Sigrid Undset Crosses Russia

Return to the Future 01

Seeing things plain, not lying to oneself, not subscribing to the delusions of others – these virtues, seemingly so simple, prove in life difficult to achieve and tricky to exercise.  An inevitable imitative pressure assimilates people to one another so that mere opinion, received but never vetted, comes to function as a surrogate reality, in the cave-like error of which people stumble about their errands in a lurching mockery of witting behavior.  The ancients worried about false or second-hand judgment (doxa) or about superstition.  Modern people must grapple with ideology.  The critique of ideology is the single most important exercise that an individual can undertake who wants to stand in truth and by his own lights against the conformist pressure of public opinion, or what dissenters nowadays call political correctness.  But this endeavor is complicated by the fact that contemporary ideology claims, of itself, to be a critique of ideology.  This verbal legerdemain began with Karl Marx, who identified the emergent industrial order as the ideology that he named Capitalism, to which his own Communism was supposed to be the clarifying antidote.  The ability to negotiate such a mental hall-of-mirrors is rarer than it should be.  Those who can do it – or have done it – deserve to be commemorated.

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Lectures d’été (Sélections de Juillet)

Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901 – 1985), In Search of Order (Opus Posthumous, 1987): In Search of Order followed the fourth volume of Order and History, or The Ecumenic Age, by thirteen years; and The Ecumenic Age followed the second and third volumes, The World of the Polis and Plato and Aristotle, by seventeen years.  The first volume of the tetralogy, Israel and Revelation, appeared in 1956, but Voegelin commenced Order and History when he abandoned his multi-volume History of Political Ideas in the early 1950s, so that the former had its taproot in a decade of research.  Order and History resists summary.  In the most general terms, it explores the hypothesis that civilizational development is inseparable from two other processes: The unfolding of consciousness from mythic compactness to philosophical articulation and the “pneumopathological” resistance that constantly dogs civilization’s quest for the Logos.  While Voegelin left In Search of Order unfinished, the completed portion possesses integrity.  It includes a comparative reading of two works that no one else ever bracketed for contrapuntal analysis: Hesiod’s Theogony, an Eighth-Century BC genealogy of the divine order, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807), which attempts to frame History and thereby to make of Hegel’s authorship History’s consummation.  Voegelin’s opening chapter meditates on the paradox of beginnings, posing the question, “Where does the beginning begin?”  Consciousness, Voegelin argues, necessarily initiates every task with recollection.  This sentence thus depends on a previous one even if it commences the essay.  It depends on the English language, which depends on its foretongues.  Speculation reaches only so far.  Whereas at some moment language exists, in the previous moment it existed not; but what existed then was not nothing.  The barrier to knowledge remains impassable, however, because, as Voegelin writes, “the men who were present [at the origin of language] left no record of the event but language itself.”

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Spengler on Democracy & Equality

I gave this presentation some years ago at one of the annual conferences of the H. L. Mencken Club in Baltimore. (I am unsure of the year.) Evidently the organizers of the event recorded the talk — and to my surprise I found it while browsing the web (is that phrase still in use?) for Spengler-related lectures and podcasts.

Eric Voegelin on Gnostic Modernity

Voegelin 01

Eric Voegelin (1901 – 1985)

A previous essay to this one on José Ortega y Gasset began with the claim that the past speaks to the present more pertinently than the present speaks to itself, but that the present, in assessing itself as the culmination of human advancement, actively disdains the past and prefers to stuff its ears.  The essence of the modern psyche – which Ortega explores in his Revolt of the Masses (1930) – is paradoxically to be at once emphatically assured of its knowledge and wisdom but, in Ortega’s phrase, conscientiously ignorant of anything outside its radically narrow field of expertise, which it mistakes for a totality.  The modern mind cuts itself off from the stream of human experience, oblivious, in its conceit, to the necessity of temporality, memory, and history in the very constitution of consciousness.  Ortega’s phenomenology of the arrogant, self-limiting, and abjectly self-unaware subject finds a counterpart in the first important work of a thinker belonging to the generation after the Spaniard – The New Science of Politics (1952) by Eric Voegelin (1901 – 1985), who left Austria after the Anschluss, came to the U.S.A., and eventually obtained a fellowship in political science at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, where he practiced from 1969 to 1985.  In The New Science, Voegelin advanced his thesis, which he would elaborate in subsequent books and essays, that modernity is “Gnostic,” a term referring to a set of exotic theologies, parasitizing on Christianity, which troubled the religious landscape of Late Antiquity, particularly in period of the Second and Third Centuries, and reemerged in the Middle Ages.

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John Locke – Quantifying Reality

The modern division between the words “objective,” and “subjective” can be traced back to certain thoughts of John Locke, and Galileo before him, at the start of the scientific revolution. “Objective” has become a synonym for truth and reality. Just as it sounds, being “objective” means treating things as objects and quantifying them. “Objectively true” thus means “we measured it and the measurements were correct.” “Subjective,” anything not measurable, is then regarded as not true and not real. Applying this objective/subjective distinction then means that anything debatable and not provable 1using measurement is then supposed to be a kind of nonsense. Morality, beauty, purpose, value, meaning, emotion, consciousness and mind, and all interior phenomena, not being quantifiable, would then be “subjective,” and thus regarded as not real, which is intensely nihilistic. The word “subjective” needs to be rehabilitated as having to do with treating people as subjects, rather than objects. Subjects are moral agents with interiors; with minds, thoughts, feelings, desires, ambitions, and volition. To treat someone as an object is to relegate that person to the status of a rock, an “It.” This is what all sciences do, including psychology. A person is transformed into data and facts. They are reduced to the facets of those that can be measured. To treat someone as a subject, a “Thou,” is to treat that person as having an interior life as rich, important, and meaningful, as your own, rather than a one-way “study” of that person. You engage in dialogue with them to discover their inner life; their thoughts, feelings, and desires, with moral worth; subject to subject. The “subjective” then is what is most importantly real about a person. It is what is being asked when someone queries whether you know someone. The tragedy of much of modern life consists in treating people as objects to be manipulated. To stop doing this, it is necessary to rethink the “objective” is real, the “subjective” is unreal, division. The good news is that since someone just made up this point of view a few hundred years ago, it is possible to change it. It is not an immutable feature of the human condition or human outlook. Continue reading

Our Deepest Loves Cannot & Do Not Err

Provided they spring honestly from motives of true charity, and to the extent that we are sane, our deepest loves must point toward reals. They must be reliable guides, or they would interfere with survival, and we would not have them.

So then also likewise with our deepest sorrows.

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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.

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Two New-Old Books by Colin Wilson (Eagles and Earwigs and The Ultimate Colin Wilson*)

Eagles and Earwigs

The prolific authorship of the late Colin Wilson (1931 – 2013) began with the publication in 1956 of The Outsider, a phenomenological study of the alienation theme in the modern novel, and continued unto the year of his death, and even beyond, thanks to the activity of his literary executors.  With Stuart Holroyd and Bill Hopkins, Wilson constituted a peculiar hiccough in the British literary and cultural scene of the 1950s.  The three writers thought of themselves as having established a right-leaning English school of Existentialism that rejected the materialist orientation and politicized cynicism of the French school.  Although critics tended to lump the trio together with the distinctly leftwing coterie dubbed the Angry Young Men, Wilson and his two fellow writers could hardly have differentiated themselves more from such as John Osborne, Kenneth Tynan, Kingsley Amis, and the other “Angries.”  Wilson and the two others were decidedly intellectual, their early fiction and non-fiction alike rightly deserving the label philosophical.  The “Angries” by contrast revolted, in an all-too-contrived manner, against any disciplined phronesis.  Finding himself suddenly a celebrity on the basis of The Outsider, Wilson followed up with Religion and the Rebel (1957), The Age of Defeat (1958), and three other titles that would eventually add up to a coherent “Outsider Cycle.”  Wilson also produced a steady stream of occasional work for a wide variety of journals and reviews.  Some of these found their way in Wilson’s lifetime into single-author anthologies – Eagle and Earwig in 1965 and The Essential Colin Wilson in 1985, among others.  The former was for a long time the most elusive of Wilson’s titles; the latter constituted one of the best introductions to Wilson’s thought, as he, himself, had selected the contents.

Colin Stanley and Gary Lachman, both of them scholars of Wilsoniana, have collaborated to bring Eagle and Earwig back into print, but under the name that Wilson originally gave it before his publisher made an alteration: Eagles and Earwigs, in the plural.  The book carries the subtitle Essays on Books and Writers.  Lachman, author of a critical biography of Wilson (Beyond the Robot [2016]), supplies a new Preface, which supplements Wilson’s original Introduction to the volume.  Lachman writes that he first encountered Eagle and Earwig in the library of the British Museum in the mid-1980s – and that it impressed him vividly.  Commenting on the book’s fugitive quality, Lachman remarks that “there is something about finding a much-sought after book in a second-hand book-shop that carries its own magic, as rare as that is these days”; nevertheless, as he adds, in forty-two years of inveterate bibliophile questing, no copy of it ever came into his hands.  Lachman puts his finger on the appeal of Wilson’s literary essays, especially for a contemporary reader of the Twenty-First Century.  Wilson’s “existential criticism” concerns itself, in Lachman’s words, “with how a writer sees the world, his actual perception of it, and with his or her qualifications for making general assessments about that mysterious thing, life.” Existential criticism exercises the primary criterion of visionary quality in establishing its hierarchy of writers and books.  It has little patience with ideological tendencies and rejects hackneyed formulas.

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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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