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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The Arms Race to the Degenerate Bottom

The race to the degenerate bottom is not steady. On the contrary, it always accelerates; for, it is an arms race.

You can see this with any medium that depends for its survival on the attention of many minds: advertising, entertainment, journalism. All outlets of such media compete with each other for attention. The one that is the most extraordinary wins the competition. So the competition is to discover which outlet is the most abnormal, thus attractive of notice. Whatever was the most abnormal during the last round must be surpassed in the current round in order to gain notice: the most abnormal recent instance resets the bound of normality.

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Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition

 

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Late Sixth-Century Boeotian Black-Glaze Kantharos with Inscription

Beginning in the mid-1990s and for about ten years I published a number of articles about the dismal state of the humanities and one of its causes: The savage war against literacy being waged in the public schools by the state-university departments of education that set curricula for K-12. My Modern Age article from 2003, “Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition,” synthesizes several of my argumentative strands at the time and suggests the dire state of American literacy already nearly twenty years ago. (Click on the emboldened link to go to a PDF of the article, which may be read online or downloaded.) Things have not improved and they are getting worse all the time.

I find myself prompted to call attention to “Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition” by the appearance at The American Thinker recently of an article by Bruce Dietrick Price under the title “K-12: History of a Conspiracy against Reading,” which I strongly recommend. (Again, click on the emboldened link to go to the article.)

The decline into a post-literate condition, in which there is no intact oral tradition to which the deprived parties might repair, belongs to the general subscendence of our age.

I believe that “Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition” does a fairly good job of summarizing the findings of three important scholars of literacy: Walter J. Ong, whose Orality and Literacy (1981) is indispensable; Eric Havelock, who wrote on the early phases of alphabetic literacy in Greece (see his Preface to Plato, 1963); and Barry Powell, whose Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet (1991), is bold and monumental.

The Kali Yuga: René Guénon’s Traditionalist Critique of Quantitative Modernity

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Rene Guenon (1886 – 1951)

The modern anti-modern critique of modernity is by no means a recent phenomenon; it begins rather with the responders to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his Jacobin followers in the late Eighteenth Century.  It is sufficient in this regard to mention the names of Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) and Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821) and of their successors, S. T. Coleridge (1772 – 1834) and François-René de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848), to suggest the range and richness of immediately post-revolutionary conservative-reactionary discourse.  In the Twentieth Century, José Ortega y Gassett (1883 – 1955), Oswald Spengler (1886 – 1936), and T. S. Eliot (1888 – 1965), among others, continued in the line established by French réactionisme.  In Ortega’s case and in Spengler’s this continuation entailed incorporating the iconoclastic skepticism of Friedrich Nietzsche into the discourse, with numerous qualifications.  In Eliot’s case, it meant rejecting Nietzsche’s atheism and taking up from Chateaubriand and Coleridge the apology for Christian revelation and for a theological, as opposed to a secular, view of existence.  René Guénon (1886 – 1951) belongs by his dates with the generation of Ortega, Spengler, and Eliot; like Eliot, Guénon is a theist, but despite his favorable treatment of Catholicism he is less identifiable as a Christian than Eliot.  Guénon, who late in life converted to a Sufi-like sect of Islam, sees Catholicism as the vessel of Tradition in the West, but elsewhere Tradition has other forms that are valid in their own contexts.  Spengler’s Decline of the West undoubtedly made an impression on Guénon, much as it did on Guenon’s younger contemporary Julius Evola (1898 – 1974).  Guénon and Evola knew one another and mutually influenced one other.  Both Guénon and Evola together exemplify a branch of modern critical anti-modernism affiliated much more than casually with the Twentieth Century occult revival.

Guénon at one time, in the 1920s, edited the chief French-language occult periodical, La Gnose or “Gnosis.” Yet Guénon, a fierce un-masker of religious mountebanks, can hardly be accused of employing mystic obscurantism to push a doctrinaire agenda.  Guénon’s interest in occult topics, even more than Evola’s, strikes one as rigorous and objective.  As for Guénon’s awareness of ideological deformations of reality, it ran to the acute.  The driving force of deformation, in Guénon’s analysis as in Evola’s, is the stultifying massiveness of modern society, with its conformism on an unprecedented scale, and its receptivity to oratorical manipulation.

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Against Nihilism: Julius Evola’s “Traditionalist” Critique of Modernity

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Julius Evola (1898 – 1974)

With the likes of Oswald Spengler whose Decline he translated for an Italian readership, and Jose Ortega y Gasset, Julius Evola (1898 – 1974) stands as one of the notably incisive mid-Twentieth Century critics of modernity.  Like Spengler and Ortega, Evola understood himself to owe a formative debt to Friedrich Nietzsche, but more forcefully than Spengler or Ortega, Evola saw the limitations – the contradictions and inconsistencies – in Nietzsche’s thinking.  Evola differed from Spengler and Ortega in another way: like certain other Men of the Right during the same decades, he involved himself deeply in matters mystical and occult, creating a reputation during the last part of his life as an expert in such topics as Eastern religiosity, alchemy, and the vast range of esoteric doctrines.  Hermann Keyserling comes to mind also, as having directed his interest to these matters.  Nevertheless, Keyserling, who knew Evola’s work, avoided Evola, rather as Spengler had shied from Keyserling.  It would have been in part because Evola’s occult investment struck Keyserling as more blatant and far-reaching than his own and in part because Evola appeared, in the early 1930s, to be sympathetic to Fascism and National Socialism, whereas Keyserling, like Spengler, saw these unequivocally as signs of the spreading decadence of his time and so criticized them from their beginnings.  While Evola’s transient proclivities justified Keyserling’s misgivings, swift mounting mutual distaste put actual distance between Evola and the dictatorships.  Had he known, Keyserling might have warmed to Evola.  By the time war broke out, the self-styled Baron had explicitly repudiated dictatorial principles.  Evola, who had his own theory of race, expressed particular revulsion towards Nazi race-policy and Mussolini’s aping of it in Italy after 1938.

Evola nevertheless makes difficulties for those of conservative temperament who would appreciate his critique of modernity.  He could be dismissive of Christianity, at least in its modern form, as a social religion; and like his counterparts on the Left, he despised the bourgeoisie and its values, so much so that at least one of his biographers has compared him, by no means implausibly, to Frankfurt-School types like Herbert Marcuse and Theodor W. Adorno.  Yet Evola’s all-around prickliness belongs to his allure.  Thus in a 1929 article, “Bolchevismo ed Americanismo,” Evola condemns with equal fervor Muscovite communism and American money-democracy, as representing, the both of them, the mechanization and dehumanization of life.  Unlike the Marxists – and unlike the Fascists and National Socialists – Evola saw the only hope for Western Civilization as lying in a revival of what he liked to capitalize, on the one hand, as Tradition and, on the other, as Transcendence; he thus rejected all materialism and instrumentalism as crude reductions of reality for coarse minds and, so too, as symptoms of a prevailing and altogether repugnant decadence.

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Victimary Rhetoric and the Politics of Decolonization in V. S. Naipaul’s Mimic Men (1967)

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The Mimic Men — A Room with a View

Novelists often make subtler political scientists than do the political scientists themselves, perhaps because a competent novelist nourishes himself on his observation of human actuality whereas the political scientist is typically the subscriber to some party-orthodoxy or the proponent of someone’s special-interest agenda.  The names of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Joseph Conrad come to mind, as men of keen political perception.  Dostoevsky’s Devils (1872) and Conrad’s Nostromo (1904) retain their value as brilliant forecast-analyses of Twentieth Century political radicalism and its destructive application in revolutionary activity.  Both men had an uncanny sense of what lay ahead.  In a sense, their prophetic power exceeds, say, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s or George Orwell’s, as both of those men had the benefit of looking back on what had already happened.  Competent novelists are necessarily also anthropologists, interested supremely in reporting human facts as they see them and in making their way to essential structures of human nature, communal existence, and the cultural tradition.  The tenured political-science professors strive mightily to avoid those cases where facts contradict doctrine, while the genuine novelists relish both the paradox of human nature and the tragicomic accent of the historical chronicle.  A novelist after all can only be true to himself by exercising a rigorous objectivity.

I. Such a percipient connoisseur of structural irony and the law of opposite results is the native Trinidadian, of Indian ancestry, and longtime naturalized Briton, V. S. Naipaul (born 1932; knighted 1990), whose Nobel Prize (2001) came at the last possible moment, after which, the Prize Committee’s politicization being complete, no dissenter from the reigning orthodoxy – about race, the market, the West, or modernity – would receive its honor. Naipaul had diagnosed the spiritual paralysis of the West in that morbidity’s emergent phase; he foresaw, in fact, in the chaos of decolonization in the 1960s, much of what afflicts western society at large forty years later. The title of The Mimic Men (1967), a key entry in Naipaul’s development of his novelistic oeuvre, suggests how important mimesis, or imitativeness, is to the author’s view of humanity. Few people, as Naipaul sees it, manage to escape the trap of letting others define their identity; rather, most people meekly assimilate to a few ready made stereotypes, the range of which diminishes in the age of mass communication and the “consumer lifestyle.”  Modern people moreover tend swiftly to assume the indignation of the resentful; they tend just as swiftly to imitate the posturing of self-described victims.  The Mimic Men’s narrator, Ranjit “Ralph” Kripalsingh, usually just “Singh,” who stems from the Hindu Diaspora in the British West Indies, uses the bland term “placidity” to describe how he has often yielded to base impulses contrary to his conscience.

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Jack Vance’s Wyst: Alastor 1716 (A Socialist Dystopia)

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Current Spatterlight Edition of Wyst

Towards the end of a long life, the American genre writer – and merchant seaman, jazz-man, and master of many trades – Jack Vance (1916 – 2013) produced an amusing autobiography entitled This is Me, Jack Vance! (2009); the book also carried a parenthetical and apologetic subtitle, Or, More Properly, This is I.  In the subtitle Vance takes a jocund swipe at grammatical pedantry, and therefore at pedantry and Puritanism generally speaking, but he also affirms his passion for order, of which grammar is the linguistic species, without which (order, that is) freedom and justice, both of which he held as dear as anything, would be impossible.  There are a number of scholarly anthologies devoted to Vance’s authorship and at least one book-length single-author study of his fiction, Jack Rawlins’ Dissonant Worlds of Jack Vance (1986).  It is a pity, however, that no intellectual biography of Vance exists.  This is Me gives the essential details of its writer’s curriculum vitae, but it is largely bereft of information concerning Vance’s artistic-philosophical formation.  So is Rawlins’ study although it remains otherwise useful.  If only, like Henry Miller, Vance had written his version of The Books in my Life!  Concerning Vance’s artistic-philosophical formation, however, one might plausibly infer and arguably surmise a few probabilities.  A writer is liable to be a reader, a prolific writer a prolific reader.  A merchant seaman, as Vance remarks in his autobiography, finds himself with a good deal of time on his hands.  Vance, who had briefly studied English at the University of California Berkeley, spent long stretches at sea during the Second World War, with a good deal of time on his hands.  Two plausible guesses in respect of books that would have impressed themselves profoundly on Vance as he passed his time in their company are The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas père and The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler.

The Count of Monte Cristo would have supplied Vance with a plotline, that of righteous and carefully schemed vengeance against arrogant and powerful offenders, which he used in his own brilliant way many times.  Two books of Vance’s Alastor trilogy, Trullion (1973) and Marune (1975), are vengeance stories, as are all five volumes of The Demon Princes (1964 – 1981).  As it did for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, and science fiction writer James Blish, among innumerable others, The Decline of the West would have deepened Vance’s sense of meaning and large-scale patterning in history; and it would have stimulated his interest in the comparison of cultures.  In Spengler’s theory of the Great Cultures, as he called them, each Great Culture has a distinct physiognomy (Spengler’s term) that imprints and flavors its institutional manifestations and pervades the mental outlook of its every individual.  A major element of Vance’s fiction is to establish through detailed description the distinct physiognomy – or as he calls it in a coinage of his own, the esmeric – of each of his fictional worlds and their societies.  The Decline would also have honed Vance’s sensitivity to the crisis of European civilization, just as it had for Fitzgerald and Miller.  Once again, the breakdown of social structures and the descent of civilization into renewed barbarism interest Vance almost obsessively.  Vance’s authorship contains many other signs of Spengler’s background presence, not least in its tendency to insert extended philosophical discussions, sometimes as footnotes, into the unfolding story.  In Vance’s later work, commencing with The Demon Princes, references occur to a certain “Baron Bodissey,” who seems to have been the Spengler of the settled cosmos, or the “Gaean Reach,” in the long-colonized solar systems of which, and among immensely old societies, Vance’s stories tend to occur.  Spengler saw his Great Cultures as living entities.  Vance’s Ecce and Old Earth (1991) quotes Bodissey’s study of “The Morphology of Settled Places,” in which he argues that “towns behave in many respects like living organisms,” a decidedly Spenglerian proposition.

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Reading Count Gobineau

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Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau (1816 – 1882)

The name of Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau (1816 – 1882) rarely appears nowadays except in a context of moral dudgeon.  The first sentence of the Wikipedia article devoted to Gobineau perhaps unsurprisingly informs the reader, in rather lazy prose, that “Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau… was a French aristocrat who was best known by his contemporaries as a novelist, diplomat, and travel writer but is today most remembered for developing the theory of the Aryan master race and helping to legitimise racism by scientific racist theory and racial demography.”  (Punctuation corrected.)  The term “scientific racist theory” especially courts self-condemnation through its editorial heavy-handedness and its retrojection of a contemporary item of ideological cant: Objectively, Gobineau sought only to articulate a scientific racial theory or a scientific theory of race.  The term “master-race” moreover is foreign to Gobineau’s text; and “Aryan,” as Gobineau properly uses it, is an ancient tribal self-designation.  Had someone accused Gobineau of racism, or of being a racist, the term would have baffled him entirely.  The reliably left-leaning Wikipedia is not alone, however, in treating Gobineau as thoroughly toxic.  The New World Encyclopedia, in its online version, asseverates that “although [Gobineau’s] racial theories did not receive immediate attention in Europe,” nevertheless “it was through the influence of the Bayreuth circle and Richard Wagner that his views became popular, and his anti-Semitic theories developed.”  The Encyclopedia’s rhetorical maneuver draws on the widely circulated notion that National Socialism began proleptically with Wagner, who therefore qualifies himself as morally pernicious, and it extends Wagner’s supposed vileness backwards to the one who planted the seed of wickedness in Wagner’s mind – namely Gobineau in his proper person.  That reading Gobineau’s prose inspired Wagner to be a rabid anti-Semite and led to the Holocaust seems to be the implication.

Leaving aside the imputation that Wagner was a Proto-Hitler, which while of considerable interest belongs in another discussion, these slick mischaracterizations of Gobineau’s treatise on The Inequality of the Human Races (1854) reveal themselves as being based on prejudicial and superficial readings of that book; or perhaps on a universal omission to read it.  What then would a careful and unprejudiced reading of The Inequality of the Human Races yield?  The present essay proposes to answer that question.  (Note: Inequality is a work in four extensive volumes that touch on a variety of topics and that in many ways establish the science of comparative ethnography; the first volume, however, functions as an extended introduction to the other three, summarizing their contents in advance.  For the sake of tractability, I confine my remarks to that first volume.)

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Moloch is But a Vassal of Our True Enemy

Back in 2010, I commented to a post at VFR:

Nominalism is satanic, I’m telling you. It’s a device to destroy man. Convicted nominalism has to end in suicide, whether cultural or personal. If there are no transcendent values, but rather only and merely our own personal, private preferences, then our personal private preferences are false to facts. This is a little tricky to see, until we draw the analogy to the schizophrenic. The schizophrenic’s impression that there are black helicopters pursuing him are peculiar to him. The black helicopters are not really there. So we understand that his impressions are illusions. But nominalism says that the values we apprehend in things and people and activities, like the black helicopters, are not objectively real. And this means that our feelings of value are—just like the schizophrenic’s black helicopters — hallucinations. They are false. Nominalism says that there is in reality no value out there to be had.

But to say that there is no value really to be found in the world is nihilism. And the consistent nihilist, who has the courage of his convictions, cannot believe that his own life, or anyone else’s life, or the life of his nation, are worth a hill of beans. So he cannot find any way to defend them—none at all. And this will result in death, one way or another, even if only through the sheer lassitude of utter ennui.

I thought at the time I sent that comment to Lawrence, God rest his soul, that in characterizing a school of epistemology as satanic I was perhaps engaging in a bit of rhetorical hyperbole. Firing for effect, as it were.

But then, the other night, I was reading An Exorcist Explains the Demonic: the Antics of Satan and His Army of Fallen Angels, by Father Gabriele Amorth, SSP. Father Amorth was for many years the exorcist of the Diocese of Rome. I read the following passage from his explanation of Satanism (beginning on page 30):

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To Make All Things New

You can’t make all things new until you get rid of all the old things. To make all things new is to remake them from the get go, and from the bottom up, totally, without a jot of remainder. New wine, new wineskins.

So, you’ve got to get rid of all the old wineskins.

This is what is meant by, “First, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

This or that reform here and there is not good enough. You can’t expect to make progress against Moloch, the devourer of children, by means of marginal moves, tactical moves, polite moves. No. You must attack him directly, and totally, as Scipio Aemilianus did. Destroy him utterly, and salt the fields where his worshippers farmed, and pollute their wells.

Delete him from the Earth. Then, and only then, might Rome and her ways prevail again for a time.

Then only might there some day arise a mightily sagacious Bishop and Saint in Hippo, that suburb of Moloch’s Carthage.