Essay on Rene Girard at The Brussels Journal

My latest at The Brussels Journal is an essay entitled “René Girard on the ‘Ontological Sickness.’” I taught Girard’s I See Satan Fall like Lightning to the students in my “Introduction to Literary Criticism” this semester and found myself re-reading him with a good deal of renewed interest. Girard’s notion of “ontological sickness” explains a good deal about modernity, especially about what is sometimes called “entitlement mentality.” In the essay, I try to show how this is so. The essay includes an interpretation of what I regard as one of the major modern parables about the “ontological sickness,” the HAL subplot of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The link is http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/5178

I offer a sample below.

In Things Hidden, Girard writes: “Modern people still fondly imagine that their discomfort and unease is a product of the strait-jacket that religious taboos, cultural prohibitions and, in our day, even the legal forms of protection guaranteed by the judiciary place upon desire. They think that once this confinement is over, desire will be able to blossom forth [and that] its wonderful innocence will finally be able to bear fruit.” The modern subject, wanting liberté, inveterately seeks liberation and just as inveterately experiences the belaboring frustration of its every liberating triumph. The “Declaration of Sentiments” (1848) of the Seneca Falls Convention of early feminists employs the essential “liberationist” vocabulary: “Disenfranchisement,” “social and religious degradation,” a mass of the “oppressed,” whose constituents “feel… aggrieved” and who want “rights and privileges” wickedly withheld by malefactors. The male oppressor, as the document asserts, “Has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for [the generic woman] a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and her God.” In her much-celebrated speech on the same occasion, Elizabeth Cady Stanton invoked the image of the sovereign self in its absoluteness: “There is a solitude… more inaccessible than the ice-cold mountains, more profound than the midnight sea,” which neither “eye nor touch of man or angel has ever pierced.”

The themes of the usurpation of being and of the radical autonomy of the individual, Girard’s self-inflating quasi-divine ego, come into their necessary conjunction at the inception of what would later take the name of women’s liberation.

The feminist “Declaration” and its adjunct texts were already hackneyed. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had set the tone brilliantly nearly a century before, in his Discourse upon the Origin and the Foundation of the Inequality among Mankind (1754). The second part of Rousseau’s essay begins with the speculative scenario that must have inspired Karl Marx to write The Communist Manifesto (1848 – the same year as the Seneca Falls Convention): “The first man, who, after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.” Not merely property, but society itself, for Rousseau, is theft or usurpation. Under tutelage of Girard, one might reduce the formula even further: Usurpation is the Other, by the mere fact of his existence. In the sequel, Rousseau, speaking on behalf of the usurped, rouses the mob against the usurper: “How many crimes, how many wars, how many murders, how many misfortunes and horrors, would that man have saved the human species, who pulling up the stakes or filling up the ditches should have cried to his fellows: Be sure not to listen to this imposter; you are lost, if you forget that, the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!”

New Article

My latest at The Brussels Journal is “Owen Barfield’s Critical Semantics.”  The essay devotes itself to Barfield’s History in English Words (1926), a diagnosis based on etymological studies of the afflicted modern mentality.  It is accessible here:

http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/5162

Barfield was friendly with T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and others familiar to “Orthosphereans.”  As a follower of Rudolph Steiner’s “Anthroposophy,” he was something of a Gnostic, but that does not invalidate his observations.

I offer a sample paragraph:

Barfield’s argument has by this point in the sequence of his chapters revealed its critical radicalism. From the reconstructed prehistoric beginnings of the Indo-European languages to the High Middle Ages, Barfield sees, in his case-language, English, a net increase of meaning beneficial to the speakers of the tongue; but with the Reformation, which brings the Medieval Period to its end, he sees the phase of meaning-change in the lamentable direction of contraction and diminution for which he employs his term internalization. The same internalization represents a flight from rich participation in reality, with a possibility of transcendence either religious or aesthetic, to cloistered abstraction in the grim Cartesian fortress of disembodied rationality. The resemblance to insanity is hard to miss. No doubt but Barfield intends it. Consciousness, by believing to have discovered its own origin in a random and meaningless process, necessarily renders itself otiose, for how could it be other than random and meaningless? What could it mean to think where consciousness has demoted itself in the world-picture to a neuro-chemical epiphenomenon? But schizophrenically, as it were, the thinking that has abolished itself by a clever theory uselessly goes on jabbering and claims its jabbering to be thinking.

Thoughts (for Students) on Language

Unexpectedly in mid-summer vacation, my departmental chair asked me whether I could assume supervision of some courses previously taught by a faculty member who had taken retirement on short notice at the end of the spring semester. One course concerned the Anglo-Saxon and Norman roots of Modern English and in general the history of the language. The other course concerned theories of language, of which it is designed to offer a survey, more or less at the instructor’s discretion. The clientele for both courses comes largely from the current cohort of teachers-in-training in my college’s School of Education and in some part from English majors. The new assignment required me to marshal my knowledge of the two areas and quickly to devise two syllabi. In writing the syllabi, I decided to introduce each course to its enrollment in the form of an essay. There is some repetition of ideas in both introductions, but that is inevitable given that the subject-matter of the two courses necessarily overlaps. I share the results with my fellow Orthosphereans.

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New Articles

Apropos of Kristor’s recent recommendation of an essay, available online, by the redoubtable René Girard (born ninety years ago), I call attention to my latest contribution at The Brussels Journal, “Globalism as Sacrificial Crisis,” a discussion in review of The Mark of the Sacred by Jean-Pierre Dupuy, who works from a declaredly “Girardian” perspective. The Mark of the Sacred is a courageous analysis of the existing crisis in terms of Girard’s concepts of mimesis and the sacred. The review is a follow-up to two earlier ones that also appeared at the Journal – those of Gregory Copley’s Un-Civilization and Eric Cline’s 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed. I am indebted, as always, to Luc van Braekel, for the handsome treatment of the text.

The article is here: http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/5148

I am also indebted, as often I have been in the past, to Angel Millar, webmaster of The People of Shambhala, for posting my essay on “Ur-Civilization, Cosmology, and the Invention of History,” which couches a discussion of how much we know of the human past, and of how certain many people are of knowing everything about it, in the context of a quest for the merits inherent in what its detractors refer to as pseudo-archeology. Readers of The Orthosphere who are familiar with such names as Ignatius T. Donnelley or C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne, might find some modest pleasure in my paragraphs.  (As I hopefully predict…)

The article is here: http://peopleofshambhala.com/ur-civilization-and-the-invention-of-history/

New Article on the Destruction of Education

An article of mine has appeared at The Brussels Journal under the title, “Hannah Arendt and Richard Weaver on the Crisis of Western Education.” It is accessible at: http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/5141

Here is a sample:

Arendt writes of assuming responsibility for the inherited world, as the conservative or curatorial heart of education. A strikingly complementary notion occurs in the work of one of Arendt’s contemporaries who also wrote about the perils threatening education in the period of the Cold War. This writer saw in the self-styled progressive pedagogy of his day, which in his view had already begun to subvert traditional education, an essential ‘irresponsibility to the past and to the structure of reality in the present.’ Indeed, he saw that the assumptions of this revolutionary coup-d’état in the classroom could never ‘serve as the foundations of culture because [they] are out of line with what is.’ It was the case that ‘where [these assumptions] are allowed to provide foundations,’ or to allege to provide foundations, ‘they imperil the whole structure.’

The other writer is Richard Weaver (1910 – 1963) and the lines quoted above come from the chapter on ‘The Gnostics of Education’ in his book Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time (published posthumously, 1964). Arendt was a woman of the Left; Weaver was a man of the Right. That their separate and independent commentaries on the same topic, appearing in book form within three years of one another, should be so convergent and complementary is striking. What explains it? A commitment to civilization, shared across the political frontier, might be the best answer to the question. Both Arendt and Weaver, in contrast to the advocates of avant-garde pedagogy whom they criticize, see education in its conservative or curatorial role as a civilizational, rather than as a social, institution. When the high-school English teacher in Santa Monica brought his portable stereo to the classroom and invited his students to listen to Wagner, he appealed to them in the name of civilization, not in the name of society. At the time, society’s idea of music was The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones. When I challenge students to read and appreciate Tono-Bungay by Wells, I do so in the name of civilization, not of society, whose notion of literary challenge is non-existent.

Re-Post: Michael Powell’s I Know Where I’m Going (1945)

When, several semesters ago, my department chair asked me to teach the local version of the nowadays-pervasive “popular culture” course, I consented with some mild misgivings and, as I like to do, took a mostly historical approach to course-content. I have no investment in contemporary popular culture, the wretchedness of it striking me as consummate. My students, for their part, being morbidly, continuously immersed in contemporary popular culture, require no one to acquaint them with it. At least they require no one to tutor them in it directly, since it regrettably is their ubiquitous, hortatory guide, and their authoritative cue-giver, for all facets of life. But one might apprise them about the insipidity of existing mass-entertainment indirectly by putting it in contrast with the popular entertainments of the past, including the classic films that most of them have never seen and, more importantly, would never seek out on their own. One film that I showed to students was the Errol Flynn vehicle The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), directed by Michael Curtiz. Another one, not so well known as Robin Hood, was the Roger Livesey/Wendy Hiller vehicle I Know Where I’m Going (1945), directed by Michael Powell (1905 – 1990).

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Of Possible Interest

The second part of my essay on S. T. Coleridge appears at Angel Millar’s People of Shambhala website under the title “The Poet as Rebel: Inside Coleridge’s Pleasure Dome.”  The link is here: http://peopleofshambhala.com/the-poet-as-rebel-inside-coleridges-pleasure-dome/

I offer the concluding paragraph as a sample:

Traditionalists think of Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) and Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821) as the great counter-revolutionary philosophers. Coleridge belongs with them. Coleridge, like de Maistre, saw that the political upheavals of his time maintained an intimate relation with the diminution of consciousness implied by the doctrines of materialism and naturalism. Coleridge did not possess the word scientism, no more than did de Maistre, but he knew that which it signifies. He could see, moreover, that the diminution of consciousness under specious doctrines was a trend, and that, unchecked, it would be disastrously upward-trending. As an expression of “the brute passions and physical force of the multitude” acting under the sanction of “abstract reason,” the scientistic attitude, that monstrum hybridum of the age, would thrash like a Leviathan, leaving the wreckage of humanity in its path.

Of Possible Interest

I have an article at the website of the Pope Center for Higher Education on the difficulty of teaching a course on literary criticism in the prevailing post-literate condition. The link is here: http://www.popecenter.org/commentaries/article.html?id=3019. I have another article, or rather the first part of a two-part article, on S. T. Coleridge as a Traditionalist, at Angel Millar’s People of Shambhala website. The link is here: http://peopleofshambhala.com/a-vision-in-a-dream-s-t-coleridge-on-imagination-and-politics/. My review of James Kalb’s Against Inclusiveness, for The University Bookman, is here: http://www.kirkcenter.org/index.php/bookman/article/todays-totalitarians/.

PS. The Pope Center article is a version of an item that I first posted here at The Orthosphere a couple of months ago.

The Year Civilization Collapsed

At The Brussels Journal, I review Eric H. Cline’s new book 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed. Cline’s topic is the “Catastrophe” that afflicted the Eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age. Cline’s service is to have correlated the large monographic literature on the “Catastrophe” and to have organized it in complementary narrative and analysis.  The review is here:  http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/5134

I offer an excerpt:

Just before reading The Year Civilization Collapsed I read Gregory R. Copley’s Un-Civilization: Urban Geo-Politics in a Time of Chaos (2013).  Copley sees the existing global economy as a distorted, unstable system already embarked down the slope of collapse.  The malaise of the contemporary system in Copley’s analysis stems from many of the distortions that Cline cites as contributing to the end of the Bronze Age: Centralized bureaucratization of the societies; overspecialization within the total mercantile network such that a disruption anywhere must spread its effects like ripples everywhere else; vulnerable infrastructure, such as, in the modern instance, the electrical grid; unregulated, massive migrations of peoples; and the development of enmitous social factions within societies, in some cases massively immigration-driven.  Copley predicts a crisis, one effect of which will be plummeting depopulation leading to the desertification of the distended World Cities.

The parallelisms between Copley’s assessment of the contemporary situation and Cline’s hypothesis about the causes and character of the Catastrophe are quite obvious and quite disconcerting.  Copley differs from Cline in his willingness to include moral failures as playing a role in the impending (as he sees it) debacle.  Cline explicitly disavows any gesture of “laying blame,” as when he criticizes invoking the “Sea Peoples” as agents of a general destruction in the concluding phase of the Catastrophe.  Nevertheless, The Year Civilization Collapsed is extremely valuable.  The Catastrophe is little-known – unlike the specious “Fall of Rome,” so often celebrated in novels and cinema.  It ought to be better-known, as it would serve as a useful reference in getting people to understand the terrible fragility of the civilized accomplishment.  One ingredient of total social calamity at which Cline hints but which he nowhere fully develops is the complacency of the people, their dumb belief that nothing can change in the way of life.  The psychological inertia of complacency plays a large role in the stultification of the existing “global order,” which more and more resembles ambient disorder.

Two Articles of Possible Interest

Writer Michael Presley has written about Chinese cinema, under the title “Visions of China: The Nationalist Spirit in Chinese Political Cinema,” at The People of Shambhala. Presley is an impressive and thorough connoisseur of the Chinese motion-picture tradition. I recommend Presley’s article to readers of The Orthosphere. It is here: http://peopleofshambhala.com/visions-of-china-the-nationalist-spirit-in-chinese-political-cinema/

At The Brussels Journal, I review Gregory Copley’s new book Un-Civilization. Copley argues that the world is in the middle stage of a systemic breakdown that is driven by the hypertrophy of cities and will end in their collapse; the whole process will see a drastic shrinkage of the global population.  It is here: http://www.brusselsjournal.com/