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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Sketch of the Ecology of Knowledge

Homeostasis

Since the 1960s everyone has been familiar with the idea of ecology. Nature, before humanity, as the ecologists argue, constituted a balanced and indeed a self-balancing system. James Lovelock in his various books with Gaia in the title argues that nature before humanity constituted a “homeostatic” system that was not only self-regulating but capable of responding to gross unbalancing influences by vigorous redistributions of the disturbance so as to restore the norm of homeostasis. These observations apply largely to nature considered as the terrestrial biosphere, but Lovelock’s theory extends by implication beyond the restricted earthly system – all the way out to the asteroid belt.

According to the theory of natural ecology, every element of nature is linked recursively, by plural feed-back loops, to every other element; the elements work together as a whole to maintain a settled norm overall. Environmentalism, a political development of the idea of natural ecology, claims, however, that the human element of the system is an emergent anomaly whose presence upsets the ability of nature to maintain homeostasis. Whether the environmentalist claim concerning humanity is true or false, the general notion that a self-regulating system might suffer disruption from influences that are somehow external to it is highly plausible.

The term ecology is an ingenious coinage, probably needed at the time it entered into usage. The Greek word oikos means “house” or “household”; the Greek word logos – as its derivative logic suggests – is not only the orderly discussion of a phenomenon but also the internal regulating, form-endowing law that renders a phenomenon thus-and-such rather than something else and that keeps the phenomenon in this character steadily so that it remains recognizable and amenable to cognition. The term ecology thus elegantly, although perhaps not intentionally, reflects the notion of the universe as an orderly artifact, corresponding to a rational plan and having a discernible goal – that of steady self-maintenance.

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Movie Review: “San Andreas”

Atlantis

Not thirty minutes into the story of San Andreas, a colossal skyscraper falls on my old girlfriend’s apartment house in West L.A. and then a tsunami sweeps it all away.  So – pretty good stuff!  I am giving this movie four-and-a-half stars out of five.  I withhold half a star for the scenes in which the actors have lines.

Thinking these thoughts so that my friends don’t need to.  TFB.

Gnosticism: Its Self-Representation

Gnosis 02Part I of this series posed the linked questions whether Eric Voegelin’s characterization of Gnosticism in his various books on the topic was valid – and whether, as Voegelin asserted, modernity, in the form of the liberal and totalitarian ideologies, could be understood as the resurgence of ancient Gnosticism. The purpose of Part I was not to furnish definitive answers to those questions, but rather to explore two critiques of Gnostic doctrine from Late Antiquity. These were the essay Against the Gnostics by the Third-Century Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus and the discussion in Saint Augustine’s Confessions (Books III, IV, and V) of the Manichaean religion, a late variant of Gnosticism. The exposition concluded that the two accounts of Gnosticism although written more than a century apart (Augustine being subsequent to Plotinus) were convergent and largely similar. The argument did not propose that Plotinus and Augustine, in their critiques, anticipate Voegelin, but readers might justly have inferred that as a tacit thesis.

The present essay addresses Gnosticism by examining it in its own terms. It is certainly provocative that two ancient writers, separated by a tumultuous century-and-a-half should have arrived at essentially the same assessment of Gnosticism. Nevertheless, this similitude in the judgment might be because both authors are prejudiced in the same way; thus their agreement could erroneous or bigoted. After all, as the father of modern Gnosticism-scholarship, Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), averred, the Gnostics were formidable thinkers, masters of confabulation, and connoisseurs of a wide variety of religions, including but by no means confined to Judaism and Christianity. Elements of Gnosticism likely became incorporated in Christian theology (think of Revelations) even as Patristic writers systematically anathematized what they regarded as heresy.

What follows concerns itself with details of four Gnostic documents: The Tri-Partite Tractate, usually attributed to Heracleon, a follower of Valentinus; The Origin of the World, of anonymous authorship; The Gospel of Truth, by Valentinus; and Zostrianos, also of anonymous authorship – all of which come from the so-called Nag Hammadi documents and all of which belong to the mid-Second Century or slightly later. Zostrianos likely influenced Mani (216-276) when he was writing his own scripture in the Third Century.

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Plotinus and Augustine on Gnosticism

Gnosis 02The trend of politics in the Western nations since Eric Voegelin’s death in 1986 has made his work increasingly relevant to any philosophically rigorous Conservatism or Traditionalism. In particular, Voegelin’s argument that liberalism and its Leftwing metastases constitute an evangelical religious movement, mimicking and distorting Christianity, has gained currency. The pronounced irrational character of the “Global Warming” cult and the obvious messianism of Barack Hussein Obama’s presidency have together sharpened the perception that contemporary Leftwing politics shares with history’s specimen-type doctrinally intransigent sects an absolute intolerance for dissent, even for discussion, along with a conviction of perfect certainty in all things. The sudden experience of Leftwing triumph attests that, indeed, utopian radicalism draws its strength from a deep well of resentment that puts it in conflict, not merely with those whom it regards as heterodox, but also with the unalterable structure of reality. Voegelin argued – in The New Science of Politics (1952), Science Politics & Gnosticism (1965), and throughout Order and History (1957-65) – that the rebellion against reality was a recurrent affliction of civilized life; he pointed to the acute anticosmic sects of Late Antiquity as offering a paradigm of the phenomenon and expanded the scholarly designation of them as “Gnosticism” to cover insurgent ideological doctrines of the modern period, particularly Marxism and National Socialism.

Thus Lawrence Auster, the late creator and supervisor of the (now inactive) View from the Right website, explicitly links his understanding of the Left and his idea of Traditionalism to Voegelin’s argument that modernity is essentially Gnostic. A somewhat less focused acknowledgment that the Left is cultic in its behavior has surfaced now and then at The American Thinker and the name Voegelin has occurred in that venue. Again, nationally syndicated “conservative” columnist and radio-host Dennis Prager, while not citing Voegelin, has nevertheless in a recent essay declared explicitly that Left-Liberalism is a religion and can be understand in no other way. In my own contributions to The Brussels Journal and in various print articles (for example, in a Modern Age essay on V. S. Naipaul) I have frequently invoked Voegelin, often quoting his pithy sentences, as a rich and clairvoyant explicator of our straitened times. Are we certain, however, that Voegelin’s disapprobation of Gnosticism is valid? And might Voegelin’s insistent parallelisms of the ancient and the modern be a result of an idiosyncratic view?

The topical literature is fortunately large. It reaches back to the Late Antique primary texts of Gnosticism – such as the Valentinian Gospel of Truth (ca. 150) – and the accompanying critical and anti-heretical discourses of the philosophers and the Christian Patres; and it embraces a rich scholarly investigation beginning in the early Nineteenth Century, continuing to the present. What do the ancient sources tell us about Gnosticism? And what does the scholarship of Voegelin’s Nineteenth-Century precursors, his contemporaries, and his successors tell us about it? Continue reading

There is not Enough Absurdity in College Life

Happy, the Viking (400)

Usually at the end of the semester, especially in the spring semester, I dress up in costume, assume a character, and prank students in the corridors during the passing periods. In past years I have appeared as a Viking war-leader recruiting students for a raid on Kingston, Ontario, and as a Star Fleet Inspector-General on an evaluation tour of the satellite facility. My theory is that contemporary college life suffers from a dearth of absurdity. That is – it suffers from a dearth of the right kind of absurdity.  I want, naturally, to make up for the lack.

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Plato’s Symposium and the Poetry of Dialectic

INTRODUCTION: Plato’s Symposium is one of the author’s middle-period dialogues composed, according to scholarship, sometime between 385 and 370 BC, some thirty years at least after the event that it commemorates, taking advantage of its temporal remoteness to capture a moment of the past as objectively as possible. Some commentators – F. M. Cornford, for example – have yoked the Symposium with the Republic. Like the Republic, the Symposium takes as one of its themes the proclivity or proclivities of the soul. With the Phaedrus, the Symposium, both by itself and through the medium of Neo-Platonist commentary, exerted enormous influence on Christian philosophy, especially its theory of the soul. Thus in Athanasius’ Life of Saint Anthony (356), readers find the desert monk describing the desire of the awakened soul for union with God in metaphors that would not disturb the text of the Symposium were they to be inserted there. When the religious contemplative focuses on “the source and origin of happiness,” it happens that, “our mind… becomes gentle and calm, illuminated by the angels’ light,” whereupon, “the soul, aflame with the desire for heavenly reward, breaks… from its dwelling in the human body” and “hastens towards heaven.”

Certain hazards attend the study of Plato’s dialogues. Often the declared topic yields in the dialectical exchange to a new topic, attained by subtle processes of association that are not obvious on a first reading. The previous topic never disappears, but finds its sublimation in the new topic, which now contains it even as it supersedes it. The reader must keep the parallel strands in mente while making progress through the text, or the meaning will vanish. Such is the case in the Symposium, where the announced topic is Eros or Love, but where the necessary topic turns out to be beauty, and finally the Absolute Beauty, the celestial magnet that draws Love from the earthly towards the heavenly realm, just as it does in Athanasius’ biography of the saintly Anthony. Indeed, Love and Beauty barely exhaust the range of themes and topics of the dialogue. Structurally, memory is a theme, just as, again in an unspoken way, the hubris and nemesis of Athens in trying to impose its hegemony over Greece are themes.

In considering the Symposium, sensitive readers should keep some historical dates, relevant to the dialogue’s composition, in mind: The Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BC); Agathon’s First Prize in the Tragic Competition (416 BC); the Athenian genocide against the Melians (415 BC); the failure of Athenian campaign against Sicily, led by Alcibiades (413 BC); Alcibiades’ defection to Sparta (413 BC); the end of the Peloponnesian War – the Athenian surrender and the Spartan occupation (404 BC); the trial and execution of Socrates (399 BC); and finally the composition of the Symposium (between 385 – 370 BC). The war, which is in progress, midway through its course, provides the haunting background of the dialogue, all the more so because no one on the occasion refers to it. The coincidence that the discussion of Love occurs in the same twelvemonth as Melian massacre demands to be considered. The silence becomes almost deafening.

Sensitive readers should also keep in mind that the participants in the dialogue belong to the opinion-setting elite of Athenian society, who, in assembly, voted to sustain the war, one of whom, Alcibiades, directly urged the genocidal punishment of the Melians when they refused to be incorporated in the Athenian League. In Plato’s authorship, the individual dialogues rarely yield their full meaning when taken in isolation. The dialogues collectively tell the story, not only of Socrates, but of Athens, in the second half of the Fifth Century BC. Plato traces out a pattern of large-scale spiritual and political causality in which the moral character of opinion-makers and trend-setters determines the fate of their nation. Plato criticized the myth-poets, but in his epic of Athens he might well be illustrating what Zeus tells Athene in Homer’s Odyssey, Book I: “See now, how men lay blame upon us gods for what is after all nothing but their own folly.” The discussion will return to these opening observations in the “Remarks” after the exploration of the dialogue. The discussion assumes no detailed familiarity with Plato’s text, but only an educated person’s general awareness of it. Summary and commentary accompany one another. The quotations come from Benjamin Jowett’s translation, which is widely available.

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The Death of Eros: Higher Education in its Crisis

Flammarion Engraving II[These remarks formed one part of the total contribution to a panel on “English and Literature Programs” at the 1 November 2003 Pope Center Conference on Academic Standards, held in Raleigh, North Carolina. Bonald’s latest post prompted me to revisit the text.]

I would like to begin with two brief preambles. The first one is that I authored what I believe to have been the prototype of what later became a spate of reports on degraded curricula in the state college systems – my Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities, published by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in October of 1996. I mention this to indicate that I well understand the whole range of curricular, administrative, pedagogical, and political criticisms that conservatives and traditionalists characteristically bring against our existing distorted institutions of higher education. The other preamble is that, in my remarks today, I shall be departing in style and content from what I might call the standard technical admonitions – that ninety-nine per cent of humanities professors voted for Bill Clinton, that they have bounced Shakespeare in favor of Toni Morrison, that students now run a four-year gauntlet of tawdry, Marxisant propaganda – in order to take up another, as I insist a prior, issue.

Indeed, sufficiently different from the standard technical admonitions are the remarks I propose to make, that I should give a fair warning in advance. You should be prepared not to believe more than every other word that I utter, although I myself have come to believe it all quite implicitly, and it now informs my entire activity as a college literature teacher. Allow me to urge, then, that if I were you and you were me I should probably take me for a lunatic, and I shall lay no blame should you follow suit in so doing…

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The West’s Cultural Continuity: Sylvain Gouguenheim’s Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les racines grecques de l’Europe Chrétienne

Long before the late Eduard Said invented “Orientalism” to exalt Arab culture and Islamic society at the expense of the West, bien-pensants like Voltaire inclined to express their rebellion against the dwindling vestiges of Christendom by representing Europeans as bigots or clowns and raising up exotic foreigners – Voltaire himself wrote about Turks and Persians of the Muslim fold – to be the fonts of wisdom and models of refined life in their tracts and stories. The sultan and dervish look with amused tolerance on the gaucheries of the European rubes. The rubes swing their elbows and knock over the pottery. It was the Eighteenth-Century philosophes and illuminati who coined the pejorative term “Dark Ages” to refer to the centuries immediately following the collapse of the Roman imperial administration in the West under pressure of the Gothic tribal self-assertion in the Fifth Century. Liberal discourse often casually extends the same term to apply it to all of medieval European civilization up to the Renaissance. Specialist historians have, however, long since demonstrated that no such absolute discontinuity as the term “Dark Ages” insinuates ever existed, which means that the Enlightenment version of history is at least partly wrong. Yet the usual story retains its currency, as an item in a kind of liberal folklore.

Part of that story is the motif of the Islamic middleman role in the transmission of classical knowledge to Christendom. According to this motif, the West in the Eleventh Century possessed no first-hand knowledge of the Greek and precious little of the Roman classics. Fortunately (so the story goes) the Muslims had translated Plato and Aristotle into Arabic, knew all about them, and bestowed the gift of their lore on the benighted monks of Italy and France. The benefactors under this notion behave suavely and generously, while the beneficiaries are – to paraphrase a line from a David Lean film – ignorant, barbarous, and cruel.

In the spasm of western Islamophilia that followed the terrorist attacks of 2001, the myth of medieval Muslim learnedness and medieval European illiteracy gained strong new power for the Left whose acolytes have disseminated it with vigor from their ensconcement in the colleges and universities. Facts might have dispelled the myth had anyone cared to notice them. For one thing, Europeans never lost contact with the Byzantine Greeks, who blithely went on being scholarly classicists until Mehmet II bloodily vanquished Constantinople in 1453, slaughtering the literate elites and forcing the peasantry to submit to Allah. The Eighth-Century English church-chronicler Bede reports in his Ecclesiastical History that one of the first bishops of Canterbury, Theodore, was an educated Greek. The Twelfth-Century Icelandic mythographer Snorri Sturlusson suggests in his Edda that the Norse gods were actually Trojan heroes escaping, like Aeneas, from Agamemnon’s destruction of their city – an interpretation that implies his knowledge of the theory called Euhemerism. Eighth-Century England and twelfth-Century Iceland were remote places, but, in Bede and Snorri, one can attest links to the classical tradition.

Facts like these could easily be multiplied – and a man who multiplies them with muscularity and clear-sightedness is the French historian Sylvain Gouguenheim, who documents them in his remarkable book Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les raciness grecques de l’Europe Chrétienne (Seuil, 2008). [Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel: the Greek Roots of Christian Europe.] The book is not as yet translated, but it deserves to be known to Anglophone audiences because it brings important truths to many a contemporary conversation.

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