Ibsen’s Unknown Masterpiece, Part II

Genric Ippolitovich Semiradsky (1843 - 1902) - Julian the Apostate (1889)

Genric Ippolitovich Semiradsky (1843 – 1902): Julian the Apostate (1889)

Part I of “Ibsen’s Unknown Masterpiece” explores the relevance of Caesar and Galilean (also called Emperor and Galilean – completed in 1873) to the critique of modernity.  The fact that Ibsen belongs to the modern dispensation complicates the interpretation, but, like his contemporary Friedrich Nietzsche, Ibsen, despite his modernity, could also conduct a critique of the age that he inhabited.  Ibsen is something of an anti-modern modern, a not infrequent phenomenon.  Ibsen’s Julian, the noteworthy Apostate Emperor of the late Fourth Century, behaves like a modern ideologue: He pursues his conviction fanatically, so much so, that he constructs around himself an impermeable barrier to exclude the actual consequences of his action.  Julian, in both Ibsen’s drama and the historical account, from which Ibsen drew, was a religio-political idealist who became increasingly convinced that he could transform the world so that it corresponded to his utopian vision.  Julian’s reaction against Christianity had mainly to do with the murderous corruption of his cousin, Constantius II.  The homicidal Cesar became identified in Julian’s mind with the God of Peace whom the Emperor hypocritically worshipped, but Ibsen sees something more profound than that.  Julian’s rebellion is a rebellion against reality.  He dislikes the constitution of the world as though it were his enemy, and deludes himself into thinking that he can annul it by ritual conjuration.  He deludes himself again into thinking that he is the superman promised by the hucksters of mysticism.  Like the play itself, “Ibsen’s Unknown Masterpiece” falls into two parts: Part I expounds the notions listed above; Part II, Julian’s descent into a type of Gnostic madness that, in its manifestation as imperial policy, wreaks havoc on early Byzantine society.

Continue reading

Ibsen’s Unknown Masterpiece, Part I

Edward Armitage   Julian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarian   1875

Edward Armitage (1817 – 1896): Julian the Apostate Presiding at the Conference of Sectarians (1879)
The same God [who] gave the throne to Constantine the Christian [gave it also] to Julian the Apostate.  Julian had exceptional endowments, perverted by sacrilegious and abominable superstition working through a love of domination…  Confident of… victory, he burnt his ships carrying essential food supplies.  Then, pressing on feverishly with his inordinate designs he paid the just price for his rashness when he was slain, leaving his army destitute, in enemy territory.  (Augustine, City of God, V.21)[i]
I work every day at Julianus Apostata, and hope to have the whole book finished by the end of the present year…  It is part of my own spiritual life which I am putting into this book; what I depict, I have, under different conditions, gone through myself; and the historical subject chosen has a much more intimate connection with the movements of our own time than one might first imagine.  (Henrik Ibsen to Edmund Gosse, Dresden, 14 October 1872)[ii]

Augustine’s City of God would have been one of the sources – along with the works of Libanius, Eunapius, Ammianus, and of the Emperor Julian himself, all likely in German translation – on which drew the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828 – 1906) in the composition of his epic drama in two parts Emperor and Galilean (1873), begun in Dresden during the year of the Franco-Prussian War.[iii]  The sources are important to an understanding of Emperor because of the historical parallelism that Ibsen assumes between his own time and Julian’s epochal Fourth Century.  The religious apocalypse of Julian’s age Ibsen sees as prefiguring the political apocalypse of the strife-ridden Nineteenth Century.  Ibsen understands both the Gnosticism of Julian’s abortive pagan revival and the Left Hegelianism of the post-Hegelian decades as episodes of an on-going ideological distortion of reality.  Against every prejudice that one harbors about him (that he is “liberal,” “progressive”), Ibsen writes into his play, not Julian’s assessment of Christian orthodoxy, but Augustine’s orthodox assessment of Julian.  Ibsen rejects all revolutionary millennialism as inimical to life and to happiness.  Not that Ibsen has a formula for happiness.  Happiness goes missing in Ibsen’s authorship with one exception, The Lady from the Sea (1888).  It is important, then, in order to come to grips with Ibsen’s epic drama, first to grasp Augustine’s canny view of the Apostate Emperor – a most unhappy man or so the historical record would lead one to believe.

Continue reading

Sigrid Undset Crosses Russia

Return to the Future 01

Seeing things plain, not lying to oneself, not subscribing to the delusions of others – these virtues, seemingly so simple, prove in life difficult to achieve and tricky to exercise.  An inevitable imitative pressure assimilates people to one another so that mere opinion, received but never vetted, comes to function as a surrogate reality, in the cave-like error of which people stumble about their errands in a lurching mockery of witting behavior.  The ancients worried about false or second-hand judgment (doxa) or about superstition.  Modern people must grapple with ideology.  The critique of ideology is the single most important exercise that an individual can undertake who wants to stand in truth and by his own lights against the conformist pressure of public opinion, or what dissenters nowadays call political correctness.  But this endeavor is complicated by the fact that contemporary ideology claims, of itself, to be a critique of ideology.  This verbal legerdemain began with Karl Marx, who identified the emergent industrial order as the ideology that he named Capitalism, to which his own Communism was supposed to be the clarifying antidote.  The ability to negotiate such a mental hall-of-mirrors is rarer than it should be.  Those who can do it – or have done it – deserve to be commemorated.

Continue reading

The Cinema of Karel Zeman

Brno-born Karel Zeman (1910 – 1989) began work as a window display designer and won a prize for one of his layouts.  He found himself working in the 1930s and 40s as a set-director in the Czechoslovak film industry, an endeavor that continued, perhaps surprisingly, during the German mandate of 1938 – 45.  Zeman would eventually head his own division of the state film industry, the Gottwald Studio in Prague, where he wrote, produced, and directed ten feature-length movies between 1952 and 1980.  Zeman had specialized in stop-motion animated shorts during the 1940s, mostly based on fairy tales.  Except that he never went to Hollywood, Zeman’s career parallels that of the Hungarian-born film-maker George Pal, who invented the “Puppetoon” while working in the Netherlands, and continued exploiting this stop-motion genre in the USA in the 1940s before graduating to special-effects features in the 1950s and 60s.  Whereas Pal’s movies – When Worlds Collide (1950), for example, War of the Worlds (1953), or The Time Machine (1960) – tend toward the grimly serious, Zeman’s tend toward the fantastic, the satirical, and even the light-hearted in their mood.  Pal drew on H. G. Wells, Zeman on Jules Verne, but on a nostalgic reinterpretation of Verne that subtly, and by impressive indirection, contrasts the Frenchman’s technological optimism of the Age of Steam with the bombed-out landscapes of mid-Twentieth Century Europe.  The largely non-political quality of Zeman’s cinema might surprise a Westerner who encounters it for the first time.  One would never guess that Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955) or The Stolen Airship (1967) originated under a Communist regime.

Continue reading

And Now For Something Completely Different

Crusoe the Celebrity Wiener Dog, now ten years old, lives in Ottawa, Canada, with his human parents Lauren and Ryan Beauchesne. With his brother Oakley and his sister Daphne, Crusoe stars in short comedies on YouTube. I watch them, of evenings, while sipping from a tumbler of brandy, to take my mind off current events. Orthosphereans might know of my fondness for Dachshunds, i.e., Wiener Dogs. My dog Shorty, who passed away last February, was a half-Dachshund, half-Beagle mix. “The Three Doggy Rule” is my favorite Crusoe video. I embed some others below.

Continue reading

Living Out The Bacchae (America Burns)

Auguste Vinchon (1789 - 1855) French Revolution (1855)

Auguste Vinchon (1789 – 1855): The French Revolution, a.k.a., The Head of Feraud (1831)

Part I – The Bacchae. According to Friedrich Nietzsche, writing in his Birth of Tragedy (1871), Euripides (480 – 406), whose main activity coincided with the nihilistic destructiveness of the Peloponnesian Wars, betrayed “the public cult of tragedy,” to whose canons he merely pretended to adhere, while secretly doing everything he could to subvert them.  The power of myth attained its “most profound content,” Nietzsche writes, in the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles, and its “most expressive form.”  Then Euripides intervened, imposing the withering literalistic interpretation of “the typical Hellene” or paltry rationalist on the properly mythic material of the most sublime of poetic genres.  “What was your wish,” Nietzsche proposes rhetorically, “when you tried to force that dying myth into your service once more.”  Nietzsche means the Myth of Dionysus, which, as he addresses directly the playwright, “died beneath your violent hands.”  Euripides, so Nietzsche claims, sacrilegiously “abandoned Dionysus,” substituting “sophistical dialectic” for the ancient Dithyramb, and giving to his characters “counterfeit, masked passions” and “counterfeit, masked speeches.”  Nietzsche’s accusatory phrase, “violent hands,” works a bold verbal legerdemain, especially considering Euripides’ final play, The Bacchae, which concerns itself with the same deity in whose cult and celebrations tragedy had its birth.  With his second person formal, his “you,” Nietzsche assumes the stance of a public prosecutor, pointing his finger of indictment at the defendant and calling out the cultural equivalent of a capital crime.  That crime is sacrilege.  Nietzsche even compounds his indictment: “Through [Euripides] everyday man pushed his way through the auditorium on to the stage.”  Euripides, a kind of coward and panderer, stirred the mob into profaning the sacred scene, so that he might deflect guilt from himself.  The district attorney knows better. He will bring home his charge.

Continue reading

Lectures d’été (Sélections d’Août)

Great Chain

Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873 – 1962), The Great Chain of Being – A Study of the History of an Idea (1936): Lovejoy’s book joins the rank of those, once located in the “must read” category, that steadily fade into an obscurity, which they by no means deserve.  The horizon of intellect in Anno Domine 2020 has retracted so far that the scope of Lovejoy’s learning lies beyond it; no Great Chain of Being exists for the contemporary mind, which obsesses perpetually over somatic trivialities, so much so that it forfeits the dignity implicit in the label of mind.  Lovejoy is aware of folkloristic precursors to the idea of the Great Chain, but he sees the fully articulate expression of it as emerging in Plato’s Timaeus and in the essays, collected as the Enneads, that make up Plotinus’ Third-Century Neoplatonism.  In Chapter II of The Great Chain – “Genesis of the Idea” – Lovejoy divines the dialectic of “otherworldliness” with “this-worldliness” as the urgency behind his titular metaphor.  “Having arrived at the conception of the Idea of Ideas,” as Lovejoy writes, Plato “finds in just this transcendent and absolute Being the necessitating logical ground of this world.”  The apparent flux of existence, which stands in tension with the conceptual, takes its explanation, not only in what Lovejoy calls “the Intellectual World,” but in a Creative Intellect that generates the world.  Becoming provides the bottom floor, or perhaps the basement, of the universal structure, which, unlike a this-worldly structure, a Parthenon or a Mausoleum, the Master Architect builds from the roof down to the foundation – or rather the roof is the foundation.  The Master Architect’s kallokagathos permeates the cosmos in the form of “a Self-Transcending Fecundity.”  A common interpretation of Plato – that the philosopher finds the realm of matter inferior to the realm of spirit – strikes Lovejoy as false.  Lovejoy extends this judgment to Neoplatonism: “In Plotinus still more clearly than in Plato, it is from the properties of a rigorously otherworldly, and a completely self-sufficient Absolute, that the necessity of this world… is deduced.”

Continue reading

The Baroque in Science Fiction – Part II

Finlay 04 Back Cover Weird Tales Sept. 1952

Virgil Finlay (1914 – 1971): Back Cover (Weird Tales, Sept. 1952)

III. Weird Tales served as the main venue of baroque science fiction although most critics regard that magazine as something other than and inferior to a science fiction periodical.  To the extent that John W. Campbell’s vision defined the genre then perhaps Weird Tales really was not science-fictional.  Nevertheless, Lovecraft published there, who admitted no supernatural elements in his fiction, along with Smith and Robert E. Howard.  Indiana born Catherine L. Moore (1911-1987), linked to Lovecraft through her correspondence with him, seems however closer to Smith than to H. P. L. in more ways than one, beginning with her interest in intensely visual figuration, often architectural or ornamental, voluntary derangement as an antidote to unbearable ennui, and the emissary protagonist, all of which one can only classify as Symbolist.  Now Symbolist aesthetics is related to baroque aesthetics, both by direct affiliation (Swedenborg to Baudelaire and Mallarmé) and in view of a persistent determination on the part of the individual artist to fill his canvas with detail and to impregnate every detail with meaning.  The non-baroque artist regards his baroque co-practitioner as decadent, extravagant, self-indulgent, illogical, and repetitious – someone who pushes too many adjectives against his nouns.  The baroque artist sees his critic as a Calvinist and a prude.  Moore’s Northwest Smith, like Poe’s narrator in “MS. Found in a Bottle,” fulfills the roles both of pursuer and pursued; he too is fugitive, freethinking, not at all prudish, and never a Calvinist.  He sits in bars viewing the traffic like a Baudelairean flaneur, consumes potions like a shaman, plumbs the depths of despair and ecstasy, and, last but not least, acts a knight-errant in defending victims against the sacrificial madness of crowds, wicked cabals, and cults.

Continue reading

The Baroque in Science Fiction – Part I

Finlay 01 Illustrating Leinster's Mad Planet Fantastic Novels Nov. 48

Virgil Finlay (1914 – 1971): illustrating M. Leinster’s Mad Planet (Fantastic Novels, Nov. 1948)

In the 1954 Preface to his Universal History of Iniquity, Jorge Luis Borges defined the baroque as “the style that deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) its own possibilities, and that borders on self-caricature.”[i] The baroque is therefore a self-conscious style par excellence.  According to Borges’ definition: “The baroque is intellectual, and Bernard Shaw has said that all intellectual labor is inherently humorous”; and “this humor is unintentional in the works of Baltasar Graciàn but intentional, even indulged, in the works of John Donne.”[ii]  In the manner, then, of seventeenth-century church architecture – it might be in Spain or Bavaria – the spirit of the baroque piles ornament relentlessly on ornament, while cultivating trompe-l’œil for its illusion of depth, and while obsessively re-cuing every curlicue in anticipation of the fractal geometry of a Mandelbrot algorithm.  The baroque in music refers to the fugal style, in which again the artist, preeminently J. S. Bach, raises self-imitation to a structural principle.  Yet fugue also refers to a state of social disintegration and to an accompanying panicked mentality that drives forth the individual refugee from the incendiarism and bloodletting of civic breakdown.  Europe’s baroque centuries saw the religious wars, Puritanism, agitation of the protesting masses, and the inevitable massacres, for which music offers a counterpart in the stretto of the fugue.  Here the competing voices figuratively tear the subject to shreds in an aesthetic refinement of the Dionysiac sparagmos.

The novel arises with the baroque, in the Simplicius and Eulenspiegel narratives, in picaresque, and in the moralizing abyss of Don Quixote, where Part One is a topic of discussion, mostly inane, among the characters in Part Two.  The baroque therefore peculiarly trumps the modern in its exploitation of formal complexity; the modernist writers might match, but they never excel, their two- or three-century precursors in self-allusion and abyssal autoscopy.  Indeed, the Parisian Symbolists, those first modernists, remained keenly aware of their debt to the seventeenth century “Parnassians,” Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé assiduously practicing the sonnet, as though writing in the time of Louis XIII.  Later Max Reger (1873-1916) and Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) mimicked baroque-era models in music, as did M. C. Escher in graphic media.  Borges, in his Preface, “would venture to say that the baroque is the final stage of art,” a stage which some would call decadent.[iii]  Borges notes that the eighteenth century, which coined the term baroque, considered the seventeenth century, which invented the style, to have been in bad taste.  Borges omits to disagree, whereby one might consider that he adds an element of awkwardness or even of kitsch to the repertory of the baroque, as perhaps a studious awkwardness or an occasional deliberate pedantry in the articulation.  In The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler asserts that the Western baroque strove towards the dissolution of genre in a movement of synesthesia: “Painting becomes polyphonic, ‘picturesque,’ infinity-seeking,” while “the colours become tones” and  “the art of the brush claims kinship with the style of cantata and madrigal.”[iv]  Again, “the background, hitherto casually put in, regarded as fill-up and, as space, almost shuffled out of sight, gains a preponderant importance.”[v]

Continue reading