, comfortably ensconced in Ireland, washed over me. I didn't care about globalization. I didn't care about the past or the future. I didn't care about itemizing a check-list of genuinely indigenous elements of our culture. I felt that Irishness was something too elusive to be analysed like that. It was something as diffuse and yet as penetrating as a scent, or an atmosphere, or a mood. It was in a tone of voice, a quirk of expression, in the vaguest acquaintance with the history of the Cromwellian plantations or the Brehon Law, in childhood memories of watching The Late Late Show and the Rose of Tralee. All the Starbucks and multiculturalism and podcasting in the world hardly made a dent in it. There was no need to worry about it, or assert it. It was just there.

Normally, this is the kind of vague claim that makes me want to throw things at the one making it. But in that moment it seemed as indisputable as gravity.

Having an American wife has often made me think similar thoughts. When I first went to America, I was so geared up at the thought of seeing The New World that, when I got there, I felt a bitter disappointment. Nothing looked all that different. When I got home, I wrote a post listing the differences I'd noticed between America and Ireland. (I was pleased when a student left a comment telling me it had helped her do an assignment.) But the differences seemed rather trivial to me, and not worth making a fuss over.

Stepping into a Sauna

But then, on another occasion when I flew into America-- when I wasn't thinking about American national character at all, or the difference between Ireland and America, or anything like that, and my mind was absorbed on a completely different subject-- I stepped from the plane into Philadelphia airport and the sheer American-ness of my surroundings struck me like the heat of a sauna. I don't think it was something I could have noticed the first time I visited America. It needed time to get under my skin. Nor can I even begin to analyse it.

I find the same thing in my interactions with Michelle. Time and time again, during a conversation, we have found ourselves baffled by mutual incomprehension, until-- after much unspooling-- we realise that we have been using exactly the same word or phrase, but understanding completely different things by it. (For instance, "anti-social" means "unsociable" in America. Michelle was greatly amused to see a notice on an Irish train urging passengers to report anti-social behaviour.)

This is the least satisfactory of conclusions to me. It niggles. A phenomenon that is barely visible when you are looking for it, but which grabs you from behind and even knocks you over when you are intent upon other things, seems like the worst of both worlds. I still think that national identity is more meaningful and secure when it is based upon definite practices and institutions, things you can point to and photograph. But this nebulous kind of national spirit is, I suppose, better than nothing.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Bookshops of Dublin (1)

Samuel Johnson famously said that "There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn". I think that is still true, two centuries later.

But there are some things that produce almost as much happiness as a good tavern or inn, and I think that bookshops are pretty high up in that list.

Who doesn't love a bookshop? I mean a good bookshop, of course. There are bookshops that are depressing beyond words. But most bookshops have something to endear them.

I have thought a lot about the appeal of bookshops. It doesn't come down to any single point, of course, but I think that-- for me-- the main point is that life seems so interesting when you are standing in a bookshop. You go from shelf to shelf, glancing at the titles on the spines. You see The Fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, A Short History of Hats, and Recollections of a London Bus Conductor. You take down a collection of poems entitled The Faces in the Flames, or Symphony in Aquamarine, or The Torchlight under the Blankets. The cover shows a blurry picture of a hearth fire, or a grainy old photograph of a crowded street, or a drawing of a little girl sitting in a wicker seat. You think, Books have been written about everything. Poems have been written about everything. Any amount of wonderful poems could be written about the sunlight falling on that wall, opposite me, right now. Nothing ever happens that isn't dripping with meaning and significance.

When you walk down a street, or sit in a room, or look out a window, the world can seem like a chaotic flux, a blur of arbitrary and boring occurences, "a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing". But when you stand in a bookshop, you feel reassured. Life has meaning, and dramatic interest, and purpose, and potential. If it ever seems otherwise-- well, you just haven't read enough books.

Dandelion Books

"There's not a joy the world can give like that it takes away", wrote Byron, and in the case of Dublin bookshops, it's true. The best Dublin bookshop I ever knew is, unfortunately, a fading memory. I spent untold hours there in my college years. It was Dandelion Books in Aungier Street and it was everything a great bookshop should be. First off, it was a second-hand bookshop (or a used bookstore, as Americans would say.) I think a truly great bookshop has to at least have a second-hand section, but Dandelion Books was (if I remember correctly) all secondhand. It was pervaded with a faint and intoxicating scent of dust. The shelves reached right to the ceiling. Importantly, it catered to every "brow"-- lowbrow, middle-brow, and high-brow. (The only thing worse than a bookshop that only sells Jilly Cooper-type books is a bookshop that only sells James Joyce-type books.) There were shelves and shelves of science-fiction, fantasy and horror novels. (I remember hearing a staff member remark, to another customer, that "If I had my way, the Bible would be on the science fiction shelves".) But it also had shelves of thrillingly scholarly-looking books. I suspect my imagination has magnified them in retrospect-- I think back and I see thick volumes, so huge they would have to be held in two hands, about the European Common Market and Vietnam and political philosophy, lurking on the upper shelves, their titles printed in uncompromising Times New Roman.

The aisles in Dandelion Books were very narrow, and I think this also makes for a good bookshop-- the customer should feel that she (there's a sop to the feminists) is in a labyrinth of books. It gives it an exciting, secret-cavern kind of feeling. The shop also had a large, circular, convex mirror in one upper corner, and (now that I come to think of it), this seemed symbolic to my mind-- since books have always seemed to me like a reflection of reality, but a magical reflection that heightens reality, just as the reflections in that circular mirror were elongated and faraway.

Best of all, Dandelion Books usually-- or perhaps always-- had BBC Radio 4 playing on the radio. Readers from America may not know BBC Radio 4. Just imagine two English people with plummy, donnish accents talking about Schopenhauer or the Normandy landings or Greek drama. That's an idealized version of BBC Radio 4, but it's not too far off from the reality, at its best moments. In terms of the atmosphere it gave the bookshop, this radio station was the aural equivalent of a fat cat lying curled up in front of the fireplace. It only seemed to deepen the silence, only seemed to intensify the sense of timelessness-- the voices were so leisurely and detached, the tones so somnolent.

The Secret Book and Record Shop

How I miss Dandelion Books. It closed without me noticing, but it must be gone at least seven or eight years now. Apparently The Secret Book and Record Shop on Wicklow Street is its successor (whatever that means-- I read it just now on the internet, when trying to find out what happened to Dandelion Books). This is a bookshop that strains with every fibre of its being to be cosy, atmospheric, pleasantly shabby, and everything a second-hand bookshop should be. Maybe I am unfair to it (who can really judge atmosphere?), but it only seems trendy and hipster-ish to me-- from the period postcards and bric-a-brac lined along the top of the shelves to the newspaper cuttings advertising various "gigs" and poetry readings and whatnot. The biggest difference between The Secret Book and Record Shop and a proper secondhand bookshop is the intrusion of popular music-- specifically, the rather hippy-ish music that this shop seems to specialise in. The mere sight of a psychedelic album cover seems to explode the whole leisurely, dreamy atmosphere that a second-hand bookshop should aspire to.

Besides, I've never found anything really good in The Secret Book and Record Ship. Whatever magic dust hangs on the shelves of the best second-hand bookshops was never sprinkled there.

But my subject has taken a hold of me, and I prattle on at more length than I intended. I am going to cut myself off here, and resume my survey of Dublin bookshops in future posts-- I hope.

The Man Beside Me On the Bus This Morning

I like to think of myself as a pretty public-spirited fellow. I do worry about the privatization of society, about the dangers of everybody getting locked into the metallic bubble that is the motor car and the mental bubble that is the MP3 player, or the mobile phone, or the laptop computer. I get irritated when I hear people complain about Jehovah's Witnesses or Hare Krishnas or charity collectors or people with petitions approaching them on the street. I feel annoyed when I hear people moaning about door-to-door canvassers at election time. Is Come Dine With Me really more important than the democratic process?

I've even written to the papers to take issue with other correspondents who moan about their fellow passengers' activities on the bus-- as though putting on make-up, or eating, was a monstrous invasion of your fellow-passenger's privacy.

But I think we are all anti-social to some extent, as I had to admit to myself today.

I take two buses into work. The first stops in Dame Street. Today, I decided (since I had rushed out of the house without breakfast) to buy a baguette in the Londis near the Wax Museum. The dusky-skinned fellow at the sandwich counter seemed in a bad mood. He put chicken on my baguette without asking, and then-- when he was about to wrap it up, and I asked if I could have coleslaw as well-- protested, "That will cost extra, you know". Later on, as I was queuing to pay for it, the entire shop was listening to him declaim: "We need more baguettes! We just need more baguettes, that's all!"

Buying a freshly-cut sandwich on the way to work, and eating it on the bus, is something I've never done before. I felt strangely gleeful about it. I wasn't in any especial hurry. In my carrier bag, I had A Preface to Paradise Lost by C.S. Lewis, which I had started to read the evening before and which I was enjoying even more than I expected to. The morning was the kind of bright, fresh morning that is (to my mind) the weather summer has to offer. I was greatly looking forward to my morning treat.

My second-bus arrived almost immediately I reached the bus-stop. There was plenty of room, and I got my second-favourite seat-- the upstairs seat immediately behind the stairwell, with plenty of room to cross your legs in.

What more could a man ask for? I opened my book on the place I had left off, I took out my wrapped baguette, and then-- he sat down beside me.

He was a rather portly man, though not excessively so. He was perhaps ten years older than me, wore a crisp business suit and spectacles, and was particularly well-groomed (though his chin was rather stubbled). There was nothing objectionable about him. Except--except-- he was sitting right beside me, exactly when I wanted to be alone. I couldn't cross my legs (I can't remember if I uncrossed them as he arrived). I felt inhibited from eating my baguette, especially in such close proximity to his nice suit. He'd completely ruined the moment. I could have thumped him.

I decided to wait it out. I was going all the way to the terminus-- probably, he would get off in the city centre somewhere.

But then something even more outrageous, unthinkable, unpardonable happened. The other seats began to empty, so that there were plenty of window seats available, and he didn't get up to take one. What the heck was the matter with this guy?

I sneaked a glimpse at him. He looked a little unsettled. He was glancing around himself a lot, as though unsure where he was going or where he should get off. He gave the impression of hovering a quarter-inch over the seat. And, though he never looked me full in the face, his expression seemed rather nervous and anxious. Or was I just imagining it? After all, he seemed to be a business-man of some kind. Shy and nervous people didn't inhabit the hard world of commerce.

I thought of my teens and early twenties, when I had struggled with crippling shyness and social anxiety. I could remember sitting on buses and watching all the other seats filling up, feeling shattered that the seat beside me (as it seemed to me then) was always the last to be taken. I remembered how the smallest perceived slight or rejection would throw me into a tailspin. It was awful. Maybe this was a fragile soul who would feel much the same way if I moved seats.

And yet-- despite my letter to the paper, despite my outspoken public-spiritedness, despite my memories of my own morbid sensitivity in previous years-- it wasn't too long before I said, "Excuse me", stepped past the man in the suit, and made my way to a window seat at the back of the bus, to cross my legs and enjoy my book and my baguette undisturbed.

Oh hypocrisy of humanity!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Challenging God...but not the Audience

I love debates. I really love debates. There are some activities which, I believe, make human life more civilized by their very nature. The reading, writing and reciting of poetry is one example. Urbane and serious debate is another.

In serious debate, human beings step back from the flux of events and survey life, or some element thereof, from a higher vantage point. Not only this, but they accept the responsibility of making their ideas and beliefs public property, of translating them into terms that other people can grasp. Prejudices must become propositions, and assumptions must become arguments. Debates also make us more aware of the dignity of being human. Badgers don't have beliefs. Computers don't have convictions.

But that is all analysis, which only goes so far. Ultimately, I can't say why the spectacle of serious debate thrills me so much, but it does. Nothing is more exhilarating than to see people who care passionately about a subject, and who know a reasonable amount about it, arguing the case with each other. (I am talking about civilized debate here. Hostile and acrimonious discussion I would call argument, not debate, and witnessing it makes me want to curl up and die.)

So I was rather excited, last night, to come upon the second episode of Vincent Browne's new series on TV3, Challenging God. Although you can have a cracking debate about a highly specific subject, the general tendency is that broader topics tend to make for more exciting debates-- and no topic could be broader or more significant than the question of God.

As well as this, I think that "talking heads", despite being a rather pejorative term in TV producing, actually make for the best television. No amount of clever camera-work, in general, is as compelling as a long and in-depth interview with somebody who has something to say. I wish there were more serious panel shows and in-depth interviews on television.

Unfortunately, Challenging God has been a massive disappointment. Instead of intellectual fireworks, we have had a long series of damp squibs.

God, it has to be said, has been especially poorly represented. When I look at the guests that have appeared on the show to defend the Deity, I have to ask: "With friends like these, who needs enemies?"

On the first episode, we had theologians Fainche Ryan and James Mackey, challenged to answer the question: "Did God make man or did man make God?". In the second episode, transmitted last night, we had an Augustinian priest named Michael Mernagh and a rabbi whose name I've spent ten minutes looking for on in the internet, but can't find anywhere, defending God from crimes against humanity.

All four of the God squad-- with the occasional exception of James Mackey-- seemed to be copying the tactics of the Russian generals during Napoleon's invasion of their country-- that is, to retreat, retreat and retreat again. The difference being that the Russian generals had a sound strategy, whereas the supposed defenders of God on Vincent Browne's show seemed to have no strategy whatsoever. In fact, the atheist guest on each episode-- the ubiquitous Michael Nugent on the first, and a young atheist lady-journalist on the second-- had nothing to do but fold their arms and watch the religious believers make their case for them.

Christian apologetics in our day have truly become apologetic, in every sense of the word. These are the standard moves:

1) To stress the unknowability of reality and the limits of science.
2) To complain about a perception of God that makes him "an old man with a long white beard".
3) To contrast "religion" with faith, to the detriment of "religion".
4) To insist that the Bible is to be understood allegorically.
5) To vie with atheists and secularists in attacking the Catholic Church, the Christian churches, and organized religion in general.
6) To concede that religion does not make you a better person.

Now, there is something to be said for all of these points. But if this was all that was to be said, I would never darken the door of a church again.

Yes, ultimate reality is unknowable, and the scientific method can only discover empirical truths. But we do have other tools for the discovery of objective knowledge. There is, most importantly, metaphysics, which tells us (especially through the Five Ways of Aquinas) that our universe has a First Cause that is all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful. We also have historical knowledge, which tells us (less rigorously, but still objectively) that Christ rose from the dead and that the apostles handed down this truth, for which they were willing to die, in an unbroken tradition down to today's bishops.

Yes, God is not an old man with a beard. He is not a creature at all, but the ground of all being-- he is Being himself. And yet, as Edward Feser explains, his prophets and his Son describe him as a Father, and so should we.

Yes, religion is part of our sublunary world and is inevitably corrupted by idolatry and unworthy passions. But it is still simply the term for the organized worship of God and as such is a good thing. The Bible uses the term "religion" a lot. (James 1:27: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." I have no idea what word the original text used, but my guess is that "religion" is a perfectly adequate translation.)

Yes, the Bible has many allegorical elements and cannot be understood in a literal, fundamentalist sense-- nor was it so understood through the long history of Christian exegesis, as the Confessions of St. Augustine tells us. Nevertheless, it is not all allegory, and to scream "literalism!" every time an unbeliever challenges us about some difficult passage of the Bible is a total cop-out. (As for myself, there are many passages in the Bible which I simply don't understand, and cannot explain-- such as the apparently genocidal instructions that God gives in the Book of Joshua, and which were raised by Vincent Browne last night. Just as I don't expect to understand a scientific theory, or even that scientists should fully understand a scientific theory, I don't expect to fully understand the Christian explanation of reality. I think it is more honest and more convincing to shrug and say, "I really don't know. What I know of Christianity is enough to convince me that it is true and that there is some explanation for these dark corners of the Bible. Besides, I don't really want a God or an explanation of the univese that isn't mysterious or challenging." Or, as St. Peter said: "To whom would we go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life.")

Yes, terrible crimes have been committed in the name of Christianity; burning of witches, religious wars, persecution of Jews, and so forth. But nothing irritates me more than the craven eagerness of many Christians to outstrip militant atheists in their condemnation of Christian history. Taking the history of Christianity as a whole, and comparing it with the rest of world history, I don't think Christians have all that much to apologize for. What other force in human history has brought so much good into the world? Who can take the merest glance at antiquity, and especially the classical world-- a world of tremendous sophisitication, in many ways-- and not feel struck, like the blast of heat from a furnance, with the great cruelty, vainglory, bigotry, misogyny, ruthlessness and ambition which was entirely unabashed at that time? Why should Christians apologize for making a great part of the world accept that charity, humility, chastity, forgiveness, and chivalry were noble things? Why should Christians apologize for all the hospitals, schools, universities and refuges that Christians brought into being-- often when there was no equivalent anywhere? Why should Christians apologize for the contribution of monastic orders to scholarship, sanctuary, provision for the poor and the preservation and advance of Western civilization?

(It was especially cringe-inducing to see Father Michael Mernagh straining every nerve to endear himself to the female atheist, glancing over at her ingratiatingly as he lambasted the Church for its treatment of women and pointed out, over and over, that it was men who were mostly to blame for the crimes of Christianity. I know that these are strong words, and I use them advisedly. I am sure Father Mernagh is a much, much better human being than I am, and a fine priest, but this spectacle was simply painful to watch.)

Yes, an atheist can be (and often is) just as good a person as a Christian. But it's not as simple as that. The Christian has (most probably) a higher standard of morality to live up to. He is expected to forgive his enemies, to extend his charity to all, to never lie, to aspire towards sexual purity, and to strive to be morally perfect. No matter how far he falls short of this, the ideal itself tends to have an elevating effect. And it could easily be argued that society has declined in many measurable respects along with the decline of Christianity-- the murder rate, for instance, or the prevalence of easily-accessible pornography.

Having spent so long bashing the religious believers (for bashing religious belivers), I should also mention that the other guests on the show-- and the bould Vincent himself-- were not exactly scintillating. Michael Nugent, the head honcho of Atheist Ireland, is always civilized and courteous, and he dutifully made the obvious and fair arguments against religious belief. But he also made the futile and cheap argument that Christianity was partly to blame for the rise to power of the Nazis, as centuries of Christianity had schooled the Germans to unthinkingly obey authority. But what society is without authority? The same argument could be made against any social system whatsoever-- Christian, Nazi, communist or Confucian. The female atheist who appeared last night (I'm sorry I can't find her name, either) was also civil, but said nothing of any great insight or originality. Vincent Browne himself was playing the role of the bewildered plain-speaking atheist, desperately trying to pin the believers down to some definite statement of belief. His religious guests played into his hands admirably.

Worst of all, perhaps, none of the participants seemed to have prepared for the discussion to any appreciable extent. The whole thing had the air of a pub debate. Everything was discussed in the most general of terms, with hardly any focus upon specifics.

All in all, a huge disappointment. A series of intelligent televized debates on the subject of religion would be a wonderful addition to the Irish airwaves. Challenging God is not that series.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Dublin Lock-Out Commemoration Makes Businesses Whinge

They are moaning that they are going to lose a fifth of their profits on one day, when O'Connell Street is closed to traffic for a commemoration of the 1913 Lock Out.

I see a certain poetic justice to that. Boo-hoo for the shopkeepers! Boo-hoo for the motorists! Boo-hoo for the deprived shoppers, not being able to shop in one street for one day-- if they insist on driving, that is.

Fumble in a greasy till, indeed.

Phase One: "Tolerance", is Over. Phase Two: Persecution, Begins.

A UCD law lecturer writes out of the depths of his academic objectivity that religious freedom is OK inside a church but should be stomped on with hob-nailed boots once it tries to step into the real world.

While legislation cannot interfere in the inner sanctum of religious function, there can surely be no claim that legislation regulating various activities outside the religious context must accommodate doctrinal religious requirements. It is even questionable whether denominational autonomy could be invoked by a voluntary hospital...Thus the further a particular denominational body posits itself in the wider public world, the more it becomes subject to increasing levels of public regulation.

If this case, "religious freedom" is essentially meaningless, and all the sops of "exemptions" and "conscience clauses" which are thrown at the unconvinced every time some "liberalising" piece of legislation is being urged on society, are nothing but tricks. If they are honoured at all, they will be eroded in short measure.

For modern "liberalism", freedom of conscience operates within such narrow limits that it makes the legroom on an economy class flight look spacious.

My own view is that, if religious freedom means anything at all, it must mean (to put it bluntly) religious privilege, similar to the "ministerial exemption" which is granted to religious organizations in America (and which the law lecturer mentions in his piece). This protects churches from being sued under equality legislation for refusing to consider a female priest or a gay pastor. To say this is anything but a positive privilege is nonsense.

If religious freedom does not entail such positive exemptions, then it is not specifically religious freedom. A society either decides that religion is of such importance to its adherents that it deserves some special privileges and protections, or it has no right to talk about religious freedom at all. It is perfectly rational to say: "We won't give anybody any special rights or waivers because of their religion", but (as far as I can see) this is exactly what freedom of religion demands, if it is going to be in any way substantive and not simply a phrase. How far such privileges should extend is obviously a different matter.

I am not trying to argue jurisprudence with a law lecturer. This seems to me a logical and not a legal question.

What is surprising (to me) is the truly indecent haste with which the "Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy Bill" has been followed up by the very moves towards an abortion-on-demand culture that we were assured would not come about. The pro-life canmp were laughed at for warning about floodgates opening; the creaking can already be heard.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Speaking on Behalf of God

There was another provoking letter in The Irish Times today:

Sir, – The Bishop of Meath, Dr Michael Smith, has banned families from giving eulogies during funeral Masses (Home News, August 13th). Poems or playing of secular songs are also banned under a directive from the bishop.

It seems the bishop does not fully understand how people grieve; that in today’s world families share with others their loved one’s life, and where better than at the funeral Mass? The long path of loss begins after that Mass and knowing you have honoured your loved one well, before the community, helps you begin to live without them.

What is so wrong with a secular poem or secular song? It does not offend God; it seems this offends the Bishop of Meath. Is his God so narrow-minded? So un-open to the hearts and minds of grieving relatives? If so, do we want to have that last moment with our loved one in his house?

The bishop needs to do some thinking. – Yours, etc,


Redford Park,


Co Wicklow.

The line that irks me the most is "It does not offend God". How on Earth does Margaret Kennedy of Redford Park, Greystones know that secular songs at funerals don't offend God? Whence comes this popular readiness to read the mind of the Almighty? Isn't it just a tiny bit presumptious?

"Well, how does the Bishop of Meath know what God thinks?" Agree with him or not (and I definitely do agree with him about funeral eulogies), the Bishop is at least speaking from a tradition that has been thinking about God for centuries, that has worked out a coherent and consistent system of thought about God, and that claims a supernatural Revelation-- one that it has backed through countless martyrdoms and persecutions. I do think this gives a spokesman of that theology more weight than somebody writing a letter to a newspaper, or calling into a phone-in show, or holding forth at a dinner party.

"Where better than at the funeral Mass?" Well, at the the grave-side, at the reception, at the wake...anywhere except at a funeral, which should be a dignified and restrained affair. God knows us best and does not need character references when we go to Him.

There are a hundred reasons to oppose eulogies at funeral Masses, but I would like to concentrate on one in particular, one that carries a special weight with me. Dr. Margaret Kennedy feels that families should "share their loved one's life", and come away from a funeral Mass feeling they have "honoured" their loved one. But how on Earth do you share an entire life, or do any kind of justice to it, in a single eulogy? Wouldn't most of us wince if we could hear our own funeral eulogies, and probably feel that they described a different person entirely? Wouldn't we feel the most important stuff had been left out? I would draw back from any attempt to fit the life, personality, history, character and virtues of anybody I know into a speech, however long it was. I would feel that "a few words" would be, not only inadequate, but a travesty. Remembering a loved one and honouring his or her memory is a task for years and decades-- preferably for generations. It's much better not even to attempt it at such a short ceremony.

In fact, I imagine an outright ban on funeral eulogies takes a lot of pressure off people (a point another letter-writer to the Times makes today). Nobody wants to feel they are selling their loved ones short in any way, and probably many people who would rather not have a eulogy feel obliged to say the dreaded "few words", since it is the done thing.

Having been married little more than a month ago, I can barely remember a word that the priest said in his homily-- even though I was making a special, even a desperate effort to concentrate, knowing how much effort he put into it. I just didn't take it in, because my mind was racing. I think the same thing is even truer about funerals. Fine words are wasted.

At a funeral Mass, we can honour our loved ones best by using the words that the Church has given us-- the words that give the same dignity to every departed soul, no matter how many mourners are at the funeral, or what that person has achieved in the eyes of the world.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

My Most Self-Indulgent Post Ever

Having a blog means never having to say you're sorry. I've been going through an old folder on a computer and looking at stuff I wrote over the years. I came across this list.

I don't know what to do with this list. It's a list of things that give me what Coca-Cola executives (regarding their nostalgic marketing) call "the warm fuzzies". I've wondered whether I can work it into a poem or an article or-- well, goodness knows what.

I spent a fair amount of time and energy writing it out, a few years back. I remember I decided (being rather addicted to random and mildly strange behaviour) to read it out when meeting some friends at the pub. One gentleman present (who I'd never met before or since) was a German with all the stereotyped Teutonic earnestness of that race. (He is a communist, to boot, which only deepens the earnestness.) I smile when I remember his polite but perplexed expression as I read the list. My other friends were well-acquainted with my whimsical ways and didn't bat an eyelid.

I wasn't kidding, though. I was (and I am) just as earnest after my own fashion.

Here is my list of things that give me the warm fuzzies. (Or rather, the idea of them gives me the warm fuzzies. I have no direct experience of many of them.) Who knows? It might make you smile or cry, "I feel exactly the same way you do!". Here's hoping.

Christmas trees

Christmas decorations

Christmas baubles

Christmas carols

Christmas wrapping paper

The jokes in Christmas crackers

Christmas dinner

Christmas pudding

Decorated Pub Mirrors

Hanging Signs

Ships in Bottles


Nursery Rhymes

Fairy Tales

Old Wives’ Tales, and the term "old wives' tale"

Playground Songs


Woolly jumpers, especially colourful and chunky woolly jumpers

Artistic Window Displays

Sandwich Men

Sepia (the colour, especially in photographs, but also the word)


Halloween bonfires


Office sweeps


Big white mugs for tea

Cloth caps



Handwritten Signs in Shops, especially when they have spelling errors

Jumble Sales

Coffee Mornings (though I hate attending them)




Dust motes dancing in air

Seeing out a back window through a front window

Rubber Ducks

Hot Water Bottles


Gingerbread Men


"& Sons" in the names of companies

School Uniforms (not in a pervy way, obviously)

Cinema Usherettes (though I've never seen one and doubt they exist anymore)

Round Towers and Greyhounds and Harps on copy books, shop signs, pencil-cases, and so on, as symbols of Ireland



Singing in the Bath (though I don't)

Jukeboxes (though I've never used one)

Peanuts in pubs

Popcorn in cinema (though I don't eat it)

Cigar store Indians

Barber poles

“Licensed to sell beer and malt” etc. on pub signs

Campfire tales

Photo albums

Jokes, especially formulaic jokes

Regional accents

Regional jokes

Movie studio logos

Family jokes



Trade terms

Clockwork toys

CB radio


Toffee Apples

Ornamental biscuit and sweet tins (Quality Street, Season's Greetings, etc.)

Silhouettes, and the word silhouette

Mythological and Classical names for Restaurants, Entertainment Venues, etc. like the Odeon, the Apollo, etc.

Commonplace Books

Shadow Puppetry

Town Rivalries

Discussions over the Proper Making of Tea

Sitting Down Together for Meals

Hopscotch and All Other Children’s Games

Debating Societies

Amateur Dramatic Societies

Knitting Circles


The past imperfect



Pub Debates

Board Games

National Personifications (Uncle Sam, John Bull, Kathleen Ni Houlian)

National symbols (leprechauns, bulldogs)

House Names

Vehicle Names

Breaking Champagne Bottles over Ships

Names for Occupations, such as Clippies, Gofers, Trolley-boys etc.

So, if you can cobble a view of the world out of all that....well, that would be my philosophy of life, I suppose.

The Springs of Socialism

Sometimes I fall into a certain mood in which it is easy to see why someone would be a socialist. By "socialist" I don't just mean a social democrat. I mean a person who thinks that the government should, more or less, take command of all economic activity. I am certainly not a socialist in this sense (or in any other sense), but I do feel a certain sympathy with this way of looking at the world, and I find it hard to understand how somebody would feel no sympathy with it. Never mind that communism has been a disaster wherever it has been tried; I am merely talking about an idea here, not a reality.

I think the appeal of socialism lies in an awareness of the potential of humanity. A human being is the paragon of the animals, the "heir of all the ages" in the words of Tennyson. Even if you are a materialist without any spiritual beliefs, you do at least believe that mankind is matter made self-aware, the universe grown capable of marvelling at itself.

Through the windows of the five senses, the human intellect can, in a sense, become united to all things. It can apprehend history, science, literature, philosophy, mathematics. It can take reality into itself. It can escape from the prison of the self into the boundless country of the actual. In the few years between infancy and death, it can come to some understanding-- how small an understanding, but how immense also!-- of billions of years of cosmic history, and centuries of human civilization, and all the furthest horizons of speculative thought.

How extraordinarily wasteful, then, seem all the activites that drain away this human potential! Human beings pouring their utmost effort into cornering the fizzy drinks market seems, not just ignoble, but a criminal waste of human ingenuity and human attention. Man was born for higher things.

In this mood, it doesn't seem like sinister social engineering for the government and schools and universities to try to root out certain tendencies and instil others. Somebody has to! Somebody has to try to turn people away from gambling, and chat shows, and an obsession with spectator sports, and soap operas, and conspicuous consumption, and all the rubbishy things they spend their precious leisure moments upon. Look at what they're missing! Think of what society could be if all that waste-- all that scrabbling for a living, all that anxiety about medical care and transport and the basic needs of life, all that addiction to stupid activities-- could be cut out, and if people could concentrate on being properly, fully human!

And even if people had to live in smaller apartments, and swap a car for a bus or a bicycle, or even if they had a narrower choice of careers, if they had access to better museums and nature reserves and art galleries and free lectures and safe streets and free hospitals, how could anyone complain about such a sacrifice?

As I say, I have some sympathy with such an attitude, though I don't share it. I understand the perils of paternalism (though a socialist State probably wouldn't call it anything so sexist) and the fact that even the most sincere and talented human beings tend to be untrustworthy when it comes choosing what's best for other people. I know that, though capitalism seems wasteful beyond belief, the planned economy tends to be even more wasteful in practice. I know that our ills are not to be blamed upon an economic system, but upon original sin.

But sometimes, when I pass a billboard for a betting shop, or I see teenagers wearing heavy metal t-shirts, or I flick through the channels on the television and see the utter bilge that is on offer, I momentarily become a redder-than-red Marxist.

(In fairness, I should admit that there are also moments when the openness of our "open society" appears to me, not only as a crucial safeguard against tyranny, but as something sublime and wildly exciting in itself-- when even the very messiness of our uncoordinated, competitive, ideologically-divided, patchwork civilization seems like something inherently good.)

Monday, August 12, 2013

Thoughts on the Edge of Sleep

I want to sleep forever, sleep forever…
I do not want to die. I want to fall
Down, down through a bottomless pool. I want to never
Emerge again, or see the sun’s harsh light;
The angry faces and long delays and all
The burden of day will be drowned in a permanent night.

I am tired, tired, hopelessly tired of the long frustrations…
I am tired of the stranger’s face and inquisitive eyes.
I am tired of the fumes of cars, of barking Alsatians,
Of the zombie faces in ads, of exhausted supplies
Of paper and money and patience. I’m tired of the gulf
The unbridgeable gulf, between everyone else and myself.

I am tired of stupid jokes, of gossipy headlines,
I am tired of the heavy silence that summons trite words.
I am tired of the rush to meet purely arbitrary deadlines.
I am tired of the bus that pulls up forty yards
Away from the bus-stop. I’m tired of crude neon signs.

I want to sleep forever, to never be woken…
I do not want oblivion, or mere dreams…
I want to sink into a peace that will never be broken
To let my soul float, float away down measureless streams
To an underground sea, lit by the sun’s far-distant gleams.

I have seen enough, I have heard enough, I have been
In the open air enough. My soul overflows.
That hot summer’s day with my class-mates in Stephen’s Green…
The boiler room…that childhood party…all those…
I am full, I am full. It would take me a thousand years
To make sense of all that has passed through these eyes and ears.

I want to sleep forever. I want to break free
Of this cumbersome body, and let my mind wander at will.
I will wander through streets and through corridors—no-one will see--
And no-one will mock me—and no-one will argue—-oh, thrill
Of all thrills, to escape being seen...oh, how effortlessly...
How soundlessly, how boldly, how effortlessly...
Free, free, to be free....

More About Church Architecture

My recent post in defence of modern churches drew a fair amount of comments. This Saturday, I found myself going to Mass at a church I've often passed on the bus but never actually entered before: St. John's Lane Church in Thomas Street. Nobody could call this a modern church, since its construction began in 1862. The style, its website tells me, is "Thirteenth Century French Gothic".

Doubtless, as a lifelong Dubliner, I should be ashamed that I've never been in this church before. But then, I am not much of a "Dub".

I liked it. Unlike many old churches (most notably Dublin's Pro-Cathedral), it is not cluttered and claustrophobic--- there is a sense of airiness and of space. The columns that run down the nave are a pleasant brown-red colour, saving it from the deadening greyness of so many other stone churches.

The stained glass windows, rising so high above the heads of the congregations, are certainly impressive, and appropriately solemn in their colouring. But, as with most stained glass windows, I found I couldn't really make the scenes out very well.

The marble high altar, I have to admit, is far too baroque for my taste-- it seems to be overshadowing, rather than honouring, the great mystery that it is there to serve. But doubtless this is a deficiency in me.

The Mass itself was "St. Rita's Mass", a weekly Mass of healing. St. Josemaria Escriva famously said that the Mass seems long because our love is short. I agree with him, but I have to admit I probably wouldn't have gone to that Mass if I knew it lasted an hour, with a long list of intentions during the Prayers of the Faithful, and various other insertions to the usual liturgy. I do think, however, of the comfort that it must bring to the physically sick, to know that they are remembered by name in such a well-attended Mass.

At one point, the priest pointed out to the congregation that he had noticed a young woman loitering at the back of the church, for purposes other than to pray, and warned them to be "mindful".

There was a good congregation, although it still left plenty of mostly-empty pews, given the size of the church.

At the end of the Mass, I lingered in the porch and lit a candle at one of the statues, a large-scale scene of Our Lord's crucifixion, with Our Lady and St. John flanking him. The style was realistic, and painted full-colour, although the painting of such statues always seems rather incongruous-- the skin painted a kind of creamy pink, the wounds an impossibly bright red, and so forth. This style of statutary always seems to me either too realistic or not realistic enough.

So what were my impressions of the church? More than anything else, it gave me a vivid sense of the Church Triumphant. I couldn't make out most of the pictures in the stained glass, and I didn't walk around the ambulatory to look at the various shrines, but even the casual viewer feels he is surrounded by an awe-inspiring sacred tradition, by a "cloud of witnesses" beyond number. Here, I have paused, typing and deleting the next sentence over and over, trying to explain why I find such an atmosphere merely poignant rather than inspiring, given the realities of our age. Perhaps I should not feel like this. Perhaps when we enter a Catholic church, we should find ourselves transported beyond the historical moment, into the supernatural reality-- in which we are truly surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, by legions of saints and angels. I suppose I can't help feeling that church iconography like this, at the time it was built, expressed not only a supernatural reality but also a worldly reality-- the oceanic piety of the Irish people. I can't help feeling the contrast.

But it's not just that. I have to admit that such majestic churches, though I do admire their majesty and I am glad they exist and that so many people attend them, have something of a chilling effect upon me. Perhaps one day this reaction will vanish. Perhaps one day I will enter some centuries-old church with soaring columns and an exquisitely carved marble altar and I'll get it. Until that day, I think my imagination will more be stirred by little wooden churches, and by tiny chapels and oratories that remind me of the famous lines from the book of Kings: "The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Most Bizarre Introduction to Chesterton I've Ever Read

I write another blog, the blog of The G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland (a Society which leads a spasmodic and informal existence, but does in fact exist). This other blog is rather neglected these days, in favour of this one, but today I wrote this article for it, and thought I would "cross-post" it here (get me and my internet lingo!). Here it is:

Yesterday I came across an anthology of Chesterton's essays called On Lying in Bed and Other Essays, edited by one Alberto Manguel, and published in 2000 by Bayeux Arts publishing in Canada. The selection of essays is rather unobjectionable, though many of the "essays" are not actually essays but extracts taken from Chesterton's longer works. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course.) The essays are grouped into themed chapters, and given my own dislike of detective stories I could have wished that one whole chapter was not headed A Defence of Detective Stories, but since it only contains four essays it is not too much of a blight. The choice of themes is rather idiosyncratic but none the worse for that-- the other chapter headings are The Walking Paradox, On Writing Badly (which contains sixteen essays!), Poor Old Shakespeare, A Defence of Nonsense, Monsters and the Middle Ages, the American Ideal, The Defendant and the Worship of the Wealthy.

All that is fair enough-- in fact, pleasingly different to the usual run of Chesterton anthologies. However, the introduction written by the editor, Alberto Manguel, is truly bizarre.

(Perhaps this is not too surprising, considering that one of the other books Mr. Manguel edited-- as the back of the volume proudly proclaims-- is The Gates of Paradise: The Anthology of Erotic Short Fiction!)

Mr. Manguel begins well enough: "Reading Chesterton we are overwhelmed by a remarkable sense of happiness. His prose is the opposite of academic: it is joyful. Words bounce and spark lights off one another as if a clockwork toy had suddenly come to life, clicking and whirring with common sense, that most suprising of marvels..."

So far, so good, and so it continues for a few pages. We are told about Chesterton's sense of wonder and his carelessness about factual accuracy. There is an amusing and interesting quotation from a letter to Frances, one which I had never encountered before, in which Chesterton suggests that household objects should have Scriptural quotations written upon them or around them-- "Even the hairs of your head are all numbered" beside the hairbrushes, for instance. His libertarian dislike of the State, or indeed private philantropists, meddling with the personal lives of the poor is described at some length.

But then, five pages in, the weirdness begins:

"In the ancient dispute between content and form, or sense and sound, Chesterton stood halfway. He only partly followed Lewis Carroll, who had admonished: "Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves." Sense, Chesterton believed, could, if properly sought, exploit the effects of sound and rise unbidden from the clashing of rhetorical cymbals-- from oxymoron and paradox, from hyberole and metonymy. Chesterton was more inclined to agree with Pope, who once compared the followers of mere sound to those who attend church "not for the doctrine, but the music there." Chesterton loved the music of words, but realized their limited ability to signify; whatever doctrines they might announce must needs be incomplete, haphazard glimmers rather than flashes of truth."

An extensive quotation from Chesterton's monograph on the painter Isaac Watts is produced as evidence. The quotation does indeed support the point Manguel is making, but it seems like a perverse choice of subject, especially when it occupies more than a page of a ten-page introduction to Chesterton's thought. I think I can fairly say that the conflict between "sound and sense" was simply not one of Chesterton's themes. He did indeed defend rhyme and alliteration, he is famous for his use of paradox, and he fairly often wrote about the slippery and misleading nature of language, at least in the way it is often used. (Take, for instance, his objection to the term "making good", a vague and objectless phrase which, he thought, was sneakily used to imply that making money was praiseworthy in itself.) But this is not one of the great Chestertonian topics.

This is only the beginning of Manguel's transgressions, however. We are used to politically correct handwringing over Chesterton's less fashionable views, but this introduction goes further than most:

"But there is a darker side in his writings of which he seems not to have had any inkling at all. It is impossible to read Chesteton thoroughly and not come across clumsily anti-Semitic, antifeminist, and racist remarks that war lightly the same rhetorical devices that make his essays intelligent, moving and brilliant. It is as if a deeper, uglier side of society's collective madness suddenly held sway, forcing the writer to pay a debt to his time and to those in power in his time, overpowering the language of recollection, making his words stilted, superficial, obscene. These are the moments when one senses that his fruitful memory, the epiphany of wonder that he said was at the source of his imagination, comes not uncalled from Chesterton himself, from the individual, but from the man of his age, from the member of the class that spoke derisively of "our friends the Israelites", of "the primitive Negroes", and of "the weaker sex". Then his eclectic politics lose their individuality, paradox becomes contradiction, and the bon mots read as mere conservative slogans. He spoke against Hitler but made ugly anti-Jewish pronouncements: "I am fond of Jews/Jews are fond of money/Never mind whose/I am fond of Jews/Oh, but when they lose/Damn it all, it's funny". He imposed the imperialistic Boer War at a time when even Shaw and Wells were for it, but his anti-imperialism stemmed from a beleif that nothing foreign could be part of England; English minds will not be broadened, he thought, "by the study of Wagga-Wagga and Timbuctoo". He passionately believed in every person's free will but laughed at women's efforts to become free: "Twenty million young women rose to their feet with the cry 'we will not be dictated to' and proceeded to become stenographers". Funny as the phrasing may be, the joke is spoiled by being spoken in an age of brutal sufragette repression, late and voracious imperialism and the Third Reich."

Whew! Where to begin, with this one? I think the easiest way is to begin at the end. Manguel seems to have missed the point of the famous quotation about stenographers. It was not simply an amusing play on words, but a very concise expression of Chesterton's belief that women did not become free, that they became quite the opposite, through exchanging the role of wife and mother for that of a wage-slave. And what is wrong with being "antifeminist", as Manguel puts it? I'm anti-feminist. Probably most women are anti-feminist. It is an entirely different thing to being anti-woman, which Chesterton certainly was not.

The piece of doggerel about Jews is constantly trotted out in discussions of Chesterton's supposed anti-Semitism. But we have to remember that we are hyper-sensitive about this sort of thing after the Holocaust. If it is acceptable to say that Germans are methodical, that Italians are fiery, that Scots are dour, why is it not acceptable to say that Jews are acquisitive? I am not claiming that they are, I am simply making the point that attributing particular characteristics to a people is something that almost everybody does all the time. Far too much is made of Chesterton's supposed anti-Semitism, though there are some uncharitable and ill-advised remarks about the Jews in his work. But he did not hate (or even dislike) the Jewish people and he certainly did not regard himself as their enemy. As Manguel mentions, he condemned Hitler's persecution of them, though he died three years before World War II and the Holocaust.

I don't know where Chesterton referred to the "primitive Negroes". Wrenched from its context, it's impossible to evaluate. But everybody knows that "negro" was simply a descriptive term at this time, and I am not at all sure that Chesterton would have meant "primitive" in a pejorative sense. He was not a racist. In fact, he frequently poked fun at racial theory, which was very fashionable in his time, long before the Nazis came on the scene.

But what I really object to in this passage is the suggestion that Chesterton was paying "a debt to his time" in any of this. None of us are unconditioned by our age but I think few people can have been less conditioned by the times they lived in than Chesterton. He knew what he believed and he knew why he believed it, even when it is unpalatable to Manguel.

A few lines down from this denunciation, the editor makes an even more questionable claim: "Chesterton...will refute himself, time and again, with deadly accuracy. Once, when his adversary at a debate failed to make appearance, Chesterton took both stands and argued brilliantly both for and against the question of the evening. In the same way, his most bigoted remarks [!] are demolished by his own arguments a few pages later. The man who makes fun of a man for being black or of a woman for wanting independence, is the same man who writes: "I can well imagine a man cutting his throat merely because he has stood by and seen a woman stripped and scourged quite late in the history of England and Ireland, or some negro burnt alive as he still is in the United States. But some part of this shocking shame lies in us all."

Perhaps, rather than accusing Chesterton of inconsistency, Manguel should have asked himself whether he had really understood his subject. Though I can well believe Chesterton took two sides of a debate, for the sheer fun of the thing, he was anything but self-refuting. The man who opposed his country's actions in the Boer War and heartily supported them in World War One did so for the same reason in both cases; because he abhorred the theory that might makes right. He believed that Britain was behaving like a bully in the Boer War, but was standing up to a bully in the Great War. The man who supported and then abandoned the Liberal Party never ceased to be a liberal in his own mind; he simply cease to believe in the Liberal Party. The man who converted to Catholicism towards the end of his life had always written as though he was a Catholic. It would be hard to find another writer as consistent, coherent and clear-minded as Chesterton.

I invite my reader to simply savour Manguel's last paragraph, where he truly surpasses himself:

"That events and their causes change according to the telling, mirroring common features or dark oceans of difference; that our understanding of the world may depend on the arrangement of words on a page and on the inflection given to these words; that words, after all, are all we have with which to defend ourselves and that, like our mortal selves, the worth of words lies in their very fallibility and elegant brittleness-- all this Chesterton knew and incessantly recorded. Whether we have the courage to agree with him is, of course, another matter."

This simply staggers me. How could any literate person edit a book of Chesterton's essays and then sum up his work in such weird, utterly irrelevant terms? It would be like an introduction to an anthology of P.G. Wodehouse stories finishing: "That the human spirit can never entirely submit to bureaucracy and engineering, that the passions will ultimately win over logic and caution, that civilization is a thin veneer over man's essential savagery-- this P.G. Wodehouse knew, and never tired of asserting."

Perhaps Manguel has read too much erotic fiction.

I think the literati and the intelligentsia don't really know what to make of Chesterton. They see that he is a genius, and they can't exactly ignore him, but they can't quite believe that his message was really as emphatic and as unabashed as it seems to be. Chesterton could be extremely subtle, of course, but he was never ambiguous, or tortured, or enigmatic for the sake of it-- and these are all characteristics which the modern man of letters can barely do without.

So we find Chesterton receiving bizarre accolades, such as those in Manguel's introduction, or such as the tribute paid to him by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman in the dedication to their book Good Omens (which I've never read and never will read), where they described him as "a man who knew what was going on". Considering that Pratchett is a distinguished member of the British Humanist Association, who has recently become an advocate for assisted suicide, and that Gaiman is a writer of "subversive" fairy tales who claims that the existence or non-existence of God "doesn't really matter to me", you have to wonder if they themselves knew what was going on with Chesterton.

A Plea for Proportionality in Fiction

Since I was writing about fiction and stories in my last post, and since I have something to add on the subject, I may as well continue on the same theme. Obviously my mind is running that way.

For most of my adult life, and indeed well back into my teens, I have harboured a certain assumption about stories which nobody else seems to share, but that which seems reasonable enough to me. The assumption is that there should be some sort of proportionality involved in the choice of subjects and motifs for stories. The world of stories-- of all the stories being told at one time-- should, in some manner, be a reflection of the real world.

This is an example of what I mean. I find myself irritated at the amount of thrillers and fantastic tales in which the literal end of the world is at stake. Imminent apocalypse is a very rare thing. As far as we know, and apart from all the possible close encounters with asteroids which we may have survived over the last few billion years, it has only really happened twice; in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, and the incident in 1983 where one Stanislav Petrov refused to panic when a Soviet radar malfunction made it look as though an American nuclear missile had been fired at Russia. The end of the world as we know it doesn't really come along very often, and it seems a device grossly overused in books and movies and comics.

Now, you may say that such a reaction is ridiculously literal-minded, that humanity has always been haunted by apocalyptic visions and that it is inevitable our stories would draw on them. And I acknowledge this. I do accept that having only two End-of-the-World stories, to correspond with the couple of times the thing actually happened, would be ridiculously restrictive. I don't object to twenty. I don't object to two hundred. I don't even object to two thousand. But when the thing becomes as common as the common cold, I can't help feeling that Armageddon has been rather devalued.

Besides-- it's such a cheap source of drama, when you think about it. Why do we always have to ramp everything up to the max? I remember the late and great film critic Roger Ebert, in a review of the French film The Chorus, complaining that the mysterious music teacher turns out to be The World's Greatest Conductor. "I would have been better pleased if he had merely been a Really Great Conductor", he wrote. I agree. There is nothing really imaginative about superlatives. I think they rather show a lack of imagination than an abundance of it.

Similarly, it bothers me that the same scenarios and settings and social circles are so remorselessly overused by story-tellers, rather than drawing on the vast reservoir of actual human experience. Now, I realize that some themes are simply more dramatic than others, and will therefore tend to appear more often. Murder is a very dramatic situation and it is inevitable that it will be over-represented in fiction. But do we really need a whole industry of murder mystery novels, and of crime novels in general? Why should directors and authors flatter themselves on finding a new "twist" for the crime genre? Why not just "twist" out of the tiresome genre and onto the vast tracts of human experience that don't involve Detective Inspectors or DNA tests?

What about the fantastic, you say? If our stories are going to reflect reality more closely, should we simply leave out the fantastic?

I don't think so. First of all, many people (myself included) do believe in ghosts and other supernatural occurences, and the world is full of claims of actual ghosts, doppelgangers, poltergeists, and so forth. To this extent, having a myriad of supernatural tales does not contradict my principle of proportionality in fiction.

Besides, the fantastic element in fantastic tales is accepted as fantastic. The question of probability does not come into it because it is accepted that it is, not only improbable, but not necessarily possible at all. I simply wish that the non-fantastic element in fantastic tales would not show an excessive concentration upon the superlative, the global, the exclusive. Why does every science-fiction story have to be about a world conflict, and feature Presidents and billionaire business-men and Nobel-winning scientists? Can't we have a swords-and-sorcery tale entirely confined to one obscure village, far from palaces and castles?

Viewed from this perspective, I think the disdain that is so often heaped upon "chick-lit" is unfair. I am not a reader of chick-lit, but, to my mind, it is has this advantage over more "manly" fiction such as thriller novels and spy novels (which usually enjoy more critical cachet)-- that it draws upon universal experience. Chick-lit is mostly about romance and family and working life, and those are experiences common to most people. In the same way, "TV movie" is a term of disparagement, but why should it be? Why is a housewife battling with alcoholism or the life of a wheelchair-bound college student a less worthy theme than scientists battling to stop a pandemic from bringing about the one millionth End of the World?