Daniel van Heil (1604 – 1664): Aeneas and Family Fly from Burning Troy
Introduction to Part II: In Part I of this essay, I began by reminding readers of the necessary complacency that accompanies civilized life. Civilized people go about their lives in the assumption of institutional permanency and a continuity of custom. The assumption that plans made today will see their fruition tomorrow belongs to the background of organized existence and motivates our purposive behavior. The same assumption can lapse into complacency, however, so that, even as signs of trouble emerge on the horizon, a certain denial disarms a people from responding with sufficient clarity and swiftness to looming disruption. People take civilization for granted and rarely contemplate that it might come tumbling down about their ears. Insofar as the historical record has something important to teach ordinary people who are not specialists in the subject, it might well be the lesson that all known societies before the modern society have come to an end. Some of them have come to an end abruptly and violently. One such society, or civilization, was the Bronze Age civilization of the Twelfth Century B.C. in the Eastern Mediterranean. The singular term civilization is appropriate even though the geographical-cultural region of the Eastern Mediterranean contained many separate peoples distinguished by their distinctive languages, religious beliefs, and customs. These societies – Greek, Semitic, Anatolian, and Pelagic – were in commercial, diplomatic, and artistic communication with one another. They together constituted a pattern of civilized life, whose individual element-nations had the same stake in maintaining the coherency of the whole.
I. The preponderance of archeological and epigraphic evidence coupled with the testimony of legend and epic narrative would attribute the Catastrophe to a wave of barbarian depredation. This does not mean that other factors played no role. Competing theories about the Catastrophe, as summarized by Robert Drews in The End of the Bronze Age, postulate “Systemic Breakdown” and “Natural Disaster,” such as drought or earthquake, as accounting for the abrupt collapse of so many nations. Drews discounts both as likely sole causes, but suggests that Systemic Breakdown in response to a crop-failure or an outbreak of disease might have eroded the stability of the existing societies. The Bronze Age kingdoms were inflexibly organized, heavily ritualistic in their conception of life, and on occasion testily feudal in their relations with one another, as the episode of Paris and Helen makes clear. Widespread drought leading to famine and disease (which the records of Hatti attest) might well have created a social crisis, with a cascading effect, with which administrative inflexibility could not cope. Yet as Drews emphasizes, despite their cumbersome nature, the Bronze Age kingdoms apparently functioned more or less as usual right up to the hour of their sudden demise. Mycenae, for example, was in the midst of a large-scale rebuilding project.
Kerstian de Keuninck (1560 – 1632): Troy in Flames
Introduction to Part I: Modern people assume the immunity of their situation to major disturbance or – even more unthinkable – to terminal wreckage. The continuance of a society or culture depends, in part, on that very assumption because without it no one would complete his daily round. A man cannot enthusiastically arise from bed as the sun comes up and set about the day’s errands, believing that all undertakings will issue vainly because the established order threatens to go up in smoke before twilight. Just as it serves this necessity, however, the assumption of social permanence – that tomorrow will necessarily be just like today – can, when it becomes too habitual through lack of reflection, lead to dangerous complacency. It is healthy, therefore, to think in an informed way about the possibility that our society might break down completely and become unrecognizable. Such things are more than mere possibility – they have happened. Societies – and, it is fair to say, whole standing civilizations – have disintegrated swiftly, leaving behind them depopulation and material poverty. In the two parts of the present essay, I wish to look into one of the best documented of these epochal events, one that brought abrupt death and destruction to a host of thriving societies, none of which survived the scourge. I have divided my essay into two parts, each part further divided into four subsections. Note: I wrote this article twenty years ago or a bit more for John Harris’s quarterly print magazine Arcturus.
I. Archeologists, historians, and classicists call it “the Catastrophe.” It happened more than three thousand years ago in the lands surrounding the Eastern Mediterranean. Neither geological nor climatological but rather sociological in character, this chaotic enormity erased civilization in a wide swath of geography stretching from the western portions of Greece east to the inner fastnesses of Anatolia, and all the way to Mesopotamia; it turned south as well, overrunning many islands, finally swamping the borders of Egypt. The Egyptians nevertheless defeated the interlopers, some of whom stayed on as mercenary soldiers under the pharaoh. The Catastrophe left cities in smoking ruin, their wealth plundered; it plunged the affected regions into a Dark Age, bereft of literacy, during which populations drastically shrank while the level of material culture reverted to that of a Neolithic village. Echoes of the event – or complicated network of linked events – turn up in myth and find reflection in early Greek literature. The Trojan War appears to be implicated in the Catastrophe, as do certain episodes of the Old Testament. Recovered records hint at this massive upheaval: diplomatic letters dictated by Hittite kings and tablets bearing military orders from the last days of the Mycenaean palace-citadels. Places like Sicily and Sardinia took their names in the direct aftermath of the Catastrophe and in its scattering of peoples.
Roy Krenkel (1918 – 1983): Cover for the Ace edition of Pirates of Venus
Once upon a time – I believe it was twelve years ago – I published an article at the Brussels Journal, defunct since 2009 but still archived on the Internet, under the title Edgar Rice Burroughs and Masculine Narrative. The article mainly addressed the author’s quasi-science fiction novels, but it also contained criticism of the stilted, politically correct apologies for Burroughs in otherwise handsome editions of his work reissued beginning in 2000 by the University of Nebraska Press under the Bison imprint. The foreword writers ritually excoriated Burroughs for having exercised the usual list of phobic isms and inexcusable bigotries. The article pointed to numerous counterexamples that, in particular, exonerated the Tarzan-author of having populated his stories with unrealistically weak or grotesquely male-deferential female characters. The editorial matter accompanying the Burroughs sagas in the Bison editions anticipated today’s advancing disappearance of the Burroughs oeuvre from the marketplace, partly under influence of wokeness. The stock of Bison editions nears depletion at Amazon. Those that remain for sale are in short supply. Used paperbacks from the 1960s and 70s are still for sale, but due to scarcity the prices are rising, especially for the Ace editions with cover-art by Roy Krenkel. An Amazon customer may purchase publish-on-demand versions of some titles, but they make a poor comparison with the Dover, Ace, and Bison reprints of past decades. The publish-on-demand editions often lack cover-art, coming with only title and author; and the printed page looks awkwardly composed, with no typographic grace. The situation treats poorly a man who once enjoyed the status of the most-read popular author in the USA, if not also in the world at large. (Burroughs’ adventures saw translation in a dozen languages, at least.) It saddens me that a man of so great an imagination, and at his best, a master of sterling prose, should vanish from public knowledge.
In an age, on the one hand, of renewed, anti-sexual Puritanism and, on the other, of freely available Internet pornography the names of Peter Driben (1908 – 1968), Gillette Elvgren (1914 – 1980), Earl Moran (1893 – 1984), Alberto Vargas (1896 – 1982), George Petty (1894 – 1975), and Earle K. Bergey (1908 -1985) are largely forgotten although from the late 1920s through the mid-1960s they held a place in the American popular imagination and not only among males. Notoriety attached itself to these men because they produced the cover-art for a plethora of what went by the name of “glamour magazines,” with titles such as Wink, Flirt, Eyeful, and Beauty Parade, to list only a few. Unlike Playboy and its later offshoots, which would drive them from the newsstands, the “girlie mags” featured no nudity, but limited themselves to what might be called the scantily clad or, on occasion, the accidentally scantily clad – young women in lingerie, bathing-suits, tennis outfits, and short skirts who sometimes by mischance display in public more limb than they would intend. Whereas the interiors of these periodicals used black-and-white photography, the house always printed the covers in bright polychrome. Often the poses are humorous. The young woman is overburdened with packages, her shorts have come unbuttoned, and she bends her body and pins her elbows against her hips to keep her culottes from slipping away. From the expression on her face, however, her plight and embarrassment communicate themselves, and her struggle to maintain dignity becomes sympathetic. Ice-skating and roller-skating accidents sometimes occasion a revelatory maladroitness, but the revelation obeys strict limits. Men never enter the picture. The artist invariably portrays the female twenty-something as independent and as going – playfully, of course, but sometimes with bad luck – about her own business. If she flaunted her comeliness, which qualifies as exceedingly comely, it would be in private and with an excusable girlish vanity.
On the universal degeneracy of so-called higher education in the contemporary USA, I have made myself clear in any number of articles and essays since the mid-1990s. Recently at The Orthosphere I described the last few years of my college teaching career at what I called “Upstate Consolation University,” supplying anecdotes about students and colleagues who reflect equally the functional illiteracy that has afflicted American culture for the last forty years, at least. Can PhDs really be illiterate? Yes. While they have the specialized knowledge of a trained bureaucrat-scholar, they yet lack anything resembling the broad education of actual eminent minds in decades and centuries now remote and by the current generation completely forgotten. The young faculty members lack philosophical depth – and that translates into an inability to employ intuition or imagination so as to transcend the boundaries of their narrow graduate school instruction. Are American undergraduates illiterate? Yes. But they are more (or is the word less) than illiterate. I would say that they proudly know nothing, except that pride requires knowledge of something and undergraduates have no knowledge of their lack of knowledge. Still and all, their attitude is a prideful one with no discernible basis. The cohorts of college graduates will not preserve the civilization that they inherit. Indeed, they are not aware of inheriting it; their awareness fixates itself entirely on their devices. Being past that, but holding it nevertheless as a background or context to my late-in-life contemplations, I pursue the leisure of my retirement, which consists mainly in eclectic reading of items high and low, with the recognition, late in life, that what is classified as high might really be quite low and vice-versa.
Joseph Mallord Turner (1775 – 1851) – Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1834)
PART TWO. The worldwide, instantaneous ekpyrosis of “Eiros and Charmion” illustrates Poe’s thesis dramatically. In “Eiros and Charmion” Poe wrote the first cosmic-collision story, to be followed fifty years later by H. G. Wells in “The Star,” and popular ever since. Cosmic-collision stories tend to be end-of-the-world stories, a pattern set by Poe’s dialogue. Earth passes through the tail of a large comet, the chemistry of which draws the nitrogen from the atmosphere, leaving only the oxygen, at which point everything combustible, including the human body, bursts into flame. Eiros, who died in the extinction-event, narrates the last moments of life to Charmion, who had graduated to “Aidenn” by ordinary death prior to the cataclysm: “For a moment there was a wild lurid light alone, visiting and penetrating all things”; then – “the whole incumbent mass of ether in which we existed, burst at once into a species of intense flame, for whose surpassing brilliancy and all-fervid heat even the angels in the high Heaven of pure knowledge have no name.” Eiros quotes the Apocalypse of St. John and remarks on the hauteur with which the humanity of the time dismisses the ancient lore of comets. In those passages subsists the criticism of wayward modernity: The mentality of the End-Times adhered only to “science” and rejected its connection to the cosmos – to God. Comets once signified, but they have become mere phenomena, “divested of the terrors of flame.” The awe that people once felt in respect of cosmic manifestations the final generation will need to re-learn in the moments before its demise.
Joseph Mallord Turner (1775 – 1851) – Light and Colour (1840)
Many people know of the “Big Bang” or singularity theory of cosmic origin, but far fewer know that the author of the singularity theory was a Belgian scientist-priest, Georges Lemaître (1894 – 1966), who, in addition to his work in mathematics and physics, served as an artillery officer in the Belgian Army in World War I. The name Lemaître rarely crops up in textbook discussions of the singularity theory although it does appear in the Introduction to the Wikipedia article on that topic. The name of Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849) goes absent in the Wikipedia article about Lemaître, where it would in fact assume some relevance, an observation that one can extend to Lemaître’s own published writings. Lemaître enjoyed broad cultivation. A typical Jesuit, he knew the humanities and arts as well as the sciences. He could hardly have remained unaware of Poe’s self-described masterpiece, the “prose-poem” Eureka (1848), which Charles Baudelaire had translated into French in 1863. To Poe belongs the actual invention of what Lemaître would call, in a popularizing essay of that name, “The Primeval Atom” (1946). Even the details of “The Primeval Atom” find anticipation in Eureka, which formed the basis of lectures that Poe gave to bewildered audiences in the last year of his life. One wonders whether Lemaître’s omission of Poe’s name was calculatedly prudential. Disclosing the inspiration of Poe’s cosmology would no doubt have occasioned supercilious commentary. Better not to complicate the issue by tying the theory to a bizarre literary text by a known eccentric, full of heavy satire and laced throughout with manifold irony. Better not to adduce the author of “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Masque of Red Death.”
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.
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.
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.