Robert E. Howard’s Conan: A Paracletic Hero?

Conan Imagery 02

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.

Continue reading

Rémi Brague on the Hubris of Modernity

Brague Kingdom

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.

Continue reading

Proclus, Einstein, & the Logos

Bird 17 Powers, Richard M. (1921 - 1996) - Abstract in Yellow (1960s)

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.

Continue reading

Notes for an Anthropoetics of the Flying Saucers

Talpazan, Ionel (1955 - 2015) - UFO Swarm

Ionel Talpazan (1955 – 2015): Illustrating a UFO Swarm (No Date Given)

Classicist Robin Lane Fox (born 1946) sets aside a chapter in his compendious study of Pagans and Christians (1986) to discuss the topic, current in the 1980s, of “close encounters,” a phrase originating with the Ufologist J. Allen Hynek and made popular by cinema director Steven Spielberg in his Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).  Fox’s study surveys the religiosity of what scholars now refer to as “Late Antiquity,” a period comprising the centuries from the Third through the Fifth during which the Roman Imperium saw its organizational collapse in the West and, perhaps more importantly, the demise of Paganism as the public religion of Imperial society and its replacement by Christianity in the form of the Church in its Latin, Greek, and Coptic branches.  The religiosity of Late Antiquity has, for Fox, a peculiar flavor.  It runs to intensity, not only in the contest between the old religion and the new, but within the old and the new, where disagreements over belief set people at odds theologically.  Another element in that peculiar flavor is that, on both the Pagan and Christian sides, theology absorbed philosophy, which, at the time, the school of Neoplatonism dominated.  This absorption of philosophy into theology resulted in elaborate systems of strict syllogism, on the one hand, interconnected with mystic speculation, on the other.  Folk-religion also infiltrated these systems and along with it, the motifs of magic.  People of Late Antiquity all over the Mediterranean world had vivid, personal encounters with gods, angels, and demons.  Although Fox criticizes the arguments of E. R. Dodds in the latter’s Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety (1966), he acknowledges that in the folk-basis of Late-Antique worship, prophylaxis against bad luck played a prominent role.  Such prominence indicates a linkage between the psychological state of anxiety, longstanding and pervasive according to Fox, and the character of religious practice. The mere appearance of a god — on the road, at sea, or in a public place before a crowd — placated the ubiquitous unease of the age.

Continue reading

Never Panic

There are two options now before me; before America; before the West; before Christendom, as we all approach what seems to be a cultural crisis hundreds of years in the making: either to panic, or to commend our spirits to God, so renewing our pledge of fealty to him our Captain, and then to keep fighting, and before all else to keep praying.

There must be a demonic aspect to the present crisis. Our adversaries on all sides are too various, distributed and yet spookily coordinated for any merely human agency to have organized them so well. Another clue to their demonic inspiration: they are rather dense, as befits an army dedicated to confusion and disorder. They make stupid, obvious mistakes, such as threatening election officials – a federal offense – and then posting recordings of those threats online.

Synchronistically, I just finished the book Daimonic Reality: a Field Guide to the Otherworld, by Patrick Harpur. I have been reading about demons and angels a lot over the last five years or so. I had not wondered why, until yesterday morning. The topic is interesting, but so are many others. Why had I got on to it? Perhaps, I then thought for the first time, out of the blue: perhaps, it has something to do with our present crisis. Perhaps I have been prepared. Or we: for, I am not special. Lots of people in recent years have begun to take angels and demons rather more seriously than had been the case since 1900 or so.

Continue reading

Lectures d’Automne 2020 (Sélections d’Octobre)

Readings of Autumn 01 Guthrie

W. K. C. Guthrie (1906 – 1981), Orpheus and Greek Religion (1952): Guthrie, a Cambridge classicist, regards Orphism – taking its name from the legendary prophet-singer Orpheus – as the first religion to emphasize cosmogony and eschatology. For Guthrie, Orphism counts also as the first thematically moral religion. Guthrie argues that Hesiod adhered to the Orphic faith and he cites details of the Theogony to prove his case.  Even more boldly Guthrie presents the thesis that cosmology, as distinct from cosmogony, derives from Orphic lore; he sees Plato’s Timaeus, for example, as an item in the genre of Orphic discourse.  Indeed, Guthrie sees Plato as an Orphist.  In Plato’s philosophy, after all, the seeker of wisdom wanders like an orphan in this punishing world.  By dint of intellectual and moral askesis the wanderer might fulfill his obscure desire to go home.  One of the etymologies would have it that the name Orpheus stems from orphanos, which English borrows from Greek via Latin, a derivation fitting itself rather closely with Guthrie’s thesis.  Some stories tell that Orpheus hailed from Thrace, but Guthrie affirms his Hellenism.  The Thracian connection seems to Guthrie a metaphor.  Orphism differed so much from the reigning theologies of the archaic period that it struck people as having a distant provenance – in some accounts, a Hyperborean one.  Orphism stands in tension with the Dionysus cult; and in the myth preserved by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, the Maenads murder Orpheus in a classic sparagmos.  In the Imperial centuries, however, Orpheus and Dionysus seem to have merged, with the former’s irenic quality overwhelming the whole.  Orpheus’ expertise on the lyre affiliates him with Apollo.  Through that affiliation, Orpheus maintains his status as the first lyric poet and the first musician.

Continue reading

Clark Ashton Smith’s “City of the Singing Flame” & Synchronicity

CAS 06 Plants

Clark Ashton Smith (1893 – 1961): Plants (Decade of the 1940s)

Orthosphereans have discussed the topic of synchronicity on several occasions. Synchronicity, a coinage of the psychologist Carl Jung, refers to the phenomenon of “lucky coincidences” or meaningfully convergent events.  There are several orders of synchronicity.  The one that I want to discuss in the following paragraphs is of a low order, but it serves to illustrate my conviction that we live, not merely in a physical world, but in a web of meaning whose source can only be immaterial – that is to say, spiritual.  Events of a low order can arrange themselves, after all, in meaningful patterns.  Patterning attracts the mind because patterning, at least in part, informs the mind, just as it informs the universe.  Recently I posted at The Orthosphere my essay on “Eco-Music from Mahler to Rasmussen,” in two parts.  “Eco-Music” means music permeated by the composer’s sense of the cosmos as a finely woven, complex pattern of spirit and body, temporality and spatiality, causality and spontaneity.  I attempted to relate the compositional process of such artists to the visionary quest of the vates, seer, or shaman, who intercedes for the tribe in the realm of the sacred and on the home ground of the gods.  When contemporary composers like John Luther Adams or Sunleif Rasmussen, express themselves in written word, they not only reveal their knowledge of the vatic tradition; they also reveal themselves as trying to communicate lore acquired on a level higher than the everyday, rather in the manner of an initiate in the mysteries.  Listening to their music – which I did, intensely, over the period of accumulating the essay – convinced me of the validity of such statements.

Continue reading

Sigrid Undset Crosses Russia

Return to the Future 01

Seeing things plain, not lying to oneself, not subscribing to the delusions of others – these virtues, seemingly so simple, prove in life difficult to achieve and tricky to exercise.  An inevitable imitative pressure assimilates people to one another so that mere opinion, received but never vetted, comes to function as a surrogate reality, in the cave-like error of which people stumble about their errands in a lurching mockery of witting behavior.  The ancients worried about false or second-hand judgment (doxa) or about superstition.  Modern people must grapple with ideology.  The critique of ideology is the single most important exercise that an individual can undertake who wants to stand in truth and by his own lights against the conformist pressure of public opinion, or what dissenters nowadays call political correctness.  But this endeavor is complicated by the fact that contemporary ideology claims, of itself, to be a critique of ideology.  This verbal legerdemain began with Karl Marx, who identified the emergent industrial order as the ideology that he named Capitalism, to which his own Communism was supposed to be the clarifying antidote.  The ability to negotiate such a mental hall-of-mirrors is rarer than it should be.  Those who can do it – or have done it – deserve to be commemorated.

Continue reading

The Cinema of Karel Zeman

Brno-born Karel Zeman (1910 – 1989) began work as a window display designer and won a prize for one of his layouts.  He found himself working in the 1930s and 40s as a set-director in the Czechoslovak film industry, an endeavor that continued, perhaps surprisingly, during the German mandate of 1938 – 45.  Zeman would eventually head his own division of the state film industry, the Gottwald Studio in Prague, where he wrote, produced, and directed ten feature-length movies between 1952 and 1980.  Zeman had specialized in stop-motion animated shorts during the 1940s, mostly based on fairy tales.  Except that he never went to Hollywood, Zeman’s career parallels that of the Hungarian-born film-maker George Pal, who invented the “Puppetoon” while working in the Netherlands, and continued exploiting this stop-motion genre in the USA in the 1940s before graduating to special-effects features in the 1950s and 60s.  Whereas Pal’s movies – When Worlds Collide (1950), for example, War of the Worlds (1953), or The Time Machine (1960) – tend toward the grimly serious, Zeman’s tend toward the fantastic, the satirical, and even the light-hearted in their mood.  Pal drew on H. G. Wells, Zeman on Jules Verne, but on a nostalgic reinterpretation of Verne that subtly, and by impressive indirection, contrasts the Frenchman’s technological optimism of the Age of Steam with the bombed-out landscapes of mid-Twentieth Century Europe.  The largely non-political quality of Zeman’s cinema might surprise a Westerner who encounters it for the first time.  One would never guess that Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955) or The Stolen Airship (1967) originated under a Communist regime.

Continue reading

Lectures d’été (Sélections d’Août)

Great Chain

Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873 – 1962), The Great Chain of Being – A Study of the History of an Idea (1936): Lovejoy’s book joins the rank of those, once located in the “must read” category, that steadily fade into an obscurity, which they by no means deserve.  The horizon of intellect in Anno Domine 2020 has retracted so far that the scope of Lovejoy’s learning lies beyond it; no Great Chain of Being exists for the contemporary mind, which obsesses perpetually over somatic trivialities, so much so that it forfeits the dignity implicit in the label of mind.  Lovejoy is aware of folkloristic precursors to the idea of the Great Chain, but he sees the fully articulate expression of it as emerging in Plato’s Timaeus and in the essays, collected as the Enneads, that make up Plotinus’ Third-Century Neoplatonism.  In Chapter II of The Great Chain – “Genesis of the Idea” – Lovejoy divines the dialectic of “otherworldliness” with “this-worldliness” as the urgency behind his titular metaphor.  “Having arrived at the conception of the Idea of Ideas,” as Lovejoy writes, Plato “finds in just this transcendent and absolute Being the necessitating logical ground of this world.”  The apparent flux of existence, which stands in tension with the conceptual, takes its explanation, not only in what Lovejoy calls “the Intellectual World,” but in a Creative Intellect that generates the world.  Becoming provides the bottom floor, or perhaps the basement, of the universal structure, which, unlike a this-worldly structure, a Parthenon or a Mausoleum, the Master Architect builds from the roof down to the foundation – or rather the roof is the foundation.  The Master Architect’s kallokagathos permeates the cosmos in the form of “a Self-Transcending Fecundity.”  A common interpretation of Plato – that the philosopher finds the realm of matter inferior to the realm of spirit – strikes Lovejoy as false.  Lovejoy extends this judgment to Neoplatonism: “In Plotinus still more clearly than in Plato, it is from the properties of a rigorously otherworldly, and a completely self-sufficient Absolute, that the necessity of this world… is deduced.”

Continue reading