The more you can attribute blame for some bad thing to others, the less blame you need to shoulder yourself, and the less guilt you then need to suffer. And as guilt lessens, so does the costliness of the personal sacrifice adequate to its expiation.
Philosophy and the Crisis of the Modern World is my contribution to a symposium on the topic of identity published at the Sydney Traditionalist Forum. René Guenon criticizes philosophy for generating this crisis. He argues that removing or ignoring the esoteric content of Platonic philosophy resulted in exoteric rationalism which has dominated Western philosophy, certainly since the scientific revolution. Since rationality is not itself generative, but merely analytic, philosophers find themselves with a vacuum where God should be and inevitably head in the direction of nihilism – the unavoidable consequence of postulating a Godless universe.
It is hard to see how a nihilistic culture could sustain itself in the long term. My argument is consistent with these comments by Scott Weidner concerning T. S. Eliot:
Eliot formulated the most basic tenet of his cultural theory, that religion and culture are essentially “related.” <4> In fact, Eliot argued that “no culture has appeared or developed except together with a religion: according to the point of view of the observer, the culture [appears] to be the product of the religion, or the religion the product of the culture.” <5> They might be thought of as different aspects of the same thing; culture was “the incarnation of the religion of a people.” <6> Civilizations which appeared to be secular or humanistic, such as ancient Greece and Rome, were actually religious cultures in decline. <7> Culture could not be preserved, extended, or developed in the absence of religion, nor could religion be preserved and maintained if culture was not. <8>
Nebraska-born of Swedish ancestry, Howard Harold Hanson (1896 ─ 1981) became by his mid-thirties what he had determined to become from an early age, the most popular American composer of serious music in the European concert tradition. He had also become a sought-after teacher, orchestra leader, and musical administrator. Hanson poured his seemingly inexhaustible vitality not only into the promotion of his own creativity, but, generously, into the promotion of his fellow composers, many of them, as time went on, his students at the Eastman School where he presided. A radio documentary about the composer from the late 1980s revealed another side of the man. Several of those interviewed by the producer complained – one of them indeed rather bitterly – about Hanson’s alleged egocentrism and insistence on getting his own way. No doubt but that Hanson, believing himself a force, often stormed over those who, as he saw it, put themselves in the way of his schemes, his magnanimity in other circumstances notwithstanding. The man being dead, however, and his personal entanglements being buried with him, the impressive practical and artistic achievements remain. Paramount among these stands Hanson’s compositional legacy: Seven substantial symphonies, at least as many symphonic poems, a handful of concerted scores, numerous choral works, and an opera, which should have a more active place in the repertory, and not only by way of recordings.
With his contemporaries Roy Harris (1898 ─ 1979) and Aaron Copland (1900 ─ 1990), and with the slightly younger Samuel Barber (1910 ─ 1981), Hanson created a recognizably American sound in concert music, and demonstrated that American composers could adapt European musical forms to the conditions of a new society seeking to set its own mark on an inherited culture. It is useful to compare Hanson’s legacy with the legacies of his countrymen-composers in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Harris certainly matched Hanson in egocentrism, maybe exceeding him; but Harris lacked Hanson’s talent, peaking with his Symphony No. 3 (1937), really an extended passacaglia for orchestra, and repeating himself, at ever lower levels, for the remainder of his career. Copland began as an avant-garde composer in the 1920s, assimilating influences from Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky; he found his marketable voice in the “cowboy” ballets of the 1930s and the populist, large-scale Symphony No. 3 (1946), for whose finale he adapted his own earlier Fanfare for the Common Man. Copland wrote a surprisingly small number of works and ceased to compose altogether after 1964.
The poem to which this essay’s subtitle refers is one of the much-excerpted and much anthologized verse-interpolations in the Menippean combination of verse and prose, Spring and All (1921), that the New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963) produced at the acme of his self-consciously Imagist phase in the years after the First World War. The poem carries no title, but, according to the tenets of Imagism, presents itself to the reader as an instance of res ipso loquitur or “the thing speaks for itself.” In a later phase of his insistent creativity, Williams would adopt as his poetic motto the formula, “no ideas but in things,” the implication of which is that experience is not solipsistic, nor consciousness hermetic, but that any self-aware navigation of the world presupposes an intentional relation between the navigator and the world that he navigates, which he records as images, ideas, or concepts. Williams’ poetry in all its phases possesses the charm that its author maintains equal interest in the reality and workings of the external world and in the mystery and joy of the mind that represents and cognizes that reality and those workings.
Williams’ oeuvre offers itself seriously in two other ways: Its author knew that consciousness, language, and culture intertwine with one another aboriginally, so that any investigation of one necessarily entails an investigation of the two others; and he knew that consciousness is historical, that it has traceable origins that suggest the mechanism of its making.
Part I: Coleridge’s Theory of the Imagination. Poetry is, of itself, often a theory of poetry. Consider, under this thesis, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan or: A Vision in a Dream” (1816). In the opening lines, Coleridge plays with the etymological definition of poetry as making. The Khan decrees that the pleasure-dome should rise whereupon his servants presumably conjure it forth:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
The decree itself already functions as a kind of making or articulation; it is imperious, magical, even a bit demonic or demiurgic. The calling-forth of the artificial paradise entails, moreover, the transformation of nature through her re-creation under an idea: Thus the girdling walls enclose the “twice five miles of fertile ground” in a gesture of delimitation. That the ground is “fertile,” as Coleridge (1772 – 1834) writes, suggests that the labor of elevating structures on it has a generative relation to the fecund matter on which the labor operates; the two elements of the event have an a priori and complementary relation to one another. The matter has no features in the description, but presents only a blank aspect, like a mass of clay unformed; even the “gardens bright and sinuous rills,” seemingly natural, result artificially from the determination of a shaping will. The act itself and that which is acted upon thus match one another, forming dual aspects of a concluded whole in which pregnant formlessness has acquired a pleasing form, as in the endeavor of the Demiurge in Plato’s Timaeus.
Who has read and remembers That Hideous Strength – of the gigantic oeuvre of CS Lewis, the capstone, masterpiece, and summation – and who has lately followed the news in the alternative media must have noticed a horrible semblance of these last weeks to the gathering storm that novel so masterfully presents, of good and evil human, natural, and supernatural rising to a tremendous pitch of intensity and power as they drive each inexorably to a titanic, shattering battle. I do not mean here to specify all the parallels, but they are almost all there: corrupt government agencies with noble sounding names and ends that work in fact deep evil; a cruel fat sadistic lesbian harridan, plaything and willing instrument of obscure Satanic masters; inner circles within inner circles, each more vicious and twisted than the last; sexual sin run amok; young victims; hubris on a vast scale, pretensions to a Babelonian New World Order and a New Man; nominalist obfuscation, nihilism and relativism; sophistical professors and rotten priests; contempt for all that is good, true and holy, old and homely, right, simple, and sweet, or even simply and honestly rational (all in the name of rationality) – the whole nine yards. And arrayed against these Powers, a pitiful few doughty hapless writers and scholars, talking mostly to each other in a remote corner of the world of what is good and right, true and holy, strait and wise, solid and reliable.
Not, “how I became religious,” but “how I came to understand religion.”
It is extremely difficult for most moderns to negotiate the passage to the fundamentally spiritual perspective that all humans shared before the Enlightenment. At least, I found it so, for the longest time. Despite a number of spiritual experiences that I could nowise gainsay, I could make no philosophical sense of spiritual realities using the intellectual tool kit my Modern education had provided me. I got a lot of training in how to think about the physical, but I didn’t know how to think about the spiritual (or, for that matter, anything not physical). That made it somewhat incredible, and indeed somewhat scandalous. And this made it quite difficult to be wholeheartedly religious – to worship or say the Credo without invoking a string of philosophical hedges and equivocations that rather emptied the whole procedure of its numinous, compelling quality, and thus of its point.
Having no way to comprehend spiritual realities, I could not even understand quite exactly what the articles of the Credo properly mean, or what I was meant to be doing in worship. I now realize that I often encounter that same incapacity in atheist interlocutors. They don’t seem to have a way of understanding what it is that theists are talking about. So their arguments often miss the point entirely, and when theists point this out to them they simply can’t see that they are fundamentally misunderstanding the terms of the dialogue.
Modernity’s inadequacy to spiritual realities is echoed in its incomprehension of consciousness, agency, meaning, value, morality, and in the limit truth, beauty, and virtue – or their antipodes. Under its own terms, Modernism cannot account for these things, and must if it is to discuss them at all resort to unprincipled exceptions. This renders it incapable of coherent treatment of any of the basic aspects of life as it is actually lived and experienced. It is, in a word, unable to understand minds, or therefore persons, or a fortiori their lives.
Modernity does however comprehend bodies, better by an order of magnitude than any previous age. So naturally, and like any other successful weltanschauung, it wants to interpret everything under its own terms. It wants to make bodies basic, and reduce all experience to motions of bodies.
Modernism takes bodies to be utterly dead. It wants to say that everything is motions of those dead objects. But as is obvious to the most cursory consideration, the life of the mind is not a congeries of dead things, or of their lifeless collisions. It is an active, lively process. It is a series of happenings, a temporal assemblage of occasions, each of which – whether conscious or not – is in some degree alive to its past and intends some future.
[Of such lively intensions implemented in actual transactions among entities is the causal nexus that connects and relates disparate events constituted as a coherent integral world system.]
It is furthermore transparently obvious that no configuration of dead things can be alive. Only what is alive can be alive.
As incoherent, then, the Modern project of reducing life to motions of dead bodies is, not just doomed to failure, not just impossible (as a complete consistent logical calculus, while conceivable, is not possible), but strictly meaningless, ergo unthinkable: not even wrong.
There has been a dustup in the Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP) over a keynote address recently delivered by the great Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne. Apparently many not-so-great Christian philosophers were triggered, traumatized and terrorized by his remarks, and the SCP president consequently felt himself constrained to issue what may or may not be an official apology. Swinburne reportedly had the cheek to publically agree with the two thousand year Christian tradition that homosexual behavior is very hard to reconcile with scripture, the magisterium, and natural law. This was too much for New Light Christian Philosophers, who apparently have some clout in the SCP, the result being the aforementioned apology and dustup. Continue reading
This modest offering stems from two provocations. One is Richard Cocks’ piquant disquisition at The People of Shambhala, referenced here at The Orthosphere, concerning the limitations inherent in the modern school of thought that calls itself Logical Positivism or Analytical Philosophy; the other is a pedagogical necessity that befell me last week to explicate in class for the students of my “Writing about Literature” course a famous passage from William Wordsworth’s Prelude, Book I. My title must obviously be taken cum grano salis, as logical positivists and analytical philosophers would immediately reduce Wordsworth’s observations and arguments to their own insipid categories. Frankly, I cannot imagine the logical positivists or analytical philosophers, or howsoever they dub themselves, making any sense whatsoever of Wordsworth’s verses or, for that matter, being interested in or aware of them. Wordsworth’s fundamental assumptions must be opaque to such people.
I have written up my lecture-outline as a short essay. I append the text on which I comment at the end of the essay. Those sufficiently generous to feel curiosity about the essay might want to read the excerpt first. I take for my illustration the fourth panel of The Voyage of Life (1842) by Thomas Cole, one of the founders of the Hudson Valley School.
A Brief Essay on the Adventure of the Boat at Night: It is an observation of natural philosophy that ontogeny repeats phylogeny: That is, the gestation and maturation of the individual repeat the gestation and maturation of the family, genus, or the species. More generally speaking, everything that exists is an effect that research – or introspection – can trace back to a cause until the procedure finds its destination in a First Cause. These facts entail any number of paradoxes, not least the poet William Wordsworth’s contention, found in his little poem “My Heart Leaps Up” (1802), that “the child is the father of the man”:
Wordsworth averred often in his prosaic self-explanations that his every line of verse belonged to one great conjectural poem such that each smaller poem was but part of a transcendent whole, which could perhaps never be completed in the poet’s lifetime. That one Wordsworthian poem should comment on another should come therefore as no surprise. The few short lines, almost throwaway verse, of “My heart leaps up” indeed suggest much concerning a crucial passage from one of the early books of one of Wordsworth’s most ambitious poems – the epic-length verse-autobiography The Prelude, begun by the poet as early as 1798 but never published until after his death in 1850. In the episode in question, Wordsworth recounts one of the adventures of his boyhood, in the Lake District of Northwest England just below the Scottish Border, the native locale where he spent his childhood and to which he returned to live later in life after the peregrinations of his young adulthood.
Edmund Alexander “Ed” Emshwiller (February 16, 1925 – July 27, 1990) was a commercial artist and illustrator and later, in the 1960s, an auteur of so-called experimental film. He is notably identified with the science fiction genre, having contributed scores of covers to Galaxy magazine, and other similar periodicals, in the 1950s and 60s. Emshwiller’s illustrations also graced many a paperback cover, as in the case of the Ace paperback edition of John Brunner’s Atlantic Abomination. I have posted Emshwiller’s Abomination (so to speak) previously at The Orthosphere. It is time to display it again. Emshwiller’s painting instantiates the possibilities that lay within the popular and commercial genres of art in the middle of the last century. It is a powerful image with many resonances in the archives of painting and drawing, which, to my mind, speaks deeply to our condition.
I invite commentary on Emshwiller’s image, or indeed on Brunner’s story, his lone foray into H. P. Lovecraft territory, should anyone have read it.
P.S. I call dibs on any That-Woman interpretation of the image.