Superstition & Subscendence: An Essay in Honor of Tom Bertonneau

Bear with me here. I hardly know where I am going with this, although I feel I have caught the spoor of something Tom would find delightful – that he would join with me joyfully in this new hunt. I’m confused because all I have is that spoor, and my spirits are in a hurry and a muddle due to his too soon death. I miss my friend of many years – of too few! I am not yet sure how to do with the world that, henceforth, shall miss him.

Tom has been a valued colleague since we first encountered each other. We corresponded often – not often enough, alas – about our hopes and worries in respect to our work, much of it coordinate here. We sometimes asked each other for editorial advice upon that work. I could rely on Tom for sound counsel. I hardly know how I shall manage without his sagacity.

But I must. I bid you all help me in that project, in which we may hope we can all together proceed for many more years to come. That would be a fitting legacy of his penetrant honest cheerful mind.

I propose that this essay be an early installment in something like a festschrift for Tom. Let us all try to limn what it was that he taught us. Perhaps we might make a book out of it. Or maybe just something on the scale of an issue of Amazing Stories, circa 1935: the sort of thing that was an important source of grist for the mill of his wits. That would please him, perhaps above all things we might do to honor him.

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Two Recent Anti-Modern Critiques – Thaddeus Kozinski & Daniel Schwindt

Bird 17 Powers, Richard M. (1921 - 1996) - Abstract in Yellow (1960s)

Richard M. Powers (1921 – 1996): Modernity as Apocalypse

By the irony of belatedness, reaction emerges from revolution and the critique of modernity from modernity itself.  Tradition stopped being an unnoticed background and became a theme in writers like Joseph de Maistre (753 – 1821) and François-René de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848) during and in the aftermath of the Revolution in France.  Having made modernity a theme, the work of Maistre and Chateaubriand, among others, could be carried on by writers of later generations.  In the first half of the last century, René Guénon (1886 – 1951) and Julius Evola (1898 – 1974) stand out as major inheritors of the reactionary genre.  Perhaps the name of Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936) should be added to those of Guénon and Evola.  The two men were certainly influenced by Spengler’s Decline of the West (Volume I, 1919; Volume II, 1922), which sees the modern period as belonging to “civilization” rather than to “culture,” the former being for Spengler moribund and the latter alive.  According to Spengler, Culture, with a capital C precedes civilization; and civilization can last for a long time.  Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948) also contributed to the critique of modernity although the recognition of his brilliance and the appearance of his early titles together constitute a fairly recent phenomenon.  Every year sees the publication in many languages of books that owe a debt to these writers.  Among those appearing in English recently, one could point to Thaddeus J. Kozinski’s Modernity as Apocalypse – Sacred Nihilism and the Counterfeits of Logos (2019) and Daniel Schwindt’s Case against the Modern World – a Crash Course in Traditionalist Thought (2016).  Both will reward the reader even though their authors penned them (what a quaint term) before the events of 2020, which demarcated one age from its successor.  Both view modernity from a Catholic-Traditionalist perspective, but with nuances of difference.  Both view modernity as accelerating toward its inevitable climax.

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Poe’s Psychic-Atomist Critique of Wayward Modernity – Part II

Joseph Mallord Turner (1775 -1851) - Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1834)

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.

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Poe’s Psychic-Atomist Critique of Wayward Modernity – Part I

Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory)  - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis exhibited 1843 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
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.”

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Robert E. Howard’s Conan: A Paracletic Hero?

Conan Imagery 02

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.

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Article of Possible Interest

Farewell Faculty 01

The James Martin Center has published Part II of 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.

Proclus, Einstein, & the Logos

Bird 17 Powers, Richard M. (1921 - 1996) - Abstract in Yellow (1960s)

Richard M. Powers (1921 – 1996): Paperback Cover (1963)
“Δέστε τη ζώνη ασφαλείας σας. Πρόκειται για μια ανώμαλη βόλτα.”
 – Συνταξιούχος καθηγητής

In the philosophical school of Neoplatonism, the Late-Pagan intellectual dispensation and its nascent Early-Christian counterpart find common ground.  Indeed – they converge.  They coexist miscibly for a while until the Pagan component seemingly disappears, leaving the Christian component as the sole public face of the movement.  This metamorphosis proceeds so smoothly, however, that in comparing a prose-sample from the one phase with a prose-sample from the other, with the author-names redacted, the reader might find himself hard-pressed to discern which of them leaned toward a fading polytheism and which toward the rising Trinitarian conviction.  But then the Pagan chapter of Neoplatonism hardly deserves the label of polytheism.  To the extent that the Late-Pagan thinkers recognize a multiplicity of divinities, they classify them as refracted manifestations of a single luminous principle; and when they insist on the primacy of “The One,” they tend to couch their discussion in the lexicon of a triple-hypostasis.  A Christian Neoplatonist like Pseudo-Dionysius borrows so much in his basic vocabulary and pivotal tropes from a Pagan Neoplatonist like Plotinus or Syrianus that a paragraph by the former will seem to parrot a paragraph by the latter, but it is in fact more a case of continuity than of parroting.  (To parroting – the reader must maintain his faith – the discussion will eventually come.)  Among the shared, interlocking premises on whose basis these thinkers operate are that the cosmos, by virtue of its perfection, must be the creation of a perfect being; that being good and true, the cosmos is also beautiful; and that the Demiurge or World-Creator, whereas he is apprehensible, is nevertheless not comprehensible.  As to the last, the Neoplatonists willingly expend thousands of words to argue that God, in his infinitude, infinitely exceeds the power of language to grapple with him.

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Notes for an Anthropoetics of the Flying Saucers

Talpazan, Ionel (1955 - 2015) - UFO Swarm

Ionel Talpazan (1955 – 2015): Illustrating a UFO Swarm (No Date Given)

Classicist Robin Lane Fox (born 1946) sets aside a chapter in his compendious study of Pagans and Christians (1986) to discuss the topic, current in the 1980s, of “close encounters,” a phrase originating with the Ufologist J. Allen Hynek and made popular by cinema director Steven Spielberg in his Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).  Fox’s study surveys the religiosity of what scholars now refer to as “Late Antiquity,” a period comprising the centuries from the Third through the Fifth during which the Roman Imperium saw its organizational collapse in the West and, perhaps more importantly, the demise of Paganism as the public religion of Imperial society and its replacement by Christianity in the form of the Church in its Latin, Greek, and Coptic branches.  The religiosity of Late Antiquity has, for Fox, a peculiar flavor.  It runs to intensity, not only in the contest between the old religion and the new, but within the old and the new, where disagreements over belief set people at odds theologically.  Another element in that peculiar flavor is that, on both the Pagan and Christian sides, theology absorbed philosophy, which, at the time, the school of Neoplatonism dominated.  This absorption of philosophy into theology resulted in elaborate systems of strict syllogism, on the one hand, interconnected with mystic speculation, on the other.  Folk-religion also infiltrated these systems and along with it, the motifs of magic.  People of Late Antiquity all over the Mediterranean world had vivid, personal encounters with gods, angels, and demons.  Although Fox criticizes the arguments of E. R. Dodds in the latter’s Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety (1966), he acknowledges that in the folk-basis of Late-Antique worship, prophylaxis against bad luck played a prominent role.  Such prominence indicates a linkage between the psychological state of anxiety, longstanding and pervasive according to Fox, and the character of religious practice. The mere appearance of a god — on the road, at sea, or in a public place before a crowd — placated the ubiquitous unease of the age.

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Lectures d’Automne 2020 (Sélections d’Octobre)

Readings of Autumn 01 Guthrie

W. K. C. Guthrie (1906 – 1981), Orpheus and Greek Religion (1952): Guthrie, a Cambridge classicist, regards Orphism – taking its name from the legendary prophet-singer Orpheus – as the first religion to emphasize cosmogony and eschatology. For Guthrie, Orphism counts also as the first thematically moral religion. Guthrie argues that Hesiod adhered to the Orphic faith and he cites details of the Theogony to prove his case.  Even more boldly Guthrie presents the thesis that cosmology, as distinct from cosmogony, derives from Orphic lore; he sees Plato’s Timaeus, for example, as an item in the genre of Orphic discourse.  Indeed, Guthrie sees Plato as an Orphist.  In Plato’s philosophy, after all, the seeker of wisdom wanders like an orphan in this punishing world.  By dint of intellectual and moral askesis the wanderer might fulfill his obscure desire to go home.  One of the etymologies would have it that the name Orpheus stems from orphanos, which English borrows from Greek via Latin, a derivation fitting itself rather closely with Guthrie’s thesis.  Some stories tell that Orpheus hailed from Thrace, but Guthrie affirms his Hellenism.  The Thracian connection seems to Guthrie a metaphor.  Orphism differed so much from the reigning theologies of the archaic period that it struck people as having a distant provenance – in some accounts, a Hyperborean one.  Orphism stands in tension with the Dionysus cult; and in the myth preserved by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, the Maenads murder Orpheus in a classic sparagmos.  In the Imperial centuries, however, Orpheus and Dionysus seem to have merged, with the former’s irenic quality overwhelming the whole.  Orpheus’ expertise on the lyre affiliates him with Apollo.  Through that affiliation, Orpheus maintains his status as the first lyric poet and the first musician.

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Clark Ashton Smith’s “City of the Singing Flame” & Synchronicity

CAS 06 Plants

Clark Ashton Smith (1893 – 1961): Plants (Decade of the 1940s)

Orthosphereans have discussed the topic of synchronicity on several occasions. Synchronicity, a coinage of the psychologist Carl Jung, refers to the phenomenon of “lucky coincidences” or meaningfully convergent events.  There are several orders of synchronicity.  The one that I want to discuss in the following paragraphs is of a low order, but it serves to illustrate my conviction that we live, not merely in a physical world, but in a web of meaning whose source can only be immaterial – that is to say, spiritual.  Events of a low order can arrange themselves, after all, in meaningful patterns.  Patterning attracts the mind because patterning, at least in part, informs the mind, just as it informs the universe.  Recently I posted at The Orthosphere my essay on “Eco-Music from Mahler to Rasmussen,” in two parts.  “Eco-Music” means music permeated by the composer’s sense of the cosmos as a finely woven, complex pattern of spirit and body, temporality and spatiality, causality and spontaneity.  I attempted to relate the compositional process of such artists to the visionary quest of the vates, seer, or shaman, who intercedes for the tribe in the realm of the sacred and on the home ground of the gods.  When contemporary composers like John Luther Adams or Sunleif Rasmussen, express themselves in written word, they not only reveal their knowledge of the vatic tradition; they also reveal themselves as trying to communicate lore acquired on a level higher than the everyday, rather in the manner of an initiate in the mysteries.  Listening to their music – which I did, intensely, over the period of accumulating the essay – convinced me of the validity of such statements.

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