[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.
In the latest of his ongoing Chronicles of Love and Resentment at the Anthropoetics website, Eric L. Gans discusses the evolution of resentment since the Middle Ages and shows the relation of a debased type of resentment to the reigning victimocracy. Gans argues that only a revival of the concept of sin can deliver us from the galloping totalitarianism of the victim-mentality. I strongly recommend the essay to Orthosphereans. The link is here: http://www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/views/vw457.htm
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.
Over at the website of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, the redoubtable Paul Gottfried provides commentary on the squishy totalitarianism of the contemporary academy and on the bland and careerist mentality that sustains it. Gottfried writes:
As a student, I noticed that most of my teachers were immersed in books and ideas. They were genuinely in love with their disciplines and would spend their evenings and vacations pursuing their studies full-time. In college I majored with one professor who was a multilingual scholar in intellectual history. One of his books, which my mentor was too modest to discuss, was a study of the effects of Impressionist art on the prose style of Marcel Proust.
Some professors [today] strike me as men or women simply holding down ‘jobs’ without a deep commitment to learning as practice (in the Aristotelian sense). Others seemed to be not quite fully grown-up adults burdened with personal and emotional issues—people who didn’t fit into a bourgeois moral world and who were looking for an environment that they could mold to their proclivities.
Paul’s article is well worth reading.
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.
I’m convinced that non-conservatives have the following view of the basic message of conservatism. [Here, “conservative” denotes the largest tribe to which we traditionalists can with any validity be said to belong]:
The Basic Conservative Message, as seen by Non-Conservatives:
[Intoned in a solemn, menacing voice.]
“We are Conservatives!
You must obey our Rules!
If you do not obey, you are Sinners!
We are Conservatives!”
In other words, they think we’ll hate them unless they’re just like us. Continue reading
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:
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.
a small amount of it is pleasant and even has benefits. But too much is deadly.
Take this vat of soup on the stove. Since a teaspoon of salt makes the flavor better, let’s add a cup and make it excellent. No, let’s add 10 pounds and make it heavenly.
What? Limit the salt? You must be a racist!
[Inspired by a post by Bruce Charlton.]
My article on Conformism and Crowd-Violence (subtitled “When the Majority is really a Mob”), appearing at Angel Millar’s People of Shambhala website, should appeal to readers of The Orthosphere. The article begins with a discussion of René Girard, specifically of his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (2001), from which it moves into a consideration of texts by Seneca (his Seventh Letter) and Saint Augustine (the anecdote of his friend Alypius at the gladiatorial games). Along the way I discuss the parallels between ancient mob-phenomena and what, in modern politics, is called “community organization.” I offer a sample below –
Seneca’s vocabulary anticipates many an observation that Girard makes about the category of the sacred, first that, being collective, the sacred belongs to the mob (that is to the lynch mob) and next that it is contagious. “From the outset of this study,” Girard remarks in Violence and the Sacred, “I have regarded violence as something eminently communicable.” Taking antique discourse seriously where the modern mentality sees it merely as mythic, Girard notes that “at times it is impossible to stay immune from violence.” Again: “The sacred consists of all those forces whose dominance over man increases or seems to increase in proportion to man’s efforts to master them.” From Seneca’s perspective the size of the crowd correlates with its infectiousness, a large crowd being indicative of an especially virulent infection. Rubbing elbows with the vulgate, as Seneca writes, leaves one “bedaubed” by its toxicity. But does Seneca, foreshadowing Girard, associate crowds and violence? The answer is yes and in investigating [the matter] we shall see how Seneca’s discourse differs from Philostratus’ discourse when they both write about theaters and theatrics.