Podcast No. 18
Tragedy, Horror, & the Transcendent
7,478 words / time: 49:12
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The following text is Michael Polignano’s transcription of Jonathan Bowden’s lecture “Western Civilization: A Bullet Through Steel,” given in London on November 5, 2011, at the third meeting of the IONA group, which stands for Isles of the North Atlantic. The audio was first made public on Tomislav Sunic’s The Sunic Journal, December 13, 2011. We wish to thank Tom Sunic and IONA’s organizers.
The new, more descriptive title is my own invention. The theme of the meeting was Western Civilization, and I believe that Jonathan chose the title before he gave the speech. Since Jonathan spoke extemporaneously, it should come as no surprise that the content bears scant connection to his title.
Several unintelligible bits are marked as such. If you can understand them, or if you have corrections, please enter them below as comments.
Being asked to speak about European Civilization is like being asked to throw an enormous spool of string into the future, and to try and grasp it as it goes away from you.
What do you talk about? Do you talk about the art? Do you talk about the architecture? Do you talk about the science? Do you talk about the history of various nation-states on the European continent? Do you talk about what white people have achieved when they’ve gone abroad into the other continents of the world?
Do you talk about politics in a more narrow way? Or do talk about metapolitics, in other words, the ideas, the philosophy, the culture and history as they impact upon a high level of consciousness and as these gradually feed down into lower-level, more intermediate, more street-political sorts of formulations?
What I’ve decided to do is be optimistic, in relation to some of the pessimism that we’ve heard from various speakers this afternoon. And to look at what European culture and civilization has achieved.
Now, it’s such a broad canvas that I’m going to look at two works, that are tragic works. One is a tragedy by Aeschylus called Agamemnon, and another is a tragedy by Shakespeare called King Lear. And the reason I’ve picked these out, is because during the course of the 20th century there have been various travesties of these tragedies produced by the Left. I think in particular of Steven Berkoff’s version of Agamemnon, and I think in particular of the Marxist playwright Edward Bond’s version of King Lear, which was called Lear.
Those who know Lear will remember that it involves a blinding scene when Gloucester is blinded by Cornwall, in the middle of the play, in Act III, I believe. But in order to mechanize this in a more materialistic way, Edward Bond has a machine: a machine that removes eyeballs, as a complaint against capitalist violence and against violence per se.
Just to fill in a little bit of a paraphrase here, Bond is a Marxist playwright. Marxist playwrights took over the British stage and British theater in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s; particularly influenced by Brecht’s idea of epic theater. Bond produced a Left-wing version of Lear, in which Lear is a mad king who of course gives his territory away to scheming sons, in this case, scheming daughters in two of the cases in Shakespeare’s drama.
Lear suffers terribly for this at different levels, and is brought to a form of realization as to his own folly, the nature of kingship, and many moral causative factors about life, by virtue of the suffering that’s imposed upon him because of his primordial mistake. When you have a kingdom, you never divide it, because you are inviting civil war into your own self, if you’re a monarch. And into your own territory, regardless of anything.
Bond is quite unusual, because Bond is obsessed with the issue of violence. And like a lot of playwrights and filmmakers who are opposed to violence, his entire work consists of violence. All the time. Mayhem, rapes, gouging out of eyes, autopsies on the stage. Mock autopsies, of course, with plenty of blood: watery red liquid and bits of sponge moving about which indicate that they’re sort of fillets of steak drawn from the human body. Because in a sense Bond is a materialist, and things have to be kept at a material level even when he’s dealing with classic drama.
One of the great difficulties of the contemporary Left — certainly, if we go back over the last 30 to 40 years — has been to deal with Stalinism. Why did their project of universal human emancipation end up with Stalinism, in every sense? Why did it fail, catastrophically, even in its own terms? Why did a doctrine of radical human rights where all would love and all would congeal and all would come together in the fastness of our days, end up with the Gulag? This is something that is very, very difficult to answer.
Jean-Paul Sartre, the Left-wing intellectual in France who ended up as a Maoist towards the end of his life, with Simone de Beauvoir. He attempted to answer it in an enormous philosophical work, called The Critique of Dialectical Reason, based on Kant’s volume of several centuries before. Sartre was trying to synthesize existentialism and Marxism as two of the great currents of intellectual thought in the 20th century.
But when he got to Stalinism, and when he got to the attempt to explain the internal dialectic and convolutions of the Soviet Union post-Lenin’s death, and after the defeat of Trotsky and his Left opposition faction in the Party in 1928, he hit a brick wall. He couldn’t go any further. The second volume of The Critique couldn’t be written, because in a sense it’s unanswerable even in the terms of his own theory.
Bond believes that violence is irrational and proceeds from bourgeois man and the context of capitalist competition. But the problem with this, as in the problem with all Marxism, is there is a complete voiding of the biological realities of life.
Man — men and women, in all groups — are 80% inherited, at least, 80% generic, 80% genetic, 80% hereditarian. And the socialized element, the naturalizing, normative element, where we’re reared through parents, the psychology of the relationship that we have with them, where we’re culturalized through education and behaviorism in a society: that’s 20%. And even that is ecology, which is a species of biology. Everybody knows ecology is a subject area within biology.
It’s almost as if the 20% which is actually given by naturalization, that which is nurture rather than nature to use old-fashioned formulations from the 1960s, is actually part and parcel of nature itself. Because what sets us up and primes us to be naturalized as human beings if not nature itself?
So there’s an easy answer to Sartre and to Bond, and to other people of this sort who pretend that there is a deeply complex and invidious set of reasons as to why the Left-wing projects ended up in the way that they did.
It’s now a canard, it’s now a sort of species of rhetoric, that Stalin’s Soviet Union was one of the worst regimes that’s ever existed in human history. I recently re-read Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell, which is a satire upon the Hampstead Left of his day, and which is a satire against the Soviet Union of its time.
I remember Peter Hain was once asked, what are the glories of Western Civilization? Hain of course, an ex-South African liberal Leftist who was head of the anti-apartheid movement when he came to this country, said that there are no triumphs to Western Civilization. He said that there’s nothing to be proud of at all. All we’ve created is Hitler and Stalin. Don’t forget he’s on the center-Left. So to include Stalin is in a way a [unintelligible] in relation to what could be perceived to be his own side.
The fact that Bond and Sartre — and Hain, who’s a much lesser intellect than either of those — compute the same failure is due to the fact that they irreducibly deny the biological basis to civilization.
Race is culture and culture is race, essentially, put very tendentiously and very crudely and far too crudely than many intellectuals would like, or feel comfortable with. But there is a degree to which everything that exists has to come out of something which existed before it. It has to have a primal root. It has to have a foundation. It has to be “racinated,” to use Simone Weil’s term. It has to come from some egg, or some implantation of self, which gives birth to it.
This is one of the reasons for the pessimism of some of our speakers earlier today, because they don’t see any European high culture being created at the present time. And although there’s an enormous mélange and superfluity of culture being created at the present time, particularly by the state-subsidized and semi-capitalist arts.
One also has to say where is the greatness of a universal cultural Western exhibitionism being created today? Because if you look around you don’t see it. What you do see is deconstruction on the opera stage. Whereby you will have Cosi Fan Tutte, and you’ll have a urinal in the middle of the stage. A urinal, which men empty their bladders into.
Now why is that on the stage? It’s because the people who have put that piece of work on are rebelling against the nature of the piece. They’re at war with the text. This is what they would tell you. They’re attacking the text, even as they’re putting it on. It’s a sort of masochism in a way, because it means even if they’re going forwards they’re pummeling themselves in the face, rhetorically, and watching it in a mirror. And they’ve got a film camera like that one over there, filming them pummeling themselves in the mirror.
Because what they’re frightened of is too much authentication. What they’re frightened of is too much cultural affirmation. Because if things are culturally affirmed in a prior or an identitarian sort of a way they’re conceived to be “too white,” or “too European,” or too “ur-,” or “too fascistic,” or “too dangerously tribal.”
And that’s the reason these things are done. Everything is done for a reason. This society in all of its very complex processes and cultural formations exist for interconnected sets of reasons. Nothing is purely accidental or contingent. Things may come together by virtue of accident and things feeding off each other in a way that one thing will spawn a concept related to itself. But things are rooted in structures of being and belonging which have either been torn up and thrown to the side, or actually subsist and come out of something that’s related prior to their existence.
Why did a Left-wing playwright like Berkoff rewrite Agamemnon in the 1960s and 1970s, which is a play by Aeschylus from Ancient Greece? Why did Bond rewrite King Lear? They did this because they wanted to take some of the primal energy that exists in these amazing cultural forms and use it for their own purposes. They also wanted to have versions of their own of Aeschylus and Shakespeare that they could put on without any filter and without the older texts, which could be perceived as reactionary or unprogressive, or created before the era of progress, created in both cases before the liberal Enlightenment of 200 years ago or more. They wanted a situation where you could refer to a text which is of this present hour and of its present prejudices.
Now Aeschylus’s Agamemnon is the beginning of a series of tragedies called the Oresteia and survives from a Greek competition. Everything in Greece was competitive. Sport was competitive, but art was competitive. When people wrote a tragedy, it would compete with other tragedies, and there would be a vote. And Sophocles and Euripides and Aeschylus, who were the three tragedians that come down to us, won quite a lot of those votes.
This play is about revenge, and it’s about the primal, and it’s about sources of identity. It’s about the aftermath of the Trojan Wars, when Agamemnon comes back from Troy, which they have successfully destroyed after a long siege. He brings with him Cassandra, who may or may not be with child by him. She is the daughter of Priam, the king of Troy, whom he seduced and has kept as a concubine or mistress. He comes back to Argos, the city-state from which he left prior to the Trojan adventure, with the desire to flaunt the fact that Troy has been destroyed, but maybe not to the degree that his wife who’s plotting his murder, Clytemnestra, wishes.
Clytemnestra is one of the greatest characters created in Western art. She is the prototype for Lady Macbeth; she is the prototype for all of the powerful women in Western drama, Western cinema, and Western art, who in a sense often adopted a quasi-male role. This is hinted at very much in the early part of the play where she’s described as a “man-minded woman,” a woman with the mind of a man, a woman who’s a woman on the outside and a man on the inside.
She has taken a lover while Agamemnon has been away because he’s taken a few, close to Troy’s walls, and the lover is Aegisthus. And Aegisthus is a man who has a bias and a prejudice against the house of Atreus, which is Agamemnon’s particular house. And this is because of an act of cannibalism which occurred earlier in the history and trajectory of the house of Atreus, whereby Thyestes served up the sons and daughters of Atreus for his own consumption. And it’s because of this blood on the hands and blood in the mouth, and because of this autophagy, this cannibalism which has occurred, that a curse, a curse has been placed upon this house by Atreus, and every so often this curse has to ventilate itself.
One of the ways in which the curse ventilated itself is Agamemnon putting one of his daughters to death, Iphigenia, which he had with Clytemnestra. He did this because the Greek fleet, by myth, was stalled at Aulis and couldn’t reach the coast where Troy was. Therefore a sacrifice had to be given the gods. And he was told that he had to sacrifice one of his daughters, Iphigenia, in order to do so. Clytemnestra has never forgiven him for this, and is waiting to revenge herself when he returns to Argos.
When he returns to Argos, she makes him walk upon the purple, or upon the red, in certain of the theatrical versions of this play. It’s illicit for a Greek to ape the gods, because the gods are jealous of undue greatness in a human being, which is called hubris, false pride, the pride that portends before a fall. Clytemnestra wants Agamemnon to walk upon the purple, partly because it would justify her later murderous rages and actions against him.
Agamemnon holds out against this, but in the end he walks upon the purple. It’s a great moment, when there’s a series of doors at the back of the stage, and Agamemnon walks upon the purple as Clytemnestra is at the front of the stage with the chorus, until he finally goes into the palace from which he will not emerge, other than as a corpse.
Whether she murders him in the stagecraft with an axe or a sword, is to me textually unclear: there’s evidence for both. Aegisthus gives her a sword, but she also slaughters in the way that you slaughter an animal for sacrifice in accordance with Greek traditions, and this is with an axe. Many of the classical paintings of this play from the 19th century, particularly in English and British art, show Clytemnestra with an axe, either leaning on the axe, or holding the axe over a net. The net is there because these are the curtains, the netting that she actually traps Agamemnon in, prior to giving the blows that kill him in the bath. This is a scenario which has been worked out by Aegisthus, but Aegisthus is regarded as a weakling, because he gets Clytemnestra to do the murder.
One of the greatest scenes in Western drama is when the chorus of Argive elders are talking to the herald, and later then talk to Cassandra as the murder takes place. There’s a great cry and a shout, a sort of “AAAHHHH!” from offstage. And the chorus hears it and wonders what it is, and they’re terrified — the chorus are old men from the city of Argos. And they wonder whether Cassandra’s warnings about the possibility of Agamemnon’s death are true.
Now Cassandra is in Agamemnon’s car, in his chariot, as he pulls up. And she has been afflicted by Apollo with the gift of second sight, so she can see the future. But because she spurned his advances, as a god he has cursed her with the fact that people will only recognize that she has second sight after the event. So she becomes a prophet of illicit loss, if you like. She can only ask the question that others will not accept until they have the evidence before them. So she appears to be a false prophet until she’s proved to be right. In other words, her capacity for prophecy never has any positive outcome or goal at the time that she gives it. She’s always going to be frustrated in that regard. And the interesting thing is, is that the chorus of Argive elders is partly won over to her complaints, but also rejects her. And this is why in the journalistic tradition that surrounds us today with multiple media platforms, people who warn against a coming danger are often referred to as Cassandras, for adopting the role of Cassandra.
Suddenly, of course, she turns and goes back into the palace, knowing that she will be added to the death total with Agamemnon, because she is killed as his lover with Agamemnon by Clytemnestra at Aegisthus’ behalf.
Then this great moment occurs, which is a moment of catharsis in Aristotle’s terms. Aristotle believed that the point of tragedy was to put on the stage the negative, or more ferocious, or more diabolical side of man, the non-dualist side of man, in order to overcome it.
Because life is born in pain, dies in pain, and consists of quite a lot of pain during the intermediary stages between birth and death. And in order to overcome and face that, particularly in a stoical way, you needed to take up these negative emotions into yourself and have them purged, have them sublimated, to use a modern word. And the way that you purge them is by watching tragedy.
This is why people have always liked to be entertained by watching unpleasant things. It’s a characteristic of our species. And all genres like horror, and all the rest of it, rely upon the fact that people like to see conflict. They like to see contumaciousness; they like to see that which in other circumstances could be perceived as threatening.
And this is what occurs when the doors are flung open at the back of the stage, and Clytemnestra is there with the axe or the sword, and the bath is next to her, and the folds of the net are surrounding and tipping over the outside of the bath, and at the bottom of the bath are the remains of Agamemnon and Cassandra, and they’re wheeled, probably by servants or by members of the auxiliary parts of the theatrical troupe, or there’s a device that brings them forward to the front of the stage. It’s done in a dramatic way. It’s often done in silence.
Greek theater, of course, is of such a moment that we don’t, even today, completely understand how they did it. There was a lot of dance involved in Greek theater. There was a lot of threnody of the body. The actors were non-personified because they all wore masks. Contrary to the cult of the personality and the actor which we have today, they believed in the depersonalization of the actor, because often different actors would play different parts in the same play, because they would be masked. Nearly all the female parts were played by men, so Clytemnestra would be played by a man, which is a tradition which extends to Elizabethan theater.
Hence the old idea that you should never put your daughter on the stage, because only women of a certain sort were put on the stage until relatively late. Because when the Puritans banned our theatre, when English revolutionaries under Cromwell prevented theatre — yet allowed opera — throughout the period of the interregnum, one of the reasons that they did it was to prevent the prospect of indecency — of pornography, if you like — which always comes, not in a literal pornographic way as would subsist today, but through watching scenes of violence, through watching scenes of transgression, through watching scenes of horror. And also watching scenes which are simulacra.
In all faiths, in Orthodox Judaism, in certain forms of pretty restricted Islam, and in what is called fundamental Christianity, there is the view that because God has created the world as it is, art is a blasphemous simulacrum in relation to this. Most of the people who follow these faiths have no desire to impose upon the arts at all, particularly. But this idea that God made the world, and therefore it is a blasphemy to add to that making, and that all art, even great art — particularly great art — takes away from the unmediated religious experience. Which is why many of the puritans, like Prynne and others, oppose the Elizabethan theater, and the Elizabethan stage.
And I want to couple Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Shakespeare’s King Lear together, because the English people achieved an extraordinary thing during the Elizabethan and Jacobean stagecraft. They basically created something which is amongst the elite art that has ever been created on this planet. This small island and the nationality within it, England, produced material at that time which is comparable to the Greeks, and is acknowledged by the whole world to be comparable to the Greeks.
Shakespeare is the greatest of those that were produced at that time, but there were many others, such as Marlowe and Ben Jonson, and Middleton and Rowley, and all of the others: Kyd, and John Webster, the divine John Webster, who could only write tragedy, who would only write dark, treacly pieces — like The Duchess of Malfi, The White Devil — could only write tragedy. The highest form, the most cathartic form, the most ennobling form. A form which isn’t written today.
Today we have soap operas. Today we have that which is on the tube of the nighttime, the television of the nighttime. It appears that the tragic urge is missing from Western life, and from world civilization. And there is a quite neat fit with that, because the Liberal era can only take tragedy if it’s restorationalist. There’s an enormous archival tradition at the moment, whereby many of the great plays of the past are put on endlessly, in state houses, financed by public money.
One of the more “amusing” features is what’s called racially blind casting. You can now have plays like Julius Caesar, for example, where a half of the cast is black. And yet there’s not a single black character in Julius Caesar. This is done so that the audience is desensitized to the fact that that is truly the case. But also it’s done because there are an enormous number of talented performers who, if you only did restorationalist pieces, could not perform. Indeed, there’s a lot of ideology that plays around the re-presentation of these classic pieces, because nothing is neutral, and everything has to be presented in a particular way.
Othello is a key example. At the beginning of the 20th century, Othello would always be played by a white actor blacked-up. In the middle of the 20th century, certain classically trained black actors, particularly from America, were found to play the part. But at the end of the 20th century, and into the 21st century, Othello is played — on the whole, in very progressive theatre companies at any rate — by a white actor who is not blacked-up. Because the play is regarded as a racist play. It’s regarded as irredeemably racialist. And therefore to draw attention to this fact, Othello is played white. If people ask why this should be done, it’s said “It’s giving a white actor an opportunity that he otherwise wouldn’t enjoy.”
But there’s a degree to which it’s being done to draw attention to the fact that this play can’t be rewritten in a “Newspeak”-like way, even though certain people would like Shakespeare’s plays to be rewritten. The Merchant of Venice has been often subjected to the idea that it should be rewritten. Professor David Cesarini at the University of Southhampton, has said on many occasions that The Merchant of Venice should be textually rewritten, because as a play in its present form it’s emblematic of what in Nineteen-Eighty-Four is called “Crimethink.” The whole play could be reduced to the liberal buzzphrase, to the politically-correct buzzphrase, to the Newspeak buzzphrase, if you align it with the language of Nineteen-Eighty-Four‘s “Newspeak,” as Crimethink.
I remember he was once asked, on The Moral Maze, on Radio 4, “So you’re a better writer than Shakespeare?” And he said “No, not necessarily.” Not necessarily. He said, “But we are living in a different era now, and we have different sensibilities. And people’s sensibilities have to be respected and cannot be trampled upon.” So it’s quite clear that it’s only the canonical status of some of these texts, such as Aeschylus, such as Shakespeare, that prevents them from being “messed about with” in terms of the text. But this is only in relation to the body of the text.
The stagecraft, of course, can be transmuted in all sorts of ways. You have Shakespeare set in concentration camps, or in brothels, or in Chinese restaurants, or against banks of tires which have been pleasingly painted red in order to make a particular point. Or in sets — which are slightly traditional in a strange sort of way — sets without any stagecraft or any props at all. Or you have a revivalist current like the Globe, in London, which reacts against the postmodern jiggery-pokery within Shakespeare and other classical texts, and wants to do them in a totally Elizabethan form. And that can be permitted in a strange sort of way, particularly if it becomes part of an [unintelligible] experience.
So it’s noticeable that all of the classic texts before 1900 have been left, and have not been interfered with except in the way in which they’re presented to an audience, as part of the modality of Western civilization. But the texts that exist now, are so politically correct, and so ingrained as such, that no plays that consist of some of the classical verities that I’ve discussed could be put on now. If somebody wrote Lear now, it would not be permitted. The attitude towards illegitimacy is questionable; Lear’s patriarchy is questionable in relation to the 2 to 3 daughters; the remarks of Kent in relation to Oswald are questionable, particularly psychosexually; the violence would have to be looked at: the blinding scene, when Cornwall blinds Gloucester.
Gloucester is the lower noble underneath Lear who suffers in the subtext of the play. There’s two plays, basically, and there’s two narratives. And they go along with one another. Lear suffers spiritually and mentally, whereas Gloucester suffers physically, because he’s on the lower level. In order to be redeemed, he actually has to suffer the indignity of having his eyes put out by Cornwall.
Of course, Shakespeare’s plays are always morally balanced and seek an Elizabethan equipoise. That’s why when Cornwall puts his boot upon Gloucester’s eyes, and says “Out, vile jelly! Where is thy luster now?” when the blinding scene occurs, a servant raises his hand and a dagger against Cornwall in that particular moment. And he does so because Cornwall has rejected the divine pact.
Basically, nobles should not treat an old man, who is a prisoner and who was a guest, in that way. Therefore he’s rescinded upon part of a contract which is itself hierarchical and divinely inspired. This means the servant is freed, and can rebel against Cornwall’s cruelty in that moment, and in turn morally wounds Cornwall, although he’s finished off himself.
“Ill-timed comes this hurt!” says Cornwall, as he’s dragged off-stage by his scheming and malevolent wife, who’s partly put him up to the blinding of Gloucester anyway. So, even that element of cruelty occurs within a scenario which has a moral framework embedded around it.
This is something which could be said to be missing from Steven Berkoff’s version of Agamemnon, or Bond’s version of King Lear, because in Bond’s play there’s an enormous amount of violence as there is in contemporary cultural material. There’s an enormous amount of abbatoirial excess, what some call the proletarianization of culture, where everything is reduced to its lowest common denominator.
You see this in horror as a genre. A hundred years ago, horror was Bram Stoker and Wilkie Collins and this sort of thing. Now horror is Stephen King. And beneath Stephen King. And beneath, beneath Stephen King. And beneath, beneath, beneath Stephen King. And so on; you get the message. So there’s a degree to which a coarsening and an absence of refinement and a sort of abbatoirial statement, whereby the thing is given you neat, is what goes on today and which is on in every multiplex.
Has anyone come across those Saw films? Saw 1, and Saw 2, and Saw 3, and there must be a fourth one, so there’s Saw 4, and this sort of thing, which is sort of sadistic and abbatoirial, although in a sense no one is being harmed, because you’re only dealing with puppets.
There’s an artistic theory that deals with that area, called the theatre of cruelty, by a surrealist in France in the middle of the 20th century called Antonin Artaud. And there’s a degree to which this material is as cruel as Greek tragedy, is a cruel as Elizabethan tragedy, but there’s no moral or evidential purpose for it to be so. There’s no philosophical reason why it should be so, therefore the thing exists in and of itself.
If you want that degree of abbatoirial horror you could go down to your local butcher’s, go around the back, and plunge your hands into the offal, and into the meat, and move them around, and bring them up, and have a sort of threnody in that sort of a way. But that’s because culturally the thing wouldn’t extend beyond that gesture. And that’s what’s going along with a lot of these pieces, because if you are to make the brutality of life as it’s transfigured in tragic art meaningful, you have to transcend those sorts of actions. Or you have to have a vocabulary to transcend them.
But the doctrine of transcendence is a religious doctrine, essentially. Or is a psycho-social, psycho-emotional, and linguistic pattern which portends to religious belief whether one has any religious belief or not. It means that one believes there are things above the things that face you, and there are things above that, and there are things above those things. Or at least there’s the possibility that such might be the case.
So you’re looking upwards, rather than looking downwards. This is why people go to tragedy and feel exhilarated afterwards, rather than feeling depressed, or out of sorts, or mildly mentally deranged by the depiction of cruelty. It’s because it occurs within the context of a spiritual revelation which is transcendent. But the whole purpose of this sort of culture which we live in today, as Evola and other thinkers have put it, is not to have transcendence at all. It’s to keep man at a certain level. Ultimately, a level of consumption. The expulsion of energy, the repletion of energy, the consumption of goods, the depletion of the consumption of those goods, the need to consume even more of such goods.
If you keep people at a certain level — and the irony is that this is occurring within a maximally capitalist society, dominated by ideas from the soft Marxian Left. This is one of the great dichotomies that we live in, that we live in a Left-wing market, that we live in a libertarian, Left-leaning, capitalist society. The idea of a capitalist Left, or a Left-leaning market, would have struck most thinkers as totally absurd at the beginning of the 20th century, because the market and all forms of Leftism were supposed to be adversarial. Now we live in a fit, whereby the ideas that the products affirm have been taken from a wide range of the Left’s trajectory, whereas the Left itself feels itself to be defeated.
Thirty years ago to have a meeting like this there would have been a riot outside. The Left would not have allowed a meeting of this sort to go ahead unchallenged. But they don’t do that now, because they haven’t got the personnel to do it now. Not particularly. And the reason for that is their ideas have seemed to have come down, and have been smashed to pieces by history. And they’re in a form of oblivion now, partly because the Marxist dystopias that were Soviet-occupied societies in Eastern Europe, real and existing socialism, real and existing cultural Marxism, were such monumental failures for the people who lived under them that they’ve been sloughed off completely.
And yet, many of the ideas — not the practice of lived experience by people who lived under those structures, but many of the ideas — have percolated around and never left the West anyway. And you have this strange triumphalist mixture of the massive ingrained market mechanism, which is sucking in money, and goods, and people from all over the world. Because the flip side to capital movements is migration. If people wonder why London is the way it is now, it’s because when man can touch a screen in the city of London with his thumb and send hundreds of millions of pounds or dollars or euros or yen, or any other currency, across the world; but money and mankind, money and labor, capital and labor, will move in some sort of distended collaboration which each other. And the reason that all sorts of people want to get into the West in order to work at a median level is the flip side of the ability of enormous masses of interest-bearing money to move around the world at the flick of a switch, or the impress of a thumb upon a computer screen in the city of London or any of its regional counterparts.
So the idea of a Marxian capitalist society or a Left capitalist society which once would have been absurd, and is now dismissed as absurd by most progressive thinkers who think they’ve lost out continuously to what they call “the Right.” Because they believe that the capitalist market is conducive to the Right, and has corralled the society over at the Right-end of the spectrum.
Of course, there’s a redoubt, there’s a range of opinion that exists beyond the alleged Thatcherite and Reaganite Right, which is nec plus ultra, which one can never go near, which is a hidden terra incognita, which is an area of terror and psychic blasphemy. But apart from that, they believe that the Right has inherited the Earth, when in actual fact much of what this society once stood for has been eradicated to the point of inexistence by the forces that have conquered since 1945 and thereafter.
Can great art be produced in a society such as this one? It’s very debatable, given the enormous pressures of conformism and censorship. Political correctness is a form of censorship. Routledge is a well-known Center-Left nonfiction publisher. Routledge now insists, subeditorially, on gender-neutral pronouns. This means everyone has to write “he/she,” all of the time. And it’s increasingly difficult, if you’re going to going to produce anything with any degree of stylistic beauty or felicity at all, to write “he/she/it” all the time, when you mean one thing as against another.
Similarly, politically correct ideology means that a tragical truthfulness to life, which often has a religious dimension to it. Or if it doesn’t have a religious dimension to it, it has a higher, profound, philosophical dimension to it. Political correctness, which is based upon the idea that everyone is equal, and everyone is equal in love, doesn’t subsist. You clip your fingers, and you notice in a moment it isn’t true. It isn’t true of any form of human life; it isn’t true of any form of human interrelationship; it’s not true of one relationship between a man and a woman. Therefore, if you are trying to put everything within a paradigm of such radical, enforced linguistic egalitarianism, you will fail instantly, but you will also fail to create great art because it can’t be done in such a restricted, in such a stifling context.
It’s also difficult to rebel against it. In the past, the playwrights of the 1960s and thereafter used to rebel against the Royal Chamberlain and his censorship of the British theater. They used to rebel against targeted restrictions whereby they couldn’t blaspheme against the Christian religion. No one bothers to blaspheme against the Christian religion anymore, because it’s perceived to have collapsed, except for some very small groups. And also the enormous amount of blasphemy against the Christian religion which occurred in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, largely wiped the slate clean in relation to the amount of blasphemy that could be encouraged and was felt to be required, because that was another tradition, that was another curtain that had to be ripped down.
The notion of deconstruction is to reduce things to a basis whereby which they’re no longer oppressive. It’s to deny the rhetoric of oppression within a form. But the problem with that is you end up with nothing. And you end up with a culture that can’t affirm itself. And when a culture can’t affirm itself — artistically, linguistically, and in other ways — it ceases to have any relevance, and it ceases to have any bite, and it ceases to have any sense of reality.
I remember going to see Lear — King Lear, not Bond’s travesty — at the Bristol Old Vic, in the West Country when I was about 18 years of age. You have to have a certain element of physical effort to sit through these pieces, because they last between three and three-and-half hours. You have to pace yourself during the performance. There’s a sort of Marathon Man element to these plays, because they do take quite a bit of resolve to sit through, although there’s an intermission after the end of the third act, and prior to the two acts that remain.
The physicality of theater and the physicality of these performances is also important. This is again an irony, because we live in a society of great physicality, and the totalitarian rendition of sport. But at the same time, these types of art are very fleshy, and very physical, and very demanding to perform. Even their travesties like Berkoff’s Agamemnon, involves an enormous amount of physical acting and mime. And that can actually have a great power, and the audience can have a sense of release through the physical dramaturgy of those who are onstage and depicting these actions in these particular ways.
One of the things that most strikes me now, is the inability to connect to the classical tradition as perceived in great works. There’s a cutoff point around 1900 through 1950, when the entire modus operandi of Western societies began to change, and began to invert. And we have a culture of inversion, basically. A culture of what was once great, can’t be denied its greatness, but is put in a historical niche. It’s the historicizing of previous cultural forms, which are not perceived to have any relevance today except when viewed historically. This is what the restorationist culture is all about.
If you noticed, the state subsidization of the arts began in the 1950s. In the past, the Church used to subsidize art, and the aristocracy used to subsidize art, and then the higher bourgeois used to subsidize art. In the socialist and Stalinistic systems, of course, the state agglomerated all art to itself, and put forward any substitute that was thought to be necessary. In Western societies which exist now, you have public provision for the arts, whereby small elite bourgeois audiences pay money to go and see things which are heavily state subsidized, and which are restorational. Now you have the idea of private-public partnerships in relation to the arts, whereby private money comes in because the state can no longer afford to subsidize these things.
It’s not that nothing new is being written. But nothing new that’s loyal to the creed of political correctness could be performed in a way which is relevant to the classical tradition. So you have a situation where great works may be being written today, but they can’t really be put on, because they would be too offensive and too difficult in all sorts of ways.
What is Western Civilization? Western Civilization is a particular civilization which is reared in Europe — North, East, South, and West — which is expressed through elites, and through individual moments of genius, particularized in particular lives, but that can only be so because of the mass of people that these individuals are drawn from.
Why are people proud that Shakespeare is an Englishman? They’re proud that he’s an Englishman whether they’ve opened any of his plays whatsoever at school when they were forced to do them, because he’s felt to embody a national consciousness, and he’s felt to speak for many who didn’t speak, and who couldn’t speak. And a people are proud that they have somebody like him in their national trajectory, whether they’re interested in his work or not.
Self-pride is very emblematic of an ethnic sense of purpose and also a joie-de-vivre in relation to this life. If you strip that out and take it away from people, they lose something, they lose spirit. They become morbid and depressed. Everyone needs great cultural icons, whether they’re interested in them or not. They are part of the fabric that gives an individual life some sort of meaning.
Increasingly, many individuals in this society do not have an overall or an individual meaning. That’s why they live moment-to-moment and day-to-day in relation to contingency and consumption. The point of great civilization as expressed in great art, is to raise people out of that particular trough and get them — if only momentarily — looking upwards, looking upwards towards the sky. Looking upwards towards higher forms. Looking upwards towards the prospect of archetypal forms. Looking upwards towards the religions of the past, the present, and the future. Looking upwards towards God or the gods, or the idea that they might be there, or the idea that it might be necessary that they’re there, even if you don’t think that they are. That’s the point of great civilization. That’s the point of great work. That’s the point of great art.
Most of it only exists in the past, now. Or exists as a circular moment in time, whereby these great works are reinterpreted in the present.
But nothing is forever, and I’m quite certain that great works are being written now, are being performed now in the minds of certain individuals, are being conceptualized now, but they don’t have an outlet at this time. The point of groups like the New Right on the Continent, here, and in North America — particularly in California, on the far side of the United States — is to create the mental space whereby greatness can come back into culture. Is to create the mental space for higher works of civilization again.
It’s not necessarily to provide those works. That’s not its purpose. Its purpose is to provide the space that exists for them. Because if a people cannot affirm itself through great works, it begins to die, whether or not people have any interest in those great works themselves.
Thank you very much!
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This was an amazing piece. I enjoyed reading it very much. Thank you for this perspective.
Someone just emailed me this video interview of Bowden taken from 2009.
I think these are correct transcriptions of the unintelligible bits:
“So to include Stalin is in a way a large own goal in relation to what could be perceived to be his own side.” It sounds as if he starts to say a word beginning with “m” (major?) then switches to “large”.
“And that can be permitted in a strange sort of way, particularly if it becomes part of an enabling, tourist-based experience.”
One of the high lights of my high school experience was that if you did well in English class, you got to go to Stratford theatre ( in Canada) and watch the dress rehearsal of the Shakespeare play they were putting on that year. It became my standard for they did not do it then in modern Marxist interpretations. It also required that the audience participated on the emotional level. I think that is the reason why I cannot stand movie versions of Shakespeare which give you the images instead of creating them as with the play with words.
When I saw Roman Polanski’s Macbeth, the violent images took over and that was what one took home and not any deeper understanding of the effects of one’s choices.
An undiluted shot of Bowden – great!
No loquacious, self-absorbed and dull non-Bowden moments here.
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