[This is a much-revised version of an article that originally appeared some years ago at The Brussels Journal.]
Prologue: Contemporary popular culture is as jejune as contemporary politics, with which it is more or less indistinguishable: Strangled by political correctness and by contempt for form and etiquette, “pop” culture eats away like acid at what remains of courtesy and memory. But the past of popular culture – in literature, illustration, and the movies – has much nourishment to offer. One of the most widely read authors of the Twentieth Century, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875 – 1950), had a penetrating insight concerning the health of the body politic and the positive relation of a vital culture to its founding traditions. The author of Tarzan(1912) and its many sequels, the inventor of the extraterrestrial sword-and-sandals romance, ex-cavalryman, admirer of the Apache and the Sioux, anti-Communist, anti-Nazi, self-publishing millionaire entrepreneur, religious skeptic, “Big-Stick” patriot, Southern California real-estate baron, sixty-year-old Pacific-Theater war correspondent, Burroughs has, with a few ups and downs, maintained an audience from his authorial debut in 1912 to the present day, nearly sixty-five years after his passing. Burroughs has a place in the culture wars, standing as he does for the opposite of almost everything advocated by the elites of the new liberal-totalitarian order. I offer, in what follows, a modest assessment of Burroughs’ work.
[Note: This article originally appeared at The Brussels Journal under the title "The Vinland Voyages, the Market, and Morality."]
Scholarship places the composition of the two Vinland Sagas in the Twelfth Century, in the case of The Greenlanders’ Saga, and in the Fourteenth Century in the case of Eirik’s Saga. But like most of the saga-literature the two narratives reflect a non-mythic oral tradition, linked with the settlement and early chronology of Iceland and Greenland, the general (if not the minutely detailed) trustworthiness of which much research both literary and archeological over the last century has attested. Quite apart from scholarly and technical arguments, even the ordinary reader must take the wealth of circumstantial detail and the laconic matter-of-factness of the storytelling as signs of an essential veracity. The two Vinland Sagas reflect the Nordic people at a particular epoch: The transformational moment, namely, at the end of the Tenth Century, when the old warrior-ethos began yielding to the new Gospel ethos and when success in the market began replacing notches on a sword haft as the paramount sign of masculine status. Both The Greenlanders’ Saga and Eirik’s Saga represent this change in the generational differences that distinguish Eirik the Red on the one hand from his male children, especially his son Leif, on the other.
I recently set my freshman composition students the task of writing an essay based on each writer’s choice of a topic from a list of two hundred topics. I urged especially that writer-respondents to the assignment should strive to find interest in whatever topics they might select and that they should seek to discover the meanings in their topics. To prove that it could be done, I wrote the following essay on one topic from my own list – “Lemuria.” I append my list at the end of the essay. (TFB)
My title has two meanings. The first is that, since the 1980s at least, what calls itself literary criticism has consisted largely of abstract theory, most often concerned primarily with itself. An enterprise both gnostic and narcissistic, such criticism reduces ultimately to ideological formulas which, once pried free from the encrustation of verbiage, reveal themselves as the hoariest of political clichés, never out of daily use since 1848, which function mainly as group-identity noises. All contemporary critics are smarter than Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Dostoyevsky, but no one is smarter than le grand Jacques, Noam Chomsky, or Naomi Wolf. Although exiled to the periphery, actual criticism has continued to exist, but it is the tendentious type of discourse that has come to dominate the English and other literature departments over the last thirty years. The second meaning, the one that interests me in what follows, relates closely to the first.
My essay From Romanticism to Traditionalism appears at Angel Millar’s People of Shambhala website. The argument is that numerous premises of contemporary Traditionalism find their prototypes in early-Nineteenth Century Romantic Movement. The essay cites the work of the English lake Poets, especially William Wordsworth and Samuel T. Coleridge, as well as the work of Chateaubriand and Goethe, and of the American “Hudson River School” of painting. I try to demonstrate the parallelism between Wordsworth’s outlook, or Goethe’s, and the outlook of the founders of Twentieth Century Traditionalism, such as René Guénon and Nicolas Berdyaev. I offer a sample…
The Romantic subject resembles – or, rather, it anticipates – the Traditionalist subject, as Guénon, Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), and others have defined it. Guénon himself in The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times (1945) characterizes modern man as having “lost the use of the faculties which in normal times allowed him to pass beyond the bounds of the sensible world.” This loss leaves modern man alienated from “the cosmic manifestation of which he a part”; in Guénon’s analysis modern man assumes “the passive role of a mere spectator” and consumer, which is exactly how Wordsworth saw it. Of course, Guénon does not write of loss as an accident, but as the logical consequence of choices and schemes traceable to the Enlightenment. As Wordsworth put it, “We have given our hearts away – a sordid boon.”
According to Berdyaev, writing in The Destiny of Man (1931), “Man is not a fragmentary part of the world but contains the whole riddle of the universe and the solution of it.” Berdyaev asserts that, contrary to modernity, “man is neither the epistemological subject [of Kant], nor the ‘soul’ of psychology, nor a spirit, nor an ideal value of ethics, logics, or aesthetics”; but, abolishing and overstepping all those reductions, “all spheres of being intersect in man.” Berdyaev argues that, “Man is a being created by God, fallen away from God and receiving grace from God.” The prevailing modern view, that of naturalism, “regards man as a product of evolution in the animal world,” but “man’s dynamism springs from freedom and not from necessity”; it follows therefore that “evolution” cannot explain the mystery and centrality of man’s freedom. When Berdyaev brings “grace” into his discussion, he echoes the original Romantics, whose version of grace was the epiphanic vision, the event answering to a crisis that brings about the conversion of the fallen subject and sets him on the road to true personhood.
Angel Millar has done an exceptional job in presenting the essay. I take the opportunity here to thank him publicly.
Posterity remembers Herbert George Wells (1866 – 1946) primarily as a novelist. He came into public acclaim around the turn of the century on the basis of his “scientific romances” such as The War of the Worlds (1897), The First Men in the Moon (1901), and The War in the Air (1906), but he soon turned his attention to the social novel, demonstrating a talent similar to that of Charles Dickens in Kipps (1905), Tono-Bungay (1906), and The Undying Fire (1919). Wells was one of the original public intellectuals of the mediated age, his voice familiar to listeners of the BBC, his visage familiar from newsreels. He believed in the social efficacy of science and technology, called himself a socialist, adding that his vision of socialism was so far ahead of Marxism and Leninism that compared to him their adherents were living in the Stone Age. In the monumental Experiment in Autobiography (1934), perhaps surprisingly, Wells tends to characterize almost all his activities under the heading of education – and he makes it clear that he thought of himself, no matter to what he put his hand, as above all an educator. He wrote any number of explicitly pedagogical books. The Outline of History (1919), A Short History of the World (1923), and The Work, Health, and Happiness of Mankind (1932) come to mind, the first two still useful today. Wells’s first idea of a career, in his early twenties, was a school mastership. He persevered through normal training and migrated through a number of appointments until the poverty of it irked him and he turned to writing.
The Pope Center for Higher Education has published my article on harnessing modern technology for traditional purposes in the classroom – “The Smart Classroom Meets Wagner.” I call attention to it in connection with my recent forays into pedagogy, epistemology, and culture here at The Orthosphere. My thesis is that even badly prepared students can respond intelligently to what we might call high-cultural allure when given the opportunity in a carefully designed context. In particular I report on their struggle, appreciable and even admirable, to come to terms with Tristan und Isolde.
I offer a sample:
The educational status quo has left my students, who after all are merely a sampling of the contemporary American undergraduate, badly deprived. Their education, even in college, once they get there, leaves them bereft of high-cultural experience.
That is a pity because taste tends to become fixed in late adolescence. They will never respond to esthetic sublimity unless they have an opportunity to experience it. Providentially, the smart classroom enables a few to have that opportunity.
I offer a brief continuation of my main essay on post-literacy. My old graduate school buddy “Ivar the Midwesterner,” who teaches humanities on faculty at a “nondescript state college east of the Left Coast and west of the Mississippi,” inveterately asks his freshman composition students on the first day of class to respond in writing to the following prompt, one of the aphorisms from the extant fragments of the Archaic-Age Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus (the “Logos Philosopher”):
All men should speak clearly and logically, and thus share a rational discourse and have a body of thought in common, just as the people of a city should be under the same laws.
Here are five typical responses, as Ivar assures me, to the prompt:
A colleague who teaches in the humanities at the state college where I work also teaches at a nearby private college. In the colleague’s description, the private college is perpetually in the grip of a panic over the prospect of a drop in enrollment. The college’s administration has therefore instituted an unwritten but implacable policy the upshot of which is that the student is always right, no matter how absurd his complaint, and the consequence of which is that instructors must never tax students beyond an infantile minimum of scholarly exertion. Among the consequences of the consequence are that students refuse to undertake out-of-class reading assignments, fail quizzes related to those assignments, and then lodge complaints with chairs and deans against the instructor.
My old graduate-school office-mate “Ivar the Midwesterner,” who teaches at “a nondescript, mid-tier state college west of the Mississippi and east of the Left Coast,” has, for years, collected the wildest, most desperate student-improvisations from the final examination in his survey of the classics in translation. Some entries in the following catalogue come from as long ago as ten years while others are of recent vintage. Ivar writes that he started to insert sic where it seemed necessary, but soon grew sic of it.