It will soon be the twentieth anniversary of the demise of The Idler – not Doctor Johnson’s, but my own little effort to supply some civilized journalism in the Great White North. For a decade before that, it limped along as a magazine of “elevated general interest.”
The title was chosen to be counter-cultural. We live in a society that rewards industry and enterprise – in a land of opportunity, with an “American dream” which seems to consist of getting rich quickly. This notion is touted either side of the “world’s longest undefended border,” and peace itself is associated with democracy and free enterprise. “Pragmatism” may or may not be the organizing philosophy, but it is in the water, like fluoride.
“Philosophy,” according to the great poet, Wallace Stevens (a Catholic convert on his deathbed), “is the official view of Being. Poetry is the unofficial view.” Before sinecures were offered to them in our redbrick universities, our poets tended to migrate to Europe.
The purpose of The Idler was the usual counter-cultural one: to stand athwart history and yell, “Stop!” That it survived for almost a decade without any significant subsidies in a brutal cash economy was a minor miracle. We depended almost entirely on subscription revenue (actually losing on newsstand sales), and were naked, with respect to advertising. Yet we did manage to obtain enough readers to fill a fair-sized hockey arena, and judging pragmatically from the renewal rates, they were passionately loyal.
Why was I, why were we, doing it? A good question, and it was sometimes asked. Asked once by a television interviewer, I replied, “Sheer vanity.” The poor lady wasn’t expecting this flippant (though partly honest) response, and lost her thread to the next question.
But my most memorable confrontation was with an advertising executive, who kindly offered me a ride home from some party I’d attended for the very purpose of promoting my little magazine among ad agency types. He said he “enjoyed” the magazine, and read it himself, and felt vaguely amused and uplifted when he did so. He added that he couldn’t think of many others who might read it. He was puzzled why anyone would be fool enough to launch something that could not, even potentially, make serious money.
More than puzzled. It was a longish ride, and to my suggestion that people who like it need consult only their own tastes, he became mildly but genuinely annoyed. I received something very much like a moral lecture. It was wrong, it was truly vain, perverse and insolent, to sink money and hard labor into a “product” that could not possibly succeed in the mass market.
Now, I probably deserved this, for I recall having made a remark at that party, perhaps within this man’s earshot, that could have been taken as moralizing, the other way. The remark was phrased to sound charming, but this man could grasp subtleties, and it contained a subtle dig.
Dr. Johnson by Joshua Reynolds.
(Maybe proofing a copy of The Idler; not Mr. Warren’s of course.)
I’d referred to the many talented people in the “creative” departments of the advertising industry. This was meant sincerely, for I was thinking of copywriters, typographical designers, illustrators and photographers I had actually met; and of the conceptual thinking that I’d glimpsed behind big ad campaigns. Acquired skills are involved, but also, God’s gifts are in play within every such enterprise.
And the subtle dig: imagine what wonderful works could be achieved if all these talents were employed as they had been in past ages, and not exclusively to the service of the Money God.
So yes, I deserved the blowback. The Catholic Church recognizes a certain basic right for the person who is attacked to defend himself. She only seeks to raise this above the animal level: to intrude Reason into the how and why of the self-defense. For twenty centuries now she has been teaching that we must keep the ultimate end in view, when using our human freedom to choose among available means. (Note, with Thomas Aquinas, the ultimate End is not negotiable.)
We must seek not only the good result, but the good means to that result. Indeed, means are crucially important, for in every act the end is, as it were, reflected.
The end cannot justify the means, as we’ve all heard, and think we understand in the queue for Confession. More fundamentally, the bad means can only reflect a bad end. It is the alarm that should set off in our brains – the alarmed voice of conscience telling us we’re going the wrong way, and therefore to the wrong place. It would be even more wrong to disable that alarm.
This is not to be taken as a critique of “capitalism,” especially as against the “socialism” implicit in the Nanny State, which uses tyranny in the service of some god who makes the Money God look good. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in earning a living, or supporting a family, or finding the means with which to endow otherwise unsupported good works.
Indeed, in recent reading touching upon the Middle Ages, I’ve been impressed by the business activities of monasteries that supported themselves by the production of high-quality consumer goods; the monastery itself providing the “brand name,” by way of guarantee. It has even struck me that as part of our general scheme for Catholic re-evangelization, we might try to resuscitate just such enterprises, wherein work and the purpose to which it is dedicated are put into a more visible relationship.
Bread and cheese, beer and bacon, art, music, poetry, building, science and philosophy, even magazines – all good. Or, can be good when every aspect of their production is oriented correctly. All need to be kept on a sound footing, and the skills of the investor, the businessman and merchant, come into this. Even a little honest retail advertising may be necessary.
But all must know, in every gesture, which God they serve. Or we will have an economy like the one that is all around us.