Sunday, December 23, 2018

Despair and Delight

First came despair, slowly and steadily--
The falling dusk of mental agony
From helpless losses and from hope gone sour,
The weight of time compressed within an hour,
The bright shop windows mocking: "You alone
Pass through this pageant with a heart of stone."

Then came delight-- delight!-- so suddenly,
And I loved everything that I could see
For being what it was. The winter air
Was giddy as a child, and did not care
One whit for me. My soul filled with intense
Joy at the world's sublime indifference.

Friday, December 21, 2018

A Smoking Hot Babe for Christmas (Again)


A repeat of a blog post from two years ago. I don't really have anything to add, except that I must admit that the sixth line of this poem makes me wince, on account of its clumsiness. The rest of it is brilliant, though.

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

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

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

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

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

As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surpris’d I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near, 

A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
“Alas!” quoth he, “but newly born, in fiery heats I fry, 

Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns, 

Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals, 

The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,

So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.”
With this he vanish’d out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I calléd unto mind that it was Christmas day.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Thoughts on The Wizard of Oz

Over the last couple of days, I've finally watched The Wizard of Oz, a movie that the Library of Congress has declared to be the most watched film of all time, according to various sources. The film's penetration into our cultural bloodstream is extraordinary, so it's quite surprising it took me this long to see it.



There were various reasons for this. One is that it's a musical, and I rarely watch musicals. I hate "clever" lyrics-- lyrics which are supposedly (or even actually) clever in a self-congratulatory, smarmy sort of way-- and musicals nearly always have "clever" lyrics. This kind of thing makes me cringe, to put it mildly:

I'd be tender, I'd be gentle
And awful sentimental
Regarding love and art
I'd be friends with the sparrows
And the boy that shoots the arrows
If I only had a heart.


Yuk. 

Another reason I avoided the film is the song "Over the Rainbow", which-- along with "Puff, the Magic Dragon", "Eleanor Rigby", and various other songs-- I've always placed in the "unbearably sad" category.

However, I found myself intrigued by the movie over the last few years, for various reasons. 

The main reason is my ever-deepening interest in "dream" stories-- stories which turn out to have been "all just a dream", or which may a dream, or which exist in a plane of reality which is dream-like in some way. Inception is one of my favourite movies of all time, for this reason.

It's ironic, because I used to hate such stories-- hate, hate, hate them.

When I was a child, I went through a brief phase of being frightened to go to sleep because I didn't want to dream. I wasn't frightened of bad dreams. I was frightened of any dreams. I was frightened of losing control of my mind and believing that an illusion was real. I'm surprised this doesn't frighten more people-- it's scary, when you think about it.



I can remember, not so long ago, being almost disgusted by philosophical questions like: "How can we know this is waking life and not a dream?" We just know, I thought. And that's still my attitude, on the most straightforward level. However, the issue seems increasingly interesting and important to me on what I might call a metaphorical level; not, "Is this a dream, or is it real?", but rather, "To what extent is reality itself dream-like?" Or even: "Which is ultimately more real, the dream or the reality?"

Another source of my interest in this theme is my general Counter-Enlightenment bias. I think society should respect all those elements of the human condition which we might call irrational, non-rational, or trans-rational. I tend to group them under the term "the dark side of the moon"; and, interestingly, there is a rumour (dismissed by the band, and undoubtedly nonsense) that the Pink Floyd album of that title was written to synchronize with the Wizard of Oz!

The Wizard of Oz is a framed narrative, which also interests me. Framed narratives are similar to dream stories; there are different "layers" of reality involved.

Finally, I was interested in the film because of its sheer cultural impact-- all the quotations and allusions from the film which are scattered through other movies, books, songs and in many other places.

So how did I like the film?



I found it very moving. In fact, my eyes were wet for much of its running time. I generally don't care about acting, but Judy Garland's performance is extraordinary-- the vulnerability and yearning written on her face all through the film is heart-melting.

It certainly has its flaws. The plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense. This might be excused considering it's all just a dream, but one expects stories to have a certain internal coherence, if only to be dramatically satisfying. I would argue that The Wizard of Oz lacks this-- the plot holes are gaping.

I also dislike the flimsiness and silliness of its invented world. Oz looks very dull, for all its colour and spectacle. It's too sleek, featureless, plastic. It looks like a theme park. 

Why then, has the film proved so successful? Surely because of its emotional impact, and the depth of its themes.

One of the themes of the film is the contrast between the mundane and the exotic, the familiar and the faraway. Dorothy longs to be "somewhere over the rainbow", and gets her wish. However, once she reaches Oz, she finds herself longing for Kansas again. (Some people point out that this is handled quite clumsily, since her immediate motive for running away is that her dog is about to be euthanized by a cruel neighbour; not a bad reason, really, and not actually stemming from any dissatisfaction with her home, though such dissatisfaction is shown earlier.) When she wakes up, she comes to the conclusion that "there's no place like home". Even while still in Oz, she says: "If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, l won't look any further than my own backyard, because if it isn't there I never really lost it to begin with."

This is the message of many of my favourite fictions. For instance, it's the central message of my favourite movie, Groundhog Day.



I've always been a lover of the familiar and the ordinary. Indeed, I sometimes worry that my love of the familiar and the ordinary is pathological, and disqualifies me as a commentator upon the human condition. Aside from anything else, I'm a profoundly insular person. I've never really liked stories set in an unfamiliar times or places or environments. I have no interest in stories set in the ancient world, or South-East Asia, or the demi-monde. I like stories set in English-speaking suburbia.

On the other hand, as one might guess from my Counter-Enlightenment affinities, I also craved stories of the supernatural, otherworldly, fantastic, and so forth. To put it in terms of this movie, the only two places that really interest me are Kansas and Oz.

And it also occurs to me that Kansas and Oz, between them, form a complete spiritual reflection of America. Is America the picket fence or the yellow brick road? The answer is surely "both". Perhaps this is true of every country and every people. But I think it's particularly true of America. The same country that is endlessly blasted for being utterly insular, philistine, small-minded etc. etc. is the country that sent men to the moon and cherishes in its soul the unquenchable thirst for new frontiers.

In the end, however, it could be that we are all drawn to one more than the other. Roger Ebert says this in his review of the film:

The ending has always seemed poignant to me. Dorothy is back in Kansas, but the color has drained from the film, and her magical friends are mundane once again. “The land of Oz wasn't such a bad place to be stuck in,” decided young Terry McMillan, discontented with her life in Michigan. “It beat the farm in Kansas.”

My view is completely the opposite. I find the farm in Kansas much more appealing than Oz, on every level: atmospherically, visually, imaginatively, and in every other way.

The last scene of the movie is the one that touches me most profoundly. In fact, it touched me even before I'd seen it, since I'd heard about it so often. Dorothy wakes up, home in Kansas. Her aunt and uncle are there, and so are the farmhands who bear such a striking resemblance to the Tin Man, Lion and Scarecrow, and so is the travelling showman who looks like the Wizard of Oz himself.



 
The scene also seems poignant to me, but for completely the opposite reason to Roger Ebert's. "I'm not going to leave here ever, ever again, because I love you all", says Dorothy. But she is going to leave...and even if she doesn't, they are all going to leave her, whether through death or simply through passing out of her life. And her devoted little dog Toto will almost certainly be the first to go.

This is the sadness that hangs over every story. The resolution is only temporary. There's no place like home...but is there any such place as home, after all? Even if we stay in the same place, things are not going to stay the same. Is home itself, perhaps, nothing but a dream?

This transience, of course, applies to everything. It's not just parents, spouses and children who die. Everything passes. The world that seems so familiar and reliable to us will one day be as historical as medieval England or ancient China. All the rhythms and routines that we take for granted will pass way.

How much does this preoccupy you, dear reader? It preoccupies me very much, and it always has, even when I was a child. Clive Barker, the horror writer, says that he was nostalgic for childhood as it was happening. I can identify with that. There has literally been no time in my life that I have not been haunted by the transience of everything.

As I've admitted on this blog recently, and as I've previously mentioned in this very post, I really do wonder if this preoccupation is morbid, abnormal, excessive. It obviously informs my view of the world; my traditionalism and my nationalism, to a great extent, are a response to it.

But I'm not alone. Many thinkers and writers have expressed the craving for permanence, for something that can endure against the flux. For instance, there is Edmund Burke's haunting criticism of constitutional upheavel:

By this unprincipled facility of changing the state as often, and as much, and in as many ways as there are floating fancies or fashions, the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than the flies of summer. 

Yeats, like many other poets, contrasts the permanence of art with the transience of life: 

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.



A book about the poetry of Louis Macneice, which I've just started reading, quotes these lines as central to his poetic themes: 

Let all these ephemeral things
Be somehow permanent like the swallow's tangent wings. 

The quest for permanence amidst ephemeral things is, I think, one of the reasons human beings are so drawn to art-- both its creation and its consumption. I know it's true in my case. Writing itself is a reassuring act, given how (comparatively) permanent written words are compared to spoken words, or to the flux of ordinary life. Then there is the hope that one's written words will survive and be re-read.

Much of the pleasure of a "timeless classic" like The Wizard of Oz (or Groundhog Day) is that, in itself, it seems like a shelter against transience. Somebody, somewhere, is watching the movie right now. And, in a sense, Dorothy is never going to leave the farm ever, ever, again; because the movie ends with that declaration. For a moment, the dizziness of perpetual change is overcome, and we can enjoy the illusion (or even, comparatively speaking, the reality) of the unending.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Poetry Tuesday Revived

I let my intended tradition of poetry Tuesday languish as I took a break from the internet. Here is a quick post to revive it. I've often thought that the final stanza of "To Althea, from Prison" by Richard Lovelace might be the single most perfect stanza of English language poetry, in terms of pure craftmanship:

Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage:
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage.
If I have freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Thank You

I got a calendar in the post today! Thanks to the person who sent that, and also thanks to the person who sent me Tristram Shandy.

I'm very grateful for both. I'm also very grateful to everybody who reads, comments, emails me, and prays for me. It's a privilege that anyone ever wants to read anything I write, and not one that I ever take for granted.

Inspiration from the Saints Listed on an End-of-Year List!

To be specific, "The Best Spiritual Books of 2018" on the Catholic Herald website.

If that inspires you to buy the book, you can do so here!

 

Attic Thoughts

Yesterday, I was inside an attic for the first time in my forty-one years of life. (Although I have to be honest and admit that I was once inside an attic converted into a bedroom. It hardly seems the same thing, though.)

I can't claim it was a life-changing experience. It was a fairly standard attic, with nothing in it except a water tank and some boxes of clothes.


All the same, it got me thinking about attics, and my life-long fascination with them.

My experience of attics so far has been confined to literature, films and TV. In these media, attics are always dusty, musty spaces full of memories; boxes full of old letters, photograph albums, magazines, toys and so forth. Characters are often confronted with their past or with their former or true self in them; for instance, through re-reading an old school essay which reminds them how idealistic they used to be.

I'm fascinated by many sorts of spaces; lobbies, corridors, foyers, store-rooms, bathrooms, and so forth. Common to these is the fact that people generally pass through them on the way to somewhere else, or don't linger in for long.

My interest in attics is quite specific, though. Attics are unique.

Attics are often places where people keep things they don't want to throw away but don't have any current use for, either. For instance, when I said there was nothing in the attic I went into except some boxes full of clothes, I may have made them seem more mundane than they are. The clothes belong to a dead person. Presumably this is why they were never thrown out, and yet put in a place where they will never be accessed.

Putting something in the attic signals closure, or giving up (the exercise bike in the attic), or losing interest, or even repression.

This is interesting to me for many reasons; but one reason is that it reminds me of the many different ways we relate to the past, another question that fascinates me. (Hey, lots of things fascinate me.)

You can be sure that, in the same house where there is an old poker table or fishing rods in the attic, there are framed photographs on the wall, or letters carefully kept in a biscuit tin in a chest of drawers, or some kind of memorabilia that are lovingly displayed or preserved, rather than shoved into storage.


In the same way, there are the memories we linger over, the ones we present to the world, and the ones we simply put away-- that we keep in the attic of the mind.

I've written several posts about the concept of the recent past on this blog. It's a concept that-- yes-- fascinates me, even if nobody else seems to share the fascination. This poem is probably the best of my musings on the subject.

The recent past is that period of time that has been simply put away. It's no longer the present, nor yet fully the past. There is something ghostly about it. There is no definite time limit for it, but I would generally place it at about ten to twenty years. I think this holds good for both societies and individuals. (For younger people, of course, there are differences of scale.) Nostalgia has not yet taken hold, nor has reassessment, but "the carnival has moved on", to draw on a deliciously poetic book title.

But that's almost incidental. The attic usually doesn't contain memories from the recent past, but from the more distant past. However, they share this characteristic with the recent past-- they are unregarded. They are not carefully put away, but rather unthinkingly put out of sight. Nearly every attic scene I've ever encountered involves a character rediscovering something in the attic which they were not looking for, which they come upon by accident. The encounter is not always welcome.

This seems quite symbolic of how we interact with our past-- again, both our individual past and our societal past. The memories we strive to preserve are not necessarily the memories that turn out to be the most important. The repressed returns. The forgotten is remembered. Memories and souvenirs we treasured turn out be less important than we expected them to be, or even inaccurate. The ones we shoved into the attic, or perhaps preserved through complete accident, often turn out to be more meaningful. The past is an enigma.

(An example of this is when an author who was not considered important to his or her contemporaries turns out to be far more important to posterity than the more popular or well-regarded authors of the day. Or, perhaps, a particular work that was not well-regarded, compared to the author's other works, seems far more important to posterity.)

Attics are also fascinating as spaces in themselves, aside from whatever might be kept there. Some years ago, I wrote a blog post about a library store-room where I was doing a lot of work, and this was my closing paragraph:

I've only been working in this room for a few weeks but I find it's rather haunting my imagination. Out-of-the-way and unregarded and purely functional places like this have a certain soulfulness to them. Boiler rooms, cellars, attics, warehouses, box rooms, changing rooms, post rooms...they're so unapologetic, so blunt, so uncomplicated. They cleanse and refresh the spirit-- or my spirit, anyway. And the silence they hold....well, I always find something in their silence that I can't find anywhere else. But I can't really describe it. Maybe I don't have to?

Sometimes I surprise people by admitting to a strong dislike for silence. I'm not being a contrarian-- I do genuinely dislike silence. At least, I dislike most forms of silence (especially theatrical and ostentatious silence, like pregnant pauses in films and drama).

But I like the silence of out-of-the-way spaces such as store-rooms or attics (especially when they are deepened by random noises such as the tapping or sighing of pipes). It is somehow less showy, less self-congratulatory, gentler. There is a great pleasure to finding oneself outside, back-stage, in a place which is hardly a place at all-- somehow it makes the drama of life going on around you, the life from which you have suspended yourself for a moment, all the more exciting.

(The title of this blog post is a reference to the book Attic Nights. I have always loved anything with the word "nights" or "days" in the title. Attic Nights was a title that had somehow floated into my consciousness without me knowing where I had heard it, or what it was. When I did look it up, I discovered it was a kind of almanac or commonplace book that an ancient Greek author had put together to pass the long winter nights in Attica. Funnily enough, it is somewhat appropriate to the theme of my blog post, since excerpts from many ancient authors are only preserved because of this book.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Need for Conservative Spaces

In the year 2002, I was trying to work on a play for my local arts centre, along with a couple of professional actors. Nothing ever came of the play. During our discussions, one of the actors suggested I read Angels in America, a two-part play written by the American playwright Tony Kushner. Kusher also wrote (with Eric Roth) the film Munich, which I greatly enjoyed, and Lincoln, which bored me to death.

I can't say I enjoyed Angels in America, though it held my interest and the concept intrigued me. Its subtitle is A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. The story involves actual angels, or at least, angels that some of the characters take seriously.

Tony Kushner. Not a conservative.
I'm intrigued not only by the play, but by the playwright. Kushner is a gay Jewish American socialist. One thing that intrigues me is that he describes himself as being an agnostic who is genuinely open to religion. He's also willing to be unabashedly political in his work, and to feature fictionalised versions of real-life characters.

I group him with other figures such as David Bowie, Clive Barker (the horror writer), and even (on a grander scale) W.B. Yeats. That is, they are artists who seem to see the life of the imagination as paramount (not always the case for artists), and who are determined to draw from every source for their art. They always want everything to be "in play"-- generally, they are interested in religion but opposed to dogma.

Although I could never be like that-- I'm a dogmatist through and through-- I find the type quite attractive.

Recently, I found myself watching a YouTube recording of an interview with Tony Kushner. (Well, it wasn't so much that I was watching it as that I had it on while doing something else-- a very frequent practice of mine.)

The discussion turned towards the use of political themes in drama. Both Kushner and the interviewer seemed like nice chaps, but one thing about the interview really irritated me. It was the shared assumptions. Both interviewer and interviewee, for instance, agreed that gay marriage was an unquestionably good thing-- this wasn't even something stated, it was simply the unspoken assumption behind their discussion of that topic. Similarly, they obviously agreed that Donald Trump was an abomination.

Now, some of my readers might think that Donald Trump is an abomination. Some of my readers (though I doubt it) might even be pro-same sex marriage. I'm willing to accept that people think differently from me on those topics. I'm willing to respect those different views. I'm sure everybody reading this has family and friends who are pro-abortion, and while that may grieve us, we still love them.



But, in almost any public forum-- especially those at the higher end of the intellectual and cultural scale-- conservatives must always deal with assumptions that everybody (or everybody worth considering) holds a full set of liberal, progressive, secular views.

We can respond to this in different ways.

One response is to keep your mouth shut and essentially lead a double life. Many of us have to do this out of practical considerations-- is it really worth losing your job to make your voice heard? Many of the rest of us will keep our mouths shut anyway, at least sometimes, just out of a desire for an easy life, or for the sake of a pleasant atmosphere, or out of sheer fatigue.

Another response is to accommodate the ruling ethos more and more until there isn't much left of your conservatism. It's salami-sliced away, at first under the guise of "using respectful language" or "accepting the truth of somebody's feelings", until there really isn't any of it left anymore. The cognitive dissonance of living in two mental worlds becomes too hard to take, and we slowly and gradually reduce the tension by accepting the ruling ethos, bit by bit.

A third response is to become a die hard. Not an inch! You might have to strategically keep silent now and again-- at work, especially. But no way in hell are you going to bend an inch aside from that. In fact, you're going to push back with all your force.

I think all these responses are unfortunate (the first one might be inevitable, for some people).

What's wrong with becoming a die hard, you might ask? Well, one of the reasons I think it's wrong is the coarsening effect it has on your own character. A person can't be angry or combative all the time without sacrificing some of their humanity, some of their range as a human being. You cannot live in the trenches without becoming a fighting machine.

And so I come to the actual subject of this blog post. (Please excuse the oblique approach. This is something I generally detest, but in this case it seemed justified.) I believe that conservatives today, more than anything else, need conservative spaces, both physical and virtual. We need places where we can talk to each other free of the liberal-secular-progressive-globalist assumptions which reign elsewhere. We need a sub-culture.

I think this is less true of America than it is elsewhere. American conservatives do have a sub-culture. There are Christian colleges and conservative news networks and conservative think tanks and so forth. (First Things magazine is an outstanding example.)

Outside America, however, this hardly seems to be the case anywhere-- at least, in the anglophone world. (A friend tells me it is very different in France and other non-anglophone countries.) The supposedly conservative media in the UK have given up the fight long ago, and now take refuge in irony and sarcasm. Whenever there is an exception, such as the excellent Conservative Woman blog, or Peter Hitchens's blog, it's surprising.

A British "conservative"
And in Ireland...? There is almost nothing in Ireland, other than the Iona Institute. Indeed, the Catholic Church itself tends to be a liberal voice in Ireland, except when it is backed into a corner and very reluctantly has to take a conservative line on some social issue. This is even truer of the other churches.

The crying need, in my view, is for conservative spaces where we can discuss things other than politics, religion, and the controversies of the day. Where we can talk about everything. And I won't even say "where we can talk about everything from a conservative perspective", because I think it's even simpler than that-- we need places where we can talk about everything without left-wing assumptions.

The main reason I think conservatives need spaces of our own is because we need somewhere to relax.

We're often told that it's good to have your ideas and preconceptions challenged. Yes, it's good-- some of the time. But surely not all of the time, or even most of the time.

As I've said, a person cannot always be in fight mode. I think this is true, not only in an emotional sense, but in an intellectual and artistic and cultural sense.

It's not good to be always on guard. To really develop, we have to be allowed to explore ideas, express uncertainty and conflicted feelings, question ourselves (without fearing that this will be immediately punished), be playful and whimsical, and basically behave like rounded human beings rather than politicians toeing the party line, or door-to-door salesmen.

We need to have internal debates and discussions. And not simply to refine our ideas, or to develop strategies, or anything like that-- we need them for their own sake. Because every collective entity that has ever existed, from a nation to a football supporters' club, has these things. They are quite simply signs of life.

We need places to breathe. We need places to hang out. We need places to be at home.

One area in which I feel this absence particularly acutely is movie reviews. Look for a review of any movie, past and present, and you'll discover it's very hard to find a review that isn't laden with left-wing and PC assumptions. Sometimes this doesn't matter, but often it does.



I often find myself looking for a conservative review of a movie-- not a critique of its liberalism, but simply an ordinary review which doesn't get hung up on the liberal talking points.

I can imagine a left-wing critic responding to this by saying: "Yes, but that's because most people are what you call "politically correct". Of course they're going to call out the racism, sexism, homophobia etc. of that old movie they're reviewing. It sucks for you that this is what most ordinary people do naturally, now. But it's not some kind of big conspiracy."

I don't agree with that critic, however. I don't think it's just a case of doing what comes naturally. I think many people feel obliged to go along with this-- even private individuals uploading movie reviews onto their own YouTube channel.

And this cuts across everything. Sports. Book reviews. History. Horror. The Irish language. Comedy. Everything.

I think, as far as possible, we need our own places where we can be incidentally conservative, or traditionalist, or old-fashioned. (And that's another thing-- I'm not talking about any one sort of conservatism here. I'm basically talking about all the social philosophies which find themselves outside the tent of liberal-secular-globalism.)

This is what I was aiming at when I set up the Irish Conservatives Forum, which has been surprisingly successful (though it could always do with more contributors). From the first I was clear that it was open to all definitions of conservatism, and even open to non-conservatives who were willing to get into the spirit of the thing.

At one point, I banned a contributor who was not a conservative but who was also not (in my view) conducive to the atmosphere I was trying to create. He was, to be blunt, a buzzkill. He did nothing but challenge other contributors from his liberal perspective and I felt completely justified in banning him, even though some regulars thought I was too harsh (as did he). He was perfectly polite, but that was irrelevant to me.

As well as being open to all forms of conservatism, my conception of the forum was that it wouldn't just be devoted to conservative topics but have a place for everything. For instance, I have a thread for original creative works, although it hasn't been terribly active. There is also a thread called "Conservatives Go to the Movies", for accounts of trips to the cinema. I was trying to create exactly the sort of space I am describing in this post.

This idea has also occurred to me in connection with the G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland, that ghostly entity whose "flickering and wayward existence" perpetually haunts me, just like the ghost of Michael Furey haunts the protagonist of "The Dead". (I have spent a ridiculous amount of time asking editors to stop giving the address of its blog, which has not been updated in many years, in my author description.)

The Chesterton society was a good idea, and I do hope it gets off the ground again, but it often occurred to me that it would have been better as a simple Catholic book club. Many of the people who turned up knew very little about Chesterton and it seemed rude to exclude them from the discussion. So every meeting was always stuck at first base, and turned into a discussion of the latest Catholic controversies anyway. It served as an opportunity for Catholics to turn up and talk with like-minded people about all sorts of things. That was fine by me, but it was hardly a Chesterton society.
(The same thing happened to a Hilaire Belloc Society, which was more or less the same people in the same place. I wanted to merge the two-- in fact, I think they would have been better off as a general Catholic culture club.)

I would love to see other conservative spaces come into being, both online and in the real world. For instance, conservative movie reviews which don't set out to be conservative "take-downs" of the films in question, but simply ordinary movie reviews which are not hampered by left-wing taboos. (The Catholic News Agency website does have a section of this kind. But the reviews are not very long, not very numerous, and not all that well-written.)

The same approach could be taken to any number of other subjects.

The Irish journalist John Waters has often said that he is sick of being set up as the angry guy on the panel, the token conservative, wheeled out to say "No" to whatever the other three panelists were saying "Yes" to. Conservatism is going to shrivel and die if it continues to occupy only this role. It needs its own spaces, spaces where it can say not only "No", but "Yes, "Maybe", "I'm not sure", "This is quite interesting", "Good cinematography", "Terrible goal-keeping", and "Cool!". Places where it can breathe, and relax, and be at home.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Self-Doubt

On this blog, I always imagine myself writing to a friendly and sympathetic audience. Sadly, in the past, I have had the experience of one of my more introspective and self-questioning posts being rather unchivalrously used in another context. So I ask anyone of this tendency to either stop reading now, or to refrain from taking advantage of my candour here in an ungallant way.

I haven't blogged for a while, and I've been absent from other online spaces. Some readers were kind enough to contact me and ask if I was OK-- which I greatly appreciate. I did not respond to everybody, for which I apologise. My wife asks me not to correspond privately with other women, and while I took a rather flexible interpretation of this request in the past, which I regret, I intend to be scrupulous about it in the future.

I have been suffering from a lot of self-doubt, in a way that I'll try to explain.

I have a very contrasting attitude towards my beliefs on the one hand, and my own holding of those beliefs on the other. When it comes to my beliefs, I am quite willing (even eager) to take on the world. I've never had the slightest difficulty in going against the stream, arguing with everyone in the room, or being mocked and ridiculed for my convictions.

When it comes to myself, however, I am extremely prone to self-doubt. I have spectacularly low self-esteem and I am willing to believe any criticism made of me, directly or indirectly-- or even criticisms that originate in my own head. I don't only take them to heart, but they can take a hold of me, grow to enormous proportions, even consume me.

So sometimes (often) I find myself in the position of holding a belief, but feeling that I don't have a right to assert it, or that I hold it for the wrong reasons, or that I'm a bad advertisement for it and would serve it better by keeping my mouth shut, or I'm ashamed to assert it because I feel open to some personal accusation.

Take, for instance, my love of tradition (and especially of particular traditions), which I have often written about.

I'm a traditionalist through and through. But what if my traditionalism is rooted in my own inadequacies, neuroses, weaknesses? What if it's a craving for the familiar and the predictable out of a fear of change? Do I have the right to be a traditionalist?

There are many other elements to this self-doubt, big and small. Take, for instance, the matter of children. I don't have children. This might be considered just hard luck, but one can't help blaming oneself or feeling a personal sense of failure, and I blame myself for all sorts of reasons, rational or not. (Fellow conservatives, please hesitate before pointing to a politician's childlessness as evidence of some agenda. It might be the biggest regret of their lives.) 

Well, children are the great carriers of tradition. In a book about endangered languages, a linguist put it like this: Children don't so much learn languages as recreate them. He called the process mysterious and magical. In fact, the linguist was clear that the survival of any given language is really based upon whether it is being passed on to children. And this seems true of many or most traditions, including personal ones. (And one never feels this more than at Christmas time and other holidays, especially when you look at social media.)

I know it's irrational to think "I have no right to be a traditionalist because I have no children". I wouldn't think it of anybody else. I only think it of myself.

The criticism extends to smaller things, as well. I know somebody who has extremely liberal (and anti-Catholic) beliefs, is strongly anti-Brexit etc., but who speaks Irish fluently and plays the harp. Isn't she a truer traditionalist than I am? She is keeping actual Irish traditions alive. What right do I have to criticise her? What right do I even have (this is how deep this complex of mine runs) to argue with her about any subject that touches upon traditionalism, identity, etc?

It even comes down to quite small things. It's borne upon me more and more that the kitchen is the room where a huge amount of national, regional and family traditions are kept alive. But I can't cook, except very simple things, and my knowledge of cuisine is incredibly limited. Not only that, but for years I was very dismissive of cookery books, cookery shows, and conversations about food-- something I keenly regret now.  That's a fairly small thing because I could doubtless change it easily enough. (Although my low self-esteem means I always assume everything will be much harder for me.)

Another way this self-doubt afflicts me is when it comes to my attitude to Catholic Ireland.

My nostalgia for Catholic Ireland, and the Irish Catholic tradition, deepens all the time. If I write another book, my plan is to make it a celebration of Irish Catholicism. (I love it when books have the word "celebration" in the title-- ironically, they are often cookery books.) In fact, the sense of duty I feel to the memory of Catholic Ireland becomes painful at times, when I read some article or see some old clip that cuts me to the quick with the atmosphere of Catholic Ireland-- its gentleness, solidarity, appreciation for the spiritual and cultural, etc.

But again-- what if this is mere nostalgia on my part? What if it's simply an escape from the present world, or from my own inadequacies, and so forth? I love Catholic Ireland, but do I have the right to this love, do I have the right to its expression?

Here again, there is the same pattern. If anybody were to attack Catholic Ireland because it was backward, reactionary, lacking in compassion, etc. etc., I would pay little heed to such criticisms-- I would feel confident they were either untrue or simply missing the point.

But if anyone were to criticize my motives for loving Catholic Ireland, for looking back yearningly to it, then I would feel completely devastated. In fact, I anticipate such criticisms, and if I hear them made of others I apply them to myself.

As you can guess, my self-doubt is particularly oppressive recently, but it's always there.

I'm sorry for the sombre post, after the long delay. You can imagine how reflections like these might make me hesitate to join in public discussions-- though they are often overcome by my sheer hunger for the fray. I wish you all a happy Christmas-- God bless you-- and thanks to everyone who reads this blog, and who bought my book.

Monday, November 19, 2018

So Much for the Traditions Blog!

The traffic to my Traditions Traditions Traditions! blog has been very light indeed. So today I decided to junk it-- or rather, to leave it floating in cyberspace.

The lesson: every blog I've launched, except this one (and its predecessor Practicing to be Catholic) has been a bit of a flop.

I think I'm better off sticking to this blog, blogging wise. Any new ventures can be hosted here.

There are other reasons for the decision, though. I wanted to write quality articles about each tradition. Over the years I've built up a fund of Catholic knowledge, so I can draw on that whenever I write about Catholic topics. But when I started writing about garden gnomes or rubber ducks, I had to start from scratch, and come up with a blog post that wasn't just a rehash of every other online article on the subject. So it would take a lot of time.

Perhaps Catholic and Irish traditions are enough traditionalism for anybody? I have an article on the Chaplet of the Seven Sorrows of Mary coming out in the Christmas issue of Annals Australasia, a magazine for which I've often written in the past. This is a solid Catholic tradition I've added to my daily routine over the last few months. The magazine is worth subscribing to anyway-- you don't have to be in Australia! I may write something about it here, too, in the not-too-distant future.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Rubber Ducks on my Traditions Blog

The latest tradition featured on my Traditions Traditions Traditions! blog is the rubber duck.

Read it here. 


Gardens gnomes, rubber ducks... I know it might seem like a pattern, but that's not the intention. I do mean to branch out into different sorts of tradition, and not just quirky household items.



Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Poetry Tuesday: Idylls of the King, Again

As I've explained in recent blog posts, two things have been much on my mind recently (even more so than usual, I mean): poetry, and tradition. This week, I decided to combine them by embarking upon Tennyson's Idylls of the King again, which I finally read all the way through last year, with the intention of making this an annual tradition.



I really like the idea of reading something once a year, or at some other regular interval. I've been doing this already to some extent, since I read the Confession of St. Patrick every St. Patrick's Day. (Admittedly, I've been reading portions of it for the last couple of years, rather than the whole thing.)

When I was about ten or twelve, my father told me that one should read Ulysses by James Joyce at the age of eighteen, and again at twenty-five, or something like that. I have since decided that I have no desire to read Ulysses at any age, but the suggestion appealed to my imagination at the time. And once, when I read Wuthering Heights (a book that didn't appeal to me much), I was much taken with the introduction, whose author contrasted her experience of reading the book as a girl with reading it again as a mature woman-- how her view of it had changed. I like the idea of an ongoing relationship with a literary text.

Why Idylls of the King?

Well, mostly because I've always loved the closing section, "The Passing of Arthur", which describes the undoing of the Round Table and Arthur's passing from the world. Some of its lines are quite famous-- some were quoted in the movie JFK. These lines especially (spoken by Arthur's last surviving knight) have always thrilled me:

Then loudly cried the bold Sir Bedivere:
"Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?
Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
For now I see the true old times are dead,
When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight.
Such times have been not since the light that led
The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.
But now the whole Round Table is dissolved
Which was an image of the mighty world,
And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds."


"The Passing of Arthur", though it's the last section of the poem in its final form, was actually the first written. Nothing in the rest of the poem rises to quite to same height, in my view, but that's not to say it isn't excellent in itself.




Idylls of the King was Tennyson's most ambitious work and he worked on its for a long time-- more than twenty-five years, publishing different parts of it as it went along. It's a deeply philosophical and symbolic poem, and I must admit that I never would have seen into many of its depths without the help of literary critics. The story is not one continuous narrative, but rather a selection of stand-alone stories told against the background of King Arthur's court, and chronicling its decline. Most of the stories follow a particular character or pair of characters.

The whole theme of Idylls of the King is "decline and fall". It begins with the coming of Arthur and the establishment of the Round Table. This section is full of hope and idealism, as shown in the moving description of the knights taking their oaths to the King:

Arthur sat
Crowned on the daïs, and his warriors cried,
'Be thou the king, and we will work thy will
Who love thee.' Then the King in low deep tones,
And simple words of great authority,
Bound them by so strait vows to his own self,
That when they rose, knighted from kneeling, some
Were pale as at the passing of a ghost,
Some flushed, and others dazed, as one who wakes
Half-blinded at the coming of a light.

  "But when he spake and cheered his Table Round
With large, divine, and comfortable words,
Beyond my tongue to tell thee--I beheld
From eye to eye through all their Order flash
A momentary likeness of the King."


"A momentary likeness of the King" is a significant line. King Arthur represents many things in the poem-- Tennyon was impatient with any attempt to a reduce the poem to a single allegory, where "this meant this", as he put it--  but one of the things he represents is the ideal, the conscience in every man, the principle of order.


Some of the knights are pale because the oaths King Arthur binds them to are so exacting. As the narrative develops, many characters suggest that the oaths are too exacting, and this criticism becomes more frequent the more the story progresses. The knight Tristram, who represents pragmatism and scepticism, puts it like this:

The vows! 
O ay—the wholesome madness of an hour—
They served their use, their time; for every knight
Believed himself a greater than himself, 

And every follower eyed him as a God;
Till he, being lifted up beyond himself, 

Did mightier deeds than elsewise he had done,
And so the realm was made; but then their vows—
First mainly thro' that sullying of our Queen— 

Began to gall the knighthood, asking whence
Had Arthur right to bind them to himself? 

Dropt down from heaven? wash'd up from out the deep?
They fail'd to trace him thro' the flesh and blood 

Of our old kings: whence then? a doubtful lord
To bind them by inviolable vows,
Which flesh and blood perforce would violate.


 "The wholesome madness of an hour" is a phrase that often reminds me of the "post-heroic" era in recent Irish history, when all the high ideals of the 1916 Rising and the Irish Revival were accepted as admirable aspirations, ideals that should be honoured, but not to be taken very seriously once "the realm was made". It's also reminiscent of "liberal" Catholics who want to honour their "faith tradition" but insist that the actual requirements of Catholic teaching are too burdensome for flesh and blood. One wonders how Christianity would ever have survived if the martyrs and early Christians took such a lax view of it. (Although I should admit that Idylls can hardly be called a Catholic work, since Tennyson took a low view of monasticism, otherworldiness, and spiritual "enthusiasm"-- he saw this as the opposite and accompanying extreme to crass materialism. Arthur discourages his knights from seeking the Holy Grail, and the Grail quest turns out to be an utter disaster, except in the case of the pure knight Galahad.)

As I mentioned previously, Idylls of the King focuses upon the decline of Camelot and the Round Table. The first three stories are rather optimistic and have happy endings, but there are subtle foreshadowings of trouble to come even here. The majority of the tales show us the unravelling of the Order, and how the knights, ladies, and even Merlin himself, betray their ideals and their oaths. The story gets very bleak towards the end, although it ends on a note of renewal and the hope of Arthur's eventual return: "And the new sun rose bringing the new year". (A perfect line, in my opinion.)

As critics never tire of pointing out, Idylls of the King was anything but an escape into a medieval fantasy-land on Tennyson's part. The poem is very much concerned with the social issues of his day-- especially the materialism and utilitarianism that Tennyson, along with so many other Victorian writers, deplored. More broadly, Idylls dramatizes the perpetual battle of the spiritual against the material, idealism against cynicism, order against chaos. The fact that it is a losing battle certainly makes it a rather dark work. In fact, the theme of "the long defeat" associated with the works of J.R.R. Tolkien is also present here.



But this is part of the poem's appeal to me. I have always been inspired by those who battle against the odds, swim against the tide, and march uphill. In fact, even reading the poem resembles these actions, in a way. Idylls of the King is tough work, and I only read the actual text in short bursts, mixed with longer readings of literary analysis on the poem. But the exertion is part of the pleasure-- like the warm glow one gets from a hike, or from cutting wood. It makes me happy to read a long philosophical poem, written in stately blank verse, which draws on Arthurian legend. It satisfies my urge to leave the beaten path and to try to keep the unfashionable alive.

Friday, November 9, 2018

The First Blog Post on my Traditions Blog

Well, the first post on my Traditions Traditions Traditions blog is about popcorn at the movies. It's a pretty short post, just to set the ball rolling.

Since I draw on other websites, you might ask what the value added is. Well, hopefully the value added will be that the blog will be "traditions central", where you can browse through lots of posts about different traditions, for the fun of it. And I'll try to make them readable and written in a chummy style. This is the kind of thing I like in a website, such as Snopes (the urban legend site) in its heyday, before it became very politicized and changed its format.

My New Blog All About Traditions

I've started a new blog! It's called Traditions Traditions Traditions and it's going to be all about...traditions.
Yes, I realize I've started a lot of blogs beside this one, and they rarely survive for long. Maybe this won't, either. But I hope it does.

The first post is below. The link is here, but there's nothing else up on it yet! I will link to future posts here. 

Welcome to the Traditions Traditions Traditions blog!

What is this blog and why am I setting it up?

This blog is a blog about traditions.


What traditions, you ask?

Every tradition!

Literally, every tradition.



National traditions. Local traditions. Holiday traditions. Sporting traditions.  Religious traditions. Family traditions. Internet traditions. College traditions. Famous traditions. Obscure traditions. The whole shebang. Anything that can be called a tradition. I'm not excluding dead traditions, but the emphasis will be on living traditions.
 
I'm fascinated by traditions of every kind!


I mean "tradition" in its popular sense. So I'm talking about things such as holidays, customs, rituals, parades, pranks, and so forth. I'm not tying myself to any particular definition, but don't expect essays on the Marxist tradition of literary criticism, or the Jungian tradition of psychoanalysis.




This blog is for everybody. I'm a conservative Catholic who has been writing a Catholic-themed blog called Irish Papist since 2011, and who has published a book about Catholic saints entitled Inspiration from the Saints. I also moderate the Irish Conservatives Forum.

Nevertheless, my hope is that this blog will be enjoyed by all sorts of people, regardless of political or religious affiliation.

I want this blog to be fun. I've written some articles for Ireland's Own, a family and general interest magazine in Ireland, and I'm aiming for the same general style. I'm not going to go into tedious detail about any particular tradition.



To my great surprise, there doesn't appear to be a blog of this kind on the internet already. I know, because I've gone looking. Even if there is, I reckon there's room for another.

I hope you enjoy it. Keep it traditional!

Friday, November 2, 2018

An Enthusiastic Review of my Book

Here is an enthusiastic review of my book, Inspiration from the Saints, from a prodigious reader in Canada, and a top thousand reviewer on Amazon.

If that moves you to buy the book, well, you can do that here!

I love getting reviews. Of course, I much prefer good reviews, and I'm grateful most of the reviews have been good. But even the single bad review...I was quite pleased at that, too. It makes my book feel more of a thing, you know?