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.

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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 contradiction, whereby one might consider that he adds it 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 says 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]

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Notre établissement, notre révolution selon Offenbach

From Act II of La Belle Hélène (1864) by Jacques Offenbach (1819 – 1880): The mighty Kings of Greece introduce themselves.

From Act I of La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867) by Offenbach: General Boum-Boum disciplines his troops.

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Arnold Bertonneau on Patriotism & the Franchise

Bertonneau 01 Arnold Bertonneau circa 1880

Arnold Bertonneau (1832 -1912); Photograph from the mid-1860s

My great-grand uncle Arnold Bertonneau (1832 – 1912) traveled from New Orleans to Boston and Washington D.C. in April, 1864, to present his Creole Petition to Congress, which ultimately rejected it. On 12 April Bertonneau responded to an invitation by the Massachusetts Republicans to speak on the merits of his proposal. After an introduction by Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew, Bertonneau delivered the following words:

BEFORE THE OUTBREAK of the rebellion, Louisiana contained about forty thousand free colored people, and three hundred twelve thousand persons held in slavery. In the city of New Orleans, there were upwards of twenty thousand free persons of color. Nearly all the free persons of color read and write. The free people have always been on the side of
law and good order, always peaceful and self-sustaining, always loyal. Taxed on an assessment of more than fifteen million dollars — among many other things, for the support of public-school education — debarred from the right of sending their children to the common schools which they have been and are compelled to aid in supporting, taxed on their property, and compelled to contribute toward the general expense of sustaining the state, they have always been and now are prohibited from exercising the elective franchise.

When the first fratricidal shot was fired at Sumter, and Louisiana had joined her fortunes with the other seceding states, surrounded by enemies educated in the belief that “Africans and their descendants had no rights that white men were bound to respect,” without arms and ammunition, or any means of self-defense, the condition and position of our people were extremely perilous. When summoned to volunteer in the defense of the state and city against Northern invasion, situated as we were, could we do otherwise than heed the warning and volunteer in the defense of New Orleans? Could we have adopted a better policy? In the city of New Orleans, under the Confederate government, we raised one regiment of a thousand men, the line officers of which were colored.

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Lectures d’été (Sélections de Juillet)

Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901 – 1985), In Search of Order (Opus Posthumous, 1987): In Search of Order followed the fourth volume of Order and History, or The Ecumenic Age, by thirteen years; and The Ecumenic Age followed the second and third volumes, The World of the Polis and Plato and Aristotle, by seventeen years.  The first volume of the tetralogy, Israel and Revelation, appeared in 1956, but Voegelin commenced Order and History when he abandoned his multi-volume History of Political Ideas in the early 1950s, so that the former had its taproot in a decade of research.  Order and History resists summary.  In the most general terms, it explores the hypothesis that civilizational development is inseparable from two other processes: The unfolding of consciousness from mythic compactness to philosophical articulation and the “pneumopathological” resistance that constantly dogs civilization’s quest for the Logos.  While Voegelin left In Search of Order unfinished, the completed portion possesses integrity.  It includes a comparative reading of two works that no one else ever bracketed for contrapuntal analysis: Hesiod’s Theogony, an Eighth-Century BC genealogy of the divine order, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807), which attempts to frame History and thereby to make of Hegel’s authorship History’s consummation.  Voegelin’s opening chapter meditates on the paradox of beginnings, posing the question, “Where does the beginning begin?”  Consciousness, Voegelin argues, necessarily initiates every task with recollection.  This sentence thus depends on a previous one even if it commences the essay.  It depends on the English language, which depends on its foretongues.  Speculation reaches only so far.  Whereas at some moment language exists, in the previous moment it existed not; but what existed then was not nothing.  The barrier to knowledge remains impassable, however, because, as Voegelin writes, “the men who were present [at the origin of language] left no record of the event but language itself.”

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Spengler on Militant Religiosity

Spengler 01

Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936)

Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936), the German historian and philosopher, devotes a suite of three chapters (VII, VIII, and IX) in his Decline of the West, Volume II (1922), to what he calls “The Problems of the Arabian Culture.”  The third of these chapters, “Pythagoras, Mohammed, Cromwell,” explores the parallelisms that, in Spengler’s view, and in his use of the word, make these figures “contemporary” with one another.  The same chapter also contains Spengler’s analysis of Puritanism, but not strictly in the sense of Calvinist doctrine although he includes Calvinism in his discussion.  Spengler views Puritanism as an inevitable phase of religion, one of doctrinal hardening and literalism in which a totalitarian impulse predominates.  Puritanism has manifested itself in all the Great Cultures, as Spengler calls them, such as the Chinese, the Classical, and the Gothic.  By “The Problems of Arabian Culture” Spengler does not mean to confine himself to a history of Monophysitism or Islam although these come under his three-chapter remit.  Spengler subsumes “Arabian Culture” under the larger category of “Magian Culture,” which embraces both Arabia Felix and Arabia Deserta but reaches far beyond them to aspects of the late Persian and Syriac societies, to the Hellenism of Alexandria, and even to the Iconoclastic centuries of Byzantium.  The term Magian also reaches back in time to the late stages of Mesopotamian society.  For Spengler, St. Augustine shares rather more with Islamic theology than he does, say, with St. Thomas and the Scholastics.  For Spengler, the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople anticipates the mosque.  To understand the chapter-sequence on “The Problems of Arabian Culture,” however, requires that Spengler’s often shocking and sometimes counter-intuitive pronouncements, like the ones just mentioned, take their place among the over-arching assumptions of The Decline.

Spengler’s opus impresses the first-time reader as a colossal improvisation.  Its erudition and seeming formlessness put off many would-be explorers.  Spengler’s basic propositions nevertheless lend themselves to summary.  Spengler rejects the idea of a universal history.  He recognizes no singular history but a number of histories in the plural each one peculiar to its own Great Culture.  Thus the Classical or Mediterranean Culture begins with the palace kingdoms of Mycenaean Greece and ends with the Severan Dynasty of the Late Second and Early Third Centuries.  Indian Culture begins with the Vedas and ends with Buddhism.  Western or “Faustian” Culture has its earliest glimmerings in the Eighth Century but really only leaps into being after the year 1000.  Western Culture preserves a profound awareness of Classical Culture but this awareness implies, for Spengler, no actual continuity.  Each Great Culture constitutes itself hermetically as an organic whole without debt to adjacent or precursor cultures.  Borrowings are never essential, but only ornamental.  Spengler emphasizes the organic character of culture.  He regards each Great Culture as a living entity, whose mortality impends as soon as it comes to birth.  Each Great Culture follows the same seasonal life-course – a vivacious and creative spring, a productive summer, a crisis-afflicted fall, and an increasingly inflexible winter.  Spengler also makes a distinction between culture, as such, and civilization.  Culture flourishes as the vital phase; civilization takes over as the mechanical phase, becoming more and more rigid until the machine stops.

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Spengler on Democracy & Equality

I gave this presentation some years ago at one of the annual conferences of the H. L. Mencken Club in Baltimore. (I am unsure of the year.) Evidently the organizers of the event recorded the talk — and to my surprise I found it while browsing the web (is that phrase still in use?) for Spengler-related lectures and podcasts.

Eric Voegelin on Gnostic Modernity

Voegelin 01

Eric Voegelin (1901 – 1985)

A previous essay to this one on José Ortega y Gasset began with the claim that the past speaks to the present more pertinently than the present speaks to itself, but that the present, in assessing itself as the culmination of human advancement, actively disdains the past and prefers to stuff its ears.  The essence of the modern psyche – which Ortega explores in his Revolt of the Masses (1930) – is paradoxically to be at once emphatically assured of its knowledge and wisdom but, in Ortega’s phrase, conscientiously ignorant of anything outside its radically narrow field of expertise, which it mistakes for a totality.  The modern mind cuts itself off from the stream of human experience, oblivious, in its conceit, to the necessity of temporality, memory, and history in the very constitution of consciousness.  Ortega’s phenomenology of the arrogant, self-limiting, and abjectly self-unaware subject finds a counterpart in the first important work of a thinker belonging to the generation after the Spaniard – The New Science of Politics (1952) by Eric Voegelin (1901 – 1985), who left Austria after the Anschluss, came to the U.S.A., and eventually obtained a fellowship in political science at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, where he practiced from 1969 to 1985.  In The New Science, Voegelin advanced his thesis, which he would elaborate in subsequent books and essays, that modernity is “Gnostic,” a term referring to a set of exotic theologies, parasitizing on Christianity, which troubled the religious landscape of Late Antiquity, particularly in period of the Second and Third Centuries, and reemerged in the Middle Ages.

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Visions of the Wasteland – Part II

Charles Ernest Cundall (1890 - 1971) - St Paul's Cathedral during the Blitz (1941)

Charles Ernest Cundall  (1890 – 1971): St. Paul’s Cathedral during the Blitz (1941)

Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920) comments that in the Thirteenth-Century Quest of the Holy Grail, the wasteland motif has largely contracted into the figure of the maimed king.  The wasteland motif is, despite Weston’s assertion, present in that text.  In a “Waste Forest,” for example, Lancelot and Perceval seek refuge in a chapel, “abandoned and ruinous,” near “a stone cross which stood on a lonely heath at the parting of two ways.”  (Matarasso’s translation)  A wounded knight, whom the Quest author identifies as the “Fisher King,” comes carried in a litter to the shrine.  He prays God before the cross, “shall my suffering never be abated”; inquires after the “Holy Vessel” that will alleviate his agony; and passes inside through the chapel door.  Later, Lancelot witnesses the healing apparition of the Grail before the stricken man.  Later still, resuming the saddle, he overhears an indicting voice.  It invokes his adultery with Queen Guinevere and orders him, “Get thee hence, for the stench of thy presence fouls this place.”  In one of the adventures involving Perceval’s sister, she willingly, but fatally, gives her blood to cure a noble lady who has fallen victim to leprosy and whose restoration signifies the restored integrity of her realm.  The images intercommunicate.  The maimed king received his wound because he once sinned in ritual discourtesy to the Grail.  Lancelot’s wound, while not physical, nevertheless festers obnoxiously and makes him persona non grata in sacred places.  Before he may properly seek the Grail, he must undertake to purify his tainted soul.  The cause of the noble lady’s disfigurement goes unrevealed, but the cure, the sister’s Christ-like act of self-sacrifice, gives back to the people the undisfigured figure of their sovereignty.  The characters in the Quest differ from those in Geoffrey’s History in that they have risen to self-awareness.  They understand vae desolatione as not exclusively a worldly but more so as a spiritual problem.

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Visions of the Wasteland – Part I

Caspar David Friedrich (1774 - 1840) - Abbey-in-the-Oakwood (1810)

Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840): Abbey in the Oakwood (1810)

Homer bequeaths to posterity one of the earliest visions of a wasteland, anticipating T. S. Eliot by three millennia.  Eliot, incidentally, acknowledges his debt to Homer by allusions to him in the fabric of his foundationally modern, but also highly anti-modern, poem.  Now in Odyssey, Book IX, his Phaeacian hosts having guessed his identity, Odysseus honors the guest’s role under hospitality by telling his story in full.  He relates the unpublished details of his post-Trojan voyages thus far.  After the finale at Troy, Odysseus sailed his fleet of twelve ships on a piratical raid against the Ciconians, the rashness of which cost him dearly (some seventy dead); he dragged his men away from the narcotic forgetfulness of Lotus Land; and then, after contrary weather drove him off course, he entered the natural harbor of an uninhabited island lying opposite what would prove to be the insular domain of those anthropophagous troglodytes, the Cyclopes.  Odysseus describes to King Alcinous and Queen Arete the fatness of the unpeopled skerry, where he went ashore to revictual his armada.  “Covered with trees,” as Odysseus says, “on it innumerable wild goats breed; no tread of man disturbs them; none comes here to follow hounds, to toil through woods and climb the crests of hills.” (Palmer’s translation)  Odysseus adds that “the island is not held for flocks or tillage, but all unsown, untilled, it evermore is bare of men and feeds the bleating goats.”  As though to convey his dismay in the unfulfillment of it, Odysseus emphasizes that: “Here are meadows on the banks of the grey sea, moist, with soft soil; here vines could never die; here is smooth ploughing-land; a very heavy crop, and always well in season, might be reaped, for the undersoil is rich.”  Homer depicts Ithaca, by contrast, as a hard-scrabble economy.

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