Michael Willman (1626 – 1679): Creation of the World (1668)
The Romanian born anthropologist Mircea Eliade (1907 – 1986) led a hectic life in his thirties. Embroiling himself in politics on the right, he became a target even so of right-wing ire on the accusation that his novella Domnișoara Christina (1936) partook in pornography and obscenity, but the very next year he enthusiastically espoused the Iron Guard’s program that Romania should reconcile itself with its Byzantine, and therefore Christian, origins. No one in the 2020s knows anything about the Iron Guard except, when hearing it mentioned, to categorize it automatically with “fascism.” Eliade left Romania after the Communist takeover in 1945, migrated to France, and taught in Paris; he migrated to the United States in 1956 and lectured at the University of Chicago and elsewhere on the topic that obsessed him in the second half of his life – the meaning and function of religion, especially of the sacred. That Eliade had a stake in Romanian Orthodoxy is not contradicted by his opposition to “spiritualism.” In his twenties, Eliade read the French writer René Guénon (1886 – 1951), and came under his spell. Guénon also opposed “spiritualism,” by which he indicated the various theosophical banalities descending out of the Nineteenth Century, including Theosophy itself. Guénon wrote a hefty volume on the fraudulence of Helena Blavatsky’s mystical posturing and the quasi-criminal undertakings of her dubious followers. Elsewhere Guénon consistently emphasized the radical difference between his own Traditionalism and the somber but hollow tenets of Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine (1888). Theosophy belonged to pseudo-initiation and counter-initiation, Guénon argued. These Guénonian attitudes became Eliade’s own; they inform his work. With Guénon and Julius Evola (1898 – 1974), Eliade constitutes the stable core of what might be called Twentieth Century skeptical esotericism.
Friedrich Dürrenmatt, wrote The Visit (Der Besuch der alten Dame) in 1956. Dürrenmatt is a twentieth century Swiss playwright (1921-1990) who gets mentioned alongside Beckett, Camus, Sartre, and Brecht. Like them, he is interested in examining moral dilemmas with wider social import, bearing a tendency toward the nihilistic, and a “you just can’t win” attitude, such as can be seen in Sartre’s Men Without Shadows (Morts sans Sépultures), No Exit (Huis Clos), and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The Visit is overtly “philosophical” in the manner of existentialism: a despairing morality play.
In The Visit, Claire Zachanassian has been wronged by the town of Guellen (Liquid manure town) located “somewhere in Central Europe,” and Alfred Ill, and she has returned forty-five years later to exact her revenge. Claire and Ill were lovers. Claire became pregnant but Ill wanted to marry someone else who had a shop and money. He bribed two witnesses to say that they had also slept with Claire. Claire’s paternity suit is thrown out and the town sniggers as she is forced to leave town for the life of a prostitute. In this capacity, she meets and marries a billionaire and a succession of other husbands until she is the richest woman in the world. In her capacity as such, she represents an all-powerful monster capable of bending the world to her wishes. A grotesque figure, two of her limbs have been replaced by protheses; an ivory arm and a leg. At one point Ill asks, “Claire, is everything about you artificial?” She uses a lorgnette. These spectacles with a handle held away from the face, suggests she has her own very particular outlook on things and creates a distance between her and the people she observes. Claire has returned to Guellen with a macabre retinue who include the false witnesses whom she has castrated and blinded, the judge who presided over her case and who is now her butler, a black panther, two bodyguards, her husband number VII, and a coffin. Continue reading →
Richard M. Powers (1921 – 1996): Modernity as Apocalypse
By the irony of belatedness, reaction emerges from revolution and the critique of modernity from modernity itself. Tradition stopped being an unnoticed background and became a theme in writers like Joseph de Maistre (753 – 1821) and François-René de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848) during and in the aftermath of the Revolution in France. Having made modernity a theme, the work of Maistre and Chateaubriand, among others, could be carried on by writers of later generations. In the first half of the last century, René Guénon (1886 – 1951) and Julius Evola (1898 – 1974) stand out as major inheritors of the reactionary genre. Perhaps the name of Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936) should be added to those of Guénon and Evola. The two men were certainly influenced by Spengler’s Decline of the West (Volume I, 1919; Volume II, 1922), which sees the modern period as belonging to “civilization” rather than to “culture,” the former being for Spengler moribund and the latter alive. According to Spengler, Culture, with a capital C precedes civilization; and civilization can last for a long time. Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948) also contributed to the critique of modernity although the recognition of his brilliance and the appearance of his early titles together constitute a fairly recent phenomenon. Every year sees the publication in many languages of books that owe a debt to these writers. Among those appearing in English recently, one could point to Thaddeus J. Kozinski’sModernity as Apocalypse – Sacred Nihilism and the Counterfeits of Logos (2019) and Daniel Schwindt’sCase against the Modern World – a Crash Course in Traditionalist Thought (2016). Both will reward the reader even though their authors penned them (what a quaint term) before the events of 2020, which demarcated one age from its successor. Both view modernity from a Catholic-Traditionalist perspective, but with nuances of difference. Both view modernity as accelerating toward its inevitable climax.
It’s Saturday. As Friday waned, the old world died. All of the old certainties were bound up with aloes and myrrh in linen, and laid to restlessness.
Now we wait. There are rumours of Sunday. I have heard, and I believe – as so many have, as so many have not. Some who have believed have made new worlds and all who have believed have made new lives; lives inconceivable on Friday. Some who have disbelieved have built fortresses of unbelief; all who have disbelieved have turned their faces from the east. But all who hear these rumours have been put the question extraordinary, and all have been obliged to answer.
This Saturday, empires have risen and collapsed. Hosts of hosts have lived and died. None of the understandings of Friday can be re-imagined, save the one stubborn link, and that one passing over Calvary.
Son: Well, I’ve been wondering about the Atonement.
Father: O, great. Another easy one. At least it’s not about girls, so maybe I can help. What’s the question?
Son: I can’t see how the death of Jesus helped us. I get that God wanted to help us get back to him, but I don’t understand why he didn’t just make it happen, the way he did when he created light. Why send his Son to Earth, and then have him killed? Why was that necessary? Why did Jesus have to die?
Joseph Mallord Turner (1775 – 1851) – Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1834)
PART TWO. The worldwide, instantaneous ekpyrosis of “Eiros and Charmion” illustrates Poe’s thesis dramatically. In “Eiros and Charmion” Poe wrote the first cosmic-collision story, to be followed fifty years later by H. G. Wells in “The Star,” and popular ever since. Cosmic-collision stories tend to be end-of-the-world stories, a pattern set by Poe’s dialogue. Earth passes through the tail of a large comet, the chemistry of which draws the nitrogen from the atmosphere, leaving only the oxygen, at which point everything combustible, including the human body, bursts into flame. Eiros, who died in the extinction-event, narrates the last moments of life to Charmion, who had graduated to “Aidenn” by ordinary death prior to the cataclysm: “For a moment there was a wild lurid light alone, visiting and penetrating all things”; then – “the whole incumbent mass of ether in which we existed, burst at once into a species of intense flame, for whose surpassing brilliancy and all-fervid heat even the angels in the high Heaven of pure knowledge have no name.” Eiros quotes the Apocalypse of St. John and remarks on the hauteur with which the humanity of the time dismisses the ancient lore of comets. In those passages subsists the criticism of wayward modernity: The mentality of the End-Times adhered only to “science” and rejected its connection to the cosmos – to God. Comets once signified, but they have become mere phenomena, “divested of the terrors of flame.” The awe that people once felt in respect of cosmic manifestations the final generation will need to re-learn in the moments before its demise.
Joseph Mallord Turner (1775 – 1851) – Light and Colour (1840)
Many people know of the “Big Bang” or singularity theory of cosmic origin, but far fewer know that the author of the singularity theory was a Belgian scientist-priest, Georges Lemaître (1894 – 1966), who, in addition to his work in mathematics and physics, served as an artillery officer in the Belgian Army in World War I. The name Lemaître rarely crops up in textbook discussions of the singularity theory although it does appear in the Introduction to the Wikipedia article on that topic. The name of Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849) goes absent in the Wikipedia article about Lemaître, where it would in fact assume some relevance, an observation that one can extend to Lemaître’s own published writings. Lemaître enjoyed broad cultivation. A typical Jesuit, he knew the humanities and arts as well as the sciences. He could hardly have remained unaware of Poe’s self-described masterpiece, the “prose-poem” Eureka (1848), which Charles Baudelaire had translated into French in 1863. To Poe belongs the actual invention of what Lemaître would call, in a popularizing essay of that name, “The Primeval Atom” (1946). Even the details of “The Primeval Atom” find anticipation in Eureka, which formed the basis of lectures that Poe gave to bewildered audiences in the last year of his life. One wonders whether Lemaître’s omission of Poe’s name was calculatedly prudential. Disclosing the inspiration of Poe’s cosmology would no doubt have occasioned supercilious commentary. Better not to complicate the issue by tying the theory to a bizarre literary text by a known eccentric, full of heavy satire and laced throughout with manifold irony. Better not to adduce the author of “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Masque of Red Death.”
The previous essay to this one dealt with the moral decline of the student body in higher education – one of the motives behind my recent retirement after three decades of teaching college English. When I began my association with Upstate Consolation University (I call it that out of courtesy – see Part I for an explanation), most of the English faculty members, including the chair who hired me, had earned their doctorates in the late 1970s. They were oleaginous liberals, naturally, but they were also ladies and gentlemen of actual education and considerable high literacy who took it for granted that the purpose of a literature program was to bring to life in students the Intuition of Form or Imagination about which George Santayana writes in his Sense of Beauty (1896), a book already cited in Part I. According to Santayana, “Imagination… generates as well as abstracts; it observes, combines, and cancels; but it also dreams.” Imagination, Santayana writes, involves spontaneity; it strives towards “the supremely beautiful.” As the Old Guard went into retirement a cohort of new assistant professors filled up the department’s allotted tenure-track lines. The new phase of aggressive Affirmative-Action recruitment insured that this replacement-generation of instructors, overwhelmingly female, differed starkly in character from its precursor-generation. The new hires came to the institution from the politically radicalized graduate programs of the state universities.
Whereas the Old Guard corresponded to a literary-generalist or dilettante model – terms that I use in a wholly positive way – the arrivistes brought with them only their narrow specialisms, as encrusted in their conformist political dogmas. Mention Santayana to the Old Guard and chances were good that any given one of them would be familiar with the drift, at least, of the philosopher’s work. Mentioning Santayana to an arriviste produces a blank stare.
In May of 2020, my wife and I took our retirement after more than thirty years of teaching college, the last twenty years of which we spent at what I will call Upstate Consolation University, a mid-tier state college somewhere in the Northeast near to the border with Canada. My wife taught French in the Romance Languages Program and I, a wide variety of courses, some twenty-three altogether over the years, in the English Department – concerning which more to come. Apart from wanting what remained to us of our active lives to be ours and not the institution’s, the main motive for our decision was the intolerable decline of Upstate from a more or less serious academic organization, typically liberal but not yet politically correct or “woke,” into one more copy of the ideological collective that, in the manner of Star Trek’s “Borg,” has digested and transformed virtually every center of post-secondary education, whether public or private, in the nation. “Resistance is futile – you will be assimilated.” In the following paragraphs, I will review my Upstate gig while highlighting the major symptoms of the aforesaid decline as I observed them over the two decades of my affiliation there. While my situation was specific to Upstate, Upstate qualifies as nothing less than typical. The anecdotes in what follows have application therefore well beyond the place where I gathered them. Although all state colleges and universities shout “diversity” and preach “tolerance” at the top of their lungs, they in fact demonstrate monolithic bigotry and homogeneous narrow-mindedness.
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.