Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Guide to Boring

I AM distressed to note that in the interesting department of Boring (the Latin Ars Taedica) no outstanding work has been done upon the active side: the science and practice of Boring.

There has been plenty of writing upon the passive side, describing the horrors of being bored; and plenty of sound invective against the Bore; plenty of good description of his appearance and (what is more difficult) a few good descriptions of his approach and manner. But I can remember nothing at the moment describing the Art of Boredom: informing such of us (and I am one) as desire to inflict it upon our enemies. The book wants doing; and I would like to drop a few hints on it here.

In the first place, I will beg my readers to get out of their heads (if they have it lodged there) the idea that boring is not to be learnt and practised, because the bores he knows are commonly aimless. That is a great error. I admit that aimless men are often the best bores—the kind of men who would take prizes in a National Bore Show. I will even admit that the King Bore is usually himself ignorant of his terrible powers. But for deliberate and intentional boring you must have a man of some ability to practise it well, as you must to practise any art well.

For Boring may properly be regarded as an art, and in connection with it I shall now enrich you by giving rules for its successful practice. With that object let me recite you the signs whereby you may discover that your efforts have effect.

The first sign is an attention in the eye of the bored person to something trivial other than yourself. If while you are talking to him his eye is directed to a person aiming a gun at him, that is not a sign of boredom. But if you see it directed to a little bird, or a passing cloud, that is a symptom, as the doctor said. Another symptom is occasional interjections which have nothing to do with what you are saying. A third, and very much stronger, symptom which should especially delight you as proof of triumph is the bored one’s breaking out into conversation with somebody else in the middle of your speech.

The choice of subject for boring is not of great consequence. Any subject can be made interesting, and therefore any subject can be made boring; but the method is all-important. And the first rule I would give in this matter is to speak in a sing-song, or at any rate with continuous repeated rhythm and accent. Those perfectly practised in the art can talk rapidly without punctuation and with no raising or lowering of the voice; but you rarely ever get this in its perfection except from politicians, though I have known others who were not bad at it. The chief master of the style, to my certain knowledge, never got into the House of Commons at all; he was only a candidate; but I walked miles to listen to him at his meetings for the sheer pleasure of seeing it done.

Another very useful tip is the bringing in of useless detail, and the branching of it out into a luxurious growth of irrelevance, and this works best of all when you are telling a story which is intended to please by its humour. Thus it is a very good plan to open with hesitation over a date: “It was in July 1921—no now I come to think of it, it must have been 1920, because—” (then tell them why it must have been 1920). “No, now I think of it, it must have been 1921”—(then tell them why it was ‘21)—“or was it 1922? Anyway, it was July, and the year doesn’t matter; the whole point lies in the month.”

That is a capital beginning, especially the last words, which indicate to the bored one that you have deliberately wasted his time to no purpose.

A parallel method is to worry about a name which you have forgotten, and which is in no way material to your story.

A third tip, and a useful one, is the addition of all manner of local colour and descriptive touches. You must imitate as well as you can (it is not saying much!) the accent of the characters in your story, and you must begin a lot of sentences with “It was one of those . . .” and then pile on the adjectives.

A further rule is to introduce digressions, especially of an aesthetic or moral sort. Stop in the middle of the thing and add to the agony by explaining that you don’t mind a man’s getting drunk, or that you do mind it, or that you have no objection to such a building as you are describing, or what not: for your private opinions in art and morals are the most exquisitely boring things in the world and you can’t bring them in too much.

Again, remember that there are special ways of adding to the effect, of bringing out what may be called the high lights of boredom. Of these by far the finest is suddenly forgetting the end of your story, just as you are reaching it. It has an enormous effect. I knew one case where a man had a bottle thrown at him because he did this, and no handsomer proof of his success could have been given. The sharpest form of it is to lead your piece of boredom up to a question such as: “And what do you think he answered?” and then you pause a minute and say: “Damn it all! I ought to remember . . . I’ve almost got it! . . . you see, the whole point depends on getting the words exactly right . . .” Then, after keeping them all in a little hell for thirty seconds, say, hopelessly, that you despair of getting it, and leave it at that.

The man who desires to shine as a bore, and uses this offensive weapon with brio and success, must also learn how to break down the defenses. Those who have had to suffer high boredom, and who still have energy left in them, can put up a good fight; it is the duty of all bore-students to be ready for such opposition. Thus there is the defense of suddenly interrupting the borer and talking against him in a new and lively tone. For instance, if he begins: “Do you know Rio? Well, once when I was in Rio . . .” the victim may suddenly disclose a nest of machine-guns, shouting: “Rio! Bless you, yes! I know Rio!” then pouring out a spate of Rian recollections and thus mastering the enemy fire by a hose-play of words. There are only two ways of countering this. One is to complain openly that you are interrupted and insist on being allowed to go on with the torture. The other is to let the other man exhaust his ammunition and then riposte yourself with renewed energy.

A subtler form of defense, and a very effective one, was invented by a highly-placed permanent official about thirty years ago. It consists in listening to the borer until he has made his point—or what he calls his point—just at that moment putting on an air of complete abstraction, and after that asking why he doesn’t go on. To meet this form of defense it is no bad plan to begin the story all over again. That’ll teach him!

But the strongest defense—the one you have to fear most—is that of walking away. Most men who have studied the art of boring take this for a definite defeat. They need not. I know one man at a club from whom people used to walk away deliberately in the middle of his boring-exercise. He met the tactic by going after the quitter and catching hold of his coat, and quite half the time he was successful. But few men have such courage.

Lastly, let me urge on you two private recipes of my own. One is spells of silence in the intervals of boring—it’s a paradoxical truth that they add vastly to the effect. They must not be so long as to let the victim take up a book, but just long enough to break his nerve. Watch his face, observe its gradual relaxation, and time yourself exactly for the renewal of the agony. The other is talking half incomprehensibly, mumbling, and the rest of it—then, when the boree impatiently asks you to repeat, do it still less clearly. It never fails.

But all these rules are, after all, mechanical. A man will never become a natural bore by the following of paper precepts any more than he will become a poet by book-learning; so perhaps I have written in vain.

~Hilaire Belloc

Saturday, July 12, 2014

On Fantastic Books

THERE has fallen upon criticism since perhaps a century ago, and with increasing weight, a sort of gravity which is in great danger of becoming tomfoolery at last: as all gravity is in danger of becoming.

No one dares to discuss all that lighter thing which is the penumbra of letters, and, what is more, no man of letters dares to whisper that letters themselves are not often much more than a pastime to the reader, and are only very rarely upon a level with good and serious speculation: never upon a level with philosophy: still less upon a level with religion. It is perhaps even a mark of the eclipse of religion when any department of mere intellectual effort can raise itself as high as literature has raised itself in its own eyes; and since all expression now (or nearly all) is through the pen literature thus suffering from pride can impose its pride upon the world.

Two things alone correct this pride: first, that those who practice the trade of literature starve if they are austere or run into debt if they are not; secondly, that now and then one of the inner circle gives the thing away─for instance, Mr. Andrew Lang in his excellent and never-to-be-forgotten remarks delivered only last year at the dinner of the Royal Literary Fund. This Member of our Union said (with how much truth!) that the writers of stories should remember they were writers of stories and not teachers and preachers. And the same might be said to others of the Craft. If a man has had granted to him by the Higher Powers a jolly little lyric, why, that is a jolly little lyric. But it does not make him a god, and if it gives him so much as a swelled head it makes him intolerably wearisome. More tolerable are the victors of campaigns discussing at the table their successes in the field than poets who forget their Muse: for to their Muse alone, or to those who sent her, do they owe what they are, as may very clearly be seen in the case of those whose Muse has deserted them and flown again up to her native heaven; nor is any case more distressing than that of──.

All of which leads me to the Fantastic Books. One, two, a dozen at the most, in all the history of the world have ranked with the greatest. Rabelais is upon the summit, and the Sentimental Journey will live for some hundreds of years, but how many others are there which men remember? There is a sort of conspiracy against them led by the few intelligent vicious in league with the numerous and virtuous fools; and thus the salt of the Fantastic Books, which is as good as the salt of the sea, is lost to the most of mankind.

Men sit in front of the writers of Fantastic Books fair and squarely with their hands on their knees, their eyes set, their mouths glum, their souls determined, and say:

"Come now, Fantastic Book, are you serious or are you not serious?"

And when the Fantastic Book answers "I am both."

Then the man gets up with a sigh and concludes that it is neither. Yet the Fantastic Book was right, and if people were only wise they would salt all their libraries with Fantastic Books.

Note that the Fantastic Books are not of necessity jocose books or ribald books, nor even extravagant books, quâ extravagant, you may be certain I should have chosen that word. Rabelais is extravagant and so is Sterne, but not on account of their extravagance are they fantastic. The note of the Fantastic Book is an easy escape from the world. It is not imagination, though imagination is a necessary spring to it: it is that faculty by which the mind travels, as it reads, whether through space or through time or through quality. A book is a Fantastic Book, though time and space be commonplace enough, though the time be today and the place Camberwell, if only the mind perpetually travels, seeing one after another unexpected things in the consequences of human action or in the juxtaposition of emotions.

There is a category of Fantastic Books most delightful, and never to my thinking overdone, which deals with journeys to worlds beyond the earth. I confess that I care nothing whether they are well written or ill written; so long as they are written in any language that I can understand I will read them; and today as I write I have before me a notable collection of such, every one of which I have read over and over again. I remember one called the Anglo-Saxon Conquest of the Solar System or words to that effect; another of a noble kind, called Thuka of the Moon. I only mention the two together by way of contrast; and I remember one in which somebody or other went to Mars and went mad, but I forget the title. Be they as well written as the First Men in the Moon, which is or will be a classic, or as ill written as a book which I may not mention because there is a law forbidding any one to tell unpleasant truths, so long as they concern voyages to the Planets they are worth reading.

Then, also, there is the future. The Time Machine is, perhaps, the chief of them; but writers who travel into the future, good or bad, are all delightful.

You may say that they are also always a little boring because they always try to teach a lesson or to prophesy. That is true, but when you have comforted yourself with the firm conviction that prophecies of this kind are invariably and wildly wrong the disturbance which they cause in your mind will disappear. I have among my most treasured books one of the early nineteenth century, called Revelations of the Dead Alive, in which the end of our age and its opinions upon that age are presented, and it is all wrong! But it is very entertaining all the same. Most ridiculous but not least entertaining of such books are the Socialist books, the books showing humanity in the future all Socialist and going on like sticks. There is, indeed, another type of mournful Socialist book much more real and much more troubling, in which Socialism has failed, and the mass of men go on like slaves; but no matter. A prophecy (when it is scientific) is always and invariably absolutely and totally wrong:─and a great comfort it is to remember that!

Yet another sort of Fantastic Book is your Journey to Hell or to Heaven. There is one I have read and re-read. It is called The Outer Darkness. I shall never cease to read it. It is a journey to a sort of Hell, and these are as a rule more entertaining than the Heavenly journey, though why I cannot tell. Does the same hold true of Dante?

Lastly, and much the most rare and much the most valued of all are the books which are fantastic, though they cling to the present and to things known. In these I would include imaginary people in the Islands and in the Arctic, and even those which introduce half-rational beasts, for such books depend for their character not upon the matter of the fantasy, but upon the manner. There is a book called Ninety North, for instance, which is all about a race of people at the North Pole, but the power of the book resides not in the distance of the scene, but in the vision of the writer and in the little irony that trickles down every page.

Who collects them or preserves them─the Fantastic Books? No one, I think. They are not catalogued under a separate Heading. They puzzle the writers of Indices; they bewilder Librarians. They must be grouted out of the mass of rubbish as Pigs in the Perigord grout out truffles. There is no other way.

Also, in the Perigord, truffles are hunted with Hounds.

~Hilaire Belloc: from On Everything

Friday, July 4, 2014

On Irony as the 'Avenger of Truth'

By James V. Schall, S.J.

IRONY is a flourishing topic of study today in many academic circles. Indeed, academia itself is one of the prime subjects for irony ─ no one today, for instance, would simply accept without amusement the notion that the academy is where you find unvarnished truth in our society. Almost everyone has heard of the rigid closure to truth that is found throughout the universities. The very title of Allan Bloom's now famous, but hardly attended to, book, The Closing of the American Mind, is ironical, as befits a good student of Plato. It is simply amusing and bitter-sweet that a book on the status of the open university would portray its mind as precisely "closed."

In the Selected Essays of Belloc (Penguin), we find an essay, "On Irony." It is a remarkable essay. Indeed it is the justification of irony as a legitimate but dangerous tool in the pursuit of truth itself. We sometimes have to speak the truth over the heads of someone who will not listen, but it is not irony unless there is some third party, even if it is God, who does listen to the implied, hence ironical, truth.

Take for instance that passage from the Declaration of Independence about self-evident truths among which is that all men have a right to life. Our judges, politicians, and reporters may well cite this passage with great solemnity as if this obvious principle is one quite widely accepted in our society. The very reciting of the passage is ironical in a society where millions are legally killed and the lives of many others constantly in jeopardy. A Pope will say, on the contrary, that we live in a culture of death. He speaks no irony.

"It is the intention of irony," Belloc tells us, "that it should do good, because it is of the nature of irony that it should avenge the truth." How does it do this avenging? Irony intends to inflict a wound. It points out to someone, anyone, the breach not only between what we say and what we do, but between what we do and what is right. Irony cannot be used with any "propriety except in God's service." Thus Belloc thinks that if we are morally compromised, we will not see ourselves as we are. We will have no criterion against which to see our depths. "The history of Letters is full of men who, tempted by this or that, by money or by ease, or by random friendship, or by some appetite lower than the hunger and thirst after justice, have found their old strong irony grow limp and fruitless after they had sold their souls." What a remarkably powerful sentence that is ─ limp and fruitless men who have sold their souls!

Irony seems to be for men of the world. It is a strange virtue, if virtue it is. "To the young, the pure, and the ingenuous, irony must always appear to have in it a quality of something evil, and so it has, for ... it is a sword to wound. It is so directly the product or reflex of evil that, though it can never be used ─ nay, can hardly exist ─ save in the chastisement of evil, yet irony always carries with it some reflections of the bad spirit against which it was directed." The "ironical man" ─ Socrates was said to be such ─ was often seen by his listeners to be mean-spirited or merely jesting with them. They did not grasp the truth he was indicating.

Belloc understands irony to be a primary weapon to "defend right against wrong." Indeed, the "bad spirit" that irony seems to take over from the evil it attacks would suggest that we should not use it. Yet, Belloc says, "how false it is to say that vengeance and the hatred of the evil men are in themselves evil, all human history can prove." This sentence needs sorted out. Vengeance, the requiting of an evil in the name of justice, the hatred of evil men, that is, the hatred of what they do, is not itself evil. Belloc appeals to the common sense and practice of mankind as witness. A society or people that bear absolutely no anger at evil done to the good or innocent, that has nothing but praise for the evil that men do, is itself a corrupt society that can feel nothing of the divine wrath, nothing of the divine criterion of right and good.

This is heady doctrine, Belloc knows. "A happy world, such as the world of children, or any society of men who have still preserved the general health of the soul ─ such a society may be found in many mountain valleys ─ needs none of this salt for the curing and the preservation of morals." But most societies are filled with the evil that occasions irony, from the poets and the old men who have known some wisdom.

But, perhaps too close to home, what about a generally corrupt society, one that enacts the violations of the commandments as its good deeds, as its rights? "There is a last use for irony, or rather a last aspect of it, which this general irony of nature and nature's God suggests: I mean that irony which can only appeal in the letters of a country where corruption has gone so far that the mere truth is vivid with ironical power." We can live in a society in which even the statement of the Commandments is ironical, since their very statement speaks against what is going on everywhere.

Belloc concludes with a penetrating sentence: "No man possessed of irony and using it has lived happily; nor has any man possessing and using it died without having done great good to his fellows and secured a singular advantage to his own soul." No doubt there is something autobiographical in these powerful lines of Belloc. He did not suffer fools lightly, but he did enjoy them. But he hated evil and was not afraid to call it such, even when he had to speak ironically about it, even when, even today, when we read him, we see that he speaks to God when he refuses to call evil anything other than it is.

Belloc did not live a happy life in many ways. But he did great good to his fellows and secured a "singular advantage to his own soul" because the evil in things was not allowed to pass unspoken. "How false it is to say that vengeance and the hatred of evil men are in themselves evil." What Belloc added to the normal wounds that irony is intended to inflict on evil doings is wit and laughter, the two things the mind in moral and intellectual error can least stand to hear directed to itself.

~From Schall on Belloc, Unpublished, 1997.

Read On Irony by Belloc

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

"The family is prior to the State in right"

“THE education of the child belongs properly to the parent, and not to the State. The family is prior to the State in right, and this is particularly true of rights over children.

“This is a very plain elementary Catholic doctrine on which there can be no discussion and no two views—though, as it must be with all doctrines, there can be any amount of discussion upon the application.”

~Hilaire Belloc: from Essays of a Catholic.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Poem: July

The Kings come riding back from the Crusade, 
The purple Kings and all their mounted men; 
They fill the street with clamorous cavalcade; 
The Kings have broken down the Saracen. 
Singing a great song of the eastern wars, 
In crimson ships across the sea they came, 
With crimson sails and diamonded dark oars, 
That made the Mediterranean flash with flame. 

And reading how, in that far month, the ranks 
Formed on the edge of the desert, armoured all, 
I wish to God that I had been with them 
When the first Norman leapt upon the wall, 
And Godfrey led the foremost of the Franks, 
And young Lord Raymond stormed Jerusalem.

~Hilaire Belloc

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