Does he want to injure, or heal? Is he base, or noble? Would he transgress and so ruin his patrimony, or elaborate and so glorify it?
It is in practice pretty easy to tell, no? It is not after all so hard to parse this, or therefore to decide which side deserves your lot. Go then; decide. Which poet shall you heed?
There is in the final analysis nothing else that is in your power. Everything else, from the morning coffee to the changing of the diaper to the valor of the battlefield is a faint echo – a mighty, magnificent, immensely important echo – of this basic decision.
Is it about you, you worm? Or is it about something more? If it is about something more, then: is it about the Ultimate, or is it about something damnably less?
Let’s on with it then, brothers. Into the fray. Deus vult!
This post is a sequel to my post on the stack of worlds. It tries to understand a few things about how a stack of worlds might work – or, perhaps, *must* work – and how those workings might help us untangle a few perplexities that have bedeviled thinkers for millennia. It is absurdly long, and for that I beg forgiveness. But I find there is little I can do about that, at present: when the inspiration comes, it comes as a unit, and the overwhelming necessity is just to get it all down before it vanishes.
Michael Willman (1626 – 1679): Creation of the World (1668)
The Romanian born anthropologist Mircea Eliade (1907 – 1986) led a hectic life in his thirties. Embroiling himself in politics on the right, he became a target even so of right-wing ire on the accusation that his novella Domnișoara Christina (1936) partook in pornography and obscenity, but the very next year he enthusiastically espoused the Iron Guard’s program that Romania should reconcile itself with its Byzantine, and therefore Christian, origins. No one in the 2020s knows anything about the Iron Guard except, when hearing it mentioned, to categorize it automatically with “fascism.” Eliade left Romania after the Communist takeover in 1945, migrated to France, and taught in Paris; he migrated to the United States in 1956 and lectured at the University of Chicago and elsewhere on the topic that obsessed him in the second half of his life – the meaning and function of religion, especially of the sacred. That Eliade had a stake in Romanian Orthodoxy is not contradicted by his opposition to “spiritualism.” In his twenties, Eliade read the French writer René Guénon (1886 – 1951), and came under his spell. Guénon also opposed “spiritualism,” by which he indicated the various theosophical banalities descending out of the Nineteenth Century, including Theosophy itself. Guénon wrote a hefty volume on the fraudulence of Helena Blavatsky’s mystical posturing and the quasi-criminal undertakings of her dubious followers. Elsewhere Guénon consistently emphasized the radical difference between his own Traditionalism and the somber but hollow tenets of Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine (1888). Theosophy belonged to pseudo-initiation and counter-initiation, Guénon argued. These Guénonian attitudes became Eliade’s own; they inform his work. With Guénon and Julius Evola (1898 – 1974), Eliade constitutes the stable core of what might be called Twentieth Century skeptical esotericism.
The name of George Sterling (1869 – 1926) has not figured for a long time in the educated consciousness perhaps because the educated consciousness suffers from a contraction of its horizon. The name of Clark Ashton Smith (1893 – 1961) possesses more currency today than that of Sterling, but only within a circle of genre fanatics. Ironically, Sterling more or less discovered the young Smith, encouraged him to write, and found venues for his early poetry. After Sterling’s suicide, Clark made a frugal living by selling his prose to the pulps, tales of necromantic extravagance mainly, and amalgams of horror and science fiction, written for the most part for Weird Tales, one of the specialist sub-genre-journals of the mid-Twentieth Century. Smith’s name circulates more widely today than it did in his lifetime in that his complete work in poetry, prose, and correspondence is available in print. Very little of Sterling’s output remains in print; he is a phenomenon, more or less, of the antiquarian book market. In Sterling’s lifetime however he stood at the head of the California Symbolist School, which, centered on San Francisco, took its cues from the verse of Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé. Ambrose Bierce and Jack London praised Sterling in his lifetime. Sterling enjoyed the reputation of being the “King” of California’s “Bohemia.” Young poets looked to him for guidance, which he gave generously. Anticipating the Beats, he indulged in alcohol, marijuana, and other, stronger drugs whereupon the toll of vice, not least mounting debt, led him to the taking of his own life by cyanide. Smith’s modus vivendi no doubt protected him from a similar imbroglio. Sticking to remote Auburn in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Smith avoided the citified pressure that exacerbated Sterling’s difficulties. Sterling’s personality, more egocentric than Smith’s, carried a trace, unfortunately, of snobbism; he criticized Smith for his ambition to publish in the pulps and even for reading them. Smith’s taste ran catholic – he would eventually translate almost the entirety of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal into English, knew Greek and Latin literature well, but delighted also in the stories of his fellow Weird Tales contributors.
The English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958) wrote nine symphonies over his lifetime beginning with the choral-orchestral Sea Symphony of 1910, a setting of Walt Whitman’s maritime verse, and ending with the Symphony in E-Minor of 1957. Vaughan Williams eschewed a numbering system, designating his symphonic scores, which form the trunk of his compositional achievement, only by title or key signature. As follow-ups to his Sea Symphony, Vaughan Williams produced A London Symphony (first version 1914; final revision, 1936) and A Pastoral Symphony (1921), both of which exhibit programmatic qualities although their author downplayed these, as have subsequent commentators. The original version of A London Symphony had its first performance under Geoffrey Toye in its namesake city in March 1914, and A Pastoral Symphony, also in London, in January 1922 under Adrian Boult. The next three symphonies (F-Minor, D-Major, and E-Minor) lacked titles, but the seventh, which drew on a film-score that the composer had written in 1947, he called Sinfonia Antartica. The composer completed Sinfonia Antartica, after several years of revision, in 1952. John Barbirolli then conducted the premiere in January 1953 with the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. The final symphony, sharing its key-signature (E-Minor) with the sixth, has literary roots in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891). It depicts a characteristic topography, in this case the Salisbury Plain, as do A London Symphony, A Pastoral Symphony, and Sinfonia Antartica theirs – but it remains untitled. In fact, A London Symphony also takes inspiration, at least in part, from a literary source – the epilogue to H. G. Wells’ Tono-Bungay, a novel that saw publication in 1906. Although professedly an agnostic, Vaughan Williams (hereafter RVW) in his works, including the symphonies, repeatedly and almost obsessively approached the topic, in all its aspects, of transcendence.
Daniel van Heil (1604 – 1664): Aeneas and Family Fly from Burning Troy
Introduction to Part II: In Part I of this essay, I began by reminding readers of the necessary complacency that accompanies civilized life. Civilized people go about their lives in the assumption of institutional permanency and a continuity of custom. The assumption that plans made today will see their fruition tomorrow belongs to the background of organized existence and motivates our purposive behavior. The same assumption can lapse into complacency, however, so that, even as signs of trouble emerge on the horizon, a certain denial disarms a people from responding with sufficient clarity and swiftness to looming disruption. People take civilization for granted and rarely contemplate that it might come tumbling down about their ears. Insofar as the historical record has something important to teach ordinary people who are not specialists in the subject, it might well be the lesson that all known societies before the modern society have come to an end. Some of them have come to an end abruptly and violently. One such society, or civilization, was the Bronze Age civilization of the Twelfth Century B.C. in the Eastern Mediterranean. The singular term civilization is appropriate even though the geographical-cultural region of the Eastern Mediterranean contained many separate peoples distinguished by their distinctive languages, religious beliefs, and customs. These societies – Greek, Semitic, Anatolian, and Pelagic – were in commercial, diplomatic, and artistic communication with one another. They together constituted a pattern of civilized life, whose individual element-nations had the same stake in maintaining the coherency of the whole. Note: I wrote this article twenty years ago or a bit more for John Harris’s quarterly print magazine Arcturus.
I. The preponderance of archeological and epigraphic evidence coupled with the testimony of legend and epic narrative would attribute the Catastrophe to a wave of barbarian depredation. This does not mean that other factors played no role. Competing theories about the Catastrophe, as summarized by Robert Drews in The End of the Bronze Age, postulate “Systemic Breakdown” and “Natural Disaster,” such as drought or earthquake, as accounting for the abrupt collapse of so many nations. Drews discounts both as likely sole causes, but suggests that Systemic Breakdown in response to a crop-failure or an outbreak of disease might have eroded the stability of the existing societies. The Bronze Age kingdoms were inflexibly organized, heavily ritualistic in their conception of life, and on occasion testily feudal in their relations with one another, as the episode of Paris and Helen makes clear. Widespread drought leading to famine and disease (which the records of Hatti attest) might well have created a social crisis, with a cascading effect, with which administrative inflexibility could not cope, and which testy feudality exacerbated. Yet as Drews emphasizes, despite their cumbersome nature, the Bronze Age kingdoms apparently functioned more or less as usual right up to the hour of their sudden demise. Mycenae, for example, was in the midst of a large-scale rebuilding project.
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.
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.
In my twenties, I invested a good deal of time in Sweden and things Swedish. I’d like to share with The Orthosphere my favorite Christmas song, “För Redeliga Män” (“For Honest Men”), which in the rhythmic propulsion of its melody, outpaces all others, in any language. (I opine, of course…) Indeed, I offer three versions of it. The first version is not the best musically, but it includes the integral feature of the Stjärnpojka or “Star Boy.” “För Redeliga Män” is often sung by a girl-choir, as it is in the video above, but the young ladies are joined by a young man who represents the stellar lights that flash in the deep darkness of the heavens just before dawn on Christmas Day. “Stjärnorna på himmelen de blänka,” says the refrain: “The stars in the heavens — they shine!”
I have myself played the role of Star Boy (see below). —
That was when I sang, for three or four seasons running, with the Scandinavian Christmas Choir at UCLA in the first half of my undergraduate career before a long detour after which I redeemed myself. (In the current cultural climate, the costume would lead to my being lynched, even without the white, conical cap, as seen in the video.)
Two other versions — and the lyrics, in Swedish — are underneath the fold. It’s easy to look up an English translation. Just run a search on the title, “För Redeliga Män.” I have not included any of the English translations because none of them grapples effectively with the rhythmic structure of the verses. Och att översätta det mig själv skulle vara för mycket!
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.