The Unconscious Girds for War

Something in the air has just in the last few days changed. It has at least changed in the air of me – in my spirit. And if it has changed in me, then it must have changed in the hearts of many millions of men like me.

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Reaction at First Things

An essay by Nathan Pinkowski at First Things analyzes the resurgence in France of traditionalist Reaction, personified by Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. It gives more, and more explicit, evidence that the formerly exhaustive hegemony over the categories of latter day political discourse of the spectrum from Left liberal to Right liberal has begun to tilt. The appearance of the essay in First Things – a bastion of Right liberalism – would seem to indicate that the classical liberalism of the religious Right by whom and to whom First Things is written has begun to undergo – not to suffer, so much as to enjoy – the radical shift of orientation that arrives with the realization that there is an altogether different axis of political categories, that is orthogonal to the spectrum from communism on the left to libertarianism on the right, prior thereto, and superior.

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Hellebore, Nettles and Jimson Weed

Let me begin by confessing that I have edited academic anthologies, and published several chapters in them, so I am guilty of adding my mite of bombast to those miserable magazines of bombastry.

We have the word anthology from the Greek anthologia, which is literally a bouquet or collection of flowers.  The metaphorical nosegays that we call anthologies of literature appeared in the Renaissance, and were collections of the “flowers” of classical poetry, epigram and myth.  The editors of these anthologies collected texts that were scattered, but also selected texts that were best.  It was their selecting of the best that justified the comparison of their collections to bouquets of flowers.

If the modern academic anthology has a botanical analog, it is not a fragrant bouquet, but rather a ragged bundle of hellebore, nettles and jimson weed.  The editor of an academic anthology does not collect the best.  He scrapes together whatever he can find, packages these sweepings under a specious title, and then sells the collected gibberish to saps.  These saps are in most cases graduate students and university libraries. Continue reading

Robert Edgerton’s Sick Societies (1992) Revisited

Edgerton 02 Sick Societies COVER

Hardcover First Edition (1992)

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.

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Redacting Texas

The Equity Office in the city government of our state capital has recommended that a number of that city’s place names be changed, foremost among these being the name of the city itself. The namesake of Austin, as many people know, is Stephen F. Austin, founder of the largest Anglo colony in the old Mexican province of Tejas.  The Austin Colony was centered on the alluvial bottoms of the lower Brazos River, and was in most respects a small duplicate of the great Mississippi Delta back east.  That means that the Austin Colony raised sugar and cotton with slaves.  Oh yes, it also handed Santa Anna his hat on the banks of the San Jacinto River. Continue reading

“That Foul Great Swallow”

Have you ever stepped up to the edge of a cliff, and then stepped back suddenly, shaken and appalled that the drop-off was much worse than you expected?  This experience is not at all uncommon, and it serves as the basis of our metaphysical expression “stare into the void,” or, as some say, “the abyss.”  What men see when they stare into the metaphysical void is not entirely clear, but there can be no doubt that they see something, and also that it is a very curious sort of void in which something may be seen. Continue reading

Melville’s Typee (1846) and the Case for Civilization

Melville 01 Melville Portrait

Herman Melville (1819 – 1891)

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.

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Blood and Soil Nationalism in Sidney Lanier’s “Corn”

Many people find it hard to grasp the notion of a nation because they try to grasp the notion too tightly.  It is, we might say, like a wet bar of soap that flies out of the hand when it is squeezed.

I suspect they do this because their minds are modern, and therefore trammeled by the Cartesian prejudice that a “clear and distinct idea” must stand at the head of every rational thought.  But when nation is apprehended as a clear and distinct idea, it is always reduced to one aspect of the real thing, which is complex, indistinct and obscure.  In a recent post, for instance, I wrote about the way that men like Paul Ryan reduce American nationality to a doctrine, and about their fierce hostility to men who (they allege) reduce that nationality to blood and soil. Continue reading

The Shabbiest Gospel

Outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan was recently interviewed by the journalist Jonah Goldberg, and the congressman’s remarks disclosed a curious map of the political landscape. Not an accurate map, mind you, or even an honest map, but an inaccurate and dishonest map of the sort that too many Americans still consult as they stumble, thirsty and fly-bitten, through our political wilderness. Continue reading

Linguistic Subscendence Rears Fully Half of its Big Ugly Head

The following sentence comes from Maureen Callahan’s New York Post article “Elon Musk is a Total Fraud,” dated July 21, 2018:

In March, a Tesla driver was killed while test-driving an auto-piloted Model X, the impact fully decimating half the car.

Let us ignore the passive-evasive “was killed” and let us not speculate why an “auto-piloted” sedan requires a test-driver.  That way the concluding phrase might take center stage in the completeness, so to speak, of its grammatical absurdity: “The impact fully decimating half the car.”

The verb to decimate comes from Roman military practice.  When a legion subdued its enemy, its commanders sometimes ordered the execution of every tenth prisoner before sending the survivors off to slavery.  To decimate means to reduce by one tenth.  It can also sometimes mean to reduce to one tenth, but that is an inadvisable because confusing usage.  Decimation could also be punitive; a legion that fled from battle or otherwise humiliated itself in combat might suffer the decimation of its ranks as chastisement.  No matter: The object of any act of decimation is a group of people.  One person cannot suffer decimation, nor can half a person, nor can anything that is not a group of people.

An automobile, then, cannot suffer decimation.  Still less can half an automobile suffer decimation, even if it were a Tesla.  Decimation, moreover, has no degrees.  The phrase full decimation would therefore be a pleonasm, and not the good kind.  General Maximus either decimates the captured Thracian army or he offers his lenience.  The Thracians would prefer, of course, that he offer his lenience.

It is probable that Callahan, like many people, regards decimation as an exotic synonym for destruction although, in its precision, it is not.  To destroy, equally with to decimate, possesses a Latin origin but it has so thoroughly assimilated itself to English as to appear, basely, Anglo-Saxon.  To decimate, by contrast, retains its slightly foreign, slightly antique, slightly graduate-schoolish aura of sophistication.  Even supposing that Callahan seizes on decimation because she thinks it a synonym of destruction, however, and even supposing that she wants to seem educated in her vocabulary, the problem of the fully destroyed half a car remains to be solved.  Notice that the test-collision to which Callahan refers in her article implicitly left half of that same Tesla, as she might write, fully intact – or rather, intact, omitting any qualification as to degree.  For intactness has no more degrees than decimation.  One wonders how many degrees Callahan boasts.  She should ask for a partial refund on at least half of fully one of them.