Leaving the Blight of Higher Education: Part II – Farewell, Faculty

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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.

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Leaving the Blight of Higher Education: Part I – Farewell, Students

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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.

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Clark Ashton Smith’s Representation of Evil

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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.

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Robert E. Howard’s Conan: A Paracletic Hero?

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Robert E. Howard (1906 – 1936) faded rapidly into obscurity after his self-inflicted demise in 1936 following the death of his mother from tuberculosis.  Ironically, Howard’s reputation had increased steadily in the lustrum preceding his suicide.  Farnsworth Wright, the editor of Weird Tales, remained as parsimonious as ever, but other publications were clamoring for Howard’s work, which had branched out from weird fiction and barbarian stories into westerns, boxing yarns, and “spicy” tales.  In the last year of Howard’s truncated life, he made a respectable living by writing and the prospect going forward looked good.  The drop-off in his literary notoriety stemmed from the fact that, his work having disappeared from the pages of the pulps, and having never made it into book form, no persistent token presented itself that would remind the readership of his existence.  Imitators filled the vacuum left by his disappearance although his literary executor, Otis Adelbert Kline, managed to place a few stray manuscripts posthumously.  In 1946, August Derleth’s Arkham House issued an anthology of Howard’s short fiction, Skull Face and Others, but in a small edition aimed at aficionados.  Howard’s popularity would revive only with the paperback explosion of the 1960s, helped by Frank Frazetta’s cover illustrations, but even then many of the stories that entered into print were extenuations of outlines and incomplete drafts undertaken by L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, and others.  It would take thirty, forty, or even fifty years for something resembling an authentic version of Howard’s authorship to come on the market and for his copious correspondence with Derleth and H. P. Lovecraft to make its way into the catalogues.  Hollywood’s contribution in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Howard’s most notable character, Conan the Barbarian, in 1982 and 1984, exploited Howard’s name but did nothing to represent his achievement.  Vincent D’Onofrio’s biopic, The Whole Wide World (1996), based on Novalyne Price’s memoir of her relationship with Howard, by contrast, told the Conan-author’s story with genuine pathos, but enjoyed only a limited release.

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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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On to Martyrdom & Everlasting Victory

Whatever the outcome of the present electoral controversy in the United States, it seems that we are bound soon to some radical political crisis, that will profoundly shape the American future – and, so, the future of all Christendom, such as she still is.

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Clark Ashton Smith’s “City of the Singing Flame” & Synchronicity

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Clark Ashton Smith (1893 – 1961): Plants (Decade of the 1940s)

Orthosphereans have discussed the topic of synchronicity on several occasions. Synchronicity, a coinage of the psychologist Carl Jung, refers to the phenomenon of “lucky coincidences” or meaningfully convergent events.  There are several orders of synchronicity.  The one that I want to discuss in the following paragraphs is of a low order, but it serves to illustrate my conviction that we live, not merely in a physical world, but in a web of meaning whose source can only be immaterial – that is to say, spiritual.  Events of a low order can arrange themselves, after all, in meaningful patterns.  Patterning attracts the mind because patterning, at least in part, informs the mind, just as it informs the universe.  Recently I posted at The Orthosphere my essay on “Eco-Music from Mahler to Rasmussen,” in two parts.  “Eco-Music” means music permeated by the composer’s sense of the cosmos as a finely woven, complex pattern of spirit and body, temporality and spatiality, causality and spontaneity.  I attempted to relate the compositional process of such artists to the visionary quest of the vates, seer, or shaman, who intercedes for the tribe in the realm of the sacred and on the home ground of the gods.  When contemporary composers like John Luther Adams or Sunleif Rasmussen, express themselves in written word, they not only reveal their knowledge of the vatic tradition; they also reveal themselves as trying to communicate lore acquired on a level higher than the everyday, rather in the manner of an initiate in the mysteries.  Listening to their music – which I did, intensely, over the period of accumulating the essay – convinced me of the validity of such statements.

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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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Ibsen’s Unknown Masterpiece, Part I

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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.

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Living Out The Bacchae (America Burns)

Auguste Vinchon (1789 - 1855) French Revolution (1855)

Auguste Vinchon (1789 – 1855): The French Revolution, a.k.a., The Head of Feraud (1831)

Part I – The Bacchae. According to Friedrich Nietzsche, writing in his Birth of Tragedy (1871), Euripides (480 – 406), whose main activity coincided with the nihilistic destructiveness of the Peloponnesian Wars, betrayed “the public cult of tragedy,” to whose canons he merely pretended to adhere, while secretly doing everything he could to subvert them.  The power of myth attained its “most profound content,” Nietzsche writes, in the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles, and its “most expressive form.”  Then Euripides intervened, imposing the withering literalistic interpretation of “the typical Hellene” or paltry rationalist on the properly mythic material of the most sublime of poetic genres.  “What was your wish,” Nietzsche proposes rhetorically, “when you tried to force that dying myth into your service once more.”  Nietzsche means the Myth of Dionysus, which, as he addresses directly the playwright, “died beneath your violent hands.”  Euripides, so Nietzsche claims, sacrilegiously “abandoned Dionysus,” substituting “sophistical dialectic” for the ancient Dithyramb, and giving to his characters “counterfeit, masked passions” and “counterfeit, masked speeches.”  Nietzsche’s accusatory phrase, “violent hands,” works a bold verbal legerdemain, especially considering Euripides’ final play, The Bacchae, which concerns itself with the same deity in whose cult and celebrations tragedy had its birth.  With his second person formal, his “you,” Nietzsche assumes the stance of a public prosecutor, pointing his finger of indictment at the defendant and calling out the cultural equivalent of a capital crime.  That crime is sacrilege.  Nietzsche even compounds his indictment: “Through [Euripides] everyday man pushed his way through the auditorium on to the stage.”  Euripides, a kind of coward and panderer, stirred the mob into profaning the sacred scene, so that he might deflect guilt from himself.  The district attorney knows better. He will bring home his charge.

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