To­day’s world: Bel­loc got it right

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

The fol­low­ing protest didn’t come from some Tea Par­tyer in the Mid­west frus­trated at our out-of­con­trol gov­ern­ment. ‘‘There never was a time . . . when the mass of men had less to do with the way in which they were gov­erned.” It was penned nearly a cen­tury ago by Hi­laire Bel­loc, an Ed­war­dian poet, his­to­rian, war chron­i­cler, ar­tillery­man, way­farer, po­lit­i­cal es­say­ist and some­times mem­ber of the Bri­tish Par­lia­ment. Bel­loc was a pro­to­type for to­day’s know-itall celebrity pun­dits, with the ex­cep­tion that he re­ally did know quite a lot re­gard­ing just about ev­ery­thing.

Over the course of his 83 years, which be­gan at the height of Queen Vic­to­ria’s em­pire and ended in 1953 amid Eng­land’s post­war ru­ina­tion, this writer cranked out more than 150 books, count­less ar­ti­cles and es­says, a trea­sure trove of po­ems and loads of per­sonal cor­re­spon­dence. In “The Es­sen­tial Bel­loc,” the edi­tors boil down all the pithy quotes, pointed barbs and se­ri­ous ob­ser­va­tions of this life­time of let­ters and pro­vide us with a nut­shell of ideas. Bel­loc was known as a con­tro­ver­sial­ist, mostly be­cause of his re­ac­tionary bent in a pro­gres­sive era, but he was above all a re­flec­tive per­son. The pre­pon­der­ance of his writ­ing is strung to­gether by an in­stinc­tive skep­ti­cism of the mod­ern world and fore­bod­ing for the spir­i­tual pit­falls of a sec­u­lar so­ci­ety bar­rel­ing to­ward out­right athe­ism.

Bel­loc was ahead of his time in pre­dict­ing a Mus­lim resur­gence and the prob­lems that would cause the West. As far back as the 1930s, he warned, “We shall al­most cer­tainly have to reckon with Is­lam. Per­haps if we lose our Faith it will rise.” His alarm that an amoral Western civ­i­liza­tion which no longer be­lieved in it­self risked col­lapse or con­quest con­tin­ues to ring true. He saw the weak­en­ing of old-world re­li­gion at the cen­ter of this cri­sis. “The Catholic Church is an in­sti­tu­tion I am bound to hold di­vine, but for un­be­liev­ers, here is proof of its divin­ity, that no merely hu­man in­sti­tu­tion run with such knav­ish im­be­cil­ity would have lasted a fort­night,” he wrote. As a be­liever, he strug­gled to main­tain hope de­spite the odds and al­ways coun­seled that in the end, faith — backed up by mil­i­tant de­fense for what is right — per­se­veres.

“The Es­sen­tial Bel­loc” fo­cuses on the philo­soph­i­cal as- pects of this man’s world­view. Even the more play­ful high­lights — such as his “Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine” — delve into the se­ri­ous side of be­ing able to ap­pre­ci­ate and en­joy life. As Je­suit Fa­ther James V. Schall ex­plains in the pref­ace, “To de­light in ex­is­tence it­self, this is the high­est mark of sanc­tity and re­al­ity.” This de­light is part of an obli­ga­tion to show grat­i­tude for our ex­is­tence by wor­ship­ing God. As crea­tures, we are ex­pected to thank our Cre­ator for cre­at­ing us. This Bel­loc does in spades, par­tic­u­larly in songs and epi­grams he com­posed cel­e­brat­ing ev­ery­thing from ale, fic­ti­tious mon­sters and com­bat to church ser­vices, sailing and ro­mance. Many of his lines are fa­mil­iar to­day even to those who wouldn’t rec­og­nize Bel­loc’s name, such as, “Love’s self is sad. Love’s lack is sad­der still. / But Love unloved, O, that’s the great­est ill!”

It’s too bad more of this last sub­ject isn’t re­vealed in this book be­cause “Hi­lary” the suf­fer­ing poet can be as grip­ping as “Old Thun­der” the pro­pa­gan­dist and pros­e­ly­tizer. As a lovesick young buck, he sailed from Old Blighty to Amer­ica and then walked from New York to Cal­i­for­nia to pro­pose to his fu­ture wife. She died young, and his heart — not his head — mo­ti­vated him to wear black mourn­ing clothes for decades af­ter­wards and only use sta­tion­ary with black borders. How this pas­sion­ate emo­tional streak was re­strained by his strong value sys­tem is cen­tral to un­der­stand­ing his life and in­spired some of his most last­ing verse.

For years, this man of the world nursed an all-con­sum­ing crush on so­cialite di­vorcee Lady Juliet Duff, about whom he touch­ingly scrib­bled, “How did the party go in Port­man’s Square? / I can­not tell you; Juliet was not there. / And how did Lady Gaster’s party go? / Juliet was next to me so I do not know.” De­spite mu­tual ado­ra­tion, Hi­laire could not act upon these feel­ings be­cause the Catholic Church (back then any­way) was se­ri­ous about its pro­hi­bi­tion against di­vorce.

Bel­loc at­tracted fiercely loyal friend­ships, es­pe­cially among women. He cher­ished the com­pan­ion­ship found drink­ing and talk­ing around a roar­ing fire; his rem­edy for bouts of lone­li­ness and melan­choly were road trips to meet old pals and make new ones. Even this had its lim­its, as he lost some important peo­ple in his life over po­lit­i­cal or ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences. “The worst thing in the world is the passing of hu­man af­fec­tion,” he lamented. “No man who has lost a friend need fear death.” The theme of loss is a con­stant thread through­out Bel­loc’s work. We have the edi­tors of this gem to thank for help­ing make sure the wis­dom of a great thinker isn’t lost.

The epi­taph Bel­loc sug­gested for him­self was, “When I am dead / I hope it may be said: / ‘His sins were scar­let, / but his books were read.’ ” This col­lec­tion stirs the reader to dig up many of those old yet time­less books.

Brett M. Decker is editorial page editor of The Wash­ing­ton Times. He is coau­thor of the forth­com­ing book “Bow­ing to Bei­jing” (Reg­n­ery, Novem­ber 2011).

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