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.
Redundancy is a sure sign of disordered thought. Consider the recently popular term, “lived experience.” What other sort of experience might humans have, than such as are suffered by living beings? Or again, “social justice:” there are no other sorts of justice than the social sort.
Such locutions are usually obfuscate. “Lived experience” means really “my experience, which trumps yours;” “social justice” means really “socialism.”
Watch out then for modifiers that perform no real rhetorical work. They are trying to fool us into accepting their real denotations as just, and so to dull our moral wits.
We can extend this charge to any newly fashionable locution. Any such are likely to be propaganda. Beware them.
Kerstian de Keuninck (1560 – 1632): Troy in Flames
Introduction to Part I: Modern people assume the immunity of their situation to major disturbance or – even more unthinkable – to terminal wreckage. The continuance of a society or culture depends, in part, on that very assumption because without it no one would complete his daily round. A man cannot enthusiastically arise from bed as the sun comes up and set about the day’s errands, believing that all undertakings will issue vainly because the established order threatens to go up in smoke before twilight. Just as it serves this necessity, however, the assumption of social permanence – that tomorrow will necessarily be just like today – can, when it becomes too habitual through lack of reflection, lead to dangerous complacency. It is healthy, therefore, to think in an informed way about the possibility that our society might break down completely and become unrecognizable. Such things are more than mere possibility – they have happened. Societies – and, it is fair to say, whole standing civilizations – have disintegrated swiftly, leaving behind them depopulation and material poverty. In the two parts of the present essay, I wish to look into one of the best documented of these epochal events, one that brought abrupt death and destruction to a host of thriving societies, none of which survived the scourge. I have divided my essay into two parts, each part further divided into four subsections. Note: I wrote this article twenty years ago or a bit more for John Harris’s quarterly print magazine Arcturus.
I. Archeologists, historians, and classicists call it “the Catastrophe.” It happened more than three thousand years ago in the lands surrounding the Eastern Mediterranean. Neither geological nor climatological but rather sociological in character, this chaotic enormity erased civilization in a wide swath of geography stretching from the western portions of Greece east to the inner fastnesses of Anatolia, and all the way to Mesopotamia; it turned south as well, overrunning many islands, finally swamping the borders of Egypt. The Egyptians nevertheless defeated the interlopers, some of whom stayed on as mercenary soldiers under the pharaoh. The Catastrophe left cities in smoking ruin, their wealth plundered; it plunged the affected regions into a Dark Age, bereft of literacy, during which populations drastically shrank while the level of material culture reverted to that of a Neolithic village. Echoes of the event – or complicated network of linked events – turn up in myth and find reflection in early Greek literature. The Trojan War appears to be implicated in the Catastrophe, as do certain episodes of the Old Testament. Recovered records hint at this massive upheaval: diplomatic letters dictated by Hittite kings and tablets bearing military orders from the last days of the Mycenaean palace-citadels. Places like Sicily and Sardinia took their names in the direct aftermath of the Catastrophe and in its scattering of peoples.
Roy Krenkel (1918 – 1983): Cover for the Ace edition of Pirates of Venus
Once upon a time – I believe it was twelve years ago – I published an article at the Brussels Journal, defunct since 2009 but still archived on the Internet, under the title Edgar Rice Burroughs and Masculine Narrative. The article mainly addressed the author’s quasi-science fiction novels, but it also contained criticism of the stilted, politically correct apologies for Burroughs in otherwise handsome editions of his work reissued beginning in 2000 by the University of Nebraska Press under the Bison imprint. The foreword writers ritually excoriated Burroughs for having exercised the usual list of phobic isms and inexcusable bigotries. The article pointed to numerous counterexamples that, in particular, exonerated the Tarzan-author of having populated his stories with unrealistically weak or grotesquely male-deferential female characters. The editorial matter accompanying the Burroughs sagas in the Bison editions anticipated today’s advancing disappearance of the Burroughs oeuvre from the marketplace, partly under influence of wokeness. The stock of Bison editions nears depletion at Amazon. Those that remain for sale are in short supply. Used paperbacks from the 1960s and 70s are still for sale, but due to scarcity the prices are rising, especially for the Ace editions with cover-art by Roy Krenkel. An Amazon customer may purchase publish-on-demand versions of some titles, but they make a poor comparison with the Dover, Ace, and Bison reprints of past decades. The publish-on-demand editions often lack cover-art, coming with only title and author; and the printed page looks awkwardly composed, with no typographic grace. The situation treats poorly a man who once enjoyed the status of the most-read popular author in the USA, if not also in the world at large. (Burroughs’ adventures saw translation in a dozen languages, at least.) It saddens me that a man of so great an imagination, and at his best, a master of sterling prose, should vanish from public knowledge.
The article below is not by me (Tom Bertonneau). Its author is a friendly Californian acquaintance who fears losing his job if he publishes his arguments online under his own name, but who wants to see them published nevertheless.
It used to be that people admitted that there must be limits to affirmative action. No one wants an affirmative action surgeon, or affirmative action pilot, for instance. Those are matters of life or death. Having academics who know nothing, students who attend the same brain-dead class in race and gender taught in a multitude of departments, teachers who cannot teach, social workers who are dunces, none of those things matter because things just muddle along regardless. It all contributes to hopeless mediocrity and a downgrading of life on earth, but no one is dying in the streets, if rioting in American cities is ignored. United Airlines has changed all that by saying that fifty per cent of its pilots must be women or people of color, though far fewer women than men are interested in airplanes or flying, or have acquired the necessary flying experience. This dictum will presumably include air traffic controllers, either now or in the future. Customers are apparently willing to actually die – to be incinerated in giant balls of jet fuel, or to die on impact – in the name of diversity, inclusion, and equity. DIE. Now that Americans are prepared needlessly to DIE, the only jobs not susceptible to DIE will be jobs associated with convenience. No one will accept a car mechanic, or computer repairman, who cannot actually repair cars or repair computers. No one will accept computer programs that do not work. So, we will truck with our own deaths at the hands of inept surgeons and pilots chosen for their skin color, but not for matters of ease. A phone that does not text, gets sent back to be fixed or replaced under warranty. Whereas once, if an actually bigoted person wanted to damn someone else, he might call the person a Jew-lover or an n-word-lover, the equivalent contemporary accusation would be “white-lover.” Low-key signs saying “It’s okay to be white,” which are hilarious in the sheer modesty of the assertion, are now regarded as racist and worthy of expulsion from a college campus – whether faculty or student.
On the universal degeneracy of so-called higher education in the contemporary USA, I have made myself clear in any number of articles and essays since the mid-1990s. Recently at The Orthosphere I described the last few years of my college teaching career at what I called “Upstate Consolation University,” supplying anecdotes about students and colleagues who reflect equally the functional illiteracy that has afflicted American culture for the last forty years, at least. Can PhDs really be illiterate? Yes. While they have the specialized knowledge of a trained bureaucrat-scholar, they yet lack anything resembling the broad education of actual eminent minds in decades and centuries now remote and by the current generation completely forgotten. The young faculty members lack philosophical depth – and that translates into an inability to employ intuition or imagination so as to transcend the boundaries of their narrow graduate school instruction. Are American undergraduates illiterate? Yes. But they are more (or is the word less) than illiterate. I would say that they proudly know nothing, except that pride requires knowledge of something and undergraduates have no knowledge of their lack of knowledge. Still and all, their attitude is a prideful one with no discernible basis. The cohorts of college graduates will not preserve the civilization that they inherit. Indeed, they are not aware of inheriting it; their awareness fixates itself entirely on their devices. Being past that, but holding it nevertheless as a background or context to my late-in-life contemplations, I pursue the leisure of my retirement, which consists mainly in eclectic reading of items high and low, with the recognition, late in life, that what is classified as high might really be quite low and vice-versa.
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.
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.”
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.
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.