To Build a Fortress Huge, To Which None was Ever Like

“In skill, in wit, in cunning him surpassed,
  Yet never engineer beneath the sun.”

Tasso, Jerusalem Delivered, (1581)*

“Faustian man has become a slave of his creation.” 

Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (1926)

This post has been fermenting since I went, a few weeks back, to watch my daughter run a cross-country race.  The meet was held on the grounds of a very large high school on the outskirts of Houston, where that concrete pandemonium is tearing up the peckerwood of east Texas.  An urban frontier is always ragged, but the urban frontier of Houston is a wound.  It is a hurricane of shattered trees and growling machines; of tawdry shacks set against pharaonic masonry; of siroccos of grit, furnaces of glare, and the quaking thunder of terrific trucks. 

The high school and its grounds are restful in comparison to these surroundings, but this is only because the hurricane has already torn up the peckerwood and replaced it with another patch of concrete pandemonium.

The high school and its grounds are admirably engineered.  Indeed, they looked like what Le Corbusier would have called a machine for learning.  I have no doubt that the school has first-class computer labs, advanced auditoria, wondrous weight rooms, diversified dining, and toilets that are plentiful and up to code.  Automobile access resembles that of a modern airport (pedestrian access, likewise).  The playing fields are spacious and lavishly furnished.

But just as with Le Corbusier’s machine à habiter, there is something hauntingly inhuman, and yet all too human, about this thing the engineers have made.  It is, as I said, a patch of the concrete pandemonium they have designed at our behest.  It is part of the huge fortress we have asked them to raise against everything we hate and fear. 

But now that the fortress is raised, we begin to hate and fear the fortress, because we sense that this refuge is also a prison.

* * * * * *

The word engine was first applied to a tool of especially complex or clever design, and most often to a large and complicated engine of war.  At the end of the sixteenth century, one dictionary defined an engine as “a cunning instrument” or a “crafty and politic invention” (1).  An engine was therefore distinguished from a mere tool by the fact that it embodied far more wit and cunning, and that it was in some degree an ingenious novelty or innovation.  The Latin root actually means inborn, and has a meaning roughly equivalent to our word genius.

An engine was a work of genius, sometimes evil genius.  This is why the earliest guns were called “devilish engines.”  The consummate engineer praised in my first epigraph went on to make this consummate engine of war:

“This man begun with wondrous art to make,
Not rams, not mighty brakes, not slings alone,
Wherewith the firm and solid walls to shake,
To cast a dart or throw a shaft or stone;
But framed of pines and fir, did undertake
To build a fortress huge, to which was none
Yet ever like, whereof he clothed the sides
Against the balls of fire, with raw bulls’ hides;

In mortises and sockets framed just,
The beams, the studs and puncheons joined he fast;
To beat the city’s wall, beneath forth brust
A ram with horned front, about her waist
A bridge the engine from her side out thrust,
Which on the wall when need required she cast;
And from her top a turret small upstood,
Strong, surely armed, and builded of like wood”

The genius behind this terrific engine was, as Tasso says, the world’s greatest engineer.

“In skill, in wit, in cunning him surpassed,
Yet never engineer beneath the sun.”

The dictionary just quoted defined an engineer as “one that plotteth or maketh instruments with strange devices, to effect rare and difficult matters.”  The word device here means design or plan, and the device of an engineer was strange because, as Tasso says, it was the plan of an engine “to which was none yet ever like.”

Thus, an engineer was distinguished from a mere artisan because he broke with tradition and defied God with invention.  He was what Spengler called a Faustian man.

From this we can see why an elaborate political conspiracy was also called an engine (and also a machination), and why the mastermind behind a plot was called its engineer.  A dastardly plot was not just a metaphorical engine of destruction, but was itself an elaborate work of wit and cunning, an intentional organization of many parts “to effect rare and difficult matters.”

Here, for instance, is a seventeenth-century description of the plot of David’s crafty and faithless counselor Ahithophel, whom Christians traditionally viewed as the prototype of Judas (2 Samuel: 17).

“He never shewed more of his serpentine subtlety, than in choosing apt and active instruments, and managing them to the best advantage for the perfecting of his execrable designs.  His first great engine was the debauching of Absalom . . .” (2).

Hamlet used the metaphor of a military engineer to describe the mastermind behind a plot in this famous line:

“For ’tis the sport to have the engineer
Hoist with his own petard.”

Hamlet is at this point engineering a subtle plot to double-cross his old pals Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom Hamlet’s father, the king, has sent to spy on him.  He likens the pair to a military engineer who has undermined the wall of a fortress, and is packing the tunnel with kegs of gunpowder.  But crafty Hamlet proposes to countermine their mine, likewise pack his tunnel with kegs of gunpowder, and then obliterate his friends in an underground inferno, before they have time to put match to their fuse.

“But I will delve one yard below their mines,
And blow them at the moon: O, ‘tis most sweet,
When in one line two crafts directly meet.”

Craft here means plot.  Hamlet tells us that the sweetest reward of engineering is to show one’s self the craftiest engineer, to outwit a rival engineer who has tried to outwit you, and to blow that rival and his pathetic engine to the moon.  Thus, as one engineer wrote towards the close of the Great War:

“The existing war is essentially a war of engineers; for it is they who are manufacturing the guns, ammunition, vessels, motors, and the other paraphernalia requisite for carrying on the struggle, and who are attending to transportation of men, munitions, food, and all other supplies by both land and sea” (3).

Notice that this line tells us that engineers stand not only behind the several engines of war—behind the guns, ammunition, vessels, motors and such—but that these several engines are themselves components in the vast and terrific Engine of military power.  This vast and terrific Engine is indeed

“a fortress huge, to which was none
Yet ever like . . .”

* * * * *

I have not found a simple definition of the essence of engineering, although the engineer just quoted makes a good try when he says “engineers are preeminently the producers of results.”  I will venture to refine this and say that engineering is the intelligent organization of materials for the achievement of a definite purpose.  As was said of Ahithophel when he tried to overthrow David by craft (conspiracy), the essence of engineering is,

“Serpentine subtlety . . . in choosing apt and active instruments, and managing them to the best advantage for the perfecting of . . . execrable designs.”

You may balk at the word execrable, but I think this would do admirable service as the motto of any college of engineering.  Something like this stands behind the Universal Engine or Megamachine of our concrete pandemonium.

* * * * *

When I cross a bridge, it comforts me to think that it was designed by a cunning engineer.  When I sail through the sky, it makes me happy to think that the wings of the aircraft were not designed by a literary critic, and that the landing gear was not the brainchild of an exotic dancer.  I am in almost every minute of my day indebted to the serpentine subtlety of some cunning engineer.

But there does remain something execrable about their designs.  The word execrable means accursed, and an engine is accursed when it degrades Man—when it exalts what should be low and lays low what should be high.  Here, for instance, is Don Quixote execrating “the accursed engine” of the gun.

“Those blessed ages were fortunate which wanted the dreadful fury of the devilish and murdering pieces of ordnance, to whose inventor I am verily persuaded that they render in hell an eternal guerdon [reward] for his diabolical invention, by which he hath given power to an infamous, base, vile, and dastardly arm to bereave the most valorous knight of life” (4).

The curse of an accursed engine is that it gives unnatural strength to a dastardly arm, that it is the means whereby a man who is infamous, base and vile, can overthrow the most valorous knight.  The engineer behind such an accursed engine wins the plaudits of hell because his engine is an apt and active instrument in the Devil’s Craft to degrade men and bring them, at last, to the true and original pandemonium.

The Devil’s Craft is his engine, his plot and design for human destruction.  This is how Daniel Defoe described it in The Political History of the Devil (1726).

“See this cunning agent, when he has man’s destruction in view, how securely he acts! . . . It is always by stratagem, never by force . . . It is all legerdemain, it is all craft and artifice . . . He misrepresents man to God, and misrepresents God to man; also he misrepresents things . . . and then manages the eye to see them with an imperfect view, raising clouds and fogs to intercept our sight . . . . His business is to make men sin . . . to make devils of them . . . and, therefore, he works by stratagem, not force.”

* * * * *

At the very end of his great work, Oswald Spengler tells us that it has been the unique destiny of Western man to create “the idea of the machine as a small cosmos obeying the will of man alone.”  In other words, it has been the unique destiny of Western engineers “to build a fortress huge, to which none was ever like.”

This Universal Engine is a fortress because we have withdrawn into it, and in its shelter we defy both natural and supernatural powers.  Within the walls of our Fortress, we are beyond the reach of ravenous beasts and biting cold and violent men.  Nature cannot pinch our bellies with hunger, break our backs with labor, or oppress our minds with boredom.  Cunning engineers have seen to all that.

And within the walls of our Fortress, we are not vexed by sprites or imps or lively fears of the Lake of Fire.  God is admitted during visiting hours, but only to the apartments of those who desire his company, and there only so long as the residents find him amusing.

This microcosmos  is our creation, and Western man built this Engine because he rejected the creation that God and Nature had given him.   Other men modified that creation, but only Faustian man “overpassed the slender borderline where the reverent piety of others saw the beginning of sin.”  It was the Faustian man of the West who replaced God’s creation with a Universal Engine of his own cunning design, and this is why that microcosmos is a concrete pandemonium.

As Satan said when he and the rebel angels withdrew into the fortress of their pandemonium,

“Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice,
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” (5).

This is, of course, why Spengler says, “ever and ever again, true belief has regarded the machine as of the Devil.”  Those without true belief have, like Satan, rejected God’s cosmos and made another that is more to their liking.  Within our Universal Engine, “we may reign secure,” and to exercise this limited dominion is, we believe, “worth ambition” to anything higher.

Or so it seemed at first.  But now we discover to our chagrin,

“Faustian man has become a slave of his creation.”

Our Fortress is our prison and we cannot break free from the cunning Engine that our crafty engineers have made.

*) Fairfax translation (1600)

1) Richard Perceval, A Dictionary in Spanish and English (1599)

2) Thomas Long, King David’s Danger and Deliverance (1683)

3) John Alexander Low Waddell, The Engineering Profession Fifty Years Hence (1918)

4) Cervantes, The History of the Valorous and Witty Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha, Shelton translation (1610).

5) John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)

9 thoughts on “To Build a Fortress Huge, To Which None was Ever Like

  1. There is a phrase in English, “to ‘gin [something] up.” The phrase, built on the noun engineering, bespeaks a type of panicked improvisation that is not supposed to outlive its immediate (defensive) utility. Ours is an age of ‘ginning things up, but with another connotation. I mean: Gin. The things that people now ‘ginup look like they were created by men who drank too much gin.

    In Man and Technics, if not in The Decline, Spengler averred that the only useful modern pursuit was engineering. If anyone had talent, Spengler argued, he should apply it to the perfection of engines. By “engines,” Spengler had in mind the magnificent large steam locomotives of his age, the sleek airplanes, and the slim, deadly warships under perfection by the navies of the European nations.

    Alas — engineering has degenerated. Now it produces ungainly structures, misshapen and meaningless, that mar the civilized outlook.

    • There used to be gins scattered all over this county, by which I mean cotton gins. That may be the source of “gin up,” since they would “gin up” a load of cotton. But I’ve only herd the metaphor “gin up” in phrases like “gin up support” or “gin up excitement,” so its closest synonym would seem to be “whip up.” This is only a guess, but it suggests to me that the “gin” that literally “ginned up” was some sort of a hand mixer. I used to use one of these things in my grandmother’s kitchen and it had quite a few moving parts.

      Spengler believed the engineer was the only man who truly understood his times, but he was nevertheless a man of civilization at its end.

  2. Pingback: To Build a Fortress Huge, To Which None was Ever Like | Reaction Times

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