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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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.”

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Quantum Physics and Reality: a preemptive response

(For someone who is offering to prove that quantum physics is spiritual.)


In a world where the objective is subjective and the subjective is objective quantum physics has precious little to do with reality. Plato was correct when he described physical reality as the shadows on the back wall of a cave – not even a copy of primary reality, but a copy of a copy.

The idea that quantum physics could describe or point to spiritual reality is a claim of the grossest positivism. Positivism, the notion that all that is true is captured by the methods of science, is the product of a rationalistic delusion. It has proven itself completely unable to describe human existence in any satisfactory manner. Continue reading

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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H. G. Wells as Religious Thinker

Wells 03

The Public Intellectual

Those who might nowadays think of Herbert George Wells (1866 – 1946) – they run to fewer and fewer with the passing years – will rarely, or perhaps never, have thought of him in terms of his religion.  They would most probably assume on glancing acquaintance with him that of religion he had none.  Wells’ contemporary popular image, insofar as he retains one, invites people to admire him for his advocacy of science – in a manner, as it seems, strictly and materialistically defined; for his impatience with established institutions, and for his dedication to building a global utopian society on a basis of technocratic socialism far beyond the petty and doctrinal socialism of the Twentieth Century.  Those acquainted haphazardly with Wells’ biography might also possess vague awareness of his irritable late-in-life anti-Catholicism.  During World War II, for example, in a vitriolic pamphlet entitled Crux Ansata (1944), Wells urged the Allies to send an air fleet that would flatten the Eternal City and, by good luck, send Pope Pius XII and the Curia in an ignominious fugue to the afterlife.  As Wells saw it, the Roman Church had entwined itself so thoroughly and guiltily with Mussolini’s corporatist Italy, as a type of “Shinto Catholicism,” that its city-state and administrative capitol qualified as a prime target for high-explosive bombs along with the rest of the Eternal City.  In a newspaper interview in March, 1944, Wells referred to “this dying, corrupting octopus of the Roman Catholic Church.”  Rhetorical sallies like those, rising to the baroque in their extravagance, and others like them that had emerged spasmodically during Wells’ authorship, have no doubt contributed to the picture of Wells as bigoted and invidious in his regard of religion.  The picture generalizes too much, however, and for that reason guarantees its own falsehood.  Even the cranky Crux Ansata contains many mitigating passages, especially concerning the early Church, with the spirit of which Wells identified strongly.

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A Winter’s Reading (Selections)


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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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)


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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Rosalind Murray on Barbarization

Murray 02

Rosalind Murray: A Portrait

Rosalind Murray (1890 – 1967) was the daughter of the Oxford classicist Gilbert Murray, who sensing early his daughter’s talent encouraged her to write.  She published a first novel, The Leading Note, in 1910.  In 1913 Murray became the wife of Arnold Toynbee, bearing him three sons.  She divorced Toynbee in 1946, thirteen years after her conversion to Catholicism.  No one today knows Murray’s name but in her lifetime she wrote steadily, sustained an audience, and garnered the attention of literary critics.  In her later career she sidelined herself as a fiction-writer and devoted her productivity to religious non-fiction.  She produced the first fruit of this authorial metamorphosis in 1939 under the heavily laden title The Good Pagan’s Failure.  No doubt but that the coinage of “the Good Pagan” implies close personal relations, touching on both her father and her husband, but the book never mentions either.  In it, rather, the formula denotes generically the modern, upper-class humanist whose sincere good intentions center on building up a global regime of justice and equality, but who, at the same time, rejects any concept of God and assumes a stance, sometimes dissimulated, that is hostile to religion.  Such people appear as early as the Eighteenth Century.  They refer to their advent as Enlightenment, which materializes in 1793 as the iconic Guillotine.  Their heirs in later centuries have adopted, variously, such labels as Liberal, Progressive, Socialist, or Communist.  Their failure consists in the irony that acquiring total control over the institutions and using them to carry out their policies they have by no means improved the human situation.  They have largely torn down civilization and immiserated millions.  When The Good Pagan’s Failure first appeared, Murray could point to the Great War as evidence for her thesis; revising the text in the early 1960s, she could point to another global conflict, the subsequent and dire Cold War, and many signs of degeneration in Western society.

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