The Counter-Currents 2013 Fall Fundraiser
My Ten Favorite Books of 2013
Dear Friend of Counter-Currents:
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Since Top Ten lists are a popular genre, I decided to compile my ten favorite books of 2013. These books were not necessarily published in 2013, but I saw fit to read or re-read them this year. Lest this turn into an exercise in shameless self-promotion, I am excluding Counter-Currents titles from the list, even though I had the pleasure of actually publishing some of my favorite books for this year, such as Leo Yankevich’s Journey Late at Night. I also excluded books that are not of direct interest to Counter-Currents readers, such as Kathleen Dean Moore’s splendid Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature.
1. Gabriele D’Annunzio, Notturno, trans. Stephen Sartarelli (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011). In 1914, Gabriele D’Annunzio volunteered for service in the Great War at the age of 51. In 1916, his eyes were injured when his airplane was forced to make an emergency landing. To prevent blindness, his doctors prescribed bed-rest, in absolute immobility, in a darkened room. During his three-month convalescence, he wrote Notturno. Because his eyes were bandaged, he could not write on conventional sheets of paper, since he would run the lines together. So he wrote on thin strips of paper, which he held between the thumb and forefinger of one hand while writing with the other. The strips were then collated by his daughter Renata, and, after his recovery, D’Annunzio turned them into a book. Notturno is a series of prose-poem meditations on war, heroism, death, and the nature of the senses and mind. D’Annunzio’s deep appreciation of classical music is evident in the manner in which he states, develops, and recapitulates images and themes, often with shattering emotional effect. This is the most moving work that I have read in ages.
2. Gabriele D’Annunzio, Pleasure, trans. Lara Gochin Raffaelli (New York: Penguin 2013). Pleasure was D’Annunzio’s first novel, published in 1889 when he was 26. Until this year, it was available in English only in an abridged and bowdlerized Victorian translation, which sought to mute the novel’s overwhelming eroticism and amorality, a tall order that must have reduced it to pamphlet length. This is one of the great works of literary decadence, aestheticism, and dandyism, but it illustrates the thesis explored on this site by Robert Steuckers that dandyism at heart is a conservative, anti-modernist, anti-bourgeois form of life. It also illustrates my thesis that there are two kinds of decadent art: one that wallows in the dregs of the Kali Yuga and the other that looks longingly to integral and aesthetically refined premodern forms of life, seeing in them the prototypes of the next Golden Age.
3. Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Gabriele D’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War (New York: Knopf, 2013). Both German National Socialism and Italian Fascism were both strongly aesthetic political and cultural movements. Hitler, of course, was both an artist and an aesthete. Mussolini, however, was something of a philistine. But Mussolini did not create the Fascist aesthetic, D’Annunzio did, right down to the uniforms, salutes, oaths, and characteristic public spectacles. Indeed, D’Annunzio was the first fascist dictator. In September of 1919, he led a March on Fiume (prototype of the March on Rome), gathering an army of Italian soldiers to take over the ethnically Italian city of Fiume on the Adriatic coast, which he ruled as dictator until December of 1920. (For more on Fiume, click here.) D’Annunzio could have marched on Rome and installed himself as dictator, but in truth, he had no interest in the minutiae of government.
Lucy Hughes-Hallet’s new biography of D’Annunzio is beautifully written and fascinating to read. Given her subject, she is remarkably even-toned. (She is evidently a liberal, but not a PC Leftist.) D’Annunzio was, in truth, something of a monster, which Hughes-Hallett documents copiously. What she fails to communicate is the monster’s astonishing charisma and talent. To understand that, one must read D’Annunzio himself. This book is on my re-read shelf for 2014, and I hope to produce an extensive review.
4. Frederic Spotts, Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (New York: Overlook, 2003). This is my favorite book on Hitler. It covers all aspects of aspects of Hitler’s engagement with the arts, both in his personal and political life, and does so with surprising objectivity. This book is not merely of historical interest, because it also contains many insights into the relationship of aesthetics and politics that are of permanent validity. Apparently the objective tone of his treatment of Hitler displeased some powerful people, for Spotts adopted a rather tendentious tone in his next book, The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), which is still highly informative and undermines many myths about the Occupation. Spotts is also the author of an excellent Wagner book, Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994). All three Spotts books are available quite cheaply in used editions.
5. R. H. S. Stolfi, Hitler: Beyond Evil and Tyranny (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2011). This biography of Hitler by Russell Stolfi, a mainstream military historian, systematically critiques the tendentious and non-objective approach of the “great biographies” of Hitler and seeks to understand his actions in terms of his character and circumstances and do full justice to both his achievements and failings. Stolfi argues that Hitler was not an evil tyrant but a “dark World Historical figure” who should be accorded the same biographical courtesies as history’s other great conquerors and statesmen. Read my extensive review here.
6. Tito Perdue, The Node (Charleston, W.V.: Nine-Banded Books, 2011). Highly entertaining, surreal, and sardonic dystopian White Nationalist fiction. The funniest book I read in 2013. Read my review here. (See also my review of Perdue’s Morning Crafts here and Jef Costello’s review of Lee here.)
7. Joachim Köhler, Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans, trans. Stewart Spencer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004). Since 2013 was the Wagner bicentennial year, I spent a good deal of time reading and re-reading books on Wagner. Joachim Köhler is a self-hating Left-wing German who approaches Wagner in the most jaundiced possible fashion in his Wagner’s Hitler: The Prophet and His Disciple, trans. Ronald Taylor (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000), which reads like a giant ADL or SPLC dossier but is nevertheless a treasure trove of information on the decades of metapolitical propaganda and organization carried out by the Wagner family and the Bayreuth circle, and how their efforts prepared the ground for and nurtured the early growth of the National Socialist movement; a valuable corrective to people who present National Socialism as merely a populist movement that arose without metapolitical foundations. (The very term “metapolitics” was coined at Bayreuth.)
Köhler’s short book Nietzsche and Wagner: A Lesson in Subjugation, trans. Ronald Taylor (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), which offers a plausible account of the breakdown of the Wagner-Nietzsche relationship (Wagner suggested to Nietzsche’s doctor that Nietzsche’s eyesight was failing due to chronic masturbation, and this got back to Nietzsche) is similarly tendentious. But when Köhler wrote his great biography, Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans, he had succumbed to Wagner’s spell and even blamed his widow Cosima for most of Bayreuth’s political legacy. This is an astonishingly detailed, well-written, absorbing, and ultimately inspiring book.
8. Mircea Eliade, The Portugal Journal, trans. Mac Linscott Ricketts (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010). Earlier this year, I was needing some intellectual inspiration, so I entered into the intellectual life of Mircea Eliade — one of the 20th century’s greatest religious scholars and a man of the Right — through the five volumes of his journals. The Portugal Journal is the earliest volume, covering the years 1941 to 1945, when Eliade was a Romanian diplomat in Lisbon. Eliade records his intellectual and religious struggles, his relationship to the Iron Guard, the anguish of his wife’s long illness and death, his horror at the collapse of the Axis powers and the prospect for the Sovietization of his native Romania, the widespread and casual treason of the Romanian elites who preferred to indulge in feckless Germanophobia and Anglophilia rather than face the Soviet danger on their doorstep, his intellectual relationship with René Guénon, and his meetings with Salazar, Carl Schmitt, and Ernst Jünger, among others. For some excerpts, click here.
9. John Tavener, The Music of Silence: A Composer’s Testament, ed. Brian Keeble (London: Faber and Faber, 1999). To my great sorrow, John Tavener died in November. Since then, I have been revisiting his writings and compositions. The Music of Silence consists of transcriptions of conversations between Tavener and his friend Brian Keeble, a traditionalist writer and publisher.
Tavener discusses the development of his music (from modernism to Orthodox- and Oriental-influenced sacred music) and his spiritual views (from Presbyterian to Catholic to Orthodox to Traditionalist), which are tightly interwoven.
Tavener is both a composer and a Traditionalist, and each throws light on the other. One the one hand, Tavener sagely dismisses Guénon’s sweeping criticisms of Western music as mere ideologically-driven philistinism. Tavener has high praise for Mozart and Stravinsky, and mitigated praise for Messiaen and even Stockhausen. On the other hand, he is sharply critical of the secularism and subjectivism of Classical and Romantic music. He never minces words:
I have always been drawn more to the archetypal levels of human experience and human types, which is why I think I was drawn to Stravinsky and revolted by Schoenberg. Schoenberg was for me the filth, rotten ‘dirt dump’ of the twentieth century. I personally could not stand the angst-ridden sound of decay in his music, the vile post-Freudian world. Basically, I do not respond to the so-called ‘Gemanic Tradition’, whose by now rotting corpse — the hideous sound world of its fabricated complexity — smothers archetypal experience that I have always sought. (p. 14)
Take a piece like Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, which for me is an absurdity and an anomaly because it resonates only against itself. There is no real prototype in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis — he doesn’t go back to find the prototype — it’s just an excuse for an expansive exercise in anguished self-expression: Beethoven’s ‘ego’ railing against God. As Frithjof Schuon has written, ‘There is no denying what is powerful and profound about many of Beethoven’s musical motifs, but, all things considered, a music of this sort should not exist . . .’ (p. 55)
There is a lot of truth here (Schoenberg’s music is ugly and Missa Solemnis is one of Beethoven’s least accomplished works), but these are judgments of taste, not deductions from Traditionalist theories about what art should be like. I distrust anyone whose theories substitute for aesthetic experience and taste. Beethoven’s music needs no justification beyond its beauty, and Tavener’s music also stands or falls based on its aesthetic qualities, not any theoretical props or religious and philosophical good intentions. Furthermore, Tavener’s own Platonist commitments actually support the autonomy of aesthetic experience, since beauty as such is convertible with being and goodness, which means that genuinely beautiful music must be “archetypal,” and music that is not archetypal is not beautiful.
Tavener also shares many fascinating observations about Western vs. Byzantine and other Eastern notational systems.
An important supplement to this volume is Tavener’s essay “Towards the Musica Perennis” in Brian Keeble, ed., Every Man an Artist: Readings in the Traditional Philosophy of Art (Library of Perennial Philosophy) (Bloomington, Ind.: World Wisdom, 2005).
10. William H. F. Altman, The German Stranger: Leo Strauss and National Socialism (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2011). Altman argues that Leo Strauss was a kind of Nazi Jew, “the German stranger” who came to the United States to corrupt American democracy. I plan to devote a long review to Altman in the new year (he deserves a long review), but the nerve of my argument is that he establishes that Strauss belongs to the general Conservative Revolutionary intellectual tradition (Heidegger, Schmitt, Spengler, Jünger, and behind them all Nietzsche) which led many to National Socialism. But that does not mean that Strauss was a National Socialist. Although I disagree with Altman’s thesis and many of his argumentative moves, I admire his thorough scholarship and passionate approach to ideas. Altman is not a professional philosopher but a high school teacher, i.e., an engaged amateur (in the best sense of that word). He is by birth a Jew, by faith an evangelical Christian, and politically a defender of liberal democracy. Pretty much my opposite number. But as someone who abandoned academia for a very different kind of engaged intellectual amateurism, I find his work inspiring. He is also the author of books on Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Plato, which I look forward to reading in the new year.
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