Friday, June 29, 2018

Strain and Release

Ever since I read it, many years ago, I've been haunted by this passage from Plato's Phaedo:

Socrates, sitting up on the couch, bent and rubbed his leg, saying, as he was rubbing: "How singular is the thing called pleasure, and how curiously related to pain, which might be thought to be the opposite of it; for they are never present to a man at the same instant, and yet he who pursues either is generally compelled to take the other; their bodies are two, but they are joined by a single head. And I cannot help thinking that if Aesop had remembered them, he would have made a fable about God trying to reconcile their strife, and how, when he could not, he fastened their heads together; and this is the reason why when one comes the other follows, as I know by my own experience now, when after the pain in my leg which was caused by the chain pleasure appears to succeed."

When I read that passage, it made me quite depressed, as it seemed to suggest that all pleasure was simply the relief from pain. However, it can also be read in a more positive way; that our sufferings and frustrations contribute to our joys.

I have written on this subject before, for instance, in this poem (which garnered a surprising amount of comments). I've also touched on it under the aspect of liberty and repression. (And, to be honest, re-reading those posts makes me wonder if I've said everything I have to say on the topic. But I've started, so I'll finish, as Magnus Magnusson of Mastermind fame used to say.)

It seems to me highly desirable that our lives, and the societies in which we live, should combine strain and release in such a way as to give us the fullest benefit of both.

This thought arises from my recent fascination with the Catholic litugical calendar. Today is the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, a solemnity. I've recently evolved the tradition of allowing myself a can of Coke on Sundays and solemnities (I generally avoid Coke, which I could drink by the bucket-load, for the sake of my waistline). I drink it with great relish; pouring it into a glass, holding it up to the light, looking at the bubbles rising to the surface, enjoying all its nostalgic associations, and so forth. Of course, the rarity of the pleasure gives it most of its appeal.

And, even though this is obviously my own private tradition, the principle seems to be intrinsic to the liturgical calendar. Today, Christians often find themselves lamenting the fact that modern society has Christmas without Advent and Easter (insofar as it has Easter) without Lent.

Of course, even the more traditionally-minded Christians can be guilty of this. I've never really observed Lent as penitentially as I should. When it comes to fasting, especially, I find this very difficult, since over-eating is my biggest vice. Anne Widdecombe, the retired English politician, drinks nothing but water during Lent. I don't have that kind of will-power. Nevertheless, I do make some effort.

However, when I think of "strain" in the context of organised religion, I'm not only thinking of fasts and other obvious austerities. I'm also thinking about religious observances.

Occasionally, on this blog, I've remarked on the fact that Mass so often bores me. The paradoxical thing, however, is that this boredom seems strangely enriching, even on a natural level. And perhaps strain is a better term than "boredom".

Why is strain enriching? I don't know. It's very hard to understand the exact reason. It's not simply that there is a sense of relief when it's over, or a sense of satisfaction in having done it. It's more than that. Perhaps mental strain has the same bracing effect on our minds as physical strain has on our muscles-- who hasn't enjoyed the glow of exertion after some manual effort, even if it's just trimming a bush?

This principle doesn't only apply to religion, but to life in general. Take an example familiar to most people; going out to work, having a job. Having to be in a particular place at a particular time, having to get along with people you don't always like, having to sit through meetings, having to humour clients and customers you would gladly push into a lake-- what a bore it all is! And yet, how much we miss it when it's gone! I think the loss of such supports will be a big problem in the post-scarcity, automated society that some people believe we are moving towards.

(I had to abandon this post sooner than I'd intended to. Nevertheless, I feel that I've made all the main points here, and that if I wanted to elaborate on them, it would be a much longer post. I may do so in the future.)

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Three Years of Keeping my Diary

Today is the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. It also marks three years of me keeping my Penzu diary. (Penzu is a diary website. Yes, it's online, but it's private. In fact, "write in private" is their excellent slogan. You can also export a PDF to keep, which I do every month.)

As it has a wordcount feature, I can tell you exactly how long it is: 1,067,605 words long! I've never missed a day. (It's actually quite easy to keep, five or ten minutes here and there at a computer.)

I've chronicled jury service, surgery, funerals, weddings, the abortion referendum, pro-life marches, major storms, Brexit, Donald Trump's election, a visit to a radio studio, several visits to television studios, and lots of other stuff.

I have a complete record of writing my book, from the moment of inspiration (when I was praying the rosary on my morning bus) to the moment I held it in my hand for the first time.

I know pretty much everything I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the last three years!

I record my dreams, when I remember them. I record interesting conversations. I record amusing or memorable incidents I witness on the street or bus or elsewhere. I take notes of the homilies I hear at church. Sometimes I even record little things like a change of shelf layout in the supermarket.

Will anyone ever read it? Well, I will read it, if nobody else does.

It's also a diary of my inner life, as well as my outer life. I record my dreams (when I remember them), my ideas, my fascinations, my internal debates, my reactions to whatever I'm reading. These are especially interesting to re-read. My diary flows into my other writing.

This was the first paragraph I wrote, this day three years ago. (The teen diary mentioned covered less than a year.)

I decided yesterday-- or was it today?-- that I would start keeping a diary again. Strangely enough, it was the memory of a passage in Brideshead Revisited that did it. There is one section set aboard a liner that filled me with a strange fascination with the notion of days, of how our lives are divided into these units. And I remembered, from the computer diary I kept in my teens, how delicious the in-betweeny days seemed to be-- the uneventful, reflective days-- and how each day seemed to have more of an identity when it was preserved in a diary. Even though that diary is long lost, I remember the days I chronicled in it as days because I chronicled them. Hence-- this.

Keep a diary! You'll be glad you did!

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Flee Me On Facebook

I'm quite active on Facebook. It's a terrible temptation to someone like me who is always getting struck by miscellaneous thoughts and likes to have an audience for them.

Not all of my blog readers will be on Facebook. Why should they get off scott-free? Life isn't all beer and skittles. Here are some of my Facebook posts of recent times. All of these are from June!

I've long felt that "stray from the beaten path" is a bad phrase, at least when it comes to a usage such as: "I like to stray from the beaten path." In the figurative sense, I definitely like to stray from the beaten path.

In the literal sense, however, I LOVE beaten paths. I greatly enjoy walking along tracks made through a field by lots of people walking there over time. It's a symbol of so much I love: folk-life, tradition, custom, and so forth.

I suppose I don't really like to stray from the beaten path, when it comes down to it. I like to stray from the asphalted, signposted and floodlit path!

How come there is such a thing as brunch but no such thing as dipper or sunner?

Trams in Dublin have recently been bedecked with rainbow colours and the slogan: "Homosexual, heterosexual, who-gives- a-sexual". A promotion campaign by Smirnoff, the vodka makers.

It is laughable how Christians are always solemnly being told that they are allowed to believe whatever they want but they have no right to impose it on other people, the public square must be kept neutral. How many people find this kind of thing offensive? Plenty of gay people too, I know. I have heard gay people complain about the tackiness of so much done in their name. The tackiness is the worst part.

I was in the supermarket the other day and heard a song with the words: "Everything is better when you're naked", or something like that.

As to why I like snowglobes so much....many reasons, but partly because of the amount of times I find myself thinking such-and-such a thing is "like a snowglobe". They are very versatile metaphorically!

Had a conversation with a colleague about Catholicism. (I didn't look for it.) I was told:

1) Catholicism has to eschew dogmatism if it's to survive in Ireland.

2) The Catholic Church fought science and specifically the theory of evolution every inch of the way.

3) God couldn't have been behind evolution becau
se it was haphazard and could have turned out differently at any one of innumerable junctions. (This one just baffles me.)

So many sighs....

I loved this scene in School of Rock. Better than the whole rest of the movie. I found myself thinking of it today. It would be neat to have this kind of encyclopaedic knowledge on ANY subject.

(You can't really see it unless you expand the pic, but the blackboard lists different trends in popular music, and the links between them.)

Maurice Baring, a friend of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, wrote an autobiography entitled Puppet Show of Memory. I think that's an awesome title.

Here is something I don't understand about the Marxist left. They are willing to denounce Catholics and social conservatives for being "reactionary" and on the "wrong side of history" when it comes to homosexuality, abortion, transgenderism, etc. etc.

But it could easily be said that THEY are reactionary, and "on the wrong side of history", when it comes to trade unions, privatization, zero hour contracts, the commercialization of education, etc. And as a matter of fact, I would often be on their side on these matters.

Surely the important thing is to stand up for what you believe is right, no matter whether your side is in the ascendant or on the ropes? Surely you should support what you think is right whether everybody agrees with you, or whether nobody agrees with you?

When I was in Hull, I saw a little street called The Land of Green Ginger. I assumed it was some kind of publicity stunt, but's had that name for centuries and nobody knows exactly why.

Once, when I was folding overdue letters in the library (before we went fully automated), I saw one addressed to "Pollyhopple Lane". At least, I'm SURE I did. I can't find that name anywhere now. Maybe I got it a bit wrong. It was a street in Ireland.

Do you know any fun or interesting street names?

One interesting little quirk is that Nassau Street in Dublin has a completely different name in Irish, It's Sráid Thobair Phádraig, meaning Patrick's Well Street. (Although the street plate says "Sráid Nassau".)

I love tradition. It's one of the abiding fascinations of my life. And I'm especially interested in Catholic traditions. But what saddens me is the way tradition so often becomes weaponized in Catholicism.

A while back, on Facebook, I asked a question about the devotional songs people remembered singing at Mass. I instantly regretted asking the question as it immediately became a lightning rod for complaining about Vatican II etc.

I have previous experience of this tendency to weaponize tradition. It's happened in Ireland. The Sinn Féin republican party in Ireland, who supported terrorism, used the Irish language and other aspects of Irish tradition (including Catholicism) as a weapon in their fight against the British. They have no real concern for any of those things. They're Marxist internationalists. Their liberal-secular-internationalism is now becoming blatant.

I agree the comparison with Catholicism is not the same because orthodoxy IS a concern and abuses are real. Ironically, Vatican II was faulted for cautioning that popular devotions had to avoid such abuses. (Sadly, this translated into a prejudice against such devotions amongst some.)

But basically, I just find it sad that tradition becomes an occasion for anger and bitterness and enmity rather than joy or piety or devotion. I've avoided talking about Catholic traditions on FB for this reason.

P.S.: It just occurred to me that someone might argue that Catholic traditions SHOULD be weapons, that Padre Pio called the rosary a weapon, etc. Yes, in the sense of spiritual warfare against the demonic. Fine. But I'm talking about inter-Catholic warfare here.

I was sitting on the bus behind two guys who were speaking in Russian, or some East European language. They were chatting away and laughing. Obviously I couldn't understand a word...until one of them said: "Jessica Rabbit" !

This poem from A.E. Housman often comes into my head. I like its originality. The theme is a rather unsual one for poetry...the provincial in the metropolis. Well, it's an unusual theme for short lyric poetry.

From the wash the laundress sends
My collars home with ravelled ends:
I must fit, now these are frayed,
My neck with new ones London-made.

Homespun collars, homespun hearts,
Wear to rags in foreign parts.
Mine at least’s as good as done,
And I must get a London one.

My attitude towards pretty much anything is dictated by this question: Does it destroy or does it preserve? Does it break down or does it build up?

Of course, there are things worth destroying. Of course, sometimes you have to destroy to create. But I do think we should have a BIAS towards preservation, towards creation-- and against destruction and erosion. I do not admire people who find a glee in destruction, and mask it with rhetoric like "mould-breaking", "forward-looking", "progressive", "liberating", etc. etc. etc.

I was on a bus and I was thinking about games. I've realized recently that it's a long time (literally years) since I've played any game of any description. Suddenly I was seized (and "seized" really is the perfect term) with an intense desire to play lots of different games and to know about them. I was thinking especially about games like shove ha'penny, backgammon, and all those traditional kind of games. And this desire was overwhelming for a little while.

I get these fancies all the time. I've had them for as long as I can remember. It can be something completely random and sometimes even difficult to put into words. It's very strange.

In my letter to the editor today, I was responding to the main columnist of the Irish Times, who was arguing that our old national anthem is now outdated because "We have an open, fluid, multilayered identity."

Here is the thing that baffles me: this man is SIXTY. I can understand how, in your teens or perhaps your twenties, that kind of talk-- "open, fluid, multilayered", etc-- would seem exciting and clever and subversive. But....when you are thirty? When you are forty? When you are fifty? When you are sixty? How could you still find that inspiring, or indeed anything but clapped-out and banal? This isn't rhetoric on my part. I GENUINELY don't get it. Surely at a certain age a person should see past what is ephemeral to what is enduring.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Body and Soul

There are two things I intensely dislike, when it comes to society and social relations-- a body without a soul, and a soul without a body. This thought came into my head today, unbidden.

I was washing my hands and thinking about the song "Soul of my Saviour". I've been trying to learn some of the songs I've heard at Mass over the years. (I mean the more traditional ones, not the awful modern ones.)

Reading about this song on the internet, I came across an intriguing comment that it was sometimes considered an Irish folk hymn, as it was very popular in Ireland. Then I found myself wondering how often it had been sung, in how many churches, over how many years...

And that led me to a thought which very often comes into my mind...that religion needs routine, repetition, custom, actions, infrastructure. It needs a body.

How quickly "spiritualized" religion evaporates! How often somebody declares that they are a devout Christian but that they don't go in for ceremonies and rituals and the "outward trappings" of religion.

The problem is that, when you remove these "outward trappings", the religion doesn't really have anywhere to breathe, to express itself, to manifest itself.

You could say that it manifests itself in the actions of the believers. But this is simply to collapse religion into a code of ethics, when it's so much more than that. Similarly, you could say that it manifests itself in the believer's inner state. But the inner requires the outer.

It's funny how quickly writers, musicians and other artists turn to the "outwards trappings" of religion in order to express an atmosphere of exaltation, or awe, or solemnity, or indeed of otherworldliness.

A soul needs a body. A religion requires ritual, ceremony, repetition. And repetition entails boredom.

It may not be the case with saints, but in the vast majority of cases, I truly believe that religion requires boredom.

In fact, I truly believe that everything that has value requires boredom. There must be repetition for anything to develop a soul, a character. A saying has to become a cliché before it can become a proverb. A book or movie or song has to become an old chestnut before it becomes a classic. And so on.

Another example is poetry. I would argue that modern poetry has been entirely "spiritualized". There is still such a thing as "contemporary poetry", to the extent that there are poets who publish volumes of poetry, critics who write about them, etc. But it no longer has a body in the sense that it no longer has a critical mass of readers. There is only the pyramid-- there is no base of the pyramid. A new poem doesn't pass into the everyday discourse of the people in the way poetry did in the days of Tennyson or Kipling. They are not quoted by journalists, taken up by musicians, imitated by imitators, etc.

So much for the soul without a body. What about the body without a soul?

Well, this is a bit easier to explain. It's what we mean when we talk about a soulless dormitory suburb or a soulless indoor shopping centre. I like G.K. Chesterton's description of George Bernard Shaw: "Mr. Shaw has no living traditions, no schoolboy tricks, no college customs, to link him with other men. Nothing about him can be supposed to refer to a family feud or to a family joke. He does not drink toasts; he does not keep anniversaries; musical as he is I doubt if he would consent to sing. All this has something in it of a tree with its roots in the air. The best way to shorten winter is to prolong Christmas; and the only way to enjoy the sun of April is to be an April Fool. When people asked Bernard Shaw to attend the Stratford Tercentenary, he wrote back with characteristic contempt: "I do not keep my own birthday, and I cannot see why I should keep Shakespeare's." I think that if Mr. Shaw had always kept his own birthday he would be better able to understand Shakespeare's birthday—and Shakespeare's poetry."

The college I attended, the Dublin Institute of Technology, was more or less a body without a soul. It was a relatively new institution in a new building, with none of the lived-in, time-hallowed look that a university or college is supposed to have...certainly no dreaming spires! There were no eminent graduates, no college legends, no grainy group photographs of old classes. By the standards of most institutions, it would be unfair to call it soulless. There were certainly lecturers who were characters, clubs, societies, and so forth. But by the standard of a college, it was soulless.

So there you have it...I'm opposed to both materialism and gnosticism, when it comes to social institutions. Soul and body are equally necessary.

On a Calendar Picture of Bondi Beach

When was that day, so far away,
That far-off day on Bondi Beach?
What did they talk about, these folk
Who sunned themselves on Bondi Beach?
Of all who stood there on the sand
Who was the last to take Death's hand?
I seem to hear the sea-gulls screech

On Bondi Beach.

If only every instant were
Just like this sketch of Bondi Beach!
If every moment, everywhere,
Was solid like this Bondi Beach.
If every action, motion, laugh,
Endured just like a photograph
Eternity would be in reach
Like Bondi Beach.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

On the World Cup, and Sundry Related Matters

It's soccer World Cup time again! Reader, do you love this? Or do you hate it? Or does it leave you indifferent?

I love it, and I'll try to explain why in this blog post. There are several reasons, and I'll leave the one that interests me the most until last.

First of all, soccer is my favourite game to watch. I like how it flows. I much prefer it to spasmodic, stop-start games such as rugby, where stoppages seem more common than actual play.

I also like the rarity of goals. Nick Hornby wrote about this in his memoir Fever Pitch. (He's a hideously politically correct writer, but it's a good book.) A soccer match can easily be a nil-nil draw. Goals are not to be presumed. They are a big deal when they come along.

(Although not as big a deal as they are in the Eton Wall Game, where they are usually scored once a decade or so.)

Reader, this might shock you, but I was a massive soccer fan throughout my teens, and I had a slowly diminishing interest in it through my early twenties. I was such a huge soccer fan that my family (and others) sometimes complained that I was a soccer obsessive. My little brother was an even bigger fan.

We both became soccer fans during the 1990 World Cup in Italy, which was the first World Cup that Ireland qualified for. This was a watershed moment in Irish social history, and it was also a watershed moment in my own awareness of the world. My memory before the 1990 World Cup is patchy. After the 1990 World Cup, it's much more continuous.

The World Cup was a massive event in Ireland. The entire country seemed to be talking about it. I'd never experienced national unity of this kind, and it shaped many of my views about national consciousness and social solidarity.

But I get ahead of myself...

Some people, especially conservatives, are very grumpy about sports. Peter Hitchens (who I greatly admire in most things) often complains about the "cult" of soccer, dismissing it as "twenty-two men chasing a bladder around a field". The Australian novelist Patrick White was withering about the Australian love of sports. One of my lecturers, in college, once derided sport as "form without substance."

I can remember thinking even at that moment: "Well, you could say the same about so many things." You could say the same about classical music, non-representational art, fireworks, dancing, and any number of other prestigious activities.

Utilitarianism is one of the things I detest most of all, and contempt for sports is a manifestation of utilitarianism. I also think it's a form of philistinism.

I don't even like defences of sport which defend it on the ground of its incidental virtues. People defend sport because playing it keeps you fit, teaches you team-work and discipline, and so on. Sport as a spectacle is sometimes cherished as a tradition or a part of one's identity.

I'm all in favour of all those things, but I think it's important to insist that sport doesn't need any of those justifications. The clue is in the name itself: SPORT. It's done for the sport of it!

Once again, I have occasion to quote one of my favorite lines from G.K. Chesterton: "The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn." The whole created universe is an act of divine grace, utterly gratuitous and for its own sake. Why should sport not exist for its own sake?

I'm not saying all those other dimensions aren't important. I wish I enjoyed Ireland's major national games, hurling and gaelic football, since they are such important cultural traditions. But I don't-- partly because of the gameplay itself, and partly because of associations from my childhood that I can't shake off. I'm glad they exist, I'm glad they thrive, but I don't enjoy watching them.

On the other hand, I don't like that soccer is such an orgy of commercialism, and that it's the game of globalization. I'm sad to see it making strides in the USA (since this diminishes American exceptionalism). But there is a danger of seeing the cost of everything and the value of nothing-- which is Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic.

All of this makes it sound like I'll be glued to the television during the World Cup. But that's not the case. I've already watched a few minutes of it, and I might watch a game or two. On the other hand, I might not.

And here we come to the main theme of this blog post, the one that interests me the most.

I love the World Cup because, even if you don't watch a single game, it's still there. It's in the background, in the atmosphere. I love everything of that nature.

I love Christmas for this reason. I love Halloween for this reason. The same goes for general elections, parades, demonstrations, snowstorms, the seasons of the year, crazes of every kind, TV broadcasts that grip the nation, the liturgical year of the Church, big cinema releases, and so forth.

I love everything that's just there, in the background, and which gives flavour and character to a particular moment in time.

A good example of this is the refrain from "A Fairy-Tale of New York", the Pogues song:

The boys from the NYPD Choir were singing Galway Bay
And the bells were singing out for Christmas Day.

The simple addition of a background event makes the vignette so much more vivid. (Famously, the New York Police Department has no choir.)

Writers of all kinds love to add such backgrounds into their works, even when they have nothing to do with the main theme. For instance, Die Hard would be a much lesser film if it wasn't set at Christmas. 

(Mention of Christmas, however, leads me to my usual gripe about has too much of a monopoly when it comes to traditions, and also when it comes to this kind of backdrop in art and fiction. It's depressing that the two examples above are both Christmas examples.)

One of the things I love about these "backgrounds" is the scenery they provide to the "puppet show of memory" (to steal a wonderful phrase from Maurice Baring, a friend of G.K. Chesterton, who gave his autobiography this title.) When you remember a particular moment from your life, the presence of some background atmosphere such as the World Cup, or a hit single that was hugely popular at the time, or a snowfall, makes it so much more vivid-- and also richer. (Of course, this need not be a purely private pleasure. Such seasoning also flavours "Do you remember...?" conversations.)

Indeed, the same is true of things that happened before your birth-- the atmosphere of a particular historical moment gives added flavour to a photograph, story, film or other artifact from that time.

The World Cup has its own traditions. In previous blog posts, I've mentioned the book Don't Shoot, I'm Not Well! by Ted Bonner, a collection of very old-fashioned humorous essays from 1974. One article was full of advice for "World Cup widows", women whose husbands would be wedded to the television for the month of the World Cup. This was a fairly common World Cup trope until recently-- of course, political correctness is likely to discourage it. (An internet search quickly encounters an article denouncing its "sexism"-- by somebody I knew in college, I'm ashamed to say.)

I'm conscious that the theme of this post is rather similar to some of my recent posts. I suppose this sort of subject has been on my mind a lot recently. But the advent of the World Cup makes it topical.

I hope England win it. And failing England, Germany.

Friday, June 15, 2018

In Season and out of Season

The title of this blog post is, of course, taken from the Second Letter to Timothy: "Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season".

The word season is a magical word to me. I have mentioned this before in previous posts. I love the "Unto everything there is a season" passage from Ecclesiastes, and I fully understand why it's so popular.

The very existence of seasons has always seemed like a gift to me. "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" much less we would value those mists and that mellow fruitfulness if they were there all year round!

I can easily imagine a world with no seasons. It's a horrible thought.

The word "season" itself delights me. Ireland's current President, a Marxian intellectual named Michael D. Higgins, is also a poet. One of his poetry collections is called The Season of Fire. The poetry is dreadful, but I adore the title.

In fact, the very names of the seasons are poetry to me. The first time I heard the phrase "Those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer", I thought it was the most evocative phrase in the whole world. Similarly, the title of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale bewitches me.

So I love seasonality. I love the cycles of nature and the cycle of life. I love the liturgical year. 

And yet, some months ago, I became aware of an apparent contradiction in my own thought, and in the thought of conservatives (and fogies) in general, which gave me some cause to ponder. I tried to write about it on Facebook and on the Irish Conservatives Forum, but I don't think I was very successful. I'll try again, in the comparative leisureliness of this blog.

At the time this contradiction occurred to me, I was reading academic articles about Idylls of the King, Lord Alfred Tennyson's epic narrative poem. One of the perks of my job is that I have access to various online databases and the electronic holdings of various academic journals, many of which have had their whole archives digitised. So I printed off about a dozen articles and took them home to read.

The articles were drawn from various different decades, and I was struck by their frequent references to academic currents. For instance, many authors compared Victorian idealism to mid-twentieth century cynicism. Loftiness and otherwordliness were celebrated when Tennyon was writing The Idylls, while disillusionment and anti-romanticism were more prized between and after the World Wars. And many authors referred familiarly to the academic fashions which were dominant at the time they were writing their articles.

Now, I've generally considered myself an implacable foe of intellectual fashions. When I was in college (and even before) I raised my banner against post-modernism, post-structuralism, and all those other fads. I viewed them with utter contempt, and railed against them.

And I still do, for the most part. They seem to me like a sickly and feverish manifestation of intellectual fashion.

But might there be a healthy sort of intellectual fashion, and literary fashion, and artistic fashion?

Why not? After all, there have always been fashions in these things. Schools of architecture and art and poetry are clearly identifiable down through the centuries.

In fact, when you really think about it, it would be strange if there were no such intellectual fashions. The world changes and we change with it. Surely the arts and culture of a society will be shaped by historical events, technological changes, social changes, discoveries, and so forth?

Even without those changing conditions, surely a change of mood and emphasis is inevitable. We can't even repeat the same word or phrase over and over without using different intonations as we go along.

The problem with modern intellectual fashions, it seems to me, is that they are so exaggerated and self-conscious. And just downright silly. I wouldn't dismiss postmodernism out of hand, especially as a diagnosis rather than a programme, but it has been a justification for any amount of nonsense.

I'm not talking about those extremes here. But, outside those extremes, might conservatives be too dismissive of the "spirit of the age", of the zeitgeist, and even of fashion?

Why are we appreciative of character and diversity when it comes to geography, but not when it comes to time? Every conservative is happy to discover a local custom or a regional tradition, and wishes to keep them alive. He is usually even more anxious to preserve national and regional character. So why are conservatives so unappreciative of "character" in the order of time?

Of course, the truths of religion and morality should be a constant. But how much lies outside of those!

I even think that my beloved G.K. Chesterton was sometimes too dismissive of his own zeigeist. He very often complained about frock coats and top hats, which seem like delightful period pieces to us now. (At the same time, I think the vast bulk of his criticisms of his era were spot on, including criticisms of such intangibles as mood and atmosphere.)

I've been a contrarian all my life. I grew up with a marked antipathy to any kind of fashion or trend. I admired people who were self-consciously archaic and sought to carry the atmosphere of a bygone age around with them. But are we missing something if we do this? Should we enter into the spirit of the age, as we would enter into the spirit of Christmas? Or, if we cannot enter into it, should we at least be more tender towards it?

Or perhaps we might grant that the spirit of the age is a good thing, something that makes life more interesting...yet, at the same time, insist that fogeys also make life more interesting. We can appreciate the frock coats and top hats of Chesterton's era today, but it doesn't give us any less appreciation for his own epoch-defying cloak and swordstick.

Whatever the correct attitude might be, I hope you might also find this subject ponder-worthy!

Thursday, June 14, 2018

A Review of my Book

My book had a review in print today! On the books page of The Irish Catholic. It's reviewed along with another book about saints.

You can read it here.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Blessed Solanus Casey

One of the saints I featured in my book Inspiration from the Saints (which you can buy at the Amazon link to the right!) was Blessed Solanus Casey, a Capuchin friar and priest who lived in America and died in 1957. His beatification came just as I was writing the book. (Obviously, as he has not been canonized, I am using the term "saint" loosely.)

Blessed Solanus is an extraordinarily interesting figure. I only learned about him relatively recently, through an Aid to the Church in Need pamphlet which I borrowed from a Legion of Mary stall a few years ago. But he's become one of my favourite saints already.

I've just finished reading a book about him, Father Solanus Casey by Catherine Odell. It was originally written in 1988, and updated for his beatification last year. It's a good book, although it does suffer from the besetting sin of all saints' biographies: speculation about what the saint "must have" thought and felt on such-and-such an occasion. Stick to the facts, please!

I read the book because I was hungry for more information about Fr. Solanus. I'd read and watched everything I could find on the internet (including through my library's online resources), but I kept coming across the same few details over and over again. I wanted more.

Fr. Solanus was renowned as a miracle worker, and it's impossible to read accounts of his life without believing that he was indeed the conduit for many, many miracles. While I find this fact extremely interesting as an indication of his holiness, I have very little interest in the specifics of the miracles (to the extent that I was tempted to skip over them, when reading the book). Therefore I won't linger on them here. His miracles mostly involved miracles of healing, but also foreseeing the future.

I'm interested in Fr. Solanus for a few reasons. The main one is that he is so close to me in time and space. I'm much more interested in recent saints than in ancient or medieval saints, and I'm much more interested in the saints of the English-speaking world than I am in saints from continental Europe, or Africa, or Asia. I'm a very provincial person!

Don't get me wrong. I rejoice to be a member of the universal Catholic Church, and I rejoice in its rich history. But I'm happy for that to be backdrop, when it comes to my own particular interests.

Blessed Solanus, of course, was Irish-American. Both of his parents were first-generation immigrants from Ireland. He never came to Ireland, but he seems to have had a strong sense of Irish heritage-- he wrote a letter to the newspapers in 1922 in which he claimed that lovers of Ireland should oppose the Irish Free State simply because Britain supported it. (Like many Irish-American nationalists, he may have taken a rather simplistic view of the conflict. I have read in another source that Fr. Solanus lately wondered if he had gone too far in his nationalist rhetoric, but this book doesn't revisit the subject.)

He grew up on a farmer, with sixteen other children, some of whom also became priests and nuns. He worked as a streetcar operator, and he proposed to a girl whose mother discouraged the affair. She seems to have been his only girlfriend.

Although he was always pious, a few close encounters with death made him contemplate his life's purpose, and he entered a seminary for the diocesan priesthood, in Milwaukee. Here, he struggled, as the tuition was entirely through German (German immigration was high in this area, and there were language politics between German Catholics and Irish Catholics). His grades were actually quite good, but despite this he was told that he would not be equal to the academic demands of the seminary, although he was also told that he did indeed have a vocation and that he might be better suited to a religious order.

He visited the Capuchins in Milwaukee, but was rather discouraged by their way of life, and especially by the long untrimmed beards that they wore.

He prayed a novena for guidance with his mother and sister, and he also made a private vow of chastity at this time. (He was twenty-five.) During the novena, he felt God urging him to go to Detroit, where the Capuchins had another branch.

The story of his journey to Detroit is magical, one of my favourite saint stories of all. I am going to take the liberty of transcribing Odell's account in full:

In the midst of a blinding snowstorm, he left Superior on December 20 and headed southwest for St. Paul on the 11:00 p.m. train. From St. Paul, his train then headed east, pulling along slowly through drifting snow to Milwaukee. After a brief stayover there, during which Barney [his birth name] stayed with Capuchins for the first time, he boarded a train again. Down through Chicago and over through Michigan, his train headed for his goal-- Detroit.

On Christmas Eve, the train pulled into the station in Detroit at last. Barney located a streetcar and headed for Mt. Elliott Avenue. There, at 1740 Mt. Eillott, the young man finally arrived, well after dusk. Exhausted, he refused the offer of dinner. He was too tired. Upstairs, on the second floor, he was shown to his room; a simple, stark little space with a wooden door latch. The sight of it immediately renewed his fears of this Capuchin austerity. But, spent with the strain of travel, he pulled off his shoes and heavy coat, still wet with snow, pulled a blanket up over himself, and soon fell into a heavy sleep.

Just before midnight, he awoke to the sound of hand chimes and the voices of men singing. They were singing Christmas carols in German. It was Christmas Eve! As the voices grew louder, Barney could hear other men getting out of bed and coming down the corridor to join their voices with the little group of carolers. Barney joined them, and his heart was lifted. The gloom over his decision to follow Our Lady's orders and "go to Detroit" left him.

Down and around, through the darkened corridors, the carollers moved. Carrying candles, they roused the other Capuchins who then followed down into the chapel for Christmas Midnight Mass. It was a moving, joy-filled occasion and initiated a week or more of fesitivites.

That story has it all! Trains, snow, Christmas carols, a sudden change of is my favourite part of this saint's life story.

Solanus's troubles were not over, however. He also struggled in this seminary, as well, so much so that his superiors hesitated over whether they should ordain him. He was made to sign this humiliating document:

I, Frater [Brother] Solanus Casey, declare that I joined the Order of the Capuchins in the Province of St. Joseph with the sure intention to follow thus my religious vocations. Although I would wish and should be thankful, being admitted to the ordination of a priest, considering the lack of my talents, I leave it to my superiors to judge on my faculties and to dispose of me as I think best.

I will therefore lay no claim whatsoever if they should think me not able or not worthy for the priesthood and I will always humbly submit to their appointments.

Eventually, Solanus was ordained a simplex priest. That meant that he could celebrate Mass, but he couldn't hear confessions or preach. (He was allowed to give short exhortations called "feverinos", but no more.) He was thirty-three at the time of his ordination. He had been twenty-one at the beginning of his studies for the priesthood.

The director of the seminary realized his great holiness, and even predicted that he would be another St. Jean Vianney, a similarly challenged seminarian who eventually became the patron saint of parish priests.

Fr. Solanus was given a potentially humiliating job in his first friary, in Yonkers, New York. He was the sacristan, the person in charge of the altar boys and the preparation of the church for Mass. This job was usually given to friars, not priests. However, Fr. Solanus took it very seriously, as he took all the other jobs he was given through the years. Throughout his career, he was moved to various different postings; New York, Detroit, Indiana. This was a normal part of Capuchin life, but there was an additional motive for it in Fr. Solanus's case, which we'll come to soon.

It was when working as a porter-- the person who answered the friary door-- that Fr. Solanus really came into his own. He quickly gained a reputation as a holy man and a miracle worker. He listened patiently to the problems of visitors to the friary, and urged them to pray to God with confidence. He also took to enrolling them in the Seraphic Mass Association, a Capuchin initiative whereby, for a small fee, a member's prayer intentions would be prayed for by the worldwide Capuchin community. In the case of very poor people, Fr. Solanus would waive the fee. (He was quite careless about money. In later years, he had a secretary who would frequently find banknotes used as bookmarks in his books. On one occasion, the secretary found 153 dollars scattered through Fr. Solanus's room, in this absent-minded way.)

Huge numbers of people began to seek out Fr. Solanus's help. His superiors moved him several times to avoid a "cult of personality", but it made no difference; people travelled huge distances to see him, and he became something of a celebrity in the cities where he lived and worked.

Fr. Solanus was known for his dedication to a devotional work called The Mystical City of God by Venerable Mother Mary Agreda. This huge work, which was written in the seventeenth century and purports to have been in part dictated by Our Lady, was at one time placed upon the Vatican's Index of Forbidden Books. Fr. Solanus's superiors were not wild about him recommending it so often, and they forced him to cease contact with a study group which had formed to read the book, inspired by him.

Perhaps the most appealing thing about the Blessed Solanus is his simplicity. When he did give his short talks, he had very little to say. Above all else, he urged people to give thanks to God, in every circumstance. His journal is filled with the words, "Deo gratias" repeated over and over again. When he was not dealing with callers to the friaries where he worked, he spent long hours in Eucharistic adoration.

Some of the background details of his life are colourful. He enjoyed playing the violin, but was notoriously bad at it-- so bad that a fellow friar once pointedly raised the volume of the radio in order to drive him out of the recreation room. He had a strange breakfast habit-- he would mash all his breakfast, including coffee and orange juice, together in a single bowl. He was a fan of the Detroit Tigers basketball team and he was "ruthless" when it came to billiards.

I was rather relieved to come across a story in which he simply laid aside the receiver, when a particularly voluble woman was seeking his counsel over the phone, picking it up every now and again to make some listening noises. At one point, he even mouthed to the people around him, "She's still talking!", to much laughter. Reading about the saints' attentiveness towards others can be intimidating; it's nice to know that even a saint can sometimes resort to such tactics.

Indeed, the Odell book is interesting as much for the insights into Capuchin life as it is for its insights into the life of Fr. Solanus. His brother Capuchins seem to have treated him as just another friar, despite being well aware of his gifts. I suppose nobody is a saint to those who live with them!

When Blessed Solanus died, in 1957, over twenty thousand people came to pay their respects to him. When he was exhumed as part of the canonization process, in 1987, his body was found to be substantially incorrupt. Miracles have continued to be reported after his death.

A final reason I love Fr. Solanus; he's a contemplative saint, saint whose outward life was very simple. Nearly all my favourite saints are contemplative saints, mystic saints. I have next to no interest in a very active saint such as St. Joan or Arc or St. Columbanus. It is saints such as St. Bernadatte, St. Gemma Galgani, and St. Solanus that fascinate me. But then, one of the glories of the Catholic Church is that, amidst all its profusion of saints, spiritualities and traditions, there's something for everybody!

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Why I Went to a Poetry Reading, and What I Heard There

In his "Cruiskeen Lawn" Irish Times column of the mid-twentieth century, the humourist and professional cynic Myles Na Gopaleen expressed a typically caustic view of poetry readings:

I was once acquainted with a man who found himself present by some ill chance at a verse speaking bout. Without a word he hurried outside and tore his face off. Just that. He inserted three fingers into his mouth, caught his left cheek in a frenzied grip and ripped the whole thing off. When it was found, flung in a corner under an old sink, it bore the simple dignified expression of the honest man who finds self-extinction the only course compatible with honour.

Very funny, of course. But lampooning poetry readings is the cheapest of cheap shots.

Anyway, today I found myself in attendance at one. In fact, I went considerably out of my way to attend it.

Today (a Saturday) was the day of my university's Festival, a day-long festival which has been held in the university where I work for the last few summers. Various different events are held all around campus. I'd never attended before, and I felt guilty about this.

Why did I feel guilty? Because festivals are supposed to be part of what I'm all about, as a traditionalist conservative. "Curtains make a house a home"...that's the slogan I've often used on this blog, to sum up my social philosophy. It might be a little obscure as a slogan, but basically, it means that the "house" of society can only be a "home" when it's softened and domesticated by ritual, ceremony, tradition, custom, and so forth. Well, festivals are certainly a big part of that "so forth". Festivity is deeply conservative.

Not only that, but I'm all in favour of the Festival on account of its paternalism. I love working in a university, a place that seems a little world of its own. I like the idea that a workplace should be more than somewhere you pick up a pay-cheque, that it should have a social and community aspect to it.

One of the reasons I loved Star Trek: The Next Generation when I was growing up was because the crew always seemed to be attending each other's amateur dramatics, concerts and other cultural activities. It's also why I enjoy reading provincial novels, set in the pre-television era, where everybody always seems to be attending charades or a recital in somebody else's house. It's very appealing to think that a community would get at least some of its culture and entertainment at home, especially in these days when we are all plugged in to television and the internet.

Commander Data in a production of Macbeth

As I said, there were events happening all over campus. There was, for instance, a "philosophical café" event in the philosophy department. However, I decided to stay on my own patch, and attend the poetry reading in the library. (There were some other things happening in the library, too, like a "trip down memory lane" of the library's history, and a manuscripts exhibition in the Special Collections section.)

I feel a kind of protective instinct towards poetry. Not only have I loved poetry all my life, but I always think it's one of the things of which there is always too little, which is always being sidelined.

And thereby hangs a tale... The truth, of course, is that poetry itself (or rather, the poetry "establishment" of our era) is far from blameless in this regard. Poetry has been in a slump, and worse than a slump, for at least fifty years. In my view, the last great English language poet was Philip Larkin, and he himself (along with his contemporary John Betjeman) was a throwback. Free verse has ruled the roost for decades.

Can we exculpate the public for this? I don't think so. If there was a public demand for proper poetry, for traditional poetry that rhymes and scans and makes sense, a supply would undoubtedly have risen to meet this demand. But there isn't. There are still excellent traditional poets, such as this young Catholic Englishman. They deserve better of the reading public. It is very hard to develop as a poet without an audience, an audience that is both appreciative and critical.

I knew full well that I wasn't going to encounter this kind of poetry at the poetry reading. And yet, I wasn't too bothered about this. The truth is, I can often enjoy mediocre free verse. In some ways, mediocre free verse is easier to enjoy (in an immediate context) than good traditional verse. Good traditional verse is always demanding of the poet, and often demanding of the reader. You have to let its rhythms and cadences settle into your mind, swirl around in your memory.

There weren't very many people at the poetry reading, but there was a respectable amount. Many were library staff, of course.

A young man punctuated the poetry with songs, accompanying himself on guitar. I thought he was a hipster, but he mentioned being a member of UCD's Newman Society in his time in the university. The Newman Society is a Catholic society. There were some oblique references to Catholicism in a nostalgic song inspired by the folklore collection. There was also a version of "Down by the Sally Gardens" by W.B. Yeats which included Irish language lyrics supplied by the Irish poet Gabriel Rosenstock. In my own college years, I had an animated debate with Mr. Rosenstock in a pub, arguing for the need for rules in poetry. His counter-argument-- that free-verse had its own internal rules-- was one that didn't impress me much then, and it doesn't impress me now. But he was a nice fellow.

The first poet was a young American woman, a black lady with a shaven head. She was one of the "featured poets" at the reading. (The featured poets were those who had been invited to the festival, poets who had achieved some kind of public profile. But anyone could apply to read.) 

Philip Larkin

I didn't enjoy her poetry at all. Even mediocre free verse is only enjoyable if you can follow it, but her poetry was a potpourri of random imagery and phrases. Some of it made some sense-- the first poem gave advice on how to help a depressed "partner". Perhaps this is prejudiced of me, but when I saw her cropped hair I expected she would have nothing good to say about men. However, the poem was quite warm-- it even spoke of "mothering" him. Later on, however, there were some angry feminist moments.

Her other poems included one on the subject of synaesthesia-- in particular, her tendency to associate particular colours with particular people and ideas. A promising idea, but the poem was a mess. Then there was a poem about writer's block. I think it's always a mistake for writers to write about writer's block, and this particular work showed a rather annoying resentment towards the audience who were patiently listening to her and applauding her.

After that, a mature student stepped up to the podium-- a housewifely kind of lady. (Indeed, she arrived with her children.) Her appearance endeared her to me, and I hoped the poetry might be a little more...well, bourgeois. However, I was disappointed. There was one poem about a traffic jam which was coherent enough, but a poem on the theme of "nature" repudiated (rather predictably) the whole idea of nature, and especially of femininity.

Then a young male student stepped up. His first poem was the only decent poem of the day, a work in which he imagined somebody (a woman, I assume) walking towards him. In each verse, she walked towards him on a different "level"-- molecular, historical, romantic, etc. In the last few lines of the poem, the refrain (which was something like "You walk towards me") was shortened word by word, until the final line was simply: "You". That was quite heartfelt and simple, though not at all accomplished. The use of repetition gave it more structure than any of the other poems. However, his other poems were poor.

The last poet I heard was an established Irish poet, an elderly man whose poetry had been published by The Irish Times and Carcanet Press. He began by announcing that he belonged to an older generation and he wrote an older sort of poetry than the previous poets (towards whom he was most complimentary), but to my ears it sounded like just the same sort of free verse, undergirded by the same sort of social and cultural attitudes. As an old fogey, he was a disappointment.

His poetry had, at least, an interesting gimmick-- to my mind, at any rate. All his poetry was about party politics. He announced himself as a partisan of Fianna Fáil, the party who dominated Irish politics until very recently. He claimed that "hegemony" was necessary to culture, in that it provoked a reaction against it. It was the most interesting thing said on the podium all afternoon. (At the same time, it should be borne in mind that party politics in Ireland are rather meaningless-- the two major parties are centrist parties, and the centre has been shifting in a socially liberal direction for decades. So a Fianna Fáil hegemony was certainly not a "conservative" hegemony.)

One of the poems drew heavily on the image of election posters-- and, indeed, I think election posters are very poetic, since they capture a particular moment and atmosphere. The day after the abortion referendum, I heard several of my colleagues agreeing that they should be banned. I can't even understand that attitude.

At this point, there was a sort of half-time break, and I decided I'd had enough. Although the poetry was disappointing, I was still glad I came.

Before I went, I stepped into Special Collections to look at the manuscript display. They were manuscripts from Ireland's Gaelic tradition. They were all written in the Irish language, or at least in Irish and English, and they were very elegantly handwritten. Looking at them, I felt a familiar pang for my own cultural traditions-- but, recently, I've come to the very reluctant conclusion that national traditions are doomed, and that only Catholic traditions are worth actively holding onto.

I walked back through the campus towards the bus-stop. It was a very sunny day and the campus had filled up. Food tents were selling ice-cream, burgers, and other treats. Some children were playing a game of life-size chess. National flags from every country were festooned between the lamp-posts. (One previous year, I noticed the Vatican flag, though I didn't see it this time.) I found myself reflecting, far from the first time, on how I love everything which provides a background; elections, Christmas, Halloween, snow, the Catholic liturgical year...

I'm sorry if this seems a mean-spirited post. I can't pretend that the stuff I heard today is poetry, in the way I understand the term.'s something like poetry. It's better than nothing. And, yes, I'm glad I went.