Superstition & Subscendence: An Essay in Honor of Tom Bertonneau

Bear with me here. I hardly know where I am going with this, although I feel I have caught the spoor of something Tom would find delightful – that he would join with me joyfully in this new hunt. I’m confused because all I have is that spoor, and my spirits are in a hurry and a muddle due to his too soon death. I miss my friend of many years – of too few! I am not yet sure how to do with the world that, henceforth, shall miss him.

Tom has been a valued colleague since we first encountered each other. We corresponded often – not often enough, alas – about our hopes and worries in respect to our work, much of it coordinate here. We sometimes asked each other for editorial advice upon that work. I could rely on Tom for sound counsel. I hardly know how I shall manage without his sagacity.

But I must. I bid you all help me in that project, in which we may hope we can all together proceed for many more years to come. That would be a fitting legacy of his penetrant honest cheerful mind.

I propose that this essay be an early installment in something like a festschrift for Tom. Let us all try to limn what it was that he taught us. Perhaps we might make a book out of it. Or maybe just something on the scale of an issue of Amazing Stories, circa 1935: the sort of thing that was an important source of grist for the mill of his wits. That would please him, perhaps above all things we might do to honor him.

Continue reading

Kill Ill: Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit

1Friedrich Dürrenmatt, wrote The Visit[1] (Der Besuch der alten Dame) in 1956.  Dürrenmatt is a twentieth century Swiss playwright (1921-1990) who gets mentioned alongside Beckett, Camus, Sartre, and Brecht. Like them, he is interested in examining moral dilemmas with wider social import, bearing a tendency toward the nihilistic, and a “you just can’t win” attitude, such as can be seen in Sartre’s Men Without Shadows (Morts sans Sépultures), No Exit (Huis Clos), and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The Visit is overtly “philosophical” in the manner of existentialism: a despairing morality play.[2]

In The Visit, Claire Zachanassian has been wronged by the town of Guellen (Liquid manure town) located “somewhere in Central Europe,” and Alfred Ill, and she has returned forty-five years later to exact her revenge.[3] Claire and Ill were lovers. Claire became pregnant but Ill wanted to marry someone else who had a shop and money. He bribed two witnesses to say that they had also slept with Claire. Claire’s paternity suit is thrown out and the town sniggers as she is forced to leave town for the life of a prostitute. In this capacity, she meets and marries a billionaire and a succession of other husbands until she is the richest woman in the world. In her capacity as such, she represents an all-powerful monster capable of bending the world to her wishes. A grotesque figure, two of her limbs have been replaced by protheses; an ivory arm and a leg. At one point Ill asks, “Claire, is everything about you artificial?” She uses a lorgnette. These spectacles with a handle held away from the face, suggests she has her own very particular outlook on things and creates a distance between her and the people she observes. Claire has returned to Guellen with a macabre retinue who include the false witnesses whom she has castrated and blinded, the judge who presided over her case and who is now her butler, a black panther, two bodyguards, her husband number VII, and a coffin. Continue reading

The Quaintness of the Regia Aeronautica in World War II

RA Poster 02

Fascist Poster from 1938 Inviting Young Men to Try Out for the Air Force

Italian participation in World War II started late and ended early.  Italy only entered into combat when the Germans had rolled their Blitzkrieg over France and were conducting the final maneuvers that led to the armistice of 22 June 1940. The members of Benito Mussolini’s Grand Council, with the assent of the king, declared war on their Gaulish neighbors and attacked.  The main action took place in the air with the Regia Aeronautica or Royal Air Force making attacks on French fortifications and airfields.  The bombing and strafing raids were largely ineffective however because while the Italian air arm looked good in propaganda films, it deployed few modern types and of those — few proved themselves efficient in combat.  The obsolescence of Italy’s air-inventory had its roots in Mussolini’s participation in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Nationalists.  In 1936 the Regia Aeronautica deployed an air arsenal that included up-to-date types, like the Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 trimotor bomber and the Fiat CR.32 biplane fighter.  The latter acquitted itself marvelously against the inferior French and Russian aircraft fielded by the Republicans.  The Cucaracha, as it came to be called, represented the perfection of the biplane interceptor and could also undertake ground-attack and close-support duties.  A Fiat V-twelve with six cylinders in each bank propelled the sleek, streamlined airframe pulled through the air by a two-bladed metal propeller.  The CR.32 had a maximum speed of about 230 miles per hour, fast when Italy introduced the type in the early 1930s.  The Cr.32’s two machine guns stood as adequate for the time.  The SM.81 followed the planform of a Savoia-Marchetti airliner, which meant that it had not begun life as a proposed military type.  Again, SM.81 performed adequately considering the opposition, as it had in the Italo-Abyssinian war of 1935 – 37, against no opposition at all.  Italy sent other types to Spain, including the Breda 65 ground-attack aircraft, which even managed to score a few victories in air combat, a role for which its designers did not intend it.

Continue reading

Bostonians

Bostonians

This post is prompted by a remark made by Kristor under his recent item The Orthosphere Has Begun to SucceedResponding to a commenter, Kristor writes:

Your mention of Massachusetts nails it. The high minded poison in North America has flowed ever from the banks of the Charles River, and it goes back at least as far as Emerson. Or – of much greater relevance these days – to Salem. I say so despite my profound respect for Emerson, and deep as his insights truly were. Ditto for Whitman and Thoreau, and indeed for all the Bostonians. You can’t become as influential as they if you are spouting sheer shouting nonsense.

Henry James wrote a novel called The Bostonians (1886). James saw Boston in much the same ways Kristor sees it. In his novel he explores the genetic relation of feminism, lesbianism, spiritism, and a degraded transcendentalism. Back in 1995 (it seems like forever ago) I published an article in Anthropoetics, one of the first online scholarly journals, on The Bostonians. That article may be accessed here. Camille Paglia once characterized The Bostonians as the only James novel with a truly manly protagonist. Basil Ransom is his name, a Confederate veteran. He visits Boston to see his cousin Olive Chancellor, who has glombed on to a teenage girl, Verena Tarrant, who is a rising star in the Boston séance circuit.  James brilliantly illustrates through his narrative the intimate intermixture of “progressive” politics, the flim-flam of spiritism,  and sexual degeneracy. Olive takes in Verena, obviously wanting to groom her to be her partner in life. I won’t spoil the plot for someone who wants to read the novel, but I indeed recommend reading it.

At one point, Verena is supposed to appear before a crowd in a large auditorium; but she is late. Here is a passage from James:

It had become densely numerous, and, suffused with the evenly distributed gaslight, which fell from a great elevation, and the thick atmosphere that hangs forever in such places, it appeared to pile itself high and to look dimly expectant and formidable. He had a throb of uneasiness at his private purpose of balking it of its entertainment, its victim–a glimpse of the ferocity that lurks in a disappointed mob.

Two Poems – George Sterling & Clark Ashton Smith

Redon 01 Vision (1883)

Odilon Redon (1840 – 1916): Vision (1883)

The name of George Sterling (1869 – 1926) has not figured for a long time in the educated consciousness perhaps because the educated consciousness suffers from a contraction of its horizon.  The name of Clark Ashton Smith (1893 – 1961) possesses more currency today than that of Sterling, but only within a circle of genre fanatics.  Ironically, Sterling more or less discovered the young Smith, encouraged him to write, and found venues for his early poetry.  After Sterling’s suicide, Clark made a frugal living by selling his prose to the pulps, tales of necromantic extravagance mainly, and amalgams of horror and science fiction, written for the most part for Weird Tales, one of the specialist sub-genre-journals of the mid-Twentieth Century.  Smith’s name circulates more widely today than it did in his lifetime in that his complete work in poetry, prose, and correspondence is available in print.  Very little of Sterling’s output remains in print; he is a phenomenon, more or less, of the antiquarian book market.  In Sterling’s lifetime however he stood at the head of the California Symbolist School, which, centered on San Francisco, took its cues from the verse of Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé.  Ambrose Bierce and Jack London praised Sterling in his lifetime.  Sterling enjoyed the reputation of being the “King” of California’s “Bohemia.”  Young poets looked to him for guidance, which he gave generously.  Anticipating the Beats, he indulged in alcohol, marijuana, and other, stronger drugs whereupon the toll of vice, not least mounting debt, led him to the taking of his own life by cyanide.  Smith’s modus vivendi no doubt protected him from a similar imbroglio.  Sticking to remote Auburn in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Smith avoided the citified pressure that exacerbated Sterling’s difficulties.  Sterling’s personality, more egocentric than Smith’s, carried a trace, unfortunately, of snobbism; he criticized Smith for his ambition to publish in the pulps and even for reading them.  Smith’s taste ran catholic – he would eventually translate almost the entirety of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal into English, knew Greek and Latin literature well, but delighted also in the stories of his fellow Weird Tales contributors.

Continue reading

Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Almost All Innovations Are Lethal

This one is really pretty simple. It is a first principle of evolutionary biology – wherein it is expressed as “almost all mutations are lethal,” a fairly obvious truism when it comes to incredibly complex living organisms that manifest a truly spooky degree of thoughtful robust design. It has direct, immediate and palpable – i.e., painful – application in almost every domain of human activity. It goes like this: take something that is working pretty much, hobbling along from one day to the next without dying altogether, and then change it so as to make it work better according to your bright stupid idea; how likely is it that you are going to succeed in your project of reform?

Not likely, right? I mean, really: how likely is it that you will have thought of just what needs to be done with a procedure that has been cooking along for decades without your help? A procedure that has hobbled along from one day to the next for say 30 years is probably doing OK, mutatis mutandis. Mess with it, and you are likely to do no more than mess with it, at the very best.

So, in messing with it, you are almost certainly wasting your time.

So, hello, stop messing with things.

Continue reading

Pin-Up Art & the Metaphysics of Sex

Beauty Parade 02

Peter Driben (1908 – 1968)

In an age, on the one hand, of renewed, anti-sexual Puritanism and, on the other, of freely available Internet pornography the names of Peter Driben (1908 – 1968), Gillette Elvgren (1914 – 1980), Earl Moran (1893 – 1984), Alberto Vargas (1896 – 1982), George Petty (1894 – 1975), and Earle K. Bergey (1908 -1985) are largely forgotten although from the late 1920s through the mid-1960s they held a place in the American popular imagination and not only among males.  Notoriety attached itself to these men because they produced the cover-art for a plethora of what went by the name of “glamour magazines,” with titles such as Wink, Flirt, Eyeful, and Beauty Parade, to list only a few.  Unlike Playboy and its later offshoots, which would drive them from the newsstands, the “girlie mags” featured no nudity, but limited themselves to what might be called the scantily clad or, on occasion, the accidentally scantily clad – young women in lingerie, bathing-suits, tennis outfits, and short skirts who sometimes by mischance display in public more limb than they would intend.  Whereas the interiors of these periodicals used black-and-white photography, the house always printed the covers in bright polychrome.  Often the poses are humorous.  The young woman is overburdened with packages, her shorts have come unbuttoned, and she bends her body and pins her elbows against her hips to keep her culottes from slipping away.  From the expression on her face, however, her plight and embarrassment communicate themselves, and her struggle to maintain dignity becomes sympathetic.  Ice-skating and roller-skating accidents sometimes occasion a revelatory maladroitness, but the revelation obeys strict limits.  Men never enter the picture.  The artist invariably portrays the female twenty-something as independent and as going – playfully, of course, but sometimes with bad luck – about her own business.  If she flaunted her comeliness, which qualifies as exceedingly comely, it would be in private and with an excusable girlish vanity.

Continue reading

Self-Education vs. Higher Education

Self-Education 06

Hippocampus Press – 2017

On the universal degeneracy of so-called higher education in the contemporary USA, I have made myself clear in any number of articles and essays since the mid-1990s.  Recently at The Orthosphere I described the last few years of my college teaching career at what I called “Upstate Consolation University,” supplying anecdotes about students and colleagues who reflect equally the functional illiteracy that has afflicted American culture for the last forty years, at least.  Can PhDs really be illiterate?  Yes.  While they have the specialized knowledge of a trained bureaucrat-scholar, they yet lack anything resembling the broad education of actual eminent minds in decades and centuries now remote and by the current generation completely forgotten.  The young faculty members lack philosophical depth – and that translates into an inability to employ intuition or imagination so as to transcend the boundaries of their narrow graduate school instruction.  Are American undergraduates illiterate?  Yes.  But they are more (or is the word less) than illiterate.  I would say that they proudly know nothing, except that pride requires knowledge of something and undergraduates have no knowledge of their lack of knowledge.  Still and all, their attitude is a prideful one with no discernible basis.  The cohorts of college graduates will not preserve the civilization that they inherit.  Indeed, they are not aware of inheriting it; their awareness fixates itself entirely on their devices.  Being past that, but holding it nevertheless as a background or context to my late-in-life contemplations, I pursue the leisure of my retirement, which consists mainly in eclectic reading of items high and low, with the recognition, late in life, that what is classified as high might really be quite low and vice-versa.

Continue reading

Poe’s Psychic-Atomist Critique of Wayward Modernity – Part I

Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory)  - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis exhibited 1843 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
Joseph Mallord Turner (1775 – 1851) – Light and Colour (1840)

Many people know of the “Big Bang” or singularity theory of cosmic origin, but far fewer know that the author of the singularity theory was a Belgian scientist-priest, Georges Lemaître (1894 – 1966), who, in addition to his work in mathematics and physics, served as an artillery officer in the Belgian Army in World War I.  The name Lemaître rarely crops up in textbook discussions of the singularity theory although it does appear in the Introduction to the Wikipedia article on that topic.  The name of Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849) goes absent in the Wikipedia article about Lemaître, where it would in fact assume some relevance, an observation that one can extend to Lemaître’s own published writings.  Lemaître enjoyed broad cultivation.  A typical Jesuit, he knew the humanities and arts as well as the sciences.  He could hardly have remained unaware of Poe’s self-described masterpiece, the “prose-poem” Eureka (1848), which Charles Baudelaire had translated into French in 1863.  To Poe belongs the actual invention of what Lemaître would call, in a popularizing essay of that name, “The Primeval Atom” (1946).  Even the details of “The Primeval Atom” find anticipation in Eureka, which formed the basis of lectures that Poe gave to bewildered audiences in the last year of his life.  One wonders whether Lemaître’s omission of Poe’s name was calculatedly prudential.  Disclosing the inspiration of Poe’s cosmology would no doubt have occasioned supercilious commentary.  Better not to complicate the issue by tying the theory to a bizarre literary text by a known eccentric, full of heavy satire and laced throughout with manifold irony.  Better not to adduce the author of “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Masque of Red Death.”

Continue reading

Avalon Jazz Band

The Avalon Jazz Band, headed by chanteuse Tatiana Eva-Marie, is a Brooklyn based musical group that revives “Hot Jazz” and “Gypsy Jazz” hits from the Parisian 1930s and 40s.  “La mer” was written by Charles Trenet (1913 – 2001) in 1929. With new words, utterly at variance with the original French lyric, it became an American “hit” in the late 1950s. “Sunshine” (below) comes from the Jazz genius Paul Whiteman (1890 – 1967), who made hundreds of recordings with his band in the 1920s and 30s. The Avaloners endear themselves to me by their straightforward presentations of melodically and rhythmically attractive material from the middle of the last century. There’s no attempt to “update” the material. “Parlez-moi d’amour” (1930) by Jean Lenoir (1891 – 1976) is a lighter-than-air French waltz, which buoys my heart every time I hear it. I also find myself attracted to Tatiana Eva-Marie’s undisguised femininity — which likewise belongs to the middle of the last century.

Continue reading