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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Spengler on Militant Religiosity

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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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Eric Voegelin on Gnostic Modernity

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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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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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Oedipus Rex in René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred

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Sigmund Freud’s concept of the Oedipus complex has entered popular consciousness. It names the tendency of boys to become romantically infatuated with their mothers, and girls with their fathers, then called the Electra complex. The notion is scandalous but the phrase provides a certain scientific sounding emotional distance while also connoting messy depths of neuroticism. Incest and cannibalism are so taboo in most societies that in lists of things not to do, they are frequently omitted, so excluded from polite society, that most people forget they even exist most of the time. Classes in ethics will often mention abortion or euthanasia, but never even mention sleeping with your relatives, or eating people. That is a sign of a powerful taboo – so strong that the prohibited activity gets excluded from awareness.

A significant portion of René Girard’s book Violence and the Sacred is devoted to a critique of Freud. Continue reading

Contract : Society :: Cell : Person

Society is indeed constituted of social contracts; there is no other sort of contract; so that “social contract” is redundant; to say “society” is to invoke contracts, and vice versa. A contract is literally a “drag together” People work together to drag things from here to there, which they could not alone easily budge; they coordinate their activities in search of common ends.

But obviously any such contract supervenes the society in which alone it can have any … traction. No prevenient society, no contract enacted therein.

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Freedom & Determinism & Time

Both determinacy and freedom are necessary aspects of temporal reality. And, so, because we are naturally and ineluctably temporal creatures, both determinism and indeterminism are true for us: but this, in different ways, for they pertain to different temporal epochs.

Determinacy pertains to the past of every occasion, and indeterminacy to its present.

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