Thursday, January 17, 2019

On a Dwarfish Contempt for the Present (and Related Topics)

My title is taken from a G.K. Chesterton essay, "The Philosophy of Sight-Seeing", in which he wrote: "It would be really interesting to know exactly why an intelligent person-- by which I mean a person with any sort of intelligence--can and does dislike sight-seeing. Why does the idea of a char-a-banc full of tourists going to see the birth-place of Nelson or the death-scene of Simon de Montfort strike a strange chill to the soul? If there is one thing more dwarfish and pitiful than irreverence for the past, it is irreverence for the present, for the passionate and many-coloured procession of life, which includes the char-a-banc among its many chariots and triumphal cars." (A char-a-banc was an open-topped carriage which held a large number of people, and was used for excursions.)

A Char-a-banc
When I first read this passage, it was one of those rare occasions where I found Chesterton challenging my own outlook. Such occasions don't necessarily result in me changing my attitude-- I revere Chesterton, but I don't idolize him-- but in this instance it did. I realized that I had myself harboured this disdain for tourists and for sight-seeing. I also realized that Chesterton was entirely right to condemn this as "dwarfish and pitiful".

Chesterton strikes a similar note in his more famous essay, "Christmas and the Aesthetes", a chapter from Heretics. This passage was one I could read with an easy heart, as I have always loved Christmas, but it's worth quoting here as it's relevant to my topic:

There are in the modern world an admirable class of persons who really make protest on behalf of that ancient beauty of which Augustine spoke, who do long for the old feasts and formalities of the childhood of the world. William Morris and his followers showed how much brighter were the dark ages than the age of Manchester. Mr. W. B. Yeats frames his steps in prehistoric dances, but no man knows and joins his voice to forgotten choruses that no one but he can hear. Mr. George Moore collects every fragment of Irish paganism that the forgetfulness of the Catholic Church has left or possibly her wisdom preserved. There are innumerable persons with eye-glasses and green garments who pray for the return of the maypole or the Olympian games. But there is about these people a haunting and alarming something which suggests that it is just possible that they do not keep Christmas. It is painful to regard human nature in such a light, but it seems somehow possible that Mr. George Moore does not wave his spoon and shout when the pudding is set alight. It is even possible that Mr. W. B. Yeats never pulls crackers. If so, where is the sense of all their dreams of festive traditions? Here is a solid and ancient festive tradition still plying a roaring trade in the streets, and they think it vulgar. If this is so, let them be very certain of this, that they are the kind of people who in the time of the maypole would have thought the maypole vulgar; who in the time of the Canterbury pilgrimage would have thought the Canterbury pilgrimage vulgar; who in the time of the Olympian games would have thought the Olympian games vulgar. Nor can there be any reasonable doubt that they were vulgar.

William Morris
Chesterton himself could fall into this trap. He did not see the romance of the cinema-- all he could see was how unfavourably it compared to the theatre. He wrote: "Cinemas are so numerous, so cheap, and so changing and disconnected, that I do believe that the spectators soon lose, if they ever had, that romantic and almost religious intensity in the experience." He was also withering about the Edwardian top hat and frock coat, something we tend to find very elegant today.

Most of the time, however, Chesterton possessed an admirable instinct (in my opinion) for discerning which innovations had merit and which did not. Few today will mock him for lamenting the passage from fireplaces to central heating, as much as we appreciate central heating on a cold winter's night. And he has been entirely vindicated in his disdain for Freudian psychology and free verse poetry. And this a very important point to bear in mind: sometimes things do deteriorate, and that loathsome phrase, "People said the same thing back when..." rarely heralds a valid argument.

The whole subject is very interesting and very complicated. I doubt it is possible (or even desirable) to come to a completely objective view of it. Nevertheless, I do think a knee-jerk and unthinking contempt for the present is a trap to be avoided, as it might diminish one's own enjoyment of life, and make one excessively irritating to others.

The reason I think it's a complicated subject is because we need to take human nature into account. "Where ignorance is bliss", wrote the poet Gray, " 'tis folly to be wise". Human nature, surely, must be permitted its harmless follies, vanities, and exaggerations. Too much wisdom, or at least too much reflection, might dry up spontaneity and make us inro prigs of the worst sort. Who could seriously disapprove of an old man lamenting over how better things were in his day, even when he seems deluded? Or who could disapprove of a teenager demanding the whole economic, social and political system of the world be reformed from top to bottom? These types seem like part of life's pageant, something it would be a shame to lose.

G.K. Chesterton
So, when it comes to contempt for the present, let us note the various impulses which seem to spring naturally to the human breast, all of which we must take into account. I can think of three in particular:

1) Nostalgia. I will never say a word against nostalgia! I despair of the man or woman (we will give children a pass) who is immune to nostalgia. In fact, such people (and they do seem to exist) frighten me. They seem inhuman.

Most of us, however, do experience nostalgia. I experience it to an extraordinary degree, and I always have. The ne plus ultra of my own nostalgia, I believe, was when I caught myself feeling sad that the code on a staff door had been changed, after it had been unchanged for a long time.

Nostalgia is sometimes self-conscious and sometimes unconscious. It's reasonable to warn against unconscious nostalgia; presuming that some time or some state of affairs was superior simply because you are seeing it through "nostalgia goggles". However, it's hard to see any objection to self-conscious nostalgia; to nostalgia which is acknowledged as such, and which is a deliberate indulgence of the "warm fuzzies".

(Come to think of it, though, I can think of at least one objection to such nostalgia; sometimes, people will dismiss their admiration of a particular time as sheer nostalgia, out of fear of acknowledging that it was superior in some way to the present. Progressives often do this.)

In general, however, pure nostalgia is universally accepted as harmless, or even desirable in moderation.

2) Human beings also have a delight in the new, in the novel. At least, most people have it to some degree.

This includes me. However, my own delight in the new tends to be on the "micro" rather than the "macro" scale. I might take pleasure in a new book, for instance, but I rarely take any pleasure in social innovations or new inventions. On the contrary, I regard them with great suspicion and trepidation. When I hear of some actual or potential technical breakthrough, such as 3D printing or the cashless society, the first question I ask is: "What will we lose?". And besides this, the mere fact of historical discontinuity bothers me; I like continuities in the drama of life, the drama of history. Change is guaranteed, whereas continuity is precarious. At least, so it seems to me.

Sometimes, though, I come around to celebrating some innovation or other. For instance, I think the internet has generally been a very good thing, despite obvious drawbacks. Certainly, I think a world with television and the internet is much better than a world with television but no internet. And I have come to value the "poetry" of the internet; the poetry of blogs, wikis, forums (or fora), and so on. I may write a blog post about this in the future.

The launch of Windows 95

3) Human beings also seem to have a tendency to perceive particular things as having declined, even when there seems to be little evidence of this. I've noticed this very often, and I've also noticed that it's by no means confined to conservatives.

It happens in workplaces a lot, if my own workplace is anything to go by. (For instance, every five years or so somebody decides that management no longer listens to staff, compared to the glorious prelapsarian era of consultation.) I'm bemused at the amount of times I hear colleagues bemoan some perceived decline which, as far as I can see, is completely imaginary. It's often surprising how specific this is, and how recent.

There seem to be some narratives of decline which are perennially popular. Business is always becoming more impersonal and cynical. Workmanship is always becoming shoddier and things are no longer built to last. Educational standards seem to be in perpetual decline and teenagers of every generation are taken to task for their lack of literacy, imagination or concentration. Decade after decade, children are criticized for their inability to "make their own amusement", in supposed contrast to the generation before that. (I felt the sting of this in my own childhood, when watching television filled me with intense shame. One of my favourite writers, Keith Waterhouse, reports the shame he felt in reading comics as a child. Today, I hear people in their twenties denounce children for their addiction to phones and computer games, as though they themselves had been running around in the fresh air and building tree-houses all day long.)

Even to say all this is a cliché. But the cliché continues to apply.

In general, I would say that criticisms aimed at identifiable deteriorations are reasonable, but vague criticicms-- criticisms aimed at a spirit, or atmosphere, or ethos-- are likely to be imaginary. (But not always. Sometimes I engage in this very activity, and obviously I think I have it right!)

Of the three impulses I describe, this is the one towards which I have the least respect. There is no poetry involved. Nostalgia is poetic and discovery is poetic, but mere kvetching is not poetic at all. It's also depressing, whereas both of the other impulses can be uplifting.

Rather than dwell on the faults of others, I will look at some examples of my own "dwarfish contempt for the past", aside from those already mentioned.

The first example that comes to mind (and, indeed, that prompted this whole post) is my formerly hostile attitude to internet memes.

For a long time, I was disdainful of internet memes. I'm sure you all know what internet memes are. But just in case you don't, they are this kind of thing:

I was disdainful of internet memes because they seemed anti-creative to me. What was the point of using somebody else's witticism, even if you adapted it? Surely a person should come up with their own witticisms?

But over time, I came to rethink this attitude. Couldn't the same criticism be made of proverbs, riddles, and many other forms of folklore? Folklore might even be called anti-creative by its very nature.

Also, memes can be extremely funny and insightful, and are especially good at puncturing the idiocies of political correctness.

Another example of my dwarfish contempt for the present is my former attitude to the superhero genre.

I grew up reading British comics like Eagle, Battle, and Transformers. Superheroes (in the classic sense) didn't really feature in them. Superheroes did not play a large part in my childhood or teens. When the current boom of superhero movies came along, I was withering about them.

A friend, disagreeing with me, pointed out that superheroes were simply the mythology of our era. I dismissed her argument-- they were quite different, I argued. Hercules and Odin and Finn McCool were not invented by scriptwriters and their adventures were not passively imbibed by millions of people sitting in cinemas. They were shared around the campfire or in the mead hall or in some other less passive environment.

Over time, however, I have come to agree with her. I think superheroes are a genuine contemporary mythology. My reading of the website TV Tropes, which often refers to comic books, has inclined me to this view. At this stage, the stories of Batman, Superman, and Spiderman (as well as many others) have penetrated so deeply into our cultural consciousness, it's hard to class them simply as characters in stories. Like mythological heroes, many superheroes have no single definitive backstory or biography. They have entered into that shimmering, timeless realm occupied by archetypes and legends.

I still think there are far too many superhero movies, but I no longer dismiss the genre out of hand.

I have written this blog post over a couple of days, so I have had more time than usual to reflect on the subject. And it occurs to me that it touches on another theme which preoccupies me; the conflict between aspiration and spontaneity, idealism and tolerance, standards and empathy.

Sometimes we have a contempt for the present because we undervalue it; we dismiss something wonderful because it is contemporary, and miss the fact that it really is something wonderful.

Right now, however, I'm talking about something else: a hostility to the present, or some element of it, which comes from standards which (arguably) are too high, too exacting.

Here's another example from my own experience: modern poetry.

I think modern poetry is rubbish. I'm talking about the poetry that is published by prestigious imprints, that appears in literary journals, and that is studied by English professors. I can't think of any famous poet whose work shows any serious merit since the death of Philip Larkin. (Wendy Cope and Roger McGough are genuine poets, but I would consider them minor talents.) Indeed, I would argue that the vast majority of what is called poetry today is not poetry at all. It's not even bad poetry. It's prose arranged in irregular lines.

Philip Larkin
And surely it's not simply the case that mankind mysteriously lost the ability to write poetry. Proper poetry is actively kept down by editors and academics wedded to the ideals of free verse and obscurity. Who knows what we have lost?

So what do we do? For many years I treated contemporary poetry with utter disdain. 

More recently, however, my attitude began to thaw. I first became conscious of this when I found myself listening to a radio interview with a poetess-- almost certainly a perpetrator of obscure free verse. Nevertheless, the interview was quite interesting. Hearing someone talk about their poetry is nearly aways going to be interesting, even if the poetry is dire. After all, they are opening a window to their own soul-- and, if they are speaking in prose, they are at least making sense.

I've come to the view that it's better to have poetry of some kind, or something called poetry, than no poetry at all. So now I will even go so far as to attend a poetry reading, as I describe in this blog post, despite my near-certainty that the poetry on offer is going to fall short of what I would consider poetry. Because I am glad that there is a poetry reading of some kind.

I think this tension, this conflict-- between standards and tolerance, or standards and positivity, or standards and something else-- recurs again and again, especially when it comes to making the most of the present. In the context of this blog post, I'm thinking more of cultural standards than moral standards.

Here is another example that sticks in my mind from a long, long time ago-- the early nineties. I remember, back then, reading an issue of Which? magazine (a UK-based consumer magazine) which was devoted to the subject of toys. In one article, the author was describing a visit to a toyshop with his daughter. He wanted to buy her educational toys, while she was more interested in the collectable toys which are promoted by various TV shows and comics. In the end, they compromised with some of each. (Funnily enough, the same conflict is dramatised in an episode of Frasier, "Frasier Grinch").

This makes me think of my own childhood. I loved collectible action figures, especially Transformers. Was there any value to them? Would I better off if I had been denied them, in favour of more educational toys? It's impossible to say, but I'm very glad I was not denied them. I can still remember the joy I took in them, and how much they meant to me. I can remember that very vividly. They might have been trash, but I loved them, and I don't think they did me any great harm. The memory of the Christmas morning I got Optimus Prime from Santa Claus is one I wouldn't part with for anything.

The conflict of the educational toy vs. the plastic collectible action figure is symbolic of a deeper conflict, one that I often feel in my own heart. I tried to describe it in this post, from many years ago. On the one hand, I am a cultural conservative and a romantic nationalist who finds much of modern life tacky, banal, garish, homogenized, and alienating, and I long for a society that is more traditional, dignified, organic, ceremonial, rooted, high-thinking and plain-living, spiritual, and so on. Here I am in the company of Friedrich NIetzsche, WIlliam Wordsworth, John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, William Morris, Patrick Pearse, and any number of others.

However, there is another part of me which simply delights in the actual-- in newspaper kiosks, traffic jams, social media, TV game shows, text speak, advertising, hidden camera shows, and the whole panorama of contemporary urban and suburban life.

And even when I don't delight in the actual, even when the actual grates on me, I find myself thinking: well, people only have one life to live on this earth. We all have sentence of death hanging over us, as well as all the other afflictions of life; loneliness, disappointment, sickness, depression, boredom, failure...the list goes on, and on, and on. Isn't anything that gives harmless pleasure or diversion, anything that isn't outright immoral, to be welcomed? Especially anything that people can bond over-- thought it may be video games, or celebrity  culture, or Harry Potter fan fiction? 

I think these two poles of my personality, these two attitudes to life, can be summed up in two different snatches of poetry. The first one expresses my priggish side, and comes from Yeat's poem "The Rose in the Deeps of my Heart". I think it can describe the emotions of someone in love with a tradition or an ideal, as much as a human love object: 

The wrong of unshapely things is a wrong too great to be told;
I hunger to build them anew and sit on a green knoll apart,
With the earth and the sky and the water remade, like a casket of gold
For my dreams of your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart. 

The other is from the devastating Philip Larkin poem "The Mower", in which the poet discovers that a hedgehog he has been feeding was accidentally killed by his own lawnmower:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

This is a tension I cannot resolve. Let go of the concern for tradition, for standards, and what do we get? The lowest common denominator. Banality. Boredom. Sameness. Mush. Let go of the tenderness for the actual, and what do we get? Snobbery and sourness and cynicism. Both impulses have to learn to live together-- somehow!

One final word about the present, and the need (in my view) to retain an affection for it. In a previous blog post, I wrote: "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?"

Can even the most hardened reactionary believe that everything about his era is bad, or regrettable? Here is another quotation from G.K. Chesterton, three paragraphs in which he argues that the true lover of humanity should take a sporting relish in its differences: 

Suppose that two men, lost upon some gray waste in rain and darkness, were to come upon the light of a porch and take shelter in some strange house, where the household entertained them pleasantly. It might be that some feast or entertainment was going forward; that private theatricals were in preparation, or progressive whist in progress. One of these travellers might lend a hand instinctively and heartily, might play his cards at whist in a fighting spirit, might black his face in theatricals and make the children laugh. And this he would do because he felt kindly towards the whole company. But the other man would say: “I love this company so much that I dislike its being divided into factions by progressive whist; I love so much the human face divine that I do not wish to see it obscured with soot or grease-paint; I will not take a partner for the lancers, for that would involve selecting one woman for special privilege, and I love you all alike.” The first man would undoubtedly amuse the whole company more. And would he not love the whole company more?

Every one of us has, indeed, been lost in a gray waste of eternity, and strayed to the portal of this earth, over which the lamp is the sun. We find inside the company of humanity engaged in certain ancient festivals and forms, certain competitions and distinctions. And, as in the other case, two kinds of love can be offered to that society. The prig will profess to join in their unity; the good comrade will join in their divisions.

If the stray guests see something utterly immoral in the distinctions, something utterly wicked in the ritual, doubtless they must protest; but they should never protest because the distinctions are distinctions, and therefore in one sense exclusive, or because the ritual is ritual, and therefore in one sense irrational. If the stranger in the house has a moral objection, for instance, to playing for money, he ought to decline, though he ought not to enjoy declining. But he must not ask, “Why am I arbitrarily made a partner with So-and-so?” He must not say, “What rational difference is there between spades and diamonds?” If he really loves his kind, he will, as far as he can, and in the great mass of things, play the parts given him. He will preserve this gay and impetuous conservatism; he will throw himself into the competitive sports of nationality; he will walk with relish in the ancient theatricals of religion.

Well, I'm sure the reader sees the point of the quotation. I think we should have the same sporting attitude towards our era. I would be ashamed not to enter into the spirit of Christmas, of Halloween, or St. Patrick's Day. Why should I not be ashamed (as far as it is compatible with my beliefs and sensibilities) to enter into the spirit of the twenty-first century?

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Craving for Particularity

Time for another one of those very introspective posts which are often surprisingly popular.

In every person's life, I imagine, there are beliefs and attitudes which change, while there are others which remain immutable. A man might pass through any number of social and political positions while remaining rooted in the deep-down convictions, the foundational dispositions which are almost as native to him as the colour of his eyes or his hair.

At least, such has been my own experience. In my time I have been a socialist, an agnostic, a nationalist, an anti-nationalist, a nationalist again, and many other things. But all through my life, I have some loyalties which are so much a part of me that the word "belief" doesn't do them justice. "Yearning" or "craving" might be closer the mark.

One of these is the craving for particularity, for specificity.

For as long as I remember, I have yearned for distinctiveness in time and place-- special times and special places, if you will.

But not just time and space. I have yearned for distinctiveness in all things. I want everything (or at least, a great many things) to be special. To the argument that specialness by its very nature must be limited, I would respond: any number of things can be special in different ways.

I wonder how such cravings begin? I cannot even imagine seeing the world any other way.

The idea of writing this blog post came to me today when I was musing on one my many, many mad ideas-- the idea of getting in touch with the English Literary Society in UCD and suggesting to them that they develop a distinctive literary style for UCD. Or perhaps even a distinctive literary format!

The idea (one I would never actually pursue) pleases me greatly. What could be more wonderful than a university having a particular literary style associated with it? Or, to look at it another way, what could be more wonderful than a particular literary style being associated with a particular university?

Corresponding with this delight in the specific, is its reverse-- a dread of homogenization, of standardisation, of sameness. This dread, also, has afflicted me for as long as I can remember, even back to my childhood.

I wonder if it is a rational fear. It's easy to find evidence of homogenization in this or that, if you go looking for it. For instance, the number of languages spoken in the world is undeniably diminishing.

But how can we ever tell whether the world is becoming more homogenous in general? Might it be the case that diversification and homogenization are always occurring in tandem, the world becoming more diverse in some ways but more homogenous in others?

For instance: it seems clear that the internet, along with cable and satellite TV, has brought about a tremendous diversification in the subject matter of electronic media (and hence, of society and culture in general). Every interest group, no matter how obscure, now has its websites and forums and chat rooms. Personally, I think this is a huge improvement on the days when most people would be tuned in to one of a handful of television channels. However, I have heard many people lament the "balkanization" of the TV audience, and wax nostalgic for the days when the whole family would gather around the gogglebox, and the whole country would be talking about a particular TV show.

Homogeneity is sometimes good. For instance, I am one of those people who believes that it is beneficial for a country to be relatively homogenous in its culture. And, although I am not a Latin Mass Catholic (I refuse to concede the term "traditionalist"), I can sympathise with those Catholics who regret the days when the liturgy was more or less the same all over the Latin rite world.

But, in most cases, I would argue that diversity is better than homogeneity. It makes the world more interesting. You could even say it makes the world bigger, more.

So-- is the world becoming more homogenous? I don't know. But it would seem to be becoming more homogenous in terms of national cultures and ways of life, and that grieves me immensely. I can't remember a time I didn't worry about it. It's rather surprising to me to see it become a burning issue in country after country, with the rise of populism, since I've been worrying about it since I was a little kid.

Another memory swims to the surface of my mind, as I type this-- I remember that I used to feel sad at the lack of countries left to explore, since I loved reading stories about explorers (like The Lost World or Journey to the Centre of the Earth). I also used to worry that all the tunes would run out, that there would be no more songs left to be written. This might not exactly come under the heading of "diversity", but it's something similar. It's a fear of the world being contracted.

When I come to think of it, I chose the word "particularity" for the blog title, rather than "diversity", because it's not just diversity I crave. Diversity in itself, raw diversity, is interesting, but not that interesting. Raw diversity is chaos. Particularity is when one sort of diversity is matched with another-- for instance, a particular place has a particular cuisine. It's a pattern of diversity, rather than random diversity. And it's this, more than anything else, I've always yearned for.

The formula that can describe what I've yearned for is this: X has its own Y. A city has its own accent, or a town has its own newspaper, or a school has its own game, or a family has its own recipe, and so on.

Most of my readers know that I work in the library of University College Dublin. Recently I sent an email to the President of the University, Andrew Deeks, suggesting that UCD should try to develop its own unique sport. I framed this as a form of branding for the university, since branding is one of the latest buzzwords in the university sector. But I wasn't really suggesting it for the sake of branding. I was suggesting it for the sake of reducing homogeneity, and increasing particularity.

("Branding" itself might be a response to homogenization. It's ironic that the very people who, in their working lives, are urging universities and other entities to "brand" themselves, are almost certainly advocates of homogenizaton and globalization when it comes to politics and culture-- "breaking down barriers", "transcending boundaries", etc. etc.)

I think genre fiction may be one of the sources of my love of specialness. In science-fiction or fantasy, the hero travels to a world or a country that is very distinctive, that is marked by very particular characteristics-- Rivendell or Narnia or Krypton. The same is true of horror-- the protagonist comes to a town or village which is clannish, suspicious of outsiders, and harbours some terrible secret. It has a character all its own, its own identity. I think this motif goes back to mythology and folklore, although I'm not well-versed enough to give any examples from my own reading. But ultimately, I think the yearning for special times and places is rooted in human nature, in the human desire to find patterns and meaning. At any rate, I can't believe I "got it" from anywhere in particular-- I believe it's part of my very constitution.

I thought this blog post would be longer than it is, but I feel I have explained the idea sufficiently now. It's a simple concept, but it pervades everything I do and write and think. Perhaps I will revisit it another time.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Family Folklore

How fragile are these threads of gossamer
Stretched from one generation to the last,
Or to the next, or just from year to year;
The rock-hard scones, the lecture in Belfast,
The day your father just escaped the blast,
Summer on summer spent in Inisheer.
A history without a chronicler,
A hardly-known and all-but-endless past.

In almost every house in every street
In every town, in all the world, these scenes
Would mean as little as a doorless key;
They are like the familiar face we meet
In some strange place, or like the name that means
Nothing to all the world-- but all the world to me.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Inspiration from the Saints Round-Up

I'm going to put all the reviews and notices of my book Inspiration from the Saints into one blog post.

The and the links (where you can buy the book) have a few reviews-- five on the first and seven on the second. Some of the reviews appear on both sites.

This very positive review appeared on the Some Definite Service blog, and contains the comment on my writing that has pleased me the most, ever. (Well, aside from something my wife posted on Facebook.)

Francis Phillips of the Catholic Herald posted this lovely review on the Herald's website, and later chose it as one of her favourite spiritual books of 2018.

Fr. Donncha Ó hAodha gave the book a warm review in the journal Position Papers.

I was interviewed about the book on the Opus Dei website, with a special focus on St. Josemaria Escriva, who is often mentioned in it.

Canadian book reviewer Steven R. McEvoy included it in his list of favourite non-fiction books read in 2018. His review can be read on the Amazon links.

Peter Costello of the Irish Catholic was less enthusiastic, but his comment that the book could have been written in 1956, while not literally true, is quite insightful, and I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing. It's the second review of the article.

Roger Buck, author of The Gentle Traditionalist and Cor Jesus Sacratissimum, talks about the book in this video, around one hour and forty-seven minutes in. (Of course, it's all worth watching!).

And a Swedish reader, Tomas, reviews the book on this very blog.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

The Kraken by Lord Alfred Tennyson

Memorising poetry has been a recurring theme in my life. At first, in my teens, I didn't have to memorise it. It just stuck in my memory. The first time I became aware of this phenomenon was when I was walking home from school, aged thirteen or fourteen, and realised I knew A Prayer for my Daughter by W.B. Yeats off by heart-- a poem of eighty lines.

This ability to effortlessly memorise poetry was highly erratic-- it depended on the poem. In any case, it's long gone. At least since my twenties, I've had to make a deliberate effort, if I wanted to commit poetry to memory.

And I have done so, at different times. Every few years, I'm struck with a desire to memorize poetry, ballads, and sometimes other material. There's something very appealing in the idea of having culture in your head, carrying it about with you, having it as a part of you. Reading old books, I'm often put to shame by the familiarity of previous generations with the Bible, classics of English poetry, Shakespeare, and other cultural treasures-- not only knowing about them, but having selections from them on the tip of the tongue.

Once, some years ago, I recited "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe at a dinner party-- a poem of one hundred and eight lines. I got my hosts to lower the lights for the recitation, and held a single lighted candle in my hand. My plan was to blow it out before the last "Nevermore"-- unfortunately, I had some difficulty doing so, which rather ruined the effect.

The problem with memorising poetry is that, even when you've done so, it doesn't stay in your head unless you keep refreshing it. I couldn't recite "The Raven" now. So my most recent round of memorizing poetry includes a resolution to keep it fresh in my mind, by regularly reciting my repertoire (silently, for the most part). It gives me something to do in queues and at bus stops.

This rather long preamble serves to explain why I was memorizing "The Kraken" by Lord Alfred Tennyson today, despite the fact that I had memorised it before.

Come to think of it, though, I hadn't memorised it before. I'd tried to memorise it. I can remember the occasion quite vividly-- I was waiting to take the ferry to Wales, en route to England. I think I was twenty-seven. (This was the same trip on which I had the powerful experience of hearing ordinary people speak Welsh in the streets of Holyhead.) Perhaps the fact that I was making a sea crossing influenced the choice of poem. In any event, I remember struggling to learn it, despite the fact that it's only fifteen lines long. I must have forgotten about it when I got across the water.

The poem is one of Tennyson's earliest, published when he was twenty-one. It is on page six of my Collected Works. Here it is:

The Kraken

Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
Battening upon huge sea worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

Memorizing the poem today, I found myself appreciating just how wonderful it is. (That's another virtue of learning poems off by heart.)

I don't know much about the legend of the Kraken. The internet tells me it's a sea monster reputed to lie off the coast of Norway and Greenland. My first encounter with the term "Kraken" was when I owned an Action Force figure of that name, as a child, though he looks more like a lizard-man than a sea monster.

"The Kraken" is sometimes called an irregular sonnet, since it is fifteen lines long, rather than the more traditional fourteen lines. Aside from the extra line, it is patterned like a Petrarchan sonnet-- a format I greatly prefer to the Shakespearean sonnet, since the closing rhymed couplet of the Shakespearean sonnet has always seemed rather glib-sounding to me.

The first thing I like about this poem is its originality. There aren't very many poems about sea-monsters. Considering that a poem can take anything as its subject, it's a shame that poets generally confine themselves to such a narrow range of subjects. I grant that some subjects can never be played out, and will always be of overwhelming interest. But surely there should be room for more variety, even when due attention has been paid to the perennial themes.

Much of the pleasure of this poem comes from its simple descriptiveness, its picture painting. It's rare for me to enjoy this-- descriptive writing is generally the sort of writing I hate above all others. However, the description in this poem is not sustained long enough to become tedious, and is pleasingly vague.

The picture itself is an awe-inspiring one. Who doesn't enjoy imagining life in the ocean depths, a world completely alien to us? It's an once soothing and exciting. The superhero film Aquaman is top of the box office as I write, attesting to the enduring appeal of this idea.

Personally, I have always loved water. I don't mean drinking it, of course; I can't stand drinking it. I mean splashing about it in it, being immersed in it. I would love to be able to live underwater.

"The Kraken" is especially appealing in its picture-painting because it envisages "the abysmal sea" where only "faintest sunlight" reaches. (Tennyson's oceanography is inaccurate, but who cares?) Perhaps this poem appeals to me so much because I am fascinated by depths, both physical and figurative, and by hidden and secret places. "Abyss" and "abysmal" are among the most exciting words in the English language. "From many a wondrous grot and secret cell" is another line that excites this particular fascination.

In fact, this poem uses a lot of exciting words. Sometimes the appeal of a poem, or much of its appeal, lies in its use of evocative words. "The Sphinx" by Oscar Wilde might be the best example of this, but "The Kraken" is a good one. For instance, the line "Unnumbered and enormous polypi" gives me an intense pleasure, simply because it uses the rare and pleasing word "polypi"-- not often drawn on by poets.

The line "Huge sponges of millennial growth and height" is another magnificently evocative line. I believe the genius of a poet can often be seen in the choice of a single word, and Tennyson's choice of millennial here is such an occasion. It's utterly inspired, and I find myself wondering how he thought of it.

"Ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep" is yet another line that pleases me vastly. I have written elsewhere on this blog about my fascination with sleep, though my fascination is with dreamful rather than dreamless sleep. The use of three adjectives in a row is powerful, adding a sense of grandeur and consequence.

The term "the latter fire" is strange, memorable and potent, doubtless referring to the end of the world. "Once by men and angels to be seen" is an elegant construction, taking the poem from a geological to a Biblical time-scale. It also shows how a little bit of stiffness or archaism can add to a poem: "By men and angels to be seen" is infinitely more powerful than "to be seen by men and angels."

The last line is very vivid, especially in its contrast with the rest of the poem, which has been full of references to silence and semi-darkness and sleep. "In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die."

The statement is intriguing and I've always found it rather sad. Why should the Kraken die on the surface? And why has he been sleeping so long? I'd assumed until now that this was a reference to either marine folklore or the Book of Revelation, but it doesn't seem to be. It seems to be Tennyson's own invention.

On the metaphoric level, it makes sense. Tennyson had a somewhat harsh view of nature, and saw it as something to be controlled and disciplined. His long poem cycle "Idylls of the King" opens with King Arthur taming a Britain which is seen as having degenerated into a wilderness: "The beast was more and more, and man was less and less". The vows his knights take involve a curbing of their natural instincts, and as Camelot itself falls apart, several characters suggest Arthur's demands of his knights are actually unnatural. In another poem, Tennyson famously celebrates the three virtues of "self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control".

How typically Victorian, this concern with repression! However, perhaps the Victorians were not so far wrong. Indeed, progressives now seem to have become quite keen on repression, especially when it comes to expressions of male sexuality. Repression seems to be a concept we can't get away from, and its permanent relevance to human life might be part of what gives "The Kraken" its power. But I must admit I enjoy it more for its literal sense than for any psychological undertones which might be present in it.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Perspective of the Hospital Bed

Over Christmas, I was reading a book about the poetry of Louis MacNeice. The book was far too critical for my liking-- the author seemed to think MacNeice had written a handful of decent poems, at best-- but it reminded me of MacNeice's importance to me at a certain stage of my life. Indeed, he is still important to me, but there was a time when MacNeice's poetry more or less expressed my own philosophy.

MacNeice's poems dwell on the transience of life and the challenge of finding meaning in the face of death. He was an eternal agnostic, not only when it came to religion, but when it came to politics and all other grand unifying theories. Although an extremely cultured and educated man, he didn't even make a religion out of art (as many others do, being unable or unwilling to find a life philosophy anywhere else). He was as sceptical of aestheticism as of any other worldivew. However, culture was probably the closest he came to a religion.

Reading the book brought to mind, with renewed force, my own preoccupation with mortality and transience. These brute facts have always loomed over me and influenced my view of the world. How could they not, I wonder? 

And yet, some people seem unaffected by these realities. Many people throw themselves into ephemeral controversies, one after another. Or become infatuated with the latest crazes in pop culture, which will be forgotten almost immediately.

It might be argued that even the enduring things are only comparatively enduring, and that, seen in proper perspective, today's headlines are no more ephemeral than some "timeless" book or poem. One may as well live for the moment: eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

All the same, peoples' responses are different. The inevitability of death and the transience of all things might prompt some people to hedonism, or to wring the last ounce of experience from life. But they turn my mind towards traditionalism, and a horizon that stretches beyond us into the past and the future. If our lives are short, they can at least be lived against a larger backdrop-- family history, national history, customs and traditions, old books and paintings, and so forth-- which gives them greater dignity and meaning.

I'm baffled by the impulses that drove the May 1968 protestors in France. How long did they think this frenzy of renunciation could last? Did they believe they would be eighteen forever?

One experience which has straightened these feelings is that of visiting somebody seriously ill in hospital. I've had this experience on more than one occasion. I don't want to be too autobiographical.

For good or for bad, this has become to me a test of what matters in life: how the world looks from the side of a hospital bed, visiting somebody who may never leave the ward again.

Perhaps this explains my intense dislike of silence. I cannot join the panegyrics to silence, which seem almost universal. When I think of silence, I think of sitting beside somebody seriously ill in a hospital bed, desperately trying to think of something to say, but failing. The words of Philip Larkin apply: 

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

What do you talk about, when you are talking to someone who may not live out the month, or the week?

Someone once told me a story about visiting a relative in a hospital. The relative, who spent all day on her back, said: "I feel like all l I have left is that spot on the ceiling." (If that seems too heartbreaking, she also told me she'd later had the strong impression that the deceased relative's spirit had contacted her to tell her everything was OK and not to worry about her.)

My own experience is that, at such moments, the seriousness of a person's interest in the world around them makes a big difference. With someone whose whole world was bounded by their personal relationships and their own business, there seems to be little left to say. At least, I have found it hard to say anything. But with somebody who is interested (and, even more, invested) in politics, history, culture, sport-- anything, really, which is bigger than them, which provides a horizon-- there is much more to say. And how grateful we are for it!

I realize I might be accused of selfishness here. The reader might say: so it's all about your awkwardness, your embarrassment! And indeed I have heard that the dying often want to talk about their imminent death, but that their friends and relatives discourage them for their own reasons, projecting their own fear.

Perhaps. But how much can you say about a given person's death, in a purely private context?

(What about religion, you might ask? Well, perhaps none of this applies to somebody so otherworldly that their eyes are always on Heaven. But most of us, including religious believers, are not so otherworldly, and cannot help casting "one long lingering look behind".)

Besides, my time visiting seriously ill people has made me assess life, not only from the perspective of the visitor, but the perspective of the patient. I ask myself: what if I was the person seriously ill? Forty years from now, or even tomorrow? Would I want to cling to a bundle of personal memories, of personal relationships, none of which would outlive me for very long? Or would I prefer to feel connected to something larger, right up to the end? Indeed, it seems to me that this wider perspective even gives private experiences more depth. For instance, a friendship built upon a common cause, or even upon a shared serious interest, seems so much more meaningful than a friendship built upon having a good time hanging out together.

The death of Horatio Nelson, dying at the time of his greatest triump at the Battle of Trafalgar, and crying: "Thank God I have done my duty!", seems to me rather enviable. So (in a way) do the deaths of the executed leaders of the 1916 Rising. Indeed, these were the example par excellence of a happy death when I was growing up!

A familiarity with Irish history influences my outlook in this regard. For a long stretch of Irish history-- from about the mid-nineteenth to the mind-twentieth century-- the death-bed scenes of statesmen, patriots, poets, writers, intellectuals, ecclesiastical figures, and others seemed to be almost a staple of Irish historiography, and more a triumphant curtain call than a tragedy. It didn't really matter what their particular ideals were-- it might have been revolutionary socialist, arch-reactionary, somewhere in between, or something totally different-- but they almost certainly had ideals. Now that we have passed from a heroic era, death has gone down in the world. I have attended a few humanist funerals, and always found them depressingly banal. As the notes of the last pop song fade in the crematorium, one thinks: "Well, that's it. There's nothing really left to say."

Perhaps I am completely wrong about this. Perhaps I will lie on my death-bed pondering how completely wrong I was about this all along. There is no way of knowing. But, for good or ill, I always have one eye on the perspective of the hospital bed.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

A Very Subjective Post On Other Religions

The Catholic Church is the One True Faith. All other religions are false. The best charity Catholics can show to members of other religions is to evangelize them.

Now that I've made that clear...

Today I found myself thinking about my attitude to other religions, over the years. 

I've generally taken a favourable view of religions, of whatever kind. This post is going to be completely subjective, a series of memories.

It occurred to me to write it because I remembered how much I enjoyed looking through a selection from the Bhagavad Gita which we had at home. It was very lavishly illustrated, with pictures of the god Krishna, purple-faced and many-armed. I imagine it was a free copy given out by Hare Krishnas.

I can't remember how old I was at this time, but I must have been pretty young. I believe this book played a part in forming an association in my mind between religion and exoticism. I never saw religion as dull or dreary-- quite the opposite, in fact. The fact that I was very interested in horror, science fiction and fantasy worlds probably encouraged this attitude.

Strangely, there is also an association in my mind between the Bhagavad Gita and the alcohol shelves in my local supermarket. I must have found myself thinking about one while looking at the other, or simply thinking about them both at the same time-- one image is superimposed over the other. Alcohol labels and bottles always seemed very classy and elegant to me. My brother collected them, for a short time, and I took a keen interest in his collection. I still like looking at alcohol bottles, especially bottles for spirits. I think there might even have been a connection in my mind between the distilled nature of alcohol and the "distilled" nature of a religious tradition-- since religious traditions have evolved over centuries, and have generally attained a certain depth and insight into human nature.

Another book which somehow ended up in my home was Your Right to Know by Darwin Gross, one-time leader of the rather obscure Eckankar new religious movement. Eckankar began in America in 1965. As a kid, I read everything I got my hands on, so I read Your Right to Know with some interest, though I didn't believe any of it. I found the book aesthetically appealing. It included line drawings of the "Eck Masters" of the past, who are still supposedly living in various out-of-the-way places despite being centuries old. 

I also liked the photographs of Eckankar events. Although they featured robes and garland necklaces, they generally had the air of a seminar in a hotel conference room-- an atmosphere which I find quite pleasant. This, in fact, is a piquant contrast I have often noticed with regard to American religiosity. Americans are both practical and spiritual. The well-groomed, square-jawed Billy Graham in his business suit is a symbol of American spirituality that I find immensely appealing. I've never shared the common distaste for American televangelists. Perhaps it's because I come from a "smells and bells" religious tradition myself that I find the opposite paradoxically exotic (although that reaction seems unique to me). Or perhaps it's because it makes faith seem unified with ordinary life.

I must admit the banality of Eckankar rather appealed to me, as well. Although I didn't believe it for a moment, and I have no doubt it's little better than a scam, it was rather pleasant to imagine the cosmos being so cheerful and straightforward. As far as I can remember, you simply had to cut out negative thoughts and chant the sacred syllable. There was no need for stress or trauma. Such spiritual insipidness cannot satify in the long-term-- which explains why liberal religions never survive for long. They can, however, please in the short-term-- which explains why liberal religions continually come into being.

I remember Hare Krishnas chanting in their colourful robes were a fairly common sight in Dublin when I was growing up. Then they disappeared for many, many years. Then, a few years ago, a couple of them were active here again, but only for a while. In any case, I was always rather well-disposed to them, thinking they added colour to everyday life, and pointed to the transcendental.

A kid in my brother's class was a Jehovah's Witness. I was somewhat envious of him. I've always liked the idea of belonging to a minority. In fact, I can even remember envying kids with food allergies, for the same reason.

I had a few encounters with Mormons in my teens. I was very attracted to the female Mormon missionaries, finding their air of wholesomeness appealing. I admired the earnestness of Mormon missionaries in general. In my twenties I developed quite a strong interest in Mormonism, and read several books about it. Once again, I didn't take its claims seriously for a moment, but I was fascinated that such a religion should have come out of nowhere, practically speaking, in nineteenth-century America. Its claims were so startling; Jesus had come to America, the Trinity were three separate entities, God was once a man, men could become gods, and so forth. The entire thing came from the claims of a farmboy who said he had been shown some gold plates by an angel. The story of the Great Trek to Utah also intrigued me.

I have long contemplated writing a story on a Mormon theme. This is the basic idea: a female Mormon missionary loses her faith after a door-step conversation with a young cynic. She comes back the next day, shattered by the experience, telling the young cynic that she can't go home to her parents, and looking to him for guidance. The young man (who is not such a bad fellow) is alarmed at what he has done and tries to argue her back into her faith, telling her that it's as likely to be true as anything else. I think it might make a good story or play.

I was especially interested in Mormonism in my twenties, but I was also reading a lot about religion in general. I was fascinated by their traditions, rituals, histories, organization, and so forth-- the human element in them. Catholicism was the one religion I avoided reading about, perhaps out of an intuition that it would demand more from me than casual interest.

I was especially interested in Judaism. When it comes to writing about Judaism, however, I feel a little apprehensive. It's a sensitive subject in Catholicism, especially conservative Catholicism, and I am in danger of alienating somebody whatever I write. There are conservative Catholics who seem perpetually poised to shriek "anti-semitism!" if you say a critical word about the Jewish tradition, and other conservative Catholics who apparently can't bear to hear a friendly word about it. Therefore I will tread softly, and briefly.

I was fascinated by Judaism because of its antiquity, the fact that it had existed in parallel with Christianity for so many centuries, and because it appealed to me aesthetically. I liked the sound of Hebrew words and the look of Hebrew letters. I liked its intellectualism and the fact that it was so devoted to the study of sacred texts. I also admired what I saw as its temperance and sobriety, compared to all that seemed excessive and world-renouncing in other religions. History of the Jews by Paul Johnson was a book I read over and over. And that is all I will say about Judaism, except that my interest in it played a large part in leading me to Catholicism.

Eastern religions never appealed to me very much, except in their external trappings. The doctrine of annihiliation of self, of the oneness of everything, is almost the most horrible thought I can imagine. I love differences and distinctions; the thisness of this and the thatness of that. A Hindu or Buddhist might insist that my understanding of the Eastern tradition is defective, that its underlying principles do not in fact abolish difference or specialness. Well, perhaps. But this is always the impression I've received, at any rate.

Buddhism has always been the world religion which appealed to me the least, perhaps because it has been trendiest world religion in the West for many decades, or perhaps because it hardly seems like a religion at all. (I imagine that is why it has been so trendy in the West.) I do, however, understand why Buddha statues and statuettes are so popular-- the image of the meditating Buddha is very peaceful and comforting.

And so we come to Islam.

I'm almost reluctant to say anything about Islam. On the one hand, I have no desire to be counter-jihadist or anti-Muslim. I cannot find it in myself to take an antagonistic attitude to a religion of a billion people and a centuries-long tradition. On the other hand, the liberal virtue-signalling attitude towards Islam irritates me quite as much as the bullish anti-jihadist attitude. I roll my eyes at people on social media who delight in sharing stories about Middle Eastern Muslims forming protective cordons around Christian churches on Christmas Eve (which I agree is a beautiful gesture) but who stoically ignore all the less heart-warming aspects of the religion, such as the persecution of Christians in many Muslim countries.

I recently watched a YouTube video in which a Muslim academic was interviewing Roger Scruton. The Muslim academic, who was a conservative, made several positive references to his religion, and Roger Scruton himself made several polite references to it. Predictably, there were withering and hostile comments in the comment section. I find this kind of thing  boorish and embarrassing. Let us at least be civil and gracious. (Although I'm a fan of Milo Yiannapoulos, I think he is too harsh on Islam. However, since he is holding the door of free speech open, perhaps it is necessary for him to be so abrasive.)

I think the sheer scale of Islam has inhibited me from investigating it. A religion such as Mormonism or Judaism, and certainly a new religious movement such as Eckankar, is manageable. Islam is overwhelming. Perhaps the most interest I've taken in Islam has been my visits to the Chester Beatty Library, a wonderful museum in Dublin, which I haunted in my twenties. (It's always the first place I recommend when people ask about places to visit in Dublin.) The calligraphy and art-work of Islam is undoubtedly beautiful, and my visit to the Islamic section always brought home to me how Abrahamic Islam is. They have many of the same stories as we do, but with crucial differences. Seeing something familiar in a different way is always a strange experience-- disorienting, but stimulating.

How about the New Age, paganism, the occult? Being a lifelong fan of horror, I've always been aware of these, but regarded them with caution. There is no time in my life when I would have dreamed of playing with a ouija board or using tarot cards. However, as with other religions, I do find all the trappings quite appealing. On the couple of occasions I've stepped into a New Age shop, I've greatly enjoyed all the sights and smells and sounds. Whenever I've listened to New Age doctrine, on other hand, it seems like the purest mush, not even having the minimal cohesion of an organised religion, however false or shallow.

I haven't mentioned the Church of England, but I wrote an entire post about that previously.

I can't finish the post without mentioning the "plain living" sects of America, such as the Pennsylvania Dutch and the Amish. Today we all live in terror of romanticizing and sentimentalizing anything, so I must avoid romanticizing these. In truth, I don't know a whole lot about them. But I find their dedication to tradition, community and plain living entirely admirable as far as it goes. I think we could all learn something from it.

Perhaps that is enough. I haven't mentioned the Orthodox, or most of the Protestant sects, or Shinto, or Confucianism, or many others. I have to stop somewhere. This blog post has been a ramble through my own memories and associations, without any vestige of a moral or purpose aside from that. I hope it has interested somebody.