Saturday, March 24, 2018

Some Purple Notebook Moments

It's a very warm and sunny day in Dublin, like a day at the height of summer. It's reminded me of some "purple notebook moments".

Anyone who isn't familiar with my purple notebook can read about it here.

The introduction to my saints book (which you can buy here!)  is pretty much based around a purple notebook moment. I'm not sure if my purple notebook is pure navel-gazing, or whether it might have some public value. Jung's Red Book has public value, it would seem. Why should not my purple notebook? (I'm not suggesting it has public value in itself, but perhaps its entries can serve as inspirations for me to produce works of public value.)

The first purple notebook moment I'm put in mind of is a hot summer's day on my aunt's farm in Limerick. Me, my brother, and my mother were sitting outside on the grass, reading. My mother was sitting on a chair and me and my brother were sitting on a rug. This was a complete novelty to me, since we lived in an apartment, and the idea of sitting on the grass in Ballymun was ludicrous-- you'd be likely to attract unwanted attention and derision, if not a kicking.

I've always been much more a winter man than a summer man. I like the cold and I dislike the heat. Summer (in my view) exists to be the counterweight of winter. But that alone makes it very important.

I was at a funeral recently. (I attended the wrong cremation, but that's another story. And it wasn't just me, but me and three of my friends.) The reading from Ecclesiastes was chosen, as it almost invariably is now: "Unto everything there is a season..."

I think this must be one of the most powerful flights of lyricism ever written. The idea of seasonality is, in itself, inherently poetic. Take these lines from Lewis Carroll, which come from a humorous poem but which I've always considered to be drenched with pathos:

In winter, when the fields are white,
I sing this song for your delight -

In spring, when woods are getting green,
I'll try and tell you what I mean.

In summer, when the days are long,
Perhaps you'll understand the song:

In autumn, when the leaves are brown,
Take pen and ink, and write it down.

Summer has always seemed a bittersweet concept to me-- or rather, a concept tinged with melancholy. A picture taken on a bright summer's day is almost impossible to look at except through a layer of wistfulness. "Summer's lease hath all too short a date", indeed. I am reminded once gain of Burke's description of the life of man, sundered from tradition, as "little more than the flies of summer".

And yet, lurking within this sad transience, there is another idea-- the idea of a never-ending summer, an eternal summer. A photograph taken on a summer's day partakes of this atmosphere, since the picture itself is timeless, a framed eternity of its own. And, even without being captured in a photograph, a memory of a summer's day is just the same. It's timeless...sort of.

The idea of eternity, also, is the idea of a summer's day without end. I think we are all drawn to this idea, in one way or another. We are all trying to hit the jackpot, in one way or another. We are all looking for the gift that never stops giving, whether that is a life-long romantic love, the creation of an imperishable work of art, or undying devotion to some cause. An endless summer's day...that is the dream. Even for people who prefer winter, summer seems to serve this metaphor (even if it's an unconscious metaphor) better. It's the anticipation we all remember from the beginning of the school holidays, captured perfectly in the French phrase "les grandes vacances".

Have you ever noticed that coming-of-age stories are nearly always set in summer?

Well, to return to myself and my brother and my mother, sitting on the grass. I remember the moment so well because I was so aware of it as a moment-- the sun seemed to be performing a role, creating a vignette for our sake. I felt as though it was engraved on a medallion.

The second vignette is from the summer after I left secondary school. I thought I had messed up my school-leaving exams, and that I wouldn't be going to college. I heard an interview on the radio in which a composer of some sort was talking about his life story, the development of his musical taste. The conversation turned to some particular composer, and the interviewee said: "I became a big fan of him in college...well, everybody becomes a big fan of him in college..."

I felt a sense of desolation at that moment, because I was worried I'd missed out on the whole college experience-- which, romantically, I saw as an intellectual odyssey. Of course, when I went to college, I was thoroughly disillusioned in this regard, but it's still a pleasant idyll....doubtless it is true for some people...

This particular memory, however, lingers pleasantly in my mind, long after that sense of desolation became irrelevant. (This is a fairly common phenomenon when it comes to purple notebook moments.) It pleased me immensely to think of a course that people's musical education usually takes-- that there are particular composers which appeal to music lovers at particular moments of their lives, or at particular ages. The same applies to lovers of books, philosophy, or any other subject. Somehow, this idea greatly assuaged my existential loneliness, my fear that life was simply an empty space, a random flux, with no particular up or down, left or right, in our out.

This is why I take tremendous pleasure, always (or nearly always), in listening to enthusiasts of a particular art-form, or writer, or field of interest, talking to each other. It is the furthest thing from the awkward small-talk prevalent in so much of everyday life. Everything they say to each other drips with significance. They recognize each other's experiences-- often, even the mention of a particular name or incident will make them break out into a sudden and shared smile.

The final summer memory is one of the oldest items in my purple notebook-- I think it's a memory, but I can't remember it exactly. I have the image of a yellowed sheet from a newspaper (yellowed, but not very old), which I think was lying at the bottom of a drawer, being used as lining. It featured a photo of a glamorous woman wearing a bikini, perhaps on a beach, beneath the headline: "Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer."

I had never heard this phrase before. I thought it was the most poetic phrase ever, and it set my imagination on fire.

I tried to write an essay on this image many years ago-- in fact, when I was still in college. So that's at least eighteen year ago. I never finished the essay, and even now, I'm not sure I can convey this image's significance to you.

And also...I'm all written out. But I suspect what I have written already goes a long way to explaining why that moment made my purple notebook.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

On the Question of Colour

No, nothing to do with race. I'm simply wondering about colour schemes for this blog.

Around St. Patrick's Day, I usually turn the blog background green. Changing it back this year, I decided to try out grey rather than the usual light blue.

What's most restful and appealing to the eye? What do you think?

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Strange Place

Hello! Hello! Hello! Is anybodythere? Hello? Helloooooooo--


Hello! Who's there? Where are you?

I am the Ghost of the Recent Past. And that is where you are now.

The Recent Past? What is that, exactly?

Hey, we don't like that word here!

What word?


Why don't you like the word exactly? And where are you?

I'm everywhere around you. And as for the word "exactly", it doesn't really apply here.

Why not?

Because nobody can say where this place begins or ends, or how far it extends.

Hmmm. May I sit down? Does this vending machine work?

Go ahead. And yes, it does.

No Wispas?


OK....but, hey, hot coffee! I never know what to expect in this place. Newspapers become blurry when I try to read them, after the first few pages. Clocks jump back and forward when you're not looking at them. And everything is....

Pale? Faint? Plastic-looking?

I don't know how to describe it. Like a school during the summer holidays, maybe.

Ah, I know what you mean. People also say, "Like toys that children have left on the floor", "Like the kitchen the morning after a party", "Like an abandoned movie set"--

I get it.

Well, that is simply the atmosphere of the Recent Past. The Distant Past is filled with a golden glow, and the Medium Past is misty like a sauna. But the Recent Past is just... solid.

And where is everybody?

People don't come here much. Why would they? It has no sentimental value yet, and it has little practical relevance anymore. It's not the present, and it's barely the past.

I've seen a few people, at the end of a corridor, or framed in a window, but...

When you go to meet them, they're gone.

That's it.

Well, people don't linger in The Recent Past. At least, most people don't. You've already outstayed eighty-three per cent of visitors.

Is that right? Well, I've always been a bit of an oddball.

So I guessed. 

Hey, look, a promo for Lord of the Rings on this wrapper!

When is the last time you watched the Lord of the Rings movies?

I was going to watch one the other day except I thought...

Too soon?

Yes! I watched them over and over back when they came out. I watched the first few scenes the other day and I thought...well, I don't need to revisit these for a few more years.

That's this place all over, my friend. Nothing is fresh here. Everything is played out.

But surely some people still watch those movies?

Then those people wouldn't encounter them here. I told you, this place has no definite boundaries. It's different for everybody.

Right. The coffee tastes fine, though.

Well, coffee is coffee, isn't it?

That's true. But if I was a foodie and I wanted the latest foodie craze, I'd be out of luck..?

Now you're getting the hang of it.

I like it here, though.

Aha! I thought so. And why do you like it?

It's kind of peaceful.

Why do you say that?

Well, it has neither the stress of the present moment, nor the...

The what?

Oh, I don't know. The hype of the past. The battle for history. The raw emotions. 

Indeed! These are the fallow years, my friend. This is the sleep of time, the dormant period of memory.

You're a bit of a Rod Serling type, aren't you?

It makes the job more fun.

Hey, look over there! That looks like my friend Jim.

It is your friend Jim. At least, it's Jim. But is he your friend...?

I don't know. We've drifted apart in the last few years. I'm never sure whether to get back in touch with him, or...

Let him drift away for good?

Yes. I suppose this place is full of people in that category.

It is. But you can ignore them if you want. You know, I get the impression you're going to be a regular visitor here.

 Me too!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

"The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live. With the tidings that make such an Ireland possible, St. Patrick came to our ancestors fifteen hundred years ago promising happiness here no less than happiness hereafter. It was the pursuit of such an Ireland that later made our country worthy to be called the island of saints and scholars."

Eamon De Valera, St. Patrick's Day broadcast, 1943

Friday, March 16, 2018

Inspiration from the Saints Now Available

Well, I can finally announce that Inspiration from the Saints is now available.

Here is the Angelico Press announcement.

You can buy it here.

I was sure to thank the readers of Irish Papist in my acknowledgements! Thanks to you all.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

My Latest Article in the Burkean Journal

In time for St. Patrick's Day, I have an article in The Burkean Journal under the title "Reviving the Irish Revival".
You can read it here.

The Burkean Journal is a new online conservative journal based in Trinity College, and edited by students. It has recently expanded to other universities in Dublin.

It's raised some hackles already, which is a good sign.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my various ideas on the subject of Irish national identity. But I'm particularly pleased with this article. It's my "definitive statement" on the matter, if such pomposity is allowable.


This morning, I happened to attend a Mass alongside a large crowd of schoolboys and schoolgirls, all of whom were there in preparation for their First Communions or Confirmations. As they streamed into the pews, I was put in mind of William Blake's lines:

'Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
The children walking two and two in red and blue and green.
Grey-headed beadles walked before with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul's they like Thames' waters flow

O what a multitude they seemed, these flowers of London town,
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own;
The hum of multitudes was there but multitudes of lambs,
Thousands of little boys and girls raising their innocent hands.

I don't want to get too sentimental. I know that children can be little brats, even downright bad sometimes. (I remember from being a child myself.)

And yet, I couldn't help feeling sentimental and tender. The funny thing is, looking at children doesn't just make me feel sentimental about children. It makes me feel sentimental about everybody. It makes me remember that everybody was a child once, and that-- in a sense-- everybody is still a child. We may guffaw at talk about "the inner child", but there's surely a lot of truth to the idea.

Indeed, it's even sadder when "the inner child" is gone, or suppressed. When you look at the eagerness, wonder, and artlessness of children, it seems almost heartbreaking that so many grown-ups are (apparently) cynical, apathetic, sardonic, and defensive. What happened to them? Where did the wonder go? How much hurt and disappointment is it buried beneath? Why did those things have to be lost?

Look at the photograph below. I've posted it here before. I got it from the website TV Tropes. It was used there as an illustration of something that is accidentally scary-- the idea being that the girl would get the creeps once she saw this picture. But that's not why it captured my imagination. The little girl is just so adorable-- so enthusiastic, so happy, so unabashed in her enthusiasm and happiness. This picture makes my heart melt-- not just for the little girl, but for the human race.

I'm an irritable person, easily annoyed by my fellow human beings-- even by things which cause me no harm and which are not even morally objectionable, such as a banal remark or a vacant grin. I'm trying to overcome this, and I think I'm making some progress.

Strangely enough, I feel most charitable towards my fellow human beings when I see them as pathetic-- and I mean "pathetic" in its most literal sense. I feel most charitable towards my fellow human beings when I'm most conscious of the pathos of the human condition. Then my irritation tends to evaporate, and I feel towards everybody as one might feel towards a terminally ill patient, or somebody who has been recently bereaved. Or a child. Personal slights cease to sting, and one's ego seems not overcome but irrelevant.

I've asked myself-- is this Christian charity? Or is it just sentimentality? Then again, is sentimentality always a bad thing?

There is a passage in G.K. Chesterton's Manalive which describes a very similar mood, or perhaps the very same one. In this extract, two of the characters have broken into a house and one of them is burgling it:

After another glance round, my housebreaker plucked the walnut doors open and rummaged inside. He found nothing there, apparently, except an extremely handsome cut-glass decanter, containing what looked like port. Somehow the sight of the thief returning with this ridiculous little luxury in his hand woke within me once more all the revelation and revulsion I had felt above.

"`Don't do it!' I cried quite incoherently, `Santa Claus—'

"`Ah,' said the burglar, as he put the decanter on the table and stood looking at me, `you've thought about that, too.'

"`I can't express a millionth part of what I've thought of,' I cried, `but it's something like this… oh, can't you see it? Why are children not afraid of Santa Claus, though he comes like a thief in the night? He is permitted secrecy, trespass, almost treachery—because there are more toys where he has been. What should we feel if there were less? Down what chimney from hell would come the goblin that should take away the children's balls and dolls while they slept? Could a Greek tragedy be more gray and cruel than that daybreak and awakening? Dog-stealer, horse-stealer, man-stealer—can you think of anything so base as a toy-stealer?'

"The burglar, as if absently, took a large revolver from his pocket and laid it on the table beside the decanter, but still kept his blue reflective eyes fixed on my face.

"`Man!' I said, `all stealing is toy-stealing. That's why it's really wrong. The goods of the unhappy children of men should be really respected because of their worthlessness. I know Naboth's vineyard is as painted as Noah's Ark. I know Nathan's ewe-lamb is really a woolly baa-lamb on a wooden stand. That is why I could not take them away. I did not mind so much, as long as I thought of men's things as their valuables; but I dare not put a hand upon their vanities.'

"After a moment I added abruptly, `Only saints and sages ought to be robbed. They may be stripped and pillaged; but not the poor little worldly people of the things that are their poor little pride.'

"He set out two wineglasses from the cupboard, filled them both, and lifted one of them with a salutation towards his lips.

"`Don't do it!' I cried. `It might be the last bottle of some rotten vintage or other. The master of this house may be quite proud of it. Don't you see there's something sacred in the silliness of such things?'

The Catholic poet Coventry Patmore, who Chesterton often quoted approvingly, is even more eloquent on this theme in his poem "The Toys". I am utterly unable to read this poem without being reduced to tears:

My little Son, who look'd from thoughtful eyes
And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,
Having my law the seventh time disobey'd,

I struck him, and dismiss'd
With hard words and unkiss'd,
His Mother, who was patient, being dead.
Then, fearing lest his grief should hinder sleep,
I visited his bed,
But found him slumbering deep,
With darken'd eyelids, and their lashes yet
From his late sobbing wet.
And I, with moan,
Kissing away his tears, left others of my own;
For, on a table drawn beside his head,
He had put, within his reach,
A box of counters and a red-vein'd stone,
A piece of glass abraded by the beach
And six or seven shells,
A bottle with bluebells
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
To comfort his sad heart.
So when that night I pray'd
To God, I wept, and said:
Ah, when at last we lie with tranced breath,
Not vexing Thee in death,
And Thou rememberest of what toys
We made our joys,
How weakly understood
Thy great commanded good,
Then, fatherly not less
Than I whom Thou hast moulded from the clay,

Thou'lt leave Thy wrath, and say,
"I will be sorry for their childishness."

 I'm also reminded of a touching passage in Steven Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, in which he describes a mistake he made in raising his daughter:

One day I returned home to my little girl's third-year birthday party to find her in the corner of the front room, defiantly clutching all of her presents, unwilling to let the other children play with them. The first thing I noticed was several parents in the room witnessing this selfish display. I was embarrassed, and doubly so because at the time I was teaching university classes in human relations. And I knew, or at least felt, the expectation of these parents.... 

After unsuccessfully cajoling the girl, he forces her to share, which in retrospect he comes to regret: 

I've learned that once children gain a sense of real possession, they share very naturally, freely, and spontaneously. Perhaps a sense of possessing needs to come before a sense of genuine sharing. Many people who give mechanically or refuse to give and share in their marriages and families may never have experienced what it means to possess themselves, their own sense of identity and self-worth. 

Whatever you think of gurus such as Steven Covey (and my own opinion of them is not very high), the image of the little girl clutching her toys to herself is quite affecting.

I agree with Covey's reasoning in this instance. I took part in a correspondence some years ago, in the letters page of the Irish Catholic newspaper, on the subject of charity gifts. One writer had suggested that, instead of receiving gifts for Christmas, donations to charity should be made in the children's name, to teach them to give rather than to receive.

I think this is a terrible idea, and I said so. I recalled my pleasure in Christmas gifts as a child, a pleasure that has never gone away but still lingers with me. I honestly don't think it was greed or materialism. When I remember Christmas toys as a child, I'm flooded with feelings of gratitude-- they seemed like a symbol of grace, something given out of pure love, something given especially to me. The thought of getting some certificate telling me a charitable bequest had been given in my name would, I'm sure, have rankled with me to this day. Kids can be encouraged to be charitable at any time of the year. Why deprive them of their toys at Christmas?

Recently, I've been remembering one Christmas where I made a park bench out of lollipop sticks, using a kit I'd received just for this purpose. When I remember this, I feel bathed in tenderness, and gratitude, and a desire to be generous myself. Looking back, I realize that it was the love represented by such gifts that really mattered to me. Do we ever really want anything except love, even at our most cynical?

One of the priests in UCD, in one homily, said that it was very important to truly believe that God loves us, because then we would be ready to love others, secure in that knowledge.

All this sounds like I am suggesting that "to understand all is to forgive all", or that "everybody is fighting a battle you know nothing about", or some such sentiment of universal tolerance.

Well, I'm definitely not saying that. I think this is exactly the sort of decadent thinking which leads to liberal Christianity-- the inability to condemn, the inability to say "no", the withering away of righteous anger and indignation.

When I think of the people I know who have made a misery of their own lives and the lives of others, the image of the child clinging to its toys is no less applicable. The same applies in a wider social and cultural context. Ireland is on the threshold of legalizing abortion, in great part because several generations of Ireland's great and good have been beguiled by the flashy toys of Progress and Liberation and Rebellion. The fact that there is something pathetic about this, once again in that literal sense of pathos, doesn't make it any less lamentable.

Sometimes we have to sternly warn the child to drop its toys, to get rid of them. In some circumstances, even prising them its fingers might be warranted.

But here's the thing....I think we should always strive to do so with a certain regret, a certain pity. Our anger should be righteous anger, not vindictive anger, or the anger of a bruised ego.

It's interesting that, in the gospels, Jesus seems to alternate between pity and anger, even towards his own disciples. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing!"

In this blog post, I've used the image of toys, but what does it represent? Well, I suppose it represents a few different things.

The toys might be the trifles that we comfort and console ourselves with, which are charged with a tremendous, child-like pathos when seen in perspective-- like the toys in the Manalive excerpt, or the Coventry Patmore poem.

Or the toys might be the equivalent of a toy on Christmas Day, an image of the pure gratuitousness of God's love, or the gestures and symbols which mean so much in the economy of love.

Or the toys might be sins, idols, things fetishized as good far beyond their deserving, things which come to be preferred to God.

In any case, musing upon this theme fills me with a resolution to be more patient, kind, and generous when it comes to the faults of others. Whether I live up to this resolution is another matter entirely.