Michael Willman (1626 – 1679): Creation of the World (1668)
The Romanian born anthropologist Mircea Eliade (1907 – 1986) led a hectic life in his thirties. Embroiling himself in politics on the right, he became a target even so of right-wing ire on the accusation that his novella Domnișoara Christina (1936) partook in pornography and obscenity, but the very next year he enthusiastically espoused the Iron Guard’s program that Romania should reconcile itself with its Byzantine, and therefore Christian, origins. No one in the 2020s knows anything about the Iron Guard except, when hearing it mentioned, to categorize it automatically with “fascism.” Eliade left Romania after the Communist takeover in 1945, migrated to France, and taught in Paris; he migrated to the United States in 1956 and lectured at the University of Chicago and elsewhere on the topic that obsessed him in the second half of his life – the meaning and function of religion, especially of the sacred. That Eliade had a stake in Romanian Orthodoxy is not contradicted by his opposition to “spiritualism.” In his twenties, Eliade read the French writer René Guénon (1886 – 1951), and came under his spell. Guénon also opposed “spiritualism,” by which he indicated the various theosophical banalities descending out of the Nineteenth Century, including Theosophy itself. Guénon wrote a hefty volume on the fraudulence of Helena Blavatsky’s mystical posturing and the quasi-criminal undertakings of her dubious followers. Elsewhere Guénon consistently emphasized the radical difference between his own Traditionalism and the somber but hollow tenets of Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine (1888). Theosophy belonged to pseudo-initiation and counter-initiation, Guénon argued. These Guénonian attitudes became Eliade’s own; they inform his work. With Guénon and Julius Evola (1898 – 1974), Eliade constitutes the stable core of what might be called Twentieth Century skeptical esotericism.
I recalled the last phases of my former life, that darkling climax of pursuit and anger and universal darkness and the whirling green vapors of extinction. The comet had struck the earth and made an end to all things; of that too I was assured.
But afterward? . . .
The imaginations of my boyhood came back as speculative possibilities. In those days I had believed firmly in the necessary advent of a last day, a great coming out of the sky, trumpetings and fear, the Resurrection, and the Judgment. My roving fancy now suggested to me that this Judgment must have come and passed. That it had passed and in some manner missed me. I was left alone here, in a swept and garnished world (except, of course, for this label of Swindells’) to begin again perhaps…
The miracle of the awakening came to me in solitude, the laughter, and then the tears. Only after some time did I come upon another man. Until I heard his voice calling I did not seem to feel there were any other people in the world. All that seemed past, with all the stresses that were past. I had come out of the individual pit in which my shy egotism had lurked, I had overflowed to all humanity, I had seemed to be all humanity; I had laughed at Swindells as I could have laughed at myself, and this shout that came to me seemed like the coming of an unexpected thought in my own mind. But when it was repeated I answered.
H. G. Wells, In the Year of the Comet (1906)
That the comet’s “green vapors” amount to a Deus ex machina is no reason not to notice the real interest in the passage: The description, which goes on for pages, of the metamorphosis of consciousness that permits the narrator to see the world at last — as if the Blakean “Doors of Perception” had been flung wide. The narrator has ascended to a new order of existence. He is now a kind of superman, at least where keen-sightedness and self-clarity are concerned. The state of heightened consciousness is a recurrent motif in Wells’ oeuvre; so is the Nietzschean Übermensch. In Kipps (1905), the priggish Walsingham, who “had been reading Appearing roughly five years after Ritual in the Dark (1959) and roughly five years before The Philosopher’s Stone (1969), Colin Wilson’s ambitious novel Necessary Doubt (1964) represents its author in the moment when, beginning to appropriate genre formulas (murder mystery, science fiction, espionage novel), he simultaneously began to foreground philosophical themes and to exploit a version of Platonic dialogue for the dramatic exposition of ideas. Necessary Doubt echoes Ritual in a number of ways, particularly in granting to its point-of-view character the privilege of withholding testimony by which he would cooperate with official charges against an acquaintance other than perfectly innocent. The protagonist in Necessary Doubt is Professor Karl Zweig, an existential theologian of Austrian origin whom Wilson models in part on Paul Tillich. Zweig’s relation to the dubious and off-putting Gustav Neumann is somewhat analogous to Gerard Sorme’s relation to Austin Nunn in Ritual although Neumann differs from Nunn in his degree of social pathology (less acute than Nunn’s) and intelligence (higher than Nunn’s). As for The Philosopher’s Stone,Necessary Doubt anticipates it in the notion that access to intensified consciousness might be mediated by psychotropic drugs or by neurosurgery. The metallic substance that accomplishes this goal in The Philosopher’s Stone is called the Neumann Alloy, in a direct backwards link to the earlier work, as Nicolas Tredell has noted.[i]
The name of George Sterling (1869 – 1926) has not figured for a long time in the educated consciousness perhaps because the educated consciousness suffers from a contraction of its horizon. The name of Clark Ashton Smith (1893 – 1961) possesses more currency today than that of Sterling, but only within a circle of genre fanatics. Ironically, Sterling more or less discovered the young Smith, encouraged him to write, and found venues for his early poetry. After Sterling’s suicide, Clark made a frugal living by selling his prose to the pulps, tales of necromantic extravagance mainly, and amalgams of horror and science fiction, written for the most part for Weird Tales, one of the specialist sub-genre-journals of the mid-Twentieth Century. Smith’s name circulates more widely today than it did in his lifetime in that his complete work in poetry, prose, and correspondence is available in print. Very little of Sterling’s output remains in print; he is a phenomenon, more or less, of the antiquarian book market. In Sterling’s lifetime however he stood at the head of the California Symbolist School, which, centered on San Francisco, took its cues from the verse of Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé. Ambrose Bierce and Jack London praised Sterling in his lifetime. Sterling enjoyed the reputation of being the “King” of California’s “Bohemia.” Young poets looked to him for guidance, which he gave generously. Anticipating the Beats, he indulged in alcohol, marijuana, and other, stronger drugs whereupon the toll of vice, not least mounting debt, led him to the taking of his own life by cyanide. Smith’s modus vivendi no doubt protected him from a similar imbroglio. Sticking to remote Auburn in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Smith avoided the citified pressure that exacerbated Sterling’s difficulties. Sterling’s personality, more egocentric than Smith’s, carried a trace, unfortunately, of snobbism; he criticized Smith for his ambition to publish in the pulps and even for reading them. Smith’s taste ran catholic – he would eventually translate almost the entirety of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal into English, knew Greek and Latin literature well, but delighted also in the stories of his fellow Weird Tales contributors.
My 1987 Paroles Gelées interview with René Girard is included in Cynthia L. Haven’s newly issued Conversations with René Girard as Chapter IV, “The Logic of the Undecidable.” Haven writes: “Bertonneau, at that time a doctoral student in the UCLA Program in Comparative Literature, began the interview by invoking what Paul de Man refers to as ‘the Resistance to Theory,’ in an essay of that name.” I meant resistance to Girard’s theory because of its vindication of a Christic anthropology. Haven adds a comment that I made when she contacted me about including the interview in her anthology: “If I experienced any nervousness on the occasion of the interview, Girard immediately put me at ease. I conducted two other interviews for Paroles Gelées. Without mentioning any names, the contrast with Girard could not have been greater. That makes Girard stand out all the more in my memory.” The Kindle edition is only $14.99 at Amazon.
Roy Krenkel (1918 – 1983): Cover Art for the Ace Edition of Escape on Venus
In Burroughs’ Amtor — A Satire of Ideologies, I remarked that in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Venus series, issued in four books from 1932 to 1944, the reader could discern the author’s theory of ideology or, at any rate, his notion (let us say) of ideology. I wrote that, for Burroughs, “Ideology pits itself against life as such”; and that, “Every ideology is [in Burroughs’ judgment] a nihilism that, standing against vitality, beckons the moribund.” The reader will find in the first three Amtor books (Pirates of Venus, Lost on Venus, and Carson of Venus) strong satirical rejections of Communism, Trans-Humanism, Eugenics, and National Socialism — all four of which strike Burroughs as unjust because they exercise violence to coerce a grotesque and arbitrary conformity.* In reference to Eugenics, the thesis is somewhat controversial. Burroughs supported certain aspects of Eugenics, but earlier in his life than the Amtor series, and in Lost on Venus he has his hero, Carson Napier, repudiate the doctrine because a council of eugenicists has condemned his true love, Duare, to death. Perhaps the association of Eugenics with the Nazis had changed Burroughs’ mind. Whatever the case, the pattern in the Eugenics plotline corresponds to those in the Communist, Trans-human, and National Socialist plotlines. It strikes me that Burroughs had seen the inexpugnable malevolence of any Eugenics-based polity and, through his hero, had turned his back on it. No reference to my notion of the “Paracletic Hero”– which I had treated extensively in Robert E. Howard’s Conan – occurs in Burroughs’ Amtor but I was thinking about it as I wrote. In brief, a Paracletic Hero is one who in his deeds conspicuously opposes the ancient ritual of sacrifice, on which a particular society founds itself, and seeks to free its pending victims. Conan, like C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith, achieves this goal and thereby deserves the appellation. (See my Monstrous Theologies at The Orthosphere.)
Daniel van Heil (1604 – 1664): Aeneas and Family Fly from Burning Troy
Introduction to Part II: In Part I of this essay, I began by reminding readers of the necessary complacency that accompanies civilized life. Civilized people go about their lives in the assumption of institutional permanency and a continuity of custom. The assumption that plans made today will see their fruition tomorrow belongs to the background of organized existence and motivates our purposive behavior. The same assumption can lapse into complacency, however, so that, even as signs of trouble emerge on the horizon, a certain denial disarms a people from responding with sufficient clarity and swiftness to looming disruption. People take civilization for granted and rarely contemplate that it might come tumbling down about their ears. Insofar as the historical record has something important to teach ordinary people who are not specialists in the subject, it might well be the lesson that all known societies before the modern society have come to an end. Some of them have come to an end abruptly and violently. One such society, or civilization, was the Bronze Age civilization of the Twelfth Century B.C. in the Eastern Mediterranean. The singular term civilization is appropriate even though the geographical-cultural region of the Eastern Mediterranean contained many separate peoples distinguished by their distinctive languages, religious beliefs, and customs. These societies – Greek, Semitic, Anatolian, and Pelagic – were in commercial, diplomatic, and artistic communication with one another. They together constituted a pattern of civilized life, whose individual element-nations had the same stake in maintaining the coherency of the whole. Note: I wrote this article twenty years ago or a bit more for John Harris’s quarterly print magazine Arcturus.
I. The preponderance of archeological and epigraphic evidence coupled with the testimony of legend and epic narrative would attribute the Catastrophe to a wave of barbarian depredation. This does not mean that other factors played no role. Competing theories about the Catastrophe, as summarized by Robert Drews in The End of the Bronze Age, postulate “Systemic Breakdown” and “Natural Disaster,” such as drought or earthquake, as accounting for the abrupt collapse of so many nations. Drews discounts both as likely sole causes, but suggests that Systemic Breakdown in response to a crop-failure or an outbreak of disease might have eroded the stability of the existing societies. The Bronze Age kingdoms were inflexibly organized, heavily ritualistic in their conception of life, and on occasion testily feudal in their relations with one another, as the episode of Paris and Helen makes clear. Widespread drought leading to famine and disease (which the records of Hatti attest) might well have created a social crisis, with a cascading effect, with which administrative inflexibility could not cope, and which testy feudality exacerbated. Yet as Drews emphasizes, despite their cumbersome nature, the Bronze Age kingdoms apparently functioned more or less as usual right up to the hour of their sudden demise. Mycenae, for example, was in the midst of a large-scale rebuilding project.
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.
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.