The previous essay to this one dealt with the moral decline of the student body in higher education – one of the motives behind my recent retirement after three decades of teaching college English. When I began my association with Upstate Consolation University (I call it that out of courtesy – see Part I for an explanation), most of the English faculty members, including the chair who hired me, had earned their doctorates in the late 1970s. They were oleaginous liberals, naturally, but they were also ladies and gentlemen of actual education and considerable high literacy who took it for granted that the purpose of a literature program was to bring to life in students the Intuition of Form or Imagination about which George Santayana writes in his Sense of Beauty (1896), a book already cited in Part I. According to Santayana, “Imagination… generates as well as abstracts; it observes, combines, and cancels; but it also dreams.” Imagination, Santayana writes, involves spontaneity; it strives towards “the supremely beautiful.” As the Old Guard went into retirement a cohort of new assistant professors filled up the department’s allotted tenure-track lines. The new phase of aggressive Affirmative-Action recruitment insured that this replacement-generation of instructors, overwhelmingly female, differed starkly in character from its precursor-generation. The new hires came to the institution from the politically radicalized graduate programs of the state universities.
Whereas the Old Guard corresponded to a literary-generalist or dilettante model – terms that I use in a wholly positive way – the arrivistes brought with them only their narrow specialisms, as encrusted in their conformist political dogmas. Mention Santayana to the Old Guard and chances were good that any given one of them would be familiar with the drift, at least, of the philosopher’s work. Mentioning Santayana to an arriviste produces a blank stare.
In May of 2020, my wife and I took our retirement after more than thirty years of teaching college, the last twenty years of which we spent at what I will call Upstate Consolation University, a mid-tier state college somewhere in the Northeast near to the border with Canada. My wife taught French in the Romance Languages Program and I, a wide variety of courses, some twenty-three altogether over the years, in the English Department – concerning which more to come. Apart from wanting what remained to us of our active lives to be ours and not the institution’s, the main motive for our decision was the intolerable decline of Upstate from a more or less serious academic organization, typically liberal but not yet politically correct or “woke,” into one more copy of the ideological collective that, in the manner of Star Trek’s “Borg,” has digested and transformed virtually every center of post-secondary education, whether public or private, in the nation. “Resistance is futile – you will be assimilated.” In the following paragraphs, I will review my Upstate gig while highlighting the major symptoms of the aforesaid decline as I observed them over the two decades of my affiliation there. While my situation was specific to Upstate, Upstate qualifies as nothing less than typical. The anecdotes in what follows have application therefore well beyond the place where I gathered them. Although all state colleges and universities shout “diversity” and preach “tolerance” at the top of their lungs, they in fact demonstrate monolithic bigotry and homogeneous narrow-mindedness.
Weird Tales for January 1935 – Cover by Margaret Brundage (1900 – 1976)
Clark Ashton Smith (1893 – 1961) established his popularity among readers as a contributor to the pulp magazine Weird Tales from the late 1920s until the late 1930s, when he called to a halt, without an explanation, his story-writing phase. Before that, he had made his name as a poet – one of the early Twentieth Century “California Symbolists,” whose exotic verses responded to the outré imagery cultivated by the founder of the Symbolist school, Charles Baudelaire. A bit of historical-literary irony obtrudes. Baudelaire himself took inspiration from an American writer, none other than Edgar Allan Poe, whose imagery and syntax the Parisian strove to reproduce in his impeccable French and whose stories he translated in order to correct the Gallic opinion that the USA was nothing but a utilitarian-industrial concern. Dissidents from the Puritan dispensation called North America home, Baudelaire had noticed, and they worked to extend, not routine, but imagination. Smith thus becomes an acolyte of Poe both primarily and secondarily, reproducing certain grotesque and mystical elements of the Baltimorean’s prose directly and as refracted through Baudelaire’s Joseph de Maistre-influenced poetic vision. The sequences of Maistre and Poe to Baudelaire and of Poe and Baudelaire to Smith stand out as non-arbitrary in that the three Nineteenth Century writers developed a convergent anthropology that sees as strongly kindred the ancient cults of sacrifice and what calls itself progress. Smith inherits the conviction of his writer-precursors that modernity constitutes a bloody, global crisis of humanity and that redemption from cultural degeneracy requires the individual to heed a moral code, strictly negative, rather minimal, and vouchsafed by a source that contemporaneity, in its arrogance, damns. Smith, like Maistre, Poe, and Baudelaire, sees evil as real, as objective; he knows where it originates, and he uses his talents as poet and teller of tales to trace evil’s genealogy and its consequences.
Robert E. Howard (1906 – 1936) faded rapidly into obscurity after his self-inflicted demise in 1936 following the death of his mother from tuberculosis. Ironically, Howard’s reputation had increased steadily in the lustrum preceding his suicide. Farnsworth Wright, the editor of Weird Tales, remained as parsimonious as ever, but other publications were clamoring for Howard’s work, which had branched out from weird fiction and barbarian stories into westerns, boxing yarns, and “spicy” tales. In the last year of Howard’s truncated life, he made a respectable living by writing and the prospect going forward looked good. The drop-off in his literary notoriety stemmed from the fact that, his work having disappeared from the pages of the pulps, and having never made it into book form, no persistent token presented itself that would remind the readership of his existence. Imitators filled the vacuum left by his disappearance although his literary executor, Otis Adelbert Kline, managed to place a few stray manuscripts posthumously. In 1946, August Derleth’s Arkham House issued an anthology of Howard’s short fiction, Skull Face and Others, but in a small edition aimed at aficionados. Howard’s popularity would revive only with the paperback explosion of the 1960s, helped by Frank Frazetta’s cover illustrations, but even then many of the stories that entered into print were extenuations of outlines and incomplete drafts undertaken by L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, and others. It would take thirty, forty, or even fifty years for something resembling an authentic version of Howard’s authorship to come on the market and for his copious correspondence with Derleth and H. P. Lovecraft to make its way into the catalogues. Hollywood’s contribution in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Howard’s most notable character, Conan the Barbarian, in 1982 and 1984, exploited Howard’s name but did nothing to represent his achievement. Vincent D’Onofrio’s biopic, The Whole Wide World (1996), based on Novalyne Price’s memoir of her relationship with Howard, by contrast, told the Conan-author’s story with genuine pathos, but enjoyed only a limited release.
As being perhaps the most practical, humble, and yet far reaching in its potential consequences, this may be the most important post I have written.
It is about a Frisbee game I played with a good friend and neighbour when we were young. I read of it in the old Whole Earth Catalog – an important early influence upon me. It is worth passing along. The rules are simple:
Rémi Brague’s Kingdom of Man: Genesis and Failure of the Modern Project (2018) offers a lineage of, and a judgment on, “progress,” which, central to modernity, conceives itself as, precisely, a project. This word project figures importantly in Brague’s exposition. Brague (born 1947) distinguishes on the one hand between a task, a term or family of terms that he traces back to antiquity, and, on the other, a project, a term or family of terms that emerges with the so-called Enlightenment, beginning in the Seventeenth Century. (Brague translates from Greek, Latin, and various medieval and modern languages into French, and his translator, Paul Seaton, from Brague’s French into English, but readers may take for granted a thoroughness of lexical rigor across languages.) Having drawn Adam from the soil and Eve from Adam’s rib, God tasks the newly mated couple, and through them the whole of humanity, with dominion over nature, or stewardship, as some versions put it. Presumably although perhaps awkwardly one might refuse a task. A degree of voluntarism attaches itself to the concept. At the same time, the subject of the task undertakes it out of a sense of reciprocity or mutuality and in the trust that fulfilling the commission will sustain an ongoing relationship that benefits both parties – the tasker and the taskee – in the long run. A task is in the order of things. A project, by contrast, arises from a sense of urgency or panic. The discovery of a lack provokes a sudden resolution that the lack be made good as swiftly as possible. A project addresses a perceived deficiency by invoking a mandate for immediate action. Brague calls attention to the etymological basis of the word: Pro- (“forward”) and jacere (“to throw”), in Latin. Something ballistic and aggressive adheres to a project, which resembles a military campaign. Brague indeed invokes Napoleon’s campaigns, ultimately vain but hugely destructive, as instances of the generic project.
So here’s a question, quite serious: have you been feeling unusually depressed in 2020? Have you been feeling more and more depressed, over the course of the year? Have your feelings of depression been far more intense than any you have ever experienced?
The question arises from my recent correspondence with an orthospherean friend of many years – of many more years than there has been such a thing as The Orthosphere (most of you would recognize her name) – in which I learned that she, like me, has been thinking about death a lot over the last few months. I learned from her also of the recent suicide of a prominent pastor. That got me thinking.
The James Martin Center has published Part I of my two-part article, Leaving the Blight of Higher Education. This first installment bears the subtitle, “Farewell, Students.” In it I describe and discuss the corruption, not of faculties and administrations (that comes in Part II), but of the student bodies of our colleges and universities. Students have, in effect, been co-opted as the enforcement-arm of the administration in order to police and neutralize even the smallest dissent from the totalitarian program of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity. In its ugly candor, the university now functions as the training-ground for a national regime of denunciation. Far too many students, most of whom, through disinclination and a lack of intellectual requisites, should not be in college, relish their license to denounce and exercise it with enthusiasm. Affirmative action exacerbates this attitude, consisting, as it does, in the inculcation of a sense of racial-moral superiority that can find no anchor in reality but only in perpetual outrage.
It is not simply the politicization of everything. Students have assimilated almost entirely to the vulgarity of the reigning, perverse “pop culture.” To be “cool” requires the insertion of profanity in all sentences. The constant flow of sailor-language is demoralizing for someone who believes that college is supposed to comport itself with civilization.
Here is an excerpt from Part I:
A friend of mine from Upstate, “Fred,” served in the Army, where he rose to the rank of sergeant. After leaving the military, Fred found employment on campus as a manager of services. Fred and I frequently find ourselves in the same bar on weekends.
One afternoon, a gaggle of co-eds having entered the premises, Fred turned to me and asked, “Have you ever overheard them talking on campus?” I nodded, but let him continue.
“They use the f-word in every sentence,” he said, a phenomenon familiar to me. Fred, who came to Upstate from an environment where the f-word possesses a degree of functionality, nevertheless took offense in the profanity of female undergraduate banter.
Fred’s speech maintains a civilized quality and in this, he differentiates himself from students, female or male. It is not that co-eds implicate themselves exclusively in voluble profanity. Male undergraduates indulge equally in expletives. They even invoke the f-word and the s-word in class, but a stern glance can enjoin such infractions.
The problem is a continuing one, however, and its implication remains unsettling. In other classrooms—this is the only possible inference—these language-proletarians have escaped admonition. They, therefore, assume that no one could possibly object to their verbal infelicities.
Richard M. Powers (1921 – 1996): Paperback Cover (1963)
“Δέστε τη ζώνη ασφαλείας σας. Πρόκειται για μια ανώμαλη βόλτα.”
– Συνταξιούχος καθηγητής
In the philosophical school of Neoplatonism, the Late-Pagan intellectual dispensation and its nascent Early-Christian counterpart find common ground. Indeed – they converge. They coexist miscibly for a while until the Pagan component seemingly disappears, leaving the Christian component as the sole public face of the movement. This metamorphosis proceeds so smoothly, however, that in comparing a prose-sample from the one phase with a prose-sample from the other, with the author-names redacted, the reader might find himself hard-pressed to discern which of them leaned toward a fading polytheism and which toward the rising Trinitarian conviction. But then the Pagan chapter of Neoplatonism hardly deserves the label of polytheism. To the extent that the Late-Pagan thinkers recognize a multiplicity of divinities, they classify them as refracted manifestations of a single luminous principle; and when they insist on the primacy of “The One,” they tend to couch their discussion in the lexicon of a triple-hypostasis. A Christian Neoplatonist like Pseudo-Dionysius borrows so much in his basic vocabulary and pivotal tropes from a Pagan Neoplatonist like Plotinus or Syrianus that a paragraph by the former will seem to parrot a paragraph by the latter, but it is in fact more a case of continuity than of parroting. (To parroting – the reader must maintain his faith – the discussion will eventually come.) Among the shared, interlocking premises on whose basis these thinkers operate are that the cosmos, by virtue of its perfection, must be the creation of a perfect being; that being good and true, the cosmos is also beautiful; and that the Demiurge or World-Creator, whereas he is apprehensible, is nevertheless not comprehensible. As to the last, the Neoplatonists willingly expend thousands of words to argue that God, in his infinitude, infinitely exceeds the power of language to grapple with him.