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.
Those who are determined to resist the moral and civic corruption of their age – those who refuse to participate in the flouting of decorum and the degradation of bodies – must also resist the sophistic apology that seeks to excuse the very same moral and civic corruption. This apology typically articulates itself as a form of dogmatic Determinism. The apologist denies freedom of will so as to exculpate moral lapses generally, or perhaps those of the enunciator himself specifically. Determinism seeks to redefine moral consequences as non-causal outcomes that have somehow happened to people, as it were, at random. The astute will discern such attempts at spurious exoneration in the oft-heard counseling claim that obnoxious behaviors like dipsomania or drug addiction stem from the dumb proclivity of the organism rather than from witting declensions of a particular character; and in the sociological tenet that crime emerges as a “consequence” of “poverty” or of “oppressive social structures.” Thus a well-known movie actor blames his philandering on his “sex-addiction,” as though his proclivity to fornicate with as many women as possible impinged on him from outside himself so that no personal agency could be discerned in his transgressions. Thus a school board rejects a sex-education curriculum based on the concept of chastity with the argument that abstinence defies nature and is for that reason fabulously unrealistic. Forty years ago first lady Nancy Reagan withstood a torrent of public abuse for her suggestion that schools should teach children simply “to say no” to temptations. Mrs. Reagan’s critics did not say what else people are supposed to do to avoid temptation; they were merely certain that the will is powerless and they were outraged at the idea that self-control might be entered as an item in the school curriculum.
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.
Fish know not that they swim in the sea, nor birds that they swoop in the air. No more do the denizens of the prevailing era know that they live out their lives in a philosophically narrow, righteously conceited, anti-human, and anti-natural dispensation, calling itself modernity, which can trace its immediate beginnings only to the Eighteenth Century, and which represents a radical break with thousands of years of accumulated wisdom gleaned painfully from a massive human experience. No doubt but contemporary modern people, when they hear an invocation of the Eighteenth Century, locate that century in a periwigged past, thinking that it could not possibly have anything to do with them, as they exist, in the transient now. This very attitude betokens, in fact, an essential feature of modernity, which idolizes the present moment as the figure of a so-called progress that is self-consummating and that makes obsolete everything belonging to any moment in the historical continuum that precedes it. Indeed, the modern mentality necessarily rejects history; it is fundamentally non- or anti-historical, which also makes it anti-memorious, devaluing not only history, but memory. Thus the modern mentality has conveniently forgotten the violent origins of its perpetually disruptive mode. The mendaciously self-designating Enlightenment, rejecting the moral and intellectual inheritance of the European Middle Ages, viciously attacked the vestiges of the past and in so doing set the stage for the mayhem and terror of the French Revolution. The violence of modernity would perpetuate itself through the centuries, murdering a hundred million people in the middle of the Twentieth Century, always in the righteous name of that selfsame progress. The convulsion of modernity, however, provoked a response, and that response took the form of Traditionalism – a critique of modernity that seeks also to curb modernity, and to curb it for the sake of a human restoration. In Traditionalism humanity remembers itself. Traditionalism attempts to revive an immemorial wisdom and to place it once again at the memorious center of institutions.
The earliest representatives of Traditionalism gained prominence with the onset of revolutionary agitation in France in 1789. The Terror of September 1793 to July 1794 and the executions of the royal family, beginning with Louis XVI in January 1793 and concluding with Louis’ ten-year-old son and heir apparent in 1795 galvanized them. The Jacobins labeled the original Traditionalists reactionaries. But the term reaction requires a context. Reaction originates, in fact, in the revolutionary mentality itself, which reacts, or rather rebels, against the Tradition. Such names as Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821), René de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848), and Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) stand at the center of Traditionalism and produced the heart of its classical expression. In Contra Mundum – Joseph de Maistre and the Birth of Tradition (2017), Thomas Garrett Isham makes an important point about both Maistre himself and the loosely organized movement that Maistre initiated. Isham tells of Maistre’s adherence to the Catholicism in which he came to manhood and of his loyalty, both as citizen and public servant, to the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. When in 1792 the Revolutionary Army invaded Savoy, the Piedmontese départment where Maistre’s parents had brought him into the world and raised and educated him, the magistrate and senator experienced the bloody barbarity and atheistic intolerance of revolutionary-nihilistic politics at first hand; the dispossession of his property and his forced exile to neighboring Switzerland provoked in Maistre a colossal reorganization of his philosophical and theological assumptions.
[NOTE: This post is the continuation of the article — or sequence of linked essays — that begins in the post immediately preceding it. I published “Monstrous Theologies” in the mid-1990s in the journal Anthropoetics, but for this re-posting I have extensively edited and re-written it.]
III. Moore’s “Vintage Season” and Sacrificial Aesthetics. “Vintage Season” (1946) – attributed to Moore’s husband and collaborator Henry Kuttner but written in fact solely by Moore – deals with the creation of a work of art by an artist of the future who visits the earth in the immediate post-World War Two years, when the story was written. But this act of creation is also an act of sacrifice, and the work of art that stems from the event has the character of an immolatory token. In fact, because “The Vintage Season” is a time-travel story involving the usual paradox, it resists any straightforward rehearsal. The basic elements of the narrative are, nevertheless, these: Oliver Wilson owns a house that three eccentric “vacationers” who call themselves the Sanciscos want to rent; to one of them, a woman named Kleph, Wilson feels considerable attraction, and he therefore lets the house despite the fact that he might garner a windfall from it if he sold it outright to a buyer. Wilson’s fiancée Sue pesters him to renege on the deal and to sell, but Oliver refuses. The interest in this detail lies in Moore’s opposition of the market to the Bohemian group. The group represents culture and seems to promise something superior to the bourgeois world of exchange. Moore’s Smith regrets leaving the comforts of marriage and participation in the nomos. Moore’s Wilson, vulnerable to the temptations of art, cult, and difference, regrets his prior immersion in what strikes him now as the tediously normative. He is an alienated bourgeois taking the usual route of opposition to the market for the mere sake of opposition. If resentment is the sacred, as Girard so often intimates, then Wilson’s alienation renders him particularly vulnerable to the Bohemianism of the foreigners.
The Sanciscos behave like Wildean aesthetes: “There was an elegance about the way [their] garments fitted them which even to Oliver looked strikingly unusual”; and “the feeling of luxury which his first glance at them has evoked was confirmed by the richness of the hangings they had apparently brought with them”; Kleph’s coiffure strikes Wilson as perfectly sculpted, “as if it had been painted on, though the breeze from the window stirred now and then among the softly shining strands.” From such behavior, Wilson infers that their depth of culture radically exceeds his own, an inference sustainable, as it turns out, in aesthetic terms only and not in any ethical sense. As in the case of the magic shawl in the Northwest Smith story, phenomenal beauty guarantees nothing about ethical acceptability. A certain type of intense beauty indeed radiates from a certain type of archaic violence, which the beauty tactically conceals. Kleph shows some reciprocal although, ultimately, only a condescending interest in Wilson, who visits her in her room one afternoon while the others are away. The foreign accouterments of Kleph’s room include a peculiar “picture of blue water” hung above her bed the marvels of which entrance Wilson. Describing Wilson’s response to this, Moore employs the language of of fascination: “The waves there were moving. More than that, the point of vision moved. Slowly the seascape drifted past, moving with the waves, following them toward the shore.” The images compel Wilson’s attention; he cannot peel his eyes from them, and they in their turn temporarily absorb and obliterate his sense of self. Smith has the same problem when he gazes too intently at the weird shawl.
[NOTE: This article — or sequence of linked essays — appeared in the journal Anthropoetics nearly twenty-five years ago. Its prose leaned too heavily by far on the first person and in re-reading it, it came across to me, on that account, as a bit narcissistic. It was also burdened by too many sidebars. Nevertheless, the main argument and the literary analyses seemed to me to retain their validity. I have extensively edited and re-written the original in order to present it here, in a more seemly form, at The Orthosphere. This is Part I — Part II will follow immediately.]
Science fiction is by widespread consensus the prose genre devoted to representing the precepts of the physical sciences – the precepts of materialism – in narrative: Standard definitions of science fiction typically explicate the genre under the related rubrics of extrapolation and plausibility. Those seeking to understand science fiction in its generic particulars will therefore find its paradigm, according to this received definition, in the texts of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. In confronting the recalcitrant physicality of the ocean’s depths, Verne for his part carefully imagines a device, Nemo’s submarine, which can subdue watery resistance and lay clear abyssal mysteries; the Nautilus does this, importantly according to the consensus, without violating any known limitations of physics or mechanics. In speculating on the future of warfare, H. G. Wells for his part posits slight increases in the dependability of traction-engines and in the versatility of dirigible airships and he then puts in prospect, in “The Land Ironclads” (1897) and The War in the Air (1906), eminently credible scenarios of technologically enhanced combat in the European near future of the time. This branch of “hard” science fiction finds extended life, and indeed appears to become the core of the genre, in the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s, especially in John W. Campbell’s Astounding, where Campbell himself, E. E. Smith, and Eric Frank Russell enthralled readers by describing the instrumentality of space travel, planetary conquest, and interstellar warfare. Campbell’s planetary machinery might be less “plausible” than Verne’s submarine or Wells’s battle-tanks, but the principle of story-construction remains the same: The saga finds its purpose in the careful delineation of mechanical details and in the equally minute depiction of spectacular havoc.
I. The Discovery of Superstition. It is important, in fact, to assert what criticism commonly denies: Namely that science fiction originates not in industrial modernity, although that is when the genre, latent for many centuries, at last fully revived, but in Late Antiquity and that it is cognate with the advanced forms of speculation of those days.But Late-Antique fantastic narrative also partakes in the spiritual developments of the time, especially in the consolidation of the mystery-cults and the proliferation of Gnostic systems. Whereas the speculation of a materialist like Epicurus creates a picture of the universe as a plurality of worlds, the speculation of religious thinkers, like Plutarch and Valentinus, creates a world-feeling somewhat paranoid in its basic attitude, distrustful of a cosmic dispensation that it finds inhospitable, and vigilant against demonic forces. In the words of Hans Jonas from his study of Gnostic religion: “Cosmos thus becomes… an emphatically negative concept, perhaps more strongly because more emotionally charged than it had been a positive concept in the [older] Greek conception.” The Epicurean and Plutarchian worlds are the same world, differentiated through divergent evaluations. Plutarch is neither so unscientific nor Epicurus so de-divinized as casual acquaintance might imply. There are religious elements in atomism and scientific elements in neo-Platonism. Plutarch, for example, contributes to astronomical speculation in his dialogue On the Face in the Moon and to itinerary fantasy, a voyage to remote islands, in the dialogue On the Decline of Oracles.
Along with Joseph de Maistre and Louis de Bonald, François-René Vicomte de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848) rightfully takes his place as one of the most prominent of the early Catholic pro-monarchical Francophone critics of the French Revolution. Chateaubriand’s authorial career began in 1797 with the publication in England, where he had gone into exile, of his Essai historique, politique, et moral sur les révolutions anciennes et modernes considérées dans leur rapport avec la révolution française. Chateaubriand, like Maistre, had witnessed the Revolution directly and experienced its devastating effects personally. His younger sister died in a Jacobin dungeon; his elder brother and his sister-in-law lost their lives to the guillotine. Chateaubriand himself fell, seriously wounded, during the Siege of Thionville while fighting as a private soldier in the Émigré Army in late August 1792. He managed to make his way to Brittany, his home, from there to the sanctuary of Jersey, and finally to London where he commenced the impoverished ordeal of his long recuperation. The Essai, which runs to nearly six hundred pages, reveals its author’s erudition, which its successors such as The Genius of Christianity (1802) and The Martyrs (1809) would further attest. Chateaubriand proposes to study in detail the five revolutions that he can identify in antiquity and the seven in modernity with the twin aims of discovering the revolutionary causality and of applying that causality to an analysis of the French Revolution. Chateaubriand remarks that, according to the legends, Greek monarchy suffered a general catastrophe in the aftermath of the Trojan War. Even before Agamemnon’s ill-fated enterprise, however, the stories of Oedipus, of the Seven against Thebes, and even of Theseus suggest a crisis or weakening of kingship. The chaotic aftermath of the Greek victory in the Troad saw the demise of dynasties, such as that of the Atreids in Mycenae. Darkness descends over Hellas. When affairs once again emerge into the light, monarchy has vanished, its place taken by the turbulent poleis or as Chateaubriand calls them, not without prejudice, les républiques.
Chateaubriand makes the point, in his discussion of the historical poleis, that these democracies rarely in fact heeded the popular will. Rather, clever power-seekers manipulated opinion for selfish ends. Competition among power-seekers generated factionalism, which periodically broke out into open conflict. Laws intended to enrich the ruling class exacerbated the resentment of the poor against the rich. As Chateaubriand writes, “The poor in the state are infinitely more dangerous than the rich, and often they are worth less than them.” Chateaubriand never indicts the poor; he indicts those who create poverty. Once the difference between rich and poor exists, however, and especially when the manipulators have sabotaged the inherited social order, violent convulsion becomes inevitable. Chateaubriand cites the history of Athens from Codrus, the self-sacrificing last king of Attica, to Solon as a near-perpetual cycle of mobilized factions, tyranny, counter-tyranny, and, on exhaustion, attempts to repair political order through the writing of new constitutions. The Athenian project of acquiring an empire led to the city’s defeat and to decades of chaos until, at last, the Macedonian phalanx imposed a new order. A republic, in Chateaubriand’s assessment, is an inherently unstable type of polity.
No one, regrettably, has ever translated the Essai into English. Those who can handle French and who interest themselves in the irony that Reaction arises from Revolution will find a reward in examining it. Fortunately, Chateaubriand treated of the Revolution elsewhere, as in his autobiographical Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb, composed in the last ten years of his life and issued after his death; and he alludes to the Revolution in the final section of The Genius of Christianity. The tableaux of revolutionary France that Chateaubriand paints in the Memoirs exercise a powerful compulsion over the reader, revealing as they do the anti-civilizational ferocity of an insurrectionist campaign to establish, all in the name of reason, the regime of liberté, égalité, et fraternité.
On the train last evening I spotted – or perhaps I should say, I was assaulted by – a placard advertising a music festival. I thought: Is this what women really want for themselves? Is this supposed to be attractive?
Honestly, the woman looks like she’s being tortured. Fun!
Joseph de Maistre’s Elucidation on Sacrifices, a late work of his authorship, appeared as an appendix in the posthumously published St. Petersburg Dialogues, one of the towering literary-philosophical monuments of early Nineteenth Century French letters. Maistre (1753 – 1821) wrote the massive set of Dialogues and its brief sequel during the final decade of his fourteen-year appointment (1803 – 1817) as ambassador plenipotentiary of the King of Piedmont-Sardinia to the court of His Imperial Majesty Alexander II of Russia. The Dialogues, which saw print in 1821, subsume and amplify the recurrent themes and theses of Maistre’s previous essayistic forays into theology, anthropology, and political theory in the form of a colossal Platonic seminar concerning, as the subtitle would have it, “The Temporal Government of Providence.” Like his earlier Study on Sovereignty (1794), Considerations on France (1796), and Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions (1809), the Dialogues and the Elucidation spring from their author’s direct experience of the French Revolution, which, for him and his family, proved dire. Maistre sees in the Revolution an unprecedented civilizational upheaval – an episode, in fact, of anti-civilizational destructiveness that the observer can really only understand in mythopoeic or theological terms. Maistre compares the Revolution to the depredations of the chaos-monster Typhon in Hesiod’s Theogony, whose violent disruption of the newly established cosmic order it fell to Zeus to put down by an application of overwhelming counter-violence. Thus for Maistre the Revolution ferociously spites a continuum of wisdom, supplying the ground of any and all social stability, that roots itself ultimately in what he calls supernatural enlightenment. In the Second Dialogue Maistre gives it to his spokesman, “The Count,” to assert how, in a much quoted phrase, “wherever you find an altar, there civilization is to be found” (Lebrun’s translation throughout) Maistre’s altar signifies that the supernatural enlightenment locally still takes effect. Men may profane the altar, but that reflects on them, not on the symbol.
I. Given Maistre’s deeply convicted Catholicism, readers will find themselves tempted to qualify Maistre’s altar with the exclusive qualifier of Christian, but the context of the remark says nay to the temptation. What is the context? Maistre’s Count is discussing with his interlocutors, “the Chevalier” and “the Senator,” the phenomenon of savagery – particularly as the Enlightenment thinkers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, have understood, or rather have misunderstood, it. The Eighteenth Century has espoused the notion of progress, he says, which, driven by a supposed reason, will gradually lift humanity out of superstition and irrational prejudice toward an entirely secular order. The Eighteenth Century has also produced a penchant for resentment against anything in the existing arrangement that bruises the rationalist’s ego, which thus furnishes him with cause for complaint. The complainant or critic assumes that the social dispensation, while an improvement over its precursor stages, is subject to reform in the direction of this-worldly perfection. Rousseau adds the nuances that perhaps the social dispensation is not, in fact, an absolute improvement over its precursor stages; and that reformation must restore alleged elements of previous eras that the present era has displaced – such as the communism of property. Of course these Eighteenth Century philosophes have repudiated not only the Christian Tradition but also the shared general Tradition of the civilized nations going back to remote antiquity – beyond remote antiquity, indeed, into undiscovered ages. The philosophe cannot see that humanity is a fallen species whose perfection under temporality its own “deadly inclination towards evil” permanently annuls. Nor can the philosophe grasp the action of Providence, which, as under the Karma of the Hindus and the Nemesis of the Greeks, guarantees that the punishment shall in due course fit the crime.
[Note: This essay appeared some few years ago in the Sydney Traditionalist Forum, shortly after the death by suicide of its subject. The work of Venner remaining relevant, I re-post the essay here, with a few small changes.]
Dominique Venner (born 16 April 1935) ended his life publicly and dramatically by shooting himself in the mouth before the altar of Our Lady of Notre Dame in Paris six years ago on 21 May 2013. The bullet passed through Venner’s brain and exited the back of his head. In the opening paragraph of a suicide note that he sent to his publisher, Venner sought to justify his action:
I am healthy in body and mind, and I am filled with love for my wife and children. I love life and expect nothing beyond, if not the perpetuation of my race and my mind. However, in the evening of my life, facing immense dangers to my French and European homeland, I feel the duty to act as long as I still have strength. I believe it necessary to sacrifice myself to break the lethargy that plagues us. I give up what life remains to me in order to protest and to found. I chose a highly symbolic place, the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, which I respect and admire: She was built by the genius of my ancestors on the site of cults still more ancient, recalling our immemorial origins.
A reader cannot avoid remarking the contradictions in Venner’s testament. A professed love of life comports itself awkwardly with a gesture of self-annihilation. One could argue that Venner meant by “life,” not his own, but the collective, trans-personal vitality of his children and their descendants; he refers after all to “the perpetuation of [his] race and [his] mind.” Seen in that way, his suicide might rise to being a Stoical demonstration, like those of Petronius and Seneca in the time of Nero. Even so, no few problems remain; not least the dis-relation between Venner’s professed respect and admiration for the “highly symbolic place” of the Lady Church and his having blemished its consecrated precincts with his effluvia. How moreover would such an act “break the lethargy that plagues us”? More likely – even patently, looking back on the event – it would merely add to the pernicious confusion of the times. The explanation of these contradictions is undoubtedly linked to the fact that while Venner acknowledged his belonging to a specifically Christian civilization in its late phase, he never himself identified as an adherent of that faith. Like his countrymen-contemporaries Guillaume Faye (b. 1949) and Alain de Benoist (b. 1943), Venner espoused Friedrich Nietzsche’s Neo-Pagan view of Christianity as “slave morality,” a religion of defeat and death, and the cause of rather than the antidote to the malaise of modernity unleashed. Like Nietzsche, whom Venner admired, and who signed his last letters as “The Crucified One,” the suicide might well have been experiencing a revilement of Christ which was, at the same time, a desire to rival and replace Him. That would account for Venner’s characterization of his act as an instance of “self-sacrifice” and for his references to “cults still more ancient” than the Cult of the Virgin on the Ile de la Cité, with whose pre-Christian religiosity he would have identified in opposition to Christianity.