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Christopher Pankhurst’s Numinous Machines

[1]

You can buy Christopher Pankhurst’s Numinous Machines here [2].

2,455 words

Christopher Pankhurst
Numinous Machines [2]
San Francisco, Calif.: Counter-Currents Publishing, 2017

Whenever I read a book with the intention of writing a review, I like to underline certain passages as well as jot notes in the margins. This quickly became an untenable approach for Christopher Pankhurst [3]’s Numinous Machines, as there was simply too much to pull from the text. The book is a collection of essays that seeks out the numinous spirit in arts and culture in an era that is devoid of almost anything vital whatsoever. Numinous is used here to define works of art that have a divine or spiritual element to them and act as catalysts for the creation of entire cultures. For those — myself included — who have a history of getting stuck in history, Pankhurst’s thesis is a breath of fresh air, for it hints at a way forward. Keep in mind that this work is not a template for the creation of authentic art; it merely cites examples of it, and in doing so, inspires.

In order to understand Numinous Machines a general knowledge of Oswald Spengler is required, and Pankhurst begins the book with a synthesis of his ideas about the rise and fall of civilizations — particularly ours — as described in his Decline of the West. It gets a little murky when the question is raised of where exactly our society is along Spengler’s timeline, but I think most can agree that we’re well past our golden summit.

If you’ve read Carroll Quigley’s The Evolution of Civilizations, the idea of Western Civilization’s unique ability to reinvent itself is promising,[1] [4] but Pankhurst’s position on the numinous is less concerned with preserving an expended culture and more focused on what comes next. No one sums this up better than Kerry Bolton in the Foreword when he states, “Pankhurst directs his attention towards what the new forms of a post-Western culture might be . . . to revive the tradition of a bygone High Culture is to reanimate a corpse and claim victory by creating a zombie.”[2] [5] None of these points exclusively mandate that the past is nothing more than mere nostalgia or should be scorned; in fact, Pankhurst cites our own history as inspiration for the creation of new numinous content: “In the absence of a functioning European culture, the authentic manifestations of the spirit of the West will arise at the margins of culture . . . the key point is whether these subcultural groups maintain a connection to the numinous essence of the European spirit.”[3] [6] A layman’s analogy I gleaned from this is that if an architect looks back to Rome for insight, he should be inspired to build something with forever in mind in lieu of merely recreating marble columns.

If I attempted to give each essay in the collection the full attention it deserves, the review might be as long as the book itself. Below is a diagnosis of a handful of Pankhurst’s essays covering the three major artistic disciplines — music, literature, and the visual arts — by someone who admittedly had much to gain from them.

Parsifal & The Possibility of Transcendence” and “Tapiola: Sibelius & the God of the Wood”

Sadly, I confess to a certain degree of intellectual limitation that precludes me from being able to fully appreciate music. I do not possess a musical note in my entire body. I can listen to classical music and think it sounds nice, but that’s about it; I simply have no idea what’s going on. To mask this shortcoming, I used to seek out thought that ranked music somewhere further down in terms of cultural importance. I thought I found it in Cioran — “Wit having no equivalent in sound, we denigrate a musician by calling him intelligent” — but this came from the same thinker who compared Bach’s music to God.[4] [7] It’s with this attitude in mind that I read two essays on classical music. Though I’d still be incapable of recognizing the true beauty of these works, thankfully I have Pankhurst’s writing to walk me through it.

The first essay is about Wagner’s libretto for his music drama Parsifal, as well as Friedrich Nietzsche’s general disapproval of it. Just as an understanding of Spengler is required (and provided) to read Numinous Machines, a basic knowledge of Arthur Schopenhauer is somewhat mandatory to understand what Wagner was trying to achieve with his work; fortunately, a summary is included. Of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, Pankhurst states that it

begins with the observation that everything that exists can only be known to us through our senses, through perception. Therefore, we have no direct access to an objective, independently existing world. For us the world exists only as representation. This applies not only to objects but also to all of the natural laws that connect objects with each other, such as magnetism and gravitation.[5] [8]

Pankhurst goes on to say of Schopenhauer that he “singles out music as a special art form quite unlike all the others . . . the effect of music is so very much more powerful and penetrating than is that of the other arts.”[6] [9]

Enter Wagner. Paraphrasing Pankhurst’s diagnosis of Parsifal, what the libretto tries to do is provide the notion of transcendence to all living things. Using his ideological alignment with Schopenhauer, Wagner takes the artistic medium of music and puts forth “the possibility of redemption within a secular framework, Wagner himself is guarding the possibility of transcendence against the ongoing decline of Christianity.”[7] [10] One of the ways this is done is by highlighting the importance of numinous places in the libretto’s story of knights guarding the Holy Grail. Nietzsche’s disapproval of Wagner’s work stems from his accusation that Wagner was guilty of “counterfeiting . . . transcendence and beyond,”[8] [11] which rings eerily similar to Spengler’s idea of “toying with myths that no one really believes”[9] [12] in the age of “Second Religiousness,” after a culture has already become stale. Pankhurst doesn’t necessarily throw in his lot exclusively with either Wagner or Nietzsche; all he does is illuminate the Faustian drive toward transcendence and beauty via creation.

In the essay “Tapiola: Sibelius & the God of the Wood,” a similar treatment of classical music is provided as it relates to the attainment of something numinous. Expanding on the notion of numinous creation being rooted in nature and a specific place, as hinted in Parsifal, Pankhurst examines Jean Sibelius’ last major work: Tapiola. Taking its motivation from the folklore of Sibelius’ native Finland, the story of Tapiola focuses on the god of the woodland, Tapio. His presence in the music “seems to bring the terror of nature, of uncontrolled and unconquered forces.”[10] [13] The idea of a natural place — the forest — being expressed through music is difficult to understand for someone without an ear for it, but Pankhurst emphasizes the utter importance of “interfusing melody with the landscape,”[11] [14] and how a godly creation of art can only stem from an inspiration by God’s purest creation: the land.

“The Dance Continued: Perichoresis in the Novels of Alan Garner”

Again, we come back to the importance of place and transcendence, this time in literature. If comprehension of classical music was a difficult task for me, then Alan Garner’s work may be just as arduous; I admit to liking the genre of fantasy the least of any written work. Talking lions and fairies, and places with names like “Middle Earth” just never did it for me the way fiction somewhat more based in reality seemed to. Thankfully, I can read an essay on the subject that’s capable of laser-guiding someone who’s not a fan of the genre into its importance.

[15]

You can buy Kerry Bolton’s Artists of the Right here [16].

Alan Garner is an English novelist and children’s fantasy writer. He’s been publishing since the early 1960s and continues to do so today. Some of his best-known works are The Stone Book series, as well as Red Shift. Born and raised in the western English countryside, all of Garner’s works are deeply rooted in the nature and folklore of his native land, and this is where his connection with the numinous comes into play. Pankhurst focuses on the notion of perichoresis in Garner’s work. Though the term has its mainstream origins in the Christian religion, where it explains the relationship of the three persons of the triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — Pankhurst uses the term in its broadest concept, which is to seamlessly move from one thing or place to another in a mystical or divine way. This idea accurately portrays the common trope in children’s fantasy literature of discovering a secret world that can only be felt, viewed, or accessed in special conditions.

Though this motif is usually just a template for the exploration of a child’s magical imagination, Pankhurst emphasizes the importance of world-building and how, to a very significant degree, other planes or worlds were much more real to our ancestors, as expressed in their folklore; they formed culture, religion, and community. In Elidor, the protagonist, Roland, finds a way to travel between his world and another. This new place stands in stark contrast to his boring suburban life. Pankhurst cites Garner’s own words on the potential side-effects of spending too much time away from reality: “The fault of Roland is that he’s always had dreams of an ideal state, and he makes the mistake of assuming that Elidor . . . is this perfection . . . he had sacrificed reality, that the cost of the simulacrum was the reality, and that’s why he was going mad.”[12] [17] The classic portrayal of the Faustian man is in play here, and the desire for transcendence — in this case into an entirely different world — is brought into question. It’s worth reiterating that this is how new cultures are born, however. It’s no surprise that Garner himself sees his work as being almost tailor-made for Western man, as evinced by the inexplicable link between a people and a place. He’s the children’s literature version of Knut Hamsun, merely replacing Norwegian hyperborean landscapes with that of the English countryside.[13] [18]

“God has Become Cancer: Damien Hirst, Religion, & Death”

Damien Hirst is a visual artist whose work, if I happened to walk through a gallery of his work, I would immediately think of as dumb and then move on to something more conventional and familiar. However, as Pankhurst shows, these are attributes that point in the wrong direction as far as creating numinous works for the foundation of a future culture are concerned. Hirst made a name for himself in the 1990s with presentations of deceased animals displayed in giant glass containers of formaldehyde. Death is his art’s main theme.

Pankhurst starts this essay with a diagnosis of contemporary and traditional art. He states:

For the radical Right, the issue of contemporary art is something of a non-starter. The past century or so of developments in the fine arts have been dominated by American (and often Jewish) theoreticians[14] [19] who have fashioned a sensibility wherein anything that smacks of European tradition is automatically verboten, unless it can be refracted through a distorting lens of ironic detachment or disinheritance.[15] [20]

He goes on to describe the importance of symbolism and meaning in traditional art, but highlights these as potential weaknesses because of their lack of objectivity; the ability of a piece of art to mean something different to each individual viewer is not necessarily a strength. Since “we do not live in a time when collective worship through shared iconography is a possibility,”[16] [21] traditional art has an ever-diminishing place in our society which leads us to contemporary art and Hirst’s conceptual art. I loved Pankhurst’s mention of early attempts at developing a new European art — Futurism and Vorticism — being effectively obliterated after 1945, for it sets the stage for what’s to come. (Céline’s famous quip — “Stalingrad. There you can say it was finished and well finished, the white civilization” — popped into my head.) As far as Hirst’s work is concerned, a straightforward approach and obsession with death, literally portraying something dead for viewers to observe, is refreshingly honest and devoid of the prerequisite of interpretation.

Others of Hirst’s works are referenced, specifically a display of pharmaceutical drugs organized in cabinets. Though anyone concerned with the fine arts would, and deservedly should, balk at this being considered “art,” its religious connotations are without doubt. As Pankhurst emphasizes, what once offered immortality — religion — is now provided by drugs. In Hirst’s own words, “in the world today everybody dies of cancer . . . in a way God has become cancer or it starts to feel like that . . . if God is to be found anywhere today why not there?”[17] [22]

The essay humorously concludes with Pankhurst referencing the sincerity and Evolian hierarchy that surfaces in Hirst’s work, regardless of it being his intention or not. (As he is a contemporary artist I assume, in the most jaded way, that Hirst is full of shit). Though it could be said about almost any contemporary artist, Pankhurst gives credit where it is due and praises Hirst for thoroughly pursuing a clear concept. He concludes with the thought that “[w]hen all things are rendered possible, it should be unsurprising if reality makes a reappearance.”[18] [23] I loved this, for I think it accurately describes what has happened: the achievement of something new, numinous, clear, and refreshing all the while attempting to be edgy.

There are several examples of this come-full-circle notion found in a rudderless Left frantically attempting to maintain a veneer of being radical or dissident. Occasionally, someone steers into the wrong territory. Though I’ve had a difficult time finding additional sources for it, apparently a Scandinavian Black Metal band wound up becoming Catholic after looking into ways to make fun of religion;[19] [24] lamenting the mainstreaming of gay pride, characters in the show Portlandia attempt to regain their edginess by throwing a parade for “bigots”; and my personal favorite is when Leftists, with the help of trolls, agree verbatim with Adolf Hitler’s rhetoric.[20] [25] These are not examples of numinous creation, but sooner or later it can happen, even if by accident.

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Notes

[1] [28] In The Evolution of Civilizations, American historian Carroll Quigley loosely parallels Spengler by positing the notion that all civilizations are cyclical. Focusing on Western Civilization, he references several historical moments where it was able to change or augment its structure to maintain its upward mobility.

[2] [29] Christopher Pankhurst, Numinous Machines (San Francisco, Calif.: Counter-Currents Publishing, 2017), iv.

[3] [30] Ibid., 26.

[4] [31] E. M. Cioran, A Short History of Decay (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2012), 103.

[5] [32] Pankhurst, Numinous Machines, 25.

[6] [33] Ibid., 32.

[7] [34] Ibid., 35.

[8] [35] Ibid., 38.

[9] [36] Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West. (New York: The Modern Library, 1962), 347.

[10] [37] Pankhurst, Numinous Machines, 40.

[11] [38] Ibid., 41.

[12] [39] Ibid., 65.

[13] [40] Kerry Bolton, Artists of the Right (San Francisco, Calif.: Counter-Currents Publishing, 2012), 80.

[14] [41] For more on this subject, read Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word [42].

[15] [43] Pankhurst, Numinous Machines, 84.

[16] [44] Ibid., 85.

[17] [45] Ibid., 89.

[18] [46] Ibid., 93.

[19] [47] Autothrall. “An Ugly Shade of White [48],” The Metal Archives, September 16, 2014.

[20] [49] Caleb Parke, “Academic Journal Accepts ‘Feminist Mein Kampf [50],” FOX News, October 4, 2018.