Will California Follow Atlantis?

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The Implacability of the Karmic Law

Lewis Spence (1874 – 1955) published his prophetic account Will Europe Follow Atlantis in 1943 at the nadir of Allied fortunes during the Second World War.  Spence, beginning as a journalist and folklorist, had made an enduring reputation by the early 1920s as a major authority on myth and legend, certifying his knowledge of those subjects in numerous books on the ancient stories of the Celts, the Rhineland Germans, the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, and the Mesoamericans.  These extremely useful compendia remain in print.  In 1924, however, Spence issued a book that gained him notoriety for a different although related reason.

This book in question was The Problem of Atlantis, a study of Plato’s Atlantis Myth in its twin sources, the dialogues Timaeus and Critias, of related stories in myth and folklore, and, with a survey of geology and ethnology, of the plausibility in Plato’s account.  In The Problem of Atlantis, Spence, in jazz terminology, played it cool.  While arguing for a factual basis of the narrative in the Platonic texts, Spence avoided the occult vision of Atlantis as a prehistoric Utopia founded on lost sciences and technologies.  He insisted on sober evaluation of the evidence, arriving at the conclusion that Atlantis had existed, as Plato wrote, in the oceanic gap between Western Europe and North America; that it was, prior to its submergence, a High Stone Age, what modern commentators would call an Upper Neolithic, society; and that, during a prolonged breakup of its landmass requiring many centuries, its inhabitants migrated via North Africa and Iberia to Europe’s Atlantic littoral areas and the British Isles.  Ensconced in those new bases, they did their best to preserve their traditions and codify the knowledge of their origin.  The fleeing Atlanteans, whom Spence calls Aurignacians, and whom he identifies with the Cro-Magnons, also crossed the ocean in the other direction, contributing to the cultural matrix of the emerging societies in North and South America.  Spence’s argument about Atlantis was a radical version of a then-current anthropological theory known as dissemination or cultural radiation, which posited a monogenesis for human culture.

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Truth versus the Crowd in the Work of René Girard

Girard Excellent Photo-Portrait

Born in Avignon in 1923, the late René Girard (deceased 2015) trained in Paris during the German occupation of France as a specialist curator of medieval documents; beginning in 1949 he taught in the USA as a professor-generalist in history. He would eventually arrive at a fundamental insight regarding human nature that puts him on the level with the most profound anthropological thinkers in the Western or any other tradition. The road to this insight reached across a decade and required a change of scholarly interest. Girard first made his name, after switching his scholarly focus and obtaining a doctorate in French Literature at Indiana University in 1958, as a literary critic, with his study of vanity and resentment in prose narrative called, in French, Mensonge Romantique et Vérité Romanesque (1962). Deceit Desire & the Novel studies the authorial obsession with the genesis of misery in the tendency of the human subject to acquire his desires from what he takes to be the desire, or object-of-desire, of another person. Novelistic protagonists indeed imagine that absolute being, seemingly denied to them, resides embodied in the other person so that the subject wants and attempts to become that other person. Girard had discovered in the novelists the non-originality of desire. He had also discovered—or rather, the novelists had discovered—a complex psychology and a related oblique rhetoric, the Mensonge Romantique or “Romantic Lie” of the French original, that systematically deny this non-originality of desire and claim the complete, yet miserable, sufficiency of the ego. Even more simply, Girard had discovered the centrality of mimesis or “imitation” in psychology and culture.

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Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony

Mahler-Klemperer S2 Album Cover

Introduction. Readers of The Orthosphere might approach the following essay as though it were an addition to a suite of music-appreciation essays that I have posted at this website.  Previously at The Orthosphere, I have commented on the music of Ernest Bloch (1880 – 1959), Eduard Tubin (1905 – 1982), Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958), and Howard Hanson (1896 – 1981).  Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911) is by far a more important composer than any of those four despite the fact that each is a splendid and wonderful composer in his own way.  I have reason to believe that once, during his sojourn in New York State and on his way to Niagara Falls with his wife, Mahler passed through the small town on Lake Ontario where, in my exile from my native California, I have lived since the fall of the fateful year 2001.  A fair number of Mahler acquaintances made their way to California in the 1930s.  I knew musical people in California who had known Mahler – or who had known Mahler’s wife or daughter.  I knew others who, like me, had come powerfully under the spell of Mahler, whose influence may be heard in certain landmark film-scores, like those, for example, of Eric Korngold.  For me, Mahler has been a presence, immediate and personal, since my late teens, when I began to make my acquaintance with his extraordinary symphonies on record.  That was the heyday , at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, of the long-playing vinyl album.  Usually, the album came with extensive, small-type notes on the reverse of the cover or with a booklet inside the sleeve that was even more detailed than the back-of-the-sleeve essay.

It was possible in Los Angeles in the early 1970s to purchase “boxed sets” of the Mahler symphonies in the so-called Vox Box series – vintage (usually monophonic) recordings offered in three-disc sets for about a dollar per disc.  I probably first heard the “Resurrection” Symphony (Symphony No. 2, begun in the late 1880s and finished in the early 1890s) in one of the many recordings of that work made by Otto Klemperer, a Mahler-acolyte and noteworthy itinerant conductor, who became especially associated with Mahler’s “Resurrection.”

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The “Ula Lu La Lu” & Consciousness: Meditations on an Imagist Poem by William Carlos Williams

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Sandro Botticelli: Venus (1486)

Introduction. The American poet William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963) began his authorship with imagist poems and quirky mixtures of prose and verse like Spring and All (1923), a book that intersperses paragraphs of speculation concerning poetry, consciousness, and the world with seemingly improvised but in reality carefully composed verse-effusions that attempt an audacious transformation of the banal into the sublime.  Scholars of Twentieth-Century American poetry invariably categorize Williams as modern or avant-garde, but I would argue that Williams continues strongly in the Transcendentalist or American-Romantic tradition of the century previous to his own.  Spring and All, supposedly an epitome of idiosyncratic American modernism, offers a case in point, even in those statements where Williams appears to reject tradition altogether and extols the virtue of “the imagination, freed from the handcuffs of ‘art.’”  In an early prose-sequence of Spring and All, Williams denounces those whom he calls “The Traditionalists of Plagiarism.”  Williams uses the term plagiarism in an unusual way, as a failure of consciousness  and perception to rediscover the newness and beauty – indeed even the sublimity – of the given world in all its particulars.  In effect, in Spring and All, Williams engages a new version of the Romantic critique of complacency, recording, as he puts it, “our despair at the unfathomable mist into which all mankind is plunging.”

Complacency is the failure of imagination to invest fully in the structure of reality and the order of being; complacency is the epistemological and cognitive counterpart of original sin.  Williams, like all good Romantics, aims at redeeming humanity from its wretched lapse, its Winter of Discontent, so as to establish men and women in the paradisiacal springtime of refreshed apprehension.

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Flaubert’s Herodias: A Study of Revelation & Consciousness

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Gustave Moreau: Salome

Introduction. The action of Flaubert’s Herodias, one of the Trois Contes or Three Tales of 1877, occurs on the birthday of Herod Antipas or Antipater, the Hellenized “Tetrarch” of Judea who is in fact a client-king permitted to rule over his people solely by the political calculation of reigning Roman emperor, Tiberius.  Tensions run high in Judea. The influential preacher John the Baptist, whom the Tetrarch currently holds imprisoned in a dungeon, has denounced Herod for his marriage to the divorced wife, Herodias, of the Tetrarch’s exiled brother, Herod Philip I.  The marriage amounts, says John, to incest.  Apart from the specific charge, the Baptist’s preaching has stirred up religious turmoil in the kingdom, encouraging a general dissidence.  The Pharisees, for example, feel displaced in piety and thus in status as strict interpreters of the law by John’s extravagant Puritanism; they already incline to distrust Herod, largely Greek in education and taste, an obvious puppet of Rome, and in these ways only barely a Jew.  Flaubert writes, “The Jews were tired of [Herod’s] idolatrous ways.”  As readers later learn, Sadducees, Essenes, and Samaritans, and others live grudgingly with one another in Herod’s realm; the reasons for their mutual mistrust seem more or less exaggerated and ritually or tribally driven.  Herod’s factional ties in Rome also complicate his life.

In Rome political jockeying takes place ceaselessly among various power brokers who would gain influence over the monarch for their own corrupt benefit.  Herod thinks to himself, for example, that, “probably Agrippa [one of his rivals] had ruined his credit with the emperor.”  His other brother Philip is meanwhile “secretly arming” behind his borders while Arab warriors in service to an ambitious raider-king have encamped themselves on his southern march.  Herod vacillates between the possibilities of making a pact with the Arabs or making one with the Parthians, Rome’s enemy and counterweight in the East.  Herod is proverbially between a rock and a hard place – or between the abyss and the Resurrection.

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Guillaume Faye’s Understanding Islam

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Published by Arktos Press

Guillaume Faye’s Understanding Islam (Arktos 2016) will exercise a compelling power over many readers who, committing themselves to encompassing it, will plough through its nearly three hundred pages in a single sitting.  Immensely insightful and quotable, Faye’s book will inform public debate about the place of Islam, if any, in the West, and it will influence the character of Western policy towards the Muslim world; other writers will cite it, and it bids fair to become a standard guide and reference for its topic.  Understanding Islam ought to be made mandatory reading for State Department functionaries under the incoming Donald Trump administration – so effective is Faye’s prose in bulldozing through the utopian fantasies and politically correct clichés that encrust Western perception and comprehension of the Mohammedan cult.  Best of all would be that Mr. Trump familiarized himself with Faye’s exposition, so as to clarify his good instincts and resolve him to swift action in defense of the North American chapter Western civilization, as he assumes his presidential obligations.  But that would undoubtedly be asking for too much.  In addition to explaining the desert cult in plain language to his readers, Faye relentlessly exposes Western liberal and multicultural collaboration with Islam, in both the ideological and practical-political domains.  Finally, Understanding Islam realistically assesses the strengths and weaknesses of both the West and Dar al Islam in the present state of their fateful clash.

Faye takes as an important recurrent theme in his suite of chapters (six of them – plus a “conclusion”) what one might call the phenomenology of Islam; or, as best it can be reconstructed, Islam as understood from the inside out or from the believer’s point of view.  From among the ways in which Islam so strongly differs from most if not all other religions, Faye singles out its relentless suppression of subjectivity hence also individuality and therefore any possibility of comprehending anything outside itself.  Faye brings to bear on Islam the description of a “locked religion” rooted in the believer’s ceaseless incantatory repetition of scriptural formulas whose guiding rule prohibits their interpretation.  Repeat, repeat – only repeat.  Because Islam emerged in the cultural matrix of a largely oral society, that of the desert-wandering Bedouin of the Arabian Peninsula, its scriptural status requires qualification.  The Muslim has historically and typically encountered the Koran – the supposed revelation of Allah to Mohammed via the medium of the Archangel Gabriel – in the form of recitation, which he then laboriously memorizes.  In certain cases, outside the domain of the Arabic language, the Muslim never even understands the verses that he commits to heart, phoneme by phoneme, but learns of their content through instruction in a local vulgate.  Although the literacy of the Muslim world has increased through the centuries, the habit and mentality of oral transmission by rote and repetition still inform the mental cast of that world.  This fact has important phenomenological consequences.

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Dario Fernández-Morera’s Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Spain

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Publish by ISI

In The Twilight of the Idols (1888), Friedrich Nietzsche expressed his wish to philosophize with a hammer, that is, to make smithereens of the false images that leeringly prevent a candid vision of life, the world, and history.  Nietzsche wrote that “there are more idols than realities in the world.”  He wished, with his instrument, preliminarily, to “test” the idols – expecting to detect “as a reply that famous hollow sound which speaks of bloated entrails.”  If that were the sign, the hammer might come fully into play.  Like the supreme iconoclast of the German language, Dario Fernández-Morera, a Professor of Spanish and Portuguese Literature at Northwestern University, has decided to test a certain gallery of idols, the much-revered ones connected with a persistent, but, in light of accessible knowledge, dubious legend.  The old legend of Islamic Spain (for that is the story in question), of its tolerance and enlightenment, and of its convivencia of all peoples, has gained new currency with the rise of the anti-Western, anti-Christian ideology known as multiculturalism.  The university departments of Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies, having transformed themselves into publicity businesses for the new militant phase of Islam, their acolytes, politically correct to the core, have propagandized the utopian narrative of the Umayyads, Almoravids, and Almohads in Spain.  Those same acolytes have either ignored the achievements of Visigothic Spain and its successor polities in the northern part of Hispania or have denigrated them by invidious, non-factual comparisons.  Honoring the facts, which he has patiently gleaned in a decade of impressively disciplined study, Fernández-Morera has written The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise (ISI, 2016), which, with its handsome dust jacket, is nevertheless a warrior’s cudgel.  The myth of that supposed paradise will not withstand its prodigious action.

The basic vocabulary of the Andalusian Myth reflects a mendacious agenda, as Fernández-Morera takes care to point out in his opening chapter, on “Conquest and Reconquest.”  In modern accounts of Spain under the Muslims, scholars of the departments invariably refer to a geographical entity called Iberia.  In a detailed summary of the historical background to the centuries of Muslim hegemony, Fernández-Morera reminds his readers that the Romans, who were active in the peninsula from the time of the First Punic War, never named it by any other name than Hispania.  That same Hispania became a province of the Roman Empire, providing it with emperors and artists over the centuries, and playing a role within the imperial structure in the west only second to Italy.  When the imperial administrative structure in the west broke down in the Fourth Century, and the Visigoths inherited the Roman mantle south of the Pyrenees, they too still called the region Hispania.  Spain had thus been Spain to its inhabitants for nearly a thousand years before the Muslim invasion.  After the invasion, Spain remained Spain to its Spanish-Christian inhabitants, as Fernández-Morera demonstrates by bringing into evidence documents from the period in question.  The academic use of the term Iberia conveniently deletes these facts, just as it deletes the spiritual resistance of the actual Spaniards (the Spanish-Roman-Christian-Gothic people of Spain) during the relevant centuries against their militant overlords of another religion.  Fernández-Morera therefore prefers the terms “Spain, medieval Spain, and Islamic Spain” to Iberia.  Indeed, Fernández-Morera characterizes both the Muslim attempt, beginning already in the Eighth Century, to replace standing Latin toponyms with Arabic labels and the modern recursion to that replacement-nomenclature as imperialistic gestures.  He writes that medieval Spaniards “considered the lands conquered by Islam to be part of Spain, not part of Islam, and therefore they did not use the term Al-Andalus,” the Muslim name for the subdued region.

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Howard Hanson: The Music of God in Nature

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Howard Hanson (1896 – 1981) circa 1930

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.

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In the Fen Country: Landscape and Music in the Work of Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams

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Robert Gallon (1845 – 1925): The Water’s Edge (1870s)

A strong sympathy for the landscape often entwines itself with a type of religious sensibility, particularly the pantheistic one.  In the decorative murals with which the wealthy classes of Rome during the Imperial centuries adorned their domestic lives, the idyllic scene, with its groves and grazing sheep, invariably contains a rustic temple.  In Hellenistic poetry, too, the writer – it might be Theocritus or at a later date Ovid – in describing the sylvan setting of Sicily or Arcadia emphasizes the presence everywhere of the nature-spirits.  Ovid’s Metamorphoses seem in part to be an explanation of why everywhere in the ancient world one encountered innumerable altars and shrines.  To the pagan mentality, everything, every tree and stream and mountain, shared in the quality of the sacred, and offered a home to the spirits and demigods.  So too in Romantic painting and verse, the artist’s response to the natural scene records his sense of the ubiquity of spirit.  Thus in William Wordsworth’s famous sonnet “The world is too much with us” (1802), the calamity of the emergent industrial and commercial order manifests itself most poignantly in the terrible loneliness of being cut off from participation in the aura of the elements –

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

The lyric subject of the poem, concluding that the modern dispensation has left men “for everything… out of tune,” wishes that he were (although he is not) “a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn,” that is, someone who might “have glimpses that would make me less forlorn” of “Proteus rising from the sea.”  That men should have become acutely aware of nature in the early nineteenth century is hardly surprising.  The social and economic developments of the period, the hypertrophy of cities and the dissolution of ancient arrangements in the countryside, wrought changes in the very appearance of the rural landscape.  A generation later than Wordsworth, in the “Wessex” stories and novels of Thomas Hardy, the situation has grown even more acute.  In the short story “The Fiddler of the Reels,” the great fact of existence is the Crystal Palace, in the year of whose construction much of the action takes place.  The countryside is emptying into the great cities; railroads have appeared in the provinces to draw away the young people, and the expansion of a new order of industry and finance has begun to alter the familiar aspects of field and forest, river valley and hill.

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Consciousness, Culture, and Art: Informal Comments on an Imagist Poem by William Carlos Williams

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Ou Li Da

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.

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