Cur Deus Homo & Other Roman Problems: Some Quiddities

The valuable EH Looney – an orthospherean through and through, let it be noted, and so our ally and friend (witly or not), whose site I visit daily – has in a recent short post subtly erred, in three different and interesting ways. An Orthodox Christian who admires Rome with fervent intelligence, he nevertheless writes with eyes open:

The problem with Rome isn’t papal supremacy, or even the filioque, it’s that the Roman church is the cradle of nominalism. That sickness should have been condemned immediately rather than being allowed to fester long enough to create Luther and the Protestant deformation.

Also Anselm’s theory of the atonement almost totally obscures the existential nature of the paschal mystery into a legalism of the worst possible sort.

Now, there is some truth to each of these statements. Some truth; not all.

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The “Ula Lu La Lu” & Consciousness: Meditations on an Imagist Poem by William Carlos Williams

Botticelli Venus

Sandro Botticelli: Venus (1486)

Introduction. The American poet William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963) began his authorship with imagist poems and quirky mixtures of prose and verse like Spring and All (1923), a book that intersperses paragraphs of speculation concerning poetry, consciousness, and the world with seemingly improvised but in reality carefully composed verse-effusions that attempt an audacious transformation of the banal into the sublime.  Scholars of Twentieth-Century American poetry invariably categorize Williams as modern or avant-garde, but I would argue that Williams continues strongly in the Transcendentalist or American-Romantic tradition of the century previous to his own.  Spring and All, supposedly an epitome of idiosyncratic American modernism, offers a case in point, even in those statements where Williams appears to reject tradition altogether and extols the virtue of “the imagination, freed from the handcuffs of ‘art.’”  In an early prose-sequence of Spring and All, Williams denounces those whom he calls “The Traditionalists of Plagiarism.”  Williams uses the term plagiarism in an unusual way, as a failure of consciousness  and perception to rediscover the newness and beauty – indeed even the sublimity – of the given world in all its particulars.  In effect, in Spring and All, Williams engages a new version of the Romantic critique of complacency, recording, as he puts it, “our despair at the unfathomable mist into which all mankind is plunging.”

Complacency is the failure of imagination to invest fully in the structure of reality and the order of being; complacency is the epistemological and cognitive counterpart of original sin.  Williams, like all good Romantics, aims at redeeming humanity from its wretched lapse, its Winter of Discontent, so as to establish men and women in the paradisiacal springtime of refreshed apprehension.

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Flaubert’s Herodias: A Study of Revelation & Consciousness

Moreau Salome

Gustave Moreau: Salome

Introduction. The action of Flaubert’s Herodias, one of the Trois Contes or Three Tales of 1877, occurs on the birthday of Herod Antipas or Antipater, the Hellenized “Tetrarch” of Judea who is in fact a client-king permitted to rule over his people solely by the political calculation of reigning Roman emperor, Tiberius.  Tensions run high in Judea. The influential preacher John the Baptist, whom the Tetrarch currently holds imprisoned in a dungeon, has denounced Herod for his marriage to the divorced wife, Herodias, of the Tetrarch’s exiled brother, Herod Philip I.  The marriage amounts, says John, to incest.  Apart from the specific charge, the Baptist’s preaching has stirred up religious turmoil in the kingdom, encouraging a general dissidence.  The Pharisees, for example, feel displaced in piety and thus in status as strict interpreters of the law by John’s extravagant Puritanism; they already incline to distrust Herod, largely Greek in education and taste, an obvious puppet of Rome, and in these ways only barely a Jew.  Flaubert writes, “The Jews were tired of [Herod’s] idolatrous ways.”  As readers later learn, Sadducees, Essenes, and Samaritans, and others live grudgingly with one another in Herod’s realm; the reasons for their mutual mistrust seem more or less exaggerated and ritually or tribally driven.  Herod’s factional ties in Rome also complicate his life.

In Rome political jockeying takes place ceaselessly among various power brokers who would gain influence over the monarch for their own corrupt benefit.  Herod thinks to himself, for example, that, “probably Agrippa [one of his rivals] had ruined his credit with the emperor.”  His other brother Philip is meanwhile “secretly arming” behind his borders while Arab warriors in service to an ambitious raider-king have encamped themselves on his southern march.  Herod vacillates between the possibilities of making a pact with the Arabs or making one with the Parthians, Rome’s enemy and counterweight in the East.  Herod is proverbially between a rock and a hard place – or between the abyss and the Resurrection.

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An Acerbic Opinion

TFB comme Frenchman

Moi comme un Gentilhomme de la Belle Nation

The other day in my Introduction to Literary Criticism course, I contested a student’s objection to my thesis that, whereas there might be many plausible interpretations of John Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian urn,” it would nevertheless not be the case that every interpretation of “Ode on a Grecian urn” was equally plausible or even plausible at all.  Furthermore, I reasoned, the range of interpretations might be graded according to their plausibility, from least to most, in a hierarchy.  The student’s agitated insistence was that, “everybody has his own opinion.”* (As if no one had ever heard that before.)  I immediately responded that “opinion” was an irrelevant category; and that, in any case, where it concerns any particular topic, the number of opinions is strictly limited.  In respect of Topic X, there are probably only two opinions, or at most three.  The claim that “everybody has his own opinion” is therefore absurd.  To put it in plausible English, one would have to say that, “In respect of X, everyone has one opinion or another, of a limited set.”  One of the definitions of “opinion” is that an opinion is a freely circulating, conformist view about a topic, entirely unoriginal and non-proprietary.  People never have opinions; they borrow or endorse them, at which point the opinions have them.

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Hacked by Russia: A True Confession

It is not from any desire to shock my fellow Orthosphereans, but merely in order to explain how, beginning as a bland and generically liberal person, I came finally to be associated with an ultra-right-wing website obviously controlled by the spuriously defunct KGB, that I make the following confession of my long history of seditious crimes and treacherous misdemeanors. The evidence against me is overwhelming.  Below is Exhibit No. 1.

tfb-with-yessen-zhasoursky-december-1986

Left: Yessen Zhazoursky, Dean of the School of Journalism, Moscow University; Right: Yours Truly (TFB),  Doctoral Candidate in Comparative Literature, UCLA.  (Fall 1986)

The location was a beach house on Old Malibu Road, with convenient access to the Pacific Ocean hence also to surreptitious traffic to and from casually surfacing Soviet submarines in Santa Monica Bay.  (See the recent Coen Brothers film Hail Caesar!) I call attention to a damning detail of the photograph.  Obviously the Dean and I are exchanging vital, secret information in the medium of coded inscriptions in a notebook that can be concealed in a jacket pocket.  The red stripes of my shirt might also be significant.  By the way, the affair had been organized by Pepperdine University, long known as a communist front.  Below, again, is Exhibit No. 2.

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The Second Reality Crumbles — Short Take III

wicker-man

Chaos, as Hesiod puts it, “was the first thing that came to be.”  In a three-generation struggle, Zeus at last succeeded in imposing civilized order on the chaotic substrate of the cosmos.  Chaos, for Hesiod, might be first, but order is last; and order is infinitely preferable to Chaos.  In Hesiod’s story, after Zeus settles matters with the violent Titans (the Jotuns of Scandinavian myth), he must face one more challenge in the arousal of Typhon or Python, the Chaos-Monster.  In Hesiod’s vision of things, Chaos always lies in wait to erupt on order and subvert it.  Order is a struggle.  Chaos is the lapse back into what is easiest and most primitive.  So too in the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the Several States of America, order is a latter imposition on Chaos, but Chaos lurks in its lair, ready to squirm out again and mess up the just apportionment of the civilized dispensation.  Thus, as the Drudge Report rehearses, “Agitators Plot Inauguration Chaos.”  What else would they plot?  After all, their motto is, “It is forbidden to forbid.”  That is to say, order is forbidden; Chaos is mandated – and the Law is the enemy of the crowd.  Drudge quotes a Daily Caller story as follows: “On the day of President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration protesters are planning an anti-capitalist march, road blockades and disruptions to inauguration balls…

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The Second Reality Crumbles — Short Take II

womens-march

As the Left’s second reality collapses, the Lefties still believe that they can dig themselves out of the sinkhole of their abysmal expectations.  The Left being a purely collectivist entity, it responds to every crisis, as to this crisis, by amassing itself in crowds.  As Gustave Le Bon remarked in his study of The Crowd (1895), crowd-behavior is de-individuated, non-conscientious, and essentially religious or sacrificial.  An individual who might, left to his own soul-searching, renounce such things as morality-renunciation and participating in hatred-inducing activities, will find relief from his qualms in the degree to which he congregates with others, whose collective massiveness assuages his guilt-pangs.  Once a nucleus of moral self-betrayers has gathered in close proximity, conscientiousness, which is individual, no longer impedes the impulse to action.  Guilt is distributed.  The subject, forfeiting his subjectivity, may do as he wills, however basely he wills, without the smart of any remorse.  The religiosity of the crowd is primitive religiosity, of course.  It wants to feel Karl Marx’s revolutionary Blutrausch in the spectacle of immolation, even if external social strictures prevent the immolation from being real but rather confine it to being only symbolic.  (Policemen murdered in ambushes are actual victims; men of European ancestry pilloried by female multiculturalists at “White Privilege” seminars are symbolic victims, who are permitted walk away with their humiliated lives.)

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The Second Reality Crumbles – Short Take I

trump-press-conference

The Left believes itself to be historically inevitable.  The Left vehemently execrates anyone who denies its fundamental premise that it is historically inevitable.  To the Left, people who think otherwise than that the Left is historically inevitable are not thinking at all: Such people are ignorant, boorish, and very likely incapable of thinking – or, as the Left has long called it, “critical thinking.”  (I note in passing that the phrase “critical thinking,” like the phrase “social justice,” conforms to the Leftist linguistic pattern of taking an ordinary and perfectly well-understood noun and obliterating its standard meaning by the prefixation to it of a modifier which is actually a negation.)  Leftist “critical thinking” forecast the outcome of the 2016 presidential election many months in advance.  The election would go “inevitably” to That Woman.  The fix was in and the fix was cosmic or perhaps ontological.  Nothing could un-fix it, right?  However, the “inevitable” outcome failed to manifest itself.  For the Left, this constituted a cognitive, but more importantly an emotional, catastrophe, the equivalent of Krakatoa suddenly erupting in San Francisco Bay and spoiling everyone’s fun at the Gay Pride Parade.  The Left has always lived in a second reality, but now events had shaken that second reality to its phantasmal foundation, and the whole illusory structure began to collapse.

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Howard Hanson: The Music of God in Nature

hanson-01-ca-1930

Howard Hanson (1896 – 1981) circa 1930

Nebraska-born of Swedish ancestry, Howard Harold Hanson (1896 ─ 1981) became by his mid-thirties what he had determined to become from an early age, the most popular American composer of serious music in the European concert tradition.  He had also become a sought-after teacher, orchestra leader, and musical administrator.  Hanson poured his seemingly inexhaustible vitality not only into the promotion of his own creativity, but, generously, into the promotion of his fellow composers, many of them, as time went on, his students at the Eastman School where he presided.  A radio documentary about the composer from the late 1980s revealed another side of the man.  Several of those interviewed by the producer complained – one of them indeed rather bitterly – about Hanson’s alleged egocentrism and insistence on getting his own way.  No doubt but that Hanson, believing himself a force, often stormed over those who, as he saw it, put themselves in the way of his schemes, his magnanimity in other circumstances notwithstanding.  The man being dead, however, and his personal entanglements being buried with him, the impressive practical and artistic achievements remain.  Paramount among these stands Hanson’s compositional legacy: Seven substantial symphonies, at least as many symphonic poems, a handful of concerted scores, numerous choral works, and an opera, which should have a more active place in the repertory, and not only by way of recordings.

With his contemporaries Roy Harris (1898 ─ 1979) and Aaron Copland (1900 ─ 1990), and with the slightly younger Samuel Barber (1910 ─ 1981), Hanson created a recognizably American sound in concert music, and demonstrated that American composers could adapt European musical forms to the conditions of a new society seeking to set its own mark on an inherited culture.  It is useful to compare Hanson’s legacy with the legacies of his countrymen-composers in the first half of the Twentieth Century.  Harris certainly matched Hanson in egocentrism, maybe exceeding him; but Harris lacked Hanson’s talent, peaking with his Symphony No. 3 (1937), really an extended passacaglia for orchestra, and repeating himself, at ever lower levels, for the remainder of his career.  Copland began as an avant-garde composer in the 1920s, assimilating influences from Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky; he found his marketable voice in the “cowboy” ballets of the 1930s and the populist, large-scale Symphony No. 3 (1946), for whose finale he adapted his own earlier Fanfare for the Common Man.  Copland wrote a surprisingly small number of works and ceased to compose altogether after 1964.

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In the Fen Country: Landscape and Music in the Work of Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams

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Robert Gallon (1845 – 1925): The Water’s Edge (1870s)

A strong sympathy for the landscape often entwines itself with a type of religious sensibility, particularly the pantheistic one.  In the decorative murals with which the wealthy classes of Rome during the Imperial centuries adorned their domestic lives, the idyllic scene, with its groves and grazing sheep, invariably contains a rustic temple.  In Hellenistic poetry, too, the writer – it might be Theocritus or at a later date Ovid – in describing the sylvan setting of Sicily or Arcadia emphasizes the presence everywhere of the nature-spirits.  Ovid’s Metamorphoses seem in part to be an explanation of why everywhere in the ancient world one encountered innumerable altars and shrines.  To the pagan mentality, everything, every tree and stream and mountain, shared in the quality of the sacred, and offered a home to the spirits and demigods.  So too in Romantic painting and verse, the artist’s response to the natural scene records his sense of the ubiquity of spirit.  Thus in William Wordsworth’s famous sonnet “The world is too much with us” (1802), the calamity of the emergent industrial and commercial order manifests itself most poignantly in the terrible loneliness of being cut off from participation in the aura of the elements –

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

The lyric subject of the poem, concluding that the modern dispensation has left men “for everything… out of tune,” wishes that he were (although he is not) “a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn,” that is, someone who might “have glimpses that would make me less forlorn” of “Proteus rising from the sea.”  That men should have become acutely aware of nature in the early nineteenth century is hardly surprising.  The social and economic developments of the period, the hypertrophy of cities and the dissolution of ancient arrangements in the countryside, wrought changes in the very appearance of the rural landscape.  A generation later than Wordsworth, in the “Wessex” stories and novels of Thomas Hardy, the situation has grown even more acute.  In the short story “The Fiddler of the Reels,” the great fact of existence is the Crystal Palace, in the year of whose construction much of the action takes place.  The countryside is emptying into the great cities; railroads have appeared in the provinces to draw away the young people, and the expansion of a new order of industry and finance has begun to alter the familiar aspects of field and forest, river valley and hill.

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