Two Theories of the Renaissance – Berdyaev’s and Spengler’s

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Raphael (1483 – 1520): The School of Athens (Completed 1511)

In the Eighteenth Century, self-congratulatory pamphleteers and encyclopédistes, wanting to effectuate a break with tradition, extol their autonomy, and celebrate what they themselves named the Enlightenment, invented the tripartite historical construction of Antiquity – the Medieval Period – and Modernity.  Edward Gibbon and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel assume this sequence, as do Voltaire and Auguste Comte.  Modernity, the third term, functions for such thinkers as the designation of their own intellectual super-clarity, which they see as the goal and consummation of history.  Hegel, like his successor Francis Fukuyama, believed that the progress of the human spirit had indeed found its goal in his very cogitations and insights, after which further speculation would be otiose.  The Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), writing in his essay on “The End of the Renaissance” (1922), and in the aftermath both of the Great War and the October Revolution, rejects the construction.  Berdyaev offers a prediction: “The school delineations of history into the ancient, the medieval and the modern, are becoming quickly outmoded and will be discarded from the textbooks.”  Whereas the tripartite construction of history has proven itself quite stubborn despite Berdyaev’s conviction at the time, stubbornness nevertheless validates nothing.  Berdyaev gives his reasons.  Modern history, a term that Berdyaev puts in quotation marks, “is now ending,” he writes, “and there is beginning something unknowable, an historical epoch not yet named with a name.”  An epoch is a break in continuity.  If a new unprecedented phase had broken away from modernity such that “we depart from all the customary historical shores,” then that development would necessarily disqualify modernity from its claim of being the end and validation of all historical processes.  “The world is passing over,” Berdyaev claims, “into a state of flux.”

Berdyaev by 1922 already knew the work of his slightly younger contemporary Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936), the second volume of whose Decline of the West appeared in that year.  Spengler, like Berdyaev, dismissed the tripartite construction of history as a petty conceit of limited minds.  “In fact,” Spengler writes in the Introduction to the first volume of the Decline (1919), “the lay-out of world history is an unproved and subjective notion that has been handed down from generation to generation… and stands badly in need of a little of that skepticism which from Galileo onward has regulated and deepened our inborn ideas of nature.”  Spengler characterizes the tripartite construction of history as “an incredibly jejune and meaningless scheme, which has, however, entirely dominated our historical thinking.”  Spengler, like Berdyaev, foresees the abandonment of the construction.  “The Cultures that are to come,” he writes, “will find it difficult to believe that the validity of such a scheme with its simple rectilinear progression and its meaningless proportions… was, in spite of all, never whole-heartedly attacked.”  Positing itself as the third-stage goal of a three-stage development, the cynically self-naming modernity “rigs the game.”  Spengler detects in the construction the traces of a displaced apocalypse; it is “Magian,” he writes, owing its essentially religious character to Persian and Jewish apocalypse and to the later offshoots of these, “the Gnostic systems.”  The construction designs to justify “one’s own religious, political or social convictions” by the method of “endowing the sacrosanct three-phase system with tendencies that will bring it exactly to one’s own standpoint.”

Neither Berdyaev nor Spengler denies the existence of a modern phase in the temporal continuity of the West.  On the contrary, both Berdyaev and Spengler acknowledge modernity as something like a total and commanding presence, inveigling itself dictatorially into every corner of life, but they never assent to modernity’s notion of itself.  Whereas modernity sees itself as Reason or Enlightenment, Berdyaev and Spengler see it as occlusion – as a radical diminution of consciousness far from liberating in any true sense, but rather as oppressive and destructive.  Berdyaev and Spengler view modernity in negative terms, as the cause of violent upheavals.  The two writers also agree on the origins of modernity, the earliest glowering of which they assign, perhaps surprisingly, to the Twelfth Century.  Both Berdyaev and Spengler, mention the work of the monk Joachim of Fiore as a foreshadowing of the modern tendency to close down history by calling it to a halt in the consummative present moment.  Both Berdyaev and Spengler see again in Joachim’s hermetic vision the initial glimmerings of what they commonly regard as the first distinctive phase of modernity – the so-called Renaissance of the Italian city-states beginning in the Fourteenth Century.  Naturally, neither Berdyaev nor Spengler interprets the Renaissance as modernity interprets it.  What then is the real character of the Renaissance? And what is the real relation of the Renaissance to the prevailing cultural dissolution of the modern centuries, according to the two thinkers?

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Grove of Academe, Air Strip One, or Inferno?

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Garden of Earthly Delights (Completed 1505) by Hieronymus Bosch (1450 – 1516): Right Panel: Hell

To document pictorially my increasing suspicion about the real nature of the contemporary college campus, I took my digital pocket camera to work with me today and in my spare time between classes snapped a little portfolio of vistas, which I offer below.

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The Drama of the Fall

The Fall was a tragedy: a conflict of irreconcilable cosmic and moral imperatives, binding upon all the actors, that can find its final resolution only at final consummation of the eschaton, when Christ shall be all in all, and Lucifer and his minions damned forever in virtue of their own incorrigible permanent decision.

What can we learn from this about the dramatic form of tragedy? What, then, do we learn about drama in general? Tragedy is both root and summit of drama, and its apotheosis. Comedy is a type of tragedy; it is tragedy writ small, and only trivially injurious (it is funny when Buster Keaton falls down; it would not be funny if he fell upon a spike and bled there to death, pinned and writhing).

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The Sorts of Liberalism Are Attempted Implementations of Nominalism

If as nominalism supposes there are no objective universals, then there are no objective truths. Then there is no objective reality. There being no objective reality, there can then be no way that one man might understand or speak of reality more truthfully than another. So there can be no such thing as authority. Authority then is ipso facto null, and wherever asserted, is false and unjust. If authority is unjust per se, then justice might be possible only under conditions of anarchy, wherein each man rules his own life absolutely, and is free to make up his mind and shape his acts in whatever way he pleases.

Nominalism carried into practice then is liberalism: the thoroughgoing rejection of authority.

There are many sorts of liberalism: political, economic, grammatical, theological, liturgical, legal, sexual, aesthetic, gastronomical, cultural, architectural, academic, and so forth. All of them are subjects of discussion here, and at other orthospherean sites. All of them have in common the rejection of all authority other than the authority that imposes upon all men the requirement that they reject authority.

The project of authoritatively imposing the rejection of authority is of course incoherent. That doesn’t stop liberals from propagating liberalism. But it does stop liberalism from ever working.

Poe and his Frenchmen and Baudelaire and his Americans

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Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867): Successor of Joseph de Maistre

The spectacle of decadence has appealed to poets since the time of Juvenal, the heyday of whose authorship came early in the Second Century AD.  The hypertrophy and grotesquery of the Imperial City thus provide the background for Juvenal’s remarkable Satires, which presciently mirror the cultural degeneracy of the early Twenty-First Century’s civic scene, quite as well as they do for that of their own Latinate-Imperial milieu.   Did Juvenal’s eyes witness him the Urbs on the Tiber or the City by the Bay?  Is he writing about Rome’s Stoic salons or UC Berkeley’s Philosophy Department during the visiting professorship of Michel Foucault or again about the disintegration of the humanities departments generally under Deconstruction?  “Infection spread this plague, / and will spread it further still… You will be taken up, over time / by a very queer brotherhood,” as Juvenal writes.  Rome had its mysteries two thousand years ago, but then so does West Hollywood today: “You’ll see one initiate busy with an eyebrow pencil [while] a second sips his wine / from a big glass phallus, his long luxuriant curls / caught up in a golden hairnet.”  Nor is the modern milieu less free than Rome was under Domitian, say, or Hadrian, of secret police, informers, and goon-squads.  A ready inclination to cry lèse majesté belongs to the ripeness of a politically and culturally corrupt scene.  So too do the insipidity of literature and the jejuneness of art.

Juvenal’s scathing wit, which approximates the metaphysical, has exercised its influence down through the centuries, the satirist’s spirit being noticeable, for example, in Samuel Johnson’s “London” (1738), which the learned doctor patterns after Satire III, and in contemporaneous prose passages from Jonathan Swift.  The “City” passages of T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land owe a debt to Juvenal, including the allusions to gross homosexual solicitation.  To invoke Eliot, however, is to invoke Eliot’s models, the French Symbolist poets, who took their vision from the eldest of them, their spiritual father as it were, Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867).  That keen-eyed king of flâneurs knew his Juvenal well, as he knew literature well, all of it.  Concerning Baudelaire’s prose poem “Portrait of a Mistress,” for example, Rosemary Boyd in her study of the poet (2008) remarks that the “Portrait” reads like an “urbane version of Juvenal’s sixth satire, with its attacks on women and its suggestion that a perfect wife, that rara avis, would prove not just tedious but infuriating in her ability to show up the faults of her husband.”

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Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Yet More on Angels

I’ve been thinking about angels a fair bit recently on account of the fact that my wife and I moved houses this last spring. Hard to see the connection between those two topics, I know. But it’s there.

Shortly after we moved, a realtor friend responded to my newsy message about all the problems we were suffering in the new place (and still are, to a not inconsiderable degree):

… I sympathize with your after move feelings. In addition to what to do with [all your] stuff, issues with the new house are appearing. This is because the house typically goes into shock when a new owner arrives and it starts acting out. You want to be there, but the house is not sure it likes you or the new arrangement.

Patience is the key. Gradually, the house will accept you and all will be well.

I tell all my clients the above and may have already shared this with you.

I realized with something of a shock that this had the ring of truth. The house seemed to be *resisting* us.

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Gottschalk’s Banjo Fantasy & Other Items of Americana

Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829 – 1869) was the American musical superstar of the mid-Nineteenth Century.  The issue of a German-Jewish father and a Creole mother, he early demonstrated executive prodigality at the keyboard and his knack for effective composition. During the Civil War, Gottschalk proclaimed his loyalty to the Union and toured the North playing his patriotic fantasias to wildly receptive audiences.  A longtime resident of Oswego, New York, I feel compelled to report that Gottschalk visited that fair city no less than three times between 1858 and 1864, professing his belief that its young women were the fairest in all the States!  “The Banjo,” described in French as a “fantaisie grotesque,” takes inspiration from what in Gottschalk’s day went by the name of “Negro Music.”  It develops an original, largely rhythmic motif, and quotes Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races” in its finale.  There is more by Gottschalk below, as well as songs by Henry Clay Work. A New Yorker, Work was Foster’s equal by any measure, but, because his fondness for “Slave Dialect” offends PC, he is today little known.

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The Tone Poems of Jean Sibelius

Sibelius 11 Gallen-Kallela Sibelius Portrait (1894)

Portrait of Sibelius with Landscape (1895) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

In an increasingly ugly world the sources of beauty constantly increase in value but at the same time they become increasingly difficult for ordinary people to discover and explore.  The garbage of pseudo-art so crowds the scene that the chance-encounter with beauty – by which in the past young people especially found themselves bowled over by aesthetic experience that altered their lives – occurs with ever greater infrequency.  The fewer the number of people who already know of something nourishingly beautiful, the fewer docents there are to discover those things to others.  Beauty often occasions an analog of conversion.  Beauty suggests transcendence.  The modern world, however, takes a stance of rigorous opposition to transcendence, which it categorizes among the falsehoods that have, in their pestiferous way, survived the cleansing power of rationality to confuse and delude those who might otherwise devote their services to the enlightened order.  The modern world hates the beautiful, which is why it has made a cult of ugliness.  Ugliness never gets in the way of utility, but beauty does.  Beauty distracts the attention from the petty concerns of a totally immanent world.  Beauty fosters non-conformity.  It nourishes the soul, which, like transcendence, is not supposed to exist.  The present essay addresses one particular, musical source of beauty knowledge of which the author wishes to disseminate among as many others as possible.  The present essay also explores the important philosophical question whether the non-verbal arts can carry a semantic content – that is whether plastic and music can generate meaning.  The artist under discussion in the following paragraphs is one dear to the author of those paragraphs.  His encounter many decades ago with that artist’s work constituted, and powerfully so, a conversion to beauty.  The author wishes to repay his debt. The first order of business is to answer a question.

I. What is a Tone Poem? The genre of the symphonic poem or tone poem traces its origin to the free-standing concert overtures of Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Hector Berlioz, but also to the picturesque sequences in the actual symphonies of the same composers. Beethoven’s characteristic overtures, such as the three Leonore Overtures for the opera Fidelio (1805) and his Coriolan (1804) and Egmont (1810) Overtures, undertake to represent by purely musical means the essential personal qualities or virtues of a dramatic or literary character. Beethoven obviously assumes the possibility of such an endeavor although musicological spoilsports, especially in the Twentieth Century, have asserted the opposite.  They argue that music can express nothing but itself and that it can convey no semantic content in the way that verbal expression conveys such content.  According to this assertion, the auditor who buys into the assumption and believes that he has indeed apprehended the musical representation of a character, or anything else, has in fact deluded himself.  Igor Stravinsky argued as much in his stern-faced Poetics of Music (1942), originally delivered as a series of lectures at Harvard.  Roger Scruton upholds the thesis in his massive, intimidating Aesthetics of Music (1997), a type of musicological Critique of Pure Reason.  The program, both men argue, remains extrinsic to the work, and might even get in the way of the listener’s proper apprehension of the work.  One doubts, however, that Beethoven or Mendelssohn or Schumann or Berlioz suffered from delusion.  The confidence of their assumption that music might articulate something other than itself, along with itself invites respect.  One could counter Stravinsky and Scruton with the proposition that if hearing characters, stories, and landscapes in music were a delusion, the delusion would have long since so deeply ensconced itself in the composer’s intention and the audience’s expectation that it might as well be real.

Not only personality and character, but also landscape and event constitute the subject-matter, so to speak, of the Beethoven type of concert overture and of the Early-Romantic picturesque in music.  Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (1832) offers a case in point, as does the slow movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (1830), the former with its conjuration of emotions associated with a vision of the Western Isles and the North Atlantic and the latter with its onomatopoeias of two distantly heard shepherd’s pipes answering one another and the approach and recession of a thunderstorm – all in the countryside.  The Swedish composer Franz Berwald offered his overtures Elfenspiel  (1841) and Erinnerungen an den Norwegischen Alpen (1842), the one purporting to give a glimpse into the mischief of the gnomes and leprechauns and the other to articulate the memory, no doubt tinged with the proper awe, of the Norwegian mountains.  Skeptics like Stravinsky and Scruton aside, the plausibility of a musical semantics has never lacked in philosophical advocacy.  Oswald Spengler, who regarded music as the highest expression of the Western spiritual and artistic impulse, broaches the topic in his Decline of the West, Volume I (1919).  In his chapter on “Music and Plastic – The Arts of Form,” Spengler writes that “the formative impulse that is at work in the wordless arts can never be understood until we come to regard the distinction between the optical and acoustic means as only a superficial one.”  According to Spengler, “A ‘singing’ picture of Claude Lorrain or of Watteau does not really address itself to the bodily eye any more than the space-straining music since Bach addresses itself to the bodily ear.”

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The Visionary Music of Sir Arnold Trevor Bax

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Sir Arnold Trevor Bax in His Fifties

The name of Sir Arnold Trevor Bax (1883 – 1953) hardly qualifies as a household reference even among people with serious musical interests.  Yet Bax claimed a significant following in his day and in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, after a long period of diminished currency, his large tranche of compositions finds near-complete representation in the catalogue of recordings.  What would have seemed impossible in 1970, that three complete recorded traversals of Bax’s seven numbered symphonies would one day compete with or complement one another and that these would vie with two partial traversals and numerous one-off items, is today a fact.  Indeed, a recording now exists of Bax’s early, unnumbered and discarded symphony, written as a graduation exercise when he attended the Royal Academy of Music as a piano and composition student.  The twin phenomena of Bax’s virtual disappearance from musical consciousness in Europe and North America and of his subsequent reappearance are themselves of interest, since they offer a glimpse into the relation of art and ideology in the Late Modern Period.  In this way, Bax remains anomalous.  Other English composers – although it might be more accurate to call Bax a British composer – suffered abasements of their reputations in the aftermath of World War Two, not least Sir Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams, but none suffered from such a full eclipse as Bax.  It was the usual pattern of modern arrogance. The postwar musical establishment in Britain, while embracing the supposedly inevitable trend of abolishing beauty in art, simultaneously directed sustained contumely against the musical tradition and its practitioners.  Elgar became the icon, quite unfairly, of a now-despised Edwardian imperialism.  Snarky critics referred to the English pastoral style of Vaughan Williams as “cow-pat music.”  Despite this, Elgar’s music and Vaughan Williams’ continued to be performed and recorded.  They always had advocates.  With his death, Bax vanished.

I. In The Brandy of the Damned (1963), Colin Wilson, in assessing English music, wrote of Bax that, “When one turns from Vaughan Williams to Sir Arnold Bax one confronts another of those problems whose answer may be obvious to future ages, but that seems unanswerable today: Why one should be held in high regard and be so well represented on record, while the other is ignored.” Wilson characterized as “the composer of seven symphonies that are in many ways as remarkable as those of Sibelius” and “of a large number of fine piano works.” Wilson recognized Bax as an exponent of Romanticism although not of the blatant Romanticism of, say, Tchaikovsky; rather Bax’s aesthetic appealed to Wilson as “delicate, subtle, [and] intelligent.”  In seeking an answer to his own question, Wilson observed that “although [Bax’s music] is romantic music, it has none of the easily remembered melodies of Sibelius or Tchaikovsky”; and “this means that Bax does not make an immediate appeal to the kind of unsophisticated listener who knows each composer by his best-known melody.”  Wilson argues that the subtlety of Bax’s scores might explain why they go unheard in the concert hall, but not why they are (or were at the time) so thinly available in recorded performance.  In the early 1960s, Wilson was one of the few writers of musical sensibility even to take heed of Bax.  He deserves credit for that despite his characterizations being a bit off the mark.  Everyone can hum the tune from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, but who can hum the opening subject of Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony, as striking as it is?  Bax does have a relation to Sibelius, not least in being more concerned with musical, especially symphonic, processes than with melody, as such.  Nevertheless, pace Wilson, Bax wrote numerous memorable melodies.

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The Degenerate Bottom Revisited

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“Forever Marilyn” (2011) by John Seward (born 1930) in Palm Springs

Kristor’s recent essay, “The Arms Race to the Degenerate Bottom,” reminded its readers of the downward or subscendent trend of aesthetics under the by now longstanding regime of liberal modernity.  Recently also JM Smith made reference in one of his Orthosphere entries to Billy Wilder’s film The Seven-Year Itch (1955), starring among others Marilyn Monroe. Miss Monroe is my topic. In a state of heightened awareness after reading Kristor and JM (if “heightened” were the word, which it is likely not), I was quick to notice that the cultural mudslide in whose beginnings Miss Monroe participated — in various ways — is still prone to feature her prominently, as though honoring its own inception (if “inception” were the word, which it is likely not).

John Seward Johnson II, a.k.a. John Seward (born 1930), is a sculptor apparently well-known to the art-world, but hitherto unknown to me. Johnson created his twenty-six-foot tall bronze statue of Monroe in 2011, basing it on the skirt-lifting scene from Wilder’s film, where Monroe stands over a grate in the sidewalk. The statue, which resembles Seward’s other work, all of which looks like it was intended for audioanimatronic display at one of the Disney parks, originally stood in Palm Springs, but has recently gone on tour to Stamford, Connecticut, where it is spending the summer.

The sculpture’s painted garishness no doubt accords itself with the prim sleaziness of Palm Springs, which I would describe as Las Vegas without the casinos but with at least as many cocktail waitresses, pole-dancers, and call-girls. When one thinks of primly sleazy places, however, one hardly thinks of Stamford.

The photograph below shows “Forever Marilyn” from a frontal perspective. —

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“Forever Marilyn” in Stamford (Angle 1)

The photograph that I have placed below the “continue reading” toggle again shows “Forever Marilyn” frontally but from a different and revealing angle. —

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