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Is Shakespeare’s Coriolanus a key for our crises?

Posted by nouspraktikon on September 30, 2017

Shakespeare’s unknown Roman play and what it bodes for us

With its popularity trailing far behind Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus is perplexing on a number of levels.  Not lacking in ether violence or passion, the bard’s not-so-secret formulae for success, Coriolanus seems saturated with the wrong sort of passion, and by comparison to that  other dark horse, Titus Andronicus, not nearly violent enough to make an Elizabethan B-grade movie worthwhile.  Coriolanus features a Rome without romance.  Women, yes, men, yes…but in the form of a nagging mother, and a wife long past the honeymoon stage, these against a background of uncountable war widows.  In other words, it focuses on the reality of relationships, not their rosy initiation.  Today people might, out of a sense of guilt, be willing to pay to see that kind of fare, but the Elizabethans were far too sensible to put up with it.   Yet they put up with Coriolanus, and so should we, for in that play Shakespeare is telling us a story which is political in a way that is far different from his other productions. It is closer to instruction than entertainment, although, for those with an eye for the nuances of history, far more interesting than simple entertainment.   Furthermore I maintain that Coriolanus speaks to us today in a prophetic voice that few past generations could have decoded.  After a few preliminaries, I will attempt a decoding…with what success, you may be the judge.

There is a difference between narratives where politics is embedded in human (especially sexual) relationships and those stories where relationships are embedded in politics.   Yes, and I know that “embedded” will be taken as a bad pun!  None the less, we don’t go to see Anthony and Cleopatra because we want to understand how the Second Triumvirate unraveled.  For the Elizabethan, sex and circuses were still an intermission within the normal life of the body politic.  Above sex, circuses, work, and all the other activities of civil society was the dreadful, and indeed numenous, question of sovereignty.  I say numenous since sovereignty entailed not just power over life and death, but, keeping in mind that the Reformation was still playing itself out, possibly power over eternal life and eternal death.  Thus, the dark shadow of the Tower of London fell across the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe theater, at least mentally, if not quite physically.  For frequenters of the Globe, politics was close, perhaps closer than for all the intervening generations between them and us, we whom are beset by social media, and for whom politics is becoming all-in-all.  Against this dreadful background, theatergoers were torn between the drive to escapism and the drive to understand.  Arguably, Coriolanus satisfies the latter urge.

Not only that, but in addition to being political rather than erotic, Coriolanus is political in a way which is uncharacteristic of Shakespeare, and shows a surprising grasp of issues which one might have surmised were far beyond his scope of knowledge and interests.  Arguably, Coriolanus is the only Shakespearean play in which the dramatic action takes place in the context of a still-vigorous constitutional republic.  Normally, we expect a Shakespearean narrative to take place against a feudal background.  Even where the background is nominally republican, it is likely to be a Venetian facad or a Rome in transition to empire.  After all, Shakespeare was a subject of the Tudor, and briefly, Stuart, dynasties.  Yet Coriolanus reveals that Shakespeare was fully capable of appreciating the problems of electoral politics in a state where sovereignty was divided among different authorities.  A deeper look as Shakespeare’s life and times will soon show that he had a good knowledge of 16th century Italy, where republican institutions, though mostly usurped, were still a living memory.  Furthermore, he lived at a time of emerging republican sentiment in northern Europe, stimulated by the Reformation, and various constitutional experiments, conducted by the armed prophets of the more radical (Calvinistic, Zwiglian, Anabaptist etc.) branches of the Reformation.  But whether due to his sources, contemporary events or the universal solvent of his imagination, the bard could write with conviction and with empathy about life in a republican context.

Now, allow me to briefly spoil the play for you.  Apart from eccentrics (e.g., myself) and undergraduates under harsh curricular discipline, few will ever pick up the written play, and even fewer are likely to see a stage enactment, so spoiling is eminently justified.  If you know the ways of the bard you won’t be surprised to learn that he lifted the plot from Plutarch.  Plutarch in turn based his narrative on events which allegedly happened around 493BC in Rome.  This wasn’t our Hollywood Rome of the glittering marble temples, rather, it was a village, or perhaps a federation of villages, built of mud and straw and unified by a surrounding fortification, a wall or a ditch, allegedly built by Romulus, founder of the city.  None the less, this early Rome was already showing signs of its future destiny, encroaching on the surrounding tribes and subjecting them to its sovereignty.  Most importantly, for understanding Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, the Roman state was already divided among distinct socioeconomic classes, notably the plebian class and the senatorial class.  Furthermore, the fundamentals of the state’s constitutional order had recently been consolidated, with a republic being declared one generation prior with the expulsion of the last monarch, King Tarquin.

Going by the standard sources, mainly Plutarch, the most successful Roman military leader (a.k.a. “general”) around the year 493BC was a certain Caius Martius .  As per already established Roman custom, he acquired the cognomin “Coriolanus” when he conquered Coriolus, a city of the hostile Volciian federation.  Of course, there are recent critics who claim that Coriolanus is entirely mythical.  I don’t know on what grounds this is maintained, but I do know that making these claims is a great way to gain notoriety and possibly promotion in the academic world.  Indeed, I would wager that Coriolanus was not only an actual historical person, but that about 80% of Shakespeare’s dialogue gives us, while certainly not a verbatum transcript  of what transpired in 493BC, at least the gist of the historically salient events.  The contemporary reader of Shakespeare has to be tolerant of his occasional anachronisms, and keep in mind that the historical Coriolanus was speaking proto-Latin (significantly, intelligible to nearby Italian tribes) not Elizabethan English…and of course wearing neither a ruff collar nor buckled shoes.

Even so, if anyone wants to doubt the historical existence of Coriolanus (the person) it need have no bearing on the value of Coriolanus (Shakespeare’s narrative) as useful matrix for political thought.  To that end, all we need is a capsule summary of the the story’s highlights.  The play begins as Coriolanus, a Roman senator, returns victorious from beating the Volcii, and capturing one of their cities Coriolus.  He is promoted by his friends as candidate for counsel, the supreme magistrate of the Roman republic.  However Coriolanus refuses to make the obligatory and traditional appeal to the masses (the plebs) by showing his war wounds publicly.  The representatives of the pleb class, the tribunes, distrust Coriolanus from the start, knowing that he despises the common people as cowards and moochers on the public purse.  The inability of Coriolanus to change his public image by pandering to the masses gives the tribunes an excuse to revoke the election of Coriolanus to the consulate.  This causes a row with Coriolanus counter-claiming that the tribunal authority has been abused and that the office of tribune should be abolished.  Through all these altercations both the friends, i.e., senatorial class peers, and family (mother and wife) of Coriolanus urge their stubborn leader to tone down his rhetoric and appease the common people with flattery, or at least tolerance.  These attempts fail to make any headway with the proud and stubborn Coriolanus.  The issue is decided in favor of exiling Coriolanus, on the grounds that he was plotting to unilaterally change the constitution (abolishing the institution of the plebs’ tribunes) albeit exile is a milder sentence in lieu of capital punishment.  Bitter and seeking revenge, the exiled Coriolanus shows up at the doorstep of his, and Rome’s, arch-enemy Tullus Aufidius, leader of Antium, chief city of the Volcian federation.  Coriolanus offers to join his invincible military skills with that of Aufidius in a war against Rome.  Aufidius agrees and together they conduct a successful military campaign all the way up to the gates of Rome.  The terrified Romans send out emissaries to Coriolanus asking him to have mercy on his own people.  Coriolanus, in character, refuses all attempts at compromise and threatens to sack the city.  At last his mother and wife come out of the gates to beg mercy from their son and husband.  Moved to pity by this maternal and conjugal appeal, Coriolanus at last relents.  Hence the Roman General of the Volcii, having liberated the lands that Rome had taken from her enemies, even though sparing Rome itself, returns to Antium, expecting to be hailed as a hero.  However Aufidius, jealous of being overshadowed by his Roman ally, gathers together conspirators from those who’s families were harmed by Coriolanus during his earlier, anti-Volcian, campaigns.  They assassinate Coriolanus in the public square of Antium.  As soon as they are satisfied by the death of Coriolanus, their mood instantly changes and they decide to grant full honors in burial to him as a military genius and ally.  Thus ends the play.

Pondering this old story from the perspective of the here and now, situations and personalities jump out which are disturbingly familiar.  The old saw about history repeating itself tempts us to judgement.  And yet…not quite so fast, for as soon as we think we have recognized a familiar face, the image dissolves into a kaleidoscope of incoherent fragments.  Therefore it will behoove us, before we join in the chorus of moral indignation, to familiarize ourselves with some classical political concepts.  Don’t worry, I will soon lead you to where we all want to go…an encounter with the clear and present dangers, here in America, now in the 21st century.  But if we want Coriolanus to serve us faithfully as a tool of political analogy to our own times, we will have to take a leisurely stroll through the forum of political conflict.  Then, perhaps, we will be able to separate ideas from innuendo.

The Fourfold Root of Classical Political Analysis

Why is Coriolanus important?  Not, as Freudian critics might wish, because it yields novel insights on the mother-child relation.  Indeed, not due to the depth of any of  its corporal characters or their mutual esteem or lack thereof.   Rather, the republic itself, is a kind of intangible lead character in its own right. Coriolanus is important because it deals exhaustively with the problem of sovereignty.  Our contemporaries have lost sight of the ultimate significance of sovereignty, and would rather avoid its correlative truth, which divides the ethical world into four parts, two pertaining to the sovereign, and two to the subject.  If the fundamental concept of politics is sovereignty then all permutations on politics will pertain to valuations of either the sovereign or the subject, which may be expressed as positive and negative couplets.  The classical term for wicked sovereignty is tyranny, while the classical term for the condition of being a wicked subject is treason.  Conversely, the good subject is the loyal subject.   The only terminological issue is how to characterize the antithesis of tyranny.  Coming at the end, not of history, but of Whig history, libertarians and conservatives are apt to characterize the couplet as liberty vs. tyranny.  However this opposition, however dear to us it might be, is not as robust a characterization as the classical usage which simply contrasted tyranny with justice.  So our classical couplets are justice/tyranny and loyalty/treason.  Obviously we can schematize this as a four cell diagram and use it as a general framework for any political situation involving sovereignty. This might refer to this as a political quadrilateral, namely, tyranny:justice::loyalty:treason.

I have outlined what seems to me the common sense framework for understanding politics.  However, there are numerous others,such as the Marxist interpretations. There are infinite variations on modern positivist and quantitative political analysis, some of which, and I am thinking particularly of the Public Choice school, have considerable merit.  Then there is Leo Strauss and his school, which sees misdirection, obscurity and esoteric meaning behind every political movement and manifesto.  While all these claim to be schools of politics, for none of them is sovereignty paradigmatic, rather, they embrace a bevy of other notions such as class struggle, human choice, literary deception, or simple “force.”  Any of these might be, for all I know, the key to the kingdom, but they differ from the classical consensus about the state and sovereignty.  The latter was a useful tool in the days of Aristotle and also those of Cicero, and it was also the mental window through which Shakespeare’s audience enjoyed and understood his political works, plays such as Coriolanus.  Even today, it still lies at the bottom of libertarian and conservative political theory, but usually in tacit form.

Armed with this classical framework, we should be able to read Coriolanus as something other than a simple morality play.  To be sure, our purpose should be to extract some moral conclusions from the work, however it will not be a “morality play” in the sense of positing a war between predetermined “children of light” and “children of darkness” from the outset.  We shall be called upon to judge, but our judgement should strive to be Christian, not Manichean.

First I will show how one could treat Coriolanus using a populist-leftist formula, and subsequently show how the same material could be used as the apology for a dictator.  Neither of these completely faithful to Shakespeare’s narrative, and both are unedifying for contemporary political discourse.  They both stop short of recognizing that  the dramatic action in the play consists of an exchange of places between the tribunes and Coriolanus who are each in turn tyrannical and just, loyal and treasonous to the Roman state and its constitution.  In other words, if we go beyond persons to principles we will see that there is no one character or group of characters who personifies either justice or tyranny.  Rather, in unpleasant reflection of both past and  current politics, the protagonists exhibit, by turns, integrity or corruption of character depending on their ever-changing relationship to the political order.

 

How to misinterpret Coriolanus, Personality over Principle, the Left-Wing variation, “The tyrant exposed.”

Unfortunately, Marxism (defined as including those schools which are derived from it) seems to be the main highway of contemporary literary interpretation, preeminent on account of popularity, ease of understanding, and safe passage through the labyrinth of academic acceptability.  Honestly, I don’t have any particular critic in mind, but the method is so obvious that you or I can quickly whip up a dissertation with all the aplomb of a literary short order cook.  For starters, we can take it as axiomatic that Coriolanus is a simple tale of conflict between good and evil, between the masses of humanity and fascism.   It is an edifying and cautionary bit of ancient lore, featuring a particularly obnoxious villain as its protagonist.  The moral?  Stick on the right side of history and “the People”…or risk an unpleasant end.

Because the theme of Coriolanus is perennial, the left-wing critic need never fear obsolescence or  lack of employment, since in every generation the nuances of politics will easily reduce themselves to the same common denominator.  All that needs to be done is to find your man, your Coriolanus, your aristocratic bully, and voala! therein lies the contemporary political analogy.  But today, circa 2017, there is no need to search around for a scapegoat since ubiquitous Trump-hatred makes the choice obvious.  We all know that Donald J. Trump is bad, and with just the right reading of Coriolanus we might actually discover, if not precisely why he is bad, certainly just how bad he truly is.

While, obviously, I am being sarcastic toward the left-wing method, I am not saying that it is completely inaccurate.  Since left-wing literary criticism is always a species of propaganda, it behooves us to remember that effective propaganda must invoke a sufficient array of sound facts and verities to convince the target audience.  There is something incontestably sound in the identification of Donald Trump with Martius Caius Coriolanus.  We easily see the blowhard egoist in both, and frequent resonances of an all too familiar and obstinate pride in Shakespeare’s prose.  Coriolanus, like Trump, is not willing to stick to anyone’s script, however well intended or lovingly suggested.

A very little I have yielded to.  Fresh embassies and suits,  Nor from the state nor private friends, hereafter will I lend an ear to.  Coriolanus Act. 5, scene 3

But there is more to both Donald Trump, and even Coriolanus himself, than pure villainy.  The problem for the left-wing method is that it dare not go beyond this initial purview, lest the power of moral condemnation be dissipated within the complexities of the play.  It is only a safe method as long as the critic is restricted, either freely or under duress, to the stereotypes of class conflict.  It doesn’t particularly matter how these classes are defined, whether as a classical proletariat or the numerous victim classes of contemporary cultural Marxism.  What is important is that everything be seen from the point of view of distributive justice, that is, an unequal distribution of “stuff” among concrete persons and groups of people.

Now as the left-wing critic would surmise, Coriolanus has lots of “stuff” which the plebs lack.  Naturally, a significant part of this rests on an economic foundation, and an important conflict within both the play, and the early Rome which it portrays, was the bread dole for the non-landed citizens.  Whether to provide or withdraw this entitlement serves as an initial ground for the conflict between Coriolanus and the tribunes of the people.  However the most prominent “stuff” which Coriolanus flaunts, and the tribunes envy, are the intangibles of life such as dignity, reputation, virtue (especially courage) and power.  It is the attacks on these intangible disparities which drives Coriolanus to fits of self-justification, therefore confirming his status as a “hater” according to the nomenclature of modern leftism. Thus Shakespeare portrays him as cursing the common man, and under the only condition that Coriolanus would stand a chance to respect: man-at-arms.

You souls of geese, that bear the shapes of men, how have you run from slaves that apes would beat!  Pluto and hell!  All hurt behind.  Backs red, and faces pale with flight and augued fear!  Mend, and charge home, or by the fires of heaven I’ll leave my foe and make my wars on you.  ibid, Act 1., scene 4.

Vitrolic words, but prophetic ones as well!  For we observe General Coriolanus progressing from “international” conflict to internecine class conflict and finally waging war on Rome itself as a kind of one-man government in exile.

The list of putative villains, especially of the “fascist” ilk, could be extended almost indefinitely.  But Donald J. Trump?  Really?  Yes, really, albeit in a reality which is dictated by the rules of left-wing interpretation.  You see, the secret of left-wing interpretation is that it isn’t interpretation at all, rather, it is what more properly is called imputation.  The difference between interpretation and imputation is that interpretation uses observation and induction to guess the nature of external things, while imputation determines unilaterally the nature of external things based on its own unchallenged and supreme judgement.  A good example of imputation, and the one most germane to our inquiry, is the indisputable (within the sphere of political correctness) fact that Donald Trump is a fascist.  True, Donald Trump might be mentally and emotionally opposed to fascism, and his actions might also be inimical to fascism, but none of these factors count from the point of view of left-wing criticism.  The criteria of left-wing criticism regarding whether a person is a fascist or not, lies in whether fascism has been imputed to the person in question by the left-wing critic.  Of course the critic does not exercise any autonomous authority, but rather exercises a mandate, within the bounds of a specialized field, derived from the collective will of society.  The collective will of society, in turn, derived its authority over reality by displacing the sovereignty which had once been the prerogative of God.

 

 

How to misinterpret Coriolanus, pt. 2 Personality over Principle, Right-wing version, “The strong man pushed out” or “The scapegoat.”

 

Coriolanus starts off his career as a harsh but just military taskmaster.  That he is a hero of the republic is admitted not only by his peers in the senatorial class but even the common people, although the tribunes are uncomfortable with this admiration and seek to subvert it.  However Coriolanus gets into the danger zone when he, at the behest of his friends, begins to seek high civil office.  Although the masses of the people recognize his merits, they are offended by the aristocratic pride which is inseparable from the career of a roman warrior during the early republic.

The symbolic gesture, or rather non-gesture, which brings this antagonism to a crisis, is the ritual showing of the warrior’s wounds, an acceptable “political advertisement” in early Rome which is all but guaranteed to secure office for a qualified (i.e., wounded) candidate.  Coriolanus is over-qualified, with more than a score of war-wounds to his credit, but he refuses to show them in public, on the grounds that this would be pandering to the sentiments of the masses.  The refusal of Coriolanus to remove his robe might be  mischaracterized as  “a failure of disclosure.”  This, however, is one instance where a concrete action reverses the psychological reality behind the symbol.  If Coriolanus had divested himself of his robe and shown his wounds, he would have joined the ranks of candidates who were willing to purger themselves behind a mask of false humility.  However in failing to remove his clothes Coriolanus actually exposes his psychological nudity, revealing to the masses his proud contempt for their opinions.  A possible modern misinterpretation, though far closer to the spirit of the events than any anachronistic  notion of bodily modesty, would be that Coriolanus was “refusing to play the victim card.”  On the contrary, these ancient wounds were a source of pride, like the “fruit salad” ribbons worn on modern uniforms.  Remember that this (5thc.BC Italy) was still a primitive era and military decorations for the Roman army were far in the future.  In the mind of Coriolanus, the wounds were not too cruel, but too honorable, to be exhibited in public.  The non-landed classes had not earned the right to view them.

Although this is a major turning point early on in the drama, it does not manifest a clear division in the body politic over legitimacy or sovereignty.  There are as yet no clear tyrants or traitors.  The refusal of Coriolanus to reveal his wounds is a breach of custom, not the constitution.  It hurts his electoral chances, but not so badly that he doesn’t squeak by to victory at the polls.  The common people, or at least the politically aware among them, are deeply offended by the attitude of Coriolanus.  However offense is a psychological state, not an institutional reality.  Shakespeare shows himself wiser than our Postmodernist philosophers, and never conflates public action and objective states of affairs with the psychological reactions of his characters.  His masterful art in portraying the latter shows that this is not the result of an inability to portray mental states, but a respect for the independence of public institutions from subjective consciousness.  Significantly, in the play which bears his name, Coriolanus never engages in soliloquy, which further encourages us in the belief that this drama is fundamentally about political actions and institutions rather than psychology or human nature in general.

Actual constitutional problems start to arise in Coriolanus when the tribunes, further appraised of Coriolanus’ intended austerity and disciplinary program, threaten to revoke their election of him as councilor magistrate, Rome’s highest civil office.  Arguably, the tribunes have, through violation of due process, put themselves in a potentially seditious posture.  They are understandably incensed at what they consider a threat to the interests of the class which they represent, but this does not justify voiding the election.  One of the tribunes warns of Coriolanus,

Did you perceive he did solicit you in free contempt when he did need your loves, and do you not think that his contempt will not be bruising to you when he has power to crush. ibid, Act. 2, scene 3

The senatorial class rallies around Coriolanus and, for a while he is saved from the crowd, albeit his office is in jeopardy.  Due to the the impetuous and possibly unconstitutional stance of the tribunes, the impeached consular magistrate is in a position of relative strength which his friends and family urge him to capitalize on through a judicious and moderate appeal to the public.

Instead of moderating his tone, the irascible Coriolanus ups the ante by calling for the abolition of the people’s tribunes.  Now it is Coriolanus himself who seems to be threatening the constitutional order, hindering his friends from saving his career and possibly his life.  A decree of exile is passed, and Coriolanus leaves Rome, a putative tyrant but still not a traitor.  The final step is taken when he arrives at Antium and offers his services to Aufidius, the premier military leader within the Volcian federation.  As Coriolanus himself explains the situation,

Farewell, O world, thy slippery turns!  Friends now fast sworn, who’s double bosoms seem to wear one heart, whose hours, whose bed, whose meal and exercise are still together, who twin as ’twere in love unseparable, shall within this hour, on the dissension of a doit break out to bitterest enmity; so fellest foes, whose passions and who’s plots have broke their sleep to take the one the other, by some chance, some trick not worth an egg, shall grow dear friends and interjoin their issues.  So with me, my birthplace hate I, and my love’s upon this enemy town.  I’ll enter.  If he slays me, he does fair justice; if he give me way, I’ll do his country service. ibid, Act 4, scene 4

This is the penultimate turn, with Coriolanus cast as traitor against just Rome.  Unfortunately for Coriolanus, the potentially ultimate turn of events, which would have featured the sack of Rome as the epitome of a tyrannical city, and the apotheosis of its conqueror as the incarnation of justice, is averted by the timely supplication of his wife and mother.  Failing to nip Rome in the bud, the reputation of Coriolanus is hence fixed in amber as not so much a tragic as a pathetic figure.

However one must question whether, even if Coriolanus had sacked Rome, whether his action would have been rendered just simply on account of his success.  Indeed, Shakespeare’s play is a testament against the “might makes right” philosophy which the left has inherited from Machiavelli.  In the end Coriolanus recognizes that triumph over his native city would have been an empty victory, and there are higher principles of justice than military success and avenged pride.  The tendency of modern criticism, influenced by Freud and feminism, is to highlight the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother, and indeed much can, and has been, said in that regard.  However the general’s abdication of final victory can also be seen as a surrender to higher principles of political morality, albeit the sanctioning power of this Platonic ideal is conveyed through the very tangible force of maternal and conjugal affection.

This principle of justice restrains both collectives as well as individuals.  The minions of Coriolanus refer to him as an “engine” which in Shakespeare’s English means a siege mechanism such as a battering ram or a siege tower.  When the “engine” comes to a halt before appeals to pity, we have a good example of a “right wing dictator” being stopped in his tracks.  However we have also observed that tyranny and justice are categories which can be occupied by the same people or groups of people successively.  Significantly “democracy” is a word which never drops from the lips of the tribunes, although it would have been totally within their character to use the term.  Rather, Shakespeare shares with most pre-Enlightenment thinkers a wary suspicion of what has, since Rousseau, been called the general will.  Although the late modern terms “democracy” and “general will” were not current in Renaissance times, Shakespeare and his contemporaries were well aware of the general formula.  Thus a tribune declares,

What is a city but its people.   ibid, Act 3, scene 1

The events which transpire throughout the drama show that Shakespeare, though recognizing the populist formula as a truism, was keenly aware of the mischief which results when raising it to a supreme political principle.  The rejoinder of Coriolanus, though he speaks as an antagonist, and no doubt a villain in the eyes of the tribunes, utters verity when he cynically observes,

That is the way to lay the city flat, to bring the roof to the foundation and bury all which yet distinctly ranges in heaps and piles of ruins.    ibid.

Principles above Personalities: The Constitutional Reading

Both the action of the tribunes and the action of Coriolanus, taken to their extremes, threaten to ruin the city.  The injured pride of the general, unchecked, will burn the city to the ground in vengeance, while the envy of the tribunes, in promoting a forced equality, threatens to reduce the order of society to chaos.  In spite of their atavistic tendencies, neither the tribunes, nor Coriolanus, nor any of the other characters can escape the equilibrium of the political quadrilateral, namely, justice:tyranny::loyalty:treason.  Loyalty to justice is treason to tyranny, while treason to tyranny is loyalty to justice.  The principles involved are transparent, however the placement of particular individuals and groups within the quadrilateral are, at least in real life, opaque.  One virtue of the stage is that heroes and villains can reveal their status with impunity to the audience.  Shakespeare is notoriously complicated, and instead of heroes and villains we often get synthetic hero/villains.  So in a psychological play like Hamlet these compound characters lend themselves to a kind of psycho-analysis, with fragments of the protagonist’s mind in constant motion.  However Coriolanus is a political play, and the various dramatis personae, while retaining their unity of character, move about within the space of the political quadrilateral, being treasonous villains in one instance, and loyal heroes the next.  Now, if you don’t see something very contemporary about this, I suggest you may be living on a desert island.

There is no better support for this assertion than to note how Coriolanus would have been a tragedy even if, or especially if, the treasonous general had been unconvinced by the supplications of his wife and mother.  If Coriolanus had sacked Rome he probably would have emerged as a king, the first king of a new dynasty.  Ironically, we are told that at the age of sixteen he was one of the heroes of the fledgling Roman republic, and had fought to expel the last Roman king, King Tarquin.  Unquestionably, Coriolanus sincerely believed in the principles of the republic, and that King Tarquin had been a tyrant.  If he had set himself up as a king at the end of his life, he would have effectively canceled his actions on behalf of the republic during his youth.  In effect, he would have annihilated the meaning of his own life.  As it was, listening to the plea of his family, he simply vanished from history, a tragic character perhaps, but not a true villain.

So yes, we may call Coriolanus a tragedy by common consent.  However when we resort to that label, without reflection, we are in fact highlighting the fate of personalities rather than the application of principles.  From an institutional point of view, Coriolanus is actually a comedy, in the sense of a drama with a fortunate ending.  After all, the republic is saved.  It is saved primarily from the revenge of Coriolanus, but in such a way as preserves the prestige and influence of the senate over the tribunes.

So what is the moral of this story?  And does it profit us in the least?

 Coriolanus is a play in which the  dramatis personae exhibit a chameleon-like shift of moral meanings, where a man’s virtues in war may be vices in peacetime.  It is Shakespeare’s gift to us, showing us, on the one hand, that politics has made a hell out of the blessings of creation, and on the other that personalities in the political world are not so much good or evil, as droughts on a checkerboard who take on their meaning from their position.  None the less, it is not an illusory or relativistic world.  The positions, the quadrilateral of justice:tyranny::loyalty:treason, are timeless principles.  Rather, the personalities and factions which occupy them are subject to maturation and degeneration, from time to time exchanging position, which creates the illusion that the categories themselves have undergone a metamorphosis.

Once we recognize the difference between personalities and principles, it will be safe for us to handle the knowledge which Coriolanus imparts.  The main principle which Coriolanus can teach us is that the problem of sovereignty is fundamental, however that sovereignty works itself out differently in a republic than in a monarchy.  If sovereignty is real, then each of the terms of the political quadrilateral is also real, and there can be no escape from coming to terms with justice, tyranny, loyalty and treason.  The sanctions which underpin sovereignty may be terrifyingly present, like the axe and bound rods carried in front of magistrates of the Roman republic, which give us the root of our word “fascism.”  Or the sanctions may be conveyed through some subtle nemesis, like the persuasive, maternal, embrace of a treasonous son.  However the sanctions are just symbolic of a higher reality, which is sovereignty itself.

However in a republic the political quadrilateral is not fated to to go through the endless cycles of musical chairs characteristic of a monarchy.  If “republic” and “justice” are synonymous, then the fatal symmetry of the political quadrilateral can be broken by bracketing out “tyranny.”  Hence in the schema of a republic may be represented as  Justice:[tyranny]::loyalty:treason.  The constitution provides a touchstone which prevents the formula from endless iteration among favored personalities, a relativistic cycle which leads ultimately to nihilism.  In a republic loyalty is absolute loyalty and treason is absolute treason, for which reason probity and forbearance is more important in a republic than any other form of government.  Thus Coriolanus and the tribunes are on alternative occasions absolute traitors and absolute loyalists, because the system is asymmetrical and unchanging.  How radically this differs from Shakespearean dramas which take place in monarchical contexts, plays such as Romeo and Juliet with their factional cries of “Montague! Montague!” or “Capulet! Capulet!”  In these factional states, it is hard to feel any strong dramatic appeal to justice, rather pathos is the predominating sentiment.  However Coriolanus, while personally pathetic, is just one personality in a drama with broader implications for justice.  If Coriolanus is Shakespeare’s most republican play, then it is the one which comes closest to an adequate treatment of the relationship between sovereignty and justice, a relationship which can only be resolved (at the human level at least) by a republic.

It is characteristic of our present, globalized world, that  people have lost their belief in sovereignty.  It is a corollary of modern atheism, especially prominent in the peculiar atheism of people who profess to be religious, and who may even profess to be Christians.  We moderns, in our desire to be both enlightened and spiritual, find it most convenient to worship a god who has been emptied of the primary characteristic of God.  This theology is not without ramifications on the mundane level, and has led to a hollowing out of the social order.  It is leading to the abandonment of the nation state, to what one commentator has called the abolition of “borders, language, and culture.”

However if the question of sovereignty is inescapable, then it behooves our contemporaries to consider which kind of sovereignty is more palatable, monarchy or republic.  A republic is characterized by division of powers and geographical limitation.  Rome was a republic because there was a division of powers between the senate, the tribunes, and various other institutions.  Even more fundamentally it was a republic because it was limited by boundaries.  Originally this boundary was the ditch plowed by Romulus, but ultimately the boundaries became the limits of the known world.  In the process of boundary expansion and effacement, freedom was lost.  Coriolanus represents an early, unsuccessful, attempt to breach to the wall.  Much later, Caesar would successfully breach the Rubicon, a kind of symbolic wall.  The former action was, both dramatically and politically, comic, the latter tragic.  Today the citizens of sovereign nation-states should consider whether, as bad as the tin-horn dictators of yore might have been, whether our masked globalist elite (remembering that Greek for mask is “hypocrite”) is playing their role of the vengeful spoiler today, and with far greater sophistication.

 

 

 

 

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In Defense of “Man”

Posted by nouspraktikon on July 15, 2017

Not Even Wrong

Suddenly.

Not suddenly as you or I measure time, but suddenly according to the stately cadences of historical events, we have lost, if not yet our species, at least, and ominously, our name for it.  At some point in the not very distant past, “Man” vanished…not extinguished as an  organism, but as an object of consciousness.  For where there is no name there can be no consciousness, where there is no consciousness there can be no science.  Today there is no longer a science called Anthropology worthy of its name, for the name has been banished.   I don’t mean the entertaining science of bones and basket weaving and many other shining objects which is offered in college curricula as “Anthropology.”  I mean Anthropology in the most specific of species-centered meanings, inquiry into that simple question….”What is…what is…[bleep!].”   It is a question which can scarcely be asked today, let alone answered.

This masking of “Man” strikes me as an important development which deserves an extended and serious discussion.   To that end, some ground rules are necessary, concerning which I have some good news and some bad news.  Here goes both:  Sex will not be mentioned in the course of this article.  I have no interest whether the reader be sex-crazed or celibate, male or female or anywhere on the spectrum in-between.  I am only interested in whether you think this Anthropological murder mystery is worth of your time and consideration.

If you concur, then the omission of sex and his/her ugly sibling “gender” is good news indeed, because these things are monumental and, I would argue, intentional, distractions from the difficulties involved in Philosophical Anthropology.  Those bad news bears,  non-adults who think sexuality is the central, nay exclusive, issue in life, can adjourn to their favorite safe space, the Reading Room on Gender, where they can reinforce their own bias among those vast collections of literature which are supplemented daily by our subsidized scholars and their media mimes.

Now to be sure, there are other rabbit paths leading away from the essential inquiry, its just that sex and gender are the most obvious, if not the most obnoxious, and hence need to be eliminated first.  However, those other anti-Anthropological rabbit paths, though less celebrated, become increasingly subtle as the core of the problem is approached.  In any subject, the task is hard enough when we have been force-fed the wrong answers…the real difficulties start when we realize that we started off on the wrong foot by asking the wrong questions.  Today, when we encounter the fundamental question of  Philosophical Anthropology, to paraphrase the incidentally sexy but essentially humane Erin Brockovitch, “..all we have is two wrong feet and damn ugly shoes.”  We don’t know”bleep!”…and the absence of the word doesn’t help.

If we wish to restore that lost science, it will prove necessary to go back and wrap our brains around that simple word “Man” which was once the standard English term for the class of all human beings, much like its French equivalent “l’homme” etc..  Man has long since disappeared out of scholarly, correct and polite language , which means pretty much everywhere, since in casual idiom, if we discount “Man oh man!” and similar oddities, the universalizing nomenclature of Philosophical Anthropology is worse than useless.  After all, you can tell a good joke about Poles, or rabbis, or priests, or homosexuals, or women, and yes, even about “men” qua the male gender, but its hard (short of aliens or the envious algorithms of The Matrix) to envision a “Man” joke.  However, while the comedians won’t notice, there might be a few instances where, for the health of civilization, the ability to have a word for the human species could come in handy.  From this, we can derive another important consideration, once “Man” has been abolished, it  is unlikely to be missed by the broad masses.  The only people who are likely to be bothered are a few specialists in what it means to be a unique species, and these specialists are generally regarded an over-serious, isolated and boring bunch.  Likewise, if the word “epidemic” and all synonyms for “epidemic” were outlawed, the only people likely to get in a panic would be epidemiologists.  Everyone else would get along quite splendidly…at least for a while.

To be sure, the abolition of “Man” and the Abolition of Man, as per the essay by C.S. Lewis are not identical.  The latter concerns the weakening of the species, the former concerns the loss of its name.  Indeed, the distinction between signs and things signified is another treasure which must be jealously guarded against the ravages of post-modernity, which is trying to slouch its way back towards a magical worldview.  Be that as it may, we can still surmise that in the defense of something it might prove essential to be able to speak about it.

On the other hand, we have to make especially sure we don’t get lured down another popular rabbit path, a highly respectable path none the less leads away from the Anthropological core: The path of language.  For example, we could easily lump this abolition of “Man” (the word) together with similar language “correction.”  Pointing out the absurdity of these corrections is the strategy of many conservatives, such as British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton who talks about the way that gender neutrality reforms have “violated the natural cadences of the English language.”   On an esthetic level, there may still be some residual irritation at “people” (or similar substitutes) in lieu of “Man”.  Yet, while this is good Edmund Burke-vintage common sense, it heads off in a trivial and logic mincing direction, of the kind favored by British analytical philosophers and American word-pundits in the Bill Safire tradition.  It expresses a futile, rearguard, hope that inane reforms, like the substitution of his and hers by “hez” can be reversed by a return to  convention, or even mutual rationality.  Rather, the Postmodernist hoards are not likely to be stemmed by a grammar policeman, policewoman, or even policeperson holding up a gloved hand, shouting “Stop!”  Its not that the “reforms” can’t be exposed as illogical and unappealing, its that they are just the tip of the spear carried by acolytes in a far deeper struggle.

Whether the war over language is winnable, I maintain it is the war against Man (as a concept) which is primary, a battle with ideological motives rooted in the hoary past.  Call it a “conspiracy” if you will, keeping in mind that conspiracy is just  popular philosophy prosecuted by cadres of minimally educated but highly motivated minions.  The generals in this conspiracy knew that they could not launch a frontal assault on Man (a.k.a. the human race), so they focused their attention on “Man” at first as a concept and then as a word.  This history of this war is better measured by centuries than by decades and has taken many a convoluted turn.  Hence my belief that contemporary Feminism is, at best, a secondary effect.  It is the Amazon battalion thrown into the breach of the citadel after the the groundwork had been patiently laid and the initial battlefield secured.  That crucial battlefield was anthropology, and not what one is liable to think of as the field of anthropology, but its philosophical cousin, that key science of all sciences, namely, the “Philosophy of…[bleep!]…”

A good “Man” is wrong to find

One can admit something exists and is important without idolizing it.  There was all too much idolization of the human race after the Renaissance and building up to the Enlightenment, a period bookended by Pico de la Mirandola’s On the Dignity of [Bleep!] and Alexander Pope’s Essay on [Bleep!] tomes which style and economy have rendered, perhaps mercifully, unreadable today.  In those days, whenever errant scholars ventured too far from the Pauline/Augustinian double anthropology of fall and redemption, it spelled trouble.  However, personal repentance generally put a  limit to the damage which could be inflicted before the toxic juice of self-worship became endemic to society.  Mirandola befriended and was converted by Savonarola, that misunderstood Catholic puritan, while at least Pope never became the Pope nor were his verses rendered into binding encyclicals.  Savonarola taught the early humanists the secret of Christian Anthropology, that Man is both sacred and bad.  For his tuition, and other causes, he was burned at the stake.

The last child and virtual apotheosis (that is, one “made into God”) of the early modern period was Voltaire, who’s hatred of religion was legendary.  None the less, even Voltaire had too much common sense to think that his animus towards Christianity could be transmuted into a new and living faith.  He noted that “It is easy enough to start a new religion, all you have to do is get yourself crucified and then rise from the dead!”  In recent years, the late Rene Girard has documented Voltaire’s insight with numerous case-studies, illustrating how most human religions originate in scapgoating, death, and subsequent apotheosis.  However the wily Voltaire could see where all this was heading, and limited his disciples to the “cultivation of  their gardens” i.e., the enjoyment of a quiet and restrained sensuality.  We might call this soft-core Humanism, or the humanism of the self.   This early modern Man-ism, which today is probably the most popular (albeit unconscious) religion on the planet, is little more than a recrudescence of old Epicurus, whose famous doctrine Paul once debated on the field of Athenian Mars.  At worst the virtues of this philosophy, such as conviviality, apolitical repose, refined aesthetics etc., are disguised vices, vices centered on feelings.  Think of the the steriotypical Country Club Republican of today’s America.  Such people are pathetic, but not in any superficial sense of the word, since the purpose of their  life is “pathic”…that is, to have feelings, high quality feelings.

Hard-core Humanism was a novelty of Voltaire’s rival, J. J. Rousseau.  In contrast to the soft doctrine, here the object of action is the ideal of Man, not the feeling-satisfaction of individual human beings.   It was Rousseau who managed to transmute the Enlightenment’s carping animus against Christianity into something resembling a true religion.  As the founder of this new religion, which has variously been termed Modernism, Humanism, Socialism and much else, Rousseau should have found himself subject to the pitiless Law of the Scapegoat.  However he eluded martyrdom, and not just because he died a natural death nineteen years prior to the outbreak of the revolution he had inspired.  Rousseau’s Man differed in important ways from both Christian and Renaissance conceptions, which were predicated on either a personal God, or at any rate, a hierarchy of beings of which the human race was but one link in the chain of existence.  Although initially disguised by Deistic code-words, the new religion lifted up Man as the Head of the Cosmos.  Since this Man was a collective, it was not expedient that any individual anti-Christ need suffer the Law of the Scapegoat.  If there were to be any suffering, it would only be in accord with the tyrant Caligula’s wish for the Roman people, “If only they all had but one neck!”  In principle, the head which lifts itself too high gets chopped off.  Caligula himself  proved  no exception to the rule.

At all events, by the 2nd or 3rd  year of the Human Revolution (c. 1793AD) modern technology had outstripped antiquity, democratizing death and allowing Caligula’s dream to come true.  The guillotine enabled the disciples of Rousseau to liquidate the old political class en mass, and then in a predictable turn of events, those disciples themselves mounted the scaffold, suffering a kind of mechanical crucifixion to the god whom they had lifted up, Man.  It was a collective crucifixion to a collective god, for this “Man” was not the same as in the soft Humanism of Voltaire, which was just a category designating a collection of individuals.  Rather, this post-Rousseau “Man” was, if not quite a concrete organism, at least cohesive enough to have a single will, a doctrine as lethal as it was democratic.

The carnage of the Revolutionary/Napoleonic period was not repeated in Europe until 1914 and thereafter, after which great quantities of men and women again began to be killed as a consequence of political and military action.  Here  we would like to inquire whether this carnage (lit. carnal death) was in some sense related to the death (or life) of an abstraction.  Is there a relation between the death of humans and the death of “Man” as a concept and a word, and if so, is that relation positive or negative?  The example of the French Revolution would seem to caution us against a laudatory Humanism, on the suspicion that the higher the ideal of “Man” is lifted up, the more human individuals are likely to be subjected to political violence.

At this point in the argument however, such a conclusion would be premature.  The period between the exile of Napoleon and the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand in Bosnia, which saw relative calm in European politics was conversely that period which witnessed, for good or ill, a wholesale revolution in popular concept of “Man” under the impact of Evolution, Marxism, and Psycho-analysis.  However none of these epicenters of scientific upheaval were directly concerned with Anthropology, at least Philosophical Anthropology, rather they were centered on the cognate disciplines of biology, economics, and psychology.

More to the point, none of these revolutionaries set out to solve the problem, “What is… [bleep!]…”   However others took up that now forbidden question, and we should try to pick up their tracks from where they left off in the tumult of 19th century thought.

Philosophical Anthropology: The Conspiracy Thickens

Today if you mention “Illuminism” it is likely to conjure up secret societies, occultism and political skulduggery, critical investigation into which is no doubt important and proper.  However in the literary salons of Europe and America during the 1840s and 185os Illuminism had a second, though in all probability related, meaning.  It referred to the then-novel research which today’s theologians refer to as the “Higher Criticism.”  If you know about, say, the “Jesus Seminar” then you pretty much know what Illuminism a.k.a. “Higher Criticism” was, except that the contemporary Seminar is pretty much an isolated rehashing of themes which were treated with greater plausibility and seriousness 170 years before.  Those earlier 19th century critics of religion were advancing along the front of a broad intellectual movement which was in the early stages of transiting from spiritualism to materialism.  The cynosure of the movement was Germany in the years following, and in reaction to, the death of philosopher G.F.W. Hegel.  To simplify a very complex way of thinking, many people of that time had accepted Pantheism, the idea that the universe and God are the same thing.  Since most people are not very quick on the uptake, and are willing to sign on to a belief systems before they grasp all of its correlative implications.

Thus, many a happy Pantheist, circa 1840AD, was surprised and saddened to learn that their system no longer permitted them to believe in the personal divinity of Jesus, whom they had hoped to retain as a spiritual hedge in spite of their infidel inclinations .  They should have figured this out from reading Hegel, but it took the shock treatment administered by some young, radical, German intellectuals of the time (a.k.a.,  the Illuminists, Higher Critics etc.) to rub the noses of these au currant ladies and gentlemen in the compost of atheism.  After a halfhearted embrace of Pantheist ambiguity, some among the elite classes of Europe were again courting hard-core, Rousseau-vintage, Humanism, very much along the lines of the original French Revolution of 1789, albeit the European political revolutions of the 40s didn’t amount to much.  This time, humanism broke out with more scientific rigor and less heartfelt enthusiasm, “Man” was made the vehicle of those hopes and dreams which had previously been invested in God.  Moreover, the unprecedented technological progress of the times were conducive to putting faith in human works.

Yet those works, splendid as they might be, begged the nature of their creators.  What was the essence of Man?  Or as we would say today, “What is the essence of….[bleep!]?”  Amazing though it might seem in retrospect, some people of that era actually took the time and pains to ask the Anthropological question.  The man who best serves as archetype of those questioners, actually proposing and discarding several solutions over the course of his life, was the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872).  One thing that can be said of Feuerbach, even if we dismiss him as a serial wrong-guesser who justly earned posthumous obscurity, was his persistent and scrupulous engagement with the Anthropological question.  His best remembered quote,”You are what you eat!” might ornament a nutritionist more gloriously than a philosopher.  Yet we must consider that, as a thinker, he was an anvil and not a hammer, pounded left and right by forces which were not just making Modernity but shattering the classical mirror of Man (better known to us as “bleep!”).  Feurerbach’s lifetime bracketed an epochal turn in human self-definition, a turn which Feuerbach didn’t initiate so much as chronicle.

Therefore, meditate on the chronological sketch below and notice how the the turn from Anthropology to anti-Anthropology transpired in the space of a specific, species-haunted, generation.  I know this narrative will be easy to dismiss as a curmudgeon’s rant on “the origins of the left”  but if you visualize the broad movement behind, and independent of, individual intentions will you grasp  its Anthropological significance.  In spooky confirmation of a simultaneous and  universal (or at least pan-Western) turn of thought, the history of early Positivism could be adduced as  a development in synchronicity with Idealism, but in this case the decapitation of Man being conducted by French, and allegedly “conservative” social scientists from August Compte to Emile Durkheim.  But I rather prefer the bold and brooding history of Anglo-German radicalism.

1804  death of Immanuel  Kant, birth of L. Feuerbach

1806 Hegel publishes his Phenomenology, consciousness posited as the motive force in the history of the world, subjective (individual) consciousness conditioned in a “dialectical” relationship to objective (collective) consciousness.

1818-19 Lectures on the History of Philosophy, S. T. Coleridge introduces German Idealism to the English reading public, slowly Idealism will replace the reigning Scottish “common sense” philosophy in the English speaking world.

1831  death of Hegel

1835 Life of Jesus, by Strauss

1841 The Essence of Christianity by Feuerbach

1843 The Essence of Christianity translated by George Eliot

1844 Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, critical of objectivity and lack of political engagement in speculative Anthropology

1847-48 Revolutions in France and central Europe

1848 The Communist Manifesto

1850 The Great London Exposition, popular vindication of applied technology over philosophical and scientific theory

1854-56 Crimean War (only major European war between 1815-1914)  Nightingale, progressive transfer of humane care from family and church to state

1859 Charles Darwin, the Origin of Species, natural selection adduced as motive force in natural history

1860 Essays and Reviews, English theologians embrace the methods of Higher Criticism

1861-65 American civil war, first modern “total” war

1861 Marx, Capital vol. 1 published

1871 Charles Darwin, the Descent of Man

1872 Death of Feuerbach

Note that at the outset Man was The All-In-All, but at the end of the period, not even the  child of a monkey, rather, a scion of some anonymous animal.

In The Essence of Christianity Feuerbach attempted to equate God with “good.”  In his view all the things which were posited of a Supreme Being were actually virtuous attributes of the human species-being.  Justice, mercy, love, fidelity, etc., were human characteristics, which had been mistakenly projected on to an alienated figment of the collective imagination and deified.  However, and here’s the rub, the human individual had no more ultimate reality than God.  Feuerbach’s Man was not men, or men and women, or even people, but the species as a collective.   Individuals were mortal but the species was immortal.  Man was God, Man was good, and Man would live forever.  At the time it seemed like a grand faith, a devotion to something tangible which might give meaning to the limited and fragile life of individuals.

Feuerbach’s intention was  to make a smooth transition from the crypto-Pantheism of Hegel, to a less infatuated, more earthy, Humanism.  Yet  his critics were were more likely to see this continuity with idealism as contamination by unrealistic nonsense.  As thinkers more cunning and sanguinary than Feuerbach were quick to point out, this alleged Human species-being never managed to will anything concrete and  unanimously, but rather, all real  history has been the history of antagonistic groups engaged in fratricidal strife.  For the critics, the ultimate meaning of history was far better illustrated by victorious parties dancing on the graves of the defeated than a universally inclusive chorus singing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.  According to Karl Marx the antagonistic parties were economic classes, and to some extent nations.  Today we would add genders, races, religions, and even sexual orientations.  Under fire from its radical critics, Human species-being quickly melted into the solvent of class analysis.

Small wonder that Marx happily discarded Feuerbach’s anthropology for the naturalism of Darwin, at one point seeking (and being refused) permission to dedicate Capital to the British naturalist.  Darwin’s system was founded on the assumption of conflict and competition, not the deduction of human from divine virtues.  Feuerbach continued to revise his system in the direction of increasingly consistent materialism, but was no longer in the forefront of a generation which had jumped from philosophical speculation to natural science, now that the latter was backed up by the prestige of  rapidly developing technology.

More significantly, the capital which Darwin did not endorse was the capital M in Man.  In classical anthropology Man had been one of the primordial kinds, as in Spirit, Man, Animal, and Mineral.  Naturalists from Aristotle to Buffon had recognized that  qua organism, the human body was akin to other mammals, and especially to apes and monkeys.  However in a consistently despiritualized science, the one human species was no longer set apart from the myriad of other animals, but rather fell under the same biological and ethological constraints as any other organism.  This reduction may have deeply bothered Darwin personally, but as a scientist he never really posed the Anthropological question the same way that Feuerbach had done, rather he was resigned to viewing homo sapiens as a single object within the purview of the natural science.  In spite of the title, after The Decent of Man, Man ceased to exist as a problem for natural science.  Or more precisely, from a Darwinian point of view, Man, as a unique aspect of the world, had never existed to begin with.

From Man to “Man”

We began by hinting that the loss of “Man” was a harbinger of the death of our own species.  After some clarification we can now understand that the situation is rather worse than we had initially feared, in that, conceptually, Man was killed off sometime in the middle of the 19th century, while “Man” (the word) actually survived the concept by more than a hundred years.  To maintain clarity, we must remember that there are actually three deaths.  First, the death of the concept, second the death of the word, and third, and yet to happen, the actual species extinction of homo sapiens.  That the third death is yet to happen should not imply that it necessarily will, it is only a hypothesis.  None the less, the three deaths are cognitively related.  In particular, the death of Man (the concept) at the hands of Darwinism, is strongly associated with the putative mortality of the species.  If Man is subject to species extinction, as are all organic taxa according to the laws of natural selection, then Man cannot be considered a primary aspect of the world.  As an analogy, consider the concept of “states of matter” which are generally accepted as uniform, or at least ubiquitous, aspects of nature.  If, say, all liquids could disappear from the cosmos, it would put the schema of “states of matter” in serious doubt.  Something of that nature is what has happened with Man, due to the anti-Anthropological turn circa 1860.

Now, would it be too wicked for me to suggest that while Man is not a “species” in the same sense that felix domestica is a species, none the less Man bears an uncanny resemblance to the cat, that enigmatic creature of the proverbial nine lives?  Not only did the word “Man” persist far longer than one might have expected, but Anthropology entered a period of great fruition after the death of Darwin.  Here I’m not referring primarily to what people ordinarily think of as “Anthropology”, the post-Darwinian people-within-nature paradigm which covers everything from bones to basket weaving.  Be wary that, just as in politics, where the nomenclature for everything gets twisted around to its opposite, and we now are forced to call socialists “liberals” in similar fashion those post-Darwinian scholars who no longer believe in a human essence are liable to call themselves “Anthropologists.”  In fact, they are mostly anti-Anthropologists who just want to study the secondary attributes and accidental properties associated with human beings.   Granted, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, and on the whole these so-called Anthropologists are not a bad lot, being no more consistently anti-Anthropological than the other professionals who have have inherited scattered fragments among the human sciences.  If the so-called Anthropologists have any besetting sins, those would be 1) they stole the name away from genuine Anthropology, 2) some sub-schools were virulently anti-cognitive, for example the ethnologist Franz Boaz who never saw a theory that he didn’t want to grind down into a powder of facts, 3) others, notably the Structuralists, were hyper-cognitive, and sought to gin up a Theory of Everything, based on some attribute (usually kinship or language) of human thought or behavior.

The anti-Anthropologists who called themselves “Anthropologists” loved “Man” (the word).  After all, it was their schtick, and made a nifty title for textbooks, even textbooks written by sophisticated Darwinians and Marxists who knew that human species-being had gone out of fashion with Feuerbach.  In the meantime, anything on two legs with an opposable thumb would do, and it was all great fun until Feminism put the kibosh on that particular branding.  None the less, so-called  “Anthropology” took the ban on “Man” in stride, since their usage of the term was based on a consistent nominalism, if not on a conscious memory of the anti-Anthropological roots of modern natural science.  Fortunately, due to the exclusion of classical languages, undergraduates could still take “Anthro” and not worry their heads that banned “Man” had never meant just  andro…indeed, that it had meant much more than both andro and gyno put together.

Yet, I wanted to mention the 2oth century miracle of Anthropology, not so-called “Anthropology” but genuine Philosophical Anthropology, as it flourished after, and in spite of, the anti-Anthropological turn of the previous generation.  If I thought that Man were a mere species and not an attribute of Created Being, my inclination would be to classify it somewhere within the family Leporidae, as a mammal with a capacity for making unexpected intellectual leaps, and multiplying thoughts faster than other species can reproduce their genes.  To that end, what great broods have been spawned, not just among the anti-Anthropologists, which is only to be expected, but even among genuine Anthropologists during the 20th and even 21st centuries!

Now remember, when I heap praise on the battered remnants of genuine, philosophical, Anthropology, I’m only lauding them for asking the right question, namely: “What is…[bleep!]”  And by now you understand what “bleep!” is and that a Philosophical Anthropologist is one who would know and say that “bleep!”=Man, and that possibly we should even come out and say “Man” when we mean Man.  I am not saying that many, or even any, of these Anthropologists have answered the question correctly, although I think there is an answer, and that some have made a closer approach to the correct solution than others.  Naturally I have my own views, but I would consider anyone a legitimate Anthropologist who asked the question aright.

There are schools of Philosophical Anthropology of every description.  Some are religious, some are frankly atheistic, but even the most starkly atheistic Anthropologists demure from post-Darwinian naturalism in positing something unique and essential about the human race.  In that sense, all Anthropologists, from atheists to Christians, are tendering a kind of “minority report” against the consensus view of modern science and society.  An atheistic, but genuine, Anthropologist might posit that the human race has a unique responsibility to conserve the cosmos and bring it to its best potential.  Countering this, the consensus view would maintain that such an assertion was errant nonsense, an arbitrary projection of human values into the unthinking and unthinkable void.

In a brief treatment, it is impossible to do more than allude to all the speculative “minority reports” which have been filed by Philosophical Anthropologists against the hegemony of post-Darwinian naturalism.  No doubt many of these speculations have been wrong-headed, but they have at least kept a window open to world-views outside the standard narrative.  If I had to pick a representative of the type it would be Max Scheler(German, d. 1928).  Feuerbach’s anthropolgy began with materialistic idealism and sloped inexorably down to idealistic materialism, however Scheler’s thought described a parabola, which at its height sought the divine in Man.   Personality, both Divine and Human, was arguably Scheler’s main concern, however his reluctance to deal with the limits imposed by a temporal creation, as per the Judeo-Christian scriptures, subordinated individuality to the vague infinity of deep time, a dilemma similar to that encountered by the ancient Gnostics.  Abandoning his initial, and intentionally Christian, viewpoint, Scheler made the alarming discovery that, in precluding a personal God, the amoral instinctual urges of the Cosmos were far stronger than  any principle of spiritual form or sentiment.   The intellectual public in Germany and beyond, repelled by such otiose metaphysics embraced existentialism, a doctrine which gave up on the reality of anything but individuals.  Anthropology once again retreated to the shadows.

In retrospect, Feurebach and Scheler seem like tragic figures who lifted up Man, in one or another guise, as a god, only to see their systems crushed down by more consistently nihilistic doctrines.  However it doubtful whether their contemporaries saw the loss of Anthropological hegemony as something to be lamented.  Rather, they were relieved to be unburdened of Man, just as they had greeted the earlier, and logically prior, “death of God” with satisfaction.

The return of Man, and the return of “Man”…which, both or neither?

The operational assumption is that people can get along perfectly well without a conception of their own species occupying a special place in the system of the world.  Underlying this assumption is the more fundamental axiom that the natural science narrative is our default outlook on the world.  After all, its “natural” is it not?

However the “minority report” of Philosophical Anthropology raises the  specter of a completely different world, a world in which the unique bearers of the divine image have been persuaded that they are but one of a myriad of animal species.  By this account, the conceptual framework of natural science within which the image bearers were circumscribed, was not so much a “discovery” as the imputation of a belief-system.  From this perspective, it is naturalism, not the classical Man-centered cosmology, which is fabulous.  To get the masses of humanity to believe such a deflating fable in the course of a few centuries, has been a superbly effective triumph of propaganda.  Although we have some hints as to who has disseminated this propaganda, the question of in whose interest it was disseminated remains enigmatic.

Within the English-speaking world, the banner of the old classical Anthropology (Christian or secular) was “Man.”  The banner was not furled up until long after the cause was lost.  Yet the banner itself was essential, so essential that the high command of anti-Anthropology decided to send in the Amazonian battalion to haul it down under the pretext of the gender wars.  Lost in the confusion of that particular skirmish, was the deep import of having a proper name for that key nexus of Creation through which the Divine, ideally, was to communicate its dominion over the visible world.  “People” is more than just an innocent substitute for “Man”, since, being a plural, it serves as a pretext for importing the entire philosophy of nominalism into the human sciences.  Nominalism views entities (you and me and the cat and the carpet) as capable of being grouped into any category which happens to be convenient.   Who’s convenience?

It can be safely inferred that this is a view well suited to those who want to abolish the boundaries between species.  Perhaps now the reader can see the relevance of all the preceding esoteric Anthropology, for looming on the event horizon of our world are a thousand crises brought about by relation of the human to the non-human.  Indeed, we are conjuring up new categories of non-humans day by day.  AI and aliens, robots and Chimeras, not to mention all those entities of the natural and spiritual world who are ancient in human lore.  I eagerly await the rebirth of the “dinosaur” from its amber-encased DNA.  Or will it be a dragon?   Names make a difference.

None the less, we proceed without caution, for the night-watch has been relieved of its duties as the evening of human history encroaches.  Isolated voices cry out, “There may be a problem here!” and anxiety is ubiquitous, but few are willing to “get real.”  This is not an accident.  The “real” tools, nay, the “real” weapons with which we might have fought were long ago taken away and beaten, not into plowshares, but into the bars of zoological confinement for what remains of the dignity of Man.  The “real” tools were realistic in a properly philosophical sense, exalting created kinds as the unalterable building blocks from which God created our world.  Such was Man.  Hence the necessity of having a personal name for the species.

Will Man come again?  I think so, but more on the basis of faith than calculation.  In the meantime others look towards a rapidly accelerating future, and begin to realize that “Nature” is hardly a better idol than secular Man, that the sense of “nature-in-itself” is an illusory effect of what psychologists call normalcy bias.  None the less, something is approaching, we know not what.  Intellectuals call it “the end of history” while technologists speak of “the singularity.”  Most just ignore it, but it will come nonetheless.

Suddenly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Anthropology, Art, Christianity, Culture & Politics, Esoterism, Evolution, History, Paleoconservativism, Philosophy, Politics, Traditionalism, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

The Surprising Salvation in Salvador Dali!

Posted by nouspraktikon on June 27, 2017

Art (1930AD) catches up to Augustine (400AD)

For several decades had I tried, without much success, to understand the work of Salvador Dali.  And “if” (the obligatory caveat) I understand his work now, that is only because my fumbling around finally located the key to Dali, a key hidden in plain sight, and a key which I am willing to share with you now.

Dali was a Christian.

Pay no attention to the fact that Dali wasn’t your kind of Christian.  Dali wasn’t anybody’s kind of Christian, except Dali’s and (hopefully) Christ’s.  Nominally, he was a Spanish Catholic, and while nobody has ever doubted that he was very Spanish, the assessment of Dali’s Catholicism remains dubious.  Towards the end of his life the priest assigned to Dali “suggested” he illustrate the Jerusalem Bible.  These illustrations, while excellent, were hardly Dali’s best, and show uncharacteristic restraint.  Evidently Dali was put on some sort of spiritual diet, and in the process of “trying to be good” produced, predictably, good rather than great art.

When I mention Dali’s Christian art, I don’t mean his sunset productions as a Biblical illustrator, but those most tortured and characteristic works which the whole world recognizes as Daliesque.   To me, and I’m hardly alone, this art initially seemed utterly grotesque, or at best interesting as a stage in art history.  I vastly preferred Classical art, and some of the more lean and geometrical modern works.   However I was wary of the surrealists, and for that matter, today I’m more wary of them than ever.   Yet I have come to love Dali.

What changed was my perception of Dali.  I no longer hold him to either the cannons of Classical or Modern art.  I see him as a Christian artist, mediating the dispute of the ancients and and moderns, and overcoming both.

Keep in mind that Dali was always respectful of (or if “respect” is too un-Dali, “consciously indebted to”) Classical art.  In particular, he lionized Vermeer and Velasquez.  This must have irritated the artistic and literary radicals of  the mid-20th century.  The best thing that George Orwell (more sympathetic than most) could say was that Dali could pose as “a great draftsman.”  Modernists portrayed classicism as pictorial realism which had been rendered obsolete by the invention of photography.  Hence to imitate the classics was to reduce oneself to the level of a draftsman…an artist’s apprentice.

However the Christian critique of Classical art goes much deeper, in that, from the point of view of Christian witness to the effects of sin, any Classical “realism” is a lie.  However pious a Michaelangelo or even a Vermeer might be in private, the public image of their art remains essentially pagan, a portrayal of the beautiful surface of reality.  A panting like “The Artist in His Studio” by Vermeer, is either trivial or Platonic.  At worst it is trivial, a kind of pre-photograph which entertains us with the glimmering play of light on human and artificial surfaces.  At best, it is a Platonic illustration of timeless perfection, which unfortunately ignores the sin nature of both the artist and the subject.

This is the kind criticism of pagan art which Augustine of Hippo (c. 400AD) would have understood.  My hypothesis is that the young Dali had some similar inkling when he was a young man transiting from the drafting table to the surrealist salon.  Of course Dali was no theologian at the time, and whether he ever became one is a matter of conjecture.  But his intuition told him that representative art was either trivial or a lie, and thus to overcome Classical art, Dali would have to bear his cross and descend into hell.  And thus he entered the hell of surrealism.

Dali’s Divine Comedy

Here I must treat Dali’s decent into hell as a parenthesis.  The whole story is best categorized under the rubric of Cultural Marxism and sundry systems which have substituted the worship of the human mind and society for that of Abraham’s God.  I have written elsewhere, and at length, on this subject, and pending God’s permission, may do so in the future.  Suffice to say that Dali learned all the techniques of the diabolical arts and propaganda better than his masters themselves.  This greatly irritated them at the time and increasingly thereafter.

At the risk of oversimplification, a risk that I will harrow in preference to ambiguity, the surrealists were developing a technology which they hoped would drive men and women mad, not just as individuals, but in the mass, through the propagation of mass-art.  Today we are inured to the aftereffects of surrealism, in venues as diverse as European politics and American advertising.  We dismiss the MAD men as little more than a toponymic pun and reassure ourselves that nobody ever got food poisoning from watching a can of Andy Warhol’s soup.  However at its inception, the surrealist movement developed a toxic concentrate of images which were intended to drug the senses and more particularly to destroy the “common sense” of Western Civilization.  Today we can see that they, in collusion with other forces, have been quite successful.  However it took more time than the surrealists (mostly “revolution now” types) were willing to envision, which in turn has obscured their cause on our effect.

But for the moment, let’s voyage back to the mid-20th century, back to Dali.  Gradually it became clear that either Dali was not a genuine surrealist or that (as per Dali’s own view) he was the only surrealist and the others were all frauds.  Beyond the name-calling, what was really going on?  The surrealists expected Salvador Dali to put his technique at the service of their ideology.  However for Dali surrealism wasn’t an ideology, just another technique for the artist to command.  The Marxists and Nihilists could never understand this.  You aren’t supposed to be able revolt against the revolution or to annihilate nothingness.

Yet Dali did precisely that, through the employ of his not-so-secret weapon…humor.  Like Dante, he had descended into hell and emerged on the other side of the world, the side of God.  However there is a great difference between Dante’s Divine Comedy and that of Salvador Dali, i.e., the latter is actually funny.  Dante edifies but Dali entertains.

Yet there is a serious side to Dali as well.  Armed with two contrasting techniques, Classical realism and Surrealist illusion, the Spaniard was able to work in high fidelity to the message of the scriptures.  Humanity is indeed distorted and grotesque, an agent of sin descended from generations of twisted experience in the vicissitudes of time and lust.  None the less, the primal image of God is never quite erased.  Classical form remains as the necessary substance which perpetuates human existence, even when that existence has been twisted into monstrosities.  From this duality emerges an authentic picture of the human condition, a picture which neither Modernity nor Classicism on their own can portray.

Like his great predecessor El Greco, Dali distorts the classic form.  But while El Greco could only distort along one dimension (height, and that perhaps due to an ocular distortion) Dali could distort along multiple dimensions.  To give the devil his due, Dali learned this as a journeyman surrealist. Consequently, in Dali we see the painful weaving together of Humanity it both its fallen and its original state.  That this groaning of the  fallen world creates pleasure, even levity, when viewed as art is one of the enigmas of Dali, and not just of Dali but of that larger mystery of Christ in which that artist participated as a witness.

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Captain Obvious calling: What if Myths are just (you guessed it!) myths?

Posted by nouspraktikon on May 3, 2017

From unsophisticated lies to sophisticated rationalizations

I have spent more of my  life than I would care to admit trying to unravel the mysteries of myths and mythologies.   The dominant theories among anthropologists, psychologists and other scholars reflects the prevailing assumption that myth reflects a key to some deep primitive wisdom which modern people have gotten out of touch with.  Thus for Levi-Strauss, myth reveals the primitive meta-logic of the mind which is far more socially cohesive than the analytical categories of common sense logic.  Carl Jung goes further in seeing the primal spirituality of all human beings stored in a collective unconscious which from time to time is expressed in mythical terms.

The assumption is that there are truths too deep to be expressed in plain expository language.  But what if myth, far from expressing truths, is actually giving vent to falsehoods.  This is the viewpoint of Rene Girard, who sees in the incoherence of myth, a similarity to rationalization.  When the main character of a mythical narrative suddenly turns into a god or a totemic animal, Girard suggests that the hero was the subject of envy and fell victim to murder most foul.  To disguise the crime the survivors in society changed the narrative and promoted the hero from the status of victim to god.  Those who notice some similarity to Christ’s passion will not be surprised that Girard is a Christian and was influenced by the gospel narrative in framing his social theory.

One need not concur with all the details of Girard’s anthropology to see the wisdom of applying a forensic approach to myth.  If myths are primitive rationalizations of the great crimes committed in antiquity, this would go a long way to explaining the convoluted and contradictory logic which seems characteristic of all primitive societies.  As Mark Twain once said, “I don’t tell lies because its too much work to keep them all straight in my memory.”

From Fall to Falsehood

However the human race seems, on the whole, to have taken liberties with the truth at the price of developing a vast and often incoherent body of narratives which we call mythology.  To say that myths are lies and nothing more than lies, would seem to put the work of generations of anthropologists and folklorists to naught.  Yet this might be a true key to understanding the enigma of the human past.  All myths might be variations on one Big Lie which has been told generation after generation, growing in detail and complexity as each narrator attempted to put more distance between his contemporaries and some Primal Crime of deep antiquity.

In this context, it might be useful to note that the Bible, whatever “genre” we might assign to it, most certainly is not myth.  Even the most superficial acquaintance with scripture shows that its style and method is completely different from all the mythological systems which have been passed down through the traditions of the nations.  Indeed, scripture and myth are not just different but opposite, and comparing them is much like looking through a telescope alternatively from different ends.  Thus, while myths are human attempts at making a theology, the Bible was given us by God as a book of anthropology.  In understanding ourselves, we understand our relationship to God, or lack thereof.

Unlike myths, the Bible reveals to us the Great Crime which broke our fellowship with God.  It tells the truth in straight, unambiguous terms, in terms which would be recognized by any logician, whether or not such a logician accepted the moral of the story.  In contrast, mythology, the Bible’s primitive rival, is forever losing the logical thread of its narrative, much like dreams, which are simply the nocturnal counterpart of the mythological madness told in broad daylight.  When myth is on the witness stand the story is always changing, backtracking, and the names are changed to protect the guilty.

Not so with scripture, which radiates a clarity similar to the last pages in a classical “whodunit.”  Of course, this makes it unpopular with the criminal class, a class which (in regard to the Original Crime) includes the entirety of the human race.  Conversely this explains the popularity of myth which is, in the absence of other virtues…at least highly creative.

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The Culture Conspiracy: A critical investigation into the destruction of civilization (Introduction)

Posted by nouspraktikon on April 10, 2017

The Culture Conspiracy

This is the first installment of a multi-part series on how the modern “culture concept” has, as a complement to the theory of evolution, demoralized and degraded civilization, or actual “culture” in the original intent of that word.  While it is not intended to be an exhaustive overview of the topic, the investigation will try to hit on all the major aspects of the problem.  Tentatively, it will be organized along the following themes,

  1. The Great Baton Pass
  2. The Measure of Man vs. the Measure of God
  3. From Custom to Culture
  4. Erasing the essential Civilization/Barbarism distinction
  5. From Kant to Hegel: From the individual to the species
  6. From Hegel to Boaz: From the species to the people
  7. The Super-organic, the Spiritual, and the Ugly
  8. The Enigma of Innovation
  9. Man Makes Himself Part II: From Custom to Customization
  10. Beyond the Culture Concept

Though each of these contains enough to provide a mini-course in itself, in its present state the work is likely to appear as the outline of a syllabus rather than a detailed treatment of the subject.

Introduction: The Culture Conspiracy

Suppose you were able to travel back in time to the mid-Victorian era.  Just to pick a date, let’s suppose it were 1859, the year in which Darwin published his master work, Origin of Species.  You arrive in London, England and are able to established communications with a middle class person, of either sex, and ask them two questions about the future.  First, do you expect technology to improve in the future?  Second, do you expect culture to improve in the future?  If I am not greatly mistaken, the answer of a well-informed Londoner of 1859 would be a resounding “Yes!” to both questions.

Next, through the magic of your time-traveling you offer them a vista of life at the beginning of the twenty-first century.  Now they are able to judge whether their optimistic prophecies have been vindicated.  There is no need to waste time on the answer to the first question.  The mid-Victorian would find the technological wonders of the present to be little less than a magical transformation of the human environment.  Even if the lady or gentleman in question were a Luddite, or like Mr. Butler, apprehensive of “machines” in general, they would be forced to admit that the machines had won the day, whether or not the technical triumph was in the long range interests of the human race.

And what of culture?  If cultural optimism were vindicated in proportion to the Victorian’s technological optimism, what wonderful variations on Moore’s Law might one expect?  In the year 2017 music would be one-hundred times more sonorous than Mozart, paintings one-hundred times beautiful than Turner, the law-courts one-hundred times more just and expeditious, families one-hundred times more peaceful and harmonious,  architecture one-hundred times more symmetrical and stately,  and the religious life of the average man or woman one-hundred times more pious.

I am sure everyone understands that such exaggerated expectations would suffer bitter disappointment.  But I would go beyond that and hypothesize that our representative Victorian would judge that much of culture had regressed rather than progressed.  Looking around at a population dressed in t-shirts and jeans, the well-dressed Victorian might assume that he or she (especially she) had landed in a sartorial dark ages.  Dress might be the most ubiquitous and offensive sign of cultural degeneration, but further investigation would reveal a myriad of aspects in which 21st century culture had decayed far beyond the lowest level of Victorian expectations.

Art might be cheap and easily accessible but so primitive, cartoon-like or commercial that the Victorian time-traveler would deem it rubbish.  Language, (unless our Victorian were a rater in Her Majesty’s Navy)  would have become unutterably vulgar.  Human relations would have become broader but shallower, and the family reduced to just one of the many nodes of association provided for the convenience of individuals.  The poor-house and the debtors prison would have been abolished, but by the year 2017 debt would have become the primary nexus holding the economy together.  Indeed, from the point of view of a middle-class Victorian, by the year 2017 society itself would have become one giant debtor’s prison.

This is not even to speak of the actual prisons of the 21st century, or the fact that Jack the Ripper (still in the future for 1859) would spawn, like some forensic Adam, a class of registered and unregistered offenders.  Finally our representative Victorian, even if not an enthusiast for the works of Herbert Spencer, might dimly recognize that by the standards of classical liberalism, the 21st century state had itself become a criminal network, engaged in perpetual borrowing and taxation for extensive regulation at home and endless warfare abroad.

Having safely deposited our Victorian time-traveler back to the homely 19th century, and drugged him with the obligatory milk of amnesia so that history won’t be spoiled, a familiar figure enters from stage left to deliver a soliloquy.  This is Mr. Carping Critic, who objects to the whole little drama.  He claims that our whole little experiment is a sham, based on false premises from the start.  He says that the two questions were apples and oranges from the start, and that the “no” verdict to the second question rests on biased judgment.  He says that when we jump from technology to culture we go from the measurable to the intangible, and we have entered into that shady region of values where nobody’s opinion (even that of a time-traveling Victorian) is more objective than that of someone else.

From the point of view of Mr. Carping Critic, the Victorian’s view of art is just an outmoded taste, so of course we should expect a negative verdict.  If the growth of the prison population is viewed negatively, it just shows the enduring grip of pastoral romanticism over the advantages of cozy confinement.  And so forth and so on in every department of “culture” since after all, culture is a matter of values, and as we all know, values change.  The seal of the entire argument is the whole ridiculous subject of clothing, which our time traveler had nothing better to venture than the opinion of a bigoted prude.

With that coup de grace, Mr. Carping Critic thinks he has stripped the Victorian of her secret!

I cannot refute Mr. Carping Critic on his own grounds, since they are not grounds at all, but the quicksands of a shifting and relativistic doctrine.  However it is a doctrine which has a history and that history can be exposed and criticized.  Indeed, I will go beyond Mr. Carping Critic to criticize the one concept which remains beyond criticism for him, namely “the culture concept.”  Yes, he is right to say that the time-traveling questions were not consistent, for in 1859 the word “culture” hadn’t quite assumed the connotation that we give it today.  Soon that would change, and it would change in such a way that people would no longer be as confident about making statements about objective reality as they had previously.

I think, in contrast to Mr. Carping Critic and his ilk, that objective reality, not just in the natural but the human world, continues to exist, and that an inability to talk about it puts anyone thus incapacitated at a severe disadvantage.  However our inability to talk about human affairs objectively is the end result of a kind of conspiracy, a conspiracy that started long ago and today has come to fruition in a multitude of crises.  In subsequent installments I will unmask this conspiracy… the culture conspiracy.

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You are a bottom dweller!

Posted by nouspraktikon on February 26, 2017

Where do we live?  How do we live there?

In the year 1911, the French science fiction author Maurice Renard produced a literary oddity entitled The Blue Peril.  It is written in an irritating, aphoristic style which I fear has scarcely been improved by the diligence of the translator.  None the less it is a masterpiece of originality, being a predecessor of the alien-abduction genre, a disgraceful progeny to be sure…but a theme which was no doubt thought provoking at first telling.   In 1911 the human race was still awed by the atmosphere, it was the “outer space” of then current science and technology.  So Renard’s tale of creatures who navigated the upper stratosphere and fished for humans and their artifacts was sensational at the same time that H.G.Wells’ stories alternatively amused and horrified the English reading public.

I recommend The Blue Peril, not because it is easy or satisfying to read, but rather as a disorienting reorientation to who we are and where we live.  For indeed we are bottom dwellers, fish in an ocean of atmospheric blue.  To be sure, we are confident that we are “on top of things” and unless we are mariners we reassure ourselves that we live our life on solid ground.  Yet what we call the oceans are just deeper, more viscous fluids below the top layer of our atmospheric sea.  Like marine mammals who cannot venture into the blackness of the seams between the continental plates, we are out of our depth even in the shallows of the blue-green seas, none the less we make our dwelling far below the true surface of the planet.

We do not think this way normally, but that is the reality of our situation.  More importantly, it is our situation from the point of view of our Heavenly Father.  Honestly, I know nothing about the religious opinions of monsieur Renard, and would not be surprised if he held atheistic views similar to those of Wells.  None the less, what he wrote is as much science fact as science fiction, and as always science and religion are in much closer conjunction than the enthusiasts of either are willing to admit.  For there are certain characteristics of the ocean which everybody, scientist or not, is compelled to admit.  Let’s list just a few of these characteristics.

*It is a place which teems with life.

*It is a place of death, a death which feeds upon the teeming life in its bosom.

*It is a place of immense pressure.  This pressing-down and pressing-in of the surrounding fluid is not normally sensed by the creatures, since each is provided with a frame which equilibrates the  interior and the exterior of the organism at its normal depth.

*It is a dark place, and its opacity increases with the depths, none the less all the sentient creatures who dwell therein have some sensory apparatus which they feel gives them an perfect representation of reality.

*It is a place of constant flux.

Indeed, these things are as true of our own world as they are of the world of whales and fish.  We tend to overestimate the solidity of our own environment when we consider it otherwise than as the shallows of a planetary ocean.  Granted, at our lubberly depths the barometric pressure is less and the intensity of light is somewhat greater than in the submerged shelves, let alone the trenches.  These are things which science can measure.  However there is no meaningful measurement of “flux” if by that we mean change in a generic sense.   Until there is a storm we think of the air as empty space, and until there is an earthquake we are unimpressed by the slow drift of the continents.

Yet with the human race there is a further complication.  For we are not just ordinary fish, but amphibious hybrids composed of matter and spirit.  Thus we are doubly submerged, living not only beneath the currents of the sky, but also trapped inside a creature of our own making.  This latter is even less tangible than the air, since it is mental rather than physical.  There is no name for it, or rather, there are too many names, and each school of philosophy cleaves to its pet nomenclature.  We might call it civilization, or culture, or history, and while the old philosopher Ibn Rushid (a.k.a. “Averroes”) called it the world-soul, the more recent theologian Telliard du Chardan called it the “noosphere.”  I would like to call it the “Anthrosphere” but perhaps we should hew close to scripture and think of it as a great Leviathan in who’s belly we dwell, mistaking the phosphorous of its interior for the stars.  But they are not the true stars, even if fixed stars are only an idea…for the entire animal  is in constant motion.

I know this is a grim analogy, but there is worse to come.

The “Sauvants”

In Renard’s fiction these were the criminal fishermen of the air who fetched up terrestrial samples (animals, plants, minerals, and humans) into their floating continent.  Here science fiction and science fact part company.  Atheism declares that there is nothing but the void above us.  Revelation disagrees, without endorsing Renard’s fantasy.  How so?  According to Christianity we need not fear being “caught” by malevolent entities above our heads.  Rather, we were caught long ago, and not through some cruel accident but rather by entering into an agreement with our common ally against the Creator.  All of us since Adam have been born into the belly of the Leviathan!

Rather, it is our Heavenly Father who deigns to fish us out of our delusional heaven, out from the bottom of our invisible ocean.  Moreover, this invisible ocean from which we must be liberated is not so much the physical atmosphere as the mental “anthrosphere”…our perverse insistence that we are the masters of reality dwelling on an illuminated summit.  This hubris is made even more pathetic by a fallen humanity’s tacit cooperation with equally or more fallen spirits.   Here again, the actual situation is worse than that confronting Renard’s horrified Frenchmen and Frenchwomen in the (fictional) year 1911.  At least the “sauvants” were corporal in a bizarre fashion, but the spirits are not just external threats.  They are potentially internal, and far from being recognized as threats, are either ignored or welcomed.

In reality, the danger is not that we will be “snatched up” like the protagonists of Renard’s fantasy.  On the contrary, the danger is that in our fallen state we see no necessity of being “snatched up.”  Fallen man and fallen woman are happy dwellers on the bottom of this thin blue sea that we call a world.  Habituated to flux and the companionship of delinquent spirits, the thought of a heavenly firmament afflicts such creatures with vertigo.  Their perversity will not admit a cosmology where Heaven is more substantial than Earth, they conceive what is above as vapid and trailing out into a void.  Thus they cling to the ocean floor like snails, like shellfish.

Yet there are others who feel out of place in this invisible abyss.  The pressure of the waters is palpable to them, and at last becomes insufferable.  They seek out the mercy of the Compassionate Fisherman and suffer themselves to be entangled in His net.  They perceive that their fellows are in great danger, but stumble when they try to speak of a place beyond the surface of the sea, indeed, a place beyond the allegory of surfaces and substances.  They view with apprehension how those habituated to the bottom have become at home in their shells.   Indeed, like snails.

Perchance, escargot!

 

 

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Surrealism, the backdoor between Marxism and the Occult: The case of Frida Kahlo

Posted by nouspraktikon on August 2, 2016

Pictures at an exhibition:  Beyond political correctness to Marxist memorial

The press release from the Harn Museum of Art (an institution associated with the University of Florida) read as follows,

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) known for her self-portrait paintings, was among the most photographed women of her generation.  In addition to the photographic works of Kahlo, the exhibition will include a PBS film “The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo,” two works (a drawing and a painting) by Kahlo and ancient and contemporary Mexican ceramics and sculpture from a local collector and the Harn’s collection.

What the press release did not mention, but which is sufficiently illustrated by the documentary film, is that Kahlo was a life long leftist who’s Marxism became increasingly enthusiastic over the course of her tumultuous and troubled life.  None the less, the tone of the film and the exhibition are laudatory, not critical, and one has to wonder why PBS and the Harn are now shamelessly promoting the worship of  Marxist icons?  Kahlo’s passion for her husband Diego Rivera (1886-1957), who raised the Mexican mural genre to the status of political art, did not preclude an adulterous interlude with exiled Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky.  Neither did any lingering sentiment for Trotsky prevent Kahlo from memorializing his murderer, Joseph Stalin, with art and adulation.

Although the information set forth is intended to portray Kahlo sympathetically, the narratives and pictures are sufficiently candid to tell a different story from that intended by their politically correct sponsors.  These sponsors seem to be relying on the historical ignorance of the general public to omit the context in which Kahlo and her associates’ life and work transpired.  For example, one is not supposed to recollect that Christianity in the Mexico of the mid-twentieth century had been suppressed with a vehemence and violence that aspired to emulate conditions in the Soviet Union itself.  However, if we are able to restore this context, then the exhibition and film do become vastly educational, albeit not in the sense that its sponsors intended.

Surrealism, art, and agitation

From the first it needs to be kept in mind that Kahlo was never an isolated artist, but rather part of that larger movement which called itself “Surrealism.”  As an emigre from France to Mexico, Kahlo was a major force in the regional propagation of the movement, but not its leading international star.  Although historians classify surrealism as an artistic movement, its originators deemed it a revolutionary philosophy, one which was capable of altering human perception to such a degree that it would facilitate social and cultural transformation.  The mastermind of this movement was Andre Breton(1896-1966).  Breton was not only a mentor of Kahlo but a social acquaintance, the PBS documentary even mentioning an alleged lesbian relationship between Kahlo and Breton’s wife.  Be that as it may, Breton’s theory found a natural conduit to the masses in the work of Kahlo and other disciples.

Though Breton was a Marxist, his artistic theory was far to the “left” of mainstream Marxist aesthetics of the time, which was trying to promote the stodgy doctrine of Soviet Realism which reduced all art to a kind of photography of sense impressions.  Like kindred theories which were starting to make waves in the ’20s and ’30s, notably the Frankfort School’s critical theory and Antonio Gramci’s cultural Marxism, the Surrealists felt that the bourgeois  mind could not simply be chopped off from the shoulders of material reality.   Rather, it required transformation, and the Surrealists felt that they, being revolutionary geniuses, had devised just the right formula to bring about the desired result.

The essence of the theory was that the human mind had been confined by logic to conform to an artificial matrix of perception.  A particular kind kind of logic, explained by Aristotle but thought to be natural and universal, was responsible for the way human beings, at least in the West, categorized the world given by the senses.   Thus normally, the sensory manifold was interpreted as evidence of discrete entities (such as rational persons) their qualities (such as owning their bodies and property) and relationships (such as the binary distinction between justice/injustice). Contrary to this “common sense” doctrine, the Surrealists felt that if bourgeois civilization were to be overthrown, these categories needed to be neutralized and overcome.  The avenue by which the human mind was most liable to reconditioned away from what had previously been defined as “sanity” and “reality” was art, especially graphic and photographic recombination and mutation of common scenes.

Whereas the Soviet Realist wished to reduce all perception to a logic of despiritualized bodies interacting in time and space, the Surrealist wished to abolish logic completely, and reduce the mind to a series of kaleidoscope impressions, devoid of any supervening criteria of judgement of as to whether the sensations were illusory or genuine.  In contrast to the doctrinaire Realists, the Surrealists wished to retain psychology at the heart of their world-view.  This was tremendously appealing to a varied assortment of intellectuals and artists who’s narcissistic tendencies made them unlikely candidates for the kind of impersonal doctrine being dished out to rank-and-file Communists.  Frieda Kahlo, who’s self-constructed image appears repeatedly in the exhibition, is clearly an instance of such a comrade-narcissist.

Frieda Kahlo, from Shamanism to Stalinism

In the minds of Breton’s European contemporaries, Surrealism’s psychologization of perception was expected to destroy bourgeois idealism, striping the mind of reasonable objections to the assault of the strong material forces which were destined overwhelm civilization.  These forces, industrial, military, economic, and demographic were all material in their foundation.  Therefore critics of Communism who have ventured to apply terms such as “demonic” and even “Satanic” to the movement have been accused of hyperbolic expression, if not outright paranoia.  After all, an atheist, whatever her or his faults, is an unlikely candidate for demon-worship.

However, would not the Surrealist movement, in striping the mind of rationality, leave it prey to not just brute natural forces,  but also to preternatural entities, if indeed the latter have any objective reality?  In the absence of characters such as Frieda Kahlo, such a hypothesis would be purely conjectural.  However we can see in her art the portrayal of a parallel world which seems to have more in common with the shammanic visions portrayed by Carlos Castennada than the pop leftist Parisian cafes which Frieda Kahlo despised.  Whatever their differences in world-view both the sorcerer and the commissar seek to attain unlimited power without the burdens of ethical constraint, and it is no accident that a disciple of Andre Breton was able to break down the partition between two of hell’s antechambers.

Does this mean that there was no value to the art of the surrealists or to the teaching of Frieda Kahlo?  Not necessarily, however the ultimate value of any work lies in to whom that work has been consecrated.  Not to consecrate at all, out of human pride, is to assume a godless universe and thus to consecrate one’s work to demons, should they happen to exist, by default.  The first assumption was implicit in the ideology of the Realists while the latter was worked out in the practice of the Surrealists.  Indeed it may be that, as Frieda Kahlo rightfully insisted, there is more to art than painting endless stereotypes of boring floral arrangements, but hopefully we can become creative without denying the primal Creator and consequently taking the full credit for our own spiritual and physical mutations.  Salvador Dali, the archenemy of Andre Breton, was as creative as any of the leftist cult’s artists, but he possessed two qualities which tend to escape armchair revolutionaries, devotion to God and a sense of humor.

Some people will come away from the Frieda Kahlo exhibition in awed reverence, others, more discerning, will feel vaguely nauseated.  Nobody is likely to leave laughing.

 

 

[NB God willing the series on Christian Anthropology will be extended in the near future, however it was thought expedient to interrupt with a few out of series posts…thanks as always to my patient readers]

 

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