I was listening this afternoon as I drove along to a broadcast on EWTN in which the presenter, Al Kresta, was talking to EWTN host and Catholic psychologist Ray Guarendi about the 3 years he suffered horribly from clinical depression in the early 80’s. His episode of acute depression – for which he was twice hospitalized – was triggered in him by an encounter with a book by an atheist, entitled The Illusion of Immortality. Reading it in preparation for writing a book of his own, Kresta was suddenly overtaken by profound despair. He reflected that the reason the text – which regurgitated arguments he had long before encountered and defeated to his own satisfaction – had such an impact upon him was that the author seemed like a good guy who was simply sincere about his atheism, in a way that most atheists are not.
As Kresta spoke, his offhand phrase “the horror of the atheist notion of reality” hit me really hard. I began almost to weep at the image of that notion, carried through (in the imagination only) to reality – treated, i.e., as if it were really true (as if that could even happen). This feeling, of horrified tears at being perched for the first time in my life at the edge of a precipice that verged upon an abyss of pain without bottom, persisted throughout the conversation between Kresta and Guarendi. I could feel a boundless ontological void opening beneath me, unlike any I had ever suspected.
It was the horrible vacuum in which nothing can have any meaning, purpose, or point, and nothing is therefore worth anything; in which, i.e., nothing can be about anything, or for anything; in which nothing is any good.
My wife and I are enjoying a short vacation with my in-laws in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It is a lovely place, rendered sublime along the western edge of the valley by the unearthly majesty of the Grand Tetons. The Tetons seem to the eye of this experienced outdoorsman one of those sublime landscapes in which natural beauty is so intense as to verge on numinous sanctity (other such places I have sojourned: Grand Canyon, Yosemite Valley, the Snæfellsjökull Peninsula in Iceland). Such places command awe, and foster an inward hush.
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.
Friedrich Dürrenmatt, wrote The Visit (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.
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. 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 →
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.