Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Great Christmas Debate, and Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Christmas annual of Ireland's Own is now on sale, and it contains my two-page article "The Great Christmas Debate". I put a lot of work into the article and I'm very happy with. It's all about the different opinions various people have expressed on the subject of Christmas. The cast includes C.S. Lewis, Charles Lamb, Washington Irving, Hugh Leonard, George Bernard Shaw, American columnist Erma Bombeck, and English sociologist Kate Fox.

This edition of the magazine must sell very well, as there seems to be at least a dozen copies on sale in most of the places I've seen it. It's over a hundred pages long and full of cosy nostalgic festive spirit, so it might be a good accompaniment to your mince pies.

My first article in St. Martin's Magazine is out now, too (though I haven't seen it yet). It's the conversion story of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and it's hopefully the first in a series of conversion stories. The second, which I've already submitted, is on Malcolm Muggeridge.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

To a Shopping Channel Presenter

I'm sincerely sorry that I can't afford
To buy your non-stick frying pan.
But listening to your evangelical zeal
Makes me strangely happy.

We seem to live in an age without belief;
An age, it often seems,
Where socialists don't believe in society
Liberals don't believe in freedom
And Christians don't believe in God.

But you!
You believe in this non-stick frying pan
(And the free spice rack, if you phone in the next hour)
More than anyone has ever believed in anything.

I get the impression, hearing your excitement,
That if everybody bought this non-stick frying pan
All the wars of the world would cease
Dandruff would go away
And teenagers would never fight with their parents again.

Alas, alas, I cannot afford to buy it.
And the agents who are just waiting for my call
Are destined to wait
And wait
And paint their nails
And look out the window
And say to one another, mournfully,
"I don't think that he is ever going to call."

Friday, November 12, 2021

Three Types

I know it's easy to classify the human race into whatever divisions you want, and that such classifications are more or less unfalsifiable. But recently, I've been musing over a tripartite division of people that makes a lot of sense to me, and is the fruit of lots of thinking. I believe it has some validity.

I think one could divide the human race into people whose outlook on the world is primarily moralistic, people whose outlook on the world is primarily aesthetic, and people whose outlook on the world is primarily cognitive.

People whose outlook is primarily moral tend to be humanitarians, activists, or otherwise directly involved in the effort to reduce human suffering and increase human happiness. They might be hugely misguided in their idea of what would achieve this, but they are still sincere. I think Socrates is probably a good "house philosopher" of this group.

People whose outlook on the world is primarily aesthetic tend to be, well, aesthetes. I fall into this category. They worry about issues like preserving historic town centres, old customs and traditions, landscape, and so forth. Even when it comes to morality they tend to be more focused on moral beauty than on ethics pure and simple. They aren't as focused on eliminating suffering as the moralist, they tend rather to see some suffering as justified if it leads to greater meaning and beauty. Like the man who said: "The right to suffer is one of the joys of a free economy." Nietzsche is undoubtedly the "house philosopher" of this group, who declared at one point that the only thing that justified life's suffering was to provide a drama for the gods.

People whose outlook on life is primarily cognitive tend to be careerists, go-getters, and scientists. Their highest conception of joy is to think, to cogitate, to solve problems. They put a huge value on work and education and they tend to be news junkies. To them, the drama of history is man exploring the universe and achieving progress. Their favourite term of disparagement is "backward". Their house philosopher is probably Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill or something like that.

Of course, people tend to be a mixture of all three, but I think most people would favour one of these three divisions. It becomes noticeable when you hear people discuss some issue and their different value systems become obvious-- the moralist can't understand why the aesthete would want to keep a rickety set of old houses instead of build a hygienic and soulless housing estate; the thinker can't understand why the moralist would find space exploration a waste of money; and so forth.

I have been musing on this for a few days, at least, but this morning it occurred to me that these three faculties might fit neatly into the injunction of Scripture: "You shall love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind."

Thursday, November 4, 2021

More Facebook Fun

Social media gets a terrible press, and mostly deserves it. But it's good for publishing one's random thoughts and having people comment on them. Every now and again, particularly when I don't have time to write a proper post, I like to put a selection of my Facebook posts on my blog.

I'm trying to learn more about Irish geography. It's incredible how little I know about it. I don't even know about the geography of Dublin. I don't know where I am half the time.

For some reason, all my life, I've filtered out place-names whenever I read or listen to anything.

I look at a map of Ireland and I've never even heard of most of the towns and villages.

It's actually hard for me to really intuitively understand that there are other places in Ireland than Dublin. A while ago I found myself wandering through Laytown in county Meath at night, when only a very occasional headlight lit the darkness. The fact that there was such an extent of dark roadway seemed strange and surprising to me. I found myself thinking with wonder of all the country roads stretching all over Ireland.

People say outer space is mind boggingly huge. Certainly. But the earth is bigger than I can grasp. Ireland is bigger than I can grasp!

I have an ailment, lifelong and possibly incurable, where I have to find meaning and redemption in everything, not just "special" things. For instance, I need to find some kind of meaning in supermarkets and faceless suburbs and motorways and office blocks. I can't just mentally block them out and concentrate on picturesque beauty spots or historic town centres or whatever. That just seems like escapism to me.

Even in my teens I was writing poems about escalators, traffic islands and boiler rooms for just this reason.

The Church alienates many people by not emphasising its socially controversial doctrines on homosexuality, abortion, divorce, contraception, original sin, Hell, the demonic, and so forth.

It alienates other people by emphasising them even to the extent that it does.

It would alienate even more people, possibly, if it emphasised them more.

I'm not trying to draw any conclusions, but I think we have to accept the complexity of the situation. Whatever the Church emphasizes it is going to alienate people. I'm sure people have stopped practicing their faith because they felt the Church lacked clarity and confidence. Others have stopped practicing because they felt the Church was too conservative or they weren't welcome. It's a difficult balancing act and I have sympathy with the bishops in trying to strike it. Which is not to say that some of them haven't simply been craven or worse.

This is a statue of Daedalus in Killiney, Dublin, which I encountered yesterday. It suddenly occurred to me, looking at it, why myth and sculpture seem to go so well together. Nothing is more airy than a myth, which is timeless and exists only in the imagination. By contrast nothing is more solid and particular than a sculpture. The combination of opposites is satisfying. I wonder is this why sculptors so often turn to myth and legend for subjects?

This is a passage from my father's (unpublished memoirs) which I really love, describing himself and my mother taking the ferry to England, when he emigrated in the sixties. There's something archetypal about the image at the end.

"The night we chose to travel was the night when cars were blown from the docks of the ferry and yachts broke their mooring and smashed to pieces on the rocks of the Irish coast.

"Shortly after we left harbour at Dun Laoghaire a gale got up that reached ten on the Beaufort scale. The waters of the Irish Channel were in ferment. I comforted myself that at least I had a bed to sleep on.

"Had a bed, was the operative term, for when Patricia came back, she told me that she had met a woman with a young baby and no place to sleep. So she volunteered my bed.

"Volunteering was something Patricia did for me many times in the years to follow. So I resigned myself to a night in the lounge, passengers getting sick all around me.

"When I did venture out immediately in front of me was a fellow with a sup taken and a freshly pulled pint of Guinness. To get from the lounge to the deck you had to descend a short flight of iron steps; as soon as this fellow put his foot on the first step he came a cropper - both feet went from under him and he bumped his way downwards. At the bottom, he rose to his feet, the pint held out triumphantly in front of him, and not a drop spilt."

I had occasion to fly across the Atlantic fairly regularly a few years ago and I always liked flying US Airways. I liked their aesthetic; their livery, their announcements, their passenger videos, even the design of their packets of pretzels. They no longer exist, being amalgamated by another airline, but I do have this model airplane which I take pleasure in. Even if it lost a tail fin somewhere along the line.

Attachment is a strange thing.

Here's something funny. I mentioned it was my twentieth work anniversary a little while back. One of my colleagues kindly gave me a helium balloon that says "Happy anniversary". I've had it floating by my desk since.

A few times, as I've been walking to my office, I've done a double-take as the balloon looks (from a distance) a bit like a head jutting over my computer screen, as though someone is sitting at my desk.

Well, today, I was walking a little distance away from my office and one of my colleagues asked: "Who's that in your office?". I smiled and said, "It's a balloon." She gave me a funny look and walked away.

When I walked into my office a few moments later, I saw that a woman I don't know was in there, talking to the guy I share it with, whose desk is across from mine. I hadn't seen her from the cursory look I'd taken. There are glass windows but they are narrow and partly frosted.

My colleague must have thought I was nuts. I don't know whether to correct her or whether it's more amusing just to leave it hanging (or floating).

I can't believe my desk diary is so po-faced it doesn't even mention that tomorrow is Halloween, but it does think I need to know 14 November is the birthday of the Prince of Wales. Limeys! And I say that as an anglophile and a (moderate) monarchist.

I've asked for a page-a-day desk diary for Christmas. (I use them for journalling, not organization.) It's been tough fitting a week into two pages. Lots of tiny writing. But if I write my diary in copybooks or Word documents it expands to an unreasonable length. I've tried not keeping a diary but then I find myself wondering what the point of experience is if it's not written down, especially when I'm having a happy experience. Nothing seems real to me unless it's written down. I can only "live in the moment" if I imagine the moment as a story or a poem or an article. Or a photograph, which admittedly isn't the written word.

If a cliché keeps its nerve it becomes a proverb.

Liberals are loyal to their time, conservatives are loyal to their place.

I've been trying to read the Bible more regularly. I've been reading the Ronald Knox version, which I'd only ever glanced at before. I like it. It's not as bland as the modern translations, but it's not as heavy going as the Douay Rheims-- which is certainly beautiful, but which gets tiring very quickly. There are many passages in the Knox Bible that are reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon poetry, although I didn't make a note of them.

Speaking of Bible translations, I've often wondered if it's really so bad for Catholics to read the King James Version. I'm sure the doctrinally iffy passages are very few in number. And if you are alert to them, what harm? Aesthetically it's unsurpassed. For instance, it seems pure affectation to use any other translation of "The Lord is my shepherd" or "Unto everything there is a season".

Even though I am an Irish nationalist to the core, I feel more sympathy for the unionists today than I do for most of the Irish, especially when it comes to recent talk of a united Ireland. I get the impression that most of the Irish commentators today don't actually want a united Ireland on traditional nationalist grounds. They want it out of a hostility to borders per se. A united Ireland is simply a step towards a united Europe and internationalism.

The unionists, on the other hand, actually care about preseving their traditions and identity. Many criticisms could be made about both, but at least they have some positive ideal they are defending.

I watched Love Actually again the other night. I can't help getting weepy at the end. It's interesting watching it with my American wife and hearing about the differences. The Christmas number one (in the music charts) is not a thing in America. She also expressed surprise that public schools have Nativity plays, since American public schools can't have anything so religious. It's funny that secular Britain has Nativity plays and America, way more Christian in the simple sense of religious observance, doesn't.

I'm reading a book of literary criticism, about British poetry of the eighties and nineties. All the references to regionalism make me think about Dublin, where I've lived all my life. I've never felt a strong sense of belonging to Dublin. When I would visit my aunt's farm in Limerick on my summer holidays it always seemed to me like "the real Ireland", and more of a place.

Dublin has always seemed like a non-place to me, just generic suburbia. Obviously this isn't true of the city centre and and it wasn't true of Ballymun in my childhood, which was almost world famous and immediately recognisable on TV or in photographs. But Dublin the conurbation seems like nothing to me, apart from accents and slang.

Am I too close to see it? If I lived elsewhere would I miss the thing I can't even see now? 

Or is it really just a soulless, globalized no-place?

I've had this idea for a comedy sketch for years. Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw are 
taking the ceremonial first "trip" ever in a lift/elevator. (Never mind whatever anachronisms are involved there). They regale journalists with witticism and repartee before they step inside. Then they do step inside and the door closes. Their smiles fade and their eyes glaze over. GB Shaw looks up at the ceiling. Oscar Wilde looks down at the floor. GB Shaw opens his mouth as if to say something, coughs. Oscar Wilde says: "Quite slow, isn't it?". Etc. Haven't thought of a punchline.