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 Avalon Jazz Band, headed by chanteuse Tatiana Eva-Marie, is a Brooklyn based musical group that revives “Hot Jazz” and “Gypsy Jazz” hits from the Parisian 1930s and 40s. “La mer” was written by Charles Trenet (1913 – 2001) in 1929. With new words, utterly at variance with the original French lyric, it became an American “hit” in the late 1950s. “Sunshine” (below) comes from the Jazz genius Paul Whiteman (1890 – 1967), who made hundreds of recordings with his band in the 1920s and 30s. The Avaloners endear themselves to me by their straightforward presentations of melodically and rhythmically attractive material from the middle of the last century. There’s no attempt to “update” the material. “Parlez-moi d’amour” (1930) by Jean Lenoir (1891 – 1976) is a lighter-than-air French waltz, which buoys my heart every time I hear it. I also find myself attracted to Tatiana Eva-Marie’s undisguised femininity — which likewise belongs to the middle of the last century.
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.
In May of 2020, my wife and I took our retirement after more than thirty years of teaching college, the last twenty years of which we spent at what I will call Upstate Consolation University, a mid-tier state college somewhere in the Northeast near to the border with Canada. My wife taught French in the Romance Languages Program and I, a wide variety of courses, some twenty-three altogether over the years, in the English Department – concerning which more to come. Apart from wanting what remained to us of our active lives to be ours and not the institution’s, the main motive for our decision was the intolerable decline of Upstate from a more or less serious academic organization, typically liberal but not yet politically correct or “woke,” into one more copy of the ideological collective that, in the manner of Star Trek’s “Borg,” has digested and transformed virtually every center of post-secondary education, whether public or private, in the nation. “Resistance is futile – you will be assimilated.” In the following paragraphs, I will review my Upstate gig while highlighting the major symptoms of the aforesaid decline as I observed them over the two decades of my affiliation there. While my situation was specific to Upstate, Upstate qualifies as nothing less than typical. The anecdotes in what follows have application therefore well beyond the place where I gathered them. Although all state colleges and universities shout “diversity” and preach “tolerance” at the top of their lungs, they in fact demonstrate monolithic bigotry and homogeneous narrow-mindedness.
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.
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.
The James Martin Center has published Part IIof my article, Leaving the Blight of Higher Education. Part I dedicated itself to a discussion of how the liberal regime that controls the institutions of higher education in our former republic has, through massive and continuous indoctrination, transformed the student body from a cohort of young people that was at least willing to learn into a mob-minded mass whose primary function is to monitor and denounce any infraction of the racialist totalitarian regime of political correctness on campus. I gave an account of the havoc that the anti-morality of denunciation works on any attempt to impart a genuine higher education. Once the slogans take over, thinking stops. I wrote how this conversion of the student-body into a quasi-police force increasingly disgusted my wife and me and led, in part, to our decision to retire from teaching – a task to which we had dedicated our lives. Part II, “Farewell, Faculty,” turns its attention to the instructor-side of the equation. My wife and I taught at what I call Upstate Consolation University for twenty years. The faculty committees that hired us in our respective departments (Foreign Languages in her case and English in mine) were firmly liberal in their political convictions but not politicized in the totalitarian way of the contemporary Left. This, too, would undergo a transformation. As older faculty members retired and newly graduated holders of the doctorate – most of them from state universities – replaced them, the character of the department changed. The intellectual level dropped, lower and lower, until the difference, in this regard, between the teachers and the students became minimal. The character of the two groups also merged. And at this point the urge to police, to betray, and to punish made any exercise of curiosity about the human condition or openness to knowledge impossible. An adolescent narcissism made itself universal in students and faculty alike as the behavior of undergraduates became the behavior of the faculty.
I draw an excerpt from Part II, which I preface here with a back-reference to a passage in Part I that acknowledged, with an allusion to the American philosopher George Santayana, the wide general knowledge of the “Old Guard” of professors, so as to contrast them with the “New Guard.” –
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.
Richard Weaver’s notion of “Presentism” makes itself relevant to the discussion. By “Presentism” Weaver intends a mental restriction that has steadily eroded the modern, liberal view of reality. This mental restriction, as he puts it in his Visions of Order (1964), manifests itself primarily in a “decay of memory.” Weaver writes, “Wherever we look in the ‘progressive’ world we find encouragements not to remember.” Today it is not an “encouragement,” but rather a demand not to remember, as the profligate monument-defacement and statue-toppling of the times so savagely demonstrate. The anti-historical dementia has fully infiltrated graduate studies and through them has colonized the literary branches of higher education. The unending pageant of neologisms and slogans that now makes up “literary studies” illustrates this anti-developmental development.
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.