A Westerner Reads the Koran (Second Surah)

Pussin Golden Calf

Nicolas Poussin (1594 – 1665): Adoration of the Golden Calf (1634)

Introduction. The Western layman approaching the Koran for the first time must experience something like befuddlement.  Supposing that the layman possesses a good education, including knowledge of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and the core classics of the Greek and Roman worlds, the Koran will strike him as something like the opposite of that with which he enjoys familiarity.  Take the Bible’s Genesis: It deals in straightforward narrative, as do its Near Eastern precursor texts such as the Babylonian Creation or Enuma Elish.  The very opening words of Genesis invoke the concept of a beginning, which implies in advance both an ensuing middle and an end.  The same is true of the Greek poet Hesiod’s account of the generations of the gods – Elemental, Titanic, and Olympian – in his Theogony.  After Hesiod explains his own function as an interpreter of the lore concerning these things, he launches into his genealogical story whose episodes follow one another in comprehensible sequence: Once again, a beginning, a middle, and an end.  In much the same way, the New Testament follows the Old Testament so that, taken together, they constitute a unified tale.  The events in Homer’s Odyssey similarly follow in a comprehensible way the events in Homer’s Iliad.  The essential seriality, as it might be called, of Western narrative and exposition connects itself to their seriousness and to their comprehensibility.  Both the Old Testament and the New generally sort out their chapters so as to keep non-narrative prose separate from narrative prose.  This consideration helps the reader.  To whomsoever compiled the Koran these principles meant nothing; he was entirely unfamiliar with them.  The Koran lards non-narrative exposition into its narratives – promiscuously and confusingly from a readerly point of view.  A properly chronological narrative can, by a difficult labor, be reconstructed from the Koran’s chapters or surahs, which lifts the history of prophecy from the Old Testament, but the naïve Western reader who proceeds from one surah to another will encounter no orderly arrangement of episodes such as he might expect in the Bible or Homer.

The Koran bears some resemblance to a little-known category of quasi-Western literature that appeared in the Greek-speaking parts of the divided Roman Empire in the centuries that historians label as Late Antiquity.  The literature of the Third through the Fifth Centuries was largely religious and it was also competitively religious as sects and heresies of various kinds metastasized and proliferated.  The Bible familiar to modern Westerners had already been codified and enjoyed wide dissemination.  The Greek classics were still known to educated people.  Classical High Culture still existed and by the Fifth Century Nicene Christianity had established itself as the majoritarian religion of the Empire.  The sectarian pamphlets of the time, which constitute the little-known category referred to above, urge the causes of the multitudinous competing faiths, many of which belong to Gnostic religiosity.  (Definition to come)  A great cache of such documents came to light in the late 1940s and goes by the name of the Nag Hammadi Library, after the Egyptian locale where archaeologists discovered it.  One characteristic of the pamphlets in this collection is their parasitic relation to established texts, especially to the canonical Testaments; another is their implacable hostility to the established Scripture and its interpretation.  The word Gnostic describes the common attitude of the sectarian writers, which is one of absolute conviction and certainty, first, that the faith of the established Church is corrupt and false, and second that the writer has been vouchsafed by the Supreme Deity with a type of knowledge concerning these matters that is self-guaranteeing.  Gnosis refers to a type of secret revelation unavailable directly to the mass of people, who must trust the claims of the illuminatus if they want to participate in or benefit by it.

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The Pagan Ordeal of Dominique Venner

Venner 01

[Note: This essay appeared some few years ago in the Sydney Traditionalist Forum, shortly after the death by suicide of its subject. The work of Venner remaining relevant, I re-post the essay here, with a few small changes.]

Dominique Venner (born 16 April 1935) ended his life publicly and dramatically by shooting himself in the mouth before the altar of Our Lady of Notre Dame in Paris six years ago on 21 May 2013. The bullet passed through Venner’s brain and exited the back of his head. In the opening paragraph of a suicide note that he sent to his publisher, Venner sought to justify his action:

I am healthy in body and mind, and I am filled with love for my wife and children.  I love life and expect nothing beyond, if not the perpetuation of my race and my mind.   However, in the evening of my life, facing immense dangers to my French and European homeland, I feel the duty to act as long as I still have strength.  I believe it necessary to sacrifice myself to break the lethargy that plagues us. I give up what life remains to me in order to protest and to found.  I chose a highly symbolic place, the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, which I respect and admire: She was built by the genius of my ancestors on the site of cults still more ancient, recalling our immemorial origins.

A reader cannot avoid remarking the contradictions in Venner’s testament.  A professed love of life comports itself awkwardly with a gesture of self-annihilation.  One could argue that Venner meant by “life,” not his own, but the collective, trans-personal vitality of his children and their descendants; he refers after all to “the perpetuation of [his] race and [his] mind.”  Seen in that way, his suicide might rise to being a Stoical demonstration, like those of Petronius and Seneca in the time of Nero.  Even so, no few problems remain; not least the dis-relation between Venner’s professed respect and admiration for the “highly symbolic place” of the Lady Church and his having blemished its consecrated precincts with his effluvia.  How moreover would such an act “break the lethargy that plagues us”?  More likely – even patently, looking back on the event – it would merely add to the pernicious confusion of the times.  The explanation of these contradictions is undoubtedly linked to the fact that while Venner acknowledged his belonging to a specifically Christian civilization in its late phase, he never himself identified as an adherent of that faith.  Like his countrymen-contemporaries Guillaume Faye (b. 1949) and Alain de Benoist (b. 1943), Venner espoused Friedrich Nietzsche’s Neo-Pagan view of Christianity as “slave morality,” a religion of defeat and death, and the cause of rather than the antidote to the malaise of modernity unleashed.  Like Nietzsche, whom Venner admired, and who signed his last letters as “The Crucified One,” the suicide might well have been experiencing a revilement of Christ which was, at the same time, a desire to rival and replace Him.  That would account for Venner’s characterization of his act as an instance of “self-sacrifice” and for his references to “cults still more ancient” than the Cult of the Virgin on the Ile de la Cité, with whose pre-Christian religiosity he would have identified in opposition to Christianity.

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Outward is Upward: The Anthropology of the Martian Romance (Part II)

Jegga Amazing Cover

Amazing Stories November 1943

I continue my “Anthropology of the Martian Romance.”  The previous installment dealt with the seminal Martian Romance, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs and its background in the studies of East Asian shamanic practices and later of the planet Mars undertaken in the early years of the Twentieth Century by Percival Lowell.  In this second part of “Outward is Upward” I discuss a little-known but impressive addition to the Martian Romance, David Reed’s Empire of Jegga, and a late addition, Leigh Brackett’s Queen of the Martian Catacombs, later republished as The Black Amazon of Mars.  While I confine myself to a sub-sub genre of science fiction, I believe that my interpretations are applicable to mid-Twentieth Century genre across the board. I take genre seriously. Genre offers, as I put it in Part I, “a colorful promise of redemption.”

II. Epistemological Displacement in Reed’s Empire of Jegga. Burroughs’ example, no less than his success, provoked many writers to imitate him. Knock-offs of A Princess quickly became legion. Burroughs even imitated himself, launching new series of books whose action takes place on the planet Venus, on the moon, in a vast cavern at the center of the Earth, or on an extra-solar planet away across the galaxy.  In his Venus series, Burroughs might have been imitating one of his imitators, Otis Adelbert Kline (1891 – 1946), whose “Planet of Peril” trilogy, set on the next planet inward from Earth, saw serial publication in Argosy All-Story Weekly between 1929 and 1931.  The first of Burroughs’ Venusian tales, Pirates of Venus, only appeared in 1932.  Kline wrote his own Martian novels in the early 1930s.  If Kline’s romances had come back into print after many decades, as they have, it would be a case of their riding on Burroughsian coat-tails.  Kline’s prose is certainly entertaining, but it lacks the symbolic richness of Burroughs’ prose.  Now imitation is not only flattery; it is also the index of a market.  In its turn, a market is the index of a desire or need.  The desire or need arises from the subject’s proprioception of alienation or maladjustment.  In the case of maladjustment, however, the subject senses the condition not so much as his own but rather as a deforming affliction in the external social world.  That deformation is modernity, which in rejecting Tradition drastically diminishes the opportunity of proper self-placement that the archaic rites of passage facilitate.  The world of getting and spending obviously exerts on John Carter no attraction whatsoever, but Carter nevertheless seems incapable of bitterness.  Stalwartness belongs to Carter’s Percival-like character.  Nick Brewster, the protagonist of David V. Reed’s Empire of Jegga (Amazing Stories November 1943), presents himself at first, in contrast to Carter, as a materialist, even a hedonist, and womanizer.  Not only in its protagonist, but in the fullness of its details, Reed (1924 – 1989) appears to have conceived Empire initially as an anti-Princess of Mars, but his story is nevertheless a version, or perhaps an inversion, of Burroughs’ saga about John Carter.

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Outward is Upward: The Anthropology of the Martian Romance (Part I)

Planet Stories Triple

Planet Stories: The Stubborn Home of the Martian Romance

Introduction. This essay takes for granted a number of premises: For example, that Twentieth-Century genre literature, even when it is a purely commercial endeavor with the author being remunerated according to word-count, often resurrects types of thinking, not least the mythic and sacred modes of thought, that the doctrines of modernity reject and that the organs of modernity attempt to suppress.  A related premise is that these modes of thought, or states of mind, through the symbols associated with them, articulate an image of full humanity, especially of full masculine humanity, unavailable elsewhere in which many people wish to participate, even if it were only vicariously.  In the liberal-modern, rationalistic view, such vicarious participation in archaic processes and dramas belongs to an escapist and antisocial attitude, the participants in which the representatives of the prevailing order admonish and chastise with the aim of shaming them into re-assimilating themselves to a prescriptive, but highly unnatural, set of norms.  While it is true that stock formulas govern the unfolding action of genre narrative, those formulas stand, perhaps startlingly so, emphatically outside the horizon of any Post-Enlightenment order.  They are in many ways both dissentient from and critical of that order.  Not least, the generic formulas derive from the paradigms of archaic heroism, known from the Homeric epics and especially from the medieval Germanic and Celtic sagas, which in turn carry with them the patterns of ritual processes in general and of ritual initiation in particular.  This initiatic pattern invariably entails the confrontation of the subject or initiand with a transcendent mystery, where-through the protagonist acquires manly status, wisdom, and on occasion a help-meet, and either earns acknowledgment from a community that has previously ignored him or reconciles himself to a status as permanent outsider by virtue of his proper and self-validating achievements.

Who was he?  In the first half of the Twentieth Century, the historical period that this exposition addresses, he was an office worker, a bank teller, a low-level civic bureaucrat, a technician in a factory, or a high school physics teacher in his mid- to late-twenties, a bachelor but interested in marriage, whose five-day-a-week, eight- or ten-hours-a-day routine while it bought him a living, replenished him spiritually not at all.  Aware of his confinement in stultifying routine and chafing at it; living in a city, likely in an efficiency apartment, with few opportunities of escape; and possessing an educated imagination, on which the demands of his employment never drew, he sought compensation.  He might look for it in the movie house, but film appealed largely to a female audience, which merely dragged the male along and required him to buy the popcorn and soft drinks.  He might take night classes in the city college or subscribe to a correspondence course.  He might join the Elks or the Rotarians.  He might affiliate himself with the Technocracy movement or join a rifle-club.  His plight was not, however, the Marxist alienation of the worker, but a condition much more profound than that, lying entirely outside the horizon of economics.  A colorful promise of redemption existed in his day, however, of which he no doubt frequently caught sight: The corner news stand, with its rack on rack of garish periodicals.  Those racks sometimes loomed providentially, rising up like a sign to the initiand, who did not yet know himself as the initiand, rather in the way that the Holy Grail appears in Arthur’s castle, lighting up the hall “seven times greater than before.”[i]

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Colin Wilson Redivivus: A Plea

Age of Defeat

New Aristeia Edition of Colin Wilson’s Age of Defeat

Aristeia is a small start-up press in London whose initial project, undertaken in collaboration with the Joy Wilson and Colin Wilson Estate, is to return to print in a uniform edition Wilson’s “Outsider Cycle.” People of my age and my intellectual proclivities will likely remember Wilson (1931 – 2013) as the author of non-conformist philosophical books that took the modern condition to task and as a prolific novelist whose Ritual in the Dark, Necessary Doubt, The Mind Parasites, and The Philosopher’s Stone, among others, rehearsed the non-fiction arguments with allegorical verve. Wilson’s first book, the non-fictional Outsider, appeared in 1956 and became a surprise bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. Wilson’s emergent currency even got him on the cover of Life Magazine.

Aristeia has previously put out a new edition of Religion and the Rebel (which bore the brunt of the establishment’s abrupt turn-around regarding Wilson); it has now given us a new edition of the third installment of Wilson’s philosophical cycle — The Age of Defeat. I am humbled to have been asked to participate in this project by supplying an introduction, “Bucking the Whimper,” to The Age, a book that remains as relevant to the West’s cultural decline as it was when it first appeared. Indeed, the book is the more relevant because the situation is six decades worse than it was in 1958.

The Age, along with Religion and the Rebel, is available either directly through Aristeia or through Amazon. The Amazon price is fifteen dollars, which gets the buyer a handsome trade paperback printed extremely legibly on good paper — not to mention Wilson’s rapier-like critique of the post-war anti-heroic and self-de-masculinizing society of Western Europe and North America. I strongly recommend The Age and hope that no few readers of The Orthosphere will take the risk of purchasing it.

The Acid Eating at Tradition is Not Capitalism, But Cheap Information

Reactionaries often blame capitalism for eviscerating tradition and reducing everything to the lowest common denominator. But capitalism – i.e., free exchange – is not a recent phenomenon. It was not invented by the Franciscans, forsooth, but rather discovered by them as a subject amenable to moral, theological and philosophical analysis, and so to discourse, development and elaboration. Capitalism has been around since the beginning of human society. It is no more than a fancy word for exchange that develops surplus, after all; for mere trade, and commerce. For almost all of human history, capitalism supported and indeed mediated local tradition – or, at least, did not vitiate it.

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Beyond Radical Secularism

Manent

At Gates of Vienna,review, somewhat belatedly, Pierre Manent’s book Beyond Radical Secularism (2016).  The book carries the subtitle How France and the Christian West Should Respond to the Islamic Challenge. I offer an excerpt. —

What is radical secularism?   Manent defines radical secularism as the opinion, pervasive in modern Europe since the end of World War Two, that views religion merely and strictly “as an individual option, something private, a feeling that is finally incommunicable.”  Manent argues, however, that this opinion is not native to those who hold it, but rather is the result of a propaganda regime in place for many decades.  “The power of this perspective over us,” Manent writes, “is all the greater because it is essentially dictated by our political regime, and because we are good citizens.”  It belongs to the bland conformism of the modern – or postmodern – person that he wishes to participate in such self-lauding phenomena as “enlightenment” and “progress.”  Not even “the acts of war committed in early 2015 in Paris” seem to have shaken that conformism, which confirmed its blandness with a brief rush of emotion followed by a return of the characterless routine.  France finds itself in a state of “paralysis,” Manent concludes.  Its program, from the presidency down through the institutions right to the conformist mass of citizen-individuals appears to be to see nothing and to do nothing.  The Muslim problem exists, according to Manent, because the French state is weak and cannot produce the secularity, which would integrate Muslims, and which it declares as its program.  Whereas “the State of the Third Republic had authority” and “represented that all held sacred,” as Manent argues; “our state [the Fifth Republic] has abandoned its representative ambition and pride, thus losing a good part of its legitimacy in the eyes of citizens.”
Manent continues: “Our state now obeys a principle of indeterminacy and dissipation.”  Indeed, the French state, committed to the European Union, is programmatically self-minimizing.  This trend attaches to another: The rising hostility to and elision of national culture and national identity.  Manent points out that “the work of the state… has tended to deprive education of its content, or empty these contents of what I dare call their imperatively desirable character.”  Under the Third Republic, pride in the achievement of one’s nation – or at the very least, the explicit acknowledgment of those achievements – expressed itself robustly and informed the national curriculum.  The existing curriculum, in the name of multiculturalism, has elbowed the lesson in what it means to inherit the French nation out to the margin of the page or out of the textbook altogether.  “How can we begin from the beginning,” Manent asks, “and gather children together in the competent practice of the French language, when we have done so much to strip this language of its ‘privilege?’”  Given that secularity itself is such an empty concept, how might teachers teach secularism, the primary principle supposedly of the state – say, to Muslim students who crowd France’s urban schools?  One can teach the heritage of a nation, but one finds himself hard-pressed to teach a self-evacuating notion.  “Under the name of secularism we dream of a teaching without content that would effectively prepare children to be members of a formless society in which religions would be dissolved along with everything else.”

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance (1852) and Philip K. Dick’s VALIS (1981)

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The Forms

Art generally or literature specifically, insofar as it comes down to the present from the past, tends to be conservative and traditional.  Any essay, poem, play, story, or novel is formed in its completion by its author and retains that form every time it is re-read or re-issued.  Not even the postmodern contemnors of Shakespeare as the exemplary Dead White Male dare to alter his text, however spitefully they address it; they never speak of a “Living Hamlet” in the way that they speak of a “Living Constitution” that lends itself to re-composition on a whim.  The interpretation of Hamlet changes, but the document possesses a taboo that protects it from tampering.  In the moment when any essay, poem, play, story, or novel is formed, moreover, the spirits of the age and place imbue the work with their character even in cases where the author opposes himself to their character.  George Elliot (a.k.a. Mary Anne Evans) might have been a socialist and feminist, but she was also a child of the Victorian era – and many things that scandalize Twenty-First Century conservatives and traditionalists would have scandalized her just as much.  H. G. Wells advocated such programs as a type of radical but non-Marxist socialism, world government, eugenics, and much else, but one will find in his novels and essays no promotion of “gay marriage,” abortion, or mass immigration.  Wells criticized the English society of his day, but he remained fond of England.  He would no doubt be shocked by aspects of Twenty-First Century London.  And then there are the authors who are thematically conservative.

Cervantes might be the first, in that his Quixote, Part II, criticizes the notion of the modern, finding in it a type of bland self-orientation.  Indeed, as the centuries pass, modernity creates a bifurcation among writers: There are those who see themselves as modern and conform to modernity’s expectations; and there are those who breast the stream.  The present essay treats two American novelists who belong to the second category.  One of these novelists lived in the first half of the Nineteenth Century.  The other lived in the middle of the Twentieth Century.  Whatever the expectation might be, they are startlingly close to one another in their moral analyses of modernity, especially of its “progressive” aspect.  Whether either author would have applied to himself the label of conservative or traditionalist, in the present context that label settles on him willy-nilly.  Perhaps it is so that integrity – of insight and judgment as well as of literary execution – is an intrinsically conservative trait.

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Robert Edgerton’s Sick Societies (1992) Revisited

Edgerton 02 Sick Societies COVER

Hardcover First Edition (1992)

A critique of cultural relativism, Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (1992) by Robert B. Edgerton (1931 – 2016), an anthropologist and ethnologist who taught at UCLA for many years, has implications not only for how one might evaluate the pre-modern, non-Western folk-societies (primitive societies) studied by professional ethnographers and anthropologists, but for how one might understand both institutions and social practices – and perhaps even political ones – more generally.  Sick Societies provoked moderate controversy when it appeared, but probably few remember the book today.  Nevertheless, Sick Societies deserves not to disappear into the oblivion of the library stacks; or, more likely in 2018, to be purged from the shelves.  Revisiting it twenty-five years later indeed shows it to have maintained its relevance.  Provocative in its day, it remains provocative.  Sick Societies might well be a meditation on culture urgently apposite to the current phase of the West’s seemingly interminable crisis at the end of the second decade of the Twenty-First Century.

I. Adaptation, a Darwinian evolutionary concept, plays a central role in anthropology. The theory of adaptation articulates the anthropologist’s conviction that all societies manage to come to terms optimally with their external environment, and with the internal difficulties presented by communal life, as a people strives to fit itself in its environmental niche. This optimal coming-to-terms will be the case even when it might seem to uninformed or prejudiced outsiders that the beliefs and practices of a given community operate inefficiently or counter-productively and that they therefore fail to meet the requirements of human happiness.  Under this view, a modern Westerner’s disdain for magic or witchcraft or for elaborate rituals or proliferating taboos would itself indicate a deformation (“ethnocentrism”) because the objects of that disdain, which the anthropologist or ethnographer properly understands even where the lay person does not, operate by a concealed rationality that only the initiated might perceive.  On this assumption, seemingly irrational commitments and practices would in fact be just as rational as modern Western arrangements, but in a way that Western prejudice prevents people from recognizing.  From this position, in Edgerton’s words, “it follows that any attempt to generalize about either culture or human nature must be false or trivial unless it is confined to people who live in a specific cultural system.”  This would imply, in turn, that “Western science is only a culturally specific form of ethnoscience, not a universally valid way of verification or falsification.”  Edgerton does not directly state, but rather he implies, that, if the idea in the last sentence quoted above were true, as anthropologists and ethnographers by consensus assert, then that truth would hold important implications for anthropology and ethnography themselves.  Why, for example, must one validate the tribal belief in magic while withholding validation for the modern Western suspicion about magical thinking?  But ethnography does not treat Western skepticism about the other as adaptive.

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Berdyaev on Culture and Christianity

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Current Edition of The Fate of Man

The reality that modernity is a crisis and that it also causes crises, severe ones, in the cultural and civilizational fabric dawned on perceptive observers at the turn of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.  Joseph de Maistre in the Francophone world and Edmund Burke in Anglophone offer themselves as early outstanding analysts of emergent modernity.  Their work constitutes the bedrock of a steady tradition of anti-modern criticism that has, somewhat paradoxically, accompanied modernity for more than two centuries, becoming ever more acute as modernity increased in its perniciousness.  The first half of the Twentieth Century produced a number of outstanding commentators in this vein – not least that Colossus Oswald Spengler, but also René Guénon, Julius Evola, José Ortega, Simone Weil, Paul Valéry, and Eric Voegelin, to name but a few.  And that is to count only the essayists.  Poets and novelists add themselves to the tally.  Another important name that wants a place in the list belongs to Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), whose curriculum vitae heightens the plausibility of his critique.  Born of the minor aristocracy, Berdyaev in his youth associated himself with Marxism and the Bolsheviks even to the extent of supporting the October Revolution.  The regime permitted Berdyaev to teach and to publish, but the brutality of Lenin’s new order swiftly alienated the philosopher, who began to criticize the state and its actions from a specifically Christian point of view.  At one point the police arrested Berdyaev but then released him.  Berdyaev continued his criticism until finally Lenin exiled him in 1922.  He went first to Berlin, but the chaos of the early Weimar years made it impossible for him to work.  in 1924 he traded Berlin for Paris where he remained.  Berdyaev lived by writing and lecturing.  His authorship offers itself both as an intrinsically useful assessment of the modern deformation and as a complement to the work of those other, mainly Western European writers named above.  Berdyaev possessed a perspective all his own.

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