Mika Waltari’s Dark Angel (1952) – A Novel for Our Time

Waltari 01 Dark Angel Cover

Early 1960s Paperback Edition

The name of the Finnish novelist Mika Waltari (1908 – 1979) reached the peak of its currency in the mid-1950s when many of his titles had transcended the isolation of their original language to come into print in English, French, German, Italian, and Swedish.  One of these, The Egyptian (1945), had reached the big screen in 1954 in a lavish Hollywood production directed by Michael Curtiz, with a cast including Edmund Purdom, Victor Mature, and Jean Simmons.  Curtiz’s film adhered closely to Waltari’s story, which concerns the attempted religious reforms of the pharaoh Akenaten, which Waltari, the son of a Lutheran minister and a serious student both of theology and philosophy, regarded as an early instance of ideology.  Basing his fiction on the best information available at the time, Waltari strove to show how, despite the sincere intention of the reformer, the reforms themselves so contradicted Egyptian tradition that they devastated the society.  The novel operates intellectually at a high level.  So does Curtiz’s cinematic version, which likely explains its poor box-office on release.  The Hollywood connection nevertheless boosted Waltari’s foreign-language sales and meant that his books would remain in print into the 1960s.  Today Waltari’s authorship is largely forgotten along with those of his Scandinavian contemporaries such as Lars Gyllensten, Martin A. Hansen, Pär Lagerkvist, Harry Martinson, Tarje Vesaas, and Sigrid Undset.  Anyone who has seen the film Barabbas (1961) with Anthony Quinn in the title role has, however, had contact with Lagerkvist, on whose novel director Richard Fleischer drew.

All of those writers might justly be characterized as Christian Existentialists, heavily influenced by Søren Kierkegaard, who saw their century, the Twentieth, as an era of extreme crisis at its basis spiritual, and who saw the ideologies – the rampant political cults – of their day as heretical false creeds that fomented zealous conflict.  It is unsurprising that such a conviction should have taken hold in Scandinavia.  Two of the Scandinavian nations, Denmark and Norway, had endured conquest and occupation by Germany in World War II.  Sweden avoided that fate, but as Undset wrote in her account of escaping the German invasion of Norway, most Swedes expected disaster to strike at any time from 1940 until the end of hostilities, either from the Germans or from the Russians – or possibly from both, with the nation becoming a battleground.  In Finland, which had only won its independence in 1918, first by rejecting Russian rule and then by defeating a Communist insurrection within its own borders, the sense of acute crisis realized itself in the Soviet attack in the winter of 1939 and 40, during which Waltari worked in Helsinki in the Finnish Government’s Information Bureau, and again in the subsequent Continuation War of 1941 through 1944.  These events are the immediate background to Waltari’s composition of The Egyptian, and they are by no means irrelevant to Dark Angel, published seven years later.

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The Whig Interpretation of History

It has been said that the historian is the avenger, and that standing as a judge between the parties and rivalries and causes of bygone generations he can lift up the fallen and beat down the proud, and by his exposures and his verdicts, his satire and his moral indignation, can punish unrighteousness, avenge the injured or reward the innocent.  One may be forgiven for not being too happy about any division of mankind into good and evil, progressive and reactionary, black and white; and it is not clear that moral indignation is not a dispersion of one’s energies to the great confusion of one’s judgement. There can be no complaint against the historian who personally and privately has his preferences and antipathies, and who as a human being merely has a fancy to take part in the game that he is describing; it is pleasant to see him give way to his prejudices and take them emotionally, so that they splash into colour as he writes; provided that when he steps in this way into the arena he recognizes that he is stepping into a world of partial judgements and purely personal appreciations and does not imagines that he is speaking ex cathedra. But if the historian can rear himself up like a god and judge, or stand as the official avenger of the crimes of the past, then one can require that he shall be still more godlike and regard himself rather as the reconciler than as the avenger; taking it that his aim is to achieve the understanding of the men and parties and causes of the past, and that in this understanding, if it can be complete, all things will ultimately be reconciled.
  — Herbert Butterfield,   The Whig Interpretation of History

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Of Possible Interest

Wyst

My essay on the late Jack Vance’s 1978 dystopian Novel Wyst: Alastor 1716 appears at The Gates of Vienna, by the courtesy of its webmaster “Baron Bodissey.”  Wyst, the third installment of Vance’s “Alastor” trilogy is a carefully plotted thriller-satire that takes on the cliches of socialism and egalitarianism.  I give the first two paragraphs below. —

Towards the end of a long life, the American genre writer – and merchant seaman, jazz-man, and master of many trades – Jack Vance (1916 – 2013) produced an amusing autobiography entitled This is Me, Jack Vance! (2009); the book also carried a parenthetical and apologetic subtitle, Or, More Properly, This is I.  In the subtitle Vance takes a jocund swipe at grammatical pedantry, and therefore at pedantry and Puritanism generally speaking, but he also affirms his passion for order, of which grammar is the linguistic species, without which (order, that is) freedom and justice, both of which he held as dear as anything, would be impossible.  There are a number of scholarly anthologies devoted to Vance’s authorship and at least one book-length single-author study of his fiction, Jack Rawlins’ Dissonant Worlds of Jack Vance (1986).  It is a pity, however, that no intellectual biography of Vance exists.  This is Me gives the essential details of its writer’s curriculum vitae, but it is largely bereft of information concerning Vance’s artistic-philosophical formation.  So is Rawlins’ study although it remains otherwise useful.  If only, like Henry Miller, Vance had written his version of The Books in my Life!  Concerning Vance’s artistic-philosophical formation, however, one might plausibly infer and arguably surmise a few probabilities.  A writer is liable to be a reader, a prolific writer a prolific reader.  A merchant seaman, as Vance remarks in his autobiography, finds himself with a good deal of time on his hands.  Vance, who had briefly studied English at the University of California Berkeley, spent long stretches at sea during the Second World War, with a good deal of time on his hands.  Two plausible guesses in respect of books that would have impressed themselves profoundly on Vance as he passed his time in their company are The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas père and The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler.
The Count of Monte Cristo would have supplied Vance with a plot-line, that of righteous and carefully schemed vengeance against arrogant and powerful offenders, which he used in his own brilliant way many times.  Two books of Vance’s Alastor trilogy, Trullion (1973) and Marune (1975), are vengeance stories, as are all five volumes of The Demon Princes (1964 – 1981).  As it did for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, and science fiction writer James Blish, among innumerable others, The Decline of the West would have deepened Vance’s sense of meaning and large-scale patterning in history; and it would have stimulated his interest in the comparison of cultures.  In Spengler’s theory of the Great Cultures, as he called them, each Great Culture has a distinct physiognomy (Spengler’s term) that imprints and flavors its institutional manifestations and pervades the mental outlook of its every individual.  A major element of Vance’s fiction is to establish through detailed description the distinct physiognomy – or as he calls it in a coinage of his own, the esmeric – of each of his fictional worlds and their societies.  The Decline would also have honed Vance’s sensitivity to the crisis of European civilization, just as it had for Fitzgerald and Miller.  Once again, the breakdown of social structures and the descent of civilization into renewed barbarism interest Vance almost obsessively.  Vance’s authorship contains many other signs of Spengler’s background presence, not least in its tendency to insert extended philosophical discussions, sometimes as footnotes, into the unfolding story.  In Vance’s later work, commencing with The Demon Princes, references occur to a certain “Baron Bodissey,” who seems to have been the Spengler of the settled cosmos, or the “Gaean Reach,” in the long-colonized solar systems of which, and among immensely old societies, Vance’s stories tend to occur.  Spengler saw his Great Cultures as living entities.  Vance’s Ecce and Old Earth (1991) quotes Bodissey’s study of “The Morphology of Settled Places,” in which he argues that “towns behave in many respects like living organisms,” a decidedly Spenglerian proposition.

The “Great War” and Tyranny: E. E. Cummings and John Dos Passos on the Destruction of Order 1914-18

Image 10 American Troops at Ready

American Troops at Ready, 1917

The reactionary-traditionalist historical view tends to correlate the ascendancy of the ideological dictatorships with the degrading tumult of World War II, making of the Nazi-Communist rivalry in the 1930s the tense build-up to that war while interpreting the conflict itself as a paroxysmatic re-ordering of world politics.  The regulation of the re-ordered world would be technocratic and autocratic – it would be ideological – whether the victorious global hegemon was the United States of America or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  A type of elective étatisme hung in the air in 1945.  The British majority, for example, voted socialist immediately the conflict ended, contemptuously booting the architect of the victory, Winston Churchill, from office.  France and Italy contended with large, well-organized Communist Parties and likewise embarked on the nationalization of their economies and the provision of generous welfare guarantees to the citizenry.  The liberal colonization of institutions begins in this period, to become implacable and irreversible about the time that the Soviet Union dissolves in 1990.  Quite apart from historical discussion, many non-scholars who think of themselves as conservatives nourish the notion that the “soft” totalitarianism of the contemporary politically correct regime in the West has only a short pedigree and that, but a few decades ago, as in the 1950s, perhaps, tradition still reigned and things were in their proper proportion and arrangement.  Of course such a view ignores the “enlightened” managerialism of Woodrow Wilson and the socialist quasi-dictatorial style of Franklin D. Roosevelt, just as it ignores the mobilized character of such phenomena as Suffragism and Prohibitionism, early phases of the liberal project that confusingly coincided with the anti-immigration and anti-Communist movements.  Then again the anti-immigration and anti-Communist movements only became a reality because of immigration and Communism.

The most famous literary dystopia, George Orwell’s 1984, sees publication in 1948, but the most plausible literary dystopia, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, sees publication in 1932.  The 1920s and 30s see a flood in spate of critical anti-modern discourse, not least, and quite ironically, in the single most definitive, formally modernist, text of all, T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land (1922); but also in philosophical works by Oswald Spengler, Nicolas Berdyaev, Herman Keyserling, René Guénon, Paul Valéry, Christopher Dawson, and Jacques Maritain, and in novels and short stories by, among others, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pär Lagerkvist, Thomas Mann, Huxley himself, and two American contemporaries of Fitzgerald, E. E. Cummings (1894 – 1962) and John Dos Passos (1896 – 1970).  Cummings and Dos Passos attended Harvard as undergraduates at the same time, studied there with George Santayana, and absorbed their teacher’s skepticism about modernity.  The two classmates decided, before Wilson took America to war, to see the front first-hand by joining the volunteer ambulance corps.  Cummings and Dos Passos served in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps as volunteers.  In The Enormous Room (1922), an experimental non-fiction novel, and in Three Soldiers (1923), a novelistic panorama of America at war, Cummings and Dos Passos respectively and decisively break ranks with what they have come by convergence to regard as the claptrap of war talk and the enlistment of whole societies in a project of total conflict.

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Reading Count Gobineau

Gobineau 01 Gobineau Seated

Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau (1816 – 1882)

The name of Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau (1816 – 1882) rarely appears nowadays except in a context of moral dudgeon.  The first sentence of the Wikipedia article devoted to Gobineau perhaps unsurprisingly informs the reader, in rather lazy prose, that “Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau… was a French aristocrat who was best known by his contemporaries as a novelist, diplomat, and travel writer but is today most remembered for developing the theory of the Aryan master race and helping to legitimise racism by scientific racist theory and racial demography.”  (Punctuation corrected.)  The term “scientific racist theory” especially courts self-condemnation through its editorial heavy-handedness and its retrojection of a contemporary item of ideological cant: Objectively, Gobineau sought only to articulate a scientific racial theory or a scientific theory of race.  The term “master-race” moreover is foreign to Gobineau’s text; and “Aryan,” as Gobineau properly uses it, is an ancient tribal self-designation.  Had someone accused Gobineau of racism, or of being a racist, the term would have baffled him entirely.  The reliably left-leaning Wikipedia is not alone, however, in treating Gobineau as thoroughly toxic.  The New World Encyclopedia, in its online version, asseverates that “although [Gobineau’s] racial theories did not receive immediate attention in Europe,” nevertheless “it was through the influence of the Bayreuth circle and Richard Wagner that his views became popular, and his anti-Semitic theories developed.”  The Encyclopedia’s rhetorical maneuver draws on the widely circulated notion that National Socialism began proleptically with Wagner, who therefore qualifies himself as morally pernicious, and it extends Wagner’s supposed vileness backwards to the one who planted the seed of wickedness in Wagner’s mind – namely Gobineau in his proper person.  That reading Gobineau’s prose inspired Wagner to be a rabid anti-Semite and led to the Holocaust seems to be the implication.

Leaving aside the imputation that Wagner was a Proto-Hitler, which while of considerable interest belongs in another discussion, these slick mischaracterizations of Gobineau’s treatise on The Inequality of the Human Races (1854) reveal themselves as being based on prejudicial and superficial readings of that book; or perhaps on a universal omission to read it.  What then would a careful and unprejudiced reading of The Inequality of the Human Races yield?  The present essay proposes to answer that question.  (Note: Inequality is a work in four extensive volumes that touch on a variety of topics and that in many ways establish the science of comparative ethnography; the first volume, however, functions as an extended introduction to the other three, summarizing their contents in advance.  For the sake of tractability, I confine my remarks to that first volume.)

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The Great Sortition

I argued in a recent post that, because of its militant, totalitarian presumptions, Islam must sooner or later be destroyed if any other cult – including the cult of the Living God, YHWH our Lord Jesus – is to survive. Because God in Jesus assured us (Matthew 16:18) that his cult simply *cannot* be destroyed (which would only make sense, it being the cult of the Omnipotent One), we may be sure that, sooner or later, Islam certainly *will* be destroyed, or else by some mass apostasy of Muslims simply wither and vanish, as insane cults are wont eventually to do.

Insanity, after all, is autophagic. Like all error, it works its own destruction.

The post garnered more page views than any other we had published since our first few days of existence. Thanks, Western Rifle Shooters!

It also engendered a lively discussion.

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Islam Delendam Esse

The estimable Laura Wood, an orthospherean shield mate of long standing in the culture wars, and an old friend, responded to my recent post on The New Castellation of the Eurosphere (which adduced the recent proliferation of bollards as its material) with an intelligent and forceful critique of my attribution of that castellation and all its dire cultural sequelae to the threat of Muslim terrorism. This post is a response to her comments.

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Of Possible Interest

Waltari

Mika Waltari

My essay A Novel for Our Time appears at Baron Bodissey’s Gates of Vienna website.  The “novel for our time” is Dark Angel (1952) by the Finnish writer Mika Waltari (1931 – 1979), a fictionalized account, drawing on historical sources, of the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.  Waltari’s work is today largely forgotten, but during his lifetime it received widespread appreciation and made itself available to non-Finnish speakers through translations in a dozen languages.  (Waltari’s novel The Egyptian, for example, would become the basis of a lavishly produced Hollywood film of the same name.)  Dark Angel is partly allegory, being a study in loyalty to civilization and its opposite; and it is partly a call to its audience to remember an event that is increasingly obscure or entirely unknown to most Western people.  Most importantly – and most relevantly from the perspective of sixty years later – Dark Angel is an attempt to grasp the essence of Islam.  Waltari’s characterization of Islam stands at an angle to a number of assumptions that critics of that creed at  the present time make of it – and in a way that heightens the claim of radical incompatibility between Islam and the West.

The Intersection of Metahistory & Sainthood

We are here honored to present a guest essay by fellow orthospherean Mark Citadel.

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My knowledge of the lives of Christian saints is sub-encyclopedic to say the least, in part due to a lack of time to really sit down and read. I have, in my time, gained a familiarity with some of the greats; St. John Chrysostom, St. Athanasius, St. Cyril, St. Basil the Great, and one of my personal favorites, St. John of Kronstadt. However this barely even scratches the surface of the rich history extending from the Mediterranean to the frozen north of Europe, and even to the modern United States with great teachers such as the likely soon-to-be-canonized Seraphim Rose.

Saints of course have huge significance in Christian theology and ritual. Nicolas Zernov stated in his study on Orthodox practice that saints were treated “as teachers and friends who pray with them and assist them in their spiritual ascent. Jesus Christ during His earthly ministry was surrounded by disciples who did not prevent others from meeting Him, but on the contrary helped newcomers to find the Master. In the same manner fellowship with the saints facilitates communion with God, for their Christ-like character brings others nearer to the divine source of light and life.”

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