The Catastrophe – Part I

Cata 06 Keuninck or Coninck Kerstiaen de

Kerstian de Keuninck (1560 – 1632): Troy in Flames

Introduction to Part I: Modern people assume the immunity of their situation to major disturbance or – even more unthinkable – to terminal wreckage.  The continuance of a society or culture depends, in part, on that very assumption because without it no one would complete his daily round.  A man cannot enthusiastically arise from bed as the sun comes up and set about the day’s errands, believing that all undertakings will issue vainly because the established order threatens to go up in smoke before twilight.  Just as it serves this necessity, however, the assumption of social permanence – that tomorrow will necessarily be just like today – can, when it becomes too habitual through lack of reflection, lead to dangerous complacency.  It is healthy, therefore, to think in an informed way about the possibility that our society might break down completely and become unrecognizable.  Such things are more than mere possibility – they have happened.  Societies – and, it is fair to say, whole standing civilizations – have disintegrated swiftly, leaving behind them depopulation and material poverty.  In the two parts of the present essay, I wish to look into one of the best documented of these epochal events, one that brought abrupt death and destruction to a host of thriving societies, none of which survived the scourge.  I have divided my essay into two parts, each part further divided into four subsections.  Note: I wrote this article twenty years ago or a bit more for John Harris’s quarterly print magazine Arcturus.

I. Archeologists, historians, and classicists call it “the Catastrophe.” It happened more than three thousand years ago in the lands surrounding the Eastern Mediterranean.  Neither geological nor climatological but rather sociological in character, this chaotic enormity erased civilization in a wide swath of geography stretching from the western portions of Greece east to the inner fastnesses of Anatolia, and all the way to Mesopotamia; it turned south as well, overrunning many islands, finally swamping the borders of Egypt.  The Egyptians nevertheless defeated the interlopers, some of whom stayed on as mercenary soldiers under the pharaoh.  The Catastrophe left cities in smoking ruin, their wealth plundered; it plunged the affected regions into a Dark Age, bereft of literacy, during which populations drastically shrank while the level of material culture reverted to that of a Neolithic village.  Echoes of the event – or complicated network of linked events – turn up in myth and find reflection in early Greek literature.  The Trojan War appears to be implicated in the Catastrophe, as do certain episodes of the Old Testament.  Recovered records hint at this massive upheaval: diplomatic letters dictated by Hittite kings and tablets bearing military orders from the last days of the Mycenaean palace-citadels.  Places like Sicily and Sardinia took their names in the direct aftermath of the Catastrophe and in its scattering of peoples.

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Burroughs’ Amtor – A Satire of Ideologies

Venus 01

Roy Krenkel (1918 – 1983): Cover for the Ace edition of Pirates of Venus

Once upon a time – I believe it was twelve years ago – I published an article at the Brussels Journal, defunct since 2009 but still archived on the Internet, under the title Edgar Rice Burroughs and Masculine Narrative.  The article mainly addressed the author’s quasi-science fiction novels, but it also contained criticism of the stilted, politically correct apologies for Burroughs in otherwise handsome editions of his work reissued beginning in 2000 by the University of Nebraska Press under the Bison imprint.  The foreword writers ritually excoriated Burroughs for having exercised the usual list of phobic isms and inexcusable bigotries.  The article pointed to numerous counterexamples that, in particular, exonerated the Tarzan-author of having populated his stories with unrealistically weak or grotesquely male-deferential female characters.  The editorial matter accompanying the Burroughs sagas in the Bison editions anticipated today’s advancing disappearance of the Burroughs oeuvre from the marketplace, partly under influence of wokeness.  The stock of Bison editions nears depletion at Amazon.  Those that remain for sale are in short supply.  Used paperbacks from the 1960s and 70s are still for sale, but due to scarcity the prices are rising, especially for the Ace editions with cover-art by Roy Krenkel.  An Amazon customer may purchase publish-on-demand versions of some titles, but they make a poor comparison with the Dover, Ace, and Bison reprints of past decades.  The publish-on-demand editions often lack cover-art, coming with only title and author; and the printed page looks awkwardly composed, with no typographic grace.  The situation treats poorly a man who once enjoyed the status of the most-read popular author in the USA, if not also in the world at large.  (Burroughs’ adventures saw translation in a dozen languages, at least.)  It saddens me that a man of so great an imagination, and at his best, a master of sterling prose, should vanish from public knowledge.

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Rémi Brague on the Hubris of Modernity

Brague Kingdom

Rémi Brague’s Kingdom of Man: Genesis and Failure of the Modern Project (2018) offers a lineage of, and a judgment on, “progress,” which, central to modernity, conceives itself as, precisely, a project.  This word project figures importantly in Brague’s exposition.  Brague (born 1947) distinguishes on the one hand between a task, a term or family of terms that he traces back to antiquity, and, on the other, a project, a term or family of terms that emerges with the so-called Enlightenment, beginning in the Seventeenth Century.  (Brague translates from Greek, Latin, and various medieval and modern languages into French, and his translator, Paul Seaton, from Brague’s French into English, but readers may take for granted a thoroughness of lexical rigor across languages.)  Having drawn Adam from the soil and Eve from Adam’s rib, God tasks the newly mated couple, and through them the whole of humanity, with dominion over nature, or stewardship, as some versions put it.  Presumably although perhaps awkwardly one might refuse a task.  A degree of voluntarism attaches itself to the concept.  At the same time, the subject of the task undertakes it out of a sense of reciprocity or mutuality and in the trust that fulfilling the commission will sustain an ongoing relationship that benefits both parties – the tasker and the taskee – in the long run.  A task is in the order of things. A project, by contrast, arises from a sense of urgency or panic.  The discovery of a lack provokes a sudden resolution that the lack be made good as swiftly as possible.  A project addresses a perceived deficiency by invoking a mandate for immediate action.  Brague calls attention to the etymological basis of the word: Pro- (“forward”) and jacere (“to throw”), in Latin.  Something ballistic and aggressive adheres to a project, which resembles a military campaign.  Brague indeed invokes Napoleon’s campaigns, ultimately vain but hugely destructive, as instances of the generic project.

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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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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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Never Panic

There are two options now before me; before America; before the West; before Christendom, as we all approach what seems to be a cultural crisis hundreds of years in the making: either to panic, or to commend our spirits to God, so renewing our pledge of fealty to him our Captain, and then to keep fighting, and before all else to keep praying.

There must be a demonic aspect to the present crisis. Our adversaries on all sides are too various, distributed and yet spookily coordinated for any merely human agency to have organized them so well. Another clue to their demonic inspiration: they are rather dense, as befits an army dedicated to confusion and disorder. They make stupid, obvious mistakes, such as threatening election officials – a federal offense – and then posting recordings of those threats online.

Synchronistically, I just finished the book Daimonic Reality: a Field Guide to the Otherworld, by Patrick Harpur. I have been reading about demons and angels a lot over the last five years or so. I had not wondered why, until yesterday morning. The topic is interesting, but so are many others. Why had I got on to it? Perhaps, I then thought for the first time, out of the blue: perhaps, it has something to do with our present crisis. Perhaps I have been prepared. Or we: for, I am not special. Lots of people in recent years have begun to take angels and demons rather more seriously than had been the case since 1900 or so.

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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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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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Ibsen’s Unknown Masterpiece, Part II

Genric Ippolitovich Semiradsky (1843 - 1902) - Julian the Apostate (1889)

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.

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