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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Oedipus Rex in René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred

1

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Lectures du Printemps (Sélections)

Evola Bow and the Club

Julius Evola (1898 – 1974), The Bow and the Club (in Italian, 1968; English translation by Sergio Knipe, 2018): Julius Evola gained notoriety with his Revolt Against the Modern World (1934), a trenchant book as apposite to the current phase of modernity in the 2020s as it was to the inter-war phase in whose midst it appeared.  Men among the Ruins (1953) and Ride the Tiger (1961) carried forward the analyses and conclusions of Revolt.  Evola’s authorship looms large, encompassing works major and minor.  A late entry in Evola’s bibliography, The Bow and the Club, which perhaps qualifies only as a minor one, anthologizes nineteen independent essays from the 1950s through the 1960s, rewriting them with some cross-references, so as to lend unity to their collocation.  “The Psychoanalysis of Skiing” illustrates Evola’s acumen in cultural analysis: Diversion although trivial can testify to the social condition and to the pervasive attitude.  Evola remarks the recentness of skiing as a popular sport even while casting doubt on its sportive status.  Whereas mountaineering, also recent, requires strength, courage, and skill, skiing, in Evola’s view, simply makes use of gravity.  One emphasizes the ascent – the other the descent.  The skier must, of course, ascend before he descends, but “the problem has been solved by building cableways, chair lifts, and sledge lifts that meet the real interest of skiers by effortlessly taking them up.”  The very mechanization of skiing ranks it, as Evola writes, “among those [activities] most devoid of any relation to the symbols of the previous world-view.”  Evola detects in skiing an essential passivity.  The thrill of the downhill run reflects the general “collapse and downfall” of the modern world, to which the skier gleefully submits.  Evola relates skiing to “naturism,” his word for nudism.  A demon of shamelessness indeed hovers over the piste.  The notorious hot-tubs of the Sierra-Nevada ski lodges, although they post-date Evola’s death, affirm his intuition.

Continue reading

This Joyful Eastertide

Easter is the only reason to be optimistic. If the Resurrection didn’t happen, then no man can be resurrected. In that case, death will certainly and totally consume all the things we care about. Life might go well for a time, to be sure. But it will all end in sorrow; and that end, that sorrow and pain, will be permanent, and incorrigible, and total. It will take all of us, and all our works. None of it will come to anything. All will be lost.

Continue reading

Red Mist and Ruins: The Symbolist Prose of Leigh Brackett

Brackett 11 PS 1946 SM Lorelei

The French remember Leigh Brackett, comme une maitresse “aux space-operas flamboyants,” to quote the words of paperback anthologist Jacques Sadoul.[i]  Stephen Haffner, of the Haffner Press in Royal Oak, Michigan, remembers her, too.  He has invested entrepreneurially in putting the best of her work, her contributions to Planet Stories, back into print in hard covers, after many decades of relegation to the second-hand market, in an act of genuine devotion.[ii]  Otherwise, like many others, Brackett runs the risk of vanishing into oblivion – for that is where all matter goes that is printed on the cheap, acid-rich paper that gave its name to the eminently perishable pulps. The slightest exposure to moisture crumbles them; sunlight bleaches the covers and makes the pages brittle and prone to disintegrate. Even the paperbacks of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, which reprinted the authors of the pulp era, including Brackett, must sooner or later suffer the same fate as the fragile magazines. Efforts of aficionados to preserve vintage genre fiction in an enduring form express a proper devotion to a robust literary past that looms over an insipid contemporaneity.  These efforts also qualify themselves as implicit, but strong, judgments on the present.  What accounts for Sadoul’s or Haffner’s dedication?  Admirers of elegant prose that manages to evoke lavishly imagined settings, in a style unexpectedly and strongly informed by the Symbolist and Impressionist writers of the fin de siècle, ought to commemorate Brackett (1915 – 1978), who deserves the multiple titles of the True Queen of the Pulps and the undeniable Empress, as it were, of Planet Stories.

In her heyday of the 1940s Brackett’s contribution could be counted on almost invariably to “get the cover,” as the publisher-argot of the time put it.[iii]  Brackett also saw print regularly in the double-columns of Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, and Astounding, where again she often “got the cover.”  But it was Planet Stories that heartily encouraged her strong suit of heroic romance in an extraterrestrial setting, usually Mars or Venus, with plentiful action.  Brackett’s stories in that hyperbolically romantic venue set the artistic benchmark for others, and many were the others who imitated her. Brackett’s stories furthermore always inspired the cover-illustrators to their lurid and enthralling best: Who could not have wanted to devour the récit implied by the Planet Stories cover of the Summer 1946 number illustrating Brackett’s Lorelei of the Red Mist?  Ray Bradbury had finished the last third of Lorelei when cinema auteur Howard Hawks invited the saga’s primary author to write dialogue with William Faulkner for The Big Sleep.[iv]  Hawks had read Brackett’s No Good from a Corpse, a hard-boiled detective novel that appeared in 1944.  He wanted its wordsmith for the tough-guy film he was then developing as a vehicle for Humphrey Bogart.  Hawks, assuming the name Leigh to belong to a man, expressed surprise when a slight but athletic woman in her early thirties showed up at his office.[v]

Continue reading

Everything You Do Is Worship

We think of worship as something we do mostly in church. It is time we dedicate especially to God. But every moment of our lives is dedicated to something or other; and we would not be doing anything we do if those things to which they are dedicated were not important to us; if we did not think them worthy of our attention, and of our effort.

Continue reading

Readings of Winter-Spring (Selections)

Philosophy of Inequality 02 (Larger)

Nicholas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), The Philosophy of Inequality (1918; published in 1923 – translated by Father Stephen Janos): Berdyaev appends an elaborate subtitle, Letters to My Contemners, Concerning Social Philosophy, and indeed the book avails itself of the epistolary style, addressing the “contemners” directly via the second person plural.  (The translator makes deliberate use of the archaic Ye.)  Written during Berdyaev’s ordeal under incipient Bolshevism, but published only after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, which occurred in September of 1922, The Philosophy of Inequality consists of fourteen letters on a carefully calculated sequence of topics, beginning with “The Russian Revolution” and ending with “The Kingdom of God.”  With The Philosophy of Inequality, Berdyaev achieves a rhetorical tour-de-force.  In the age of Leftwing “wokeness,” Berdyaev’s book reacquires its knife-edged relevancy, conveying to its readers, among many other things, that while the revolutionary mentality might justify itself in its vaunted progress, it remains mired in the dreary slogans of 1848, which themselves in their day never rose above the crassest ressentiment.  “The world is entering upon such an arduous and answerable time,” Berdyaev writes in the opening of the First Letter, “in which religiously there has to be exposed everything duplicitous, twofold, hypocritical and unenduring.”  The proper instrument for this exposure is “the sword that Christ has brought.”  According to the philosopher, “By the spiritual sword [there] has to be a cleaving apart of the world into those standing for Christ and those standing against Christ.”  Under Berdyaev’s conviction, Christ stands not with the advocates of equality.  He stands rather with those who first acknowledge and then strive to realize His redemptive gift of the person.  In the Second Letter, Berdyaev writes of the insurrectionists how, “Ye deny and ye destroy the person, all ye proclaimers of materialistic revolution, socialists and anarchists, radicals and democrats of various stripes, leveling and making a hodge-podge of all, ye proponents of the religion of equality.”

Continue reading