I continue my exploration of the work of Hilaire Belloc in a determined effort to discover why, since many of his beliefs are so inimical to me, he continues to have a very special place in my intellectual life. He would no doubt have defined me as somebody possessed of a ‘…one-legged, knock-kneed, gimcrack, purblind, rough-skinned, underfed, and perpetually irritated and grumpy intellect…’ Grumpy, yes – I’ve been practising that for eighty years and now consider myself to be an expert. I’m not sure whether the other things apply – I’m certainly not underfed!
It’s nearly forty years (half a life away!) since I last read The Path to Rome in its entirety. Then it gave me the idea of cycling to Rome; it remained an idea but modified itself during the course of ten years into three consecutive annual cycle rides from John o’Groats to Land’s End, a thousand miles each time. Thus I identify strongly with Belloc’s wanderlust.
What else do I identify with in Hilaire Belloc, the total idea of the man? Many things…
Early in the book, Belloc has one of many interchanges between auctor and lector (one of his several ‘I’s talking to another, putting himself in the shoes of a reader) on the subject of making endings and beginnings when commencing the writing of a book. Being myself somewhat inclined towards Heaps of possible starting points I was quickly struck during this first bit of typically interactive narrative which I find very attractive by this:-
Especially must you believe in moments and their importance, and avoid with the utmost care the Comparative Method and the argument of the Slowly Accumulating Heap.
Believe in moments! Belloc’s writing is always laced with gem-moments; if he had been into haiku-writing instead of indulging in mostly fairly feeble poeticising he would have made strides. But he would never have got along with real haiku writers.’There is a school of Poets (I cannot read them myself) who treat of common things, and their admirers tell us that these men raise the things of everyday life to the plane of the supernatural. Note that phrase, for it is a shaft of light through a cloud revealing their disgusting minds. Everyday life! …I know that everyday life. It goes with [wearing] sandals…’
I always wear sandals! At least, that is to say, after my father brought me a pair of ‘choplees’ from India in 1946. It is both confusing and disappointing that he connects the depicting of the experience of everyday moments both with the existence of God and the wearing of sandals.
The ‘school of Poets’ he refers to is very unlikely to have had anything to do with haiku-writing – he perhaps refers to the symbolists, Whitman or Wordsworth. Who knows?
As an example of further contradictions in Belloc’s thinking, towards the end of his account of the trek to Rome, he is prompted to make an observation on the number of bridges in Borgo:-
First a thing is useful, you say, then it has to become routine; then the habit, being a habit, gets a sacred idea attached to it. So with bridges… [but]… why should habit turn sacred? [A question] which would somewhat confound… every pedant that ever went blind and crook-backed over books, or took ivory for horn.
So, he is very aware of the way in which ordinary things transcend mere thinginess or even become sacred! It doesn’t confound this pedant! I fully go along with the idea that when you focus on the most ordinary of objects they can become at least sublime, if not ‘sacred’, a word sadly brought into disrepute by religionists.
The avoidance of Heaps, though, is something I find very problematical: they always seem pregnant with possibilities but they just sit there looking at me unless I take things by the horns in a split second, in a moment, this moment, this morning, now (7th September 2019, the one and only date with this name in the entire history of the universe.)
In the first twenty-odd pages (‘Introductory Rambling’) talking about ending a book, Belloc says that the problem is that
…there is always something more to be said [which I find to be very true], and it is always so difficult to turn up the splice neatly at the edges. On this account there are regular models for ending a book or a poem, as there are for beginning one; but, for my part, I think the best way of ending a book is to rummage about among one’s manuscripts till one has found a bit of Fine Writing (no matter upon what subject), to lead up the last paragraphs by no matter what violent shocks to the thing it deals with, to introduce a row of asterisks, and then to paste on to the paper below these the piece of Fine Writing one has found.
Rummaging among my notebooks for a decent bit of writing which will serve to carry me forward on some crest of a contemplative wave is a very familiar activity; a way of discovering a change of direction, something completely different. When writing or delivering a speech, as well as in life, as Gurdjieff says, a SHOCK at the right moment is a good strategy. Incidentally, true to his word, ‘a row of asterisks’ with a refusal to talk about Rome when he’s got there is exactly how Belloc ends this great book. A studied, well-managed, anti-climax! A shock, considering the way in which the whole book seems to be leading us towards the Holy City.
After a lot of prevarication, Belloc dismisses the verbal rambling and physically rambles off to Rome: ‘why not begin and have done with it…?’
He imagines that a good way to start the day is to attend Mass; he first of all cannot tell why this should be the case – it just gives him ‘a pleasing sensation of order and accomplishment…’ – and then pondering, not satisfied with leaving to luck a problem that could be easily answered in a non-Catholic way, he enumerates the orthodox benefits of going to Mass early in the morning:-
1. For half-an-hour just at the opening of the day you are silent and recollected, and have to put off cares, interests, and passions in the repetition of a familiar action. This must certainly be a great benefit to the body and give it tone.
2. The Mass is a careful and rapid ritual. [A ritual]… relieves the mind by so much of responsibility and initiative… [it leads] your life for you during the time it lasts.
3. The surroundings incline you to good and reasonable thoughts, and for the moment deaden the rasp and jar of that busy wickedness which both working in one’s self and received from others is the true source of all human miseries… a short repose in a deep and well-built library, into which no sounds come and where you feel yourself secure against the outer world.
4. …Whatever is buried right into our blood from immemorial habit that we must be certain to do if we are to be fairly happy (of course no grown man or woman can really be very happy for long – but I mean reasonably happy)… one should always drink some kind of fermented liquor with one’s food – and especially deeply upon great feast-days; one should go on the water from time to time; and one should dance on occasions; and one should sing in
chorus… everybody should do a little work with the hands.
Belloc very well understands the benefits of an habitual resolution to take time out to sit quietly, to reduce much of what one does to the status of ritual, or habit, so as not to have to think about every move one makes, to find a place that’s congenial to operate in, one that has a Lewinish ‘positive valence’, to have good anchors in favourite activities and exercise mind, hand & emotion in a balanced kind of way. It is so obvious that all these things he could enjoy without recourse to an invented magical Catholic system. But he has a rather sad abiding need to have something extra, on high, as they say, to lead his life for him, Sad, really, for a man who seems from his writings to be so much in charge of himself. It’s a projection of his intelligence into an alien abstract territory; he admits it’s just a matter of ‘immemorial habit’ – what he’s become accustomed to. He is fully able to get all this without recourse to Mass but he persists in tacking God on to every experience of potential enlightenment he has. Nowadays I might call it ‘Mindfulness’ (without God) if such a term were not put to swindling money-making uses.
Another strange contradiction! Later on he says: ‘I cared not a fig for the thousand things I had been told to expect in Tuscany; everything is in the mind, and as they were not in my mind they did not exist…’
Consider! He believes that ‘everything is in the mind’ – a very respectable intellectual position which seems unarguable to me. Were I able to tangle with him, I would say, “ ‘God’ too…” but that might have involved me in the same kind of lengthy set-to as he had with HGWells who probably in the end just shrugged his shoulders and walked off.
Anyway, here’s an episode which gives rise to a series of moments (in which, remember, we are to believe) that would stand very well on their own to illustrate the grasping of soul-life emanating from within rather than having a weak reliance on goddishness & a piety that he can load with all the right words:-
For a long time I stood in a favoured place, just above a bank of trees that lined the river, and watched the beginning of the day, because every slow increase of light promised me sustenance.
The faint, uncertain glimmer that seemed not so much to shine through the air as to be part of it, took all colour out of the woods and fields and the high slopes above me, leaving them planes of grey and deeper grey. The woods near me were a silhouette, black and motionless, emphasising the east beyond. The river was white and dead, not even a steam rose from it. but out of the further pastures a gentle mist had lifted up and lay all even along the flanks of the hills, so that they rose out of it, indistinct at their bases, clear-cut above against the brightening sky; and the farther they were the more their mouldings showed in the early light, and the most distant edges of all caught the morning.
At this wonderful sight I gazed for quite half-an-hour without moving, and took in vigour from it as one takes in food and wine. When I stirred and looked about me it had become easy to see the separate grasses; a bird or two had began little interrupted chirrups in the bushes, a day-breeze broke from up the valley ruffling the silence, the moon was dead against the sky, and the stars had disappeared. In a solemn mood I regained the road and turned my face towards the neighbouring sources of the river.
All this Gurdjieff would have described as the highest form of food: pure impressions without the intervention of ratiocination which, in his own terms, offered Belloc ‘sustenance’ & ‘vigour’. The same goes for the experience he has approaching Tuscany late in the book:-
My pain either left me, or I ceased to notice it, and seeing a little way before me a bank above the road, and a fine grove of sparse and dominant chestnuts, I climbed up thither and turned, standing to the east.
There, without any warning of colours, or of the heraldry that we have in the north, the sky was a great field of pure light, and without doubt it was all woven through, as was my mind watching it, with security and gladness. Into this field, as I watched it, rose the sun.
The air became warmer almost suddenly. The splendour and health of the new day left me all in repose, and persuaded or compelled me to immediate sleep.
I found therefore in the short grass, and on the scented earth beneath one of my trees, a place for lying down; I stretched myself out upon it, and lapsed into a profound slumber, which nothing but a vague and tenuous delight separated from complete forgetfulness. If the last confusion of thought, before sleep possessed me, was a kind of prayer – and certainly I was in the mood of gratitude and of adoration – this prayer was of course to God, from whom every good proceeds, but partly (idolatrously) to the Sun, which, of all the things He has made, seems, of what we at least can discover, the most complete and glorious.
Therefore the first hours of the sunlight, after I had wakened, made the place like a new country; for my mind which received it was new.
I find these words ‘…this prayer was of course to God, from whom every good proceeds…’ such a puny abdication of everything that makes Belloc a man: there’s just the sun and the way in which the raw experience enters a mind to make it new. Nothing else. Such a moment!
But the greatest moment of all is more or less at the centre of the book; it is what may be called a true vision:-
I approached this edge of wood, and saw that it had a rough fence of post and rails bounding it, and as I was looking for the entry of a path (for my original path was lost, as such tracks are, in the damp grass of the little down) there came to me one of those great revelations which betray to us suddenly the higher things and stand afterwards firm in our minds. There, on this upper meadow, where so far I had felt nothing but the ordinary gladness of The
Summit, I had a vision.
What was it I saw? If you think I saw this or that, and if you think I am inventing the words, you know nothing of men. I saw between the branches of the trees in front of me a sight in the sky that made me stop breathing, just as great danger at sea, or great surprise in love, or a great deliverance will make a man stop breathing. I saw something I had known in the West as a boy, something I had never seen so grandly discovered as was this. In between the branches of the trees was a great promise of unexpected lights beyond.
I pushed left and right along that edge of the forest and along the fence that bound it, until I found a place where the pine-trees stopped, leaving a gap, and where on the right, beyond the gap, was a tree whose leaves had failed; there the ground broke away steeply below me, and the beeches fell, one below the other, like a vast cascade, towards the limestone cliffs that dipped down still further, beyond my sight. I looked through this framing hollow and praised God. [What on earth for? Why drag a human invention in? Oneself and the view is quite enough!] For there below me, thousands of feet below me, was what seemed an illimitable plain; at the end of that world was an horizon, and the dim bluish sky that overhangs an horizon.
There was brume in it and thickness. One saw the sky beyond the edge of the world getting purer as the vault rose. But right up – a belt in that empyrean – ran peak and field and needle of intense ice, remote, remote from the world. Sky beneath them and sky above them, a steadfast legion, they glittered as though with the armour of the immovable armies of Heaven. Two days’ march, three days’ march away, they stood up like the walls of Eden. I say it again, they stopped my breath. I had seen them.
Of course, during his long pilgrimage, Belloc meets many people. For instance, an anarchist whom he describes as ‘…a sad, good man, who had committed some sudden crime and so had left France, and his hankering for France all those years had soured his temper, and he said he wished there were no property, no armies, and no governments…’ A man after my own persuasion! However, one of the ways that I ought to be at odds with Belloc is his unthinking notional belligerence and typical Catholic feeling for the idea of the Just War.
I said [sc ‘told him’] that we live as parts of a nation, and that there was no fate so wretched as to be without a country of one’s own – what else was exile which so many noble men have thought worse than death, and which all have feared? I also told him that armies fighting in a just cause were the happiest places for living, and that a good battle for justice was the beginning of all great songs; and that as for property, a man on his own land was the nearest to God.
He therefore [being] not convinced, and I loving and pitying him, we separated; I had no time to preach my full doctrine, but gave him instead a deep and misty glass of cool beer, and pledged him brotherhood, freedom, and an equal law. Then I went on my way, praying God that all these rending quarrels might be appeased. For they would certainly be appeased if we once again had a united doctrine in Europe, since economics are but an expression of the mind and do not (as the poor blind slaves of the great cities think) mould the mind.
This is a swipe at Marxism which argues that everything is determined by economic forces moulding the mind which is what he claims the ‘blind slaves’ think.
Belloc was a profound European and would have been up in arms at the current ‘Brexit’ shambles. But he is willing to forgive difference, loving/pitying the anarchist. He would have propounded his pet Catholic subject ‘distributism’, except that he had resolved not to discuss economics on his journey – ‘…it is but the backwash of a wave…’
I put Belloc’s attitude to the sad anarchist in brackets!
I enjoy it very much when Hilaire Belloc gets into his stride on a particular issue, when he has a thoroughly independent bee in his bonnet having abandoned the obnoxious God-thing in some dark anteroom; he does not need such an invention in order to demonstrate his powerful personality:-
The very first thing I noticed in St. Ursanne was the extraordinary shape of the lower windows of the church. They lighted a crypt and ran along the ground, which in itself was sufficiently remarkable, but much more remarkable was their shape, which seemed to me to approach that of a horse-shoe; I never saw such a thing before. It looked as though the weight of the church above had bulged these little windows out, and that is the way I explain it. Some people would say it was a man coming home from the Crusades that had made them this eastern way, others that it was a symbol of something or other. But I say –
Lector: What rhodomontade and pedantry is this talk about the shape of a window?
Auctor: Little friend, how little you know! To a building windows are everything: they are what eyes are to a man. Out of windows a building takes its view; in windows the outlook of its human inhabitants is framed…
Never ridicule windows. It is out of windows that many fall to their death. By windows love often enters. Through a window went the bolt that killed King Richard… When a mob would rule England, it breaks windows, and when a patriot would save her, he taxes them. Out of windows we walk on to lawns in summer and meet men and women, and in winter windows are drums for the splendid music of storms that makes us feel so masterly round our fires. The windows of the great cathedrals are all their meaning. But for windows we should have to go out-of-doors to see daylight. After the sun, which they serve, I know of nothing so beneficent as windows. Fie upon the ungrateful man that has no window-god in his house, and thinks himself too great a philosopher to bow down to windows! I May he live in a place without windows for a while to teach him the value of windows. As for me, I will keep up the high worship of windows till I come to the windowless grave.
Here Belloc gets his quasi-intellectual teeth into an idea; but he makes a regular stand against intellect, at least of the kind that results in what he calls dry pedantry. It could well be that he fears an intellectual position, defined as one that takes in as many angles as possible in order to create a genuinely Rich Picture from which one could make informed selection, would knock his (in the end) simple-minded Catholicism for six. ‘Everything is in the mind…’ Except God. He’s just like Descartes who is devastatingly definite that everything is to be doubted until the point when he collapses into making the existence of God an exception to the rule. In my book, this is being intellectually shifty, physical manifestations of which he advises us to beware of:-
Beware of shifty-eyed people. It is not only nervousness, it is also a kind of wickedness. Such people come to no good. I have three of them now in my mind as I write. One is a Professor.
And, by the way, would you like to know why universities suffer from this curse of nervous disease? Why the greatest personages stammer or have St. Vitus’ dance, or jabber at the lips, or hop in their walk, or have their heads screwed round, or tremble in the fingers, or go through life with great goggles like a motor car? Eh? I will tell you. It is the punishment of their intellectual pride, than which no sin is more offensive to the angels.
He is right, of course, that to function only in Intellect is a state of imbalance; action and emotion are needed to provide balanced human functioning, as Gurdjieff points out. Belloc now lists actions but winds up in pure Emotion – a state of imbalance again.
What! here are we with the jolly world of God [?] all round us, able to sing, to draw, to paint, to hammer and build, to sail, to ride horses, to run, to leap; having for our splendid inheritance love in youth and memory in old age, and we are to take one miserable little faculty, our one-legged, knock-kneed, gimcrack, purblind, rough-skinned, underfed, and perpetually irritated and grumpy intellect, or analytical curiosity rather (a diseased appetite), and let it swell till it eats up every other function ? Away with such foolery.
Here Belloc gives way to emotion… There’s action and emotion but the balance has to be maintained with the harnessing of the thoughtful mind – the true perspicacious intellect.
On the other hand, as he very well demonstrated in The Four Men, Belloc was into Multiple-I’s though, of course, that’s not what he called them. Breaking a resolve to keep to the activity of feet, after marching 378 miles, being desperate for cash, he took a train bound for Milan to obtain the money that had been sent there – he was desperate for cash. The train ‘rumbled off’ and he ‘…took luxury in the rolling wheels…’ and he laughed at himself… In case the reader would find it strange that he was laughing at himself he reports
I knew a man once that had fifty-six selves (there would have been fifty-seven, but for the poet in him that died young) – he could evolve them at will, and they were very useful to lend to the parish priest when he wished to make up a respectable Procession on Holy-days… The train rolled on.
With money in his pocket, Belloc continues marching on foot and closes on Rome…
I passed between two banks, where the road had been worn down at the crest of the volcano’s rim; then at once, far below, in a circle of silent trees with here and there a vague shore of marshy land, I saw the Pond of Venus: some miles of brooding water, darkened by the dark slopes around it. Its darkness recalled the dark time before the dawn of our saved and happy world.
At its hither end a hill, that had once been a cone in the crater, stood out all covered with a dense wood. It was the Hill of Venus. There was no temple, nor no sacrifice, nor no ritual for the Divinity, save this solemn attitude of perennial silence; but under the influence which still remained and gave the place its savour, it was impossible to believe that the gods were dead. There were no men in that, hollow; nor was there any memory of men, save of men dead these thousands of years. There was no life of visible things. The mind released itself and was in touch with whatever survives of conquered but immortal Spirits.
How would temple, bloody sacrifice, divine ritual improve the solemn silence of the scene? Better the gods be dead; better the mind should just be able to release itself into a ‘circle of silent trees’ and ‘brooding water’… Immortality cuts no ice with anything. But Belloc is ready to sell his soul for tuppence.
Thus ready for worship, and in a mood of adoration ; filled also with the genius which inhabits its native place and is too subtle or too pure to suffer the effect of time, I passed down the ridge-way of the mountain rim, and came to the edge overlooking that arena whereon was first fought out and decided the chief destiny of the world. For all below was the Campagna.
Finally, Belloc parts company with the reader, in a typical mood of lacrimae rerum:-
…all good things come to an end, and this book is coming to an end – has come to an end. The leaves fall, and they are renewed; the sun sets on the Vexin hills, but he rises again over the woods of Marly. Human companionship once broken can never be restored, and you and I shall not meet or understand each other again. It is so of all the poor links whereby we try to bridge the impassable gulf between soul and soul. Oh! we spin something, I know, but it is very gossamer, thin and strained, and even if it does not snap time will at last dissolve it.
This I feel very deeply!