Eliade on the Sacred and the Profane

Bird 10 Willmann, Michael (1630 - 1706) - Creation of the World (1668)

Michael Willman (1626 – 1679): Creation of the World (1668)

The Romanian born anthropologist Mircea Eliade (1907 – 1986) led a hectic life in his thirties.  Embroiling himself in politics on the right, he became a target even so of right-wing ire on the accusation that his novella Domnișoara Christina (1936) partook in pornography and obscenity, but the very next year he enthusiastically espoused the Iron Guard’s program that Romania should reconcile itself with its Byzantine, and therefore Christian, origins.  No one in the 2020s knows anything about the Iron Guard except, when hearing it mentioned, to categorize it automatically with “fascism.”  Eliade left Romania after the Communist takeover in 1945, migrated to France, and taught in Paris; he migrated to the United States in 1956 and lectured at the University of Chicago and elsewhere on the topic that obsessed him in the second half of his life – the meaning and function of religion, especially of the sacred.  That Eliade had a stake in Romanian Orthodoxy is not contradicted by his opposition to “spiritualism.”  In his twenties, Eliade read the French writer René Guénon (1886 – 1951), and came under his spell.  Guénon also opposed “spiritualism,” by which he indicated the various theosophical banalities descending out of the Nineteenth Century, including Theosophy itself.  Guénon wrote a hefty volume on the fraudulence of Helena Blavatsky’s mystical posturing and the quasi-criminal undertakings of her dubious followers.  Elsewhere Guénon consistently emphasized the radical difference between his own Traditionalism and the somber but hollow tenets of Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine (1888).  Theosophy belonged to pseudo-initiation and counter-initiation, Guénon argued.  These Guénonian attitudes became Eliade’s own; they inform his work.  With Guénon and Julius Evola (1898 – 1974), Eliade constitutes the stable core of what might be called Twentieth Century skeptical esotericism.

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To be a Christian, Part II: Why Do It?

[Part I, which lays out basic Christian teaching, is here.]

Christianity is not like any other thing you can join.

You join other things because they are enjoyable, or beneficial, or their cause is important to you. Otherwise, you have no reason to join.

Granted that it can be enjoyable, beneficial, or an important cause, Christianity is not like other things you can join. When it comes to ultimate issues, the criteria for joining a thing are different.

There are two basic reasons why you should join Christianity. One, unless your sins are forgiven you face eternity in hell, and forgiveness of sins comes only through Jesus of Nazareth. All humans live forever, but some live forever in a bad place.

The other reason is this: The completely true description of what reality is and how it operates comes only from Christianity, because God revealed this knowledge in the Bible. When a society rejects Christianity (as ours is doing) it cannot function correctly (as ours increasingly does not.)

A non-Christian society can sometimes function adequately, based on its partial understanding of reality that man can attain because he is made in the image of God and is therefore capable of grasping many truths. But America lacks even this pagan common sense. Our rulers are anti-reality, not just non-reality, in their basic orientation. We need the sanity (to say nothing of the wisdom) that comes only from Christianity. Continue reading

Fighting against Sleep: Colin Wilson’s Necessary Doubt as Phenomenological Thriller

Doubt 01
I recalled the last phases of my former life, that darkling climax of pursuit and anger and universal darkness and the whirling green vapors of extinction. The comet had struck the earth and made an end to all things; of that too I was assured.
But afterward? . . .
And now?
The imaginations of my boyhood came back as speculative possibilities. In those days I had believed firmly in the necessary advent of a last day, a great coming out of the sky, trumpetings and fear, the Resurrection, and the Judgment. My roving fancy now suggested to me that this Judgment must have come and passed. That it had passed and in some manner missed me. I was left alone here, in a swept and garnished world (except, of course, for this label of Swindells’) to begin again perhaps…
The miracle of the awakening came to me in solitude, the laughter, and then the tears. Only after some time did I come upon another man. Until I heard his voice calling I did not seem to feel there were any other people in the world. All that seemed past, with all the stresses that were past. I had come out of the individual pit in which my shy egotism had lurked, I had overflowed to all humanity, I had seemed to be all humanity; I had laughed at Swindells as I could have laughed at myself, and this shout that came to me seemed like the coming of an unexpected thought in my own mind. But when it was repeated I answered.
H. G. Wells, In the Year of the Comet (1906)

That the comet’s “green vapors” amount to a Deus ex machina is no reason not to notice the real interest in the passage: The description, which goes on for pages, of the metamorphosis of consciousness that permits the narrator to see the world at last — as if the Blakean “Doors of Perception” had been flung wide.  The narrator has ascended to a new order of existence. He is now a kind of superman, at least where keen-sightedness and self-clarity are concerned.  The state of heightened consciousness is a recurrent motif in Wells’ oeuvre; so is the Nietzschean Übermensch.  In Kipps (1905), the priggish Walsingham, who “had been reading Appearing roughly five years after Ritual in the Dark (1959) and roughly five years before The Philosopher’s Stone (1969), Colin Wilson’s ambitious novel Necessary Doubt (1964) represents its author in the moment when, beginning to appropriate genre formulas (murder mystery, science fiction, espionage novel), he simultaneously began to foreground philosophical themes and to exploit a version of Platonic dialogue for the dramatic exposition of ideas.  Necessary Doubt echoes Ritual in a number of ways, particularly in granting to its point-of-view character the privilege of withholding testimony by which he would cooperate with official charges against an acquaintance other than perfectly innocent.  The protagonist in Necessary Doubt is Professor Karl Zweig, an existential theologian of Austrian origin whom Wilson models in part on Paul Tillich.  Zweig’s relation to the dubious and off-putting Gustav Neumann is somewhat analogous to Gerard Sorme’s relation to Austin Nunn in Ritual although Neumann differs from Nunn in his degree of social pathology (less acute than Nunn’s) and intelligence (higher than Nunn’s).  As for The Philosopher’s Stone, Necessary Doubt anticipates it in the notion that access to intensified consciousness might be mediated by psychotropic drugs or by neurosurgery.  The metallic substance that accomplishes this goal in The Philosopher’s Stone is called the Neumann Alloy, in a direct backwards link to the earlier work, as Nicolas Tredell has noted.[i]

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Ralph Vaughan Williams – The “London” and “Pastoral” Symphonies and “Sinfonia Antartica”

RVW 14 port-of-london

Claude Monet (1840 – 1926): Port of London (1871)

The English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958) wrote nine symphonies over his lifetime beginning with the choral-orchestral Sea Symphony of 1910, a setting of Walt Whitman’s maritime verse, and ending with the Symphony in E-Minor of 1957.  Vaughan Williams eschewed a numbering system, designating his symphonic scores, which form the trunk of his compositional achievement, only by title or key signature.  As follow-ups to his Sea Symphony, Vaughan Williams produced A London Symphony (first version 1914; final revision, 1936) and A Pastoral Symphony (1921), both of which exhibit programmatic qualities although their author downplayed these, as have subsequent commentators.  The original version of A London Symphony had its first performance under Geoffrey Toye in its namesake city in March 1914, and A Pastoral Symphony, also in London, in January 1922 under Adrian Boult.  The next three symphonies (F-Minor, D-Major, and E-Minor) lacked titles, but the seventh, which drew on a film-score that the composer had written in 1947, he called Sinfonia Antartica.  The composer completed Sinfonia Antartica, after several years of revision, in 1952.  John Barbirolli then conducted the premiere in January 1953 with the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester.  The final symphony, sharing its key-signature (E-Minor) with the sixth, has literary roots in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891).  It depicts a characteristic topography, in this case the Salisbury Plain, as do A London Symphony, A Pastoral Symphony, and Sinfonia Antartica theirs – but it remains untitled.  In fact, A London Symphony also takes inspiration, at least in part, from a literary source – the epilogue to H. G. Wells’ Tono-Bungay, a novel that saw publication in 1906.  Although professedly an agnostic, Vaughan Williams (hereafter RVW) in his works, including the symphonies, repeatedly and almost obsessively approached the topic, in all its aspects, of transcendence.

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Philosophical Skeleton Keys: The Stack of Worlds

This post supervenes my recent post On Some Happy Corollaries of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems (so you might want to review that post, and the earlier posts it cites in turn, in order to find yourself quite oriented in what follows (sorry, dear reader: not everything is TLDR)).

There is much talk in traditional cosmology of a stack of heavens above our own, and likewise of hells below. The hierarchy of angelic choirs echoes that stack. Most pagan pantheons feature such hierarchies of gods, with a Most High God above all gods, whom they worship, and who lives in the Highest Heaven which is above all the heavens. There is talk too of other worlds parallel to our own (such, e.g., as Jotunheim in the mythic scheme of the Vikings), that might communicate with each other (as at Ragnarok, when the giants of Jotunheim make war upon the men of Middle Earth and the gods of Asgard), so as to form a world of worlds.

That sort of talk struck me at first as fantastic, and so relatively irreal – despite its irresistible odor of concrete factuality, and its ubiquity in the traditions of Earth, and thus its uncanny tinct of credibility. There is also the difficulty that there is a certain beauty in the notion, that cannot be found in the flat idea that our world (however generously conceived (as with the various sorts of branching cosmoi proposed by this or that metacosmology)) is all there is. Then at last there is the ancient conviction of the Great Chain of Being, no link of which might be concretely missing if any part of the chain were to find concrete instantiation.

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An Anthology of Interviews with René Girard


My 1987 Paroles Gelées interview with René Girard is included in Cynthia L. Haven’s newly issued Conversations with René Girard as Chapter IV, “The Logic of the Undecidable.” Haven writes: “Bertonneau, at that time a doctoral student in the UCLA Program in Comparative Literature, began the interview by invoking what Paul de Man refers to as ‘the Resistance to Theory,’ in an essay of that name.” I meant resistance to Girard’s theory because of its vindication of a Christic anthropology. Haven adds a comment that I made when she contacted me about including the interview in her anthology: “If I experienced any nervousness on the occasion of the interview, Girard immediately put me at ease. I conducted two other interviews for Paroles Gelées. Without mentioning any names, the contrast with Girard could not have been greater. That makes Girard stand out all the more in my memory.” The Kindle edition is only $14.99 at Amazon.

Poe’s Psychic-Atomist Critique of Wayward Modernity – Part II

Joseph Mallord Turner (1775 -1851) - Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1834)

Joseph Mallord Turner (1775 – 1851) – Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1834)

PART TWO. The worldwide, instantaneous ekpyrosis of “Eiros and Charmion” illustrates Poe’s thesis dramatically.  In “Eiros and Charmion” Poe wrote the first cosmic-collision story, to be followed fifty years later by H. G. Wells in “The Star,” and popular ever since.  Cosmic-collision stories tend to be end-of-the-world stories, a pattern set by Poe’s dialogue.  Earth passes through the tail of a large comet, the chemistry of which draws the nitrogen from the atmosphere, leaving only the oxygen, at which point everything combustible, including the human body, bursts into flame.  Eiros, who died in the extinction-event, narrates the last moments of life to Charmion, who had graduated to “Aidenn” by ordinary death prior to the cataclysm: “For a moment there was a wild lurid light alone, visiting and penetrating all things”; then – “the whole incumbent mass of ether in which we existed, burst at once into a species of intense flame, for whose surpassing brilliancy and all-fervid heat even the angels in the high Heaven of pure knowledge have no name.”  Eiros quotes the Apocalypse of St. John and remarks on the hauteur with which the humanity of the time dismisses the ancient lore of comets.  In those passages subsists the criticism of wayward modernity: The mentality of the End-Times adhered only to “science” and rejected its connection to the cosmos – to God.  Comets once signified, but they have become mere phenomena, “divested of the terrors of flame.”  The awe that people once felt in respect of cosmic manifestations the final generation will need to re-learn in the moments before its demise.

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Poe’s Psychic-Atomist Critique of Wayward Modernity – Part I

Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory)  - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis exhibited 1843 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
Joseph Mallord Turner (1775 – 1851) – Light and Colour (1840)

Many people know of the “Big Bang” or singularity theory of cosmic origin, but far fewer know that the author of the singularity theory was a Belgian scientist-priest, Georges Lemaître (1894 – 1966), who, in addition to his work in mathematics and physics, served as an artillery officer in the Belgian Army in World War I.  The name Lemaître rarely crops up in textbook discussions of the singularity theory although it does appear in the Introduction to the Wikipedia article on that topic.  The name of Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849) goes absent in the Wikipedia article about Lemaître, where it would in fact assume some relevance, an observation that one can extend to Lemaître’s own published writings.  Lemaître enjoyed broad cultivation.  A typical Jesuit, he knew the humanities and arts as well as the sciences.  He could hardly have remained unaware of Poe’s self-described masterpiece, the “prose-poem” Eureka (1848), which Charles Baudelaire had translated into French in 1863.  To Poe belongs the actual invention of what Lemaître would call, in a popularizing essay of that name, “The Primeval Atom” (1946).  Even the details of “The Primeval Atom” find anticipation in Eureka, which formed the basis of lectures that Poe gave to bewildered audiences in the last year of his life.  One wonders whether Lemaître’s omission of Poe’s name was calculatedly prudential.  Disclosing the inspiration of Poe’s cosmology would no doubt have occasioned supercilious commentary.  Better not to complicate the issue by tying the theory to a bizarre literary text by a known eccentric, full of heavy satire and laced throughout with manifold irony.  Better not to adduce the author of “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Masque of Red Death.”

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