Some Frail Sisters and Cyprians of the Demi-Monde

“Three of the frail sisters, Jennie Greer, Emma Sherwood, and Jessie Simpson were arrested by the police while uproarious in a hack on one of the principal streets.”

Galveston Daily News (April 29, 1877)

The three arrested women resided in Vinegar Hill, a neighborhood of northwest Houston in the 1870s.  It was not really a hill, only the left bank of Buffalo Bayou, the sluggish stream that runs through that city; but many say it was in those days pungent with the fumes of a vinegar factory.  Because they feared the miasma that they believed rose from the bayou, and recoiled from the fumes that wafted from that factory, the burghers of early Houston did not live on Vinegar Hill.  This is why the land was available, and cheap, when manumitted slaves began streaming into the city after the Civil War.

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Nietzsche – the Diabolical Saint of Acceptance

1Friedrich Nietzsche is a strange mixture of conflicting impulses; so chronically sick that writing was a physical agony for his eyes and his stomach permanently bothered him, yet he wrote paeans to the strong and mighty. A brilliant analyst of resentment, he had every reason to feel ignored being unread during his lifetime and self-publishing books that he mostly could not sell. He admired Dostoevsky, which itself is admirable, writing in Twilight of the Idols that Dostoevsky was the only psychologist from whom he had anything to learn. Nietzsche first stumbled upon Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground in a bookstore in Nice in the winter of 1886-87 and immediately loved it, though Dostoevsky never knew of Nietzsche. Notes from Underground is psychologically and anthropologically penetrating, exploring themes of mimesis and resentment that were of immense interest to Nietzsche.

Unlike Dostoevsky, there is something perennially adolescent about Nietzsche, perhaps because young adults are often trying to decide what values they should hold, often temporarily in contradiction to their parents, as they prepare to make their way in the world on their own. Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of values” fits this model nicely. There used to be a certain kind of young man magnetically drawn to Nietzsche’s mixture of cleverness, perversity, sense that he had a secret understanding of things, and man alone and against the world demeanor, and perhaps there still is. Continue reading

José Ortega y Gasset on Self-Satisfaction and Specialization

Joaquin Sorolla (1863 - 1923) - Portrait of Jose Ortega y Gasset

Joaquin Sorolla (1863 – 1923): Portrait of Jose Ortega y Gasset (1918)

The Revolt of the Masses (1930) by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883 – 1955), like many books openly critical of modern trends, was once celebrated and judged to be something of a contemporary classic, but it has gradually, over the last four or five decades, vanished from awareness even among the supposedly educated.  I read it for the first time in the early 1970s when I pursued (rather fitfully, I confess) my undergraduate degree at the University of California, Los Angeles.  The College Library possessed two copies, an indication of how widely the book circulated in the middle of the Twentieth Century.  Were one to canvass today’s English or History faculties, familiarity with Ortega’s book would likely be non-existent; it would be a rare incident even if so much as the name Ortega registered with humanities professors in their thirties and early forties.  The Revolt nevertheless speaks to the present moment with increasing pertinence, as do many similar books of its day, such as Oswald Spengler’s Hour of Decision (1934) and Eric Voegelin’s New Science of Politics (1952), which likewise have lost all currency.  The Revolt also describes those who know not of it and who think that knowledge is circumscribed by the syllabus of their graduate studies.  The Revolt illuminates a remark made by Alain de Benoist and Charles Champetier in their Manifesto for a European Renaissance (2012): “Modernity has given birth to the most empty civilization mankind has ever known.”  Two chapters of The Revolt offer themselves as especially relevant to the situation of the West in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century – “The Self-Satisfied Age” and “The Barbarism of Specialization.”  First, however, a brief summary of Ortega’s general argument is in order.

The late-Nineteenth Century, according to Ortega, saw the sudden rise in Europe of economies of abundance.  This mounting wealth resulted, in the first part of the Twentieth Century, in mass man, a social and cultural phenomenon that adapted itself, but in no positive way, to the advent of material ease and comfort.  Mass man reaped the benefits of a civilization to which he had in no way contributed, which he failed to understand, and which he took entirely for granted, identifying it as the natural background to his existence.  By the power of number alone, mass man, in Ortega’s phrase, intervenes everywhere, breaking down the hierarchical aspects of society and culture, while assimilating to himself – that is, to his limitation and incapacity – every institution.  Mass man undertakes no projects, but contents himself with diversion.  If he labored, it would be reluctantly, without commitment, and for the sake of diversion.  Ortega defines mass man as “he whose life lacks any purpose, and simply goes drifting along.”  This Homo novus has proliferated with such celerity that he overwhelmed any possibility of education.  Thus, in Ortega’s words, “heap after heap of human beings have been dumped onto the historical scene at such an accelerated state, that it has been difficult to saturate them with traditional culture.”  Mass man experiences a privative consciousness bereft of history, ignorant of the ancestors, and by tendency self-centered.  He is egocentric in the extreme, in fact, but with the codicil that his ego remains at an infantile level of development.

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With Strangers at your Gate

Our Office for Diversity is proactive when it comes to hate. The word proactive may require a little explanation. It was built on the pattern of the word reactive, a reaction being the effect of a cause that has happened and a proaction being the effect of a cause that is imagined.  It is thus reactive to eat when you are hungry, but proactive to eat when you think about being hungry. It is reactive to go indoors when it rains, but proactive to go indoors when you think about getting wet. It is reactive to punch your neighbor when he grabs you by the throat, but proactive to punch him when you think about him grabbing you by the throat. Continue reading

Three Anecdotes, Three Questions

I have been reading old Texas newspapers for the past few days, and my perusing has stumbled on three items that were not to my purpose but repay study and reflection.  The first appeared in the reminiscences of one Edward T. English, published in the Cameron Herald in 1916.  Mr. English recalls an incident from 1870 in which his friend, one T. M. Kolb, remarked on something that I have sometimes wondered about.  Does Christian charity require us to hope that a man in a state of grace will suddenly die, perhaps of apoplexy, before he sinks back into sin? Continue reading

Where is God in the loss of faith?

The Social Pathologist has made an intriguing point about the secularization of the West.  Explanations of the disappearance of Christianity, whether provided by unbelievers or by believers, operate entirely on the natural plane of sociology and culture.  They give reasons why, for example, changes in social structure or technology might make the Christian God less plausible or attractive.  However, Christians believe that faith is a gift from God, a supernaturally infused virtue.  Purely natural explanations of secularization don’t necessarily assume that divine stimulus to faith is unimportant, but they implicitly assume that it is roughly constant, an assumption with little scriptural or theological warrant.  Should we not instead entertain the hypothesis that God has simply withdrawn the grace of faith from mankind?

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Raising the Fallen World: Richard Wagner and the Scenic Imagination

Giuseppi Tvoli (1854 1925) - Richard Wagner (ca. 1865)

Giuseppe Tivoli (1854 – 1925): Portrait of R. Wagner (ca. 1865)

Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) intended his mid-Nineteenth Century innovation of Music Drama to instigate a thorough renewal, not simply of art, but rather of the human situation, as writ large, in society and culture; he foresaw in the late 1840s that his work would require a theoretical basis in metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics.  As it happens, all three parts of this theory entail, although Wagner does not employ the terms, both an anthropology, and a theory of representation.  Finally, Wagner’s theory of representation derives a type of primordial signification from an event in which the unavoidable beauty of a token or talisman disarms a threatening violence.  Wagner worked out this anthropology, and the accompanying theory of representation, borrowing his vocabulary and some few notions from G. W. F. Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach, in a series of essays and pamphlets in the 1840s and 50s.  In these documents, Wagner prescribed the “mimetic,” “poetic,” and “tonal” (that is to say, the combined dramatic) characteristics that would body themselves forth in Tannhäuser, The Ring of the Nibelung, Tristan and Isolde, The Mastersingers, and Parsifal.  These operas – or rather these Gesamtkunstwerke, as their author called them, using his own coinage – would recreate on the modern stage an “earliest utterance of consciousness.”[i] Their performance would inaugurate a new “breaking loose from unconscious life,”[ii] to quote from their author’s post-Idealist terminology; enacting the Gesamtkunstwerk would thus revitalize society by rescuing it from the degradations of fashion and the rabble, two of Wagner’s reliable pejoratives, in which an anthropologically acute reader will discern the theme of cultural breakdown in thoughtless spreading imitation and the unconsciousness of the crowd.

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Courthouse, Counting House, House of Prayer

There are three great powers in every society, economic, political and religious.  These three powers can be respectively characterized as the power of the purse, the power of the sword, and the power of the word.  In the days of Christendom, these were known as the First Estate (clergy, religious), Second Estate (nobility, political) and Third Estate (bourgeoise and peasants, economic).  In Hindu civilization, they were known as the Brahmins (religious), the Kshatriyas (political) and the Vaisyas (economic). Continue reading

John Locke – Quantifying Reality

The modern division between the words “objective,” and “subjective” can be traced back to certain thoughts of John Locke, and Galileo before him, at the start of the scientific revolution. “Objective” has become a synonym for truth and reality. Just as it sounds, being “objective” means treating things as objects and quantifying them. “Objectively true” thus means “we measured it and the measurements were correct.” “Subjective,” anything not measurable, is then regarded as not true and not real. Applying this objective/subjective distinction then means that anything debatable and not provable 1using measurement is then supposed to be a kind of nonsense. Morality, beauty, purpose, value, meaning, emotion, consciousness and mind, and all interior phenomena, not being quantifiable, would then be “subjective,” and thus regarded as not real, which is intensely nihilistic. The word “subjective” needs to be rehabilitated as having to do with treating people as subjects, rather than objects. Subjects are moral agents with interiors; with minds, thoughts, feelings, desires, ambitions, and volition. To treat someone as an object is to relegate that person to the status of a rock, an “It.” This is what all sciences do, including psychology. A person is transformed into data and facts. They are reduced to the facets of those that can be measured. To treat someone as a subject, a “Thou,” is to treat that person as having an interior life as rich, important, and meaningful, as your own, rather than a one-way “study” of that person. You engage in dialogue with them to discover their inner life; their thoughts, feelings, and desires, with moral worth; subject to subject. The “subjective” then is what is most importantly real about a person. It is what is being asked when someone queries whether you know someone. The tragedy of much of modern life consists in treating people as objects to be manipulated. To stop doing this, it is necessary to rethink the “objective” is real, the “subjective” is unreal, division. The good news is that since someone just made up this point of view a few hundred years ago, it is possible to change it. It is not an immutable feature of the human condition or human outlook. Continue reading