Two Theories of the Renaissance – Berdyaev’s and Spengler’s

Rafael 01 School of Athens

Raphael (1483 – 1520): The School of Athens (Completed 1511)

In the Eighteenth Century, self-congratulatory pamphleteers and encyclopédistes, wanting to effectuate a break with tradition, extol their autonomy, and celebrate what they themselves named the Enlightenment, invented the tripartite historical construction of Antiquity – the Medieval Period – and Modernity.  Edward Gibbon and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel assume this sequence, as do Voltaire and Auguste Comte.  Modernity, the third term, functions for such thinkers as the designation of their own intellectual super-clarity, which they see as the goal and consummation of history.  Hegel, like his successor Francis Fukuyama, believed that the progress of the human spirit had indeed found its goal in his very cogitations and insights, after which further speculation would be otiose.  The Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), writing in his essay on “The End of the Renaissance” (1922), and in the aftermath both of the Great War and the October Revolution, rejects the construction.  Berdyaev offers a prediction: “The school delineations of history into the ancient, the medieval and the modern, are becoming quickly outmoded and will be discarded from the textbooks.”  Whereas the tripartite construction of history has proven itself quite stubborn despite Berdyaev’s conviction at the time, stubbornness nevertheless validates nothing.  Berdyaev gives his reasons.  Modern history, a term that Berdyaev puts in quotation marks, “is now ending,” he writes, “and there is beginning something unknowable, an historical epoch not yet named with a name.”  An epoch is a break in continuity.  If a new unprecedented phase had broken away from modernity such that “we depart from all the customary historical shores,” then that development would necessarily disqualify modernity from its claim of being the end and validation of all historical processes.  “The world is passing over,” Berdyaev claims, “into a state of flux.”

Berdyaev by 1922 already knew the work of his slightly younger contemporary Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936), the second volume of whose Decline of the West appeared in that year.  Spengler, like Berdyaev, dismissed the tripartite construction of history as a petty conceit of limited minds.  “In fact,” Spengler writes in the Introduction to the first volume of the Decline (1919), “the lay-out of world history is an unproved and subjective notion that has been handed down from generation to generation… and stands badly in need of a little of that skepticism which from Galileo onward has regulated and deepened our inborn ideas of nature.”  Spengler characterizes the tripartite construction of history as “an incredibly jejune and meaningless scheme, which has, however, entirely dominated our historical thinking.”  Spengler, like Berdyaev, foresees the abandonment of the construction.  “The Cultures that are to come,” he writes, “will find it difficult to believe that the validity of such a scheme with its simple rectilinear progression and its meaningless proportions… was, in spite of all, never whole-heartedly attacked.”  Positing itself as the third-stage goal of a three-stage development, the cynically self-naming modernity “rigs the game.”  Spengler detects in the construction the traces of a displaced apocalypse; it is “Magian,” he writes, owing its essentially religious character to Persian and Jewish apocalypse and to the later offshoots of these, “the Gnostic systems.”  The construction designs to justify “one’s own religious, political or social convictions” by the method of “endowing the sacrosanct three-phase system with tendencies that will bring it exactly to one’s own standpoint.”

Neither Berdyaev nor Spengler denies the existence of a modern phase in the temporal continuity of the West.  On the contrary, both Berdyaev and Spengler acknowledge modernity as something like a total and commanding presence, inveigling itself dictatorially into every corner of life, but they never assent to modernity’s notion of itself.  Whereas modernity sees itself as Reason or Enlightenment, Berdyaev and Spengler see it as occlusion – as a radical diminution of consciousness far from liberating in any true sense, but rather as oppressive and destructive.  Berdyaev and Spengler view modernity in negative terms, as the cause of violent upheavals.  The two writers also agree on the origins of modernity, the earliest glowering of which they assign, perhaps surprisingly, to the Twelfth Century.  Both Berdyaev and Spengler, mention the work of the monk Joachim of Fiore as a foreshadowing of the modern tendency to close down history by calling it to a halt in the consummative present moment.  Both Berdyaev and Spengler see again in Joachim’s hermetic vision the initial glimmerings of what they commonly regard as the first distinctive phase of modernity – the so-called Renaissance of the Italian city-states beginning in the Fourteenth Century.  Naturally, neither Berdyaev nor Spengler interprets the Renaissance as modernity interprets it.  What then is the real character of the Renaissance? And what is the real relation of the Renaissance to the prevailing cultural dissolution of the modern centuries, according to the two thinkers?

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Upstate Consolation University to Equip Classrooms with Sensitivity Airbags

Airbag 02 Admin Building

Administration Building of Upstate Consolation University

Baakko N’Telle, Upstate Consolation University’s Ngombian-born Special Assistant Dean for Sensitivity Issues, has introduced a plan to equip all classrooms with “sensitivity airbags.”  According to N’Telle, although UCU’s classrooms have been “smart” for almost a decade (according to an in-house survey, they are the “smartest” classrooms by far in the state system) they have not been “sensitivity smart.”  Should N’Telle get his way, as it appears he will, this is about to change.  What is a “sensitivity smart” classroom?  The dean describes it this way: “A ‘sensitivity smart’ classroom is a digitally ‘woke’ classroom.  Tiny ‘open microphones’ and video cameras installed all around the classroom or lecture hall are connected to a voice-and-body-language-recognition computer.  The computer’s algorithms, which have been offered gratis to UCU by a Silicon Valley software firm eager to gather data from a field evaluation, can detect microaggressions, hate-speech, male toxicity, white privilege, cultural appropriation, lacrosse-affinity, the Pro-Trump mentality, and all skeptical attitudes towards transgenderism and intersectionality.  The voice-and-body-language-recognition computer interfaces with a router that communicates with ‘sensitivity airbag’ canisters attached to the backs of the seats in the classroom or lecture-hall space.  At any time during the lecture-period, should anyone say or do anything that triggers the algorithm, the computer will tell the router to actuate the airbags, which work as they do in an automobile.”  The system qualifies as sustainable and eco-friendly, its computer, dubbed the M5 by the manufacturer, being powered by rechargeable dimbranium-chloride batteries.  Dimbranium refers to a rare metallic element of the Woketinide series found mainly in Ngombia, in neighboring West Mumbambu – where N’Telle incidentally received his education degree – and in the bedrock deep under offices of the Department of Motor Vehicles in coastal North American Cities.

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The Alphabeticity of Nations

Dear Representative Pelosi:

My wife and I are stalwart Democrats seeking advice.  We are planning an elaborate summer tour of several nations, some of them transatlantic, and we would like to know the correct order in which we should visit those nations.  Here are some questions that we hope you can answer. –

Supposing that we planned a visit to London, should we list that on our itinerary as a trip to Britain or a trip to England?  In either case, if we wished also to visit Edinburgh, in Scotland, would we need to visit either Britain or England first?

If we listed our London and Edinburgh destinations as the United Kingdom rather than Britain, England, or Scotland, would we need to visit Serbia, Slovenia, or Ukraine first?  And does the Byelo in Byelorussia count, or is it the same, by your reckoning, as Russia?  Again, how should we count Abkhazia, were we to visit there?  Is it subsumed alphabetically by Georgia?

When visiting Finland, should we list it as Suomi, as Finns call their nation, and touch base Somalia first?

In what order might we correctly visit the different places called Georgia?

Finally, on a related topic, which bathrooms should we use when visiting the autonomous region of Trans-Dniester?

We are sincerely yours,

Mr. and Mrs. Qwerty

Russians Wickedly Affirm their Russianness while Plotting Our Destruction

It is sometimes not only advisable, but necessary, to avert one’s attention from the ugly violation of forms in the political arena — from the frowning formlessness of doctrinaire fanaticism — so as to take in things actually beautiful and therefore supremely real.  “Smuglyanka Moldavanka” (“Smiling Moldavian Girl”) is a soldier-song from World War Two that has become something like a folksong because it is actually beautiful and therefore supremely real.  Now “flash mobs” are a consequence of our burgeoning communications technology and can manifest themselves obnoxiously in crowds of what in journalese are invariably called “youths.”  They can also approximate to the spontaneity of art, which happens to be the result in the video-clip above.

Below, also purely for enjoyment, is another Russian “flash-mob,” this one singing the well-known song “Kalinka” (“Little Red Berry” — not a reference to Barack Hussein Obama), originally composed for a Russian Vaudeville in the 1860s.  Watch what happens when store security shows up – and be prepared to smile, like the Moldavian brunette.  Notice that little red berries are conspicuously on sale in the middle of the produce section.

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Hacked by Russia: A True Confession

It is not from any desire to shock my fellow Orthosphereans, but merely in order to explain how, beginning as a bland and generically liberal person, I came finally to be associated with an ultra-right-wing website obviously controlled by the spuriously defunct KGB, that I make the following confession of my long history of seditious crimes and treacherous misdemeanors. The evidence against me is overwhelming.  Below is Exhibit No. 1.

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Left: Yessen Zhazoursky, Dean of the School of Journalism, Moscow University; Right: Yours Truly (TFB),  Doctoral Candidate in Comparative Literature, UCLA.  (Fall 1986)

The location was a beach house on Old Malibu Road, with convenient access to the Pacific Ocean hence also to surreptitious traffic to and from casually surfacing Soviet submarines in Santa Monica Bay.  (See the recent Coen Brothers film Hail Caesar!) I call attention to a damning detail of the photograph.  Obviously the Dean and I are exchanging vital, secret information in the medium of coded inscriptions in a notebook that can be concealed in a jacket pocket.  The red stripes of my shirt might also be significant.  By the way, the affair had been organized by Pepperdine University, long known as a communist front.  Below, again, is Exhibit No. 2.

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Sex, Movies & Traditionalism on Mars

Of possible interest to Orthosphereans, my essay concerning Sex, Movies & Traditionalism on Mars  has appeared at Angel Millar’s invariably edifying People of Shambhala website.  The essay concerns independent Minnesota-based filmmaker Christopher Mihm, whose Saint Euphoria Studios has found a niche – and an audience – in the production of low-budget black-and-white retro-pastiches resembling the B-grade science fiction and horror movies of the 1950s.  I argue in Sex, Movies & Traditionalism on Mars that Mihm’s Cave Women on Mars (2008) is a cryptically non-politically correct film that employs a studied rhythm of low-comic japes and serious storytelling to argue for sexual dimorphism, with all its attendant and historically understood differences, as the basis of social life, expressing itself most essentially in the formation of the customary family, with its aim of bringing procreation under morality.

The essay also explores the question whether, in a politically correct environment, it might nowadays only be possible to articulate traditional insights, in public, by indirection. Mihm’s  film-festival audiences are undoubtedly liberal, and it appears that he has found a formula for making his dissentient points subliminally and covertly.

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Just for Fun: Into Plutonian Depths

Planet Stories Vol. 4, No. 6 (Spring 1950).  Cover by Allen Anderson

Planet Stories Vol. 4, No. 6 (Spring 1950). Cover by Allen Anderson

A peculiarity of popular culture, which is also commercial culture, is that it dislikes competing with its own earlier iterations. Commercial culture therefore tends to be dismissive or even hostile in respect of its past, emphasizing its ever-renewed, up-to-date, and often cloyingly topical relevance, as its chief sales point. This state of affairs means that the consumers of popular culture, while they are aficionados of genre, often know little about the history of genre, what we might call the archive. Science fiction – which established its market in mass-circulation “pulp” magazines in the 1930s, and then prolonged its appeal in the form of the mass-circulation paperback in the 1950s – offers a case in point. One has only to compare Amazing Stories, Astounding, and Planet Stories, whose heyday was the 1930s and 40s, with the magazines that succeeded them during the Eisenhower presidency and into the 1960s: Galaxy, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the revamped Astounding that now called itself, perhaps a bit pretentiously, Analogue. The pulps were bulky in format, with three-color covers depicting space-dreadnaughts in combat, bug-eyed monsters assaulting human beings, and buxom women breasting the cosmos in metallic vacuum-proof bikinis. The “slicks” responded to a changing market, or to a changing and sometimes rather snooty notion of propriety, by shrinking themselves down to digest size and offering visually a more austere internal appearance. The magazine covers became solemn, satirical, or abstract, but as a rule they avoided sensationalism, and occasionally they bade fair, as in Ed Emshwiller’s many fine covers for Galaxy, to be artistic.

The pulps filled their pages with scientifically insouciant forays into interplanetary space, Suetonius-like pseudo-histories of galactic empires, and extraterrestrial hero-sagas that might well be described under the formula of Beowulf on Mars. The slicks, by contrast, bound their contributors to the rule of plausibility and preferred them to submit material that eschewed the motifs of grand invention and hero-quest in order to focus on sociological trends and dystopian speculation. When the mass-market science-fiction paperback appeared in the early 1950s, it mainly republished material that had originally appeared in the older periodical venues, but by the mid-1960s the character of the content had altered. Whereas the Ace paperback list corresponded largely to the pulps, the Ballantine, Avon, and Signet lists corresponded largely to the slicks. The slick disposition considered itself as representative of positive progress beyond the pulps in the direction of intellectual sophistication, political sagacity, and aesthetic refinement. Historians of the genre mainly endorse that self-evaluation. But is it so?

Even when they suffered from hasty writing, the pulp stories displayed a myth-like vitality and a powerful moral, if not exactly ethical, impulse that to some degree went missing from the genre about the time that the hyperbolically Romantic Planet Stories ceased publication in 1952, and when Galaxy and Analogue rose to the forefront of the genre. This longstanding suspicion – that the naïve phase of science fiction, superseded by the sophisticated phase right down to the present, often excelled its successor-phase in richness of imagery and narrative muscularity – has recently found happy confirmation in the entrepreneurial intuition of Gregory Luce, a well-known broadcaster on San Francisco area radio and television. Luce’s Oregon-based, web-mediated publishing enterprise, Armchair Fiction, in cooperation with online megastore Amazon’s publish-on-demand service, has undertaken since 2011 to return to print lost items of genre fiction, mainly science fiction, from the mid-Twentieth Century that have been out of print and hard to find for decades. The result is an enormous boon for fans and students of Pulp-Era stories of planetary adventure. That there is a market for such things is also, in its modest way, a sign that cultural amnesia, while prevalent, is not total.

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