Tales From the Golden Age

Recently I’ve taken time out with books from the “Golden Age” of science fiction. The first two entries are from the Winston series of the 1950s-60s, aimed at younger readers. The stories are definitely more facile, but action packed—the sort of tales I would have loved at age twelve, and which still evince a sense of wonder and adventure.

In Lost: A Moon (1955), Paul Capon describes the Martian satellite of Phoebus as a mysterious giant robot built by a long extinct Martian race. At one point the main characters encounter strange creatures and the remains of an ancient civilization on the surface of Mars. The Secret of the Ninth Planet (1959) by Donald Wollheim involves some thoroughly enjoyable planet hopping and an extra-terrestrial finale in which the protagonists encounter dangerous Plutonians and friendly aliens from Neptune. There is even a Galactic zoo on Triton with sentient specimens who help the earthmen defeat a race which is “stealing sunlight” and endangering the solar system.

In a more serious vein there is Arthur C. Clarke’s Earthlight (1955), a tale of intrigue, war and espionage set on the earth’s moon in the 22nd century. The ending reveals Clarke’s pacifistic and progressivist optimism. Though a solidly diverting tale, I found Star Watchman (1964), by Ben Bova, to be a more realistic and nuanced treatment of Cold War themes in the guise of galactic adventure.

The book is actually a sequel to The Star Conquerors, which chronicles the Earth’s Star Watch at an earlier period of interstellar empire. Bova’s second volume introduces us to a young Star Watch officer, Emil Vorgens, dispatched on a mission to deal with unrest on the distant planet Shinar. He is faced with a number of challenges: the young rebel leader Merdon, the warlike Komani aliens, and even opposition from the Earth marine commander.

In contrast to the utopian ambitions of Merdon, who wants total independence for his insignificant agrarian world in a galaxy dominated by great empires (while allying with the ruthless and totalitarian Komani to gain his ends), Vorgens argues that for all its faults, the Terran Empire is ruled by law. And if there are disappointments and frustration, he reminds him that in any society “there’ll always be differences of opinion, problems, arguments.” The events in Bova’s universe do not fundamentally alter human nature or basic moral challenges.

Star Watchman offers convincing depictions of futurist combat and military technology, and (while also aimed at a young adult audience) it deals with greater menace, psychological tension and character development than the Winston volumes. Truly impressive is its level of acumen concerning war and politics that is atypical of Bova’s peers—a hard-headed realization that these things cannot be pondered in a vacuum, and that if the good guys aren’t always perfect, the other guys as far worse.

For additional commentary, see my posts The Infinite Worlds of Lester del Rey, Islands of Space and Journeys in Early Science Fiction.

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Posted in Fiction

Humanity, Ideology and Individual Destiny

“There may be community… of material possessions, but there can never be community of love or of esteem.”—Samuel Johnson, Rasselas

Continuing my reading of French philosopher Raymond Aron, I came across some passages which confirm the age-old insight that humanity’s primary challenges are ethical rather than physical. No amount of material comfort or perfection will eliminate human strife. Ironically those ideological regimes which have claimed to advance material welfare the most have done so with the least success.

The French writer denounces what he refers to as “doctrinarism,” or the idea of reducing all of life’s challenges to a single, politically solvable, problem (see related comments). It is not only individuals on the left who think this way. Certain utopian libertarian and rightists are guilty of the same fundamental assumptions. But “progressive” doctrinal simplification is the most widespread. In this regard, Aron remarks that

Marx’s thinking was characterized by a radical error: the error of attributing all alienation to a single origin and of assuming that the end of economic alienation would result in the end of all alienation.

Even Marx was inconsistent. Delving more deeply into his ideology one finds that there were pre-economic and pre-political roots to his outlook. On the other hand Aron, the self-professed agnostic, was more sensitive than other political thinkers to humanity’s spiritual dimension.

The Marxists and existentialists come into conflict at the point where the tradition of Kierkegaard cannot be reconciled with that of Hegel; no social or economic regime can ever solve the enigma of history; individual destiny transcends collective life.

Unlike the Christian Kierkegaard, materialist “individualists” like Nietzsche and Sartre take us on a path which ultimately merges with collectivism, because of their underlying social expectations. In a similar manner Aron critiqued modernist Christians who fell in with the fashionable “social justice” movement and ended up co-opted by Marxism rather than the other way around (as had been naively hoped).

What horrifies me about secular religions is the breakdown of the distinction between the profane and the sacred…. Christians should feel this horror more strongly than I do, but in fact some of them, certain worker-priests for example, have, on the contrary been attracted by the structural similarity of the opposing beliefs…. I continue to regard religion as essentially the negation or at least the questioning of social values. But the Marxists and the existentialists (at least Sartre and his followers), in their radical atheism, ultimately reduce existence to action; indeed, ultimately they place historical action above everything.

The ideologues ultimately fall short because they “have no theory in the sense of a contemplative metaphysic embracing the whole of the cosmos and of humanity…. They detest contemplative thought and the inner life, they see man essentially as the creature who works….” Aron’s particular insight on the aim of philosophy is actually much closer to that of the German Thomist Josef Pieper than many of their Catholic contemporaries, who opted for activism over theology.

Posted in Existentialism, Philosophy, Politics, Religion

From His Age to Ours: St. Bede the Historian

Relatively little is known about the Englishman St. Bede (672-735), traditionally referred to as the “Venerable Bede,” who lived in that misty period known as the Dark Ages. Even so, the genius of the Benedictine monk who labored at the monastery of Jarrow was acknowledged for centuries by the use of B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini – Year of Our Lord). Though the system was first devised by St. Denis of France in the 6th century, it had lain dormant for two centuries until Bede popularized it in his philosophical and historical tracts. From Bede it was passed on to English missionaries and thence to Charlemagne’s court, the popes, and eventually all European society. But most readers familiar with the Anglo-Saxon monk will know him through his chronicle The Ecclesiastical History of England (written in 731 A.D.).

Following the collapse of Roman rule England underwent a period of backwardness and savagery that defies imagination. One gets some sense of the gloomy zeitgeist from the writings of St. Ambrose, a contemporary witness living in Italy. He spoke of the impending Apocalypse as barbarians swarmed over the remains of a decaying empire.

There are many interesting sidelights to Bede’s panoramic view of the past. Describing St. Wilfrid’s mission to the pagans, we are told that found the inhabitants of early Sussex so idiotic that they hardly knew how to feed themselves and were reduced to starvation. In despair they began tying themselves together with rope and throwing themselves off cliffs into the sea. The priest asked why they didn’t catch fish for supper. The pagan king replied they were too slippery. The missionary took pity on the benighted Saxons and taught them to make nets whereupon the people, amazed at his wisdom, converted en masse and Wilfrid became their bishop.

One decisive turning point has been forgotten in the passage of millennia. It was the manner in which Britain was re-evangelized in the post-Roman era. Imagine for a moment that today we spoke a Gaelic dialect stemming from the original Celtic Christians of the island. But things didn’t turn out that way. The English monk explains that when St. Augustine of Canterbury began his mission among the Saxons in 597 the Britons in the west refused to have anything to do with the pagan settlers in the east. As a result, Anglo-Saxon became the basis of our language and culture and left its imprint well beyond the Norman Conquest of 1066.

A refined product of a crude age, the scholarship of Bede’s History was exemplary. The author conscientiously cited other books and even requested copies of important documents from the papal archives in Rome—all this at a time when civilization was near its lowest ebb. Bede’s chronicle remains a readable and instructive work for all times.

Posted in History, Religion

Adversity and Gratitude

“As no man can enjoy happiness without thinking that he enjoys it, the experience of calamity is necessary to a just sense of better fortune: for the good of our present state is merely comparative, and the evil which every man feels will be sufficient to disturb and harass him, if he does not know how much he escapes.”—Samuel Johnson

It is quite by chance that I came across Johnson’s essay “Adversity useful to the acquisition of knowledge” (The Rambler, No. 150), since the piece is not in either of my hard copy anthologies of his works. It is the perfect Thanksgiving meditation. I post it as much for my own edification as for anyone else’s.

Not only are there practical benefits to overcoming life’s challenges—it is often the motivator for new ideas and inventions; there is spiritual profit as well. Drawing inspiration from the Roman Stoic writer Seneca, Johnson explains that

By suffering willingly what we cannot avoid, we secure ourselves from vain and immoderate disquiet; we preserve for better purposes that strength which would be unprofitably wasted in wild efforts of desperation, and maintain that circumspection which may enable us to seize every support, and improve every alleviation. This calmness will be more easily obtained, as the attention is more powerfully withdrawn from the contemplation of unmingled unabated evil, and diverted to those accidental benefits which prudence may confer on every state.

It is a paradox of our imperfect state that too much ease and success can leave us just as unhappy as too much misfortune. It is easy to dwell on the things we desire yet do not obtain (regardless of whether they would have been really good for us) while at the same time being unmindful of how many difficulties we have been spared. For related commentary, see “Johnson on Gratitude.”

Posted in Philosophy, Stoicism

The Pursuit of Intellectual Integrity

“To pursue examination with a mind free of contemporary or private preconceptions is extremely difficult.”—Moses Hadas

A recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal highlights the continued challenges to intellectual freedom in higher education. In its November 17 column, Zachary Wood, a black senior at Williams College, describes the infantile and abusive treatment of a guest speaker in his Uncomfortable Learning series. Invited to address the topic of modern feminism from a dissenting point of view, Christina Hoff Sommers was irrelevantly (but predictably) denounced as “a racist white supremacist.” Wood’s point—raised by many observers of late—is that real debate has been replaced by denunciation. While some in the college audience engaged the speaker in an intelligent manner, the event was dominated by the usual mob of bullies evincing a limited vocabulary.

Wood is understandably disappointed at the lack of meaningful diversity in the political realm. Tolerance only extends to approved viewpoints. In this regard the civil libertarian Alan Dershowitz has asked the question which most journalists have shunned: which is more of a threat, the “hard right” or the “hard left”?

Although I disagree with the Dershowitz on other issues, it seems undeniable that these forms of extremism pose asymmetrical dangers. The postwar “extreme right” has historically been the smaller but more lethal element, perhaps second only to Islamicist terrorism in its violent outbursts—not counting the unsuccessful attempt by socialist shooter James Hodgkinson to even the score somewhat. That said, Dershowitz is being realistic when he asserts that Hitlerites are unlikely to take over the country any time soon whereas increasing leftist intolerance is more widespread and more consequential.

The hard right is dangerous largely for what it has done in the past….  The danger posed by the extreme hard left is more about the future. Leaders of tomorrow are being educated today on campus. The tolerance for censorship and even violence to suppress dissenting voices may be a foretaste of things to come.

Apropos of this topic are remarks of Raymond Aron, the French philosopher and former socialist turned critic of leftism, whose writings have been mentioned in previous posts.

In Germany, after 1930, I began my intellectual career with a reflection on Marxism. An “advanced thinker,” like most of the intellectuals who came out of the Jewish bourgeoisie, I wanted to make a philosophical critique of my political convictions, which I felt to be naïve, dictated by the milieu, with no other foundation than spontaneous preferences or antipathies (Marxism and the Existentialists, 1965).

Aron speaks of observations that gradually led him “to the conclusion that Marxism was not true (although I had wished with all my heart that it was).” It is to be hoped that contemporary academics and students would be equally objective in their political explorations. But so far the trend is not encouraging.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics

Bunker Mentality

German historian Joachim Fest (1926 – 2006) was undoubtedly the Hitler expert par excellence. One of his final books on the subject was, appropriately, a look at the last days of the Third Reich, Inside Hitler’ Bunker. It is a concise and readable volume. Along with fascinating anecdotes about the doomed Nazi leader and his retinue, and the increasingly surreal atmosphere of the underground Berlin headquarters, Fest offers thoughtful commentary on the nature of Hitler’s aims and motivations.

Referring to Hitler’s infamous plans for scorched-earth tactics in the face of advancing enemy armies, which would have merely added to the misery of the civilian population, Fest concludes: “It would be a mistake to interpret these orders as a last, desperate, defensive measure against the approach of a superior foe. The intent to demolish had always been Hitler’s first and preferred course of action, an expression of his true voice….” The point being that he was consumed by a nihilism which Fest traces back to the earliest days of the Nazi seizure of power. It is not surprising that Hitler could be so callous toward Jews and foreigners when he said of the German people that if they could not win the war then they must “perish and be annihilated,” nor would he “shed a single tear for them.”

I would modify Fest’s judgment somewhat by saying that this “will to destroy” was merely the flip side of an extreme narcissism. No doubt the Führer would have preferred victory, but like a petulant child in the playroom who is mad that others won’t do what he wants, he throws tantrums and wrecks all the toys. In this respect there are clear parallels between the dictator in the bunker and the murderous antics of modern terrorists and psychopaths for whom mass destruction is a way of asserting their importance in a purely negative manner, albeit with the difference that Hitler had many more resources at his disposal.

Speaking of which, Fest frequently comments on the uncanny ability of the Führer to command servile loyalty even in the final weeks of the war. Another expert on the topic, Hannah Arendt, summarizes it in this way:

It is in the nature of the [totalitarian] movement that once the Leader has assumed his office, the whole organization is so absolutely identified with him that any admission of a mistake or removal from office would break the spell of infallibility which surrounds the office of the Leader and spell doom to all those connected with the movement (The Origins of Totalitarianism).

This would explain why, when the end came, so many party officials killed themselves, including Joseph and Magda Goebbels who not only ended their own lives in the Berlin bunker, but in a particularly pathetic and horrible manner, poisoned their young children. For them life after Hitler was unthinkable.

For related commentary, see my reviews of Fest’s The Face of the Third Reich and Speer: The Final Verdict.

Posted in History, Politics

Lord Greystoke of the Jungle

Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes (1912) is certainly one of the best page-turners I’ve encountered in awhile. Like many people I knew, or thought I knew, the Tarzan story through the old Johnny Weissmuller films that I grew up with on pre-cable television. But there was much more to the original story than just a big shirtless guy shouting “umgawa” at animals.

On the one hand, Lord Greystoke is presented as an impossibly perfect Nietzschean specimen, both physically and mentally, much like the heroes of Jack London’s novels. But the book is redeemed by the inventiveness of the plot, far less formulaic than others of its ilk, and extensive character development. Having been raised by semi-intelligent apes—who even speak a rudimentary language—there are interesting and often humorous exchanges (and misunderstandings) between Tarzan and the first civilized Europeans whom he encounters.

The way in which Tarzan acquires a masterful understanding of written English through pictorial primers (and later on, more advanced texts) found in the abandoned hut of his human parents pushes the limits of credulity. But it is clever how Burroughs has him learning French as his first spoken language, through the instruction of Paul D’Arnot, a sympathetic naval officer stranded on the coast of western Africa. Even the ending of the novel is not a classically “happy one,” though the author intimates that there is “more to come” in the next story in the series.

Burrough’s character is very much a post-Christian hero and the epitome of “self-reliance.” His ethos is one of survivalism, albeit tinged with a growing sense of chivalry, especially in his dealings with his European friends and love interest Jane Porter. The ape man’s attitudes towards animals, often valuing them more than humans, would sit well with current sensibilities. On the other hand the highly unflattering physical and cultural depictions of black Africans would not.

That said, in the latter half of the story a more thoughtful ethical discussion takes place between Lord Greystoke and a group of Europeans who are seated at dinner in a French colonial town:

Opinion was divided as to the bravery of the king of beasts—some maintaining that he was an arrant coward, but all agreeing that it was with a feeling of greater security that they gripped their express rifles when the monarch of the jungle roared about a camp at night….

“Monsieur Tarzan has not expressed himself,” said one of the party. “A man of his prowess who has spent some time in Africa, as I understand Monsieur Tarzan has, must have had experiences with lions–yes?”

“Some,” replied Tarzan, dryly. “Enough to know that each of you are right in your judgment of the characteristics of the lions–you have met. But one might as well judge all blacks by the fellow who ran amuck last week, or decide that all whites are cowards because one has met a cowardly white.”

Posted in Fiction

Goethe and the Conservatism of Experience

The adage, often apocryphally attributed to Churchill, about age and political disposition may actually have originated with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The German poet once said to a friend that “everybody is a democrat in youth, when they have nothing to lose, and aristocrat in later life, when they hope to pass something on to their children.” Such interesting and neglected details are brought to light in Daniel Johnson’s review of a recent Goethe biography by Rüdiger Safranski (The New Criterion, Sept. 2017).

Johnson laments the fact that Goethe is no longer required material for German students. Apparently he has suffered the same fate at the hands of post-modern sensibilities that Shakespeare or Chaucer have in English-speaking universities. There is added irony in that Goethe began his intellectual life as a romanticist and freethinker (who never entirely accommodated himself to Christian orthodoxy); nevertheless, his increasingly conservative political opinions were shaped by the fact that he had witnessed the excesses of the French Revolution, the imperialism of Napoleon and the subsequent emergence of intolerant ideological movements.

There was plenty of gray area in the moral realm. He lived with a woman, Christiane Vulpius, for 18 years before finally marrying her, and conducted numerous intimate liaisons with other women. Some of his writings were overtly erotic for their time. Yet this is the same man who proclaimed “There is nothing worse than imagination without taste,” and who (according to Johnson) criticized extramarital sex in some of his writings. At any rate, one is clearly on solid ground in citing Goethe’s weariness with utopian political schemes. According to the German sage:

Legislators and revolutionaries who promise equality and liberty at the same time are either psychopaths or mountebanks.

You never hear so much talk about freedom as when one party wants to subjugate another and aims at nothing less than shifting power, influence, and treasure from one hand to another.

Writing about socialism, he said

That doctrine seems to me quite impracticable and would never work. It contradicts all nature, all experience, and the course of things for thousands of years.

Johnson sums up his outlook as a Central European version of Burkean philosophy: “Goethe was always a conservative, never a reactionary. He believed neither in revolution nor restoration, but in reform.”

Posted in Art and Culture, History, Literature, Politics

Primal Things Which Move Us

Hilaire Belloc’s book The Old Road (1904), which traces the ancient Roman road from Winchester to Canterbury, is unlike most of his other travel writings in that it is primarily a “technical study” and thus of limited interest to the average reader. Nevertheless, his preface (of which excerpts are provided below) is surely one of his most remarkable pieces of prose, both for its cultural interest and its lyrical evocation of the things he is describing.

There are primal things which move us. Fire has the character of a free companion that has travelled with us from the first exile; only to see a fire, whether he need it or no, comforts every man. Again, to hear two voices outside at night after a silence, even in crowded cities, transforms the mind. A Roof also, large and mothering, satisfies us here in the north much more than modern necessity can explain; so we built in the beginning: the only way to carry off our rains and to bear the weight of our winter snows. A Tower far off arrests a man’s eye always: it is more than a break in the sky-line; it is an enemy’s watch or the rallying of a defence to whose aid we are summoned. Nor are these emotions a memory or a reversion only as one crude theory might pretend; we craved these things—the camp, the refuge, the sentinels in the dark, the hearth—before we made them; they are part of our human manner, and when this civilisation has perished they will reappear.

More than rivers and more than mountains, roads have moulded the political groups of men…. And with religions all that is built on them: letters, customs, community of language and idea, have followed the Road, because humanity, which is the matter of religion, must also follow the road it has made. Architecture follows it, commerce of course, all information: it is even so with the poor thin philosophies, each in its little day drifts, for choice, down a road.

To study something of great age until one grows familiar with it and almost to live in its time, is not merely to satisfy a curiousity or to establish aimless truths: it is rather to fulfil a function whose appetite has always rendered History a necessity. By the recovery of the Past, stuff and being are added to us; our lives which, lived in the present only, are a film or surface, take on body—are lifted into one dimension more. The soul is fed. Reverence and knowledge and security and the love of a good land—all these are increased or given by the pursuit of this kind of learning. Visions or intimations are confirmed…. One may say that historical learning grants men glimpses of life completed and a whole; and such a vision should be the chief solace of whatever is mortal and cut off imperfectly from fulfilment.

For more on these themes in Belloc’s writings, see Esto Perpetua and Permanency in Human Affairs.

Posted in Hilaire Belloc, History

A Weekend Meditation

“Remember how long you have delayed, how often the gods have appointed the day of your redemption and you have let it pass. Now, if ever, you must realize of what kind of ordered universe you are a part, of what kind of governor of that universe you are an emanation, that a time limit has now been set for you and that if you do not use it to come out into the light, it will be lost, and you will be lost, and there will be no further opportunity.”—Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, II. 4

The Stoic emperor speaks of a spiritually transformative experience. Our word “conversion” comes from the Latin conversio, which means to “turn around.” But this implies a bit more than a transient, if intense, epiphany. It is something that lastingly affects one’s behavior. As for the nature of this change, we often get the impression that it is due to external influences: a book, a conversation, an event. In addressing the nature of belief, Samuel Johnson argues that few people actually alter their convictions on the basis of  “argument and reflection.” Rather “their actions are not generally the result of their reasonings, but their reasonings of their actions” (Sermon No. 5).

We have only to see how two people can undergo the same experience, even a miraculous one, and respond in very different ways. Jesus cured ten lepers. Only the Samaritan returned to give thanks (Lk 17:11-19). Certain incidents may act as the proximate occasion for conversion, but—whether the change occurs rapidly (as in the case of St. Paul on the road to Damascus) or slowly over the course of many years—it seems to be more the culmination or confirmation of an existing spiritual habit than its cause.

Additional commentary: Our First and Earlier Vision and The Motives Behind Our Actions

Posted in Philosophy, Religion, Samuel Johnson, Stoicism