There’s a Hard Rain Gonna Fall (From the Prose Edda)

asgardsreien-peter-nicolai-arbo-thor-oslo-norway-1872

Asgard’s Host (1872) by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831 – 1892)

[From the Prose Edda:] Then said Gangleri: “What tidings are to be told concerning the Weird of the Gods? Never before have I heard aught said of this.” Hárr answered: “Great tidings are to be told of it, and much. The first is this, that there shall come that winter which is called the Awful Winter: In that time snow shall drive from all quarters; frosts shall be great then, and winds sharp; there shall be no virtue in the sun. Those winters shall follow three in succession, and no summer between; but first shall come three other winters, such that over the entire world there shall be mighty battles. In that time brothers shall slay each other for greed’s sake, and none shall spare father or son in manslaughter and in incest; so it says in Völuspá:

Brothers shall strive | and slaughter each other;
Own sisters’ children | shall sin together;
Ill days among men, | many a whoredom:
An axe-age, a sword-age, | shields shall be cloven;
A wind-age, a wolf-age, | ere the world totters.

“Then shall happen what seem great tidings: The Wolf shall swallow the sun; and this shall seem to men a great harm. Then the other wolf shall seize the moon, and he also shall work great ruin; the stars shall vanish from the heavens. Then shall come to pass these tidings also: All the earth shall tremble, and the crags, so that trees shall be torn up from the earth, and the crags fall to ruin; and all fetters and bonds shall be broken and rent. Then shall Fenris-Wolf get loose; then the sea shall gush forth upon the land, because the Midgard Serpent stirs in giant wrath and advances up onto the land. Then that too shall happen, that Naglfar shall be loosened, the ship which is so named. (It is made of dead men’s nails; wherefore a warning is desirable, that if a man die with unshorn nails, that man adds much material to the ship Naglfar, which gods and men were fain to have finished late.) Yet in this sea-flood Naglfar shall float. Hrymr is the name of the giant who steers Naglfar. Fenris-Wolf shall advance with gaping mouth, and his lower jaw shall be against the earth, but the upper against heaven; he would gape yet more if there were room for it; fires blaze from his eyes and nostrils. The Midgard Serpent shall blow venom so that he shall sprinkle all the air and water; and he is very terrible, and shall be on one side of the Wolf.

Continue reading

Beyond Radical Secularism

Manent

At Gates of Vienna,review, somewhat belatedly, Pierre Manent’s book Beyond Radical Secularism (2016).  The book carries the subtitle How France and the Christian West Should Respond to the Islamic Challenge. I offer an excerpt. —

What is radical secularism?   Manent defines radical secularism as the opinion, pervasive in modern Europe since the end of World War Two, that views religion merely and strictly “as an individual option, something private, a feeling that is finally incommunicable.”  Manent argues, however, that this opinion is not native to those who hold it, but rather is the result of a propaganda regime in place for many decades.  “The power of this perspective over us,” Manent writes, “is all the greater because it is essentially dictated by our political regime, and because we are good citizens.”  It belongs to the bland conformism of the modern – or postmodern – person that he wishes to participate in such self-lauding phenomena as “enlightenment” and “progress.”  Not even “the acts of war committed in early 2015 in Paris” seem to have shaken that conformism, which confirmed its blandness with a brief rush of emotion followed by a return of the characterless routine.  France finds itself in a state of “paralysis,” Manent concludes.  Its program, from the presidency down through the institutions right to the conformist mass of citizen-individuals appears to be to see nothing and to do nothing.  The Muslim problem exists, according to Manent, because the French state is weak and cannot produce the secularity, which would integrate Muslims, and which it declares as its program.  Whereas “the State of the Third Republic had authority” and “represented that all held sacred,” as Manent argues; “our state [the Fifth Republic] has abandoned its representative ambition and pride, thus losing a good part of its legitimacy in the eyes of citizens.”
Manent continues: “Our state now obeys a principle of indeterminacy and dissipation.”  Indeed, the French state, committed to the European Union, is programmatically self-minimizing.  This trend attaches to another: The rising hostility to and elision of national culture and national identity.  Manent points out that “the work of the state… has tended to deprive education of its content, or empty these contents of what I dare call their imperatively desirable character.”  Under the Third Republic, pride in the achievement of one’s nation – or at the very least, the explicit acknowledgment of those achievements – expressed itself robustly and informed the national curriculum.  The existing curriculum, in the name of multiculturalism, has elbowed the lesson in what it means to inherit the French nation out to the margin of the page or out of the textbook altogether.  “How can we begin from the beginning,” Manent asks, “and gather children together in the competent practice of the French language, when we have done so much to strip this language of its ‘privilege?’”  Given that secularity itself is such an empty concept, how might teachers teach secularism, the primary principle supposedly of the state – say, to Muslim students who crowd France’s urban schools?  One can teach the heritage of a nation, but one finds himself hard-pressed to teach a self-evacuating notion.  “Under the name of secularism we dream of a teaching without content that would effectively prepare children to be members of a formless society in which religions would be dissolved along with everything else.”

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance (1852) and Philip K. Dick’s VALIS (1981)

Dick 11 Forms 02

The Forms

Art generally or literature specifically, insofar as it comes down to the present from the past, tends to be conservative and traditional.  Any essay, poem, play, story, or novel is formed in its completion by its author and retains that form every time it is re-read or re-issued.  Not even the postmodern contemnors of Shakespeare as the exemplary Dead White Male dare to alter his text, however spitefully they address it; they never speak of a “Living Hamlet” in the way that they speak of a “Living Constitution” that lends itself to re-composition on a whim.  The interpretation of Hamlet changes, but the document possesses a taboo that protects it from tampering.  In the moment when any essay, poem, play, story, or novel is formed, moreover, the spirits of the age and place imbue the work with their character even in cases where the author opposes himself to their character.  George Elliot (a.k.a. Mary Anne Evans) might have been a socialist and feminist, but she was also a child of the Victorian era – and many things that scandalize Twenty-First Century conservatives and traditionalists would have scandalized her just as much.  H. G. Wells advocated such programs as a type of radical but non-Marxist socialism, world government, eugenics, and much else, but one will find in his novels and essays no promotion of “gay marriage,” abortion, or mass immigration.  Wells criticized the English society of his day, but he remained fond of England.  He would no doubt be shocked by aspects of Twenty-First Century London.  And then there are the authors who are thematically conservative.

Cervantes might be the first, in that his Quixote, Part II, criticizes the notion of the modern, finding in it a type of bland self-orientation.  Indeed, as the centuries pass, modernity creates a bifurcation among writers: There are those who see themselves as modern and conform to modernity’s expectations; and there are those who breast the stream.  The present essay treats two American novelists who belong to the second category.  One of these novelists lived in the first half of the Nineteenth Century.  The other lived in the middle of the Twentieth Century.  Whatever the expectation might be, they are startlingly close to one another in their moral analyses of modernity, especially of its “progressive” aspect.  Whether either author would have applied to himself the label of conservative or traditionalist, in the present context that label settles on him willy-nilly.  Perhaps it is so that integrity – of insight and judgment as well as of literary execution – is an intrinsically conservative trait.

Continue reading

Gustave Le Bon on the World in Revolt

Le Bon 02 Portrait Right-Gazing

Gustave Le Bon (1841 – 1931)

Albert Camus produced in L’Homme revolté [Man in Revolt] or The Rebel (1951) a milestone of postwar philosophical writing, widely admired for its diagnosis of a combat-shattered, God-deprived, and ideologically disgruntled world.  In The Rebel Camus (1913 – 1960) was distancing himself from Existentialism – that of Sartre, anyway – in favor of something more like a tradition-rooted perspective.  Existentialism had already caricatured itself in the early 1950s so that its slogans might serve undergraduates and taxicab drivers.  Camus quoted at length from Friedrich Nietzsche and Fyodor Dostoevsky; he reiterated that modernity itself was askew and had become bitterly unsatisfying to those caught up in its tenacious grip.  Despite his range of reference, however, Camus makes no mention in The Rebel of Gustave Le Bon (1841 – 1931), author of The Psychology of Revolution (1895) and The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1896).  Nevertheless Le Bon’s sharp-eyed meditations prefigure Camus’ “Absurdist” critique of society and culture, but from a non-disgruntled and distinctly right-wing point of view.  Le Bon’s book The World in Revolt: A Psychological Study of our Times (1920) even anticipated Camus’ title.  Le Bon’s follow-up, Le déséquilibre du monde [The Disequilibrium of the World] (1923) offered a trope – that of vertigo – which the Existentialists, including Camus, would eagerly receive and exploit.  Camus’ protagonist in The Stranger, Meursault, feels such dizziness just before he murders a random Arab on the Algerian beach.

Except for The Crowd, Le Bon’s work has largely disappeared from the institutional memory.  The Crowd maintains a tenuous grip because of its debt-holding position in respect to the work of René Girard.  But because Le Bon belongs on the political right, his few contemporary commentators treat him dismissively.  The Wikipedia article on Le Bon offers an example.  The article-writer attributes to Le Bon the recommendation of various techniques for crowd manipulation employed by the totalitarian states in the mid-Twentieth Century.  In various books related to the French Revolution and the First World War, Le Bon had indeed described such techniques, always critically, while condemning them for their corrosiveness of individual responsibility.  Such confusion of the descriptive with the prescriptive offers itself as entirely deliberate – an attempt to anathematize a perceptive thinker because he rejected socialism.  In an amusing exchange among Internet correspondents at a “Gustave Le Bon” chat-site, the message-writers argue this way and that whether a Société Gustave Le Bon ever existed or whether it still exists.  No one seems to know. The issue lingers unresolved.  Occultists have sometimes heard of Le Bon, who expounded the theory that matter had evolved, and who argued that each atom was a separate microcosmic world.  Le Bon had many admirers, not least the poet Paul Valéry, another Man of the Right, and the philosopher Henri Bergson.

Continue reading

Robert Edgerton’s Sick Societies (1992) Revisited

Edgerton 02 Sick Societies COVER

Hardcover First Edition (1992)

A critique of cultural relativism, Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (1992) by Robert B. Edgerton (1931 – 2016), an anthropologist and ethnologist who taught at UCLA for many years, has implications not only for how one might evaluate the pre-modern, non-Western folk-societies (primitive societies) studied by professional ethnographers and anthropologists, but for how one might understand both institutions and social practices – and perhaps even political ones – more generally.  Sick Societies provoked moderate controversy when it appeared, but probably few remember the book today.  Nevertheless, Sick Societies deserves not to disappear into the oblivion of the library stacks; or, more likely in 2018, to be purged from the shelves.  Revisiting it twenty-five years later indeed shows it to have maintained its relevance.  Provocative in its day, it remains provocative.  Sick Societies might well be a meditation on culture urgently apposite to the current phase of the West’s seemingly interminable crisis at the end of the second decade of the Twenty-First Century.

I. Adaptation, a Darwinian evolutionary concept, plays a central role in anthropology. The theory of adaptation articulates the anthropologist’s conviction that all societies manage to come to terms optimally with their external environment, and with the internal difficulties presented by communal life, as a people strives to fit itself in its environmental niche. This optimal coming-to-terms will be the case even when it might seem to uninformed or prejudiced outsiders that the beliefs and practices of a given community operate inefficiently or counter-productively and that they therefore fail to meet the requirements of human happiness.  Under this view, a modern Westerner’s disdain for magic or witchcraft or for elaborate rituals or proliferating taboos would itself indicate a deformation (“ethnocentrism”) because the objects of that disdain, which the anthropologist or ethnographer properly understands even where the lay person does not, operate by a concealed rationality that only the initiated might perceive.  On this assumption, seemingly irrational commitments and practices would in fact be just as rational as modern Western arrangements, but in a way that Western prejudice prevents people from recognizing.  From this position, in Edgerton’s words, “it follows that any attempt to generalize about either culture or human nature must be false or trivial unless it is confined to people who live in a specific cultural system.”  This would imply, in turn, that “Western science is only a culturally specific form of ethnoscience, not a universally valid way of verification or falsification.”  Edgerton does not directly state, but rather he implies, that, if the idea in the last sentence quoted above were true, as anthropologists and ethnographers by consensus assert, then that truth would hold important implications for anthropology and ethnography themselves.  Why, for example, must one validate the tribal belief in magic while withholding validation for the modern Western suspicion about magical thinking?  But ethnography does not treat Western skepticism about the other as adaptive.

Continue reading

Melville’s Typee (1846) and the Case for Civilization

Melville 01 Melville Portrait

Herman Melville (1819 – 1891)

My subject is Herman Melville, and more specifically Melville’s case for civilization, but I would like to approach his Typee (1846), where he makes that case, through a preamble having to do with the figure against whose arguments Melville stakes his own: Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778).

I. There is a shadow-side in the Western tradition that takes the form of a recurrent rebellion against reality. Already in the early Fourth century BC Plato identified an impulse arising from the matrix of civilized life that is wildly uncivilized and which expresses itself, in animosity that can be either generalized or narrowly focused, against civic order, technical achievement, and social distinctions arising out of a consensual recognition of merit. In Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, the character named Callicles complains that the rule of law is tyrannical because it places restraints on strength and ambition and so protects the “weak,” as he terms them, from the “strong,” among whom he imagines himself.  When the weak dominate the strong, Callicles argues, nature herself is offended because under her order the reverse is naturally the case.  Nature, not culture, provides the authentic template of existence.  When Socrates points out the verbal flimsiness of Callicles’ syllogism – that it juggles rather too freely with the terms strong and weak and sneakily makes the case for the tyranny against which it lodges its complaint – Callicles accuses his critic of thinking too much.  Callicles warns Socrates that finding logical fault with people will land the philosopher in trouble.  Perhaps someday it will cost him his life.

At the heart of Callicles’ pathology stands his aversion to reason and commonsense.  Callicles’ denunciation of the civilized order stems from this aversion because it is the polity, as an expression of reason and commonsense – that is to say of human self-knowledge – that restrains his libido and forces him to respect the rights of others.  When someone like Callicles determines to rise to power, he must begin by disarming reason and commonsense – he must evade human self-knowledge.  He must also persuade others to join him in his distortion both of human reality and moral perception.  A ritualistic, magical character pervades such activity, linking it to archaic, pre-civilized practices.

Continue reading

Linguistic Subscendence Rears Fully Half of its Big Ugly Head

The following sentence comes from Maureen Callahan’s New York Post article “Elon Musk is a Total Fraud,” dated July 21, 2018:

In March, a Tesla driver was killed while test-driving an auto-piloted Model X, the impact fully decimating half the car.

Let us ignore the passive-evasive “was killed” and let us not speculate why an “auto-piloted” sedan requires a test-driver.  That way the concluding phrase might take center stage in the completeness, so to speak, of its grammatical absurdity: “The impact fully decimating half the car.”

The verb to decimate comes from Roman military practice.  When a legion subdued its enemy, its commanders sometimes ordered the execution of every tenth prisoner before sending the survivors off to slavery.  To decimate means to reduce by one tenth.  It can also sometimes mean to reduce to one tenth, but that is an inadvisable because confusing usage.  Decimation could also be punitive; a legion that fled from battle or otherwise humiliated itself in combat might suffer the decimation of its ranks as chastisement.  No matter: The object of any act of decimation is a group of people.  One person cannot suffer decimation, nor can half a person, nor can anything that is not a group of people.

An automobile, then, cannot suffer decimation.  Still less can half an automobile suffer decimation, even if it were a Tesla.  Decimation, moreover, has no degrees.  The phrase full decimation would therefore be a pleonasm, and not the good kind.  General Maximus either decimates the captured Thracian army or he offers his lenience.  The Thracians would prefer, of course, that he offer his lenience.

It is probable that Callahan, like many people, regards decimation as an exotic synonym for destruction although, in its precision, it is not.  To destroy, equally with to decimate, possesses a Latin origin but it has so thoroughly assimilated itself to English as to appear, basely, Anglo-Saxon.  To decimate, by contrast, retains its slightly foreign, slightly antique, slightly graduate-schoolish aura of sophistication.  Even supposing that Callahan seizes on decimation because she thinks it a synonym of destruction, however, and even supposing that she wants to seem educated in her vocabulary, the problem of the fully destroyed half a car remains to be solved.  Notice that the test-collision to which Callahan refers in her article implicitly left half of that same Tesla, as she might write, fully intact – or rather, intact, omitting any qualification as to degree.  For intactness has no more degrees than decimation.  One wonders how many degrees Callahan boasts.  She should ask for a partial refund on at least half of fully one of them.

Poe and his Frenchmen and Baudelaire and his Americans

Baudelaire 01 B Facing Left.jpg

Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867): Successor of Joseph de Maistre

The spectacle of decadence has appealed to poets since the time of Juvenal, the heyday of whose authorship came early in the Second Century AD.  The hypertrophy and grotesquery of the Imperial City thus provide the background for Juvenal’s remarkable Satires, which presciently mirror the cultural degeneracy of the early Twenty-First Century’s civic scene, quite as well as they do for that of their own Latinate-Imperial milieu.   Did Juvenal’s eyes witness him the Urbs on the Tiber or the City by the Bay?  Is he writing about Rome’s Stoic salons or UC Berkeley’s Philosophy Department during the visiting professorship of Michel Foucault or again about the disintegration of the humanities departments generally under Deconstruction?  “Infection spread this plague, / and will spread it further still… You will be taken up, over time / by a very queer brotherhood,” as Juvenal writes.  Rome had its mysteries two thousand years ago, but then so does West Hollywood today: “You’ll see one initiate busy with an eyebrow pencil [while] a second sips his wine / from a big glass phallus, his long luxuriant curls / caught up in a golden hairnet.”  Nor is the modern milieu less free than Rome was under Domitian, say, or Hadrian, of secret police, informers, and goon-squads.  A ready inclination to cry lèse majesté belongs to the ripeness of a politically and culturally corrupt scene.  So too do the insipidity of literature and the jejuneness of art.

Juvenal’s scathing wit, which approximates the metaphysical, has exercised its influence down through the centuries, the satirist’s spirit being noticeable, for example, in Samuel Johnson’s “London” (1738), which the learned doctor patterns after Satire III, and in contemporaneous prose passages from Jonathan Swift.  The “City” passages of T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land owe a debt to Juvenal, including the allusions to gross homosexual solicitation.  To invoke Eliot, however, is to invoke Eliot’s models, the French Symbolist poets, who took their vision from the eldest of them, their spiritual father as it were, Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867).  That keen-eyed king of flâneurs knew his Juvenal well, as he knew literature well, all of it.  Concerning Baudelaire’s prose poem “Portrait of a Mistress,” for example, Rosemary Boyd in her study of the poet (2008) remarks that the “Portrait” reads like an “urbane version of Juvenal’s sixth satire, with its attacks on women and its suggestion that a perfect wife, that rara avis, would prove not just tedious but infuriating in her ability to show up the faults of her husband.”

Continue reading

Of Possible Interest

My essay A Westerner Reads the Koran appears at the Gates of Vienna website.  In it, I offer a type of reader-response critique of the second surah of the Koran.  That surah bears the title “The Cow,” which possibly entails a rather oblique allusion to the episode of the Golden Calf in Exodus or, as a scholarly footnote suggests, to a passing reference to an occasion of heifer-sacrifice overseen by Moses, as recounted in Numbers.  I offer an extract:

The Western layman approaching the Koran for the first time must experience something like befuddlement.  Supposing that the layman possesses a good education, including knowledge of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and the core classics of the Greek and Roman worlds, the Koran will strike him as something like the opposite of that with which he enjoys familiarity.  Take the Bible’s Genesis: It deals in straightforward narrative, as does its Near Eastern precursor texts such as the Babylonian Creation or Enuma Elish.  The very opening words of Genesis invoke the concept of a beginning, which implies in advance both a middle-part and an end.  The same is true of the Greek poet Hesiod’s account of the generations of the gods – Elemental, Titanic, and Olympian – in his Theogony.  After Hesiod explains his own function as an interpreter of the lore concerning these things, he launches into his genealogical story whose episodes follow one another in comprehensible sequence: Once again, a beginning, a middle-part, and an end.  In much the same way, the New Testament follows the Old Testament so that, taken together, they constitute a unified tale.  The events in Homer’s Odyssey similarly follow in a comprehensible way the events in Homer’s Iliad.  The essential seriality, as it might be called, of Western narrative and exposition contributes mightily to their seriousness and comprehensibility.  Both the Old Testament and the New also sort out their chapters so as to keep non-narrative prose separate from narrative prose.  This consideration helps the reader.  To whomsoever compiled the Koran these principles meant nothing.  The Koran lards non-narrative exposition into its narratives – promiscuously and confusingly from a readerly point of view.  A properly chronological narrative can, by a difficult labor, be reconstructed from the Koran’s chapters or surahs, borrowing the history of prophecy from the Old Testament, but the naïve Western reader who proceeds from one surah to another will encounter no orderly arrangement of episodes such as he might expect in the Bible or Homer.

Berdyaev on Culture and Christianity

Berdyaev 05 Fate (Cover)

Current Edition of The Fate of Man

The reality that modernity is and that it also causes crises, severe ones, in the cultural and civilizational fabric dawned on perceptive observers at the turn of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.  Joseph de Maistre in the Francophone world and Edmund Burke in Anglophone offer themselves as early outstanding analysts of emergent modernity.  Their work constitutes the bedrock of a steady tradition of anti-modern criticism that has, somewhat paradoxically, accompanied modernity for more than two centuries, becoming ever more acute as modernity increased in its perniciousness.  The first half of the Twentieth Century produced a number of outstanding commentators in this vein – not least that Colossus Oswald Spengler, but also René Guénon, Julius Evola, José Ortega, Simone Weil, Paul Valéry, and Eric Voegelin, to name but a few.  And that is to count only the essayists.  Poets and novelists add themselves to the tally.  Another important name that wants a place in the list belongs to Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), whose curriculum vitae heightens the plausibility of his critique.  Born of the minor aristocracy, Berdyaev in his youth associated himself with Marxism and the Bolsheviks even to the extent of supporting the October Revolution.  The regime permitted Berdyaev to teach and to publish, but the brutality of Lenin’s new order swiftly alienated the philosopher, who began to criticize the state and its actions from a specifically Christian point of view.  At one point the police arrested Berdyaev but then released him.  Berdyaev continued his criticism until finally Lenin exiled him in 1922.  He went first to Berlin, but the chaos of the early Weimar years made it impossible for him to work.  in 1924 he traded Berlin for Paris where he remained.  Berdyaev lived by writing and lecturing.  His authorship offers itself both as an intrinsically useful assessment of the modern deformation and as a complement to the work of those other, mainly Western European writers named above.  Berdyaev possessed a perspective all his own.

Continue reading