When I confessed last week that I had for much of 2020 struggled against the sin of despair, my confessor replied: “I’m struggling with it myself. 90% of the confessions I hear these days include that one. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m shocked.”
Genric Ippolitovich Semiradsky (1843 – 1902): Julian the Apostate (1889)
Part I of “Ibsen’s Unknown Masterpiece” explores the relevance of Caesar and Galilean (also called Emperor and Galilean – completed in 1873) to the critique of modernity. The fact that Ibsen belongs to the modern dispensation complicates the interpretation, but, like his contemporary Friedrich Nietzsche, Ibsen, despite his modernity, could also conduct a critique of the age that he inhabited. Ibsen is something of an anti-modern modern, a not infrequent phenomenon. Ibsen’s Julian, the noteworthy Apostate Emperor of the late Fourth Century, behaves like a modern ideologue: He pursues his conviction fanatically, so much so, that he constructs around himself an impermeable barrier to exclude the actual consequences of his action. Julian, in both Ibsen’s drama and the historical account, from which Ibsen drew, was a religio-political idealist who became increasingly convinced that he could transform the world so that it corresponded to his utopian vision. Julian’s reaction against Christianity had mainly to do with the murderous corruption of his cousin, Constantius II. The homicidal Cesar became identified in Julian’s mind with the God of Peace whom the Emperor hypocritically worshipped, but Ibsen sees something more profound than that. Julian’s rebellion is a rebellion against reality. He dislikes the constitution of the world as though it were his enemy, and deludes himself into thinking that he can annul it by ritual conjuration. He deludes himself again into thinking that he is the superman promised by the hucksters of mysticism. Like the play itself, “Ibsen’s Unknown Masterpiece” falls into two parts: Part I expounds the notions listed above; Part II, Julian’s descent into a type of Gnostic madness that, in its manifestation as imperial policy, wreaks havoc on early Byzantine society.
Edward Armitage (1817 – 1896): Julian the Apostate Presiding at the Conference of Sectarians (1879)
The same God [who] gave the throne to Constantine the Christian [gave it also] to Julian the Apostate. Julian had exceptional endowments, perverted by sacrilegious and abominable superstition working through a love of domination… Confident of… victory, he burnt his ships carrying essential food supplies. Then, pressing on feverishly with his inordinate designs he paid the just price for his rashness when he was slain, leaving his army destitute, in enemy territory. (Augustine, City of God, V.21)[i]
I work every day at Julianus Apostata, and hope to have the whole book finished by the end of the present year… It is part of my own spiritual life which I am putting into this book; what I depict, I have, under different conditions, gone through myself; and the historical subject chosen has a much more intimate connection with the movements of our own time than one might first imagine. (Henrik Ibsen to Edmund Gosse, Dresden, 14 October 1872)[ii]
Augustine’s City of God would have been one of the sources – along with the works of Libanius, Eunapius, Ammianus, and of the Emperor Julian himself, all likely in German translation – on which drew the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828 – 1906) in the composition of his epic drama in two parts Emperor and Galilean (1873), begun in Dresden during the year of the Franco-Prussian War.[iii] The sources are important to an understanding of Emperor because of the historical parallelism that Ibsen assumes between his own time and Julian’s epochal Fourth Century. The religious apocalypse of Julian’s age Ibsen sees as prefiguring the political apocalypse of the strife-ridden Nineteenth Century. Ibsen understands both the Gnosticism of Julian’s abortive pagan revival and the Left Hegelianism of the post-Hegelian decades as episodes of an on-going ideological distortion of reality. Against every prejudice that one harbors about him (that he is “liberal,” “progressive”), Ibsen writes into his play, not Julian’s assessment of Christian orthodoxy, but Augustine’s orthodox assessment of Julian. Ibsen rejects all revolutionary millennialism as inimical to life and to happiness. Not that Ibsen has a formula for happiness. Happiness goes missing in Ibsen’s authorship with one exception, The Lady from the Sea (1888). It is important, then, in order to come to grips with Ibsen’s epic drama, first to grasp Augustine’s canny view of the Apostate Emperor – a most unhappy man or so the historical record would lead one to believe.
I gave this presentation some years ago at one of the annual conferences of the H. L. Mencken Club in Baltimore. (I am unsure of the year.) Evidently the organizers of the event recorded the talk — and to my surprise I found it while browsing the web (is that phrase still in use?) for Spengler-related lectures and podcasts.
I review at The University Bookman Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding, a study of the “Golden Age” of science fiction in the 1940s and its chief protagonists . Aficionados of The Orthosphere know of my interest in science fiction. Nevala-Lee’s account of John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding in its heyday, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, L. Ron Hubbard, A. E. van Vogt, and others disturbed me greatly. Whatever literary merit one ascribes to their work – and I am increasingly skeptical about their collective literary merit – in their intertwined personal lives, with the possible exception of van Vogt, the biographical details are disappointing if not, at base, repellent. I have come to the belief that the literary merit of 1940s and early 1950s science fiction resides elsewhere than in these authors. A recent attempt to reread Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1960) failed about forty pages into the novel. Hubbard might be the central scoundrel, but Campbell abetted Dianetics, the early version of Scientology, and Heinlein and van Vogt were complicit in it, at least for a time. Asimov remained skeptical, but his lifelong Harvey-Weinstein-like behavior has forever tainted him in my opinion – not to mention that his prose is primitive and boasts no human depth whatsoever.
James Chastek’s Just Thomism is one of the sites I read without fail. I like it because he teaches me lots of things. He closed comments a while ago because responding to them took up too much time. So here is what I would have commented at his blog if he still allowed comments, in response to this post:
Many of the books in the “decline of the West” genre – which was already old by the time Weaver published Ideas have Consequences in 1948 but which still sells (Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed) – tell a curious narrative of decline over very large time scales. If Nominalism or Hobbesianism were as harmful as claimed, why is the diseased host still alive a half-millennium later?
Now that’s a good question. I myself have contributed a fair bit to the literature wailing and bemoaning nominalism. How do I answer the question?
“Rien n’aura eu lieu que le lieu.” – Mallarmé
Plato had a cyclic – or “spiraling” – view of history, in which the cycles bear the regular scars of catastrophe, the plural catastrophes being epochal in the root sense of articulating a dehiscence between one age and another. The most dramatic expression of Plato’s catastrophic theory of history comes with the story of Atlantis and the Prehistoric Athens in the two linked dialogues, Timaeus and Critias. The Atlantis story has a pedigree, which Timaeus supplies. The statesman Critias, who narrates the legend in the two dialogues, heard it in his youth from his grandfather, who knew it in turn from his source, the famous lawgiver Solon, who got it from certain records kept by the Egyptian priestly college at Saïs in the Nile Delta. Solon visited there in early career on an embassy from Athens. The filiations of memory that permit Critias to rehearse the story are important in context because Plato, putting his notion in the mouth of an Egyptian priest, believes that one effect of the regular cataclysmic events is periodically to interrupt the record of history and reset cultural development at its degree-zero. When the earth shakes or fire falls from the sky or the oceans rise to inundate the land, civilization, painfully built up over the centuries, vanishes under the onslaught of nature; only a few mountain-dwellers or lucky, remote people survive. Since the simple, unlettered survivors take no custody of the written lore, almost every verbal trace of the smashed civilization also vanishes. The priest tells Solon that quirks of nature permit a few exceptions, and that the Nile Delta is one of them – a place unaffected by universal disasters, where continuous records chronicle humanity’s adventures going back tens of thousands of years into the past. Atlantis and the Prehistoric Athens attained high civilization; their achievements, technical and political, indeed put to shame all the societies of Solon’s day, including Attic society. A scourge of earthquakes and flooding obliterated both nations and the stunned survivors managed to live at a stone-age level of material culture only.
In our sessions at Old City Hall, Richard Cocks and I often exchange ideas with our friend Richard Fader – a true Christian gentleman whom we both greatly admire – and among the recurrent topics is that of Puritanism. Fader, as we call him, is part libertarian, part social conservative, well read, and a lively conversationalist. The question used continuously to come up: Who are the Puritans of the present day? Fader, who despite his socially conservative instincts, has voted Democratic all his life, was, when these colloquies began, all too ready to identify the Puritans with the people whom he called “conservatives.” Richard and I, who work on the same college campus, have repeatedly explained to our friend that it is not “conservatives” who want to ban free speech, who physically threaten speakers with whom they disagree in order to silence them, or who abuse public institutions for the purpose of political indoctrination. It is not “conservatives” who preach the lynch-mob sermons of our day. Fanaticism and hatred, we have argued, are nowadays located almost entirely on the political left, which has taken over the Democratic Party and just about every institution. As Fader has come around significantly on the issue, the question has changed from its original form to become one of definition: What is Puritanism? I recently came across a provocative definition of Puritanism in a book that I periodically re-read.
The extended passage below comes from Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, Volume II (1922), where it appears in Chapter IX, “Pythagoras, Mohammed, Cromwell.” Chapter IX is the third of three chapters that Spengler devotes to what he calls “The Problems of Arabian Culture.” The “problems” that Spengler discusses are both intrinsic to Arabian Culture and associated with the Western misinterpretation of Arabian Culture. In the original, the passage is one long paragraph. I have broken it into three shorter paragraphs in order to facilitate its reading. I offer a few glosses and comments after the quotation.
The race to the degenerate bottom is not steady. On the contrary, it always accelerates; for, it is an arms race.
You can see this with any medium that depends for its survival on the attention of many minds: advertising, entertainment, journalism. All outlets of such media compete with each other for attention. The one that is the most extraordinary wins the competition. So the competition is to discover which outlet is the most abnormal, thus attractive of notice. Whatever was the most abnormal during the last round must be surpassed in the current round in order to gain notice: the most abnormal recent instance resets the bound of normality.
The name of the Finnish novelist Mika Waltari (1908 – 1979) reached the peak of its currency in the mid-1950s when many of his titles had transcended the isolation of their original language to come into print in English, French, German, Italian, and Swedish. One of these, The Egyptian (1945), had reached the big screen in 1954 in a lavish Hollywood production directed by Michael Curtiz, with a cast including Edmund Purdom, Victor Mature, and Jean Simmons. Curtiz’s film adhered closely to Waltari’s story, which concerns the attempted religious reforms of the pharaoh Akenaten, which Waltari, the son of a Lutheran minister and a serious student both of theology and philosophy, regarded as an early instance of ideology. Basing his fiction on the best information available at the time, Waltari strove to show how, despite the sincere intention of the reformer, the reforms themselves so contradicted Egyptian tradition that they devastated the society. The novel operates intellectually at a high level. So does Curtiz’s cinematic version, which likely explains its poor box-office on release. The Hollywood connection nevertheless boosted Waltari’s foreign-language sales and meant that his books would remain in print into the 1960s. Today Waltari’s authorship is largely forgotten along with those of his Scandinavian contemporaries such as Lars Gyllensten, Martin A. Hansen, Pär Lagerkvist, Harry Martinson, Tarje Vesaas, and Sigrid Undset. Anyone who has seen the film Barabbas (1961) with Anthony Quinn in the title role has, however, had contact with Lagerkvist, on whose novel director Richard Fleischer drew.
All of those writers might justly be characterized as Christian Existentialists, heavily influenced by Søren Kierkegaard, who saw their century, the Twentieth, as an era of extreme crisis at its basis spiritual, and who saw the ideologies – the rampant political cults – of their day as heretical false creeds that fomented zealous conflict. It is unsurprising that such a conviction should have taken hold in Scandinavia. Two of the Scandinavian nations, Denmark and Norway, had endured conquest and occupation by Germany in World War II. Sweden avoided that fate, but as Undset wrote in her account of escaping the German invasion of Norway, most Swedes expected disaster to strike at any time from 1940 until the end of hostilities, either from the Germans or from the Russians – or possibly from both, with the nation becoming a battleground. In Finland, which had only won its independence in 1918, first by rejecting Russian rule and then by defeating a Communist insurrection within its own borders, the sense of acute crisis realized itself in the Soviet attack in the winter of 1939 and 40, during which Waltari worked in Helsinki in the Finnish Government’s Information Bureau, and again in the subsequent Continuation War of 1941 through 1944. These events are the immediate background to Waltari’s composition of The Egyptian, and they are by no means irrelevant to Dark Angel, published seven years later.