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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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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Sex in Church

In a wide-ranging and penetrating essay contra the ordination of women, Peter Leithart argues that because sex is inerasably graven in the logos of man, ipso facto is it graven in the nature of whatever man does, from liturgy to marriage; that worship, being the quintessentially human activity, in which we can reach the sublimity of all our special capacities (for thought, word, deed; for art, music, argument, prayer; and so forth), is the font and archetype of all subsidiary activities, to which it lends them form; so that when we upend or confuse the sexes in church, we must perforce do likewise in marriage, and everywhere else.

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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

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.

The Puritan question

A guest post by commenter JMSmith:

In an interesting post, Foseti returns to the Puritan Question, and affirms that “one key tenet” of Neoreaction is that Progressivism is a “nontheistic Christian sect.”  No doubt there is much to be gained by understanding Progressivism as a messianic movement, and much to be regretted in the fact that Progressive chiliasts were so long cosseted in the cradle of Christian culture, but Progressivism is not a nontheistic Christian sect.  It is that old skin-changer Gnosticism, now divested of Christian symbols, acting under a new guise suited to the sensibilities of nontheistic men and women.

I suggest that the real Puritan Question is, what exactly is Puritanism?  To frame the question in Aristotelian terms, we should ask, which attributes are essential to Puritanism, and which are accidental?  And then, more specifically, we should ask, whether Christianity (however loosely defined) is one of these essential attributes, or whether it was only accidentally, contingently, and temporarily associated with this essentially alien spiritual tendency?

My answer is, obviously, that the association was accidental.

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Freedom, value, and the modern left

Over at What’s Wrong with the World, Tony M. reports that a former APA head claims to have cured hundreds of homosexuals of their disordered desires. The Southern Poverty Law Center is up in arms, of course, which prompted this remark from commenter “Thomas Aquinas”:

Odd though that if a man goes to a plastic surgeon and permits the physician to carve him up and inject him with hormones so that he may look like a girl, even though he is in fact not a girl, we have to all pretend that he is a girl, or face severe punishment. On the other hand, if that same man were a homosexual, sought treatment to change his condition, and then claims to have succeeded after many years of arduous discipline, this is supposed to be an assault upon reason itself. In fact, we have to publicly deny what he and he alone can know, that he has in fact changed. In the case of the transgender, we have to all affirm what all of us can plainly know is false: you can no more make a girl out of boy than you can make a dolphin out a thalidomide baby.

So what’s the deal? Why do leftists celebrate the free choice of certain classes of people to sodomize one another or mutilate their own genitals, but not the free choice of those same people to remain celibate or seek treatment?

All of us reactionaries know that freedom and value are in some tension, in the sense that our values tend to restrict our freedom of action. For instance, a man who values marriage will find that this valuation restricts his freedom of sexual action by obliging him to remain faithful and chaste. In a properly-ordered society, freedom would, in fact, not be terribly important, concerning mainly prudential judgments (“Should I become a husband and father or a celibate priest?”) and arbitrary preferences (“Should I stop for lunch at McDonald’s or Burger King?”).

The leftist inverts this (and most other things) by subordinating values to freedom. To the extent that values restrict freedom, then, they must be deformed or destroyed, the better to liberate us from their shackles. Hence no-fault divorce laws, readily available and publicly financed abortions and contraception, gay “marriage,” open marriages, and every other innovation which destroys the value of marriage. They probably won’t abolish marriage outright, of course, and people can stay “married” if they like. But that’s the only reason they’re allowed to marry and to stay married: because they like it, not because they value it, and certainly not because it is objectively valuable.

Because value and freedom are in conflict, to the leftist mind, it is not enough to freely choose to do a thing. The choice to do a thing cannot be value-motivated, cannot be anything more than an arbitrary exercise of the utterly sovereign will, or else it is not truly free. The distressed homosexual who seeks treatment or opts for lifelong celibacy may be making a choice, but his choice (to the leftist’s horror) involves the endorsement of a value system and thus the denial of freedom-as-the-highest-good. They are freely choosing not-freedom — and this choice, in the leftist worldview, is one they are not free to make.

Is Ideology Anti-Christian? (The Argument in Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean)

Introduction. Paul Johnson, usually acute, prejudices the case against Henrik Ibsen (1828 – 1906) in the chapter that he devotes to the instigator of modern drama in his Intellectuals (1993), where the author of Emperor and Galilean (1873) keeps company with the likes of Karl Marx, Berthold Brecht, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, and Lillian Hellman. Johnson can classify Ibsen under the pejorative label of an “intellectual” only by ignoring Ibsen’s text and concentrating on the biographical details, which indeed make their subject look like a contemptible piece of work. This criticism of Johnson by no means invalidates Johnson’s definition of an “intellectual.” On the contrary, Johnson has defined the “intellectual” brilliantly and his treatment of the phenomenon must bear instructively on any analysis of Ibsen’s play about Julian the Apostate. According to Johnson, the “intellectual,” who appears first in the person of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is a politically committed character for whom “a utopian, socialist future [is] plainly a substitute for a religious idealism in which he [cannot] believe.” An intellectual is often the master of a narrow slice of specialized knowledge who, however, feels “no incongruity in moving from [his] own discipline… to public affairs.” Yet when examined closely, even the specialized knowledge of the intellectual, his peculiar theory, tends to be unconvincing and perverse – a type of pleading by the person to himself to protect his theory from inconvenient facts and to preserve his vision of himself as someone qualified to “counsel humanity.” Writing specifically of Rousseau, Johnson remarks that intellectuals see themselves, not as “servants or interpreters of the gods but [as] substitutes” – that is, of both the gods or God and the sacerdotal clerisy. Johnson writes of that “most marked [of the] characteristics of the new secular intellectuals,” namely “the relish with which they subjected religion and its protagonists to critical scrutiny.”

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Cartesian meditations on the social sciences

I’ve already shared my complaints about the humanities and the natural sciences; now I’d like to turn to the social sciences.  As with these other disciplines, my “problem” with the social sciences has more to do with a general attitude I sense pervading the whole enterprise than with any particular result.  That attitude can be summed up in the following statement:  the correct way to understand a human being or a social system is to look at it from the point of view of a hostile outsider.  The hostile outsider has a privileged perspective.  The ways human beings and social organisms understand themselves are illusions; they are unscientific; they are masks behind which hide the reality of structures of oppression, unconscious desires, blind economic or sexual striving.  Thus, the skill college students are to learn above all else is critical thinking, which basically means learning to assume the perspective of the hostile outsider.  They are to critically question the assumptions of their upbringing (unless, of course, they are from urban Leftist homes).  And if the student decides his inherited religion and ethnic loyalties are defensible?  Well, then, he obviously hasn’t thought critically enough!  The “questioning” of gender roles and inherited tradition has a predetermined outcome.

Needless to say, social scientists–psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists–are, by and large, my political enemies.  However, my ultimate objection is philosophical.  I don’t disagree that one can study human beings in terms of their psychic desires, or that one can study societies in terms of economic forces and structures of coercion.  Nor do I deny that some insights can be drawn from this.  What I do deny is that this gives us the ultimate truth about men or communities.  It is an exercise in abstraction, of systematically ignoring aspects of the subject in order to more clearly focus on some particular structure of interest.  The most important thing about a social practice is how it is experienced and understood by its participants.  Even when the things critics claim to find “beneath the surface” are really there, it’s the “surface”–the lived conscious reality–that is most fundamental and most real.

This is even more true when it comes to the study of the individual human being.  I myself have had two types of encounters with psychology.  (My experiences with the psychiatric profession I’ll save for another post.)  First, as a teacher I’ve been exposed to some of the results of research on how people learn.  Overall, this work is empirically grounded and consistent with common sense and my own experience.  The studies of memory, cognition, visual perception–basically of any type of mental activity that we humans are conscious of performing–also seem relatively healthy by soft science standards (although I am here speaking without much knowledge).  On the other hand, as a reactionary I am also exposed to psychological claims purporting to explain my authoritarian, homophobic pathologies.  That I might actually have reasons for my beliefs is dismissed out of hand.  This type of psychology demands that human behavior have explanations rather than reasons.  The explanations involve my unconscious fear of new experiences, my unconscious fear of my father, my unconscious homosexual urges, or some other such unconscious prompting.  None of these claims has any credible evidence behind them, and they all clash with the evidence of direct introspection–hence the recurring need for “unconscious” qualifiers.

“The unconscious mind” is one of those things that people are afraid to question for fear of being thought “unscientific”; I’m sure I’ll shock some readers with even the basic observation that “unconscious mind” is a contradiction in terms.  

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The Heterosphere

Blogger Joseph of Arimathea, a frequent commenter here, has noticed a site that catalogs various phenomena in the penumbra of the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church that are, to put it in the kindest possible way, heterodox. Do you think the burlap banners and acoustic guitars are bad over at St. Thomas Aquinas? Do you wince at the priestess down at St. Albans? Do you grind your teeth at the secular liberal pieties suffusing the sermon at St. Georges? Are you reeling in amazement at what the congregation wears to services at Gethsemane Methodist? Appalled at the clumsiness of the trite ad libitum prayers you hear at First Baptist? I hate to say it, folks, but a quick tour through the Museum of Idolatry demonstrates that these insults to orthodoxy, taste and good sense are nothing – nothing at all.

Want to know what happens when you throw out all denominational discipline, all liturgical standards, and all theological orthodoxy? Wait, are you sure you really want to know? I warn you: a visit to the Museum of Idolatry is like a tour of a railway accident.