That Tricky Montaigne!

Montaigne

Montaigne gets the desire for alternative lifestyles. Hipsters leave suburbs for the slums and degraded places. And they dress weird, which causes others to heap contempt on them, though the hipsters have a bit of contempt for others as well. However, Montaigne seems to think such suffering is carried out for the sake of virtue; my prognosis of hipsterdom is not so optimistic.

The Impossibility of Conservatism; or, Why I am a Reactionary

Part 3 of 3 (see also parts one and two)

All good things come to an end, they say, and so must this series on the limits of Burkean conservatism. First, we discussed how the landscape of tradition has changed: what was revolutionary and inimical to the great heritage of mankind has since become “traditional” while even more radically progressive features dot the minds of many men. Thus, the moderate change championed by fair Edmund would simply be part of the problem—to assert the truth, goodness, and beauty with which Burke himself was trying to preserve makes one into a sort of radical himself, often contrary to the tastes and policies of his immediate predecessors. Similarly, we looked at Chesterton’s critique, where there’s a sort of Social 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. We must not simply accept evolutionary politics—if something is a universal truth or goodness, then it needs to be restored, often against the tide of fans of moderating inertia. In many ways, the eternal God and His Law cannot be kicked out of the equation. One sometimes has to willfully fight against a kind of political and social entropy—a practice that is not easily gathered from Burke’s corpus of thought.

On the other hand, something has changed through history. I am different from the ancient as well as the medieval man, in a way similar to how I am different from a foreigner. What has changed—especially for Western contemporary man—when contrasted with his ancestors? Continue reading The Impossibility of Conservatism; or, Why I am a Reactionary

Unsustainable Romance: Lana Del Rey in the Age of “Video Games”

Painting by Edward Burne-Jones: Love Leading the Pilgrim
Edward Burne-Jones: Love Leading the Pilgrim

Because “death by porn” might be the coroner’s verdict on our cultural corpse. —Holgrave

Countless editorials and books assert that the twenty-first century West does not look bright for men or women, with boyhood, manhood, girlhood, and womanhood all placed in mutual jeopardy by cult-like devotion to youth, the extension of adolescence, and certain waves of feminism. The rise of the electric image adds to the confusion: videos, photos, and a plethora of internet resources flood into our daily lives. Reality and unreality clash and, for all too many, seamlessly interweave. This has served global plutocrats well—for now. Included in this class, no doubt, are power-suit sporting feminists of various stripes, “unsexed things they are,” to steal a phrase from arch-anti-progressive Louisa McCord. But what has happened to romance and to youth? Things have not fared so well for those less committed to complete sexual equality.

Enter Lana Del Rey’s hit “Video Games.” In spite of her critics (and, geez, are there many), I think her husky voice sings a tragically beautiful dirge for the death of romance. Craving love and appreciation, Del Rey’s singer comes with pet-like obedience to her boyfriend as he is “whistling my name.” She lives only to please him, and the only way to please him, it seems, is physically: “I’m in his favorite sun dress/Watching me get undressed/Take that body downtown/I say you the bestest/Lean in for a big kiss/Put his favorite perfume on.” However, instead of pouring affection upon her, the beau gobbles up these offerings faster than Doritos and sets himself in front of the screen to play video games. Fast forward to the next verse to see the nightly party scene, where “He holds me in his big arms/drunk and I am seeing stars/this is all I think of.” Empty existence—AWESOME.

Moreover, the girl’s boyfriend seems to be a pornhead and philanderer: “Tell me all the things you want to do/I heard you like the bad girls/Honey, is that true?” This manipulative dastard controls her like a marionette. The deluded girl believes the boyfriend irreplaceable in her vision of the good life, declaring, “Heaven is a place on earth with you.” Why? “They say the world was built for two/Only worth living if somebody is loving you.” Yet it seems the sexual act is her only point of reference: “Baby, now you do.” After the boyfriend’s lust is satisfied, he quickly changes gears: he plays a video game, giving more attention to the actions of a screen than to incarnate human interaction.

I don’t know if my interpretation is definitive or if it’s worth attacking Del Rey’s tenuous indie cred. I can confirm that I think that she’s on to something. Notice it’s “take that body downtown;” the human body is a machine whose primary function is pleasure-extraction. The less assertive of the fair sex are sadly reduced to desperation and abuse. This is not a universal result, but the fleeting sex-n-drugs culture of the American youth (which continues on into the thirties these days) takes a terrifying toll on womankind.

Depressing as it is, how does this sort of teenage wasteland relationship qualify as “unsustainable”?

It’s unsustainable since it cannot be fruitful and is incapable of adoration. It can never lead to matrimony and its fulfillment: procreation. Granted, there might possibly be a child, but no father united with his family. There is no union because there is only consumer and victim. It’s dystopia without a preceding apocalypse. The “strong” (video gamers included) prey upon the “weak” (depressed girls who needs love).

Contrast this with the old idea of adoration, in which the lover finds delight in the lover even without physical contact. Dante captured this idea with Beatrice in the Divine Comedy. Here, love can draw one toward the Divine Light. In the famous Canto XXXI of the Paradiso, Dante extols Beatrice when he exclaims

O lady in whom my hope shall ever soar
and who for my salvation suffered even
to set your feet upon Hell’s broken floor;

through your power and your excellence alone
have I recognized the goodness and the grace
inherent in the things I have been shown.

You have led me from my bondage and set me free
by all those roads, by all those loving means
that lay within your power and charity.

Grant me your magnificence that my soul
which you have healed, may please you when it slips
the bonds of flesh and rises to its goal.”

In loving Beatrice, Dante comes to love God. More pertinently, throughout the entire Comedy, Dante never reaches out and touches his beloved. He is in too much awe of her loveliness to invade, to conquer.

For the progressive, this is a nightmare. With all this courtliness and religion and purity nonsense, no one can have any fun. Happiness eludes, since immediate carnality is fine as long as l“no one gets hurt.” Throw off all this romantic nonsense, they say, and let kids have their fun. Once the fuddy-duddy limits of chastity are gone, we’ll be healthy, wealthy, and wise due to widespread, mutually-consented sex.

But are we? From the tone of Del Rey and others, we’re actually quite frustrated and downright bored. In the romance of “Video Games,” the boy is bored and the girl is exploited; in Dante, both man and woman draw one another to infinite bliss. The contrast is radical and jarring—too much so, perhaps. On the other hand, isn’t this the problem?

Game of (Literary) Drones: A response to Mr. Newcastle on the subject of fantasy literature

Image: Rembrandt, "Two Old Men Disputing"
Rembrandt: Two Old Men Disputing

I have been tasked with answering Mr. Newcastle on the part of the editors. We decided this would be a good idea because we think he’s wrong, but he wrote nearly two thousand words on the subject, so that might be worth something. That, and I’m single, so my Friday nights are free. Since Mr. Smith gave George R. R. Martin a thorough spanking in his review, I’ll try to limit myself to answer Newcastle’s claims alone.

First, our respondent admits that feast sections with the banners are “usually fifty percent too long.” Thus, they are still too long. Good art knows when to shut up. More troubling is that Newcastle believes the Song of Ice and Fire series to have “an intricate, detailed world.” Since Tolkien is generally the gold standard for lots of fantasy now, we need to be careful with this claim. Anyone who’s read the whole gambit of Middle Earth works knows that that sucker is wound up tighter than a Swiss clock. Indeed, other worlds are great deal more vague (Eddison’s included). But we ought not be touting Martin as intricate when he doesn’t quite stack up. There are other post-Tolkien fantasies that quite outmatch Game of Thrones.

In the second place, Newcastle grossly caricatures Mr. Smith’s opinion when the former writes, “Mr. Smith argues that Martin’s novel lacks imagination…[since]….he does not create characters that, say, represent virtue and vice in a Manichean morality play.” Newcastle accuses Smith of seeing the world “monochromatically.” The former no doubt prefers a more “realistic” approach, replete with a scaled spectrum of virtue and vice. However, I have a hard time sympathizing with this analysis when the notorious three “F’s” (fighting, feasting, and concupiscence) dominate the social interactions of Martin’s world. There really is little culture; perhaps this is because the cultus is reserved to babbling old ladies. In reality, things are indeed much more intricate than this. The skeptical and devout—the sacrificially virtuous and selfishly vile—inhabit all levels of society. But the authentic man—the non-consequentialist, to use ethical terms—has no room for the “realistic” and “practical.” That is, of course, if the eternal and spiritual realm isn’t real. If I may steal an insight from John Lukacs, oftentimes when people argue for a “unrelentlessly realistic” take on the world, they really mean a materialistic one.

The same goes for other virtues as well. The whole populace of Martin’s world is all quite grey—perhaps fifty shades thereof? Unfortunately for Newcastle’s thesis, mankind seems to be, in the words of Peter Augustine Lawler, “stuck with virtue.” Man cannot become so utterly craven and evil that he never ever exercises something of virtue. On the wider scale, in the medieval period, not all lords were cruel and exploitive taskmasters. Some at the same time were sacrificially noble and won the love of their subjects. The dilemmas and clashes with such characters makes history and fictional literature interesting. Fiction authors may reflect this or not if they so desire. They can shoot for complex character explanation, symbolic figures, absurdity, and so forth. Regardless, making the entire ruling class a niggardly evil rabble is unrealistic in the deepest sense and proves to be a moral bore. That Martin tries to create a near-virtueless fantasy world really does not separate him from most of Hollywood during the summer blockbuster season.

Now, to really understand Mr. Smith’s position on the morality issue, let us look at his alternative book, The Worm Ouroboros. Labels of “good guy” and “bad guy” simply fail to apply to the story’s characters. One might as well use the same for characters in the Homeric Iliad. Is Achilles good? Bad? The question is rather hard to answer (and perhaps not the most perceptive to ask). The Worm is truly pagan. Greatness, beauty, and honor fill out the spectrum of virtue. The Witches at Carce may be despicably crafty like the Greeks seemed to the Romans in the Aenead, but one does not find the clarity found in Le Morte D’arthur since the pre-Christian pagans often lacked the Hebrew conception of exclusive holiness. Smith’s love of the Worm does not reveal some kind of puritanical impulse for white and black hats; he simply finds the moral imagination—even of the heathen—to be more compelling than the world of Martin.

As for sexuality, I really find Newcastle’s stance indefensible. I’m pretty sure George Martin would use the adverb “boobily” if it could be found in a dictionary. The man has some seriously absurd understandings on sex. No doubt this will keep our gentle nerds celibate or on the offender database for the decades to come. Contrast this with the response garnered from the high Germanic-style women of Eddison’s book: dread and awe. From the massy coils of the noble ladies of Mercury springs a particular fear that could only emanate from some kind of divine feminine. Seriously, Lady Mevrian and Lady Prezmyra give Wagner’s Brunhilde a run for her money. And their power comes not from 1) prowess with the sword or 2) prowess in, ahem, other things.

Newcastle’s strongest point is this: “A common theme in Martin’s series is the question of what makes a man honorable and whether or not he can survive in a world that largely forsook honor centuries earlier.” Though the very existence of this defense may cause me to mistrust his taste, I confess I haven’t read more than the first book in the series. Unfortunately, life is short and I don’t have much time to wade through crap. I will never read The Shack since the long-passed Lancelot Andrewes wrote some of the best theology in the English language and the still very much alive N. T. Wright produces fascinating, more accessible tomes on soteriology. Similarly, I’ll neither patronize Martin’s wares nor punish myself with reading them when Eddison, Williams, and Snuri Sturluson remain on my reading list.

Mr. Newcastle pokes fun at us for condemning the popular. What is more, we do so in a supercilious manner. He no doubt would prefer a much friendlier, happier, and culturally-accommodating blog, an example of which can be found here. To this, I answer on behalf of our editors: we’re the goddamn Hipster Conservative.

Unsustainable Art

Painting by Boris Kustodiev: May Day Demonstration in Putilov (1906)
Boris Kustodiev: May Day Demonstration in Putilov (1906)

Art is a massive and many-splendored thing. I’d like to take this time to bask in the soul-grabbing form of music, most specifically the genre of the protest song. It is always an occasional piece, inseparably tied to history. It offers a glimpse into the human condition under oppression, violence, angst, and hatred (generally motivated by a love for something else). Authorship and performance of protest songs require a peculiar kind of moral courage. Though I come from a more “establishment-loyal” kind of family, I have come to love and appreciate these songs of passion, suffering, preaching, and criticism.

Giants like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash took to the streets and the stages with their messages for the downtrodden everyman. Protests weren’t the monopoly of the 1960s; they also had a strong presence in the Civil War and even the Independence-era Yankee Doodle. These Americans are joined by that most complaining of races, the Irish. The Celtic peoples, generally in a state of terrible repression, provide some of the very best examples for the genre.

One does notice an important element: they pull from deeper traditions, generally endangered from the oppressor. Dylan and Cash pull from country and folk Americana, steeped in older agrarian, family-bound, and church-centered ways of life. Encroaching consumerism, faster times, and militaristic interventionism all threatened an undoing of these perishable joys. Similarly, the Irish call upon downright terrifying spirits (ranging from drunkenly morose to dancingly giddy) that probably herald from the Druidic era. Also note that the authors of such pieces moved on to other things: various occasions caused lament and anguish, but human life is populated with more than anger and frustration.

Sole devotion to stultifying forms of protests are dull. Somebody needs to tell this to Russian super-stars for all the wrong reasons Pussy Riot. I’m pretty sure the Western media is giggling like a bunch of naughty schoolboys over the name while pretending to make them the darlings of progressive advocacy. This is mostly because Putin and his ever-eager lackey Kirill are jerks. KGB 2.0 has thrown the book at these balaclava-wearing rainbow children for crimes against the People’s Awesome Culture of Badassery, so that’s unfortunate. Nevertheless, the masked punk rockers did indeed trespass. But Pussy Riot’s unwelcome invasion of the altar of Moscow’s Christ the Savior was not just illegal. They should also be locked up for their atrocious song choice.

Even if I disagree with Edwin Starr’s “War,” at least it’s interesting. It’s got funk and a snazzy brass section. Riot and the Pussycats or whatever hurl sacrilegious epithets instead:

All parishioners crawl to bow,
The phantom of liberty is in heaven,
Gay-pride sent to Siberia in chains
The head of the KGB, their chief saint,
Leads protesters to prison under escort
In order not to offend His Holiness
Women must give birth and love
S–t, s–t, the Lord’s s–t!…
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist
Become a feminist, become a feminist

How precious is that? No doubt their repetoire could redeem this lyrical flop. But—hark!—they describe themselves as “feminist punk rock.” That would make sense of their impassioned pleas to the Theotokos, an otherwise very un-feminist figure in religious history.

You’d think they could come up with something deeper that would resonate with Mother (effing) Russia. Then again, the LGB…Z agenda and third wave feminism are rather recent inventions, no doubt deserving of a good umbrella-beating by the babushkas. I hope that the whole issue turns into the same as Pussy Riot’s performance: a waste of hot air.

The Impossibility of Conservatism; or, Why I am a Reactionary

Part 2 of 3

In my first essay of this series, I asserted that Alpha-Wolfe Conservative Edmund Burke deserved careful reassessment in light of impoverished tradition. Now I want to investigate his claims regarding the evolution of culture and institutions. I confess that I will be using that great reactionary romantic G. K. Chesterton as my intellectual crutch in dismantling some problems with Burkean conservatism. Once again I will also assume that my reader is familiar with the general theses of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.

The ever-prudential Edmund is remembered best for rejecting the radicalism of the French Revolution. Whereas Continental ideology encouraged the sans-culottes and the parlor-bound intellectuals to violently turn the world upside down, Burke looked to the slow moderate change of individual nations to organically alter the social order. History not only sifted through wisdom and foolery; it also established the rights of Englishmen. The contract theorists’ abstract “rights of man” and individualist rationalism posed a threat to the easy-going acculturation of reflective reform and historically-rotted progress.

Now, what bothered Chesterton was not Burke’s rebuttal against (most) of the Enlightenment. Instead, it was conservatism’s practical atheism in response to liberalism. In a chapter of the magisterial What’s Wrong with the World called “The Empire of the Insect,” the author observed that “Burke was certainly not an atheist in his conscious cosmic theory” but rather “that in the quarrel over the French Revolution, Burke did stand for the atheistic attitude and mode of argument, as Robespierre stood for the theistic.” He asserted:

[Burke] did not attack the Robespierre doctrine with the old mediaeval doctrine of jus divinum (which, like the Robespierre doctrine, was theistic), he attacked it with the  modern argument of scientific relativity; in short, the argument of evolution. He  suggested that humanity was everywhere molded by or fitted to its environment and  institutions; in fact, that each people practically got, not only the tyrant it deserved, but  the tyrant it ought to have.

In other words, Burke chose Montesquieu over Aquinas. Continue reading The Impossibility of Conservatism; or, Why I am a Reactionary

Exceptionalism Symposium: Religion holds a central place

James Ceaser tries to flex some historical muscle in “The Origins and Character of American Exceptionalism.” Like most modern scholars, he goes about as an intellectual iconoclast, assailing the solely religious roots of American exceptionalism. Only a shrewd or sarcastic mind can write, “A few in the realist camp lament this result, regarding it as a loss for America and for the world, but many applaud it, although usually concealing their glee beneath a veil of detached analysis. Realism is a cover for ‘triumphalist declinism’: blessed is the nation that is declining, it shall disinherit the earth.”  Nevertheless, I still think he is wrong when he tries to downplay the study of religion in the exceptionalism debate (despite his many qualifiers). I grant that Hegel, Darwin, Descartes, Bacon, and Schleiermacher have all had their day in court, providing the European seeds to yield the fruits of Bancroft, Strong, Paine, Jefferson, and the Social Gospel in American soil. As a conservative and orthodox Christian, I rather like how he delineates traditional Christianity from the religious movements that encouraged American exceptionalism (especially since the former existed a good 1600 years before the latter). I agree that nonreligious elements contributed to the formation of the concept in question.

Ceaser does have vision. He foresees the question of exceptionalism as an expansive field of inquiry. I think the rate of articles addressing the subject will increase in the coming days as historians, theorists, and political thinkers wrestle over American identity and its meaning for policy. I agree with him that students of the past must explore all avenues, not simply religion, when researching exceptionalism. Nevertheless, I think the issue finds roots in matters theological, not simply scientific, historical, and philosophical. Continue reading Exceptionalism Symposium: Religion holds a central place

Macaulay, Whig Historian

All hated Whiggery; but what is Whiggery?
A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind
That never looked out of the eye of a saint
Or out of drunkard’s eye. All’s Whiggery now,
But we old men are massed against the world.
—W. B. Yeats

Outside Thomas Bramwell Welch’s “unfermented wine,” surely Whig History remains the foulest invention of the 19th century. What is this treacherous human construction? According to historiographer and hipster conservative sensei Herbert Butterfield, Whig History is a historical narrative that paints the past as march toward inevitable enlightenment and inexorable progress. The present is the standard and justifies the past. Those parties, men, and (much over-estimated) “forces” in history that champion or prelude the Whiggish ideal of democratic government, liberalized personal freedoms, and scientific accomplishment stand as undeniable heroes; those which oppose this movement towards progress must be understood as authoritarian villains intent on accumulation of power, superstition, and widespread ignorance.

Although the case against this approach has already been made with incisive scholarship, I will try to make a quick if insufficiently thorough rebuttal before moving on. Whig history ignores the multiple failures and uncertainties of science and technology in particular and the potentialities inherent in human choices in general. This progressive historiography also suffers from a chronological snobbery: what is new and present is invariably better than what was past. The present is the political, moral, and even spiritual gold standard from which we “objectively” judge other men, women, and their institutions. Continue reading Macaulay, Whig Historian

The Unthinking Christian’s Whig History

Gustave Dore: "Job Speaks with his Friends"
Gustave Dore: "Job Speaks with his Friends"

When you visit the edges of the Christian pseudo-intellectual world, you’ll come across some hilariously embarrassing fringe nuttiness. As a historian by training, I’ve encountered a good many interpretational frameworks, several of them really bad. As a Christian by faith, I’ve seen a plethora of these erroneous understandings hitch their wagons to religion. I had the distinct displeasure of spending an entire class having arguing over “providentialist” history and its antagonists (which is just about every historiographical school on the field). Take for example Peter Marshall, David Manuel, and Stephen Keillor, a veritable triumvirate of nincompoops.

Cover image of "The Light and the Glory"
The Light and the Glory by Marshall and Manuel

You would be wise to say, “Mr. Adulescens, it seems that your youthful vigor has gotten the better of you here. Where is your intellectual and Christian charity?” I can answer with confidence and frustration that hours upon hours of fruitless class discussion have caused me to conclude something quite revolutionary: that the most loving and kind thing to do is put down this academic mongrel. I label providentialist history as a “mongrel” since it could only have come to be in the Christian intellectual ghetto, with some crossbreeding of Rushdoonyite Reconstructionism, over-reaching Calvinism, and confident fundamentalism. In The Light and the Glory, Marshall and Manuel try to argue that God has special, unique plans for America as a nation (as if He didn’t for the other countries as well). Every step since Plymouth Rock has been a resolute march toward what could be a godly, free, virtuous, and Christian (read: Protestant) republic, full of wholesomeness and family values. Continue reading The Unthinking Christian’s Whig History