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.
Fascist Poster from 1938 Inviting Young Men to Try Out for the Air Force
Italian participation in World War II started late and ended early. Italy only entered into combat when the Germans had rolled their Blitzkrieg over France and were conducting the final maneuvers that led to the armistice of 22 June 1940. The members of Benito Mussolini’s Grand Council, with the assent of the king, declared war on their Gaulish neighbors and attacked. The main action took place in the air with the Regia Aeronautica or Royal Air Force making attacks on French fortifications and airfields. The bombing and strafing raids were largely ineffective however because while the Italian air arm looked good in propaganda films, it deployed few modern types and of those — few proved themselves efficient in combat. The obsolescence of Italy’s air-inventory had its roots in Mussolini’s participation in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Nationalists. In 1936 the Regia Aeronautica deployed an air arsenal that included up-to-date types, like the Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 trimotor bomber and the Fiat CR.32 biplane fighter. The latter acquitted itself marvelously against the inferior French and Russian aircraft fielded by the Republicans. The Cucaracha, as it came to be called, represented the perfection of the biplane interceptor and could also undertake ground-attack and close-support duties. A Fiat V-twelve with six cylinders in each bank propelled the sleek, streamlined airframe pulled through the air by a two-bladed metal propeller. The CR.32 had a maximum speed of about 230 miles per hour, fast when Italy introduced the type in the early 1930s. The Cr.32’s two machine guns stood as adequate for the time. The SM.81 followed the planform of a Savoia-Marchetti airliner, which meant that it had not begun life as a proposed military type. Again, SM.81 performed adequately considering the opposition, as it had in the Italo-Abyssinian war of 1935 – 37, against no opposition at all. Italy sent other types to Spain, including the Breda 65 ground-attack aircraft, which even managed to score a few victories in air combat, a role for which its designers did not intend it.
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? . . .
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]
The name of George Sterling (1869 – 1926) has not figured for a long time in the educated consciousness perhaps because the educated consciousness suffers from a contraction of its horizon. The name of Clark Ashton Smith (1893 – 1961) possesses more currency today than that of Sterling, but only within a circle of genre fanatics. Ironically, Sterling more or less discovered the young Smith, encouraged him to write, and found venues for his early poetry. After Sterling’s suicide, Clark made a frugal living by selling his prose to the pulps, tales of necromantic extravagance mainly, and amalgams of horror and science fiction, written for the most part for Weird Tales, one of the specialist sub-genre-journals of the mid-Twentieth Century. Smith’s name circulates more widely today than it did in his lifetime in that his complete work in poetry, prose, and correspondence is available in print. Very little of Sterling’s output remains in print; he is a phenomenon, more or less, of the antiquarian book market. In Sterling’s lifetime however he stood at the head of the California Symbolist School, which, centered on San Francisco, took its cues from the verse of Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé. Ambrose Bierce and Jack London praised Sterling in his lifetime. Sterling enjoyed the reputation of being the “King” of California’s “Bohemia.” Young poets looked to him for guidance, which he gave generously. Anticipating the Beats, he indulged in alcohol, marijuana, and other, stronger drugs whereupon the toll of vice, not least mounting debt, led him to the taking of his own life by cyanide. Smith’s modus vivendi no doubt protected him from a similar imbroglio. Sticking to remote Auburn in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Smith avoided the citified pressure that exacerbated Sterling’s difficulties. Sterling’s personality, more egocentric than Smith’s, carried a trace, unfortunately, of snobbism; he criticized Smith for his ambition to publish in the pulps and even for reading them. Smith’s taste ran catholic – he would eventually translate almost the entirety of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal into English, knew Greek and Latin literature well, but delighted also in the stories of his fellow Weird Tales contributors.
This one is really pretty simple. It is a first principle of evolutionary biology – wherein it is expressed as “almost all mutations are lethal,” a fairly obvious truism when it comes to incredibly complex living organisms that manifest a truly spooky degree of thoughtful robust design. It has direct, immediate and palpable – i.e., painful – application in almost every domain of human activity. It goes like this: take something that is working pretty much, hobbling along from one day to the next without dying altogether, and then change it so as to make it work better according to your bright stupid idea; how likely is it that you are going to succeed in your project of reform?
Not likely, right? I mean, really: how likely is it that you will have thought of just what needs to be done with a procedure that has been cooking along for decades without your help? A procedure that has hobbled along from one day to the next for say 30 years is probably doing OK, mutatis mutandis. Mess with it, and you are likely to do no more than mess with it, at the very best.
So, in messing with it, you are almost certainly wasting your time.
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.
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.
Ilíon is – how can I say this? Ilíon is like Auster and Zippy, with whom he tangled, both. He’s one of those sharp edged minds that always manage to teach me, if only by forcing me to get really clear on what the heck I mean, and, so, think. Our converse has always been challenging, and – without fail – charitable and friendly. And edifying.
He is also willing to entertain radical hypotheses, which makes him interesting. But he is just as ready to slice them to bits with an entirely orthodox Christian razor.
I therefore recommend to you my conversation with my longtime friend, Ilíon.
The arguments I proposed in 2012 are nevertheless fundamental to what I shall now suggest, so unless you understand them already, dear reader, it would do you well first to review them.
The basic notion is that any orderly system must, as orderly (and, so, qua system, properly so called; to say “orderly system” is rather like saying “rectangular square”), be amenable in principle at least to complete – i.e., to exhaustive – nomological formalization in a logical calculus. Think, e.g., of the System of Nature, which – as Baconian science, and indeed her predecessor of the more expansive Aristotelian sort both presuppose – must be capable of formalization in a system of natural laws, or at least of natural regularities (tace for the nonce on how any given regularity gets to be anything of the sort, or what any such law might be, or how it might operate). If there is truly a System of Nature, then truly her ways must be legated, and so then legible to us, in some order that can at least in principle be set forth in some formal scheme that undergirds and supports – and, somehow, regulates and so enables – her apparent and merely phenomenal orderliness, in such a way as to secure to us in the first place such a thing as phenomena.
Richard M. Powers (1921 – 1996): Modernity as Apocalypse
By the irony of belatedness, reaction emerges from revolution and the critique of modernity from modernity itself. Tradition stopped being an unnoticed background and became a theme in writers like Joseph de Maistre (753 – 1821) and François-René de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848) during and in the aftermath of the Revolution in France. Having made modernity a theme, the work of Maistre and Chateaubriand, among others, could be carried on by writers of later generations. In the first half of the last century, René Guénon (1886 – 1951) and Julius Evola (1898 – 1974) stand out as major inheritors of the reactionary genre. Perhaps the name of Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936) should be added to those of Guénon and Evola. The two men were certainly influenced by Spengler’s Decline of the West (Volume I, 1919; Volume II, 1922), which sees the modern period as belonging to “civilization” rather than to “culture,” the former being for Spengler moribund and the latter alive. According to Spengler, Culture, with a capital C precedes civilization; and civilization can last for a long time. Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948) also contributed to the critique of modernity although the recognition of his brilliance and the appearance of his early titles together constitute a fairly recent phenomenon. Every year sees the publication in many languages of books that owe a debt to these writers. Among those appearing in English recently, one could point to Thaddeus J. Kozinski’sModernity as Apocalypse – Sacred Nihilism and the Counterfeits of Logos (2019) and Daniel Schwindt’sCase against the Modern World – a Crash Course in Traditionalist Thought (2016). Both will reward the reader even though their authors penned them (what a quaint term) before the events of 2020, which demarcated one age from its successor. Both view modernity from a Catholic-Traditionalist perspective, but with nuances of difference. Both view modernity as accelerating toward its inevitable climax.