Pray to the Saints in Purgatory for the Spirit of America; for her life as lived in us her children.
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.
My great-grand uncle Arnold Bertonneau (1832 – 1912) traveled from New Orleans to Boston and Washington D.C. in April, 1864, to present his Creole Petition to Congress, which ultimately rejected it. On 12 April Bertonneau responded to an invitation by the Massachusetts Republicans to speak on the merits of his proposal. After an introduction by Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew, Bertonneau delivered the following words:
BEFORE THE OUTBREAK of the rebellion, Louisiana contained about forty thousand free colored people, and three hundred twelve thousand persons held in slavery. In the city of New Orleans, there were upwards of twenty thousand free persons of color. Nearly all the free persons of color read and write. The free people have always been on the side of
law and good order, always peaceful and self-sustaining, always loyal. Taxed on an assessment of more than fifteen million dollars — among many other things, for the support of public-school education — debarred from the right of sending their children to the common schools which they have been and are compelled to aid in supporting, taxed on their property, and compelled to contribute toward the general expense of sustaining the state, they have always been and now are prohibited from exercising the elective franchise.
When the first fratricidal shot was fired at Sumter, and Louisiana had joined her fortunes with the other seceding states, surrounded by enemies educated in the belief that “Africans and their descendants had no rights that white men were bound to respect,” without arms and ammunition, or any means of self-defense, the condition and position of our people were extremely perilous. When summoned to volunteer in the defense of the state and city against Northern invasion, situated as we were, could we do otherwise than heed the warning and volunteer in the defense of New Orleans? Could we have adopted a better policy? In the city of New Orleans, under the Confederate government, we raised one regiment of a thousand men, the line officers of which were colored.
The Revolt of the Masses (1930) by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883 – 1955), like many books openly critical of modern trends, was once celebrated and judged to be something of a contemporary classic, but it has gradually, over the last four or five decades, vanished from awareness even among the supposedly educated. I read it for the first time in the early 1970s when I pursued (rather fitfully, I confess) my undergraduate degree at the University of California, Los Angeles. The College Library possessed two copies, an indication of how widely the book circulated in the middle of the Twentieth Century. Were one to canvass today’s English or History faculties, familiarity with Ortega’s book would likely be non-existent; it would be a rare incident even if so much as the name Ortega registered with humanities professors in their thirties and early forties. The Revolt nevertheless speaks to the present moment with increasing pertinence, as do many similar books of its day, such as Oswald Spengler’s Hour of Decision (1934) and Eric Voegelin’s New Science of Politics (1952), which likewise have lost all currency. The Revolt also describes those who know not of it and who think that knowledge is circumscribed by the syllabus of their graduate studies. The Revolt illuminates a remark made by Alain de Benoist and Charles Champetier in their Manifesto for a European Renaissance (2012): “Modernity has given birth to the most empty civilization mankind has ever known.” Two chapters of The Revolt offer themselves as especially relevant to the situation of the West in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century – “The Self-Satisfied Age” and “The Barbarism of Specialization.” First, however, a brief summary of Ortega’s general argument is in order.
The late-Nineteenth Century, according to Ortega, saw the sudden rise in Europe of economies of abundance. This mounting wealth resulted, in the first part of the Twentieth Century, in mass man, a social and cultural phenomenon that adapted itself, but in no positive way, to the advent of material ease and comfort. Mass man reaped the benefits of a civilization to which he had in no way contributed, which he failed to understand, and which he took entirely for granted, identifying it as the natural background to his existence. By the power of number alone, mass man, in Ortega’s phrase, intervenes everywhere, breaking down the hierarchical aspects of society and culture, while assimilating to himself – that is, to his limitation and incapacity – every institution. Mass man undertakes no projects, but contents himself with diversion. If he labored, it would be reluctantly, without commitment, and for the sake of diversion. Ortega defines mass man as “he whose life lacks any purpose, and simply goes drifting along.” This Homo novus has proliferated with such celerity that he overwhelmed any possibility of education. Thus, in Ortega’s words, “heap after heap of human beings have been dumped onto the historical scene at such an accelerated state, that it has been difficult to saturate them with traditional culture.” Mass man experiences a privative consciousness bereft of history, ignorant of the ancestors, and by tendency self-centered. He is egocentric in the extreme, in fact, but with the codicil that his ego remains at an infantile level of development.
I need a haircut. My barber needs my custom. My barber’s landlord needs his rent-check. My barber’s landlord’s bank needs his mortgage payment. The corporate bank needs the local office to stay solvent. Etcetera, etcetera. It cascades upwards. The lockdown, if it were ever justified, is now simply an economic suicide pact. We need to live free or we will die.
What is happening right now, globally, in re the Chinese Flu, is an inflection point in human history. This is so, no matter what the facts might actually turn out to be – the facts medical, epidemiological,, financial, economical, political, cultural, you name it – which now all appear to all of us so obscure, and (we cannot but think) intentionally obfuscated and obscured, by those in the higher reaches of the global culture interested in this or that outcome, for their own purposes, rather than for the sake of the good, the true, the beautiful. It does not really matter what those facts might turn out to be. Ex post, they shall, certainly, tell. But, for the moment, being mostly unknown, they simply cannot; almost every datum is now somewhat masked by countervalent noise of some sort. So, we proceed all of us on the basis of what we know. And what we know extends not much further than our own households, and beyond that our familiar networks, intimately connected via the web despite their geographic dispersion.
A client wrote me over the weekend, asking if I thought recent news of apparent flattening of the curve of new infections of Chinese Flu in Italy, Spain and, perhaps, even New York City, portended incipient prevalence over the virus. I responded:
Res ipsa loquitur, no?
While we’re at it, there is a strong epidemiological case for sexual modesty and chastity, for parochialism, for patriotism, and for cultural conservatism in respect to morals and customs. What is more, the humanely small scale of Schumacher and Christopher Alexander, Moldbug’s Patchwork or localism or Catholic subsidiarity, and the traditionalism of William Morris, of Chesterton, of Carlyle, and of de Maistre and Bonald all make great epidemiological sense. Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, Tolstoy, the Wrath of GNON, and of course we here at the Orthosphere; all echo the same notion:
Stay small, stay local, stay close to home, stay close to nature, and within the span of your own hands. Small steps, not great revolutionary saltations.
One of the main functions of tradition is to pass down to successive generations a comprehension of the meanings of the customary and traditional praxes and language. If the Tradition fails at that, then the praxes become meaningless and stupid, and are soon discarded as extraneities worthily subject to Ockham’s Razor: to the first principle of order, which is deletion. That’s when you get iconoclasm, whether intentional or not.
Intentional iconoclasm knows the meanings of the icons it destroys. Unintentional iconoclasm does not. The former is effected by destruction; the latter by desuetude.
Once the meanings of the cultural praxes are gone, the praxes themselves soon follow; for, there is then no longer any reason for them, that anyone knows or remembers. And that’s when the culture decoheres.