Superstition & Subscendence: An Essay in Honor of Tom Bertonneau

Bear with me here. I hardly know where I am going with this, although I feel I have caught the spoor of something Tom would find delightful – that he would join with me joyfully in this new hunt. I’m confused because all I have is that spoor, and my spirits are in a hurry and a muddle due to his too soon death. I miss my friend of many years – of too few! I am not yet sure how to do with the world that, henceforth, shall miss him.

Tom has been a valued colleague since we first encountered each other. We corresponded often – not often enough, alas – about our hopes and worries in respect to our work, much of it coordinate here. We sometimes asked each other for editorial advice upon that work. I could rely on Tom for sound counsel. I hardly know how I shall manage without his sagacity.

But I must. I bid you all help me in that project, in which we may hope we can all together proceed for many more years to come. That would be a fitting legacy of his penetrant honest cheerful mind.

I propose that this essay be an early installment in something like a festschrift for Tom. Let us all try to limn what it was that he taught us. Perhaps we might make a book out of it. Or maybe just something on the scale of an issue of Amazing Stories, circa 1935: the sort of thing that was an important source of grist for the mill of his wits. That would please him, perhaps above all things we might do to honor him.

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Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Idolatry

This key is simple to explain, but I have found it opens lots of doors; it explains lots of things. Idolatry is the worship of something less than the Most High; of something other than God. Simple, no?

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Christian Focus on Sempiternity → Long Term Approach to Mundane Affairs

If there is heaven, you would be stupid to forego it by some short term evanescent and unrighteous, ergo in all likelihood maladaptive worldly foolishness. So you would be less likely to engage in short term and mere worldly foolishness (on the contrary, you’d want to be a holy fool!). With eyes always turned to the infinite prize, you would be less likely to grab at – or, a fortiori, work for, or pay for, or sacrifice for – any other, lesser good in contravention thereto.

The intention toward sempiternal life in Heaven, then, tends to social health here below.

This is why it is so important to social health to take religion seriously.

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Girard on Anthropogenesis

Sacer 10 St. Stephen (1604) Annibale Carracci (1550 - 1609)

 Annibale Carracci (1550 – 1609): Lapidation of St. Stephen (1604)

In the two classic pre-Christian canons of Western myth – the Greek and the Norse – anthropogenesis is brought about by natural processes under the observation of the gods.  Man is earthborn in both canons, although indirectly in the Norse, and can therefore lay claim to a mother, either Gaia or Erda.  In both myths fatherhood remains in the shadows.  The gods who observe and interact with the earliest men conform to a model thoroughly anthropomorphic.  The presence of fully human gods suggests that man existed before he existed and that man needed instruction from man in order to recognize himself and learn how to adapt himself to the cosmic environment.  In the Hellenic and Scandinavian myths humanity enters into a world of violence.  Neither Zeus nor Odin has as yet organized the world under the concept of law.  The Greek and Norse canons share a word: Titan, an item of vocabulary that carries the inner meaning of brutal criminality.  This word occurs in Old West Norse as Jotun and in Anglo-Saxon as Eotan.  The giants, that is to say the Titans and Jotuns, war perpetually with the younger generation of gods.  Peace requires the Olympians or the Aesir to suppress the giants by main force; and even then peace reprieves the universe only temporarily.  Eruptions of chaos can occur anytime and anywhere.  The Christian anthropogenesis, which is in fact the Hebrew anthropogenesis, differs minimally from its Pagan and Heathen counterparts, but it differs nevertheless in subtle ways, which make a difference.  The Biblical God draws man forth from the clay, for example, by an intentional act; and God deliberately shapes man to resemble his Creator.  The Hebrew God is less anthropomorphic than the Olympians or the Aesir, even aniconic, but his immediate precursors in Near Eastern myth, such as the Canaanite Baal and the Babylonian Ea, testify that he stems from a man-like version of deity, fit for a standing image.  The physiognomic resemblance between Creator and creature is thereby explained.

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To be a Christian, Part II: Why Do It?

[Part I, which lays out basic Christian teaching, is here.]

Christianity is not like any other thing you can join.

You join other things because they are enjoyable, or beneficial, or their cause is important to you. Otherwise, you have no reason to join.

Granted that it can be enjoyable, beneficial, or an important cause, Christianity is not like other things you can join. When it comes to ultimate issues, the criteria for joining a thing are different.

There are two basic reasons why you should join Christianity. One, unless your sins are forgiven you face eternity in hell, and forgiveness of sins comes only through Jesus of Nazareth. All humans live forever, but some live forever in a bad place.

The other reason is this: The completely true description of what reality is and how it operates comes only from Christianity, because God revealed this knowledge in the Bible. When a society rejects Christianity (as ours is doing) it cannot function correctly (as ours increasingly does not.)

A non-Christian society can sometimes function adequately, based on its partial understanding of reality that man can attain because he is made in the image of God and is therefore capable of grasping many truths. But America lacks even this pagan common sense. Our rulers are anti-reality, not just non-reality, in their basic orientation. We need the sanity (to say nothing of the wisdom) that comes only from Christianity. Continue reading

Fighting against Sleep: Colin Wilson’s Necessary Doubt as Phenomenological Thriller

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I recalled the last phases of my former life, that darkling climax of pursuit and anger and universal darkness and the whirling green vapors of extinction. The comet had struck the earth and made an end to all things; of that too I was assured.
But afterward? . . .
And now?
The imaginations of my boyhood came back as speculative possibilities. In those days I had believed firmly in the necessary advent of a last day, a great coming out of the sky, trumpetings and fear, the Resurrection, and the Judgment. My roving fancy now suggested to me that this Judgment must have come and passed. That it had passed and in some manner missed me. I was left alone here, in a swept and garnished world (except, of course, for this label of Swindells’) to begin again perhaps…
***********
The miracle of the awakening came to me in solitude, the laughter, and then the tears. Only after some time did I come upon another man. Until I heard his voice calling I did not seem to feel there were any other people in the world. All that seemed past, with all the stresses that were past. I had come out of the individual pit in which my shy egotism had lurked, I had overflowed to all humanity, I had seemed to be all humanity; I had laughed at Swindells as I could have laughed at myself, and this shout that came to me seemed like the coming of an unexpected thought in my own mind. But when it was repeated I answered.
H. G. Wells, In the Year of the Comet (1906)

That the comet’s “green vapors” amount to a Deus ex machina is no reason not to notice the real interest in the passage: The description, which goes on for pages, of the metamorphosis of consciousness that permits the narrator to see the world at last — as if the Blakean “Doors of Perception” had been flung wide.  The narrator has ascended to a new order of existence. He is now a kind of superman, at least where keen-sightedness and self-clarity are concerned.  The state of heightened consciousness is a recurrent motif in Wells’ oeuvre; so is the Nietzschean Übermensch.  In Kipps (1905), the priggish Walsingham, who “had been reading Appearing roughly five years after Ritual in the Dark (1959) and roughly five years before The Philosopher’s Stone (1969), Colin Wilson’s ambitious novel Necessary Doubt (1964) represents its author in the moment when, beginning to appropriate genre formulas (murder mystery, science fiction, espionage novel), he simultaneously began to foreground philosophical themes and to exploit a version of Platonic dialogue for the dramatic exposition of ideas.  Necessary Doubt echoes Ritual in a number of ways, particularly in granting to its point-of-view character the privilege of withholding testimony by which he would cooperate with official charges against an acquaintance other than perfectly innocent.  The protagonist in Necessary Doubt is Professor Karl Zweig, an existential theologian of Austrian origin whom Wilson models in part on Paul Tillich.  Zweig’s relation to the dubious and off-putting Gustav Neumann is somewhat analogous to Gerard Sorme’s relation to Austin Nunn in Ritual although Neumann differs from Nunn in his degree of social pathology (less acute than Nunn’s) and intelligence (higher than Nunn’s).  As for The Philosopher’s Stone, Necessary Doubt anticipates it in the notion that access to intensified consciousness might be mediated by psychotropic drugs or by neurosurgery.  The metallic substance that accomplishes this goal in The Philosopher’s Stone is called the Neumann Alloy, in a direct backwards link to the earlier work, as Nicolas Tredell has noted.[i]

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Two Poems – George Sterling & Clark Ashton Smith

Redon 01 Vision (1883)

Odilon Redon (1840 – 1916): Vision (1883)

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.

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Ralph Vaughan Williams – The “London” and “Pastoral” Symphonies and “Sinfonia Antartica”

RVW 14 port-of-london

Claude Monet (1840 – 1926): Port of London (1871)

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.

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An Anthology of Interviews with René Girard

Girard

My 1987 Paroles Gelées interview with René Girard is included in Cynthia L. Haven’s newly issued Conversations with René Girard as Chapter IV, “The Logic of the Undecidable.” Haven writes: “Bertonneau, at that time a doctoral student in the UCLA Program in Comparative Literature, began the interview by invoking what Paul de Man refers to as ‘the Resistance to Theory,’ in an essay of that name.” I meant resistance to Girard’s theory because of its vindication of a Christic anthropology. Haven adds a comment that I made when she contacted me about including the interview in her anthology: “If I experienced any nervousness on the occasion of the interview, Girard immediately put me at ease. I conducted two other interviews for Paroles Gelées. Without mentioning any names, the contrast with Girard could not have been greater. That makes Girard stand out all the more in my memory.” The Kindle edition is only $14.99 at Amazon.

A Bit More on Amtor – Is Carson of Venus a Paracletic Hero?

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Roy Krenkel (1918 – 1983): Cover Art for the Ace Edition of Escape on Venus

In Burroughs’ Amtor — A Satire of Ideologies, I remarked that in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Venus series, issued in four books from 1932 to 1944, the reader could discern the author’s theory of ideology or, at any rate, his notion (let us say) of ideology.  I wrote that, for Burroughs, “Ideology pits itself against life as such”; and that, “Every ideology is [in Burroughs’ judgment] a nihilism that, standing against vitality, beckons the moribund.”  The reader will find in the first three Amtor books (Pirates of Venus, Lost on Venus, and Carson of Venus) strong satirical rejections of Communism, Trans-Humanism, Eugenics, and National Socialism —  all four of which strike Burroughs as unjust because they exercise violence to coerce a grotesque and arbitrary conformity.*  In reference to Eugenics, the thesis is somewhat controversial.  Burroughs supported certain aspects of Eugenics, but earlier in his life than the Amtor series, and in Lost on Venus he has his hero, Carson Napier, repudiate the doctrine because a council of eugenicists has condemned his true love, Duare, to death.  Perhaps the association of Eugenics with the Nazis had changed Burroughs’ mind.  Whatever the case, the pattern in the Eugenics plotline corresponds to those in the Communist, Trans-human, and National Socialist plotlines.  It strikes me that Burroughs had seen the inexpugnable malevolence of any Eugenics-based polity and, through his hero, had turned his back on it.  No reference to my notion of the “Paracletic Hero”– which I had treated extensively in Robert E. Howard’s Conan – occurs in Burroughs’ Amtor but I was thinking about it as I wrote.  In brief, a Paracletic Hero is one who in his deeds conspicuously opposes the ancient ritual of sacrifice, on which a particular society founds itself, and seeks to free its pending victims.  Conan, like C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith, achieves this goal and thereby deserves the appellation.  (See my Monstrous Theologies at The Orthosphere.)

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