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?

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Idea of a Catholic Writer's Group

Yesterday, I had the thought of starting a Catholic writer's group in Dublin. I'm quite attached to this idea. I posted about it on the Irish Catholic's Forum and the Irish Conservatives Forum, but there are no takers as yet.

In recent times, I've been very drawn to the idea of writing as self-expression, as an activity with its own inherent value. Poetry especially, but not just poetry. My Unicorn Poetry School was a bit of wish-fulfillment in this regard.

My involvement in my horror club is something I value very much. It's quite unlike anything in my life. Discussing the merits and themes of various horror stories and horror films is actually intoxicating-- I always have a sensation of wider mental horizons opening around me, horizons much wider than those of ordinary life and conversation.

Of course, none of my friends in the horror club are Catholic. (There is actually one Catholic member, but he's only been to one meeting during the several years I've been attending.) They are all very respectful towards faith, and very often (as you would expect, given the subject matter) the conversation touches on matters spiritual, but I'm always aware of the difference.

It would be nice to meet up with fellow Catholics and explore the territory of the imagination. An activity that is both interpersonal and imaginative can be wonderfully rewarding, as my horror club has taught me.

So if anyone is interested in this idea, do mail me at Maolsheachlann@gmail.com.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Text of my Belfast Talk

This is the text of the talk I delivered to the Courage to be Catholic conference, held in the Catholic chaplaincy of Queen's University, and organised by the Legion of Mary.

It was being recorded on camera, so I hope I might be able to post the video at some point.


 
Hello. My name is Maolsheachlann Ó Ceallaigh. I work in the library of University College Dublin and I also write a blog called Irish Papist, which has been going since 2011. This year I published a book called Inspiration from the Saints, and the organizer of this event kindly asked me to speak to you on the theme of that book. I’m very happy to be here today.

I want to talk about Catholic saints and the inspiration we can derive from them, to help us in our efforts to live out urf faith. Of course, I’m preaching to the converted, as I’m sure every person in this room already has favourite saints, and a devotion to saints in general. So I’m simply sharing some ideas regarding the ways in which saints can help us, some ways of looking at the subject, which I hope might be helpful to you.

The title of this conference is “the Courage to be Catholic”, and I do think that the saints can give us crucial inspiration in this regard. The courage to be Catholic has two sides-- there’s the courage to defend and proclaim our faith in public, and then there is the courage to face our own internal struggles, which might be invisible to everyone else-- perhaps a struggle against bitterness, or envy, or addiction, or some similar enemy. The example of the saints can help us in both of these, the outer challenges and the inner challenges.

In my book, I was very strict about using the term saints only for those people who have been canonised or beatified-- that is, people who have been given the title Saint or Blessed by the Church. In this talk, I’m going to be a little more relaxed, and also use the term saint for those who are on earlier steps on the path to sainthood-- those who have been given the title Venerable, which means they have been recognized as showing heroic virtue, or Servant of God, which simply means their cause has been opened.

So why are the saints important? We all know they are, but if we were challenged on the question, what would we say? Well, here are my thoughts.

I imagine you will all have heard of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who died in 1900 after a decade of insanity. His ideas were radical and often contradictory, but when it came to Christianity he was fundamentally a ferocious critic. One of his books was even called The Anti-Christ. Of the many critical things he wrote about Christianity, this might be the most memorable: “There was only one Christian, and he died on the Cross.”
 

Friedrich Nietzsche

The sentiment is hardly unique to Nietzsche, although he was a master of prose and put it particularly memorably. Gandhi is reputed to have said: “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians.” And John Lennon certainly did say: “Jesus was alright, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.” (That’s me and you he’s talking about there.) Comments like these, and any number of similar ones that I’m sure we’ve all heard, reflect a common belief: Jesus was all very well, but he was a one-off. His followers were all hypocrites at best and disappointments at worst. Christianity has never worked in real life, and perhaps it never could work in real life.

There are many possible replies to this criticism, but one response is simply to point to the saints of the Catholic church, people who really have followed in Jesus’s footsteps, who really have kept his words. Now and again, some critics of Christianity, making the same argument as Friedrich Nietzsche, will make an exception for St. Francis of Assisi, and maybe one or two others. But St. Francis is only one of many, many, many saints. It’s impossible to make an authoritative list, but there are certainly many hundreds of saints venerated in the Catholic Church. There is now a careful process by which saints are canonised, but for many centuries people became saints through popular acclaim—through the fact that people saw that they were holy. Many of these are very obscure and, often, all we have are their names. But the point I’m trying to make is that it’s certainly not just St. Francis of Assisi or Mother Theresa who were true followers of Christ. There were many hundreds of people, at the very least, who have risen to the challenge of the Christian ideal. Friedrich Nietzsche and John Lennon are wrong.

And these are only the saints who have been proclaimed saints. Nobody knows how many people have died as saints and are now in Heaven. The Book of Revelations, describing St. John’s vision of the blessed in Heaven, tells us it’s too great a number to be counted. So that is one reason the saints are important; they prove the Christian ideal is achievable, and has been achieved. It’s not just a beautiful aspiration.

One of the reasons I wrote my book was out of a frustration at some of the books about saints I’d read. I’d spent a lot of time looking for such books in recent years, but quite often, they left me unsatisfied. When I sought out books about saints, I didn’t really want to know a huge amount of detail about their lives, or the society they lived in. I wanted stories. I wanted stories that showed why they were saints, what made them exceptional and extraordinary-- their achievements, their triumphs, their ordeals. I wanted stories to inspire me.



Today I’m making the case that Catholics should immerse themselves in the lives of the saints, in the stories of the saints. If we are practicing Catholics, we are fighting a battle for every human soul, and that includes our own souls. We have to evangelize, and that includes evangelising ourselves, so to speak. We’ve all been bombarded every single day, every day of our lives, with a lot of mental rubbish-- all the false and tacky glamour of advertising and Hollywood and the entertainment business in general. That’s all in our heads, swirling around. We can’t get it out. But I think it’s a good idea to counteract it with other images, other stories. I think it’s a good idea to immerse ourselves in the lives of the saints, to contemplate them, and to try to model ourselves on them.

The term I use for this is “the evangelization of the imagination”. Today, many Catholics are very rightly considering the various fronts on which we can evangelize our contemporaries. Many of them concentrate on evangelization through beauty. This is a fine initiative, but it’s not going to reach everybody. There are unfortunate clods such as myself who prefer Def Leppard to Bach, who are more drawn to plain suburban churches than historic cathedrals, and-- although I’m rather scared of being lynched if I admit this here-- who quite like guitar hymns. So I don’t think evangelization through beauty, on its own, is sufficient. But I suspect that, for every person who is moved by Gregorian chant, there are more who are moved by stories and ideas that capture the imagination. It’s my belief that Ireland was lost to the Faith by way of the imagination -- that, from the sixties onward, the hearts and minds of the Irish people were gradually being corrupted by the allure of pop culture, consumerism, liberalism, and so forth. Catholicism came to seem dull and oppressive, unexciting, compared to the promise of a brave new world in which all barriers would be broken and endless new possibilities would be opened. Today, now that the emptiness of individualism and hedonism is becoming apparent, it’s an ideal time, in my view, to seek to persuade our contemporaries that Catholicism is actually exciting, challenging, poetic and ultimately liberating. It’s time to recapture the Irish imagination for the Catholic Faith. And one way to do this is through the lives and examples of the saints.


When it comes to the veneration of saints, as in many other ways, the Catholic Church is the great friend of human nature. As we all know, many of the Protestant reformers in the sixteenth century rejected prayer to saints, which is of course prayer for the intercession of saints-- no different than asking a friend to pray for us. The theory was that direct prayer to God was all we needed. The Thirty-Nine articles of the Church of England describe the invocation of saints as “repugnant to the Word of God”. However, not praying to saints seems repugnant to human nature. This is one of those many areas where our Church is deliciously liberal, where it effectively tells us: “Knock yourself out”. The calendar of saints is filled to overflowing with saints of every race, nationality, age, career, educational attainment, and pretty much every other variable imaginable.

Of course, there are some commonalities. It’s a bit of a cliché to say that the saints are completely different from one another. In my opinion, they are actually very samey in some ways. Jesus told us that the way to life was narrow and straight. And when I was researching my book, and trying to make it as interesting as possible for the reader, I did find myself confronted with the awkward fact that there is quite a lot of repetition in the lives of the saints. Yes, there are contrasts. The cerebral St. Thomas Aquinas, who spent his entire life thinking and writing, is very different from the passionate St. Francis of Assisi who was rather suspicious of books and scholarship. But, on the whole, the saints are much more like each other than they are unlike; at least, that would be my contention.




But this commonality is another reason we should immerse ourselves in the lives of the saints. As Christians, we are called to follow Christ, but this presents us with a bit of a problem. We know so little about Christ’s life. We only have one brief flash of his boyhood, and the rest of our knowledge of him comes from his last few years. Furthermore, the four Gospels very often tell the same stories. How do we follow the example of someone of whom we know so little, and who lived in a world so very different from our own? We’re all familiar with the question, “What would Jesus do?”. And we all know that people find very different answers to that question.

Well, we don’t have to guess what Jesus would do in every situation. St. Paul instructs his disciples in the letter to the Romans: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” As well as the instruction that the Church has given us in its doctrine and tradition, we have a long line of saints who have lived in every age and in pretty much every possible circumstance of human life. Rather than having to ask: “What would Jesus do in this situation?”, we can very often see what the saints, his most devoted followers, actually did. We can follow Christ by following the saints.

Saints are people who have developed a kind of second instinct, a supernatural second instinct, and show us what kind of responses we should seek to develop in particular scenarios. They socialise us, just as children are socialised by parents. As Catholics, we usually know what is wrong and right in theory, from the teachings of the Church, from catechisms, and so forth. But we also have to learn about emphasis and priority-- just how much emphasis we should place on a particular virtue, how much horror we should have before a particular sin, and so forth. The lives of the saints is a great school for this.

Here is an example-- attitudes towards sexual sin, towards impurity. Prudishness is often considered a fault today. It might be understandable, if we were trying to think out a Christian attitude for ourselves, to decide that we should avoid sinning against impurity but that we should also avoid prudishness. For instance, that we should be willing to laugh at risqué jokes so as not to seem “holier than thou” or sanctimonious, or to watch sexually explicit films which have artistic merit. We might take the text from Titus, “to the pure all things are pure”, and decide that a mature morality means being able to face the world as it is without being corrupted by it. However, when we read the lives of the saints, we very often find a severity which takes us aback. At least, it sometimes takes me aback. St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, advised his followers that, when it came to sexual temptation, “it is low cowardice to be brave”. 


St. Gemma Galgani, an Italian mystic I often mention in my book, did not even want to undress for a doctor’s examination, and only did so with extreme reluctance. The Blessed Giorgio Frassati, a handsome Italian saint who died in 1925, who is often seen as rather cool and was concerned with social justice, once ordered an Italian bookseller to take some dirty books out of his shop window, threatening to call the police if he didn’t. And I imagine these books were pretty mild by our standards. So Catholic saints, in general, show a dread of sexual impurity, and even a dread of the occasions of sexual impurity, that can’t help but impress us. Of course, I’m not saying we should emulate all of these examples, or that they don’t owe something to historical context. I’m simply saying that they show us just what a value the saints put upon sexual purity. It seems highly unlikely, reading the lives of the saints, that many of us today are erring on the side of prudishness.

Hunger for the sacraments is another lesson we learn from saints. The Church tells us that the sacraments are crucially important, but we see this dramatized, as it were, in the lives of the saints. St. Thomas More famously refused to hurry from Mass even when King Henry VIII had sent a messenger to summon him. Venerable Edel Quinn, the great Legion of Mary missionary who will surely attain sainthood eventually, said: “I could assist at the Mass the whole day long”. Here is a description of her delight in Mass, as from the vice-postulator of her cause for sainthood: “To be deprived of Communion was one of the greatest sufferings she could conceive. At one period in Africa she was a patient in a non-Catholic sanatorium and was able to receive Holy Communion only once a week. She said later the privation of daily Communion gave her an experience of what hell must be like. When working in her Dublin office she made it a practice to attend seven o’clock Mass daily, not returning home for breakfast. Seemingly she remained in the church until after eight o’clock Mass and then went straight to work, having a snack in the office. On Sundays she normally attended two Masses before breakfast and four later Masses. And in her African diary the first entry each day is the number of Masses she had attended.”


Edel Quinn
  An eye-witness of the life of St. Dominic wrote: “I saw the Blessed Dominic say Mass many times both in the monastery and on journeys. And there was not a single time when Dominic did not shed tears.” Other witnesses have described the manner in which St. Padre Pio or St. Josemaria Escrivia celebrated Mass in such vivid terms that even reading them second-hand can’t help but impress us. Or there is the story of St. Philip Neri, who had special permission to say Mass in a private oratory as he would frequently pass into ecstasies simply from celebrating the liturgy. I don’t know about you, but when I hear stories like these, it deepens my sense of awe for the sacrament at the centre of our faith, one that we are never in any danger of over-valuing. The same point might be made about confession. When we hear how St. Padre Pio or St. Jean Vianney would often spend most of the day hearing confessions, this impresses upon us just how important and precious the sacrament of reconciliation really is.

But If I was asked for one single characteristic which united the saints, apart from the obvious one that they were all followers of Jesus Christ, I would have no hesitation in answering: prayer. As I was researching my book, this theme struck me more and more. Of course, many others have remarked on this. St. Josemaria Escriva once wrote: “A saint without prayer? I don’t believe in such sanctity”.

Since this event is under the auspices of the Legion of Mary, I don’t think I can do better than quote the words of the Legion’s revered founder, Servant of God Frank Duff, who admirably enlarged on this theme in his first publication, an essay entitled Can We Be Saints?


Frank Duff
"From reading the lives of the Saints, one would conclude that they fall, roughly, into two classes: those who gave themselves to contemplation, and those who spent their lives in active works. In reality they were all alike. All were souls whose whole lives were prayer. Prayer was their business. Their good deeds were only valuable because they sprang from prayer; they bore the same relation to prayer that the trunk of a tree bears to the roots; good deeds are a visible part of prayer; and good deeds cannot live without prayer."
"The present is a period when successful appeal is being made to Catholics to show by works of charity the Faith that is in them. That the most ordinary act may become holy when inspired by a holy intention is well understood and the words of Christ Himself, assuring us that "Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me," draws us powerfully on to the service of our neighbour."

"The possibilities of holiness here are immense. But it is not sufficiently recognised that a proper balance of regular prayer and good works is essential to perseverance in the latter. There is a tendency to consider good works as prayerful enough in themselves. Their variety makes them easy, while prayer is difficult. Besides, we like to see results, and usually we do not see the results of prayer. So we reduce our prayers to little or nothing satisfying ourselves with the recollection that we are doing plenty of practical work for our neighbour."

“Souls whose whole lives were prayer”. I don’t think anyone could read up on the lives of the saints without coming to the conclusion that this was their outstanding shared characteristic, that they fulfilled St. Paul’s injunction to pray without ceasing. Of course, not all prayer is structured prayer or vocal prayer-- the Catechism quotes the words of St. John Damascene, who describes prayer as the raising of the heart and mind to God. So we can be prayerful even when we are most active. And yet, you won’t find a saint, even the busiest saint, who did not also devote a great deal of time to prayer in the more conventional sense, time devoted specifically to prayer-- the rosary, Eucharistic adoration, and so forth. And, of course, the Mass.

In fact, saints are often visibly at prayer even while busy about other things. One person described an encounter with St. Mother Theresa thus: “She was very attentive as she faced me. I had the feeling that at the same time as she was speaking to me she was praying. The Rosary slipped constantly through her bony fingers. She was wholly with God and yet wholly with the people before her.” This is a common description of saints; they are very focused on other people, and yet also seem to be always in the presence of God.

This unity of prayer and action, or being directed towards both God and other people, is another reason devotion to the saints is important. I don’t want to get too much into Church politics in this talk, but I think it’s fair to say that there tends to be two contrasting tendencies amongst Catholics today. There are those who put the emphasis more on social justice, on the improvement of this world, and those who put the emphasis more on the sacred and the eternal. The social justice Catholic tends to emphasise service to man, while Catholics more focused on the sacred tend to emphasise our duties to God and the Church, such as evangelizing. The social justice Catholic can easily become so focused on serving others, in a very worldly sense of the term “service”, that he forgets about their eternal souls, or that Christ said that his kingdom was not of this world. All too often, he ceases to care about doctrine, and soon all that matters to him is expressing solidarity with whatever groups he believes, truly or falsely, to be oppressed. The logical end of this attitude is supporting all kinds of anti-Catholic measures such as same-sex marriage or abortion or euthanasia. But even if he doesn’t go so far, even if he keeps a precarious hold on orthodoxy, the emphasis is very much upon this world and not eternity. I think it’s fair to say we’ve all seen this. Sadly, if you log onto the websites of a lot of the dying religious orders today, you might find yourself wondering whether they are religious orders or secular charities. 


On the other hand, there are those who put the emphasis on the sacred, on orthodoxy, on the salvation of souls. Some Catholics of this tendency, and please note I say some, can become so intent on proclaiming the truth that they are inclined to forget about charity. Fuelled by an admirable determination not to compromise or soft-soap the doctrine of the Church, they can sometimes become, to be blunt, angry jerks. What such people seem to be proclaiming to the world is that Catholicism makes you bitter and confrontational and aggressive, rather than joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, and so forth. I know this because I’ve fallen into this trap myself, and I still have to guard against it all the time-- many times a day. Sometimes, people of this sort justifies this attitude by statements such as these: love is seeking the good of the other, genuine charity is speaking the truth, and rebuking the sinner is a spiritual work of mercy. All of which is true, but none of which justifies acting like an angry jerk.

I’m not suggesting these two tendencies are as bad as each other. First off, I think the second tendency, those who put the emphasis upon orthodoxy, is closer to the truth, since Jesus tells us that the first commandment is to love God with all our heart, mind and soul. I also think the first tendency, the social justice tendency (for want of a better term), is, today, far, far more of a danger to the Church in general.

In any case, I think an immersion in the lives of the saints is a good tonic for the excesses of both for these tendencies. Some of our more abrasive Catholic like to dwell on the correspondence between Martin Luther and St. Thomas More, which was characterised by some very strident language on both sides. There are saints such as St. Jerome, who was notoriously cantankerous, or St. Bernadette, who had a no-nonsense attitude-- I like the story of St. Bernadette giving her brother a sound box on the ear when he admitted to accepting money for showing some tourists the exact site of her apparition.

However, my contention would be that the vast majority of saints have been remarkable for their gentleness, their patience, their warmth, their kindness, and so forth. Good is not nice, we are often told. But saints are generally very nice as well as very good. This is a fact I came across again and again in my study of Catholic saints. Very often, even the saints whose reputations lead you to expect they were rather ferocious turn out to have been surprisingly gentle. There are many saintly priests who have embodied the advice: “Be a lion in the pulpit and a lamb in the confessional”, and the same general principle is observable in the lives of saints who are not priests-- the most uncompromising orthodoxy combined with the tenderest charity.

Here’s an example I encountered only recently. St. John of the Cross was a Carmelite friar and priest who died in 1591 and who helped found the Discalced Carmelites. The Discalced Carmelites observed a stricter monastic regime than the other Carmelites of their time. His spiritual writings emphasise the need to purge ourselves of our own desires and appetites, and his own austerities were quite startling. One would expect he was a rather severe type of saint, but this is how one biographer describes him:

"When as a superior it was necessary for him to correct his subjects, he was cautious lest through impatience or anger he would succeed only in saddening or discouraging them. “He made his corrections with much gentleness and charity and always saw to it that the one being corrected would not leave his presence sad.”...Another characteristic of his “wonderfully gracious” manners was his custom of asking his subjects for their opinions in various matters or problems which arose. All of this created a holy environment of serenity and of joy in the relationships of friars to their superior.”


St. John of the Cross
This was what St. Vincent de Paul said regarding gentleness: “God grant all missionaries the grace of accustoming themselves to treat their neighbours both publicly and privately, in a meek, humble and charitable manner, and never to employ invectives, reproaches or harsh words against anybody whomsoever.” He also said: “I have never, never succeeded when I have spoken with the faintest suspicion of harshness; I have always noted that if one wishes to move the mind, one must be ever on one’s guard against embittering the heart.”

This is what St. Josemaria Escriva said about rebuking sinners: “Nothing is gained by ill-treating people. When they are souls who need help, good advice, we are not going to treat them badly. They are spiritually sick, just as there are others who are mentally or physically sick. Don’t ill-treat them ever. Is that clear?”

I could quote many other examples of other saints remarkable for their gentleness, and who advocated gentleness. If you suspect I’m overstating the case, make the experiment yourself. Investigate the lives of the saints in depth. I’m confident you will find this is true. Why am I stressing this point so much? Because we live in an era when the Church is being relentlessly attacked from outside and also undermined from within. We all know this. The temptation to react with rage, bitterness and negativity is enormous. I advise we look to the lives to the saints to find a better response, to not only be as wise as serpents but also as gentle as doves.

Another reason to read the lives of the saints is because it increases our faith. One of the arguments I often make for the truth of the Catholic faith is the lives of Catholic saints. Sometimes this is in the most straightforward sense of miracles. We can look at the life of someone such as the Blessed Solanus Casey, an Irish-American Capuchin friar who died in 1957. An amazing number of miraculous cures and other supernatural favours are associated with this man, not only after his death but during his life. They are very well documented; you can log onto YouTube and see people who are still alive giving accounts of them on camera. This is not some figure lost in the mists of history. But it’s not just obvious miracles. Very often, reading the lives of the saints, we can see the operation of Providence in a way that’s difficult to dismiss. The history of the Legion of Mary itself is a case in point. Like so many saints, Frank Duff had a faith that God would intervene at the necessary moments, and we see it happen again and again. Indeed, he wrote a pamphlet called Miracles on Tap about one period in Legion history.

Another reason to read the lives of the saints is that it the examples of the saints helps us to bear our trials. The line from Hebrews, “Whom the lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges” can certainly be seen in saints’ lives. Let me take the example of Blessed Solanus Casey, who I just mentioned. He struggled with his priestly training to the extent that he was not ordained a full priest, but rather, a simplex priest. He was not allowed to hear confessions or preach homilies, and he was given jobs which were generally given to lay brothers rather than priests, such as greeting visitors to the monastery. But it was in this very task that God’s grace operated through him. And we very often see this pattern repeated in the lives of the saints. It isn’t just a case of the saying, “into each life some rain must fall”; it’s much more pronounced than that. Almost every saint seems to have been sent some very particular cross to shoulder; the is very clear. Nothing could be more encouraging to us in our own trials, to not only endure them but to find meaning in them.


G.K. Chesterton
I want to finish, not with my own words, but the words of G.K. Chesterton, my favourite writer, who is himself being investigated for sainthood. It’s spoken by a character in The Ball and The Cross, a novel that he published in 1909:

"You cannot deny that it is perfectly possible that tomorrow morning, in Ireland or in Italy, there might appear a man not only as good but good in exactly the same way as St. Francis of Assisi. Very well, now take the other types of human virtue; many of them splendid. The Elizabethan gentleman was chivalrous and idealistic. But can you stand still here in this meadow and be an English gentleman of Elizabeth? The austere republican of the eighteenth century, with his stern patriotism and his simple life, was a fine fellow. But have you ever seen him? have you ever seen an austere republican? Only a hundred years have passed and that volcano of revolutionary truth and valour is as cold as the mountains of the moon. And so it is and so it will be with the ethics which are buzzing down Fleet Street at this instant as I speak. What phrase would inspire the London clerk or workman just now? Perhaps that he is a son of the British Empire on which the sun never sets; perhaps that he is a prop of his Trade Union, or a class-conscious proletarian something or other; perhaps merely that he is a gentleman when he obviously is not. Those names and notions are all honourable; but how long will they last? Empires break; industrial conditions change; the suburbs will not last for ever. What will remain? I will tell you. The Catholic Saint will remain."

Thank you.

Poetry Tuesday: The Poetry of Chess

This morning, I took The Poetry of Chess from my bookshelves, not having looked at in a long, long time. I bought this book secondhand (in Greene's bookshop, a famous Dublin shop which is now closed) about ten years ago.



I bought this book for three reasons. One was that I'm interested in poetry, obviously. Another was that I was interested in chess (more on that in a bit). The third was that I delight in any book with a very specific subject-- the mere existence of such a book brings me joy. Very often, when I'm going about my work in the library, I come across books of this kind and my heart exults. Such books, to me, are celebrations of "the drunkenness of things being various".

(Please note, however, that I take no such pleasure in a book of this kind if it is written as a joke, or as an exercise in obscurity. Indeed, that takes all the joy out of it.)

What about my interest in chess? I was very interested in chess from about my sixteenth year to the end of my teens, and I retained a dwindling interest in it for a few years after that. My interest was sparked by the World Championship match between Nigel Short and Garry Kasparov in 1993. I began to play chess against various family and friends. At the height of the chess boom in my family there would be several games a day. Aside from my cousin, who routinely trounced me, I was fairly evenly matched with everybody in this little circle.

In my early twenties I joined Ballymun chess club. My interest in chess was considerably diminished by this time, but I was trying to be more extroverted. There were only three regular members in the club at this point, along with one occasional member. Here, I realized what a poor player I really was. As the elderly chairman of the club put it: "As a strategic player, you're poor. As a tactical player, you're...not bad". I didn't stay very long, and that was probably the end of my chess playing, apart from a few games here and there. I haven't played in years, and I may never play again.


However, my interest in chess was always as much aesthetic as it was competitive. I loved the board and the pieces (they are called Staunton pieces, incidentally). I loved the history of the game, especially its connection with the London restaurant Simpson's on the Strand, and the fact that the origins of the game lie "in the mists of history" (a phrase I use at every opportunity).

A book that utterly captivated me at this time was The Inner Game by Dominic Lawson (son of Nigel Lawson, the politician, and brother of Nigella, the celebrity chef). This was a first-hand account of the Nigel Short and Garry Kasparov match. It wasn't the reportage in the book which fascinated me so much as the insights into chess itself-- the dedication of its top-class players, and the inexhaustible depth of the game. Lawson quotes the phrase "the abysmal depths of chess", coined by Vladimir Nabokov, and this gripped my imagination. I have always loved everything abysmal, deep, bottomless. (The phrase is also quoted in the introduction to The Poetry of Chess.) As has often been pointed out, there are vastly more ways of playing even the first ten moves of the game than there are atoms in the known universe.



 
My interest in chess receded for various reasons, one of them being my realization that I wasn't very good at it. (I'm bad at games in general.) But the fact that the World Chess champion was beaten by a computer in 1997 also has something to do with it. This might not be very logical-- a car is faster than any human, but track athletics are not considered obsolete. Still, I can hardly help it. In 1981, when this book was written, Andrew Waterman could still write: "The best human players...continue to prevail against computer programmes. The human mind's most vital faculties cannot, it seems, be mechanically replicated." Well, I'm not so sure that playing chess can be considered among "the human mind's most vital faculties", but today it's not even a contest-- computers beat the best players routinely, and the graph is only going to go in one direction.

Waterman's introduction is quite enjoyable. He is a poet himself, but one of the modern school, so his view of poetry is not entirely congenial to me.

I strongly disagree with him here, for instance: "While the moderate chess player, who ought indeed and nowadays in general does refrain, not from studying, but from attempting publishable annotations of grand master games, at least has considerable experience of playing chess, armies of academics instead of sticking to their proper tasks of presenting literature to the young, and the modest clerical work of routine scholarship, burden libraries with inept literary-critical explication undeterred by their lack of first-hand experience of creative writing." C.S. Lewis articulated the most brilliant objection to this attitude (though I forget where): if only a poet can criticize other poets, how on earth does anyone know himself (or anyone else) to be a poet in the first place? It's a closed circle. But perhaps Samuel Johnson put the case more emphatically: "You may abuse a tragedy, though you cannot write one. You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables."

All that aside, the introduction is a most enjoyable essay, partly because its subject is so singular. He covers all the ground: the similarities between chess and poetry, the differences between them, the typical metaphors drawn from chess in poetry, a potted history of poets writing about chess, the psychology of poets and of chess players, and an account of his own history playing the game. I could quote many passages, but I will content myself with one:

I once heard an eminent scientist, asked on television about higher creativity in astronomy, cite the chess champion Bobby Fischer talking of a "flash", a brief momentary vision of what might be conjured from the available situation, followed by the sheer detailed labour, necessary but anticlimactic compared with the moment of gestation, almost resented, to realize the conception in actuality. The experience is recognizable to any real poet. Eliot, in "The Three Voices of Poetry", writes that the poet "has something germinating in him for which he must find words; but he cannot know what words he wants until he has found the words; he cannot identify this embryo until it has been transformed into an arrangement of the right words in the right order. When you have the words for it, the "thing" which the words had to be found has disappeared, replaced by a poem."

Andrew Waterman

The book's table of contents shows how many eminent poets have drawn imagery from chess: Richard Lovelace, Oliver Goldsmith, Geoffrey Chaucer, Edward Fitzgerald, John Masefield, Howard Nemerov, Louise Macneice, W.B. Yeats, and many more.

Given this, it might be considered arrogant to include one of my own compositions in this post, rather than anything that appears in the anthology. If Andrew Waterman ever reads this, I hope he is not outraged. However, I did write a chess poem, in my late teens. It was inspired by the sight of a chess board after a game, the pieces standing where they were at the end of play:

The Chess Board

What's left on the black and white squares
When the players end the silent debate?
White pawns in an onslaught that nothing deters
And a king who is captured in mate.
And his fate goes unseen and unwept
For the gods have stepped out of the fray.
Not a glance now is spared, where such vigils were kept,
Now an ending has come to the play.

What's left of the struggle they fought?
A king caught in pointless defeat

And a meaningless win for the agonised thought
That came from this tenantless seat.
And the loser forgets in a while
All his toil on the black and white squares
And the pieces are swept from the rank and the file
And in the end nobody cares.