Of Which We May Speak: Meditations on Irony

Things I Hate

The intelligentsia professes to admire irony.  In the 1990s the members of that class watched Seinfeld in first-run and they subsequently bought the program on DVD because they took it for ironic.  In the 2010s they watched Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm for the identical reason.  Intellectuals usually identify themselves as ironists, of a rarer variety even than the redoubtable television comedian, whether it is Seinfeld or David, on the supposition that they stand askew to the prevailing social consensus, such that their perspective yields them an insight into matters opaque to hoi polloi.  “I have baffled them,” the late Joseph N. Riddell, an English professor, once said within earshot of his graduate students while emerging from the Haines Hall lecture auditorium at UCLA.  He had been deconstructing Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe in a lecture that quoted Jacques Derrida and other then-obligatory Frenchmen rather more than it quoted Emerson or Poe.  The remark partook more in the self-congratulatory than in the ironic, but it was symptomatic of a certain enduring intellectual conceit in which the sense of a privilege of irony, or a satisfaction in superiority, also takes root.  The modern or postmodern intellectual pretends to hover above the settled and the established, to gaze down upon the “culturescape,” as though from a height.  Even while he declares himself “against Platonism” and works “to subvert metaphysics,” he cannot help but to take, likely without grasping the contradiction, a transcendentally guaranteed view of life, the world, and everything.  Naturally he will deny participating in a transcendent domain, the idea of which he will mock, borrowing from Friedrich Nietzsche’s redoubtable treasure-trove of anti-Christian sophisms, but probably without knowing it.

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Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition

William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 - 1905) Homer & His Guide (1874)

William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 – 1905): Homer & His Guide (1874)

[A Short Preface: I first delivered the following essay as a keynote address on the occasion of the fourth annual conference of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, in New York City, in the fall of 1999.  It subsequently appeared in a number of Modern Age, the ISI quarterly.  Some of the references are, in 2020, a bit dated, but nothing has changed essentially since the end of the last century – except that what was bad then has only gotten worse.  I have rewritten the essay a bit, but have made no attempt to update the references in sections III and IV.]

This essay attempts to set out the basic or better yet the deep justification of the traditional curriculum.  That phrase, “the traditional curriculum” means, of course, the Greek and Roman classics, the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and select items from modern and national literatures.  The list in Harold Bloom’s study of The Western Canon (1997) is perfectly acceptable.  “The traditional curriculum,” it must be added, also implies the basic training in literacy that comes before any acquaintance with the classics, or with a literature of any kind.  It is worth remembering that alphabetic literacy, the precondition of literacy in the larger sense, constitutes a recent development in the half a million years or so of incontestable human presence.  The literary tradition is the cumulus of a particular type of intellectual activity that first became possible less than three thousand years ago in Syria and the Levant and, a bit later and rather more pronouncedly, in the Greek cities from Ionia to Magna Graecia.  Just how much this activity differed from anything else that human beings had ever done these paragraphs shall attempt to indicate.  That the alphabet itself might be, in its way, the first great work of literature in the Western Tradition is not a thought that most people are used to thinking.  Yet there could well be a pay-off in contemplating the ABCs in just that light.  Like poems and dramas and novels, the alphabet imposes a wholly artificial order on an element, speech, of human experience and therefore puts that element in a new and unprecedented perspective.  The confrontation with poems and dramas and novels is a continuation of the confrontation with what the letters and their combinations reveal about the distinguishing human trait, language.  One begins, then, at the beginning.

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The Epidemiological Case for National Borders, Autarky, & Xenophobia

Res ipsa loquitur, no?

While we’re at it, there is a strong epidemiological case for sexual modesty and chastity, for parochialism, for patriotism, and for cultural conservatism in respect to morals and customs. What is more, the humanely small scale of Schumacher and Christopher Alexander, Moldbug’s Patchwork or localism or Catholic subsidiarity, and the traditionalism of William Morris, of Chesterton, of Carlyle, and of de Maistre and Bonald all make great epidemiological sense. Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, Tolstoy, the Wrath of GNON, and of course we here at the Orthosphere; all echo the same notion:

Stay small, stay local, stay close to home, stay close to nature, and within the span of your own hands. Small steps, not great revolutionary saltations.

Three Late-Antique Narratives (Part II)

petronious-satyrikon-pompei

Fresco from Pompeii (Late First century)

III. The centuries of Late Antiquity were those, as Gilbert Murray notes, of “a failure of nerve,” which is indeed the title of one of his chapters.  The original Greek Enlightenment of the Classical period, summed up in a literature that reaches from Homer to the philosophers, was supremely confident in its power of knowledge and in its understanding of the natural, the supernatural, and the human worlds.  Wars for empire sapped the will of the Classical world, however; while relentless sophistic criticism undermined trust in inherited concepts, with superstitions from the East filling the conceptual vacuum thus created.  For Murray, the “Mystery Cults” and related movements of Late Antiquity epitomize the phenomenon.  They represent for Murray a retreat from rational religion in a widespread “loss of self-confidence, of hope in this life and of normal human effort,” as well as in “despair of patient inquiry,” all accompanied by “an intensifying of certain spiritual emotions.”  In the second of its two aspects in Satyricon, the Priapus cult functions as a salvation cult, offering to the convert an exit from the unpleasant brothel-labyrinth or Cyclops-cave of a degraded social scene.  What of Lucius Apuleius?  In addition to his talent as a storyteller, Apuleius lectured on Plato’s philosophy and worked as a civil adjudicator in his North African hometown of Madaura.  Apuleius also held sacerdotal office in one of the most prominent of the Second Century mysteries, those associated with the cult of the syncretic goddess Isis, whom worshippers identified with Aphrodite, Demeter, Artemis, Hera, and every other motherly deity.

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Three Late-Antique Narratives (Part I)

Couture, Thomas (1815 - 1879) Romans & Their Decadence (1847)

Thomas Couture (1815 – 1879): Roman Decadence (1847)

Those who are determined to resist the moral and civic corruption of their age – those who refuse to participate in the flouting of decorum and the degradation of bodies – must also resist the sophistic apology that seeks to excuse the very same moral and civic corruption.  This apology typically articulates itself as a form of dogmatic Determinism.  The apologist denies freedom of will so as to exculpate moral lapses generally, or perhaps those of the enunciator himself specifically. Determinism seeks to redefine moral consequences as non-causal outcomes that have somehow happened to people, as it were, at random.  The astute will discern such attempts at spurious exoneration in the oft-heard counseling claim that obnoxious behaviors like dipsomania or drug addiction stem from the dumb proclivity of the organism rather than from witting declensions of a particular character; and in the sociological tenet that crime emerges as a “consequence” of “poverty” or of “oppressive social structures.”  Thus a well-known movie actor blames his philandering on his “sex-addiction,” as though his proclivity to fornicate with as many women as possible impinged on him from outside himself so that no personal agency could be discerned in his transgressions.  Thus a school board rejects a sex-education curriculum based on the concept of chastity with the argument that abstinence defies nature and is for that reason fabulously unrealistic. Forty years ago first lady Nancy Reagan withstood a torrent of public abuse for her suggestion that schools should teach children simply “to say no” to temptations.  Mrs. Reagan’s critics did not say what else people are supposed to do to avoid temptation; they were merely certain that the will is powerless and they were outraged at the idea that self-control might be entered as an item in the school curriculum.

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A Winter’s Reading (Selections)

Ong

Walter J. Ong, Jr., Orality and Literacy (1982):  Freshman composition students – whose deficient prose has come in for praise during their progress from Kindergarten to high school by teachers who also write poorly and have no real grasp of grammar or syntax – believe firmly that writing differs not at all from speaking.  They therefore “write” only what they would say, were they jawing with their dorm-buddies over some topical topic.  (If, that is, they did jaw, but mainly they do not.) Ong’s Orality and Literacy explores the stark contrast between oral language and written language; or rather, between the thinking of those who live in what he calls primary oral cultures and those who live fully in the stream of literate, either chirographic or typographic, culture.  Ong’s chapter on “Some Psychodynamics of Orality” lists the characteristics of a primary oral culture.  In an early paragraph Ong remarks that “fully literate persons can only with great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like, that is, a culture with no knowledge whatsoever of writing or even of the possibility of writing.”  For one thing – an oral culture is also an aural culture.  Speech is sound; it vanishes into silence in the same moment as it pronounces itself.  Speech is time-bound.  To attend to speech means to attend to persons, either orators or interlocutors; and both oratory and interlocution correspond to a performance.  Oral cultures and literate cultures in fact share a need, namely to preserve the wisdom necessary for group survival, but in an oral culture this takes the form of proverbs and sayings, which are anything but discursive and strike literates as quaint and hackneyed.  “In an oral culture,” as Ong writes, “experience is intellectualized mnemonically.”  The young come under the obligation continuously to repeat the legal and customary formulas.  Oral cultures will appear to literates as restrictive and redundant in their iteration, narrow in range, and sententious, traits that arise from an intrinsic limitation.

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Tradition or Meaninglessness?

One of the main functions of tradition is to pass down to successive generations a comprehension of the meanings of the customary and traditional praxes and language. If the Tradition fails at that, then the praxes become meaningless and stupid, and are soon discarded as extraneities worthily subject to Ockham’s Razor: to the first principle of order, which is deletion. That’s when you get iconoclasm, whether intentional or not.

Intentional iconoclasm knows the meanings of the icons it destroys. Unintentional iconoclasm does not. The former is effected by destruction; the latter by desuetude.

Once the meanings of the cultural praxes are gone, the praxes themselves soon follow; for, there is then no longer any reason for them, that anyone knows or remembers. And that’s when the culture decoheres.

Stuart Holroyd, Gnosticism, & the Occult Wave (Part II)

Holroyd Elements

First and Only Edition of The Elements of Gnosticism

III. Holroyd’s case for Gnosticism remains nevertheless a measured one.  Unlike Pagels, Holroyd’s attitude is not, against Orthodoxy, an angry one.  In Elements, Chapter 1, in setting forth the common propositions of the numerous Gnostic systems, Holroyd remarks that “the idea that the world was the work of an incompetent or malevolent deity” figures among them.  He adds that, “stated thus baldly, it seems a merely perverse idea, or an attempt to exonerate human iniquity by putting the blame on God.”  He immediately tries to downplay the perversity by explaining that the Gnostic systems posit two deities: The inferior Demiurge who, envying the creative potency of the superior deity, authors the botched world; and that selfsame superior deity, sometimes referred to as the Father.  Holroyd notes that the “transcendent God does not, and never did, act, in the sense of willing something and bringing it about.”  Rather than create, as does the God of Genesis, the Father emanates the lower levels of the metacosmic hierarchy in which he dwells, whatever that means.  Thus, to think like the Gnostics, “we have to substitute the idea of divine emanation, or ‘bringing forth,’ for the idea of divine action.”  In Gnostic rhetoric, the Demiurge is the “abortion” of Sophia or Wisdom.  When the Demiurge came forth from Sophia, then, in Holroyd’s words, “he imagined himself to be the absolute God.”  Holroyd makes a good job of conveying to his readership the baroque complexity of the Gnostic myth, with its many levels of divine and demonic beings and its multi-stage causality that brings about the world as men know it.

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Stuart Holroyd, Gnosticism, & the Occult Wave (Part I)

Holroyd

Stuart Holroyd (born 1933)

The name of Stuart Holroyd (born 1933) is associated – if rather erroneously – with that British literary insurrection of the late 1950s, the “Angry Young Men.”  In fact, Holroyd and his two close associates, Colin Wilson and Bill Hopkins, differed strongly from the “Angries,” among whom the representative figures were John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, Harold Pinter, and Kenneth Tynan.  The “Angries” emphasized their politics, leaning strongly to the left; they assumed an ostentatiously materialistic viewpoint, wrote in self-righteous condemnation of the existing society, put ugliness on display, and tended towards an egocentric species of pessimism or nihilism.  Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which enjoyed theatrical success in London in 1956, typifies the outlook of the “Angries”: It presents an English version of Jean-Paul Sartre’s bleak Existentialism, set in a universe devoid of meaning where, in Sartre’s phrase, “Hell is other people.”  Holroyd and Wilson, and to a certain extent Hopkins, could not content themselves with the restricted mental horizon of the “Angries.”  Nor did they wish to waste energy “condemning society.”  Holroyd and Wilson especially responded to a shared mystical impulse that saw in human nature possibilities of transcendence.  Wilson remains better known than Holroyd, but their early careers ran on parallel tracks.  Wilson published his first book, The Outsider, in 1956.  It became an unexpected best-seller.  Holroyd published his first book in the same year although it appeared in print after The Outsider had come out.  Emergence from Chaos exceeds The Outsider in a number of ways – it is better organized, its prose more finished, and its arguments more coherent.  Both books recount indirectly a type of metanoia springing from the inveterate reading, since adolescence, of serious books, in Holroyd’s case with a focus on poetry and philosophy, Wilson’s Outsider being oriented more to the novel.

I. Emergence from Chaos proposes the overarching thesis that religious or spiritual experience drives human development, both for the species, historically speaking, and for the specimen individual at any given moment on the historical continuum. Holroyd, as expected, defines religious experience broadly; he will not confine himself, say, to the standard tale of Christian conversion although he by no means excludes it. Holroyd focuses on effects.  Mystic ecstasy comes in many varieties, which “have different causes,” as Holroyd writes in Chapter One, “and are expressed in different terms”; but “they always lead to the same metaphysical conclusions.”  The subject espouses the new conviction that “there is a higher reality than the obvious, tangible, worldly reality, and man is most nearly himself, lives most intently, when he seeks to embody or to exist upon this higher level.”  Spiritual experience “thus leads to a severe shaking of the foundations upon which the lives of most of us are built.”  The initiate often interprets his access to the vision as both a rebirth and a type of humblement.  He tells of what has befallen him, but he makes no egocentric claim about it.  He now sees the ego in its proper place in the divine-cosmic hierarchy.  In Chapter Three, Holroyd discusses the conjunction of “Religion and Art.”  Holroyd makes the point that, “Art is not religious because it concerns itself with obviously religious subjects, but rather because the artist’s attitude to life is a religious one.”  Holroyd cites the still-life canvasses of Paul Cézanne where the intensity of the painter’s vision functions as the mark of his exalted spiritual state.

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Erich Neumann on Matriarchy, Patriarchy, & Cultural Dissolution

(c) Watts Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

George Frederic Watts (1817 – 1904): Crius & the Titans (1874)

Erich Neumann (1905 – 1960), although self-consciously Jewish and distinctly Zionist in attitude, allied himself intellectually with the Swiss-German innovator of “Analytic Psychology,” Carl Jung, whose peculiar religiosity (Ich glaube nicht das es Gott gibt, ich weiss es) veered toward Gnosticism, but nevertheless kept something like a Protestant Christian orientation.  Neumann broke with the crudely sexual and absurdly reductive psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud and embraced a version of Jung’s polymythic and symbolic approach to the understanding of consciousness, an approach that Neumann developed in some respects beyond Jung.  The cliché that “ontogeny repeats phylogeny” circulates widely – and no doubt conforms subtly to truth.  Jung or Neumann, but Neumann more than Jung, redeems the cliché by modifying it.  In Neumann’s view, ontogeny strongly implies phylogeny, such that the speculator might reconstruct the latter on the basis of the former.  The development of consciousness in the individual from childhood to adulthood would reveal in outline the development of consciousness overall going back to its origin.  The speculation might then be validated by comparing the phases of individuation, on the personal level, with the symbolic record of human development expressing itself in the archaeological layers of myth.  “Just as unconscious contents like dreams and fantasies tell us something about the psychic situation of the dreamer,” Neumann writes in the introduction to Part II of his Origins and History of Consciousness (1949 – R.C.F. Hull’s translation), “so myths throw light on the human stage from which they originate and typify man’s unconscious situation at that stage.”  In his exposition Neumann reverses the order, dealing first with the sequence of mythic imagery and only then with its analogy to individuation.

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