Tuesday, January 29, 2019

A Follow-Up to my Post Yesterday

Yesterday I wrote a post explaining why there is so little explicitly Catholic material on this blog, and why I concentrate on more general subjects, from a Catholic perspective. I explained that I was trying to avoid several tendencies I've noticed in other Catholic media-- not only blogs, but magazines, TV shows, YouTube vidoes, and so on. These included repetitiveness (repeating the same points over and over), getting caught up in Catholic in-fighting and faction-fighting, making vague assertions regarding "the spirit of Catholicism", and adding to the stress of modern life by constantly suggesting new ways readers can "deepen their faith lives", or avoid this or that pitfall.

I've been wondering how people took this post, and (since I always doubt myself) I've also been wondering whether I'm really on the right track here. But I've thought about it a lot, over many months and possibly years.

Today, I thought I would take a cruise through the Catholic Blog Directory and look at the latest post of various blogs there. I won't identify the blogs themselves.

The first was a blog about church music, so is really too specialist for my purpose.

The second was a blog post about fasting and the importance of fasting, along with a recommendation to fast during Lent. I imagine all of my readers agree on this already and wouldn't need to have it recommended to them.

The next was a video post, so I'll skip it.

The next was a post in which a homeschooling mother described two different doctor's opinions on how to treat her child, who suffers from cystic fibrosis (God bless her, and them). I've noticed a lot of homeschooling and child-rearing Catholic blogs. I don't have kids, so I couldn't write on that subject. And, although I'm often autobiographical, I avoid writing about family. (I reveal just as much about my life as I want to on this blog, and sometimes I've considered reining in my autobiographical bent as I'm actually very private, in some ways. But I find it hard not to be autobiographical.)

The next was a blog showing pictures of a Catholic family celebrating Christmas 2016, with snippets of text. As above.

The next blog post (from a priest's blog) was another video, showing Vespers and the blessing of icons. Personally, although I attend Mass as often as I reasonably can, and love ceremony and tradition and ritual, I don't much enjoy watching videos of it. I rather admire (and even envy) those who take an educated interest in liturgy, as long as it doesn't make them sour.

The next blog was written by someone who describes himself thus: "Traditional Catholic, Constitutional Conservative, American Patriot, in that Order." Its most recent blog post was a podcast regarding the mid-term elections in 2018. I try to avoid outright politics on this blog.

The next blog post addressed the question of children at Mass, and the controversy that surrounded a suggestion from a "pastor" in a Catholic Church in Maryland that small children might be better off attending a children's program while the parents go to Mass. This, predictably, sparked a huge controversy on social media. The blogger tries to take a nuanced approached, though she very firmly supports the view that children should be brought to Mass (as do I).

She admits a certain fatigue with this controversy, and I sympathise with her. Obviously some people out there disapprove of children at Mass, including this pastor. But I have never actually heard this view expressed directly, either in person or in anything I've read or watched. I've once heard someone at Mass complain about noisy children-- an elderly women, under her breath. Much more often, I've heard priests reassure parents with small children (when said small children are running around or making noise) that they are glad to see them there.

Is he also tired of this controversy?
But I hear an awful lot of responses to criticism of small children of Mass, especially on social media. I usually hit "hide post" pretty quickly. I can't help feeling that the response is out of proportion to the offence-- although I suppose that is how people react when they are rattled.

The next blog post (rather to my surprise) was from someone who very often interacts with me on social media, and who has been extraordinarily kind to me over many years (though we've never met in person). So I will pass over it, as it is rather personal in nature.

The next blog post is in French. My French is minimal, so I will pass over that, too.

The next blog is another "family blog", chronicling the experiences of a Catholic family. Interestingly, the blogger has some reflections on Catholic blogging herself: "I really do enjoy blogging but also have found that the style of blogs has changed over the years since I first started. The unique interesting family orientated blogs seem to be declining and the mega blog is more prevalent." I'm not sure what she means by the "mega blog".

The next blog is about G.K. Chesterton, and the latest blog post shows a meme in which a slug is wondering why there are so few poems about slugs. The blog post makes reference to Chesterton's oft-quoted line: "Poets have been mysteriously silent about cheese". This is more in my line.

The next blog is in Italian. I have no Italian whatsoever, so I will pass over it.

The next blog is also in Italian-- I think.

The next blog is about teaching children to pray, written by a parish worker who has years of experience at this-- a very worthy goal for a blog.

The next blog is about a children's rosary initiative-- it seems mostly a photo blog. Another fine initiative.

The next blog has a funny blog post as its latest-- a response to a challenge to write a "Doomsday Story" in four words. The blogger has responded to this by alluding to a series of song titles: "Let the dogs out" and "Didn't like Pina Coladas" are two examples. Nice.

The next blog has a short post, little more than a photo and a few lines, about the "Homeless Jesus" statute in Farm Street Jesuit Church, London, being blessed.

The next blog is a Carmelite blog and shows photographs of a visit to a church by temporarily vowed sisters and postulants.

The next blog is one written by Byzantine nuns in Ohio, and the latest post is a request for two elliptical machines, which is a kind of stair-climbing machine. (I didn't know that until now.)

Well, that is probably enough, and more than enough. To be honest, I've been rather surprised by what I found in my short trawl through the Catholic Blog Directory. I think I've been rather unfair in my perception that most Catholic blogs run through the same tired talking points, over and over. In fact, many are doing just what I'm trying to do-- to write from a Catholic perspective, rather than about Catholicism directly.

It seems, however, that few blogs go in for the kind of extended, reflective blog posts that I do. So perhaps my blog has a place, after all.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Why is There so Little Catholicism on This "Catholic" Blog?

It's a question that I think must sometimes occur to my readers, and I'll try to answer it as fairly as I can.

First off, I have a great awe of the Bible verse, "Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly." (James 3:1). I'm very careful what I present as Church teaching. Whenever I present anything as Catholic teaching, I like to be absolutely confident in its orthodoxy.

And I'm becoming ever more cautious in this regard. For instance, a few years ago I remember being very impressed by the homilies of a particular priest. I thought they were very scriptural and solid. Today, I often find myself wincing during his homilies, and thinking: "Well, that's not really true", or: "I wouldn't say that." Perhaps this comes from an over-critical or over-fastidious mind. After all, the Bible often speaks loosely. (Think how often Protestants have made hay of the verse, "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God", Romans 3:23, in arguing against the impeccability of Mary.)

Another reason I find myself backing away from making positive claims about Catholicism is because I'm trying to avoid a certain genre of Catholic writing. I might call it the "spirit of Catholicism" genre. I have perpetrated it in the past, and I'm now eager to avoid it.

We all know the lines from Belloc:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine
There's always laughter and good red wine...

Well, I'm increasingly sceptical of any "spirit of Catholicism"-- other than the Holy Spirit itself. The Catholic Church is universal. Trying to identify it with any culture or atmosphere is a mistake, in my view, and leads to distortions.

I think even G.K. Chesterton could be guilty of this. His eagerness to distance Catholicism from puritanism may have gone too far (although in some of his articles in the twenties and thirties, he himself says that the anti-puritan reaction is excessive). His name is now attached to a kind of rip-roaring, beery, party-hearty Catholicism."Break the conventions, keep the commandments" is a motto that some Chestertonians have distilled from the novel Manalive, although it's not an exact quotation, and it's not put in the imperative there. I personally think it's a stupid motto, and that conventions should generally be respected. Indeed, Chesterton suggests the same thing in his analogy of the fence.

Catholicism is, in my view, far too often identified with particular national cultures (usually Mediterranean), or with a particular era (the High Middle Ages), or with good taste and antiquarianism (Brideshead Revisited, Pugin enthusiasts), or with anti-bourgeois sentiment (Flannery O'Connor), or with left-wing activism (any number of leftist nuns and Jesuits), or with High Tory conservatism (Joseph De Maistre fans), or with some other sectional hobby-horse. And then there is the political divide, with some Catholics hailing Donald Trump as a second Constantine while others denounce him as an anti-Christ. In the same way, a figure like Nelson Mandela is presented as a kind of secular saint, despite having a terrible record on abortion.

What about the controversies in the Church? I can't find much justification for wading into these. I imagine the vast majority of my readers share my views on Amoris Laetitia or Fr. James Martin SJ, for instance. The arguments have been well-rehearsed elsewhere. What is gained by dragging them up yet again?

Another reason I so rarely write on explicitly Catholic topics is because I think it's hard to say anything really interesting or new to practicing, thinking Catholics-- at least, as far as the doctrinal level goes.

I would argue that the Catholic faith is pretty simple. Of course, nothing is simple in that everything is capable of almost endless analysis and debate. When dissident Catholics claim that the Church has complicated Jesus's simple message of love, the answer is obviously: "Well, it's not that simple." Nothing is that simple. And certainly there are nooks and crannies and hard cases which could be discussed exhaustively, and indeed exhaustingly. But...it's fairly simple.

I admit that most Catholic writing or programming bores me. Do I really need to watch another video explaining why pornography is wrong? Or why we need to actively participate at Mass? Or whether Catholics worship saints? Do I need to be told, for the millionth time, that worship is not a matter of emotions? I realize this might sound arrogant, and I don't mean it like that. It's just that nothing is more boring to me than somebody trying to convince me of something I already believe, or tell me something I already know. I imagine most readers of this blog are at the same stage in their faith.

Casting about for something new or original to say has its own dangers, which I am also trying to avoid. More on that in a bit.

Insofar as I enjoy Catholic media now, it's generally something like the podcast Jimmy Akin's Mysterious World, a podcast all about unsolved mysteries, which is presented from a Catholic point of view. And that is my same view of this blog. It's from a Catholic point of view, and that is how I justify calling it Catholic.

I do think that there is a place for such writing, as I wrote in this blog post. There, I am talking about a conservative rather than specifically Catholic point of view. As I say in the post, I think there is a great need for spaces where we can talk about life in general, and everything life has to offer, from a conservative perspective, as opposed to writing about conservatism. And I think the same is true in the case of Catholicism.

Let me return to the topic of "casting about for something original or new to say". This often takes the form of trying to help people grow in their Faith by recommending some extra devotion or discipline or way of participating in the Mass, or a course of study (perhaps Latin or patristics), or some such thing. Or perhaps it is a would-be helpful warning against pitfalls in the spiritual life.

In my view, one of the dangers here is that Catholic writers, bloggers, etc. might add to the stresses of life. I think this is a danger, not only when it comes to Catholicism, but when it comes to pretty much anything.

Reader, are you stressed by the tidal wave of advice that comes to you all day long, every day? It seems that we are bombarded with news stories and articles and radio interviews, and goodness knows what else, telling us that we're doing everything wrong. We're brushing our teeth wrong. We are having the wrong things for breakfast, and eating breakfast the wrong way. We shouldn't listen to the radio while having breakfast. And probably we shouldn't be sitting on a chair, but cross-legged on the floor. In fact, a quick Amazon search on the subject of one's morning routine came upon these book titles:

My Morning Routine: How Successful People Start Every Day Inspired

Morning Routine: 7 Morning Habits Of The Most Successful People To Take Control Of Your Life, Get More Energy, Productivity & Results In Your Day

The Miracle Morning: The 6 Habits That Will Transform Your Life Before 8AM

Morning Routine: The Secret to Master Your Life Before the World Wakes Up

Well, there many more, but you get the message.

I'm aware that the writers of these books would doubtless argue that they reduce stress in the long run. Well, maybe. But even reading the titles makes me feel stressed in the short run.

And it doesn't stop at breakfast. All day long, whatever you do, there are any number of articles and videos urging a "life hack" or "one simple tip" on you. More forbiddingly, there are those articles which tell us the five things we should never say to an introvert, or the three things that we should never say to a depressed person, or some other number of things that we should never say to some category of person, at the risk of causing irreparable psychological damage.


Then there are the "boot camps", the lunch-time sessions, the holiday reading lists, the hundred movies you have to see before you die, the hundred places you have to go before you die, the hundred books you have to read before you die, and all the other checklists you have to tick off before you gratefully collapse into your death-bed.

Admittedly, the goal of the spiritual life is to get to Heaven, and this is worth any amount of effort. But it's not just a matter of stress. I also think there's a real danger of undervaluing what people are doing already.

Let me take the example of priests. I often feel sorry for priests. They are the hapless recipients of constant and often conflicting advice. For instance, we want them to take a strong lead, but we also want them to eschew "clericalism".

As a matter of fact, I think most priests (I don't mean dissident priests) do a very good job. And yes, that includes the priest whose homilies I criticized earlier. Most homilies bore me, but so what? Every priest can't be St. Augustine.

Here's an example of the excessive criticism to which (in my view) priests are subjected. I watched a video by Fr. Mike Schmitz of the Ascension Presents channel, who was talking about a particular priest's first Mass. For this Mass, the priest had printed up cards which featured the words: "The Master has need of you"-- a reference to the ass which Jesus commandeered for his approach to Jerusalem. Fr. Mike Schmitz was praising this priest's humility, and incidentally complained that a priest's first Mass is too often an occasion for pride, for a focus upon the priest rather than Jesus.

And I couldn't help thinking: "Give priests a break!". Is it really so terrible if a first Mass is a time for congratulation and, God help us, praise? How much time will the priest have to spend deferring to married couples, and parents at baptisms and Communions and Confirmations, and grieving relatives? Does his entire life have to be a mortification? Is it so bad if he feels some innocent pride on this once-in-a-lifetime occasion?

In the same way, I worry that an avalanche of advice to Catholics on how to advance in the spiritual life might have unfortunate effects. We are often told that, if we are not advancing in the spiritual life, we are falling back. Perhaps that is true, and there are Scripture quotations to support it: "Be thou therefore perfect", "I must decrease, and he must increase", etc

But surely there is also a danger of demoralising the faithful by demanding more, more, more, and all of it NOW! (Of course, this will not demoralize the occasional church-goer-- it will demoralize the committed Catholic.)

Here is an example, to show my views here are not (I hope) simply self-serving. People have congratulated me on my knowledge of the Catholic faith. I think it's not arrogant to say that I would be fairly knowledgeable on Catholic teaching, theology, history, and so forth.

So I'm not thinking of myself when I suggest there may be too much emphasis, sometimes, on the need for a more catechized laity. Shaming Catholics for not being able to list the cardinal virtues or the Ten Commandments, or explain what they believe by Transubstantiation, or never having read the Confessions of St. Augustine, is a bit cheap.

Please let it be understood I'm by no means suggesting ordinary Catholics shouldn't be encouraged to increase their knowledge of the Faith. I'm really talking about the element of shame, of pressure, of stress. I think we should always be cognizant of the fact that people face so many other pressures, too. Just getting to Mass might be a huge effort. Just getting out of bed might be a huge effort (no joke).

I think this applies retrospectively, as well. Since the effective collapse of the Catholic Church in Ireland, all sorts of accusations have been made against the preceding generations of Irish Catholic prelates, priests and laypeople. I'm not talking about the abuse scandals here. I'm talking about the frequent claims that the Irish Catholic Church was triumphalist, complacent, anti-intellectual, puritanical, insular, etc. etc. etc. and that it contained the seeds of its own destruction.

I don't believe any of those accusation are true, and I think there is a great danger of demoralization here, as well.

What do you leave people if they have neither the present nor the past? Think of all those millions of Irish people, down the centuries, who sacrificed so much for their Faith, who attached their dearest hopes to it, who often made it the very centre of their lives. Think of all the decades during which Mass attendance among Irish Catholics was almost one hundred per cent, seminaries were overflowing, and the country sent missionaries all over the world. If we devalue all this, what is it but a tacit admission that no apparent success is ever anything but a sham? Would it not be better to emulate the Irish Catholicism of the past, to take it as an inspiration, even if we criticize it in this or that particular?

Incidentally, I think the same applies to the religiosity of America. Whenever I praise America as a more religious culture than Europe, I am told (often by Americans) that the Christianity of America is "a mile wide and an inch deep". Perhaps it is. Isn't it good that it's a mile wide, at least? Shouldn't we be grateful for that-- and careful to support it, as far as we are able?

All of these cases are examples of the same phenomenon-- of making the perfect the enemy of the good.

For my part, when it comes to writing, my goal is to inspire rather than shame, or demoralize, or cause stress-- whether I am writing on Catholic subjects, or on some other subject from a Catholic point of view.

I can imagine someone, at this point, pointing out to me that the Church has declined since Vatican II precisely because its pastors lowered the standards they demanded of the laity. Or I can imagine somebody quoting to me Pope Benedict's famous words: "You were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness."

But to say this would be to misunderstand what I'm talking about here. I'm not suggesting we should lower standards, or cease to seek Christian perfection, or to urge one another towards it. Not at all. I'm simply suggesting we should be more concerned not to demoralise people, or to devalue what they're doing already, and not to beleaguer them incessantly with a multitude of simultaneous demands from a hundred different directions.

Imagine someone looking out an open window at a horizon that stretches away into the distance. She might look at it with delight, as the promise of an endless adventure. Or she might look at it with dread, as the prospect of an endless ordeal. My suggestion is that we should help her to see it as the former, rather than the latter. That is what I try to do, in my own poor way.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

On Horror (I)

I've mentioned my interest in horror in previous posts, and I've promised to write about it more directly another time. Well, this is the time.

Horror is the oldest of my personal interests-- predating Catholicism, predating conservatism, predating poetry, predating philosophy. I can't remember a time that I wasn't interested in horror.

Is it possible to ever really know where an interest comes from? I can't trace the genesis of my interest in horror, but I can say that my upbringing was very conducive to such an interest. (Although, when I put it like that, it sounds awful....)

My father is a fan of ghost stories. He's often told me the story of how he would get up in the middle of the night, in his own childhood, and read a big book of ghost stories by candlelight. So, while he disapproved of science fiction and fantasy, he was always pro-horror. It's not that he ever forbade me to read science fiction or fantasy, but he never encouraged it, and he tended to disparage both genres. Whereas he did rather encourage horror. For instance, I remember him buying me and my two brothers a picture-book version of Dracula, when I was quite young. The book came with a cassette tape and I can still hear the Count snarling: "My revenge has yet to come!". This is a very happy memory.

My brothers and myself were indulged in watching late-night horror films, a tradition that seems to stretch back into the earliest mists of my memory. How many horror movies did I watch over the years, sitting on the couch or lying on the living room floor? I have no idea. I can't remember most of them. Very often all I can remember is a scene, an image, a line of dialogue.

Sometimes the films frightened me, but mostly they didn't. My love of horror doesn't really have much to do with being scared. Pleasantly spooked, but not scared. I've written another post about the things that did scare me in my childhood.

I think one of the reasons I've loved horror all my life is because horror felt like my thing. From as far back as I can remember I thought of myself as a horror fan, and so the horror genre felt like home ground. Perhaps this is part of the quest for identity and for belonging-- certainly a motive I would never undervalue, either in individual or in collective life.

I remember reading a nostalgic essay about a particular horror magazine that the writer had read in his childhood. One line went something like this: "In a lean era for horror, it was touching to know that somebody cared enough to show a bloody, disembodied head on the cover of a magazine." It's funny but it's true. (I will address the subject of gore later.)

My interest in horror was always more pop-cultural than literary, and it still is. Of course, it's hard to draw a distinct line between those two categories, since so much of pop culture horror draws upon literary classics, just as literary classics themselves draw upon centuries of folklore. I remember reading Frankenstein when I was very young, perhaps ten or eleven, and finding it rather dreary and monotonous. I didn't read Dracula (the non-picture book version) until I was in my twenties. I read Sheridan Le Fanu and M.R. James in my teens, and again, I was not very impressed (though I hesitate to admit it). I haven't revised any of these opinions, except for a slightly higher appreciation of M.R. James.

M.R. James
Insofar as any horror literature impressed me, it was anthologies of horror stories. I read a lot of these in my teens, as well, but most of the titles and authors have escaped me. I was always interested in the situation, the idea, much more than the telling of the tale. I liked (and I still like) "high concept" stories.

For instance, I remember one story which involved a woman and her two children caught within a shopping mall which seemed to have no exit. Whenever the woman asks anyone for the way out, they seem confused. The final scene of the story shows the woman blithely shopping like everybody else, having lost all interest in getting out.

This reminds me of another story, one which I read in a science fiction magazine belonging to my older brother, back in the eighties. It was either Epic or Omni. It featured characters in a futuristic virtual reality, who are completely covered in metallic body armour, and who kept hearing ghost voices. We eventually learn the "ghosts" are people who have escaped the virtual reality world and are trying to liberate those still trapped inside their metal suits. When the final character is liberated, he refuses to accept the new reality and massacres everybody else, finally putting his suit back on. Something like that.

Another horror story I remember fondly was titled "Come Fly With Me" (the first time I encountered the title phrase). This was a story that appeared in an anthology of children's adventure stories, rather than horror stories per se. It was a strange tale, involving a schoolchild facing into examinations. He finds a wooden statuette of some kind of angel or demon. The boy feels compelled to restore the thing, which is in bad condition, and also finds himself compelled to study intensively for his examinations, as though by an outside force. In the end of the story, he passes his examinations with flying colours, but also disposes of the statuette. I can't remember the ending very clearly. This was the story where I first encountered the phrase, "curtains make a house a home", which has become shorthand for my own social philosophy. (It was used in an entirely literal sense in the story.)

If anyone recognizes these stories, please let me know!

What is the appeal of horror to me, aside from the personal nostalgia, and the sense of belonging? I think it's a few different things.

Primarily, I think it's the otherworldliness.

Even when I was something of a rationalist in my metaphysics, my own inclinations were always towards the mystical, the supernatural, the fantastic. I wasn't too far from the state C.S. Lewis described himself as having passed through, in Surprised by Joy: "Nearly all I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real, I thought grim and meaningless."

Of course, I wasn't thinking in such deep terms for most of my life. I just lapped up stories of the supernatural, paranormal and ghostly. I suppose I don't really have to dwell on this point. It would require a blog post all on its own, at any rate.

Another reason I loved horror is because it was so romantic.

Horror, for the most part, is a very romantic genre. Occasionally you will get a horror film such as Alien which is stark and brutal, in style as much as content. However, the horror genre tends to choose settings and environments which are old-fashioned, picturesque, even pastoral: lonely moors, isolated villages, old houses, bedrooms with four-poster beds and fireplaces, stormy nights, dusty attics, night trains, moonlit graveyards, and so on. 

The romanticism is not confined to the visual realm, however; let us not forget howling wolves, branches tapping at windows, things that go bump in the night, spooky playground chants, creaking doors, chirping crickets, moaning winds...well, I could go on till the dead rose from their graves, but I won't.

Horror is also a very conservative genre, in general. Of course there are liberal horror writers and liberal horror fans, and it's perfectly possible to convey liberal messages through horror. But it certainly tends towards conservatism. Horror very often draws on folklore, and folklore is a seething mass of prejudices, taboos, stereotypes, and traditional morality. (It's a commonplace that promiscuity leads to a grisly death in many urban legends, and indeed in many horror films.)

This brings me back to the theme of gore. It can be embarrassing to admit to a love of the horror genre, since so many people seem to equate it with teenagers being sliced up by rubber-masked lunatics-- in glorious technicolor! But I don't like gore myself, and neither do a lot of horror fans. The sight of a knife slicing into human flesh doesn't so much frighten me as disgust me.

This is not to say that gore should never feature in horror. There are few horrors more primal or enduring than the horror of somebody trying to murder you, and murder is generally a bloody business. The slasher genre is not my favourite of horror sub-genres, but I do like some slasher films, most notably the 1996 film Scream. So I'm not completely anti-gore, but it's certainly not the thing that draws me to horror. The finer and subtler moments of the genre rise far above gore. But you can't be subtle all the time; comedy needs broad farce as well as delicate irony, and there is always a place for the axe-wielding maniac in horror.

The appeal of horror (to me, at least) is not simply fear. It's the particular flavours and shades of fear, and spookiness, and dread.

This point has never been put better than by C.S. Lewis, in his essay "On Stories":

I was once taken to see a film version of King Solomon's Mines. Of its many sins--not least the introduction of a totally irrelevant young woman in shorts who accompanied the three adventurers wherever they went--only one here concerns us. At the end of Haggard's book, as everyone remembers, the heroes are awaiting death entombed in a rock chamber and surrounded by the mummified kings of that land. The maker of the film version, however, apparently thought this tame. He substituted a subterranean volcanic eruption, and then went one better by adding an earthquake. Perhaps we should not blame him. Perhaps the scene in the original was not 'cinematic' and the man was right, by the canons of his own art, in altering it. But it would have been better not to have chosen in the first place a story which could be adapted to the screen only by being ruined. Ruined, at least, for me. No doubt if sheer excitement is all you want from a story, and if increase of dangers increases excitement, then a rapidly changing series of two risks (that of being burned alive and that of being crushed to bits) would be better than the single prolonged danger of starving to death in a cave. But that is just the point. There must be a pleasure in such stories distinct from mere excitement or I should not feel that I had been cheated in being given the earthquake instead of Haggard's actual scene. What I lose is the whole sense of the deathly (quite a different thing from simple danger of death)--the cold, the silence, and the surrounding faces of the ancient, the crowned and sceptred, dead. You may, if you please, say that Rider Haggard's effect is quite as 'crude' or 'vulgar' or 'sensational' as that which the film substituted for it. I am not at present discussing that. The point is that it is extremely different. The one lays a hushing spell on the imagination; the other excites a rapid flutter of the nerves. In reading that chapter of the book curiosity or suspense about the escape of the heroes from their death-trap makes a very minor part of one's experience. The trap I remember for ever: how they got out I have long since forgotten.

There are indeed different flavours of spookiness. However, there is so much more to say on this subject, I am going to submit to the inevitable and make this the first instalment in a series.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Muh Statistics

I've just been looking at the statistics for this blog, something I rarely do. I see that my all-time pageviews are 492,952. So edging towards the half-million mark.

Every now and again I wonder how I can make the blog more popular. Quite often I've resolved to make it more newsy, more factual.

But then I have second thoughts. I rather cherish the eccentricity of this blog. When I look over my archives I'm quite proud of some of my entries-- for instance, meditations on poetry.

A one-time reader of this blog (I don't know if he's still reading) told me he would "binge" (his word!) on this blog every now and again. And this idea pleases me very much. I like the idea of someone coming across this blog by accident and browsing its archives, post after post. I've enjoyed doing that with other websites (for instance, the urban legend website Snopes, before it went full SJW). If it was more topical and geared to the controversies of the moment, I think it would be less welcoming to such visitors. I want each post to have a leisurely atmosphere-- not business-like at all. Like a foyer.

Primarily this blog serves as a platform for my ideas. The fact that people read it is crucial to this, but it doesn't require a large audience. Just an audience! Of course, the larger the better, all things being equal.

One thing I'm proud of (and indeed grateful for) is that long-time readers have stayed with me.

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.)

When I first read this passage, it was one of those 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 when it comes to attitudes towards the past and present. 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?