Self-Education vs. Higher Education

Self-Education 06

Hippocampus Press – 2017

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.

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Clark Ashton Smith’s Representation of Evil

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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.

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Min favorit julsång

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). —

TFB as Star Boy Xmass 1985

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!

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

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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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Earth Anew: Eco Music from Mahler to Rasmussen – Part II

Joseph Anton Schneiderfranken (1876 - 1943) Erfuellung

Joseph Anton Schneiderfranken (1876 – 1943): Erfuellung (1925)

Part I of “Eco-Music from Mahler to Rasmussen” broaches the topic of the Weltanschauung in music.  By “world view” is meant an adequate understanding of the cosmic complexity of life (to borrow a phrase from Monty Python), the universe, and everything.  Does an artist – especially a composer of ambitious scores – grasp the many-layered, spatially and temporally dimensioned super-matrix of what Christian theology calls Creation?  In the preening world of postmodernity, the righteous everywhere proclaim an ecological sensitivity, but that same time postmodernism roundly rejects metaphysics, including the venerable notion of a Great Chain of Being.  For the materialistic mentality, what can the cosmos be except a mass of resources?  It can have no non-material component.  It can correspond to nothing living — inhabited by spirit — except in a purely mechanico-biological sense.  Now as Part I observes, there is a critical anti-modern strain in modernity.  This is more familiar in literature than in music, but it nevertheless presents itself.  In music, one finds this critical attitude, with its intuition of a cosmic complexity exceeding the grasp of so-called science, in the radical work of an avant-garde composer like Arnold Schoenberg, but also in the work of a somewhat more conventional composer like Frederick Delius.  Part II of “Eco-Music,” beginning with Section III, explores the work of contemporary composers who take an explicitly ecological view of the world, but who also venerate Tradition – and it finds in those works a genuine understanding of the Great Chain of Being. Both Parts of “Eco-Music” remark on the relation between literature, especially poetry, and music. The essay continues with Part II

III. A few phrases from the reigning, reductive ecology, the ecology of “global warming,” occur in the much-polished journalism of the contemporary composer John Luther Adams (born 1953), but they seem decorative or obligatory and never convey any essential meaning.  Adams lived by choice in Alaska, near Fairbanks, from the late 1970s until recently.  His music takes inspiration from the Arctic landscape and from the traditions of the people who have lived in taiga and tundra immemorially.  The reader will encounter Thoreauvian overtones in the accompanimental essay to Adam’s Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing (completed 1996).  “Quantum physics has recently confirmed what shamans and mystics, poets and musicians have long known,” Adams writes; and, “the universe is more like music than matter.”  In his related “Credo” (2002), Adams echoes Nietzsche: “My faith is grounded in the earth, in the relationships between all beings and all things, and in the practice of music as a spiritual discipline.”  Adams accommodates Christianity, which Nietzsche haughtily rejected, in calling it “a complete and beautiful ecosystem” although he makes no profession of the creed.  Clouds, one of Adam’s first fully mature scores, draws inspiration from a medieval book of Christian mysticism – and from a natural phenomenon that fascinates vision and activates imagination.  The eyes look up to the clouds, just as they look up to the mountain peak.  One can climb to the clouds, but only by climbing the steep path to the rocky summit.

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Earth Anew: Eco-Music from Mahler to Rasmussen – Part I

Joseph Anton Schneiderfranken (1876 - 1943) Himavat

Joseph Anton Schneiderfranken (1876 – 1943): Himavat (1925)

Romanticism revived, or attempted to revive, the sacrality of the countryside, re-establishing the tutelary spirits of river, forest, grotto, and hill.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in Nature (1836), whose epigraph he draws from Plotinus, the ecstatic contemplation of natural phenomena entails redemption from routine, to which the ego maintains a spiritually diminishing attachment.  Emerson writes: “The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable… They nod to me, and I to them.”  The encounter with natural forces, such as “the waving of the boughs in the storm,” carries with it the paradoxical character of being “new to me and old.”  The renewed familiarity, as Emerson divulges, “Takes me by surprise and yet is not unknown,” having an “effect… like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.”  Friedrich Nietzsche, who prized Emerson highly, distills the general figure of Nature into the particular figure of the Earth.  In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Book I (1883), Nietzsche gives it to his eponymous spokesman to say, “The superman is the meaning of the earth” and, “My brothers, remain true to the earth.”  (Hollingdale’s translation)  The superman in Nietzsche’s rhetoric participates however in another figure.  “I teach you the superman,” says Zarathustra: “He is the sea.”  If mere man were “a polluted river,” then the superman, Nietzsche emphasizes, “must be a sea,” for only such “can receive a polluted river and not be defiled.”  For Nietzsche, modern civilization has cut itself off from the sources of vitality; modernity lives – not quite the right word – in vacuous abstractions and needs to re-root itself in the elemental bases of the cosmos.

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The Baroque in Science Fiction – Part II

Finlay 04 Back Cover Weird Tales Sept. 1952

Virgil Finlay (1914 – 1971): Back Cover (Weird Tales, Sept. 1952)

III. Weird Tales served as the main venue of baroque science fiction although most critics regard that magazine as something other than and inferior to a science fiction periodical.  To the extent that John W. Campbell’s vision defined the genre then perhaps Weird Tales really was not science-fictional.  Nevertheless, Lovecraft published there, who admitted no supernatural elements in his fiction, along with Smith and Robert E. Howard.  Indiana born Catherine L. Moore (1911-1987), linked to Lovecraft through her correspondence with him, seems however closer to Smith than to H. P. L. in more ways than one, beginning with her interest in intensely visual figuration, often architectural or ornamental, voluntary derangement as an antidote to unbearable ennui, and the emissary protagonist, all of which one can only classify as Symbolist.  Now Symbolist aesthetics is related to baroque aesthetics, both by direct affiliation (Swedenborg to Baudelaire and Mallarmé) and in view of a persistent determination on the part of the individual artist to fill his canvas with detail and to impregnate every detail with meaning.  The non-baroque artist regards his baroque co-practitioner as decadent, extravagant, self-indulgent, illogical, and repetitious – someone who pushes too many adjectives against his nouns.  The baroque artist sees his critic as a Calvinist and a prude.  Moore’s Northwest Smith, like Poe’s narrator in “MS. Found in a Bottle,” fulfills the roles both of pursuer and pursued; he too is fugitive, freethinking, not at all prudish, and never a Calvinist.  He sits in bars viewing the traffic like a Baudelairean flaneur, consumes potions like a shaman, plumbs the depths of despair and ecstasy, and, last but not least, acts a knight-errant in defending victims against the sacrificial madness of crowds, wicked cabals, and cults.

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The Baroque in Science Fiction – Part I

Finlay 01 Illustrating Leinster's Mad Planet Fantastic Novels Nov. 48

Virgil Finlay (1914 – 1971): illustrating M. Leinster’s Mad Planet (Fantastic Novels, Nov. 1948)

In the 1954 Preface to his Universal History of Iniquity, Jorge Luis Borges defined the baroque as “the style that deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) its own possibilities, and that borders on self-caricature.”[i] The baroque is therefore a self-conscious style par excellence.  According to Borges’ definition: “The baroque is intellectual, and Bernard Shaw has said that all intellectual labor is inherently humorous”; and “this humor is unintentional in the works of Baltasar Graciàn but intentional, even indulged, in the works of John Donne.”[ii]  In the manner, then, of seventeenth-century church architecture – it might be in Spain or Bavaria – the spirit of the baroque piles ornament relentlessly on ornament, while cultivating trompe-l’œil for its illusion of depth, and while obsessively re-cuing every curlicue in anticipation of the fractal geometry of a Mandelbrot algorithm.  The baroque in music refers to the fugal style, in which again the artist, preeminently J. S. Bach, raises self-imitation to a structural principle.  Yet fugue also refers to a state of social disintegration and to an accompanying panicked mentality that drives forth the individual refugee from the incendiarism and bloodletting of civic breakdown.  Europe’s baroque centuries saw the religious wars, Puritanism, agitation of the protesting masses, and the inevitable massacres, for which music offers a counterpart in the stretto of the fugue.  Here the competing voices figuratively tear the subject to shreds in an aesthetic refinement of the Dionysiac sparagmos.

The novel arises with the baroque, in the Simplicius and Eulenspiegel narratives, in picaresque, and in the moralizing abyss of Don Quixote, where Part One is a topic of discussion, mostly inane, among the characters in Part Two.  The baroque therefore peculiarly trumps the modern in its exploitation of formal complexity; the modernist writers might match, but they never excel, their two- or three-century precursors in self-allusion and abyssal autoscopy.  Indeed, the Parisian Symbolists, those first modernists, remained keenly aware of their debt to the seventeenth century “Parnassians,” Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé assiduously practicing the sonnet, as though writing in the time of Louis XIII.  Later Max Reger (1873-1916) and Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) mimicked baroque-era models in music, as did M. C. Escher in graphic media.  Borges, in his Preface, “would venture to say that the baroque is the final stage of art,” a stage which some would call decadent.[iii]  Borges notes that the eighteenth century, which coined the term baroque, considered the seventeenth century, which invented the style, to have been in bad taste.  Borges omits to disagree, whereby one might consider that he adds an element of awkwardness or even of kitsch to the repertory of the baroque, as perhaps a studious awkwardness or an occasional deliberate pedantry in the articulation.  In The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler asserts that the Western baroque strove towards the dissolution of genre in a movement of synesthesia: “Painting becomes polyphonic, ‘picturesque,’ infinity-seeking,” while “the colours become tones” and  “the art of the brush claims kinship with the style of cantata and madrigal.”[iv]  Again, “the background, hitherto casually put in, regarded as fill-up and, as space, almost shuffled out of sight, gains a preponderant importance.”[v]

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Visions of the Wasteland – Part II

Charles Ernest Cundall (1890 - 1971) - St Paul's Cathedral during the Blitz (1941)

Charles Ernest Cundall  (1890 – 1971): St. Paul’s Cathedral during the Blitz (1941)

Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920) comments that in the Thirteenth-Century Quest of the Holy Grail, the wasteland motif has largely contracted into the figure of the maimed king.  The wasteland motif is, despite Weston’s assertion, present in that text.  In a “Waste Forest,” for example, Lancelot and Perceval seek refuge in a chapel, “abandoned and ruinous,” near “a stone cross which stood on a lonely heath at the parting of two ways.”  (Matarasso’s translation)  A wounded knight, whom the Quest author identifies as the “Fisher King,” comes carried in a litter to the shrine.  He prays God before the cross, “shall my suffering never be abated”; inquires after the “Holy Vessel” that will alleviate his agony; and passes inside through the chapel door.  Later, Lancelot witnesses the healing apparition of the Grail before the stricken man.  Later still, resuming the saddle, he overhears an indicting voice.  It invokes his adultery with Queen Guinevere and orders him, “Get thee hence, for the stench of thy presence fouls this place.”  In one of the adventures involving Perceval’s sister, she willingly, but fatally, gives her blood to cure a noble lady who has fallen victim to leprosy and whose restoration signifies the restored integrity of her realm.  The images intercommunicate.  The maimed king received his wound because he once sinned in ritual discourtesy to the Grail.  Lancelot’s wound, while not physical, nevertheless festers obnoxiously and makes him persona non grata in sacred places.  Before he may properly seek the Grail, he must undertake to purify his tainted soul.  The cause of the noble lady’s disfigurement goes unrevealed, but the cure, the sister’s Christ-like act of self-sacrifice, gives back to the people the undisfigured figure of their sovereignty.  The characters in the Quest differ from those in Geoffrey’s History in that they have risen to self-awareness.  They understand vae desolatione as not exclusively a worldly but more so as a spiritual problem.

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