Charles Coulombe Tells All

The following is a slightly edited transcript of my recent interview with Catholic historian Charles Coulombe, KCSS.

Hello, Charles. I have some questions for you today. First, I know that you admire the works of Tolkien and H.P. Lovecraft. And I honestly think that you’re the greatest Catholic writer and speaker in America right now — and certainly one that’s influenced me a lot — so I was wondering how your literary taste developed. And could you talk a bit about your relationship with Otto von Habsburg? What did you two talk about?

Well, alright. Those are two fairly different things, but we’ll pull them all together. First, thank you for that glowing compliment. I’m sorry to say that if it’s literally true, our country’s in bad shape right now. But, at any rate, I’ll accept the compliment gratefully, as any writer will. Well, let me see… How did my literary tastes develop?

I suppose you really have to go back to my parents, and my father in particular. They were both great readers, and my dad had a very big library when I was a kid. His interests ran to literature and history, as, oddly enough, mine do. I had a very, very difficult time reading. This is going to sound like I’m being funny, going all the way back, but actually it’s not, as you’ll see. I had a very difficult time learning to read, in the first grade. I was very poor at it. And the problem with that was that my family — my father, my brother, and my mother — were American Heritage subscribers. I’m speaking now of the late, lamented hardcover magazine, which is trying a comeback, in case you’re interested. American Heritage. Fascinating magazine. You can see all the issues now online. But my dad subscribed to it. And whenever it would come in, my brother and my parents would sit around the dinner table, talking about it. Well, this was annoying, because I hadn’t read it, I couldn’t read it, and I couldn’t join in. And, then as now, I loved to talk. So, somewhere between first and second grade, I started really teaching myself to read. The basics I’d acquired in school the year before. I started on my dad’s treasure trove of EC Comics, which were these horrible things from the 50s, really gruesome things like Tales from the Crypt and things like that. And also what were called the “Silver Age” of comics, then — Superman and Batman and all that, in the 60s. I started the summer reading comic books like that, and by the time I went to school I could read the American Heritage. And then shortly after that, my dad acquired from a library that was throwing it out one of these old Noah Webster dictionaries, one of the big, big library editions. And he taught me how to chase down the etymologies of words. It was almost like a mini-encyclopedia, that thing. And I had many a fun time, when I didn’t know a word, chasing it down and learning about it, to see whether it came from French or Latin, whatever its roots were. The other thing I should mention is my father was also an endless source of our French-Canadian folk-tales. So, all those things kind of melded together. We read Classics Illustrated — I don’t know if you’ve heard of those. They were comic books — I loved comics — for the major works of Western literature. And they were wonderful, beautifully illustrated, and they gave you the plot and some major points of each book. And later on, most of the things I read in Classics Illustrated I read as real books. I would say that probably the first author to really play a big role in my development was Washington Irving. Living out here in L.A., having come from New York, I was very nostalgic as a child — I still am, really. Just last month, I was back in the Hudson Valley and very, very happy to be there.

But, at any rate, so… Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne — Robert Louis Stevenson was a big one. I loved Kidnapped and Treasure Island and all that stuff. Poe, as I mentioned, was big. And then, as I got older, I discovered some of the English writers, Arthur Ransome, some of the children’s authors, Eleanor Cameron, and Lucy Boston and her Green Knowe series. I read voraciously, and the things that I liked would usually have, more or less, a fantastic element, if they weren’t complete science-fiction or horror or fantasy. But they had to have a firm root in history. I have to say that I’ll always be eternally grateful to my sixth-grade teacher for introducing us to C.S. Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia. In junior high, I read Tolkien and was just utterly enchanted. And shortly after that I read Lewis’ Space Trilogy — especially the last one, That Hideous Strength, had a big influence on me. And then, later, Charles Williams. So, we’ve got the Inklings out of the way.

Believe it or not, I didn’t discover Lovecraft until I was a freshman in college. And I also read a lot of Arthur Machen, at the same time. Algernon Blackwood. Shall we say, the traditional horror writers. And then mysteries: Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers. I could go on and on, at the risk of being very boring, but I hope you see the directions my interests ran in. You know, the difference between Tolkien and Lovecraft: as writers, they’re both very good at atmosphere, but where Lovecraft falls short is that he’s trying to deliver horror — now, I’ve always been enchanted by the atmosphere that Lovecraft creates, but I’ve never been frighted by him, and the reason, I think, is that his concept of horror was the idea of man in a neutral to hostile universe; and, to be honest with you, I’ve never bought that. I’ve never felt it, if you understand what I mean. Tolkien always rang much truer to me, and as I got older and began to think about such things, I realized it was because Tolkien was… Lord of the Rings is really an analysis, in a sense — an illustration, rather — of the relationship between grace and free will. And, when you look at it in that light, you realize that, despite the fantastic trappings — which are all very well done, I don’t want to sell them short — despite all that, it’s really very, very much an illustration of grace and free will. And it’s very much how they tend to work together in the real world. And for the reader, unconsciously, that is where The Lord of the Rings rises. Because the world really does work that way: a benign God, working through apparently disconnected occurrences, in relationship to countless individual wills, on the one hand all doing what they want to, and on the other, nevertheless, one way or the other, fulfilling His grand design, either for the good or for the ill. You see a great illustration of that in Gollum’s life being spared out of pity, and as a result, in the end — although it doesn’t do him, himself any good — he’s able to, by biting off Frodo’s finger and jumping into Mount Doom, he is able to ensure the quest, which was just about to fail, succeeded. And that, you see, is the way I think things really are in life. God writes straight with crooked lines. We realize that on some level, and, when we read Lord of the Rings, there it is. With Lovecraft, well, the universe really isn’t like that. I’m sorry to go on like that, but you did ask.

As for the Archduke, well, because it was from the time I was in high school until he died, we met a couple of times. Once when he was launching his son’s political campaign in Vienna, and the second and last time at the beatification of his father in Rome in 2004. And mostly what we talked about were religion and politics — what we wrote about, I should say. He was a very devout Catholic, a great believer in Providence and in the eventual victory of the good, no matter how long that victory may be delayed. And that, of course, is another theme that Tolkien touches on, parenthetically. A lot of what he had to say was really basic common sense about not losing your head in fantastic and difficult times, about always keeping your eye on the main goal, remembering that, despite whatever happens, God is still in charge, no matter how difficult that may seem to be at times. And coming from him, who was a man who had seen so much, some really utterly horrific things — it’s easier when that comes from a man who has every reason to doubt that than when it comes from someone who’s never had a difficulty in his life, if you see what I mean. So, I really can’t tell you that I received any new or shocking revelations from the Archduke. But that was the whole point, wasn’t it? What he did for me was reinforce my beliefs and to reassure me that they were, in fact, true, whatever the rest of the world might think or say or do. And I have to say that’s what I got from my father, as well, so I was very fortunate. I had a lot of very good mentors in my life, of whom my dad was the first but far from the only one.

I hope that answers those questions.

Another question is, how have you felt about politics in America over the last 16 years? Are things getting better, or worse? You mentioned in an old post, on your old website, that you were near the Pentagon on 9/11, which I thought was interesting, and I know that you also met Ronald Reagan.

Yes. I did, indeed. How has politics gone in the last 16 years? Bad to worse. But it’s been bad to worse in an almost organic manner. In other words, it’s like when you see someone who’s 50 and someone who’s 70; it’s gonna go a certain way. You see, for someone who’s got a smoker’s hack and keeps smoking — and I say this as a pipe-smoker, for anyone who thinks I’m banging on smoking — there’s a good chance in 10 or 20 years you’re going to get lung cancer. If you don’t eat, you’ll starve. If you keep smacking your head with a hammer, at some point you’ll probably get a concussion. We’ve just been going down the same path. It’s not as though, really, we’re doing anything revolutionary or different, and I’ll tell you what I mean.

A lot of people were shocked, and certainly I was annoyed, when the Supreme Court, thanks to one vote from the great Catholic Mr. Justice Kennedy, approved gay marriage. People said, “Gee, how could this happen?” Well, some of the advocates for quote-unquote gay marriage had some very important points. One of them was that quote-unquote straight people had already hollowed out the institution of marriage to such a degree that, you know, why not? What was the camel’s head? Divorce, of course. Then the idea of contraceptive sexuality and the idea that marriage really was more of a contract of convenience. We kept whittling it down and whittling it down and whittling it down and whittling it down until the civil concept of marriage, the popular concept of marriage was 180-degrees to what marriage really is. Now, mind you, that’s not a defense for gay marriage, in my mind, but it is an appropriate observation. We had already desecrated marriage. Now we add one more. You’re probably too young to remember when no-fault divorce came in, but it was a horrendous thing. Mind you, as far as the Church was concerned, any divorce was wrong, in civil law. Nevertheless, in the countries that did have divorce — and there were quite a few that didn’t when I was a kid, I can tell you — it was very hard to get one. You had to prove, basically, adultery, and one side was the innocent party and the other was the guilty party. That’s why, when you’ve heard that phrase, “no-fault divorce”, you see where that comes from. The minute we said that marriage was something that could just be dissolved by the will of the couple, that it was no more than that, when we coupled that with the idea that contraceptive sex is good and okay, we were already on our way to gay marriage.

Yeah, and that reminds me of what you said in your book, where you said that one Supreme Court Justice was able to do what even Henry VIII couldn’t do.

That’s correct. You hear people talk about the horrors of absolute monarchy, but we live in an absolute republic and it doesn’t bother anyone. The thing is, all Mr. Justice Kennedy did was what — though in this area it was particularly glaring — the Supreme Court had been doing since the 60s, and that is shaping reality. In Roe v. Wade, they could rule that the unborn child is not a human being. Well, what if the Supreme Court ruled that [inaudible] are nutritious? I guess that’s true. What if the Supreme Court rules that green is now yellow? My joke at the time of 9/11 was that, rather than pursuing al-Qaeda, we should just have the Supreme Court sign an injunction on them. Wouldn’t that do the trick? I mean, they’d cease to exist by virtue of their supremacy in changing reality with their minds.

So, when you ask me about the course of politics over the past 16 years, the common response, at least for people of our sort, would be, “Oh, it’s just terrible. It’s really gotten bad.” Well, yeah, but it’s gotten bad the way you would expect it to get bad. Let me frame the question another way: Why wouldn’t it have gone this way? Once we’re on this path, why would we not continue to follow? I met Reagan. The funny thing is, people ask me about Reagan. I met him three times, briefly each time, so it’s not like he was a pal or anything, though he did remember my name the last two times, which tells you more about his impressive memory for faces and names than it does about me. I tell people he was the greatest president I’ve lived under. That sounds impressive, until you look at the other presidents I’ve lived under. It’s just like calling him the tallest pygmy.

I was born in Eisenhower’s reign. Eisenhower betrayed our allies and sold out the Hungarians in 1956. I was born the day Kennedy was elected. JFK: that great model of Catholic manhood in both public and private life. LBJ: the king of blackmail. Richard Nixon, who was far from the utterly evil man he’s been painted as being, was something of a bumbler, and he, of course, began the selling out to China, which is something I’ve always felt very strongly about. Gerald Ford was a nice person, I suppose, but not the brightest. Jimmy Carter made brain-dead a fashion accessory. Then comes Reagan. Then we have Bush Sr., who, as he used to say, suffered from “the vision thing”, meaning he didn’t have any. Billy Clinton: gosh, America’s best-loved perjurer. Bush Jr. had his own issues, and he never saw a bomb he didn’t want to drop. And Obama. So, when I tell you that Reagan is the greatest president I’ve lived under, that may or may not be a compliment. He didn’t drool. He wasn’t a raving moron. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve gotta tell you he did have some definite strengths. After the long night of Carter’s four years, when he showed up at his inauguration in morning coat and striped trousers, radiating confidence, it’s morning in America. Oh, man, that felt great, let me tell you. That just absolutely felt great. But eight years and then it vanished. Poof! All gone. No more. Bye-bye.

Anyway, at the risk of rambling even further, I’ll just tell you that the course of politics in the years that we’ve seen has been on the one hand utterly abysmal, but on the other hand totally natural, given what our principles are. If I’m totally dedicated to spending more than I actually bring in, I mustn’t be surprised if I’m poor. If I dedicate myself to eating every scrap of food I can stuff in my mouth, I shouldn’t be surprised if I’m fat. You do what you do, and then you reap the reward. Where we are now is the result of who we have been, and if we don’t like how it looks, well that’s tough. Mr. Trump came out of anger and resentment built up by the elites changing things so quickly, but it’s basically reactive. I doubt highly that either he or his constituents want to address any of the real problems in the country.

Yeah, the guy who’s been married three times will really fix no-fault divorce.

Yeah, that’ll happen. He’s really going to tell the people of the United States that the demographic implosion is their fault and, if they really want to save Social Security, they should start breeding. Who’s going to say that? Who would want to hear that? I do appreciate the resentment that brought him to power, and, as far as it goes, it’s certainly understandable. But in terms of it solving anything, that’s a whole different story. I may be mad as hell that people are coming in and taking my stuff, but if you tell me, “Okay, that’s nice, you’re gonna have to buy a lock”, “What? Spend money?”, “Well, okay, don’t buy a lock, then”. It’s nice that I see there’s a problem, but, if I’m not willing to do anything about it, I shouldn’t complain.

So, there you are for that one. What else you got?

I like what you said in your latest book, Star-Spangled Crown — which is a great book — where you turned around the question “When did you become a monarchist?” to “When did you stop being a monarchist?”, because, in cultures all over, boys dream of being kings and girls dream of being princesses. Netflix even has that new show, The Crown. Another thing you mentioned in the book that I don’t know that I’ve ever heard from you before is that you knew the King of Rwanda.

I sure did. Yeah, he just died last month, God rest him. Very interesting story there. Rwanda and its sort of mirror-image country, Burundi, their monarchies went back to roughly the same time as William the Conqueror. And what had happened in both cases was that these people, the Tutsi, had come from the north and conquered the locals, the Hutu. And the Tutsi were very tall — and when I say tall, I’m talking, like, 7-foot, even 8-foot tall people — and they were cattle-herders, and so they swept into this area. The people who were living there already, they were originally pygmies, who had in turn been conquered by the Hutu, who were typical Bantu people of East Africa — in other words, the normal size. The Tutsi have somewhat European features — they’re black, but like Ethiopians a bit — whereas the Hutu, as I say, are regular Bantu. They conquered the Bantu and from that day until the 1960s ruled them, but the royal family of Rwanda was pretty quickly, shall we say, interbred, the idea being that the king ceased to be either Hutu or Tutsi but was the king. And what was interesting about that was the king’s secretary was also a member of the nobles hereditarily close to the royal family. The secretary had the facial features of a Tutsi but the height of a Hutu; he was at normal height. The king, on the other hand, had somewhat Bantuish features but had the height of a Tutsi; he was 7’2, he was huge.

Over the course of time, first the Germans and then the Belgians became the protectors of these two countries, and the White Fathers went to work at converting them to Catholicism and in Rwanda were very successful, so much so that the king’s brother — the king before him, Mutara III — consecrated Rwanda to Christ the King back in the 50s. But, the year after independence was given to the Congo, Mutara died mysteriously after a visit to a Belgian doctor. And Kigeli, who was a very, very young man — he was a late teenager at that time — became king. Well, the Belgians began favoring those who wanted to overthrow the monarchy, and because they were still running the show they were in a position to help them, and they did. The king was in Leopoldville consulting with the U.N. and Belgian authorities, and while he was out of the country there was a coup, and the monarchy was overthrown. He attempted on a number of occasions to get back in the country, by disguise and various other things, but was found out every time. So, he was living around the borders of Rwanda, in Africa, then in ’92 he got word of the impending genocide, so he decided to come to the United States to try to get the Congress of the United States to do something about it.

He failed, but he was in the States ever-after and he spent his time trying to raise money for Rwandese orphans and refugees and people like that. And on several occasions I had the honor of playing aide to him in different cities, in Vancouver and Los Angeles and Washington and elsewhere. Very pious Catholic, very devout, very honorable man, a real gentleman. No money. I used to joke with him that if only he’d been a president, instead of a king, we’d all be better off. He said, “What do you mean by that?” I said, “Well, if you’d been president of Rwanda, you’d have already had four-fifths of the country’s treasury out of the country and squirreled away in bank accounts so when you’re overthrown you’re great. We’d all be on easy street. Instead, it was this whole ‘my people are my treasure’ thing, and look what you’ve got to show for it.” He laughed pretty hard, actually. But that was King Kigeli of Rwanda, God rest him.

You’ve done all sorts of things in your life, but how did you end up becoming a stand-up comedian at one point?

There’s kind of a simple answer to that. I went to college at Northridge, and I was kind of at loose ends, I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself. I’d worked in Washington and decided that politics was not for me. I’d been to military college and all that, but I decided the military, in its then-incarnation as uniformed “managers of violence”, as they said then, was not something I wanted. So, frankly, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I tried several strange jobs. I was a house detective at the Century Plaza Hotel, an at-need salesman for Forest Lawn for a short time, things like that. I managed the office of a hardware store. But so what? None of it clicked. And then some friends of mine heard about an open-mic night at the late, lamented Gio’s on Sunset Boulevard. And I went, and I told jokes, and people laughed, and they asked me to come back, and they did this several times until they started paying me to come back. And then I started playing at other clubs, and, after about a year, I was making some relatively decent money out of it. So, I can honestly tell you that, like everything else good in my life, I fell into it.

To end on an even lighter note, since you’ve been a film critic in the past: what are some of your favorite movies and TV shows?

That’s a very good question and a very enjoyable one, so let’s start with movies. I would say probably my favorite movie of all time, if I had to choose, would be They Might Be Giants with George C. Scott, about a judge who goes crazy and thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes. Beyond that: Taps, the story of a military high school that takes on a life of its own, and the original Christmas Carol of 1938 with Reginald Owen. I could go on and on and on. Gee willikers, there’s so many of them. Boy, I’m just sitting here, and there are so many films sitting in my head that I can’t say any of them. On Borrowed Time with Lionel Barrymore, Dinner at Eight, Grand Hotel.

If you were to ask me about shows I’ve seen recently that I liked, my tastes run to the fantastic and somewhat to science-fiction. But I prefer a film with a moral center, with a real moral frame of reference, and the problem with a lot of things today is that they simply don’t have it: vampires aren’t driven off by crosses, and virtue is, if anything, a hindrance. Take, for example, a show that I don’t recommend you watch without being able to fast-forward quickly, Game of Thrones. Apart from the egregious flesh, which we’ll just take and leave alone, it’s a universe where virtue doesn’t matter. It’s well-acted, well-scripted, compelling, but at the end of the day meaningless. Similarly, so far the Walking Dead series, Westworld — all very well-executed, but what are they telling us? Actually, as I’m talking, Westworld has more of a moral center than the rest of them do, although it’s hard to see.

And then, of course, there’s the overwhelming amount of flesh, which contributes to cheapening public tastes on top of everything else. There’s kind of a connection, and this is going to sound a little strange but I don’t really care: there’s a connection between nudity in film and foul language in comedy. If you need it, you’re not really that great. It’s a shortcut to attention. When you look back at the history of film, you think of the Hays Code. If you haven’t heard of the Hays Code, it was basically kept from the late 20s, early 30s until the 60s. It was what kept us from having all of the egregious nudity and foul language in film. It’s a big deal today to decry the sanctions and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Well, notice also though that many, if not all, of our cleverest films were made during that period. Why? Because you had to be clever! To get your point across, without being obvious, you had to be clever. Now, you’ve got someone being tossed on the bed by an assailant. In days gone by, you had to illustrate what was going to happen with a look, an expression, a word. That took ingenuity. It took creativity. I’m enough of a fuddy-duddy to say it produced a better genre of film… in my humble opinion.

Having said all of that, there is one other filmmaker I would be remiss if I didn’t address. That, of course, is the late, great Edward D. Wood Jr., who brought us such classics as Glen or Glenda and my personal favorite, Plan 9 from Outer Space. He’s been hailed as the worst filmmaker and producer and writer who ever lived, and it’s probably deserved, but he’s also one of the few I can say I knew. And the funny thing about an Ed Wood film: most bad movies are just bad movies — you watch them, and that’s two hours of your life you’ll never get back again — but the thing with Ed’s films is that they were bad, they were dreadful, in every way that makes sense they were terrible films, but it’s as though they were coming from an alternate universe with a very different frame of reference. Unlike most bad films, which you see once and hope you can wash out of your brain, you can watch his stuff over and over again and always find something new. They have a kind of demented context to them.

I think probably my favorite line of all time, from Plan 9 from Outer Space, was when the hero is about to go fly his airplane and he says to his wife — they’re living by the cemetery where all the strange things have happened — “I’d still feel better if you’d stay with your mother.” And she says, “Oh, most men get upset when their wives are at home with mama.” And he says, “That’s not the point.” And her response — classic — “That’s all the point there’s going to be.” It’s true in the film, and it’s true in a lot of life: “That’s all the point there’s going to be.” So, if you haven’t seen Plan 9 from Outer Space, I do heartily recommend it. See They Might Be Giants for inspiration; see Plan 9 from Outer Space to put your brain on hold for a while, which is a practice I have to recommend particularly today.

Do you have any more questions for me?

I think that’s all. Thank you for doing this, Charles.

Nah, my pleasure entirely. You do get to the point where it’s almost a pleasure to explain your whys and wherefores. The one question you didn’t ask, but it’s one that I have been asked before, is why I became a monarchist.

I did that intentionally, because I didn’t want to spoil your section in your book. Do you want to talk about that?

The easy answer is “Go see the book”, but the truth of the matter is that my political, my religious, and my literary views, etc., are all wrapped up together. That’s the best way I can put it. One of the things that we in our culture are used to doing, in this American culture of ours, is separating things from each other: our religion from our politics, from art, from life. All my work has been an attempt to break down that division, because it’s what I’ve always seen as alien and I’ve never really felt it myself. Again, I was fortunate with the father I had, because that division of which I speak is very peculiar to Protestant cultures in general and to this one really in particular, because we ran much further with it than the English or the Danes or Swedes. Religion, politics, art, and life: they’re really all part and parcel of a greater whole, and we have completely forgotten that.

And, in your book, you kind of synthesize that. This latest book is a perfect synthesis of your thoughts, at least so far.

It was a fun book to write. And you’re right: of everything I’ve ever written, it probably was the closest to being a personal credo. The problem I had was, if you’re going to write something like that, either you’re someone whom the world considers important, in which case people want to read it, or you’ve got to put it out in such a way that it’s readable. Who would buy a book titled “What I Hold and Why I Hold It”? Who would read something like that? But, just as you see Tolkien’s worldview in Lord of the Rings, you do see mine in Star-Spangled Crown. One thing I’m very, very happy about is that the reviewers, so far, all seem to get what I was trying to do, and for that I am very, very, very grateful.

I think that’s a great note to end on. Again, thank you, Charles.

You are most welcome.

coulombe

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Matthew Olson is a student in the Diocese of Little Rock.

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Posted in Culture, Historical

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