Tradition or Meaninglessness?

One of the main functions of tradition is to pass down to successive generations a comprehension of the meanings of the customary and traditional praxes and language. If the Tradition fails at that, then the praxes become meaningless and stupid, and are soon discarded as extraneities worthily subject to Ockham’s Razor: to the first principle of order, which is deletion. That’s when you get iconoclasm, whether intentional or not.

Intentional iconoclasm knows the meanings of the icons it destroys. Unintentional iconoclasm does not. The former is effected by destruction; the latter by desuetude.

Once the meanings of the cultural praxes are gone, the praxes themselves soon follow; for, there is then no longer any reason for them, that anyone knows or remembers. And that’s when the culture decoheres.

Stuart Holroyd, Gnosticism, & the Occult Wave (Part II)

Holroyd Elements

First and Only Edition of The Elements of Gnosticism

III. Holroyd’s case for Gnosticism remains nevertheless a measured one.  Unlike Pagels, Holroyd’s attitude is not, against Orthodoxy, an angry one.  In Elements, Chapter 1, in setting forth the common propositions of the numerous Gnostic systems, Holroyd remarks that “the idea that the world was the work of an incompetent or malevolent deity” figures among them.  He adds that, “stated thus baldly, it seems a merely perverse idea, or an attempt to exonerate human iniquity by putting the blame on God.”  He immediately tries to downplay the perversity by explaining that the Gnostic systems posit two deities: The inferior Demiurge who, envying the creative potency of the superior deity, authors the botched world; and that selfsame superior deity, sometimes referred to as the Father.  Holroyd notes that the “transcendent God does not, and never did, act, in the sense of willing something and bringing it about.”  Rather than create, as does the God of Genesis, the Father emanates the lower levels of the metacosmic hierarchy in which he dwells, whatever that means.  Thus, to think like the Gnostics, “we have to substitute the idea of divine emanation, or ‘bringing forth,’ for the idea of divine action.”  In Gnostic rhetoric, the Demiurge is the “abortion” of Sophia or Wisdom.  When the Demiurge came forth from Sophia, then, in Holroyd’s words, “he imagined himself to be the absolute God.”  Holroyd makes a good job of conveying to his readership the baroque complexity of the Gnostic myth, with its many levels of divine and demonic beings and its multi-stage causality that brings about the world as men know it.

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Stuart Holroyd, Gnosticism, & the Occult Wave (Part I)

Holroyd

Stuart Holroyd (born 1933)

The name of Stuart Holroyd (born 1933) is associated – if rather erroneously – with that British literary insurrection of the late 1950s, the “Angry Young Men.”  In fact, Holroyd and his two close associates, Colin Wilson and Bill Hopkins, differed strongly from the “Angries,” among whom the representative figures were John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, Harold Pinter, and Kenneth Tynan.  The “Angries” emphasized their politics, leaning strongly to the left; they assumed an ostentatiously materialistic viewpoint, wrote in self-righteous condemnation of the existing society, put ugliness on display, and tended towards an egocentric species of pessimism or nihilism.  Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which enjoyed theatrical success in London in 1956, typifies the outlook of the “Angries”: It presents an English version of Jean-Paul Sartre’s bleak Existentialism, set in a universe devoid of meaning where, in Sartre’s phrase, “Hell is other people.”  Holroyd and Wilson, and to a certain extent Hopkins, could not content themselves with the restricted mental horizon of the “Angries.”  Nor did they wish to waste energy “condemning society.”  Holroyd and Wilson especially responded to a shared mystical impulse that saw in human nature possibilities of transcendence.  Wilson remains better known than Holroyd, but their early careers ran on parallel tracks.  Wilson published his first book, The Outsider, in 1956.  It became an unexpected best-seller.  Holroyd published his first book in the same year although it appeared in print after The Outsider had come out.  Emergence from Chaos exceeds The Outsider in a number of ways – it is better organized, its prose more finished, and its arguments more coherent.  Both books recount indirectly a type of metanoia springing from the inveterate reading, since adolescence, of serious books, in Holroyd’s case with a focus on poetry and philosophy, Wilson’s Outsider being oriented more to the novel.

I. Emergence from Chaos proposes the overarching thesis that religious or spiritual experience drives human development, both for the species, historically speaking, and for the specimen individual at any given moment on the historical continuum. Holroyd, as expected, defines religious experience broadly; he will not confine himself, say, to the standard tale of Christian conversion although he by no means excludes it. Holroyd focuses on effects.  Mystic ecstasy comes in many varieties, which “have different causes,” as Holroyd writes in Chapter One, “and are expressed in different terms”; but “they always lead to the same metaphysical conclusions.”  The subject espouses the new conviction that “there is a higher reality than the obvious, tangible, worldly reality, and man is most nearly himself, lives most intently, when he seeks to embody or to exist upon this higher level.”  Spiritual experience “thus leads to a severe shaking of the foundations upon which the lives of most of us are built.”  The initiate often interprets his access to the vision as both a rebirth and a type of humblement.  He tells of what has befallen him, but he makes no egocentric claim about it.  He now sees the ego in its proper place in the divine-cosmic hierarchy.  In Chapter Three, Holroyd discusses the conjunction of “Religion and Art.”  Holroyd makes the point that, “Art is not religious because it concerns itself with obviously religious subjects, but rather because the artist’s attitude to life is a religious one.”  Holroyd cites the still-life canvasses of Paul Cézanne where the intensity of the painter’s vision functions as the mark of his exalted spiritual state.

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Rosalind Murray on Barbarization

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Rosalind Murray: A Portrait

Rosalind Murray (1890 – 1967) was the daughter of the Oxford classicist Gilbert Murray, who sensing early his daughter’s talent encouraged her to write.  She published a first novel, The Leading Note, in 1910.  In 1913 Murray became the wife of Arnold Toynbee, bearing him three sons.  She divorced Toynbee in 1946, thirteen years after her conversion to Catholicism.  No one today knows Murray’s name but in her lifetime she wrote steadily, sustained an audience, and garnered the attention of literary critics.  In her later career she sidelined herself as a fiction-writer and devoted her productivity to religious non-fiction.  She produced the first fruit of this authorial metamorphosis in 1939 under the heavily laden title The Good Pagan’s Failure.  No doubt but that the coinage of “the Good Pagan” implies close personal relations, touching on both her father and her husband, but the book never mentions either.  In it, rather, the formula denotes generically the modern, upper-class humanist whose sincere good intentions center on building up a global regime of justice and equality, but who, at the same time, rejects any concept of God and assumes a stance, sometimes dissimulated, that is hostile to religion.  Such people appear as early as the Eighteenth Century.  They refer to their advent as Enlightenment, which materializes in 1793 as the iconic Guillotine.  Their heirs in later centuries have adopted, variously, such labels as Liberal, Progressive, Socialist, or Communist.  Their failure consists in the irony that acquiring total control over the institutions and using them to carry out their policies they have by no means improved the human situation.  They have largely torn down civilization and immiserated millions.  When The Good Pagan’s Failure first appeared, Murray could point to the Great War as evidence for her thesis; revising the text in the early 1960s, she could point to another global conflict, the subsequent and dire Cold War, and many signs of degeneration in Western society.

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José Ortega y Gasset & Gabriel Marcel on Mass Man

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Mass Man in Portrait

The Revolt of the Masses (1932) by José Ortega y Gasset (1883 – 1955) is a classic diagnosis of the modern condition whose diminished currency in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century fails to correlate with its increased relevance ninety years after its initial publication.  Revolt ought to be better known than it is.  Man against Mass Society (1951) by Gabriel Marcel (1889 – 1973) – addressing the same topics as Revolt but from a point in time twenty years later in the aftermath of the Second World War and at the onset of the Cold War – enjoys nothing like the reputation of Ortega’s masterpiece, but is equally relevant to contemporaneity and deserves, not so much to be better known, but merely to be known.  The two books complement one another.  Ortega, an adherent of the classical liberal principle, but with an aristocratic attitude, sees in democratization a decisive break with history and an inevitable dragging-down of inherited institutions to the lowest common denominator of their functionality.  Marcel, a Catholic believer allying himself with the conservative faction in politics, sees in the metastasis of bureaucracy and the triumph of the managerial attitude an inhuman faux ordre that threatens the God-endowed dignity of the person.  Both books examine the quantitative character of modernity – and the diminution of individuality in a world where millions or even billions dominate the scene.  As two trends, the number of people and the pressure of number on the unique, gain in their dynamism, a degrading sameness assimilates the super-majority to a single pattern.  For both Ortega and Marcel, the characteristics of that pattern include an overwhelming social orientation, a childish or primitive taking-for-granted of the civilized inheritance, an almost total lack of historical awareness, a concomitant presentism, and a moral vacuity that renders its thralls highly susceptible to fanaticism.

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From Promethean Pride to the Holocaustic Imagination: Atlas Shrugged

Rand Soviet Style

Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982)

The victory over desire is extremely painful.  Proust tells us that we must forego the fervent dialogue endlessly carried on by each of us at the superficial levels of our being.  One must “give up one’s dearest illusions.”  The novelist’s art is a phenomenological epochē.  But the only authentic epochē is never mentioned by modern philosophers; it is always victory over desire, victory over Promethean pride.  (René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel)
The descent of the absolute into the empirical world is the moment of its undoing.  As soon as we posit an absolute difference between victim and persecutor, the underlying symmetry of their relation reasserts itself.  When the SS torturer becomes the villain of the war film, he is turned into a sacrificial figure, a scapegoat, [a] structural equivalent of the Jud Süss in Nazi cinema.  (Eric Gans, Signs of Paradox)

I. No account of Ayn Rand’s (1905 – 1982) sprawling, morally incoherent end-of-the-world story Atlas Shrugged (1957) can begin elsewhere than in an acknowledgment of the way in which the novel’s fascinating spectacle can draw a reader in despite himself. This is the book’s secret, which the present essay aims to investigate. The British writer Colin Wilson gives a typical account.  He first became conscious of Rand’s work while lecturing in America in the autumn of 1961; university students would ask him his opinion about her.  He responded that he had never heard of Rand, whereupon, as he writes, “somebody presented me with paperback copies of her two major novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged – the latter more than 1,000 pages long.”  Delving into the former, Wilson found himself “immediately put off by the rhetorical tone of the opening,” which he quotes: “Howard Roark laughed…  He stood naked at the edge of a cliff,” and so forth.  Turning to Atlas, Wilson writes, “I remembered that I had seen some of this book before [when] a correspondent had sent me its last hundred pages: an immensely long speech, made over the radio by a man called John Galt… to justify individualism.”  Galt’s speech struck Wilson as “too wordy” and he had, on that former occasion, “given it up.”  Now, when students would ask what Wilson thought of Rand, he “inclined to be dismissive – a typical female writer, a kind of modern Marie Corelli, much given to preaching and grandiose language.”  In the autumn of 1962, however, confined to bed by a severe case of influenza, Wilson revisited Atlas, “determined to give it a fair trial.”  Pushing himself through the first twenty pages, Wilson at last –

Read the book from cover to cover in two days, and immediately followed it with The Fountainhead.  I had to admit that I had done Miss Rand a considerable injustice.  It is true that this is partly her own fault.  The cover of Atlas Shrugged has a rather badly drawn picture of a naked Titan, his head thrown back, his arms spread apart, against a fiery red background; the back cover has a picture of Miss Rand, her head also thrown back, her eyes very wide open, the lips slightly parted as if seeing a vision.  It was all a bit Wagnerian; and although I love Wagner’s music, I am inclined to be impatient of literary Wagnerianism – as in Faulkner or Wolfe…  But one thing was immediately obvious from Atlas Shrugged.  Miss Rand has the ability to tell a story… with a minimum of clichés.

In Wilson’s judgment, Atlas “has a great deal in common with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four.”  Like those, “it is a tirade against collectivism and government interference with individual freedom.”  Pace Wilson, while one might acknowledge some few similarities, Atlas shows little of the political or psychological acumen of Orwell or Huxley, and none at all of their individual stylistic felicity – but this stands as a parenthesis to the criticism.  No subtlety kept Wilson riveted for two days and a thousand pages but rather Rand’s broad-stroke depiction of a grand industrial Götterdämmerung across the three parts of the novelistic tapestry.  Rand has the technological infrastructure of North America collapsing into ruin, often with incendiary effects, while a gangster regime that has superseded the federal government systematically loots the national economy.  Moral invertebrates like James Taggart, who oversees the destruction of the Taggart Transcontinental Railway, or the Al Capone-like Cuffy Meigs, the gang-leader just before the final catastrophe, exercise a kind of morbid glamour as Rand demonstrates the drastic consequences of their larceny-dissimulated-as-altruism.  The protagonists, Dagny Taggart (James’ sister) and Henry “Hank” Rearden (owner of a steel mill), search an obliterated landscape for signs of the elusive Galt, who might be either the evil agency behind all of the massive decay (“the destroyer”) or the genius-inventor whose deus ex machina of a free-energy motor will save civilization.

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Christopher Mihm’s Cave Women on Mars (2008), Sex, & the Movies (Beta)

Cave Women Lobby Card

Lobby Card for Cave Women on Mars

Christopher Mihm is a Minnesota-based producer and director of radically inexpensive, independently financed entertainment films whose maneuver is that they disguise the impoverishment of their production values by mimicking the low-budget, black-and-white B-grade science-fiction films of the 1950s.  They do so with consistent comedic brilliance.  Mihm came on the scene in 2006 with his Monster from Phantom Lake, filmed for around ten thousand dollars, according to his website.  The Monster makes allusions to a number of vintage man-in-a-suit shock-and-horror movies, such as The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959), except that Mihm plays his story as a farce rather than as a straightforward fright-drama.  In its farcicality, The Monster also recalls films of more recent vintage, such as The Toxic Avenger (1984), from Troma Studios, and its several sequels.  The Troma films, however, were always crass and garish: That was their idiom.  Mihm’s approach to farce, as well as to pastiche, is civilized rather than vulgar, and even at times rather gentle.  Mihm clearly loves the films that he spoofs, and as he has found his feet in his self-defining genre a humane interest in his characters has increasingly informed his work.  Mihm followed The Monster with It Came from another World (2007) and Cave Women on Mars (2008).  The former riffs on the alien-possession motif of Invaders from Mars (1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).  The latter, Cave Women, stands out as Mihm’s best film thus far even though since 2008 he has completed at least seven others: Destination: Outer Space! (2010); Attack of the Moon Zombies (2011); House of Ghosts (2012); Terror from Beneath the Earth (2012); Giant Spider (2013); X: The Fiend from Beyond Space (2014); People in the Wall (2014); and Danny Johnson Saves the World (2015).

These later films have their merits although the growing number of them means that their quality will be uneven and that the filmmaker will have begun to repeat himself.  None of these later efforts quite succeeds in surpassing Cave Women in its achievement.  Destination, for example, which tries to supply a sequel to Cave Women, runs fifteen minutes too long and never directly picks up the story of its alleged prequel.  What a pity!  It would be interesting to know what might have happened in an actual follow-up.  Cave Women, on the other hand, enlarges what might be called the meaning-capacity of its narrow conceptual niche, the contemporary low-budget retro-pastiche with science-fiction attributes, as played for laughs.  Mihm’s planetary romance – casting its net of allusions both widely and deeply – suggests that, in this rare case, a deliberately cheap production, made to be risible for its apparent incompetency, might become the inadvertent carrier, so to speak, of a culturally serious insight.  The network of allusions contributes abundantly and essentially to the film’s self-transcendence, but other factors play a role.

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The Wonderful Horrible Integrity of the World

Horror: … from Latin horror, “dread, veneration, religious awe” …

What is true at any time and place is true at all others. Truth is non-local, instantaneous, ubiquitous.

This is obvious in respect to the eternal and a priori truths, as of mathematics, metaphysics, and so forth.

But it is as so for a posteriori truths as for a priori.

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