Triffids constitute a woefully underrepresented minority in college undergraduate enrollments and are not represented at all in graduate programs such as Screen Studies and Whiteness Studies, research has shown. In order to address this crisis, which has been exacerbated by the dictatorial intransigence of the Trump administration, Upstate Consolation University has fully committed itself to the inclusion of Triffids under the criteria of its Alternative Holistic Recruitment Program. That program makes eligible for admission to UCU members of historically excluded intersectional groups who might not qualify to attend college when judged solely by their high school grade-point-averages or their SAT scores. According to Lardner Amitol de Brainepanne, UCU’s newly appointed Interim Quasi Vice Dean for Inclusive Diversification: “It’s all about the transformative experience of diversity, equity, and transgression – that and moving forward. If you’re not moving forward, you’re not really moving at all, as least not in the way that we here at UCU want you to move.” In a press briefing, de Brainepanne revealed that UCU had begun Triffid recruitment in marshy and fetid regions of the state last year, with special effort being made to bring to campus those Triffids who identify as trans- or cis-gendered or who can document their refugee or DREAMER status. Asked to describe the practicalities of Triffid recruitment, de Brainepanne said that UCU’s recruitment officers had been aided by Special Forces of the State National Guard who have trained to operate in swampy and flooded terrain. “Casualties have been surprisingly light,” de Brainepanne added.
At Gates of Vienna, I review, somewhat belatedly, Pierre Manent’s book Beyond Radical Secularism (2016). The book carries the subtitle How France and the Christian West Should Respond to the Islamic Challenge. I offer an excerpt. —
What is radical secularism? Manent defines radical secularism as the opinion, pervasive in modern Europe since the end of World War Two, that views religion merely and strictly “as an individual option, something private, a feeling that is finally incommunicable.” Manent argues, however, that this opinion is not native to those who hold it, but rather is the result of a propaganda regime in place for many decades. “The power of this perspective over us,” Manent writes, “is all the greater because it is essentially dictated by our political regime, and because we are good citizens.” It belongs to the bland conformism of the modern – or postmodern – person that he wishes to participate in such self-lauding phenomena as “enlightenment” and “progress.” Not even “the acts of war committed in early 2015 in Paris” seem to have shaken that conformism, which confirmed its blandness with a brief rush of emotion followed by a return of the characterless routine. France finds itself in a state of “paralysis,” Manent concludes. Its program, from the presidency down through the institutions right to the conformist mass of citizen-individuals appears to be to see nothing and to do nothing. The Muslim problem exists, according to Manent, because the French state is weak and cannot produce the secularity, which would integrate Muslims, and which it declares as its program. Whereas “the State of the Third Republic had authority” and “represented that all held sacred,” as Manent argues; “our state [the Fifth Republic] has abandoned its representative ambition and pride, thus losing a good part of its legitimacy in the eyes of citizens.”
Manent continues: “Our state now obeys a principle of indeterminacy and dissipation.” Indeed, the French state, committed to the European Union, is programmatically self-minimizing. This trend attaches to another: The rising hostility to and elision of national culture and national identity. Manent points out that “the work of the state… has tended to deprive education of its content, or empty these contents of what I dare call their imperatively desirable character.” Under the Third Republic, pride in the achievement of one’s nation – or at the very least, the explicit acknowledgment of those achievements – expressed itself robustly and informed the national curriculum. The existing curriculum, in the name of multiculturalism, has elbowed the lesson in what it means to inherit the French nation out to the margin of the page or out of the textbook altogether. “How can we begin from the beginning,” Manent asks, “and gather children together in the competent practice of the French language, when we have done so much to strip this language of its ‘privilege?’” Given that secularity itself is such an empty concept, how might teachers teach secularism, the primary principle supposedly of the state – say, to Muslim students who crowd France’s urban schools? One can teach the heritage of a nation, but one finds himself hard-pressed to teach a self-evacuating notion. “Under the name of secularism we dream of a teaching without content that would effectively prepare children to be members of a formless society in which religions would be dissolved along with everything else.”
Art generally or literature specifically, insofar as it comes down to the present from the past, tends to be conservative and traditional. Any essay, poem, play, story, or novel is formed in its completion by its author and retains that form every time it is re-read or re-issued. Not even the postmodern contemnors of Shakespeare as the exemplary Dead White Male dare to alter his text, however spitefully they address it; they never speak of a “Living Hamlet” in the way that they speak of a “Living Constitution” that lends itself to re-composition on a whim. The interpretation of Hamlet changes, but the document possesses a taboo that protects it from tampering. In the moment when any essay, poem, play, story, or novel is formed, moreover, the spirits of the age and place imbue the work with their character even in cases where the author opposes himself to their character. George Elliot (a.k.a. Mary Anne Evans) might have been a socialist and feminist, but she was also a child of the Victorian era – and many things that scandalize Twenty-First Century conservatives and traditionalists would have scandalized her just as much. H. G. Wells advocated such programs as a type of radical but non-Marxist socialism, world government, eugenics, and much else, but one will find in his novels and essays no promotion of “gay marriage,” abortion, or mass immigration. Wells criticized the English society of his day, but he remained fond of England. He would no doubt be shocked by aspects of Twenty-First Century London. And then there are the authors who are thematically conservative.
Cervantes might be the first, in that his Quixote, Part II, criticizes the notion of the modern, finding in it a type of bland self-orientation. Indeed, as the centuries pass, modernity creates a bifurcation among writers: There are those who see themselves as modern and conform to modernity’s expectations; and there are those who breast the stream. The present essay treats two American novelists who belong to the second category. One of these novelists lived in the first half of the Nineteenth Century. The other lived in the middle of the Twentieth Century. Whatever the expectation might be, they are startlingly close to one another in their moral analyses of modernity, especially of its “progressive” aspect. Whether either author would have applied to himself the label of conservative or traditionalist, in the present context that label settles on him willy-nilly. Perhaps it is so that integrity – of insight and judgment as well as of literary execution – is an intrinsically conservative trait.
Albert Camus produced in L’Homme revolté [Man in Revolt] or The Rebel (1951) a milestone of postwar philosophical writing, widely admired for its diagnosis of a combat-shattered, God-deprived, and ideologically disgruntled world. In The Rebel Camus (1913 – 1960) was distancing himself from Existentialism – that of Sartre, anyway – in favor of something more like a tradition-rooted perspective. Existentialism had already caricatured itself in the early 1950s so that its slogans might serve undergraduates and taxicab drivers. Camus quoted at length from Friedrich Nietzsche and Fyodor Dostoevsky; he reiterated that modernity itself was askew and had become bitterly unsatisfying to those caught up in its tenacious grip. Despite his range of reference, however, Camus makes no mention in The Rebel of Gustave Le Bon (1841 – 1931), author of The Psychology of Revolution (1895) and The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1896). Nevertheless Le Bon’s sharp-eyed meditations prefigure Camus’ “Absurdist” critique of society and culture, but from a non-disgruntled and distinctly right-wing point of view. Le Bon’s book The World in Revolt: A Psychological Study of our Times (1920) even anticipated Camus’ title. Le Bon’s follow-up, Le déséquilibre du monde [The Disequilibrium of the World] (1923) offered a trope – that of vertigo – which the Existentialists, including Camus, would eagerly receive and exploit. Camus’ protagonist in The Stranger, Meursault, feels such dizziness just before he murders a random Arab on the Algerian beach.
Except for The Crowd, Le Bon’s work has largely disappeared from the institutional memory. The Crowd maintains a tenuous grip because of its debt-holding position in respect to the work of René Girard. But because Le Bon belongs on the political right, his few contemporary commentators treat him dismissively. The Wikipedia article on Le Bon offers an example. The article-writer attributes to Le Bon the recommendation of various techniques for crowd manipulation employed by the totalitarian states in the mid-Twentieth Century. In various books related to the French Revolution and the First World War, Le Bon had indeed described such techniques, always critically, while condemning them for their corrosiveness of individual responsibility. Such confusion of the descriptive with the prescriptive offers itself as entirely deliberate – an attempt to anathematize a perceptive thinker because he rejected socialism. In an amusing exchange among Internet correspondents at a “Gustave Le Bon” chat-site, the message-writers argue this way and that whether a Société Gustave Le Bon ever existed or whether it still exists. No one seems to know. The issue lingers unresolved. Occultists have sometimes heard of Le Bon, who expounded the theory that matter had evolved, and who argued that each atom was a separate microcosmic world. Le Bon had many admirers, not least the poet Paul Valéry, another Man of the Right, and the philosopher Henri Bergson.
A critique of cultural relativism, Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (1992) by Robert B. Edgerton (1931 – 2016), an anthropologist and ethnologist who taught at UCLA for many years, has implications not only for how one might evaluate the pre-modern, non-Western folk-societies (primitive societies) studied by professional ethnographers and anthropologists, but for how one might understand both institutions and social practices – and perhaps even political ones – more generally. Sick Societies provoked moderate controversy when it appeared, but probably few remember the book today. Nevertheless, Sick Societies deserves not to disappear into the oblivion of the library stacks; or, more likely in 2018, to be purged from the shelves. Revisiting it twenty-five years later indeed shows it to have maintained its relevance. Provocative in its day, it remains provocative. Sick Societies might well be a meditation on culture urgently apposite to the current phase of the West’s seemingly interminable crisis at the end of the second decade of the Twenty-First Century.
I. Adaptation, a Darwinian evolutionary concept, plays a central role in anthropology. The theory of adaptation articulates the anthropologist’s conviction that all societies manage to come to terms optimally with their external environment, and with the internal difficulties presented by communal life, as a people strives to fit itself in its environmental niche. This optimal coming-to-terms will be the case even when it might seem to uninformed or prejudiced outsiders that the beliefs and practices of a given community operate inefficiently or counter-productively and that they therefore fail to meet the requirements of human happiness. Under this view, a modern Westerner’s disdain for magic or witchcraft or for elaborate rituals or proliferating taboos would itself indicate a deformation (“ethnocentrism”) because the objects of that disdain, which the anthropologist or ethnographer properly understands even where the lay person does not, operate by a concealed rationality that only the initiated might perceive. On this assumption, seemingly irrational commitments and practices would in fact be just as rational as modern Western arrangements, but in a way that Western prejudice prevents people from recognizing. From this position, in Edgerton’s words, “it follows that any attempt to generalize about either culture or human nature must be false or trivial unless it is confined to people who live in a specific cultural system.” This would imply, in turn, that “Western science is only a culturally specific form of ethnoscience, not a universally valid way of verification or falsification.” Edgerton does not directly state, but rather he implies, that, if the idea in the last sentence quoted above were true, as anthropologists and ethnographers by consensus assert, then that truth would hold important implications for anthropology and ethnography themselves. Why, for example, must one validate the tribal belief in magic while withholding validation for the modern Western suspicion about magical thinking? But ethnography does not treat Western skepticism about the other as adaptive.
My subject is Herman Melville, and more specifically Melville’s case for civilization, but I would like to approach his Typee (1846), where he makes that case, through a preamble having to do with the figure against whose arguments Melville stakes his own: Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778).
I. There is a shadow-side in the Western tradition that takes the form of a recurrent rebellion against reality. Already in the early Fourth century BC Plato identified an impulse arising from the matrix of civilized life that is wildly uncivilized and which expresses itself, in animosity that can be either generalized or narrowly focused, against civic order, technical achievement, and social distinctions arising out of a consensual recognition of merit. In Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, the character named Callicles complains that the rule of law is tyrannical because it places restraints on strength and ambition and so protects the “weak,” as he terms them, from the “strong,” among whom he imagines himself. When the weak dominate the strong, Callicles argues, nature herself is offended because under her order the reverse is naturally the case. Nature, not culture, provides the authentic template of existence. When Socrates points out the verbal flimsiness of Callicles’ syllogism – that it juggles rather too freely with the terms strong and weak and sneakily makes the case for the tyranny against which it lodges its complaint – Callicles accuses his critic of thinking too much. Callicles warns Socrates that finding logical fault with people will land the philosopher in trouble. Perhaps someday it will cost him his life.
At the heart of Callicles’ pathology stands his aversion to reason and commonsense. Callicles’ denunciation of the civilized order stems from this aversion because it is the polity, as an expression of reason and commonsense – that is to say of human self-knowledge – that restrains his libido and forces him to respect the rights of others. When someone like Callicles determines to rise to power, he must begin by disarming reason and commonsense – he must evade human self-knowledge. He must also persuade others to join him in his distortion both of human reality and moral perception. A ritualistic, magical character pervades such activity, linking it to archaic, pre-civilized practices.
The spectacle of decadence has appealed to poets since the time of Juvenal, the heyday of whose authorship came early in the Second Century AD. The hypertrophy and grotesquery of the Imperial City thus provide the background for Juvenal’s remarkable Satires, which presciently mirror the cultural degeneracy of the early Twenty-First Century’s civic scene, quite as well as they do for that of their own Latinate-Imperial milieu. Did Juvenal’s eyes witness him the Urbs on the Tiber or the City by the Bay? Is he writing about Rome’s Stoic salons or UC Berkeley’s Philosophy Department during the visiting professorship of Michel Foucault or again about the disintegration of the humanities departments generally under Deconstruction? “Infection spread this plague, / and will spread it further still… You will be taken up, over time / by a very queer brotherhood,” as Juvenal writes. Rome had its mysteries two thousand years ago, but then so does West Hollywood today: “You’ll see one initiate busy with an eyebrow pencil [while] a second sips his wine / from a big glass phallus, his long luxuriant curls / caught up in a golden hairnet.” Nor is the modern milieu less free than Rome was under Domitian, say, or Hadrian, of secret police, informers, and goon-squads. A ready inclination to cry lèse majesté belongs to the ripeness of a politically and culturally corrupt scene. So too do the insipidity of literature and the jejuneness of art.
Juvenal’s scathing wit, which approximates the metaphysical, has exercised its influence down through the centuries, the satirist’s spirit being noticeable, for example, in Samuel Johnson’s “London” (1738), which the learned doctor patterns after Satire III, and in contemporaneous prose passages from Jonathan Swift. The “City” passages of T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land owe a debt to Juvenal, including the allusions to gross homosexual solicitation. To invoke Eliot, however, is to invoke Eliot’s models, the French Symbolist poets, who took their vision from the eldest of them, their spiritual father as it were, Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867). That keen-eyed king of flâneurs knew his Juvenal well, as he knew literature well, all of it. Concerning Baudelaire’s prose poem “Portrait of a Mistress,” for example, Rosemary Boyd in her study of the poet (2008) remarks that the “Portrait” reads like an “urbane version of Juvenal’s sixth satire, with its attacks on women and its suggestion that a perfect wife, that rara avis, would prove not just tedious but infuriating in her ability to show up the faults of her husband.”
The reality that modernity is a crisis and that it also causes crises, severe ones, in the cultural and civilizational fabric dawned on perceptive observers at the turn of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Joseph de Maistre in the Francophone world and Edmund Burke in Anglophone offer themselves as early outstanding analysts of emergent modernity. Their work constitutes the bedrock of a steady tradition of anti-modern criticism that has, somewhat paradoxically, accompanied modernity for more than two centuries, becoming ever more acute as modernity increased in its perniciousness. The first half of the Twentieth Century produced a number of outstanding commentators in this vein – not least that Colossus Oswald Spengler, but also René Guénon, Julius Evola, José Ortega, Simone Weil, Paul Valéry, and Eric Voegelin, to name but a few. And that is to count only the essayists. Poets and novelists add themselves to the tally. Another important name that wants a place in the list belongs to Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), whose curriculum vitae heightens the plausibility of his critique. Born of the minor aristocracy, Berdyaev in his youth associated himself with Marxism and the Bolsheviks even to the extent of supporting the October Revolution. The regime permitted Berdyaev to teach and to publish, but the brutality of Lenin’s new order swiftly alienated the philosopher, who began to criticize the state and its actions from a specifically Christian point of view. At one point the police arrested Berdyaev but then released him. Berdyaev continued his criticism until finally Lenin exiled him in 1922. He went first to Berlin, but the chaos of the early Weimar years made it impossible for him to work. in 1924 he traded Berlin for Paris where he remained. Berdyaev lived by writing and lecturing. His authorship offers itself both as an intrinsically useful assessment of the modern deformation and as a complement to the work of those other, mainly Western European writers named above. Berdyaev possessed a perspective all his own.
In an increasingly ugly world the sources of beauty constantly increase in value but at the same time they become increasingly difficult for ordinary people to discover and explore. The garbage of pseudo-art so crowds the scene that the chance-encounter with beauty – by which in the past young people especially found themselves bowled over by aesthetic experience that altered their lives – occurs with ever greater infrequency. The fewer the number of people who already know of something nourishingly beautiful, the fewer docents there are to discover those things to others. Beauty often occasions an analog of conversion. Beauty suggests transcendence. The modern world, however, takes a stance of rigorous opposition to transcendence, which it categorizes among the falsehoods that have, in their pestiferous way, survived the cleansing power of rationality to confuse and delude those who might otherwise devote their services to the enlightened order. The modern world hates the beautiful, which is why it has made a cult of ugliness. Ugliness never gets in the way of utility, but beauty does. Beauty distracts the attention from the petty concerns of a totally immanent world. Beauty fosters non-conformity. It nourishes the soul, which, like transcendence, is not supposed to exist. The present essay addresses one particular, musical source of beauty knowledge of which the author wishes to disseminate among as many others as possible. The present essay also explores the important philosophical question whether the non-verbal arts can carry a semantic content – that is whether plastic and music can generate meaning. The artist under discussion in the following paragraphs is one dear to the author of those paragraphs. His encounter many decades ago with that artist’s work constituted, and powerfully so, a conversion to beauty. The author wishes to repay his debt. The first order of business is to answer a question.
I. What is a Tone Poem? The genre of the symphonic poem or tone poem traces its origin to the free-standing concert overtures of Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Hector Berlioz, but also to the picturesque sequences in the actual symphonies of the same composers. Beethoven’s characteristic overtures, such as the three Leonore Overtures for the opera Fidelio (1805) and his Coriolan (1804) and Egmont (1810) Overtures, undertake to represent by purely musical means the essential personal qualities or virtues of a dramatic or literary character. Beethoven obviously assumes the possibility of such an endeavor although musicological spoilsports, especially in the Twentieth Century, have asserted the opposite. They argue that music can express nothing but itself and that it can convey no semantic content in the way that verbal expression conveys such content. According to this assertion, the auditor who buys into the assumption and believes that he has indeed apprehended the musical representation of a character, or anything else, has in fact deluded himself. Igor Stravinsky argued as much in his stern-faced Poetics of Music (1942), originally delivered as a series of lectures at Harvard. Roger Scruton upholds the thesis in his massive, intimidating Aesthetics of Music (1997), a type of musicological Critique of Pure Reason. The program, both men argue, remains extrinsic to the work, and might even get in the way of the listener’s proper apprehension of the work. One doubts, however, that Beethoven or Mendelssohn or Schumann or Berlioz suffered from delusion. The confidence of their assumption that music might articulate something other than itself, along with itself invites respect. One could counter Stravinsky and Scruton with the proposition that if hearing characters, stories, and landscapes in music were a delusion, the delusion would have long since so deeply ensconced itself in the composer’s intention and the audience’s expectation that it might as well be real.
Not only personality and character, but also landscape and event constitute the subject-matter, so to speak, of the Beethoven type of concert overture and of the Early-Romantic picturesque in music. Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (1832) offers a case in point, as does the slow movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (1830), the former with its conjuration of emotions associated with a vision of the Western Isles and the North Atlantic and the latter with its onomatopoeias of two distantly heard shepherd’s pipes answering one another and the approach and recession of a thunderstorm – all in the countryside. The Swedish composer Franz Berwald offered his overtures Elfenspiel (1841) and Erinnerungen an den Norwegischen Alpen (1842), the one purporting to give a glimpse into the mischief of the gnomes and leprechauns and the other to articulate the memory, no doubt tinged with the proper awe, of the Norwegian mountains. Skeptics like Stravinsky and Scruton aside, the plausibility of a musical semantics has never lacked in philosophical advocacy. Oswald Spengler, who regarded music as the highest expression of the Western spiritual and artistic impulse, broaches the topic in his Decline of the West, Volume I (1919). In his chapter on “Music and Plastic – The Arts of Form,” Spengler writes that “the formative impulse that is at work in the wordless arts can never be understood until we come to regard the distinction between the optical and acoustic means as only a superficial one.” According to Spengler, “A ‘singing’ picture of Claude Lorrain or of Watteau does not really address itself to the bodily eye any more than the space-straining music since Bach addresses itself to the bodily ear.”
In his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1597), theologian Richard Hooker (1554 – 1600) undertook one of the earliest comprehensive critiques of Puritanism – specifically of the insurgent English Puritanism of his day. Hooker’s analysis of the tactics of agitation and propaganda used by the Puritans, and again of the narrowness of the Puritan consciousness, so impressed the political philosopher Eric Voegelin that he devoted a chapter of his New Science of Politics (1952) to it – Chapter 5, “Gnostic Revolution: The Puritan Case.” Voegelin’s thesis that the modern or progressive mentality revived the Gnosticism of Late Antiquity might indeed be said to have sprung, in no little part, from his reading of Hooker’s exposition. Voegelin’s “Second Reality,” the radical vision of a reformed and utopian cosmos to be realized through the conversion or annihilation of all parties who resist it, finds a powerful anticipation in Hooker’s description of the agitator’s cause and his method of seducing gullible others to underwrite it. According to Voegelin modernity is Gnostic by virtue of its four central conceits, all of which are deformations of Christian symbolism: (1) The linked conceptions of history as closed, such that its plan might be discerned and even hastened, and of redemption as entirely this-worldly and within the capacity of man to effect; (2) the necessity of a leader styling himself as “Paracletic”; (3) the “prophet of the new age,” who might be identical with the leader; and (4) “the brotherhood of autonomous person.” Voegelin finds that Hooker recognizes these four conceits in the ultra-protestant sects of his day.
Hooker’s Elizabethan prose style, with its many postponements of the final clause, puts obstacles in the way of comprehension so that Voegelin, in his commentary, wisely quotes from the book selectively and otherwise contents himself with paraphrasing its arguments and insights. It is nevertheless worth the effort to read Hooker’s original exposition as fully as possible. I have made some slight alterations in Hooker’s syntax, mainly by eliding supernumerary clauses, so as to render the long sentences a bit more comprehensible to a Twenty-First Century reader. The suite of paragraphs below, taken from the Preface of The Laws, constitutes the heart of Hooker’s analysis. In addition to simplifying Hooker’s syntax, I have introduced the paragraphing. In my facsimile of the original there is no paragraphing whatsoever. I remark in advance with no little surprise that Hooker, like Oswald Spengler, makes reference to the Pythagoreans as a prototype of Puritanism. I offer a few comments after the transcription. –