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!”

The Restoration of Order through Deletion

I learned a lesson from the amazing transformation of a nearby country place when the junk accumulated over decades under the stewardship of a previous owner was removed – a rickety fence, a broken down climbing structure, a mish mash of succulents, weeds, dead branches, garden decorations, and the like. It’s not that the place was especially junky, particularly compared with the rural norm throughout the Western states, where the devotion of at least a corner of every lot to rusted farm equipment, jumbled building supplies, and derelict vehicles seems to be de rigeur. To the casual eye, the place only looked lived in, a work in progress toward some vague goal, that like all our lives was encumbered somewhat by this and that – the detritus of failed or ill-defined projects, stuff that had not yet been gotten round to, or relics of obsolescent ideas. Nevertheless, when all the clutter was gone, the place was far more beautiful, restful, and even seemed more spacious. It looked half again as big.

The lesson: deletion is the first principle in the actualization of value, and therefore of order. We see this in natural selection, in architecture, interior design, landscape, music, writing, public policy, business, art, everything. Confusion is the enemy of value. To be properly and fully themselves, things must stop trying to be other things, must be clearly and only themselves. Extraneities are usually best got rid of.

A corollary principle became evident from the effects of the first: deletion makes possible the discovery and restoration of a thing as it is originally meant to be. When all the junk was removed from the place, a meadow became more apparent here, a grove over there, and aspects to the horizon or to forest opened up on every side. Windows that had looked out on nothing in particular now opened vistas to hidden depths in the landscape. One could see that it would make sense to plant a maple just there, or perhaps add a bench over yonder, or rebuild that stretch of crippled fence.

Deletion reveals order; restoration may then establish it more stably.

Continue reading

Re-Post: Michael Powell’s I Know Where I’m Going (1945)

When, several semesters ago, my department chair asked me to teach the local version of the nowadays-pervasive “popular culture” course, I consented with some mild misgivings and, as I like to do, took a mostly historical approach to course-content. I have no investment in contemporary popular culture, the wretchedness of it striking me as consummate. My students, for their part, being morbidly, continuously immersed in contemporary popular culture, require no one to acquaint them with it. At least they require no one to tutor them in it directly, since it regrettably is their ubiquitous, hortatory guide, and their authoritative cue-giver, for all facets of life. But one might apprise them about the insipidity of existing mass-entertainment indirectly by putting it in contrast with the popular entertainments of the past, including the classic films that most of them have never seen and, more importantly, would never seek out on their own. One film that I showed to students was the Errol Flynn vehicle The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), directed by Michael Curtiz. Another one, not so well known as Robin Hood, was the Roger Livesey/Wendy Hiller vehicle I Know Where I’m Going (1945), directed by Michael Powell (1905 – 1990).

Continue reading

Two Articles of Possible Interest

Writer Michael Presley has written about Chinese cinema, under the title “Visions of China: The Nationalist Spirit in Chinese Political Cinema,” at The People of Shambhala. Presley is an impressive and thorough connoisseur of the Chinese motion-picture tradition. I recommend Presley’s article to readers of The Orthosphere. It is here: http://peopleofshambhala.com/visions-of-china-the-nationalist-spirit-in-chinese-political-cinema/

At The Brussels Journal, I review Gregory Copley’s new book Un-Civilization. Copley argues that the world is in the middle stage of a systemic breakdown that is driven by the hypertrophy of cities and will end in their collapse; the whole process will see a drastic shrinkage of the global population.  It is here: http://www.brusselsjournal.com/

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

H. G. Wells and Education: How Students Respond to Big Ideas

Wells 02

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.

Continue reading

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.

New Article at Pope Center Website

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.