Re-Post: Edgar Rice Burroughs and Masculine Narrative

[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.

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Re-Post: The Vinland Voyages in Context

[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.

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The Allure of Lemuria

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)

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Literary Criticism without Literature

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.

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New Article: From Romanticism to Traditionalism

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.

The pastoral exception, the Magisterium of the moment, and the end of Catholic marriage

Recently, I mentioned fighting other Catholics over gay “marriage” and similar issues. What is especially maddening about them is their tendency to affirm the doctrinal question in a technically minimal way, but then to articulate a pastoral exception so broad that it devours the doctrinal rule. Yes, of course gay “marriage” is a grave moral evil and a mockery of divinely-ordained matrimony; but we mustn’t say so out loud! We might offend someone, and it’s hardly very Christian to do that, now is it? And meanwhile you shouldn’t order your life or act in any way as if you believe gay “marriage” is evil, because Christ calls us to love one another in a way higher than mere doctrinal correctness, and –

Well, you can see the problem. Are there any limits to the “pastoral exception”? None that are typically spoken of, certainly none that are evident to me. The result of this line of thinking is a world where gay “marriage” in the abstract is accepted to be a moral evil, even if no particular gay “marriage” can be said to be.

We are seeing this already in anticipation of the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family, which certain elements in the Church (evidently with at least some sympathy on the part of the Holy Father) desire to make into an occasion to (very quietly) affirm the Church’s ancient teachings on the indissolubility of marriage while (very publicly and aggressively) relaxing the disciplines that support the lived reality of those teachings; in other words, to canonize the current arrangement of practical lawlessness in the administration of the Sacraments and to formalize the Church’s heretofore merely material complicity in adultery. It’s hard to say what direction the Synod will go in, of course, but the trend here is not encouraging. It is very possible that, by this time next year, the Church will have automated the American annulment factory and exported it to the entire world, and that divorce-for-any-reason-or-none-at-all will become, if not doctrinally acceptable, tolerated with a knowing wink and nudge.

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There’s No Such Thing as Women

Retortion is a beautiful thing.

A correspondent of our fellow orthospherean blogger and valued commenter Joseph of Arimathea has noticed that if latter-day feminism is correct in its assertion that sex is nothing but a social construct, like language – this being why feminists like to call it by the linguistic term, “gender,” rather than the proper biological term, “sex” – then *the female sex does not actually exist.* All appearances to the contrary, there is no such thing, really, as a female.

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Sacraments: A Simple Explanation for Children

Well, for young people, anyway. In what follows, I visualized my daughter at about age 16.

Daughter:       Daddy? Can I ask you a question?

Father:            Sure, sweetie pea. What is it?

Daughter:       Well, you know the Baptism at Church this morning?

Father:            Yeah. That was a cute baby. Too bad about his mother’s dress. Good thing that baby spit up is such good clean stuff; it almost always comes out pretty well.

Daughter:       Yeah. I thought she handled it fairly well. I like Baptisms. Something always goes wrong, but they always turn out well in the end. They make everyone in the congregation so happy. And it’s not just because people like babies, although that’s part of it. I mean, it’s that plus the fact that they are always a bit spooky, even when the baby cries or the godparents don’t get the words right. Especially the bit about the baby joining in Christ’s eternal priesthood.

Father:            I love that part! It’s always so amazing to me; as if I can see a whole everlasting adventure, a mighty kingship in Heaven, exploding out into the future from such a tiny little body, with no end or limit. And it always reminds me of my own eternal priesthood, too.

Daughter:       Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you about.

Father:            What do you mean?

Daughter:       Well, how does the Baptism work? I mean, how do the water and the words make me a priestess? How do they change me, or make me immortal? I mean, I don’t even remember my Baptism.

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Traditionalism, le Wagnerisme, and Vincent d’Indy

An essay of mine has gone up at Angel Millar’s People of Shambhala website, on the topics of “Traditionalism, le Wagnerisme, and Vincent d’Indy.”  D’Indy (1851 – 1931) was a French and decidedly Catholic composer who responded positively to the innovations of Richard Wagner; he founded the Schola Cantorum, a conservatory in Paris dedicated to the proposition that art is in service to civilization and has a moral as well as an aesthetic role.  D’Indy was a lifelong monarchist and satisfyingly reactionary in most of his views.

I offer a sample –

When in 1894 d’Indy with Charles Bordes and Alexandre Guilmant established the Schola Cantorum, a school for composers and performers that would concentrate on instrumental and orchestral music rather than opera, he began his project of realizing his ideals in a functioning institution that would compete with the other conservatories already in existence.  D’Indy believed in the absoluteness of counterpoint as the basis of compositional excellence; he believed that musician-composers should know not only music but also the history of music – and alongside all that be well grounded in the other arts and the humanities.  D’Indy believed that a truly French music, reflecting France’s Catholic civilization, would find its natural soil in the Gregorian repertory and in regional folk music.  He believed that music should participate in all the central institutions of a society, beginning with the Church, and that in so doing it would contribute to the moral health of the nation.

D’Indy’s emphasis on the regionality of folk-music sources indicates his appreciation that the French nation was forged by the union of distinct smaller polities and local dialects.  Although d’Indy’s own music would become progressively less Teutonic, his ideas about music as a moral and cultural force remain identifiably Wagnerian.