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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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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I Need a Haircut

HaircutI need a haircut. My barber needs my custom. My barber’s landlord needs his rent-check. My barber’s landlord’s bank needs his mortgage payment. The corporate bank needs the local office to stay solvent. Etcetera, etcetera. It cascades upwards. The lockdown, if it were ever justified, is now simply an economic suicide pact. We need to live free or we will die.

Lectures du Printemps (Sélections)

Evola Bow and the Club

Julius Evola (1898 – 1974), The Bow and the Club (in Italian, 1968; English translation by Sergio Knipe, 2018): Julius Evola gained notoriety with his Revolt Against the Modern World (1934), a trenchant book as apposite to the current phase of modernity in the 2020s as it was to the inter-war phase in whose midst it appeared.  Men among the Ruins (1953) and Ride the Tiger (1961) carried forward the analyses and conclusions of Revolt.  Evola’s authorship looms large, encompassing works major and minor.  A late entry in Evola’s bibliography, The Bow and the Club, which perhaps qualifies only as a minor one, anthologizes nineteen independent essays from the 1950s through the 1960s, rewriting them with some cross-references, so as to lend unity to their collocation.  “The Psychoanalysis of Skiing” illustrates Evola’s acumen in cultural analysis: Diversion although trivial can testify to the social condition and to the pervasive attitude.  Evola remarks the recentness of skiing as a popular sport even while casting doubt on its sportive status.  Whereas mountaineering, also recent, requires strength, courage, and skill, skiing, in Evola’s view, simply makes use of gravity.  One emphasizes the ascent – the other the descent.  The skier must, of course, ascend before he descends, but “the problem has been solved by building cableways, chair lifts, and sledge lifts that meet the real interest of skiers by effortlessly taking them up.”  The very mechanization of skiing ranks it, as Evola writes, “among those [activities] most devoid of any relation to the symbols of the previous world-view.”  Evola detects in skiing an essential passivity.  The thrill of the downhill run reflects the general “collapse and downfall” of the modern world, to which the skier gleefully submits.  Evola relates skiing to “naturism,” his word for nudism.  A demon of shamelessness indeed hovers over the piste.  The notorious hot-tubs of the Sierra-Nevada ski lodges, although they post-date Evola’s death, affirm his intuition.

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Red Mist and Ruins: The Symbolist Prose of Leigh Brackett

Brackett 11 PS 1946 SM Lorelei

The French remember Leigh Brackett, comme une maitresse “aux space-operas flamboyants,” to quote the words of paperback anthologist Jacques Sadoul.[i]  Stephen Haffner, of the Haffner Press in Royal Oak, Michigan, remembers her, too.  He has invested entrepreneurially in putting the best of her work, her contributions to Planet Stories, back into print in hard covers, after many decades of relegation to the second-hand market, in an act of genuine devotion.[ii]  Otherwise, like many others, Brackett runs the risk of vanishing into oblivion – for that is where all matter goes that is printed on the cheap, acid-rich paper that gave its name to the eminently perishable pulps. The slightest exposure to moisture crumbles them; sunlight bleaches the covers and makes the pages brittle and prone to disintegrate. Even the paperbacks of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, which reprinted the authors of the pulp era, including Brackett, must sooner or later suffer the same fate as the fragile magazines. Efforts of aficionados to preserve vintage genre fiction in an enduring form express a proper devotion to a robust literary past that looms over an insipid contemporaneity.  These efforts also qualify themselves as implicit, but strong, judgments on the present.  What accounts for Sadoul’s or Haffner’s dedication?  Admirers of elegant prose that manages to evoke lavishly imagined settings, in a style unexpectedly and strongly informed by the Symbolist and Impressionist writers of the fin de siècle, ought to commemorate Brackett (1915 – 1978), who deserves the multiple titles of the True Queen of the Pulps and the undeniable Empress, as it were, of Planet Stories.

In her heyday of the 1940s Brackett’s contribution could be counted on almost invariably to “get the cover,” as the publisher-argot of the time put it.[iii]  Brackett also saw print regularly in the double-columns of Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, and Astounding, where again she often “got the cover.”  But it was Planet Stories that heartily encouraged her strong suit of heroic romance in an extraterrestrial setting, usually Mars or Venus, with plentiful action.  Brackett’s stories in that hyperbolically romantic venue set the artistic benchmark for others, and many were the others who imitated her. Brackett’s stories furthermore always inspired the cover-illustrators to their lurid and enthralling best: Who could not have wanted to devour the récit implied by the Planet Stories cover of the Summer 1946 number illustrating Brackett’s Lorelei of the Red Mist?  Ray Bradbury had finished the last third of Lorelei when cinema auteur Howard Hawks invited the saga’s primary author to write dialogue with William Faulkner for The Big Sleep.[iv]  Hawks had read Brackett’s No Good from a Corpse, a hard-boiled detective novel that appeared in 1944.  He wanted its wordsmith for the tough-guy film he was then developing as a vehicle for Humphrey Bogart.  Hawks, assuming the name Leigh to belong to a man, expressed surprise when a slight but athletic woman in her early thirties showed up at his office.[v]

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Diversity in a Time of Plague

Empty Lecture Hall

The Wuhan Virus pandemic, having shut down the campuses and sent the undergraduate cohorts into a wide diaspora, teaches a lesson about multiculturalism and diversity.  Dissenters from the reigning New Puritanism think of multiculturalism and diversity as abstract and arbitrary schemes for a total and malicious re-ordering of society.  They are right, but it is possible to go further.  Multiculturalism, the doctrine, and diversity, the implementation, root themselves in a grossly corporeal way in the compulsory physical crowding of human masses – which is why colleges and universities, with their large numbers of student-residents, furnish the primary ground for the radical re-ordering project.  It is not a wrought thronging-together of individuals, but a wrought thronging-together of groups with the aim, among others, of abolishing individuality by preventing its formation.  This marshaling of the multitudes, once they are present, commences with the division of them into groups – or to be precise, into one heterogeneous group with numerous sub-groups and another group conceived of, falsely and invidiously, as entirely homogeneous.  The division bases itself mainly on skin-color but also on traits like homosexuality, which the “woke” claim as ontological but interpret morally.  The supervisors of the project regard the heterogeneous group as embodying the “good” side of their Manichaean morality and the homogeneous group the “evil” side of the same.  Thus does embodiment in its dumbness advance to the fore.  Multiculturalism and diversity exhibit no interest in the spiritual character of the individual person; in fact, multiculturalism and diversity exhibit fierce hostility to the individual person, considered as spirit.  Rather, multiculturalism and diversity emphasize the body, its biological traits, and quantities of bodies.  The institution recruits bodies to serve its ends – and its ends justify its means.  When events have dispersed the bodies from their vulgar concentration, however, the diversitarians pull at their marionette strings in vain.

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Two New-Old Books by Colin Wilson (Eagles and Earwigs and The Ultimate Colin Wilson*)

Eagles and Earwigs

The prolific authorship of the late Colin Wilson (1931 – 2013) began with the publication in 1956 of The Outsider, a phenomenological study of the alienation theme in the modern novel, and continued unto the year of his death, and even beyond, thanks to the activity of his literary executors.  With Stuart Holroyd and Bill Hopkins, Wilson constituted a peculiar hiccough in the British literary and cultural scene of the 1950s.  The three writers thought of themselves as having established a right-leaning English school of Existentialism that rejected the materialist orientation and politicized cynicism of the French school.  Although critics tended to lump the trio together with the distinctly leftwing coterie dubbed the Angry Young Men, Wilson and his two fellow writers could hardly have differentiated themselves more from such as John Osborne, Kenneth Tynan, Kingsley Amis, and the other “Angries.”  Wilson and the two others were decidedly intellectual, their early fiction and non-fiction alike rightly deserving the label philosophical.  The “Angries” by contrast revolted, in an all-too-contrived manner, against any disciplined phronesis.  Finding himself suddenly a celebrity on the basis of The Outsider, Wilson followed up with Religion and the Rebel (1957), The Age of Defeat (1958), and three other titles that would eventually add up to a coherent “Outsider Cycle.”  Wilson also produced a steady stream of occasional work for a wide variety of journals and reviews.  Some of these found their way in Wilson’s lifetime into single-author anthologies – Eagle and Earwig in 1965 and The Essential Colin Wilson in 1985, among others.  The former was for a long time the most elusive of Wilson’s titles; the latter constituted one of the best introductions to Wilson’s thought, as he, himself, had selected the contents.

Colin Stanley and Gary Lachman, both of them scholars of Wilsoniana, have collaborated to bring Eagle and Earwig back into print, but under the name that Wilson originally gave it before his publisher made an alteration: Eagles and Earwigs, in the plural.  The book carries the subtitle Essays on Books and Writers.  Lachman, author of a critical biography of Wilson (Beyond the Robot [2016]), supplies a new Preface, which supplements Wilson’s original Introduction to the volume.  Lachman writes that he first encountered Eagle and Earwig in the library of the British Museum in the mid-1980s – and that it impressed him vividly.  Commenting on the book’s fugitive quality, Lachman remarks that “there is something about finding a much-sought after book in a second-hand book-shop that carries its own magic, as rare as that is these days”; nevertheless, as he adds, in forty-two years of inveterate bibliophile questing, no copy of it ever came into his hands.  Lachman puts his finger on the appeal of Wilson’s literary essays, especially for a contemporary reader of the Twenty-First Century.  Wilson’s “existential criticism” concerns itself, in Lachman’s words, “with how a writer sees the world, his actual perception of it, and with his or her qualifications for making general assessments about that mysterious thing, life.” Existential criticism exercises the primary criterion of visionary quality in establishing its hierarchy of writers and books.  It has little patience with ideological tendencies and rejects hackneyed formulas.

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Productive Labor vs. College Administration

This might be an “Upstate Consolation University” item — but I am too lazy to write it. Soviet-era cinema is ideologically tendentious , but not so ideologically tendentious as contemporary Hollywood or the 24/7 indoctrination of college students in “wokeness.” Bread = Life. Missing the wine, the filmic excerpt is almost Christian. The song-sequence is remarkably undiverse. Bravo! The women are attractive, in a proletarian way. There are no “transgender” people in the scenario. I prefer this film to the latest Star Wars. Exchange grain for toilet paper and it makes perfect sense. Toilet paper is something that people need, after all. Now this post might well be an instance of writing as revenge. I want revenge on the whole so-called higher education system. I want revenge on administrators. Dalrymple (whom I admire) writes about complainers. I am an ultra-plaintiff. Viva the Kuban Cossacks! Enjoy the concerts below. —

PS. If you click on the “play” icon in the center of the video image, you will be told that this video is unavailable on this website — God knows why.  You must click on the “watch on YouTube” function to see it. In case that doesn’t work, here is the URL:  Song of the Harvest [.]

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Readings of Winter-Spring (Selections)

Philosophy of Inequality 02 (Larger)

Nicholas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), The Philosophy of Inequality (1918; published in 1923 – translated by Father Stephen Janos): Berdyaev appends an elaborate subtitle, Letters to My Contemners, Concerning Social Philosophy, and indeed the book avails itself of the epistolary style, addressing the “contemners” directly via the second person plural.  (The translator makes deliberate use of the archaic Ye.)  Written during Berdyaev’s ordeal under incipient Bolshevism, but published only after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, which occurred in September of 1922, The Philosophy of Inequality consists of fourteen letters on a carefully calculated sequence of topics, beginning with “The Russian Revolution” and ending with “The Kingdom of God.”  With The Philosophy of Inequality, Berdyaev achieves a rhetorical tour-de-force.  In the age of Leftwing “wokeness,” Berdyaev’s book reacquires its knife-edged relevancy, conveying to its readers, among many other things, that while the revolutionary mentality might justify itself in its vaunted progress, it remains mired in the dreary slogans of 1848, which themselves in their day never rose above the crassest ressentiment.  “The world is entering upon such an arduous and answerable time,” Berdyaev writes in the opening of the First Letter, “in which religiously there has to be exposed everything duplicitous, twofold, hypocritical and unenduring.”  The proper instrument for this exposure is “the sword that Christ has brought.”  According to the philosopher, “By the spiritual sword [there] has to be a cleaving apart of the world into those standing for Christ and those standing against Christ.”  Under Berdyaev’s conviction, Christ stands not with the advocates of equality.  He stands rather with those who first acknowledge and then strive to realize His redemptive gift of the person.  In the Second Letter, Berdyaev writes of the insurrectionists how, “Ye deny and ye destroy the person, all ye proclaimers of materialistic revolution, socialists and anarchists, radicals and democrats of various stripes, leveling and making a hodge-podge of all, ye proponents of the religion of equality.”

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