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!”

Wherever an Altar is Found, There Every Last Feature of Civilization Exists

The very day that Dr. Bill posted Sport is not about hunting or fighting, David Sansone’s Greek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport landed on my stoop. Like George Hersey’s Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture, it is one of those little books that knits together a large and diverse range of apparently unrelated items and links them coherently to ancient sacrifice. I highly recommend both books, if only for the fascinating factoids to be found by the dozen on their every page.

Hersey shows that the tropes of classical architecture all derive from the sacrificial rite; Sansone argues persuasively that sport began as a relic of the sacrificial cult that in turn was a fossil of the hunt. Both bolster their cases with overwhelming evidence.

So, Maistre seems with every passing month to be more correct than even he perhaps ever knew, in saying that, “Wherever an altar is found, there civilization exists.” Everything seems to go back to the sacrificial rite: to the hunt, to war, to violence and its expiation.

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How to Become an American Traditionalist, Part Eight: Finding the Teachers of Wisdom

[Part OnePart Two.   Part ThreePart Four.  Part FivePart SixPart Seven.]

Recall from the previous parts that traditionalism reconnects man with the wisdom of his ancestors, that the most important wisdom is to acknowledge God, and that intuition is the foundation of wisdom. Recall also that man also needs revelation and personal repentance in order to be wise, and that once he has begun to repent of liberalism he is ready to find teachers of wisdom.

Once you have repented of your participation in the modern system, and once you understand the general framework for attaining knowledge of the most basic truths, where exactly can you go to begin learning the true order of the world and the traditions of your people? This learning generally cannot be had in the formal educations offered by schools, colleges and universities. With the existence of occasional exceptions acknowledged, American schools generally do not teach the wisdom of the ages or American tradition, or at best, they only teach them as just one set of options among many equally-valid (and therefore equally-invalid) options. Under the rule of modernism, believing the truth about the order of being is generally thoughtcrime.

Traditionalism must therefore be learned through unofficial channels. Continue reading

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/

Book Review: “Persons: the difference between ‘someone’ and ‘something'”

Persons:  the difference between ‘someone’ and ‘something’
by Robert Spaemann

“Person” is a funny category.  In its contemporary sense, the world managed to do without it before 300AD.  The category “human” fit our fellow intelligent creatures, and the word “person” originally meant “role”.  It was elevated to a philosophical concept by theologians in order to explain what it was that is multiple in the Trinity and one in Christ.  Unlike “human”, which refers to a nature, “person” is defined in contrast to nature, that which is one in God and two in Christ.  The settled definition of a person, given by Boethius, is “the individual substance/subsistence of a rational nature”.  The emphasis, then, is on being a particular existent, as being the existing subject that holds a nature (or, in the case of Jesus, holds two).  As Robert Spaemann, the author of this intriguing book, explains, “person” refers not to a particular nature but to the particular way intelligent beings relate to their nature.   This personal mode of existence is alluded to in saying that a person “has a nature”, implying non-identity with that nature and a degree of freedom in engaging with it.

The key quality of personal existence is transcendence.  Like all animals, we have drives, and we naturally regard other beings according to how they relate to those drives’ satisfaction.  But we are not stuck regarding the world this way.  Even to realize that this is a limited perspective is to step beyond it.  Even to, like Descartes, wonder if all one’s perceptions might be false is to maintain the personal attitude of transcendence, because one retains the knowledge that there is an outer world, an outside perspective, in addition to one’s inner world.  That we can try to respond to things according to their objective truth or goodness (the “view from nowhere” rather than my self-interested view) is the mark of our dignity.  Thus, a dying man would prefer to hear a distressing truth to comforting lies even when he is beyond the point where the truth can practically affect him.  As free beings we can choose illusion, retreat into immanence, relinquish our specifically personal dignity, but even this is a distinctively personal act.

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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.

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.