Eight years ago, in one of the earliest pieces in this blog, I wrote what was effectively a fan’s homage to one of the great women of our time, writer and journalist, Oriana Fallaci. I think it still reads well. Fallaci was something of a prophetess, of an uncompromising and ballsy kind, who could write and argue with great vigour and effect. She was a populist in the tackling of difficult (and dangerous) issues, such as Islamic terrorism. Here is Christopher Hitchens’ profile of her, in some ways a kindred spirit.
She died of cancer in 2006, happily dismissive to the end, of some early social justice warriors who were trying to get her prosecuted.
The people who use the word ‘populist’ in a contemptuous way now, would likely hold Fallaci in contempt too. I doubt though, that they would express it to her face.
All this is a preamble to an excellent piece by the Fallaci of our time (sort of), the tireless Douglas Murray, in the enduringly excellent magazine for the brainiacs of Western Civilization, Standpoint. Feel free to read my blog post too, but here, describing one of her most famous encounters, is Murray:
In the early 1970s she had conducted an interview with the Shah of Iran, in which he discussed the visions he believed he had received. The resulting piece was so damaging that when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power he granted Fallaci the only interview that any Western journalist would ever get with him. They met in Qom in 1979, where the Ayatollah discovered that just because Fallaci disliked your enemies it did not follow that she would like you. When the Ayatollah claimed that the Iranian revolution which he was heading was animated by love she replied, “Love or fascism, Imam? It seems like fanaticism to me, the most dangerous kind: the fascist kind.”
The full version of the Khomeini interview remains one of the greatest pieces of reportage of the 20th century. Not just for the scoop, or the intricately revealing lead-up to the encounter, but for what Fallaci did during it. Forced into a chador in order to enter the Ayatollah’s presence, she ended up in a row about why women should be forced to wear such a garment, and became so enraged that she stood up and ripped off “this stupid medieval rag”, letting it fall to the floor “in an obscene black puddle”. At which “like the shadow of a cat . . . he rose so quickly, so suddenly, that for a moment I thought I had just been struck with a gust of wind. Then with a jump that was still very feline, he stepped over the chador and he disappeared.”
It should be noted though, that the newly labelled fascist fanatic Khomeini later reappeared and finished the interview.
As someone with an intimate knowledge of secessionist lunatics and the trouble they cause – with complete indifference to its effects and an utter disregard of those who might demur from their obsessive worldview – I have watched the Catalonia situation with a mix of deja vu and disgust.
In retrospect, lancing the SNP boil by giving them their referendum might have been David Cameron’s signature achievement. Scotland, despite the SNP hype, is not ruefully regretting the majority rejection of the SNP raison d’etre.
And also, as someone with a pretty good knowledge of Spain, including Catalonia, over many years, I can observe that Puigdemont’s mob, in common with the SNP, don’t really have anything tangible in the way of active grievances. Their gripes are historical, though in Spain I would concede, some of the bad stuff still lies within living memory. Not so Scotland, I would suggest.
Other things they have in common are a failure of serious planning – currency, defence, capital flight, all that stuff – and the thinnest of veneers when it comes to respecting democracy. It was almost inevitable that the floppy haired egomaniac Puigdemont would turn out to be an unelected demagogue, in that no Catalan actually voted for him to become president. That would be too risky. Here’s Wikipedia:
On 10 January 2016, he was invested as the 130th President of the Generalitat of Catalonia by the Parliament of Catalonia. This followed an agreement carried out the day before between Together for Yes and the CUP, in which it was announced that he would replace Artur Mas as president of the Generalitat in exchange for a guarantee of parliamentary stability for his Government
Nice deal guys
However, enjoyable sneering aside (the SNP similarities keep coming), there is a very serious aspect to all this, or aspects. Spain’s tumultuous history comes to the fore, from the epic of Covadonga in 722, through the Reconquista of 1492 to the civil war of the 1930’s. For the last 5 years and more there have been clear signs that Catalonian separatism was encouraging an Islamist enclave to form, in part as a further divide with the rest of Spain. The recent horrific terrorist attacks, conveniently airbrushed now, combined with any casual observation in Barcelona and environs, will tell you that it has changed immensely. This is in part hardcore Salafist Islam, a problem for everyone, including the vain and solipsistic Puigdemont.
By contrast, the beleaguered Mariano Rajoy has shown a decisiveness and maturity so far, that it provides a little ray of hope.
The best summary of all this right now, with hard hitting criticism of all parties, is from Iain Martin, a man who knows a mad secessionist when he sees one, over at Reaction (which is worth its tiny subscription fee). I feel compelled to quote it at length:
One of the more obscure aspects of the latest, tragic events in Catalonia is the way in which the constitutional emergency has brought together under one banner some unlikely allies in Britain. Not only are the separatists in Barcelona being cheered on by activists from the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland nationalist parties, as should be expected.
They all support the potential break up of Spain for the obvious reason that separatists love separatism, and, because they want to break up countries on principle, they enjoy the spectacle of it happening elsewhere, probably because they expect the impulse to spread beyond the borders of Spain.
But alongside the SNP et al, the Catalans also have the support of the Faragists, that collection of tin-pot populists clustered around the former leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage. In that faction, judging by their comments today, the delight at the declaration by the Catalan parliament of independence from Spain is rooted instead in the potential for the Catalan business to damage the European Union, which they despise and want to fall apart. In this way the Catalans are cast as the latest exponents of the Trumpian impulse – breaking norms, smashing up the system, as though it is all a great laugh, Carry on Up the Sagrada Familia.
According to the twisted populist reading, the EU is trampling on the will of the Catalan people. That is nonsense. It is not clear there is anything like a majority for a split from Spain. Unlike the Brexit referendum in the UK in 2016, held legally in a nation state, the recent Catalan referendum was illegal, and the EU’s refusal to recognise the unilateral split is perfectly fair and sensible. National governments elsewhere across Europe are taking the same position, not because the EU told them to, but for the perfectly understandable reason that it is rooted in truth and respect for law. In the fantasy ultra-Brexiteer version of diplomacy, this is supposed to be cast aside, sanctioning the end of Spain when there is simply no majority for it.
There has always been a brainless, reckless strand at the Faragist end of the Brexit side of the argument, which operates on the assumption that anything bad for the EU, or Europe more broadly, is good fun and good for Brexit, as though this is a zero sum game and as though we are not all living in the same continent, in the shared space that is Europe. The temptation to mix the two up – Europe and the EU – must always be resisted. Europe is an old civilisation and an enduring concept. The EU is a relatively new political experiment.
In that context, what is happening in Spain is not a cause for celebration. It is a European catastrophe. After a difficult 20th century – and a return to democracy in the mid-1970s following the death of Franco in 1975 – Spain has re-emerged as a confident country with distinct economic strengths (in finance in particular) and restored pride. Catalonia is a disproportionately productive part of that success story. With only 16% of Spain’s population it nonetheless generates 20% of Spanish GDP and a quarter of national exports. It is, for now, a magnet for foreign inward investment.
Catalonia is, or was, doing well, and Spain is, or was, recovering strongly – with growth running just above 3%. The considerable difficulties that Spain encountered stemmed from joining the euro. They are being overcome after a robust programme of reforms.
Now, this weekend, the unity and economic health of that major European democracy is in peril. Direct rule will be imposed. Civil unrest seems certain and violence highly likely. In simple human terms, once the celebrations in Barcelona are matched by counter-demonstrations, a lot of people are at risk of being hurt.
There is another important and overlooked reason for non-Spaniards to fear the break up of Spain. It is on the European front-line against the Islamist war on Western civilisation. Islamic State talks of retaking the Iberian peninsula, and it was from radicalised communities in the Pyrenees that the cells emerged to perpetrate recent attacks. Spain falling apart in the face of such violence would signal to the enemies of European civilisation that great countries are disintegrating and the West is weakening.
Some things, you see, are bigger than Brexit. All Europeans – in or out of the EU – should be extremely concerned by the crisis in Catalonia and should hope for some statesmanship and compromise.
It is indeed a catastrophe, and no-one knows how it will end.
All good things must come to an end, and so must Obama’s reign. James Delingpole was bang on the money when he wrote years ago “Welcome to Obamaland: I Have Seen Your Future and It Doesn’t Work“. He was reflecting on our 10 years of the Blair Terror, when it all starts out so well, but real life intrudes. Painfully.
Well, The Knife has a low opinion of King Barack as a substantial politician. Significant, yes; consequential, yes; stylish, yes; authoritative in speech, mostly yes. But as an intrinsically honest leader, healer, prudent steward of the economy and most powerful man in the world when it comes to foreign policy. Er…no. In fact, not even close.
Of course, there are plenty of disaffected middle class professionals safe in our own quiet corners of the globe who can pontificate in this way. Let us try a different perspective. Here’s Iranian exile, controversial, multilingual and well-connected Amir Taheri, writing in Arab News:
…there is no escaping the fact that President Barack Obama has been an exceptionally divisive figure. Failing to find formulae for working with a hostile Congress he has tried to circumvent the legislature whenever possible, adding fuel to the fire of division. He leaves behind a deeply divided government.
By turning his power base into a coalition of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, Obama has pushed the majority toward radical messages they had shunned for generations. He leaves behind a divided society. Today, even the two main parties, Democrat and Republican, are split with surprising reversals of alliances within each. He leaves behind a divided establishment.
With his tergiversations and intellectual laziness, Obama has also divided the NATO alliance, opening new spaces for opportunist powers of various sizes to embark on ill-conceived adventures.
You don’t have to like the enduringly controversial Henry Kissinger to realise that he’s usually worth listening to. He is, unlike many politicians (as opposed to the best international diplomats), a real student of history. He was in the news when I was a child (Vietnam), he’s still in the news today at 92.
One of his regular lessons relates to the Thirty Years War. This was, to put it mildly, a complicated conflict, with a confusing mix of religious and political allegiances. ‘Trust nobody’ might be one message from it. When a Catholic cardinal (Richelieu) is in hock with the north European protestant supremacists, you know it’s going to be a can of worms. It all eventually ended, nearly, with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which involved in varying degrees France, Sweden, the numerous chunks of Germany which existed before Bismarck, Spain, the Low Countries, Denmark, England, Bohemia, lots of smaller players and of course the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg empire. Complicated indeed.
The key thing was pleasing everyone a bit, and everyone having to compromise a bit, whilst noting that in terms of influence, size, location and population, Germany was the key player (but in its component parts). It pretty much has been since then too.
Kissinger states that this tricky compromise is the model of future diplomacy and international relations, if you carefully study it and extrapolate accordingly. Here is a quote from the Wall Street Journal review of the great man’s last book, World Order:
For Mr. Kissinger, Westphalia is not simply one system among many but the most morally, intellectually and even aesthetically pleasing of all such systems. The story begins with France’s Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), who articulated a doctrine that “the state was an abstract and permanent entity existing in its own right,” holding interests peculiar to itself—raison d’état. When the religious wars of the mid-17th century exhausted all parties, the diplomats who gathered in the northwest German province of Westphalia in the mid-1640s agreed that they would not seek to impose their own religious principles upon one another. States would no longer interfere with the domestic order of other states. “The Westphalian concept took multiplicity as its starting point,” Mr. Kissinger writes, and thus incorporated “multiple societies” into “a common search for order.”
Here he is in an interview last year, musing on how the Westphalian system might fit with our ‘problem’ in the Middle East:
“Is it possible to create the equivalent of such a system [in the Middle East]?” asks Kissinger. “That is the challenge for the United States, and for others — we alone can’t do it. The world without a balance of power is an arbitrary world. The nature of the balance of power will change, but the principle that you cannot have one region or one country dominate the whole world will re-emerge — or should re-emerge.”
That balance, rather than world domination, seems to be the key thing. Each player depends to a degree on the other. How complicated it is in reality is shown by trying to analyse today’s news from Turkey, nobody seems sure of what their downing of a taunting Russian jet actually signifies, yet everyone seems sure it is significant.
However, if we go back to the 17th century, and seek advice from one of the beneficiaries of the Peace of Westphalia, a man charged with maintaining that elusive balance, Frederick William, the splendidly titled Great Elector of Brandenburg-Prussia, here is what he recommends regarding ISIS, in his Political Testament:
“..when war arises between two others, attempt to resolve the conflict through your interposition, but always position yourself well, so that you have force behind you”
and if that’s not working
“One thing is sure. If you stand still and think that the fire is still far from your borders, then your lands will become the stage upon which the tragedy is performed”
Everyone is rightly going on about Andrew Neil’s glorious trash talk takedown of the ISIS nerds, and here it is as a handy reference:
My only criticism is that he didn’t namecheck Alkan, who is buried in the Cimitiere Montmartre, along with Berlioz, who did get a mention. Neil is a classic example of the gifted Scottish man of the world, a beneficiary of a superb Scottish education (now on its knees).
On the same show there’s the highly intelligent, less formally educated, (and occasional idiot), George Galloway, Dundee’s finest, with a magnificent answer on shooting the bad guys, as well as various other pieces of smart thinking:
Good on you George, whose Middle East knowledge and sympathies are well known. He’s often right, despite the anti-Israel whining. See this brilliant prophetic comment.
Then, inevitably, there is Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond, who has been parked by Sturgeon, bafflingly, as the Nats’ foreign affairs spokesman. Eck now lives primarily in his own world of pompous declamatory self serving tripe, whether it’s his lousy economic predictions (see the mighty Chokkablog), or in this case, a completely out-of-step reliance on the embarrassingly discredited UN. It’s entirely in keeping with his ludicrous attempts to patronise combat veteran Johnny Mercer, on Channel 4 recently.
Eck is not just misjudging the mood of the UK, as usual, he’s carrying on with his entertaining mission to estrange himself from his own party. Eck’s closest pal in politics is going to end up as comedic convicted perjurer Tommy Sheridan. For both of them the mythical Indyref 2 is becoming the only way to grab the limelight, something even the SNP are dodging now, apart from the dwindling band of ’45 zoomers.
Galloway and Neil are great adverts for the ongoing independent spirit and intellectual bite of the Scottish Enlightenment. In fact, Neil looks more and more as if he could have stepped out of a Tobias Smollett novel, a writer who in some ways he resembles. These men are the best of Scotland, in their different ways. The ISIS crisis has perhaps given an unexpected boost to the process of putting Salmond into his cul-de-sac of history.
In keeping with my previous thoughts that the foot soldiers of ISIS are inept teenage misogynists, here is a real Middle East expert, Justin Marozzi, on the inadequacies of what he correctly calls Daesh (they don’t like the name):
…there is an important point to be made about the caliphate, a word we keep hearing from the homoerotic death cult of Daesh (known by the BBC as Islamic State, see below). The Abbasid caliphate, the Islamic empire at its most resplendent, was cosmopolitan, tolerant, progressive, intellectually inquisitive, dynamic and prosperous. Wine-drinking and naughty poetry were hugely popular. The dreary puritanism of these latest jihadists is way off the mark. One of the most depressing things about Daesh, apart from the beheadings (which pale into insignificance when you recall the 90,000 heads Tamerlane lopped off in Baghdad in 1401), is that they are complete bores.
…well, in reality they kidnap them, rape them and sell them, as the first order effect, but the secondary consequence is more unwelcome to these jihadi misogynists, whose behaviour is uncannily mirrored by Boko Haram in Africa.
‘I find them indescribably disgusting. How would you feel if it was women living near you who were being married off by force by ISIS? How would you feel? They are doing the most disgusting things I have ever seen in my life.’…
…‘I have told all my frontline soldiers to keep one bullet in their pocket in case they are captured. I never want any of them to be captured by ISIS.’
They’re not a last minute reaction to being under the threat of ISIS slaughter, the Kurds have been giving women equal status as fighters for years. To add to their value, although the claim is disputed, there seems to be something in the story that if you’re a jihadi killed by a woman, don’t expect the legendary (and in itself, more than a bit strange) reward of 72 virgins, or as the Al-Arabiya network called it, their “virgin-fuelled utopian rest”.
So good for the Kurds. The Iraqi Kurd who sells me kebabs had his peshmerga brother killed a month ago, fighting ISIS. The ramifications of this brutal pseudo-caliphate reach our streets quickly, one way or another.
Then along comes this remarkable old lady, who confronts a couple of the thugs in the street in Syria, in this now famous video. She doesn’t let them off the hook, and they have no answer to her. Brilliant:
Lastly there are the journalists. The Sunday Times’ superb Hala Jaber (@HalaJaber) completely understands the mentality of ISIS, and indeed the rest of the Middle East, and her Twitter feed is quite brilliant, attracting the enmity of what she refers to as ‘ISIS fanboys’. The Kurdish journalist Shler Bapiri (@shlerbapiri) is another tireless advocate for the truth against Islamic female genital mutilation, and the fight to the death with ISIS. These fearless women – who are not remote from danger themselves – are very much in the noble tradition of people like the superb Veena Malik and the legendary Oriana Fallaci, both previously featured in this blog. Here is Veena eloquently putting the boot into an absurd imam on Pakistani TV:
Her confident outspokenness has just earned her a 26 year jail sentence in Pakistan. Luckily she lives in Dubai. The late Oriana Fallaci was the Italian powerhouse who famously gave the Ayatollah Khomeini a lesson in practical feminism. As it turns out, she was something of a prophet herself, and her best-selling post 9/11 polemic The Rage and the Pride remains a much needed counterblast to the situation we find ourselves in today.
When the British idea of feminism seems often to revolve around a privileged pink bus idiot like Harriet Harman wearing an inane sweat shop produced T shirt in parliament, you can only stand in awe of these women who are out there, in the real world, dealing with unimaginable problems that men don’t have to suffer. As the reliably funny and controversial Gavin McInnes writes, Harman’s kind of feminism is basically “women doing what they’re told”.
To paraphrase PG Wodehouse, it’s never difficult to distinguish between a Frenchman with a grievance, and a ray of sunshine. Admirable though the protest for freedom of expression is in France, following recent events, there is a tinge of hypocrisy in all this, both in recent times and historically.
We need not worry too much on behalf of the unappealing Front National, that Charlie Hebdo campaigned to have them banned in 1996, but the fact is, they did. Voltaire might have baulked at that one. Similarly, there is no reason other than prissy lefty sensibilities to have failed to invite the current (and widely supported) Front National from the big rally for unity. It just makes it about 75% unity. Even at a time of great seriousness, calling for greatness of spirit, these morons get all huffy and party political. None of this is to support the Front National, who are a legal organisation, just to note the inherent divisiveness, precisely the wrong message.
Not particularly my business , I suppose, much as I like France.
However, let us go back, not that long ago, to examine the living history of this bastion of free expression and tolerance. Look at this picture:
Nothing wrong with separating Church and state – in fact the two are usually inimically opposed on numerous issues – as the French law of 1905 put on the statute books, but in fact it went a lot further than that. The monks only returned in 1940, to their rightful home. The Jesuits were also kicked out of any teaching role, and in shades of Henry VIII, had much of their property ‘confiscated’ by the state. Whatever your view of allegedly subversive Jesuits – a very intelligent and formidable group – the blameless Carthusians were outrageously treated.
Bizarrely, these church groups had committed no crimes, this was just state approved anticlericalism, a recurring feature of French history, most famously the era of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ in 1789. Only as far back as 1871, the short lived Communard revolt was busy executing Jesuits for being Jesuits. These were clergy, we’re not talking homecoming jihadis here.
A number of writers** have in the past few days*** attempted the delicate task of unpicking support for the principles of freedom of expression from uncritical support for the French state, and for the genuinely offensive – to everybody, the Muslims got off lightly – and even worse, genuinely unfunny Charlie Hebdo. Stephen Glover did a good job:
Whether in the case of Islam or Christianity — and the magazine sometimes also extends its animus towards the Jewish faith — the purpose is to shock and dishearten those of religious persuasion. There is no pity or respect or kindness. Charlie Hebdo hates all religion, and mocks all its adherents. I can only imagine how ordinary Muslims feel when they see everything that they hold most sacred being held up for ridicule. As someone who calls himself a Christian, I can sense some of the pain and outrage that Christians much more devout and holy than me must experience when they see or read about these appalling images, which are intended to cause pain.
Here, of course, we come to a parting of the ways. Christians and, I believe, most Muslims, recognise that as we live in a free society we are required to put up with even the most hurtful insults to our faith. The Kouachi brothers (who committed the Paris murders) and their deluded supporters think otherwise, and many innocent people, including the journalists of Charlie Hebdo, have paid a terrible price. It’s obviously insane and immoral to kill someone because one is offended by an image and I abhor what happened in Paris in the name of Islam. But it’s not insane or immoral to be offended by an image whose purpose is to vilify our beliefs and make us unhappy. It’s simply natural and human…
….The militantly atheistical Charlie Hebdo cannot grasp this simple truth. Convinced that all religion is a form of deviance, it lacks the imagination or human sympathy to understand the value of the sacred for religious people, of whom there are thousands of millions on this earth. Far from being sophisticated or enlightened, in some respects the magazine resembles a narrow and monomaniacal sect that actually works against the precepts of freedom. Ironically, in this it is more similar to its blinkered Islamist opponents than it could ever dream — though, of course, without the violence.
As the Pope said, in a remark better understood abroad than in the UK (and not speaking ex cathedra): ‘If you insult my mother you can expect a punch.’
“Yes, France!” said Turnbull, and all the rhetorical part of him came to the top, his face growing as red as his hair. “France, that has always been in rebellion for liberty and reason. France, that has always assailed superstition with the club of Rabelais or the rapier of Voltaire. France, at whose first council table sits the sublime figure of Julian the Apostate. France, where a man said only the other day those splendid unanswerable words”—with a superb gesture—”‘we have extinguished in heaven those lights that men shall never light again.'”
“No,” said MacIan, in a voice that shook with a controlled passion. “But France, which was taught by St. Bernard and led to war by Joan of Arc. France that made the crusades. France that saved the Church and scattered the heresies by the mouths of Bossuet and Massillon. France, which shows today the conquering march of Catholicism, as brain after brain surrenders to it, Brunetière, Coppée, Hauptmann, Barrès, Bourget, Lemaître.”
“France!” asserted Turnbull with a sort of rollicking self-exaggeration, very unusual with him, “France, which is one torrent of splendid scepticism from Abelard to Anatole France.”
“France,” said MacIan, “which is one cataract of clear faith from St. Louis to Our Lady of Lourdes.”
Let’s put it plainly: The solidarity would have been a lot more impressive, more persuasive, some time before this week’s mass butchery….All of which makes this hashtag war, all the We are Charlie Hebdo manifestations, so very, very hollow. If we will not speak for free speech when it is shut down by special interests, protestors of the politically correct, on campuses and in newspapers, we manifest that we are not serious about free speech. There is no “we” after the killings. There are very few worthy of that claim … and, alas, under the shout of allahu akbar, 12 of them are now quite dead.
In a week when what you could call Western civilization has taken a few hits, not least from ‘useful idiots’ who bask within its cultural and geographic confines, it’s worth reflecting on the magnificence of its heritage, whether intellectual, spiritual, artistic, technological …. the lot.
Here is Paul Valery, the French poet, philosopher and writer, in 1926:
The spiral of a winding stair descending from the shadows and the glimpse of a deserted gallery imperceptibly give the viewer the impression that he is examining the interior of a strange shell inhabited by a little intellectual animal…the idea of withdrawal into oneself, of depths, of a richness of understanding born within the individual self, are suggested by this composition, which in some vague but inexpressible way, has a spiritual content
…and Valery is writing about one of Rembrandt’s most perfect compositions, usually called The Philosopher in Meditation, although there is no certainty as to Rembrandt’s intent with the subject matter. The various details add to its enigma, though there’s a great deal of analysisout there on the web. It’s actually a tiny painting, 11 x 13 inches, which in my mind adds to its perfection.
In an odd way, I read it as a rebuttal of atavistic violent belief systems, of the kind that we’re all becoming horribly familiar with, and, frankly, scared into inaction. I prefer the optimistic approach – combined with a bit more robustness – exemplified by Matthew Parris, whose skill in constructing a written argument is unsurpassed.
A few years ago I attended a charity ball to raise money for our hospital’s A&E service. One female guest got drunk early and insisted on showing off her thong to everyone, generally being in your face and irritating. It wasn’t as much fun as it might sound. We all sat down to eat, she buttonholed me and loudly demanded to know “if you hadn’t done medicine, what would you have done?”
An interesting question, not least because I fluked my way in to medical school, really. Everyone at the table was waiting for the answer, so after a moment’s thought I said “a monk”. Which kind of killed it dead really. At the mention of religion a lot of people tend to get a bit shifty and move on, at least in a public settting. The thing is, notwithstanding the fact that I had already acquired a beautiful wife, it was kind of true.
Monks and monasteries do fascinate me, a phrase which even as I write it seems unbearably superficial, considering the subject matter. There is a certain interest in the Buddhist version, but it’s the real deal Catholic orders that I’m talking about. I’m not the only one. One of the finest short books you could read is the now deceased (at 96) Patrick Leigh Fermor’s wonderful A Time to Keep Silence. PLF was neither religious nor Catholic, but in his postwar European wanderings he ended up staying at various monasteries for long periods. He beautifully describes the invisible transition between the initial aridity and boredom to peace, insight and happiness. It’s a magnificent book.
More recently, there have been two films, both highly acclaimed, about the austere contemplative orders. Of Gods and Men is the dramatisation of the true events of 1996 when French Cistercian Trappists in Algeria were murdered, possibly by Islamic militants. It got extraordinarily good reviews and narrowly missed the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Why would a Catholic monastery even exist high in the mountains of a Muslim North African country? The unique Into Great Silence is a documentary, without narration, about life at the Carthusian monastery in the Grenoble Alps, La Grande Chartreuse. Not a promising description, you might think, but its hypnotic patient rhythm draws you in. The monastery and its setting are stunning, and it’s off limits to visitors, making the film even more compelling. Read the reviews. These monks are serious, impressive people. It’s not untypical that after requesting the opportunity to make the film, the director Philip Groning got his answer – 16 years later.
Cistercian austerity commingles with vogueish minimalist architecture in the hands of the very gifted and successful John Pawson, one of the great European architects. Pawson rightly lauds the simple magnificence of Cistercian monasteries over hundreds of years. His work on a new monastery in Bohemia, the Abbey of Our Lady of Novy Dvur, is breathtaking. These monks do not live in the past. Their world is in fact, timeless.
These films, articles and visible signs of monastic life and activity are one thing, but how to sum up the essence of being a monk, to understand their reasons, their essence, is very difficult, and almost impossible if you cannot empathise with their religious belief. The Irish journalist John Waters, in a superb piece last month from the Trappist monastery of Mount Melleray put it as well as anyone can. I quote extensively from his very moving work below.
These men, I find myself thinking, are at the opposite point of human possibility to everything we take for granted as true and real. They bear witness to the strangeness of being, reminding us of this structural peculiarity of reality without any hint of moralism or rancour. ‘Look how odd the world really is!’ they seem to exclaim. ‘Don’t become too distracted by anything, for then you will miss this strangeness!’ Doggedly, they stand in silent contemplation as the world beckons them, mocks them, stares at them in puzzlement. They smile, or look away shyly. But they stay. They know why they are here.
More than once, I found myself wondering how it would feel to be here on, say, my 12,367th morning. It seems unconscionable. I cannot conceive of a degree of certitude that would enable me to do it. Even from the little I have learned about the lives of these men, I understand but vaguely how they see things. I know I am imposing my own ideas on a reality I but look into as into a passing canal barge.
There are aspects of the monkish life that recommend themselves to me: the predictability and weightlessness. But I am old enough to know that this is just a part of my psyche crying out for things no longer accessible in the great outdoors. I see through myself and know that I want these things in addition to the life I now have, which is not quite the deal the monk signs up to.
I look around the faces of these good men. I wonder if they ever have such thoughts. Does the trickle of news from the outside ever bring them to a point of doubt in themselves? Does their inevitable knowledge of the incomprehension of the external world cause them to feel even a hint of the restlessness I’m feeling now? Only the return of the Saviour, it strikes me, could adequately justify what these men have committed of themselves. And, what, I find myself briefly wondering, if He has no plans to come back? Where would that leave these great men and what they have made of their lives? I shudder at the implications of the question and delve back into the psalm to suppress the sense of absurdity that threatens to engulf me.
But then another thought overcomes the first: I am standing observing the dying breaths of pure Irish Christianity, and what the future holds for a world without men like this is infinitely more disturbing than any fleeting chill I may be feeling on their behalf.
The brief stab of absurdity I have experienced in this setting stands to become a chronic condition in a society in which there are no longer men and women prepared to live in this way. It strikes me forcibly that, even if we are barely aware of their existences – even if we scorn their sacrifices – the silent prayerful presence of these men here is somehow vital to our very human continuance. I don’t mean just that they pray for us, but that the sense they give us of something to be believed in so unconditionally – that, even as we scoff, this somehow allows us to continue inhabiting what we think of as the ‘real’ world, in much the way that we once partied all night, knowing that our staid parents slept fitfully at home, hoping we would make it back safe with the dawn.
It hits me like a train that, in a future without these monks at our backs, everything will seem as absurd as the moment I have just experienced as a spasm of sadness and affection.
In Father Columban Heaney’s booklet, there is the following startling passage: “The human person is really a metaphysical misfit in the world. He was not made for it and cannot find total fulfillment in it. Hence, he is a frustrated creature in this world; this can be taken as a definition of man. Monks and nuns are people who accept this definition of themselves and live accordingly. They know that they have no lasting city here on earth, so they turn to the desert where they hope to meet God and can begin to find part of that ultimate happiness for which they long.”
This is the truth of us all, whether we can face it or not. Without this clue as to the ultimate nature of reality, we are headed nowhere rather than somewhere, no matter how determined our step. Without such as these monks to remind us, all sense of an ultimate meaningfulness would leech away, leaving us with our baubles and the debris of our emptied hopes, cold-sweating in the face of another pointless and pitiless dawn.