Transcendence was an abiding concern of our late colleague Thomas Bertonneau. I say concern rather than interest because Tom did not simply study transcendence as an arachnologist studies spiders. Tom yearned for transcendence and searched for it, much as a mother would yearn and search for a child that was lost in a dangerous wood as the sun was going down. Tom was oppressed by our modern incarceration in an exclusively immanent world, depressed by the ever-strengthening strictness of our prison guards, and unimpressed by the primitive and perverse antics with which so many prisoners simulate transcendence and pretend that they are free.
Ours is, Tom wrote, an age of “subscendence” in which “Culminant man” strides the earth attired in baseball cap, cargo shorts, and a comfortable but ironic shirt—phone in hand, slogan on lip, and iron dome of positivist naturalism squatting inches over his head. To be culminant is to have the nature of a summit, and the amiable but not honorable buffoon that Tom called Culminant man is indeed the summit to which modernity has been ascending all along. Indeed—and this may be why Tom capitalized Culminant—the amiable but not honorable buffoon esteems himself the summit, the climax, to which the universe has been ascending since atom first met atom in the void.
The heroic age thought Achilles was culminant, the age of faith thought Christ. But enlightenment brought the modern age and its doctrine that when man has a cell phone, pizza, and comfortable clothes, there is literally nowhere else for him to go.
And to this proud declaration Tom might have answered that, so long as he lives beneath that iron dome of positivist naturalism, Culminant man is right. He has nowhere else to go. Culminant man is incarcerated in a purely immanent world in which the guards are strict and the prisoners have forgotten there is a world outside the prison wall. All other ages sought to break out of this prison by transcendence—the transcendence of heroism, the transcendence of sainthood, the transcendence of sublime beauty and participation in the All. Our age seeks to make the prison comfortable—just like those cargo shorts—with cell phones, and pizzas, and lewd pinups on a wall beyond which there is said to be nothing at all.
Tom wrote that subscendence is the antonym of transcendence, but his use of the word makes clear that there is between subscendence and transcendence an active and not just a semantic opposition. When I am very hot, I remember with longing what it is like to be cool. And when I am very cold, I remember with longing what it is like to be warm. The opposition between subscendence and transcendence is not like this because to be in either state is to forget its opposite.
Subscendence and transcendence are both, although in radically different ways, states of amnesia.
When I am imprisoned in a florescent cinderblock box, plaintive pop music pulsating like a toothache, I forget there are places where sunlight streams through stained glass, places where Rachmaninoff’s Requiem rises like incense to high and frescoed vaults, places where the distant horizon makes the heart ache with nameless desire. And when I am inside a cathedral, I forget the comfortable coffins to which Culminant man retires to take his ease, gnaw his pizza, and rid his memory of the very memory that there is a world outside.
There is, I just wrote, a radical difference between the amnesia of subscendence and the amnesia of transcendence. In subscendence we forget what is real; in transcendence we forget what is unreal. This is why the amnesia of transcendence is really anamnesis. Tom liked this word from Voegelin because it literally means un-forgetting. And un-forgetting is not just remembering because we remember things by nature but we un-forget by grace.
Culminant man remembers that he left his cell phone in the pocket of his other cargo shorts. Transcendent man looks up from his pizza and at the lewd pinup on the cinderblock wall, and then suddenly, by grace, he un-forgets that there is something beyond that wall.
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I’ve gathered and arranged below several quotes from Tom on the subject of transcendence, all drawn from items he posted here at the Orthosphere. You may consider this an appetizer for an anthology of selected essays by Tom, which is presently in the works, and may be shortly on your shelf.
Under the Iron Dome
“Modernity . . . resolves itself into a global project to restrict consciousness . . . . Restriction of consciousness requires the rejection of transcendence . . .” (November 17, 2019)
“The liberal-modern order foolishly breaks with that tradition, denying the invisible, denying any type of transcendence, and proclaiming the exclusivity of matter.” (January 11, 1019)
“Modernity likes to advertise itself as enabling discovery and so as increasing steadily the dimensions of consciousness . . . . Far from expanding consciousness, the modern mind puritanically shrinks the noetic horizon by refusing aid from without.” (June 5, 2021)
“Modernity emerges as a materialistic hence crass and non- or anti-spiritual regime, at first peculiar to Western Europe but later global, that denies the existence of transcendence and regards with disdain those who maintain the concept . . .” (June 27, 2021)
“Although modern people like to think of themselves as cosmopolitan, they in fact have only a partial conception of what a cosmos is . . .” (July 31, 2021)
“The downward turn consists in a progressive amnesia by which deliberately a petulant mentality first rejects and then forgets transcendence and substitutes its impoverished materialistic “explanations” of things for the epiphanies of truth.”(July 31, 2021)
“Although ‘progress’ functions as a shibboleth for the ‘woke,’ the signs point to regress and to sleepwalking – to a fatal restriction of consciousness that gives no evidence of participating in vastness and permanence and slow rhythms of change . . . . The trinity of vastness and permanence and slow rhythms of change has another name . . . . That name, which modernity seeks with Ivan-Karamazovian anger to banish from all vocabularies, is – God.” (January 22, 2020)
Heaven on Earth but Not Yet
“Gnosticism trades transcendence for immanence.” (June 13, 2020)
“‘To take control of being,’ Voegelin writes, ‘requires that the transcendent origin of being be obliterated.’ This taking control is the second part of a Gnostic point of view and it just makes things worse. Modernity is inundated with attempts to remake reality in this way.” (July 21, 2020)
“Ideology universally rejects the concept of transcendence. What the symbols of theology put beyond immanence, namely transfigured humanity and a faultless society, ideology posits as achievable in history.” (June 13, 2020)
“The term transcendence . . . usually associates itself with religion and art rather than with politics although writer-thinkers such as Gustave Le Bon and Nicolas Berdyaev have characterized mass political movements as relying on a type of pseudo-transcendence. Yet insofar as such movements invariably establish themselves in dogmatic materialism an observer might better characterize them as anti-transcendent or immanentist.” (September 10, 2019)
Blackly False Transcendence
“Modern life is . . . replete with shallow substitutes for transcendence in which the de-natured subject experiences physiological and psychological effects that he feels as type of ecstasy, but . . . in modernity, real transcendence is vanishingly rare while false transcendence is a common – one might say the commonest – occurrence, existing in many only slightly varied and equally jejune forms.” (September 10, 2019)
“The modern world, which has founded itself on purely anti-transcendent premises, nevertheless requires false transcendence in massive doses – usually by a heightening of conformity through amalgamation in the collective, or by the celebration of utility, a variant of sacrifice . . . . Any object of progressive hatred is already half-divinized . . .” (January 11, 2019)
“In an exclusively secular environment all mystery has fled and so too, therefore, has any possibility of transcendence. From this default stems the rank quality of a modern life dedicated in its narrowness to working in a bureaucracy, tediously accumulating banal chattels, and seeking solely in sexual contact the physiological release of genital convulsion.” (April 21, 2021)
“The subject vaguely guesses that something has gone lacking, not only in society, but in himself, but he cannot discern what.” (April 22, 2020)
“Impatience to transcend ordinary consciousness can press so severely on the attuned subject that bypassing the natural, neurological limitations by recourse to the pharmacy begins to seem justifiable.” (July 19, 2021)
“A grim irony pervades the regime of the Left, which increasingly comports itself as a quasi-religion, complete with rituals of false transcendence.” (Aug. 19, 2021)
“Modernity should know better when it mistakes for transcendence the orgiastic pleasure of immolating one of the people’s enemies.” (January 11, 2019)
“At the end of ‘City,’ Smith, ingeniously, leaves the most pertinent questions unanswered. Has Angarth led his friend, unwittingly, to make a sacrifice of himself in a primitive rite of blackly false transcendence?” (Oct. 30, 2020)
“Delius internalized Nietzsche’s metaphor of altitudinous distance, one of the Birth-of-Tragedy author’s immanent substitutes for theological transcendence.” (October 26, 2020)
“In the apocalypse of modernity, transcendence becomes subscendence, appearing even as human offal on the sidewalks of the megalopoleis.” (January 22, 2020)
“Surrounded by intimations of transcendence, he could see them not.” (June 27, 2021)
“Man must receive guiding wisdom from an ultra-human beyond if he is not to blunder about.” (June 5, 2021)
“Fancy reveals the possibility of transcendence. She reveals, however, that transcendence cannot be conjured, but rather, that it can only be awaited in a mood of calm non-expectation.” (July 11, 2021)
“These prodigies speak of transcendence; they correspond to epiphanic moments.” (June 27, 2021)
Message in a Bottle
“For modernity myth equals falsehood; the modern mind would discard myth, a word it uses only in the pejorative mode, along with the mystic vision and revelation . . .” (June 5, 2021)
“Beauty suggests transcendence. The modern world, however, takes a stance of rigorous opposition to transcendence, which it categorizes among the falsehoods that have, in their pestiferous way, survived the cleansing power of rationality . . . . The modern world hates the beautiful, which is why it has made a cult of ugliness. Ugliness never gets in the way of utility, but beauty does . . . . It nourishes the soul, which, like transcendence, is not supposed to exist.” (July 6, 2018)
“Plato yet understood that reason could take thought only so far and that a realm of existential wisdom lay beyond the purely rational aporia. Thought entered that realm through metaphor, image, and narration, working often by indirection.” (June 5, 2021)
“Man is more than matter: He seeks freedom in transcendence . . . . Twentieth Century genre literature, especially the fantastic sub-genres . . . proves itself able to furnish for the reader-subject a necessary access to transcendence . . .” (March 10, 2019)
“Spirit belongs to transcendence and spirit is more real than matter, which lies at the lowest level of manifestation. To call the dispensation that has blinded itself to transcendence, real life, opposing itself to an unreal life lived supposedly in the shadow of superstition, involves not just an inversion, but an obliteration of values.” (May 16, 2018)