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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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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.

Ernest Bloch and the Prophetic Impulse: Music as Spiritual Protest

Ernest Bloch (1880 – 1959), Swiss-born but American by naturalization, plays tag with the usual categories.  An inheritor and continuator of the European tradition in concert music, he nevertheless made common cause with his adoptive countryman-composers by attempting after 1916 to write music in an idiom that would reflect conditions in the New World to which he had sworn allegiance.  Bloch was also self-consciously a Jewish composer who understood that the vast majority of his potential audience belonged to the Christian-Protestant professions of a largely Anglo-Saxon nation – a challenging rhetorical situation.  Bloch’s Judaism, moreover, was the Judaism, not of the rabbinate, but of the Prophets.  When he “spoke” deliberately in his distinctive American dialect, he did so in the mode of a musical nabi, and like the nabi, he gave voice, as best he could, to the judgment of divinity on the existing offense of humanity’s disorderliness.  For it must be said that Bloch’s music, from his earliest mature compositions, functioned by intention as a protest against the modern world.  Is Bloch one of those “reactionary” composers, whose reputations traditionalists would like to revive?  In many ways, the answer is “yes,” even though during Bloch’s American years his musical style became increasingly less Romantic and noticeably more modern in its motivic terseness and harmonic astringency.  Yet the composer of the late Trombone Symphony (1954) is unmistakably the same as the composer of Schelomo (1916), the “Jewish Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra” that remains Bloch’s best-known and most-played score.

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Eduard Tubin: Symphonist

Despite the advocacy of conductor and countryman Neeme Järvi and the determination of record-producer Robert von Bahr (founder of the BIS label) in the 1980s, the work of the Estonian-Swedish composer Eduard Tubin (1905 – 1982) remains largely unknown beyond a small coterie of aficionados who take an interest in Baltic and Scandinavian music.  Humphrey Searle and Robert Layton in their survey of Twentieth Century Composers: Britain, Scandinavia and the Netherlands (1970) omit to mention Tubin although they devote discussion to a number of his contemporaries in mid-century Sweden such as Hilding Rosenberg (1892 – 1985), Karl-Birger Blomdahl (1916 – 1968), and Allan Pettersson (1911 – 1980).  Tubin’s obscurity is a pity because he composed at a level at least as high as that achieved by Rosenberg, Blomdahl, and Pettersson.  Indeed, Tubin wrote in an idiom more accessible than any of theirs, being, as one supposes, much less worried than they about his “modern” bona fides.  What explains Tubin’s obscurity?  It might have something to do with his refugee-expatriate status: He fled Estonia for Sweden after the Soviet invasion in 1944; and while he remained an Estonian nationalist – by reflex, anti-Soviet and anti-Communist – his adoptive country became increasingly accommodationist.

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Colin Wilson dies at Age Eighty-One

The British writer Colin Wilson (1931 – 2013) died last night in Cornwall just before midnight, local time.  Wilson, who became a celebrity at twenty-six on the publication of his first book The Outsider in 1956, was a prolific writer on a wide variety of topics from philosophy, with special attention to existentialism, to literature, history, and the occult.  Wilson was never what one might call a traditionalist, but he was an inveterate critic of modernity and a defender of religion against its materialist-positivist detractors.  Wilson’s authorship encompassed both fiction and nonfiction.  In fiction, he exploited genre-formulas in ingenious ways, as in his first and in many ways most ambitious novel, Ritual in the Dark (1960).  His science fiction The Space Vampires was adapted to the silver screen by Tobe Hooper under the title Life Force in the mid-1980s, but the adaptation did little credit to its author.  Ritual in the Dark, several times optioned for cinema, regrettably never made it to the screen, large or small.  Wilson, an impressive autodidact, developed a core of devoted readers who took many cues from his intellectual independence and admired him for the nonconformist freedom witnessed by his contrarian interests.

An excellent introduction to Wilson’s thinking is the immediate sequel to The Outsider, Religion and the Rebel (1957), whose chapters on literature, history, and philosophy constitute an important polemic against the deadening cultural assumptions of the mid-Twentieth Century.  Wilson had befriended Albert Camus just before the latter’s fatal automobile accident.  Wilson’s work may be seen as an Anglo-Saxon parallel to Camus’ work although Wilson, in contrast to Camus, was never distracted by politics.

Article of Possible Interest on Cosmology and Religion

I am humbled and pleased that the editors of The New York Review of Science Fiction have given the feature position to my article on William Olaf Stapledon, “Contact, Communion, and the Marriage of Minds,” in the latest number of their publication.  “Contact” is the much-edited version of the talk that I gave last July at “Doxacon,” a colloquium on the crossroads of science fiction and religion.  I believe that the essay will be of interest to readers of The Orthosphere.  Stapledon was a greatly conflicted thinker, tempted by atheism, but unable to shake his profound intuition that the universe is not reducible to matter and the void; that existence has a divine ground.  His fiction and non-fiction alike address the issue.  I try to put Stapledon, as the subtitle of the essay puts it, “in context.”  The context is the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, which I interpret as, partly, a religious displacement.

I offer an extract below –

Once the investigator grasps Flammarion and Lowell, along with the whole of late-Romantic plurality discourse, in this way [as a vestige of Medieval cosmology,] much of the peculiarity in their exposition begins to make sense.  When Flammarion seems to adhere to a Darwinian vocabulary, making free use of the term evolution, he never means what Darwin or Darwin’s materialist followers meant by the term.  On the contrary, the evolution that concerns Flammarion is that of mind, which he regards as the self-articulation at the microcosmic level of the macrocosmic consciousness – Dieu dans la Nature.  In a Times story for 10 November 1910, Flammarion told the reporter, “I believe there are denizens on Mars, and that they are superior to us.”  Flammarion opines that the Martians “ought to resemble [what humanity] will be several million years hence, inasmuch as Mars is a much older planet than the earth.”  Flammarion believes that the Martians have made several attempts to communicate with humanity, the first one “hundreds of thousands of years ago” and the last one “a few thousand years ago.”

Lowell, who knew Flammarion, writes in the same vein.  In his three-part Atlantic article from the summer of 1895 (June, July, August), he argues that the phenomenon of the canals “points to a highly intelligent mind behind it.”  Martian sentience must take the form of “a mind… of considerably more comprehensiveness” than the human.  Such things as “party politics,” Lowell insists, “have had no part” in the elaboration of the system of planetary irrigation – the canals whose courses Lowell had so painstakingly mapped.

According to Lowell, the very study of Mars exerts a spiritually transforming effect on him who undertakes it.  He learns to “look at things from a standpoint raised above our local point of view,” to “free our minds at least from the shackles that of necessity tether our bodies,” and to “recognize the possibility of others in the same light that we do the certainty of ourselves.”  As Lowell writes in Mars as the Abode of Life, “Turning to Mars with quickened sense, we witness an astounding thing,” a globe “where life at the present moment would likely be of a high order.”In the plurality discourse of the fin-de-siècle, then, the reader will detect the stubborn persistence of a cosmological view that actual modern science tells us is an outmoded and distinctly unscientific way of comprehending the celestial universe.  This late-Medieval way of thinking cosmologically sees the universe as creation; it sees the heavens as instinct with symbolic significance, pervaded by mind in the form of the plural, extraterrestrial humanities, and as responsive – at least potentially – to the effort, not only to establish contact with those humanities, but to come into communion with the sum and total of their shared consciousness.