Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) intended his mid-Nineteenth Century innovation of Music Drama to instigate a thorough renewal, not simply of art, but rather of the human situation, as writ large, in society and culture; he foresaw in the late 1840s that his work would require a theoretical basis in metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics. As it happens, all three parts of this theory entail, although Wagner does not employ the terms, both an anthropology, and a theory of representation. Finally, Wagner’s theory of representation derives a type of primordial signification from an event in which the unavoidable beauty of a token or talisman disarms a threatening violence. Wagner worked out this anthropology, and the accompanying theory of representation, borrowing his vocabulary and some few notions from G. W. F. Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach, in a series of essays and pamphlets in the 1840s and 50s. In these documents, Wagner prescribed the “mimetic,” “poetic,” and “tonal” (that is to say, the combined dramatic) characteristics that would body themselves forth in Tannhäuser, The Ring of the Nibelung, Tristan and Isolde, The Mastersingers, and Parsifal. These operas – or rather these Gesamtkunstwerke, as their author called them, using his own coinage – would recreate on the modern stage an “earliest utterance of consciousness.”[i] Their performance would inaugurate a new “breaking loose from unconscious life,”[ii] to quote from their author’s post-Idealist terminology; enacting the Gesamtkunstwerk would thus revitalize society by rescuing it from the degradations of fashion and the rabble, two of Wagner’s reliable pejoratives, in which an anthropologically acute reader will discern the theme of cultural breakdown in thoughtless spreading imitation and the unconsciousness of the crowd.
Julius Evola (1898 – 1974), The Bow and the Club (in Italian, 1968; English translation by Sergio Knipe, 2018): Julius Evola gained notoriety with his Revolt Against the Modern World (1934), a trenchant book as apposite to the current phase of modernity in the 2020s as it was to the inter-war phase in whose midst it appeared. Men among the Ruins (1953) and Ride the Tiger (1961) carried forward the analyses and conclusions of Revolt. Evola’s authorship looms large, encompassing works major and minor. A late entry in Evola’s bibliography, The Bow and the Club, which perhaps qualifies only as a minor one, anthologizes nineteen independent essays from the 1950s through the 1960s, rewriting them with some cross-references, so as to lend unity to their collocation. “The Psychoanalysis of Skiing” illustrates Evola’s acumen in cultural analysis: Diversion although trivial can testify to the social condition and to the pervasive attitude. Evola remarks the recentness of skiing as a popular sport even while casting doubt on its sportive status. Whereas mountaineering, also recent, requires strength, courage, and skill, skiing, in Evola’s view, simply makes use of gravity. One emphasizes the ascent – the other the descent. The skier must, of course, ascend before he descends, but “the problem has been solved by building cableways, chair lifts, and sledge lifts that meet the real interest of skiers by effortlessly taking them up.” The very mechanization of skiing ranks it, as Evola writes, “among those [activities] most devoid of any relation to the symbols of the previous world-view.” Evola detects in skiing an essential passivity. The thrill of the downhill run reflects the general “collapse and downfall” of the modern world, to which the skier gleefully submits. Evola relates skiing to “naturism,” his word for nudism. A demon of shamelessness indeed hovers over the piste. The notorious hot-tubs of the Sierra-Nevada ski lodges, although they post-date Evola’s death, affirm his intuition.
The French remember Leigh Brackett, comme une maitresse “aux space-operas flamboyants,” to quote the words of paperback anthologist Jacques Sadoul.[i] Stephen Haffner, of the Haffner Press in Royal Oak, Michigan, remembers her, too. He has invested entrepreneurially in putting the best of her work, her contributions to Planet Stories, back into print in hard covers, after many decades of relegation to the second-hand market, in an act of genuine devotion.[ii] Otherwise, like many others, Brackett runs the risk of vanishing into oblivion – for that is where all matter goes that is printed on the cheap, acid-rich paper that gave its name to the eminently perishable pulps. The slightest exposure to moisture crumbles them; sunlight bleaches the covers and makes the pages brittle and prone to disintegrate. Even the paperbacks of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, which reprinted the authors of the pulp era, including Brackett, must sooner or later suffer the same fate as the fragile magazines. Efforts of aficionados to preserve vintage genre fiction in an enduring form express a proper devotion to a robust literary past that looms over an insipid contemporaneity. These efforts also qualify themselves as implicit, but strong, judgments on the present. What accounts for Sadoul’s or Haffner’s dedication? Admirers of elegant prose that manages to evoke lavishly imagined settings, in a style unexpectedly and strongly informed by the Symbolist and Impressionist writers of the fin de siècle, ought to commemorate Brackett (1915 – 1978), who deserves the multiple titles of the True Queen of the Pulps and the undeniable Empress, as it were, of Planet Stories.
In her heyday of the 1940s Brackett’s contribution could be counted on almost invariably to “get the cover,” as the publisher-argot of the time put it.[iii] Brackett also saw print regularly in the double-columns of Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, and Astounding, where again she often “got the cover.” But it was Planet Stories that heartily encouraged her strong suit of heroic romance in an extraterrestrial setting, usually Mars or Venus, with plentiful action. Brackett’s stories in that hyperbolically romantic venue set the artistic benchmark for others, and many were the others who imitated her. Brackett’s stories furthermore always inspired the cover-illustrators to their lurid and enthralling best: Who could not have wanted to devour the récit implied by the Planet Stories cover of the Summer 1946 number illustrating Brackett’s Lorelei of the Red Mist? Ray Bradbury had finished the last third of Lorelei when cinema auteur Howard Hawks invited the saga’s primary author to write dialogue with William Faulkner for The Big Sleep.[iv] Hawks had read Brackett’s No Good from a Corpse, a hard-boiled detective novel that appeared in 1944. He wanted its wordsmith for the tough-guy film he was then developing as a vehicle for Humphrey Bogart. Hawks, assuming the name Leigh to belong to a man, expressed surprise when a slight but athletic woman in her early thirties showed up at his office.[v]
The prolific authorship of the late Colin Wilson (1931 – 2013) began with the publication in 1956 of The Outsider, a phenomenological study of the alienation theme in the modern novel, and continued unto the year of his death, and even beyond, thanks to the activity of his literary executors. With Stuart Holroyd and Bill Hopkins, Wilson constituted a peculiar hiccough in the British literary and cultural scene of the 1950s. The three writers thought of themselves as having established a right-leaning English school of Existentialism that rejected the materialist orientation and politicized cynicism of the French school. Although critics tended to lump the trio together with the distinctly leftwing coterie dubbed the Angry Young Men, Wilson and his two fellow writers could hardly have differentiated themselves more from such as John Osborne, Kenneth Tynan, Kingsley Amis, and the other “Angries.” Wilson and the two others were decidedly intellectual, their early fiction and non-fiction alike rightly deserving the label philosophical. The “Angries” by contrast revolted, in an all-too-contrived manner, against any disciplined phronesis. Finding himself suddenly a celebrity on the basis of The Outsider, Wilson followed up with Religion and the Rebel (1957), The Age of Defeat (1958), and three other titles that would eventually add up to a coherent “Outsider Cycle.” Wilson also produced a steady stream of occasional work for a wide variety of journals and reviews. Some of these found their way in Wilson’s lifetime into single-author anthologies – Eagle and Earwig in 1965 and The Essential Colin Wilson in 1985, among others. The former was for a long time the most elusive of Wilson’s titles; the latter constituted one of the best introductions to Wilson’s thought, as he, himself, had selected the contents.
Colin Stanley and Gary Lachman, both of them scholars of Wilsoniana, have collaborated to bring Eagle and Earwig back into print, but under the name that Wilson originally gave it before his publisher made an alteration: Eagles and Earwigs, in the plural. The book carries the subtitle Essays on Books and Writers. Lachman, author of a critical biography of Wilson (Beyond the Robot ), supplies a new Preface, which supplements Wilson’s original Introduction to the volume. Lachman writes that he first encountered Eagle and Earwig in the library of the British Museum in the mid-1980s – and that it impressed him vividly. Commenting on the book’s fugitive quality, Lachman remarks that “there is something about finding a much-sought after book in a second-hand book-shop that carries its own magic, as rare as that is these days”; nevertheless, as he adds, in forty-two years of inveterate bibliophile questing, no copy of it ever came into his hands. Lachman puts his finger on the appeal of Wilson’s literary essays, especially for a contemporary reader of the Twenty-First Century. Wilson’s “existential criticism” concerns itself, in Lachman’s words, “with how a writer sees the world, his actual perception of it, and with his or her qualifications for making general assessments about that mysterious thing, life.” Existential criticism exercises the primary criterion of visionary quality in establishing its hierarchy of writers and books. It has little patience with ideological tendencies and rejects hackneyed formulas.
Nicholas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), The Philosophy of Inequality (1918; published in 1923 – translated by Father Stephen Janos): Berdyaev appends an elaborate subtitle, Letters to My Contemners, Concerning Social Philosophy, and indeed the book avails itself of the epistolary style, addressing the “contemners” directly via the second person plural. (The translator makes deliberate use of the archaic Ye.) Written during Berdyaev’s ordeal under incipient Bolshevism, but published only after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, which occurred in September of 1922, The Philosophy of Inequality consists of fourteen letters on a carefully calculated sequence of topics, beginning with “The Russian Revolution” and ending with “The Kingdom of God.” With The Philosophy of Inequality, Berdyaev achieves a rhetorical tour-de-force. In the age of Leftwing “wokeness,” Berdyaev’s book reacquires its knife-edged relevancy, conveying to its readers, among many other things, that while the revolutionary mentality might justify itself in its vaunted progress, it remains mired in the dreary slogans of 1848, which themselves in their day never rose above the crassest ressentiment. “The world is entering upon such an arduous and answerable time,” Berdyaev writes in the opening of the First Letter, “in which religiously there has to be exposed everything duplicitous, twofold, hypocritical and unenduring.” The proper instrument for this exposure is “the sword that Christ has brought.” According to the philosopher, “By the spiritual sword [there] has to be a cleaving apart of the world into those standing for Christ and those standing against Christ.” Under Berdyaev’s conviction, Christ stands not with the advocates of equality. He stands rather with those who first acknowledge and then strive to realize His redemptive gift of the person. In the Second Letter, Berdyaev writes of the insurrectionists how, “Ye deny and ye destroy the person, all ye proclaimers of materialistic revolution, socialists and anarchists, radicals and democrats of various stripes, leveling and making a hodge-podge of all, ye proponents of the religion of equality.”
The intelligentsia professes to admire irony. In the 1990s the members of that class watched Seinfeld in first-run and they subsequently bought the program on DVD because they took it for ironic. In the 2010s they watched Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm for the identical reason. Intellectuals usually identify themselves as ironists, of a rarer variety even than the redoubtable television comedian, whether it is Seinfeld or David, on the supposition that they stand askew to the prevailing social consensus, such that their perspective yields them an insight into matters opaque to hoi polloi. “I have baffled them,” the late Joseph N. Riddell, an English professor, once said within earshot of his graduate students while emerging from the Haines Hall lecture auditorium at UCLA. He had been deconstructing Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe in a lecture that quoted Jacques Derrida and other then-obligatory Frenchmen rather more than it quoted Emerson or Poe. The remark partook more in the self-congratulatory than in the ironic, but it was symptomatic of a certain enduring intellectual conceit in which the sense of a privilege of irony, or a satisfaction in superiority, also takes root. The modern or postmodern intellectual pretends to hover above the settled and the established, to gaze down upon the “culturescape,” as though from a height. Even while he declares himself “against Platonism” and works “to subvert metaphysics,” he cannot help but to take, likely without grasping the contradiction, a transcendentally guaranteed view of life, the world, and everything. Naturally he will deny participating in a transcendent domain, the idea of which he will mock, borrowing from Friedrich Nietzsche’s redoubtable treasure-trove of anti-Christian sophisms, but probably without knowing it.
[A Short Preface: I first delivered the following essay as a keynote address on the occasion of the fourth annual conference of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, in New York City, in the fall of 1999. It subsequently appeared in a number of Modern Age, the ISI quarterly. Some of the references are, in 2020, a bit dated, but nothing has changed essentially since the end of the last century – except that what was bad then has only gotten worse. I have rewritten the essay a bit, but have made no attempt to update the references in sections III and IV.]
This essay attempts to set out the basic or better yet the deep justification of the traditional curriculum. That phrase, “the traditional curriculum” means, of course, the Greek and Roman classics, the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and select items from modern and national literatures. The list in Harold Bloom’s study of The Western Canon (1997) is perfectly acceptable. “The traditional curriculum,” it must be added, also implies the basic training in literacy that comes before any acquaintance with the classics, or with a literature of any kind. It is worth remembering that alphabetic literacy, the precondition of literacy in the larger sense, constitutes a recent development in the half a million years or so of incontestable human presence. The literary tradition is the cumulus of a particular type of intellectual activity that first became possible less than three thousand years ago in Syria and the Levant and, a bit later and rather more pronouncedly, in the Greek cities from Ionia to Magna Graecia. Just how much this activity differed from anything else that human beings had ever done these paragraphs shall attempt to indicate. That the alphabet itself might be, in its way, the first great work of literature in the Western Tradition is not a thought that most people are used to thinking. Yet there could well be a pay-off in contemplating the ABCs in just that light. Like poems and dramas and novels, the alphabet imposes a wholly artificial order on an element, speech, of human experience and therefore puts that element in a new and unprecedented perspective. The confrontation with poems and dramas and novels is a continuation of the confrontation with what the letters and their combinations reveal about the distinguishing human trait, language. One begins, then, at the beginning.
Those who might nowadays think of Herbert George Wells (1866 – 1946) – they run to fewer and fewer with the passing years – will rarely, or perhaps never, have thought of him in terms of his religion. They would most probably assume on glancing acquaintance with him that of religion he had none. Wells’ contemporary popular image, insofar as he retains one, invites people to admire him for his advocacy of science – in a manner, as it seems, strictly and materialistically defined; for his impatience with established institutions, and for his dedication to building a global utopian society on a basis of technocratic socialism far beyond the petty and doctrinal socialism of the Twentieth Century. Those acquainted haphazardly with Wells’ biography might also possess vague awareness of his irritable late-in-life anti-Catholicism. During World War II, for example, in a vitriolic pamphlet entitled Crux Ansata (1944), Wells urged the Allies to send an air fleet that would flatten the Eternal City and, by good luck, send Pope Pius XII and the Curia in an ignominious fugue to the afterlife. As Wells saw it, the Roman Church had entwined itself so thoroughly and guiltily with Mussolini’s corporatist Italy, as a type of “Shinto Catholicism,” that its city-state and administrative capitol qualified as a prime target for high-explosive bombs along with the rest of the Eternal City. In a newspaper interview in March, 1944, Wells referred to “this dying, corrupting octopus of the Roman Catholic Church.” Rhetorical sallies like those, rising to the baroque in their extravagance, and others like them that had emerged spasmodically during Wells’ authorship, have no doubt contributed to the picture of Wells as bigoted and invidious in his regard of religion. The picture generalizes too much, however, and for that reason guarantees its own falsehood. Even the cranky Crux Ansata contains many mitigating passages, especially concerning the early Church, with the spirit of which Wells identified strongly.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883 – 1885 – Translated by R. J. Hollingdale): Poor Nietzsche! – Unread in his lifetime, thundering out his contrarian theses to an auditorium minus an audience, and tangling himself up in contradictions of Gordian knottiness such that untangling them would require, not so much a sleek sword, but a great battle-axe and much chopping. And yet, as wrong as Nietzsche so often was, he often got things right despite himself, even supposing that he never knew it. Like so much of the past, Nietzsche speaks to the present, speaks presciently and with clarity to the swamp of human folly in which the contemporary world finds itself so deeply mired. He addresses the phony moralism of the herd, the delusion of a self-denominating progress that continuously congratulates itself on having consummated history, and the mandatory nescience in regard to the human and cosmic realities. A man of colossal resentment, Nietzsche yet understands, even as he models, the perniciousness of resentment; and he sees how envy sends its poisonous tentacles everywhere – just not into himself. That he pretends not to see. Nietzsche’s most famous book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, places the ancient prophet of the Persians and Medes into the role of mouthpiece for the author. Nietzsche assumes the office of an inspired seer. The oratory begins. Paul Kriwaczek summarizes Thus Spoke Zarathustra more succinctly than anyone else. In his own In Search of Zarathustra (2002), Kriwaczek writes how Nietzsche’s program sought “to undo the damage caused to humanity by Zarathustra’s original teachings,” namely through “the invention of morality.” Kriwaczek imputes to Nietzsche the conviction that “therefore it was up to Zarathustra himself to reverse the mistake.”
III. The centuries of Late Antiquity were those, as Gilbert Murray notes, of “a failure of nerve,” which is indeed the title of one of his chapters. The original Greek Enlightenment of the Classical period, summed up in a literature that reaches from Homer to the philosophers, was supremely confident in its power of knowledge and in its understanding of the natural, the supernatural, and the human worlds. Wars for empire sapped the will of the Classical world, however; while relentless sophistic criticism undermined trust in inherited concepts, with superstitions from the East filling the conceptual vacuum thus created. For Murray, the “Mystery Cults” and related movements of Late Antiquity epitomize the phenomenon. They represent for Murray a retreat from rational religion in a widespread “loss of self-confidence, of hope in this life and of normal human effort,” as well as in “despair of patient inquiry,” all accompanied by “an intensifying of certain spiritual emotions.” In the second of its two aspects in Satyricon, the Priapus cult functions as a salvation cult, offering to the convert an exit from the unpleasant brothel-labyrinth or Cyclops-cave of a degraded social scene. What of Lucius Apuleius? In addition to his talent as a storyteller, Apuleius lectured on Plato’s philosophy and worked as a civil adjudicator in his North African hometown of Madaura. Apuleius also held sacerdotal office in one of the most prominent of the Second Century mysteries, those associated with the cult of the syncretic goddess Isis, whom worshippers identified with Aphrodite, Demeter, Artemis, Hera, and every other motherly deity.