Monday, August 20, 2018

Inspiration from the Saints...The Blog!

I have created a new blog based on the concept of my book.

You can look at it here.

I'm hoping to add to it in the future-- not only more quotations, but other saints-related content, as well. I'm hoping it will be the kind of website that someone could happily browse for hours.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Unicorn Poetry Denounced

I never knew this blog was read so widely. This morning, I was taken aback to receive a scorching email from Tim Palin, poetry critic for the New Left Review:

Dear Mr. Ó Ceallaigh

I regularly read your blog for the giggle factor. So long as you confined yourself to the cloud cuckoo land of theology and bizarre essays about snow globes, it was all a lot of harmless fun. However, when you begin to trespass upon my "patch", as it were, I feel I must protest.

Unicorn poetry...! 

As far as I can see, it's a celebration of all that is backwards, escapist, slovenly, half-baked, clichéd, reactionary, and kitsch-- without the saving grace of irony, which you have explicitly rejected.

Poetry, Mr. Ó Ceallaigh, is the art whereby the poet enters into a dynamic relationship with the vital forces that move his age, using language which makes manifest the unresolved tensions inherent within rhetoric itself.

How does "Unicorn Poetry" speak to the problems of patriarchy, late-stage capitalism, the digital media, globalization, short-term and zero-hour contracts, transhumanism, Islamophobia, and climate change?

I was disgusted to read your blog post regarding Anne Lewis of Wrexham, "housewife". Yes, you are very happy to encourage this victim of patriarchy and capitalism to write twee fantasies about unicorns, aren't you? Good God, the suppressed eroticism in that little ditty was almost embarrassing. Yes, Anne, go on making cakes for your husband and your two kids, and channeling your displaced energies into sub-sub-sub standard nineteenth century doggerel. Meanwhile there's a whole world out there waiting for you! No unicorn is coming to save you, sister!

Mr. Ó Ceallaigh, I must inform you that I have brought your manifesto to the attention of my colleagues in the field of poetry criticism. We are wise to you. We are watching you. Unicorn poetry is not going to be "given a pass", or slip under the radar. You have been warned!

Yours in disgust

Tim Palin
Poetry critic, New Left Review
Writer-in-Residence, Exeter College
Author of The Canterbury Wails, Your Mum's a Slag, Standard Deviations, and Queering Mr. Kipling: An Excavation into the Homoerotic Subtexts of Imperalist Poetry.

Well, well, well. What to say to such a missive?

Only this. Tim Palin and his colleagues are NOT going to intimidate me or my kindred spirits!  If you ask me, they have ruled the roost too long already. The Unicorn School is here, and it's here to stay. Stay tuned for further developments!

Saturday, August 18, 2018

More Unicorn Poetry!

I was surprised to receive the following communication, mere hours after posting "Unicorn Poetry: A Manifesto":

Dear Mr. Ó Ceallaigh

I have just read your blog article, "Unicorn Poetry: A Manifesto". I was both amazed and delighted to read it as one could say I have been writing "Unicorn poetry" for over ten years.

My name is Anne Lewis and I am a housewife in Wrexham. My husband is a dog breeder. I have two children called Diana and Sarah. I am 52 years old.

About ten years ago I began to feel very "down". A therapist recommended writing poetry to deal with my depressed spirits. Well, I had never written a poem before but I thought, I will do as the doctor orders. Lo and behold I found myself "addicted" to "the Muse".

I have written hundred of poems in the last ten years. I don't read them to anybody except sometimes my husband. He doesn't reckon poetry much.

I have read your lists of points regarding "Unicorn Poetry" and I believe my poetry fits them all. Regarding a "sense of humour", my children tell me I have NO "sense of humour". I am not sure this is true as I do like Garfield, but nobody has ever called me a "laugh a minute".

I found your web-page as I was "surfing" for poetry about unicorns. Many of my poems are about unicorns. They seem to me a symbol of all that is noble and "high up". I am sending you one such poem and you are welcome to put it up on your website, although I cringe a little at the thought of others reading it. Be gentle readers!

Perhaps there are more Unicorn School poets out there! I hope so! Well, here is my poem.

Unicorn Mine

A poem by Anne Lewis

Unicorn mine, where will you take me tonight?
Unicorn mine, will the moon be dim or bright?
Take me, my Unicorn, far from the busy world's din.
Where does the dream end and the day begin?

Unicorn mine, are you truly flesh and blood?
Unicorn mine, for this world are you too good?
What do you know of sadness and sorrow and sin?
Where does the dream end and the day begin?

Unicorn mine, do you have other riders as well?
Unicorn mine, what wonderful tales you could tell!
Let us ride through that faraway country-- the country within.
Where does the dream end and the day begin?

Friday, August 17, 2018

Unicorn Poetry: A Manifesto

Yesterday, I posted a poem entitled "The Mind Has its Seasons" (link here), which I consider the first official Unicorn Poem. I am the first of the Unicorn poets, but surely it cannot be very long before other versifiers join the movement.

Some of my previous poems are doubtless proto-Unicorn poetry. I will let the literary historians attend to that.

The Unicorn Poets are ready to take their place beside the Metaphysical Poets, the Pylon Poets, the Georgian Poets, the Cavalier Poets, the Movement, and every other literary current which winds through the annals of literature.

My blog post "The Dark Side of the Moon" is to be considered a seminal text for the Unicorn School. This passage, for instance, might explain the atmosphere in which Unicorns choose to dwell:

Another reason Rossetti's poetry is interesting to me is because of its dream-like, symbolic, otherworldy atmosphere. At the moment, I'm completely besotted with this kind of thing. I'm in the mood for dreams, visions, archetypes, legends, myths, folklore, and everything that sustains the less rational, more poetic side of our nature. I want to read about all these subjects right now!


If was forced to encapsulate the attitude of the Unicorn School in three words, I would say: "Naive, not ironic."

Christina Rossetti, much revered by Unicorn poets

These are the requirements of Unicorn Poetry:

1) Unicorn poetry must be upon exalted subjects. A Unicorn poet has no interest in writing about a man staggering home from the pub and throwing up in the gutter. The unicorn is an appropriate symbol of all that is lofty, refined, romantic. Unicorn poets deal with such themes.

2) Unicorn poetry prefers the vague to the concrete, the timeless to the historical, the universal to the particular, and especially avoids proper names. Imagery used in unicorn poetry should be, preferably, archetypal imagery; mountains, towers, waves, jewels, and so forth. Combine harvesters, bunsen burners and chihuahas should not intrude upon Unicorn poetry.

3) Unicorn poetry favours slack, loose metres and rhyming schemes. Free verse is OK, as long as doesn't grate upon the ear. Intricate and complex rhyming patterns are out. Repetition is encouraged, especially repetition that adds an incatatory quality.

The unicorn poet aims to awaken a trance-like mood in the reader. Formats which are jarring or brisk are not in the right spirit.

4) Unicorn poetry is adolescent. The Unicorn poet seeks to attain the outlook of a dreamy fifteen-year-old writing yearning poetry in her bedroom-- or perhaps a housewife writing equally yearning poetry between the school run and the ironing. A morbid self-awareness is to be shunned, and irony is to be altogether abhorred. The Unicorn poet is not at all afraid to be corny.

5) Unicorn poetry prefers the inner world to the outer world; to the Unicorn poet, the outer world is an expression of the inner world. Dreams, visions, never-never lands, and allegorical landscapes are an appropriate setting for unicorn poetry.

6) There is no place for humour in Unicorn poetry.

Some may say: "Why, you are simply describing Pre-Raphaelite poetry!". It's certainly true that Unicorn poetry is similar to Pre-Raphaelite poetry in some ways, but there are subtle differences. Unicorn poetry does not concentrate upon the medieval, eschewing historical particularity as far as possible; nor does it admit the grotesque. There are no goblins in Unicorn poetry. There may be demons and dragons, but no goblins. Another difference is that Unicorn poetry encourages a certain callowness, whereas Pre-Raphaelite poetry was psychologically and emotionally sophisticated and often breathed a certain ennui. If you are a man or a woman of the world, and you wish to write Unicorn poetry, you must try to jettison your worldly wisdom.

So what are you waiting for? Seek out some lonely spot-- ponder an unrequited love-- meditate upon a lonely well-- light a candle, or perhaps a stick of incense-- and join this exciting (and yet sedate) new school of poetry! The world needs Unicorn poets!

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Mind Has Its Seasons

The mind has its seasons.
It has its summer, winter, autumn, spring
Its seasons of searching and remembering
Its seasons of waxing and waning, its seasons of slumbering.

The mind has its seasons.
It has its pulses, rhythms, cycles, turns,
The hour that freezes and the hour that burns.

The mind has its seasons
And its seasons do not give way
Until the appointed term, the rightful day.

The mind has its nights and days
It hast its mornings, lit by the sun's bright rays.
It has its midnights under the pale moon's gaze.

The mind has its times of quest
When it seeks the furthest, highest, best,
The hour when we rush with joy to the hardest test.

The mind has its weariness
When all it seeks is silence, loneliness,
Darkness, stillness, caverns fathomless.

The mind has its eras, too;
Its revolutions, forging itself anew;
Basking in daybreak and bathing in morning dew;

It has its revivals, seeking out older ways,
Kindling again the embers of earlier days
Praising the light primeval with twice-born praise.

The mind has its seasons, strange and mysterious.
The mind has its long descents to the dark abyss.
The mind has its mountaintop moments of indescribable bliss.

The mind has its seasons...what season is it now?
Seek not the things that the season will not allow.
The season will change, though you know not when or how.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Roger Buck on Political Correctness

He also mentions a rather spiffing books about saints!

Seriously, this video is well worth a watch....Roger touches on themes that I've written about at great length on this blog. The previous instalment is also well worth a watch-- a "long player". (I like those sort of videos myself-- the longer the better!)

The Theatre and Me

On this blog, I've written a lot about the cinema, but I've never really written about the theatre. This isn't that strange, since I've been to the cinema hundreds of times, and I've only been to the theatre (or indeed, seen any kind of play) a handful of times. Nonetheless, I found myself thinking about this subject this morning, and I thought it might make a good blog post.

I'll admit straight away: I have a prejudice against the theatre. It's quite silly, because the world is big enough for every art, and there's no reason the theatre should be seen as a competitor with the cinema. But there it is.

I think this is because I can't help defining the theatre against the cinema. The permanence of movies is one of the things that appeals to me most about the art form; a movie is timeless, down to every last frame. Theatre is the opposite. I completely understand that, to a great many people, this is part of its appeal, and I can even understand why it would be appealing. Every performance of a play is a unique, unrepeatable experience. But I can't help feeling it's a deficiency.

One of the most delicious aspects of the cinema is the "fourth wall" of the silver screen-- a one-way window into another reality, a heightened reality, outside time and space as we know them. A play might evoke this to some extent, but ultimately, we remain aware that the characters are people breathing the same air as us, standing mere feet away. Perhaps it is a want of imagination on my part, but to me, this lacks the cinematic sense of a portal to another world.

Then there's the snob value of the theatre. I'm the kind of person who always wants to slum it with the proles. I prefer commercial cinema to art-house cinema, milk chocolate to dark chocolate, paperback to hardback. (I think this is one of the many reasons I've never felt at home in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.) The snob factor of theatre may be an accident of history, but I can't help being aware of it. Some of this has to do with all the actors I've heard gushing about how much they prefer theatre acting to film acting.

I can vividly remember the first film I saw in the cinema; Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984. I can't remember the first play I saw, in the theatre or otherwise.

Brendan Grace

It might have been a pantomime in Dublin Airport in my childhood, which featured the Irish comedians Brendan Grace and Twink. I only have very vague memories of the performance-- there was also a magic show which featured a disappearing rabbit. I can still, however, taste the burger I ate at the same event. (As to why there should have been a pantomime in the airport-- God knows. From my recollection it was in a hangar. I can also remember gingerly touching the Northern Irish soccer goalkeeper Pat Jennings, who also made an appearance at this event. I was standing behind him as he signed autographs for a load of other kids. I didn't even know who he was before that day, having no interest in soccer-- but he was somebody famous, so I was star-struck.)

Then there were school plays. In the late eighties I was an extra (I was always an extra) in a musical about global warming that our teacher (a hippie) wrote for an Irish language arts festival called the Slógadh (pronounced slow-ga). I was one of many zombie-like figures who wore red rags, and make-up to represent skin cancer. We had some songs to sing. I've sometimes wondered whether, all these years later, my class could reconstruct the songs from memory. We certainly sang them often enough-- we rehearsed the piece into the ground. It paid off, as we won.

On another occasion, a year or two earlier, my class put on a much more informal performance of A Christmas Carol, for the rest of the school. I had one line to deliver and I managed to forget it. All these years later, ironically enough, I can remember what it was: it was "You are a rich man, Scrooge, aren't you?". (In Irish, of course, as it was an Irish language school.)

I never went to the theatre proper in my childhood, and I don't feel at all deprived on account of this.

When I was about sixteen, my school was one of the pioneers of something called the Transition Year, a year focused more on personal development than academic study. This involved "modules" in which we tried out different subjects-- one of them was drama. My class (with the help of a professional theatre person of some kind) produced an early Sean O'Casey play called The Halls of Healing. This was a satire on the Irish health system of the time. I was given no role whatsoever in this play-- during one rehearsal, the theatre woman told me to watch it and tell her what I thought. That was my role. I remember finding this extremely insulting and patronising. On the other hand, I didn't exactly put myself forward.

The funny thing is, even though I had minimal involvement in the production, the magic of the whole thing is vivid in my memory. It's difficult to describe this without indulging in clichés... "coming to life", "losing yourself" "the wonder of make-believe", etc. etc. When I remember this whole experience, certain images come to mind; kids standing around an empty class-room, all the tables and chairs pushed to the walls, holding scripts; one of the girls in the glass dressed as a man in a heavy coat, scarf and hat; one of my more extroverted class-mates camping up the role of an angry patient for all it was worth; the bright lights of the stage when we were rehearsing it, etc. For some reason, I don't remember the final performance. I took a strong dislike to the woman who was guiding us-- my encounters with theatre people have not endeared them to me, on the whole.

When we were studying The Merchant of Venice, in second year (I was about fourteen), our teachers arranged for a drama company to perform several scenes from the play in our school. I can remember Bassanio looked like William Riker of Star Trek fame, and our class making "woooh" noises when the teacher commented on how good-looking he was, afterwards. I thought the acting was very hammy.

Even though I didn't find the enactment very appealing, I can remember my imagination being stirred by the idea of theatre, when we were studying The Merchant of Venice. There was one lesson in particular, in which the teacher described the various ways in which character can be revealed in drama-- posture, costume, voice, vocabuluary, etc. etc.-- which greatly excited my imagination. Perhaps I have never been more excited in a class-room setting, than in that single lesson.

(However, there is a bit of a shadow on that memory. The teacher who taught us The Merchant of Venice was the best teacher I had in school-- an English teacher who really encouraged and challenged me. I'd always had it in mind that, if I ever had a book published, I would like to send her a copy. When my book Inspiration from the Saints was in the pipeline, I contacted my old school asking if they knew her address. Not only did the secretary give me her address, but she told me-- they must have been friends-- that my old English teacher remembered me fondly and still kept one assignment I'd written. But it's months since I sent her a copy of my book and she never wrote back-- I included my work address. I keep wondering why. Was the accompanying letter too gushing? I tried to be restrained. Did she disapprove of the book's conservative Catholicism? Did she find the book unreadable? Is it languishing unread on her shelf? I don't know. I wonder.)

In one of my later years in school, I saw another class perform A Midsummer Night's Dream, and once again it was a rather magical performance. My favourite Shakespeare play is The Tempest, because the whole theme of the play is artifice, magic, and the shimmering line between reality and unreality-- a theme I find endlessly fascinating. A Midsummer Night's Dream has much the same appeal. The play is as much about the theatre as it is a piece of theatre. It's also very suited to adolescence, with all its lovesick and hot-blooded young characters.

One of my English teachers (a different English teacher) suggested I might write a school play, when I was about sixteen. I wish I'd given this a go. I was tempted, but too nervous to try.

In my early twenties, the manager of the Axis theatre and arts centre in Ballymun contacted me with the suggestion that I might write a play for it. When it was first set up, he'd put out a call to locals, asking them for their suggestions for the centre. He was rather impressed with my submission, and he invited me to write a play, working with two actors of his acquaintance. It wasn't a success. I came up with an idea for a play called The Golden Girl, loosely based on a girl in my year in school. She was beautiful, brilliant, popular, and apparently blessed by the gods in every possible way. My play was a two-act play, the first act set in the present, in which the golden girl has died of a drug overdose, and her old school friends are attending her wake. The second act was set in the past, at the height of her success.

It was a terrible idea, and what I wrote of it was terrible. One of the actors said: "It's not the worst first draft I've ever read". He was probably being kind. I didn't much like these theatre people, either-- although they were perfectly nice people, they certainly fulfilled the stereotype of the "luvvie". One of them said to me: "An actor can tell straight away if a line of dialogue is going to work". I was very intimidated by this comment. The project fell apart pretty quickly.

But what about the theatre proper-- going to see a professional production, of my own volition?

It's a strange thing, but I can't say for sure when I first saw a professional play, even though I'm sure it wasn't until my twenties.

It may have been The Secret Garden, which I went to see in the Helix theatre, beside Dublin City University. This would have been in my late twenties, I think. The book had a big effect on me in my childhood-- I may write about it in a future blog post. I didn't enjoy the performance, however. I was the only adult there who wasn't accompanying a child-- it was mostly schoolchildren in attendance. Considering men on their own at such occasions are stigmatised as probable perverts in today's society, I couldn't enjoy myself. The whole thing had an air of anti-climax-- the audience was very small and the cast didn't seem to be taking it very seriously.

Dublin's most famous theatre is the Abbey. W.B. Yeats played a big part in its creation. As part of the transition year previously mentioned, my class went on a trip to the Abbey-- not to a performance, simply to the theatre itself. I was quite impressed by this, especially the framed painting of an old W.B. Yeats in the lobby. By this time, I already idolized Yeats. There were several trips to plays during my school years, but I never joined them.

I've been to the Abbey a couple of times. I went to see A Month in the Country by Turgenev, translated by Brian Friel. The other play I went to see in the Abbey was also by Brian Friel-- Translations. I wasn't much impressed by either, although I was struck by one line in the latter: "To remember everything is a form of madness." 

I also attended a play in the Peacock, which is a small experimental theatre attached to the Abbey. I went to see a play called The Grown-Ups here. It was quite good. It was set during Ireland's Celtic Tiger era, which was still ongoing at the time. One character, a ne'er-do-well older man in a relationship with a younger woman, kept referring vaguely to "the malaise" of Irish society. At one point, he reveals that he has booked an expensive holiday on credit cards. When his girlfriend asks how he managed to get a credit card, he replies: "You don't even have to ask for one-- they're giving them away!" The twist is that this ne'er-do-well character, who seems to be the laughing stock of the play at first, turns out to be author's voice and the character with the keenest insight into Celtic Tiger Ireland. (As the reader probably knows, Celtic Tiger Ireland turned out to be built on a credit bubble, and the whole thing came crashing down with disastrous consequences.)

This theatre visit was a memorable occasion, in several ways. It was a group visit arranged by a female friend upon whom I had a massive, painful crush at the time. I made no secret of my feelings and they didn't seem to bother her. Perhaps she was simply a kind person, or perhaps a girl likes to have an admirer around.

As I watched the play, I fell into a strange mood, which was quite appropriate to the theme and to the historical period-- I began to fret that I had an extremely tenuous grasp of reality, that I didn't have any real understand of the way the world worked, and that I was utterly lost. It was an extraordinary feeling, and very disturbing. It lingered with me as I left the theatre and stood at the bus-stop. I've been struck by this anxiety intermittently in my life, but never as powerfully as on this occasion.

I think the only professional Shakespeare play I've ever attended is Cymbeline, which I saw performed by the Richmond Shakespeare, in Virginia. I went there with my now-wife Michelle. The play was performed outdoors, in a reconstruction of a Tudor mansion. It's a literal reconstruction-- the mansion had been pulled down, its materials transferred to America, and rebuilt there. As we were wandering the grounds before the play, we came to a rose garden, and I was considering proposing to Michelle-- I had written a proposal in the form of a poem, which I had memorized. As regular readers might expect, the poem was very long, so I needed some time and privacy. I decided the rose garden wasn't the right place. It was also very hot. This was at the height of summer. Everyone was chugging huge cups of soda from the refreshments stall. I can remember very little of the play itself, except some mock fighting. The cast lined up to say goodbye to the audience as we filed out, and all anybody was talking about was the sweltering heat.

A Richmond Shakespeare production

The last time I went to the theatre was to see a dramatization of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in the Pavillion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire (on the outskirts of Dublin). It was terrible-- the central character, Stephen Daedalus, was played by a girl, for no good reason whatsoever. The entire thing was reduced to a bawdy farce. Someone was carrying a skeleton around the stage throughout the performance-- once again, for no obvious reason.

Recently, we've been treated to the announcement that Irish theatres are going to introduce gender-blind casting, and produce as many plays by female playwrights as by male playwrights. Indeed, there was much rejoicing when it was announced that an actress would play Hamlet at the Gate (the other major theatre in Dublin, which I've never attended). The triumph of PC lunacy in Irish theatre means that, while I previously avoided going to the theatre out of apathy, in the future I will avoid going on principle.

This blog post is much longer than I expected it to be. What to say in conclusion? Perhaps simply that the idea of the theatre has always appealed to me at least as much as the reality. The theatre as a dreamworld, as a cross-roads of reality and unreality-- or perhaps, different levels of reality-- has seemed just as potent to me when I've encountered it in a school play, or a rehearsal for a school play, or even an English class studying The Merchant of Venice, as when I've gone to a professional production. Indeed, it be even more potent. What the professional production gains in production values, in accomplishment, it loses in rawness, and naivety, and wonder.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Thursday, August 2, 2018

An Episode from the American Civil War

In the course of researching something else, I ame across this fascinating detail from history, which I lift verbatim from another website.

Throughout the day and night of January 28, a heavy snow fell in the Rappahannock Valley and settled into drifts up to several feet deep. At mid-morning of January 29, a large group of First and Fourth Texans pelted the huts of their neighbors, the Fifth Texas with ice balls made from tightly packed wet snow. The outnumbered Fifth Texas managed to drive their assailants back into their camps. There the unified Texans planned a snowball attack on the unsuspecting Third Arkansas. The Arkansans were caught unaware and quickly surrendered their entire encampment to the Texans. Inspired by their success, the Arkansans joined the Texans and plotted to attack the camp of Gen. ``Tige'' Anderson's Georgia Brigade, situated on a hill three-quarters of a mile away across the Massaponax stream. With haversacks full of snowballs, officers in front, battleflags unfurled, and drums and bugles sounding, the 1500-man Texas Brigade moved against the Georgians.

The Georgians, forewarned of the impending attack, were ready for the fray. The battle up and down the hillside raged for over an hour. Groans were heard as rocks disguised as snowballs hit their marks. Finally, the Georgians, with both superior numbers and position, drove back the Texans and Arkansans. The Texas Brigade, boosted by reinforcements, rallied and drove the Georgians into their camps, where they gallantly surrendered their forces. The two brigades then combined forces to march against Gen. Lafayette McLaws' Division. Soon 9000 veterans of the Army of Northern Virginia were engaged in a snowball battle royal. Thousands of snowballs were tossed back and forth. At the close of the prolonged struggle, Hood's Division emerged victorious. Thus ended the ``Great Snowball Fight of 1863.''

The Confederate high command was not pleased with the outing. Although only two men were severely injured during the fracas (no doubt the victims of rock-centered snowballs), many soldiers were temporarily laid up with ``black eyes, bloody noses, ragged ears and sadly disfigured physiognomies.'' More important, the noise and mass movement during the fight had caused quite a commotion in the Federal camps across the Rappahannock. Union cavalry, fearing an attack, had become active along the river. Shortly after the fight, Gen. Longstreet issued an order ``prohibiting general snowballing'' in his corps.

Source: An Illustrated History of the Fourth Texas Infantry.

The Die Hard Mentality

Recently, on social media, I've been encountering a fair few "die-hards". As I never know who's reading this blog, I'm going to describe this personality in a general manner, not even referring to the Catholic variety, but keeping my description on the most general level. A diehard can be a feminist or a Catholic, a Marxist or a libertarian, or indeed they can hold any other viewpoint. The irony is that they are often very similar to their hated counterparts at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum.

The outstanding characteristic of a die hard is a rejection of nuance. Their worldview is one of us versus them, good versus evil, and there is no room for compromise or understanding.

The way die-hards usually make themselves known, in my own experience, is by an indignant response to any kind of concession, or even any effort at fairness, from their own side. To the die-hard, this is simply the thin end of the wedge. If you say anything generous about an opposing point of view, or about its adherents, they are outraged. They presume you are some kind of fifth columnist, or that you are wavering in your convictions.

In order to make the case as fairly as I can, I will take the example of political correctness. Anyone who has read a few of my blog posts (or been in my presence for any length of time) will know that I detest political correctness with a passion. Insofar as I am a die hard about anything, it is political correctness.

But even here, I see some nuance, and I can make some concessions-- indeed, I have made some concessions.

For instance (and I've said so in this post), I can appreciate political correctness as the ideology du jour. I have a certain tenderness towards ideologies, because I think (except in the case of outright Satanism, perhaps) that it's better for someone to believe something than to believe nothing. It's better for an institution or a society to be pervaded by some atmosphere than by no atmosphere. Political correctness has taboos, reverence, and standards. I see those things as good in themselves. I would rather they were deployed upon something other than PC, but I still think they are intrinsically good.

Also, political correctness is absurd, and I am rather tender towards absurdity. I hate rationalism. Absurdity is at least amusing, and interesting.

I can also see something perversely quixotic in political correctness. If you are a heterosexual white man who spends all his time apologising for himself, you can at least not be accused of favouritism towards your own demographic.

The great statesperson himself.
None of this changes the fact that I want to wipe political correctness from the face of the earth-- well, perhaps I would like to drive it into a few designated "safe spaces", to be preseved as a curiosity.

But if there were a real anti-PC die-hard reading this blog post now, he would be puce in the face by now.

"Not an inch!" is the motto of the die-hard. I think this is a good philosophy sometimes, but not all the time. There are some issues upon which it is correct to be utterly intransigent. But you can't be intransigent about everything.

As well as a cartoon vision of TRUTH vs. ERROR, the die-hard has a cartoon vision of GOOD vs. EVIL. To say anything good about one's ideological opponents is to pander to them-- they are altogether despicable and pathetic.

Sticking to the subject of political correctness, this is shown in criticism of feminists. It is a standard tack to dismiss feminists as obese, blue-haired harridans. I dislike this kind of thing in any case, because mocking somebody's appearance is always cruel and irrelevant. But aside from that, it's simply not true. Many feminists are very attractive and perfectly feminine in appearance. What's the point of saying they are all ugly and obese? They're clearly not.

Cathy Newman, a feminist who is neither obese nor blue-haired
George Orwell's "Notes on Nationalism" is a good description of the die-hard mentality. (He is using the term "nationalism" to describe any fanatical viewpoint.) It's extremely unfair towards G.K. Chesterton, but aside from that, it's very insightful.

One argument that die-hards make is that you shouldn't do your enemies' work for them. They think that anyone making an argument against their own side is being utterly perverse, lobbing a gift at the enemy. "I wouldn't want to have you defending me in a court case", one die-hard said to me, after taking me to task for such behaviour.

The mistake I think they are making, quite aside from fairness being a virtue in its own right, is that the die-hard sacrifices their own credibility, at least when it comes to an intelligent and critical listener. Who are you more likely to believe...somebody who can make a balanced argument, or somebody who sees "balance" as a strategem of the Devil? I realize that many people are drawn to the certitude of fanatics, but I'm sure it's alienating for a greater number of people.

And, in all honesty, I don't want to be a die-hard because it simply seems degrading to me. A die-hard is, above all, a bore. And not even an amusing, interesting kind of bore-- like the "anorak" who is obsessed with the history of badminton, or some such thing. But a hectoring, shrill, unpleasant bore. And who wants to be like that, if they could possibly avoid it?

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

My Award-Winning Blog Post on Library Anxiety!

Click here to read my blog post on library anxiety, which came in joint-third place in this year's CONUL library assistant blog post awards. 

I was very pleased by this. Not only did I get a cash prize, but it boosted my confidence that I can write outside my usual subject matter.

Readers of this blog will know that I have a tendency towards introspection and abstraction. I worry about this a lot. I'm always pleased when I write something that gets down to brass tacks and that has some kind of success. I don't want to "drift into a penumbra", a fate the young W.B. Yeats was warned against by a school-mate.

As I've said before, I'm very pleased that such a competition exists. It's a competition organised by a consortium of university libraries specifically for library assistants (as opposed to librarians). I love that sort of specificity. It's very guild-like, very subsidiarity-friendly. It appeals to the fascination I was describing in this recent post.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Chesterton and Ireland

I have been transferring some of my old files onto USB key, and I came across this piece, which I read to the G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland in 2010. It's available on the G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland blog, which hasn't been updated since 2015, but I thought I would post it there, too, for anyone who hasn't seen it.

(The G.K. Chesterton Society blog is the bane of my life, incidentally. Editors are irresistibly attracted to printing the link to it after my articles, even when I telll them it has been inactive for years and beg them to stop. For some strange reason, it kept periodically reappearing at the foot of my Open Door articles!)

Since this is the GK Chesterton Society of Ireland, there could be hardly a subject more appropriate than Chesterton and Ireland. Chesterton wrote a great deal about Ireland, so all I can offer here is a few observations, and is in no way comprehensive.

Ireland played an important role in Chesterton’s life. His most famous literary creation, the detective-priest father Brown, was based upon an Irish Catholic priest, Father John O’Connor—the very priest who received Chesterton into the Catholic Church in 1922. The ceremony took place in a shed with a corrugated tin roof, since Battersea—where Chesterton lived—had no Catholic Church of its own.

Another Irishman who played an important part in Chesterton’s life was George Bernard Shaw, who was an intellectual opponent and a much-esteemed friend. Chesterton and Shaw admired each other immensely, though they disagreed on almost every subject imaginable. Shaw said of Chesterton: “He was a man of colossal genius.” Chesterton said of Shaw: “ It is necessary to disagree with him as much as I do, in order to admire him as much as I do; and I am proud of him as a foe even more than as a friend.”

W.B. Yeats was another Irish writer who Chesterton admired immensely and often quoted, often in passing and without attribution—which is surely the best form of tribute to any writer. He described him as “by far the greatest poet who has written in English for decades”.

And to borrow the title of one Yeats’s works, it may be argued that Chesterton viewed Ireland as the land of heart’s desire. Ireland was, it may be said, an embodiment of everything he admired—it was a piously Catholic country, it was a land of small farmers that had been relatively untouched by industrialisation and big business, and it was small.

To take the first point first. Chesterton had a love of smallness that is a running motif throughout all his work. In probably his greatest book, the little volume of apologetics called Orthodoxy, he complains of those scientifically-minded secularists who rhapsodise about the size of the universe, saying:

These people professed that the universe was one coherent thing; but they were not fond of the universe. But I was frightfully fond of the universe and wanted to address it by a diminutive. I often did so; and it never seemed to mind. Actually and in truth I did feel that these dim dogmas of vitality were better expressed by calling the world small than by calling it large. For about infinity there was a sort of carelessness which was the reverse of the fierce and pious care which I felt touching the pricelessness and the peril of life. They showed only a dreary waste; but I felt a sort of sacred thrift. For economy is far more romantic than extravagance. To them stars were an unending income of halfpence; but I felt about the golden sun and the silver moon as a schoolboy feels if he has one sovereign and one shilling.

In his much-admired novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill—incidentally, this was said to be a book that Michael Collins admired—he evokes a London divided into tiny principalities, and his pleasure in describing the flags and heraldry and cermonies they employ is obvious. He was a staunch defender of the family, and a lifelong enemy of Imperialism. One of his famous tropes was the story of St. George fighting the dragon. His famous long poem, The Ballad of the White Horse, describes the battle of King Alfred against the Danes. It is perhaps significant that this occurred at a time when Christian England had shrunk to a portion of the country, the rest of it occupied by the Danelaw of the pagans. It is irreverent to suppose that Chesterton secretly wished to trim a dozen or counties so from the edges of England, but he was a lifelong Little Englander—in the best sense of that term—and he was opposed to the Empire not only for the oppression it inflicted on other peoples, but for the unwelcome grandeur and pomp it bestowed on his own country. To Chesterton, the true England was the England of Chaucer, not the England of Kipling and Sir Henry Newbolt. It should be remembered that his opposition to Imperialism, which we presume would be de rigeur to an intellectual, came at a time when British Imperialism was highly respectable amongst the cultured classes—even progressive writers like Sidney Webb and George Bernard Shaw often supported imperialism, seeing it as a step towards the collectivism of their dreams.

Chesterton came to prominence during the Boer War, when he went against the current of national opinion—both the Liberal and Conservative parties, along with most intellectuals, supported the war. Chesterton, an unknown young journalist at the time, hated the jingoism and triumphalism that the war unleashed amongst the English people. He believed that moneyed interests had driven England to go to war against the South African republics. The parallels with Anglo-Irish history are obvious—and it should also be noted that Chesterton was raised in a liberal family who would have been firm supporters of Gladstone and Irish Home Rule. 

This love of smallness might seem in contradiction to the second aspect of Ireland that Chesterton admired—its Catholicism. Catholicism is anything but a minority faith, and Protestant England could successfully pose for many centuries as St. George against the Dragon of Catholic Europe.

Even though Chesterton, as I have mentioned, did not convert to the Catholic Church until 1922—when he was forty-eighy years old, and after about two decades of championing Christianity against all comers—all of his works are so Catholic in tone that Catholic readers might be surprised to realize that his road to Rome stretched so long. He had a lifelong devotion to the Blessed Virgin, which his biographer and Maisie Ward described as “chronic”, writing odes to her even in his Unitarian boyhod. He was an outspoken admirer of England’s medieval and pre-Reformation past.

When he first became a Christian, Chesterton assumed a position much like C.S. Lewis’s “mere Christianity”. In Orthodoxy, written in 1908, he wrote: These essays are concerned only to discuss the actual fact that the central Christian theology (sufficiently summarized in the Apostles' Creed) is the best root of energy and sound ethics. They are not intended to discuss the very fascinating but quite different question of what is the present seat of authority for the proclamation of that creed.”

But that question is inescapable, and it seems surprising that so bold a thinker as Chesterton remained an Anglican, since all his instincts seemed to propel him towards the Catholic Church. There has been almost as much speculation on the reasons for this hesitation as there has been on Hamlet’s tardiness in bumping off his uncle. Many say that the principal reason was his beloved wife Frances’s Anglo-Catholicism; Chesterton feared his conversion would grieve her. In fact, she followed him into the Church some years later (entirely on her own initative, she insisted). Another reason given is that Chesterton—who for all his willingness to castigate his home country, even writing a book titled The Crimes of England, was passionately patriotic—considered Catholicism to be an unEnglish religion. (If we find this a rather feeble reason, we may note that the English writer Peter Hitchens, whose recent book The Rage Against the God has been well-reviewed in Catholic circles, has given much the same reason for remaining an Anglican, despite his dissatisfaction with the modernising spirit in Anglicanism.)

In any case, the point is that even before his eventual conversion, Chesterton was an essentially Catholic writer, and here is another fascination that Ireland held for him. But it wasn’t just the majority denomination of Ireland that appealed to him. It was the piety of the people. All his life Chesterton praised and appealed to the common man above all cliques and elites—one of his anthologies of essays even bears the title The Common Man. But he was well aware that the common man in England was, already by the time he was writing, not a practicing Christian. The common man of Ireland, on the contrary, was.

In his critical study of Chaucer, Chesterton lamented this difference between medieval England and modern England—a degeneration from an objective, public religion held by all to a subjective, private religion held by some. He wrote:

This is perhaps the deepest difference between medieval and modern life, and the difference is so great that many never imagine it, because it is impossible to describe it. We may even say that the modern world is more religious, because the religious are more religious….But we may be practically certain that if there is a modern man like the Miller of the Reeve, he has not got any religion at all. He certainly would not go on a religious pilgrimage, or perform any religious duty at all…the modern problem is more and more the problem of keeping the company together at all; and the company was kept together because it was going to Canterbury.

However, in 1932, Chesterton attended the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, and witnessed a living display of popular piety. In a slim volume on the subject, titled Christendom in Dublin, he wrote:

Nobody who was been in Dublin for a week as I have been during the Eucharistic Congress can doubt that Ireland is passionately religious; and especially that the Irish populace is passionately religious….Nobody who has lived in England all his life, as I have lived in England, can doubt that modern England, with its many manly and generous virtues, has become largely indifferent to religion.

In his book on George Bernard Shaw, he could write, in the same vein::

The average autochthonous Irishman is close to patriotism because he is close to the earth; he is close to domesticity because he is close to the earth; he is close to doctrinal theology and elaborate ritual because he is close to the earth. In short, he is close to the heavens because he is close to the earth.

How melancholy it is to read those words today, considering the transformation that has come over our country!

The third characteristic of Ireland that endeared it to Chesterton was its preponderance of small farms. We are so used to seeing this aspect of Ireland’s history satirised, as a source of greed, loneliness and narrow-mindedness—for instance, in The Field by John B. Keane—that it might be surprising to learn that Chesterton, along with many of his contemporaries, hailed it as the ideal economic system. For many years he edited The Distributist Review. The philosophy of distributism was sometimes compressed into the slogan “three acres and a cow” for every citizen. It was as hostile to big business as it was to socialism, and advocated the widest distributism of property feasible. In his book Irish Impressions, Chesterton describes travelling down a road in the North-West of the country, and noticing that the harvest on the right side of the road, which consisted of small farms, was neatly gathered, while the harvest on the left side of the road, a large modern estate, was “rotting in the rain”. He wrote:

Now I do, as a point of personal opinion, believe that the right side of the road was really the right side of the road. That is, I believe it represented the right side of the question; that these little pottering peasants had got hold of the true secret, which is missed both by Capitalism and Collectivism.

But Chesterton’s solicitude for Ireland when further than mere admiration. As a patriotic Englishman, he admitted to a sense of vicarious guilt when it came to England’s past in Ireland. In his essay “Paying for Patriotism”, which argues that a patriot should feel shame for his country’s misdeeds as well as pride in its achievements, he ironically wrote:

It is quite true that it was not I, G. K. Chesterton, who pulled the beard of an Irish chieftain by way of social introduction; it was John Plantagenet, afterwards King John; and I was not present. It was not I, but a much more distinguished literary gent, named Edmund Spenser, who concluded on the whole that the Irish had better be exterminated like vipers; nor did he even ask my advice on so vital a point. I never stuck a pike through an Irish lady for fun, after the siege of Drogheda, as did the God-fearing Puritan soldiers of Oliver Cromwell. Nobody can find anything in my handwriting that contributes to the original drafting of the Penal Laws; and it is a complete mistake to suppose that I was called to the Privy Council when it decided upon the treacherous breaking of the Treaty of Limerick. I never put a pitchcap on an Irish rebel in my life; and there was not a single one of the thousand floggings of '98 which I inflicted or even ordered.

But for all Chesterton’s generosity towards the Irish, he was not an uncritical admirer of this country’s political and intellectual life. One notion that drew his satire was the cult of the Celt, which was very fashionable at the time he was writing. In Celts and Celtophiles, he wrote:

It is impossible to hear without impatience of the attempt so constantly made among her modern sympathizers to talk about Celts and Celticism. Who were the Celts? I defy anybody to say. Who are the Irish? I defy any one to be indifferent, or to pretend not to know. Mr. W. B. Yeats, the great Irish genius who has appeared in our time, shows his own admirable penetration in discarding altogether the argument from a Celtic race. But he does not wholly escape, and his followers hardly ever escape, the general objection to the Celtic argument. 

To Chesteton, a nation was a spiritual entity, while a race was merely a pesudo-scientific construct.

Considering Chesterton’s sympathy with Irish national opinion, it might be a surprise to learn that his longest Irish-themed book, Irish Impressions, published in 1919, drew on Chesterton’s attemps to recruit Irish men into the British Army during the Great War. Chesterton was an enthusiastic supporter of World War One, and remained one until his death. Given Ireland’s massive hostility towards conscription, it is perhaps indicative of Chesterton’s popularity in Ireland that he was treated, as his book shows, with courtesy.

Chesterton himself described the idea of Irish conscription as “rank raving madness”; and yet he still appealed to the Irish to volunteer in what he say as a defence of European civilization. He wrote: “If the Irish were what Cromwell thought they were, they might well confine their attention to Hell and Connaught, and have no sympathy to spare for France. But if the Irish are what Wolfe Tone thought they were, they must be interested in France, as he was interested in France. In short, if the Irish are barbarians, they need not trouble about other barbarians sacking the cities of the world; but if they are citizens, they must trouble about the cities that are sacked”. Even today, despite the best efforts of historical revisionism, I think this is an argument that would find few sympathizers in Ireland.

He described the Easter Rising in the same book as “a black and insane blunder”, since the Irish had attacked the British Empire at the one moment when its cause happened to be just. “Does anybody”, he wrote, “want to be fixed for ever on the wrong side of the Battle of Marathon, through a quarrel with some Archon whose very name is forgotten?”. Considering the verdict of history on World War One, we may now find a rather bitter irony in the rhetorical question.

But, like all great authors, Chesterton is doomed to be reduced to a handful of familiar quotations; and of all the books and articles he wrote upon Ireland, all that seems certain to endure is the puckish quatrain from the Ballad of the White Horse;

For the great Gaels of Ireland

Are the men that God made mad
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad.