Ad multos annos Pat Buchanan

It must have been in the Summer of 2005. On a warm southern Ontario evening my brother and I made the trip to the cinema complex at Mississauga’s Square One Plaza [Canada]. However, as we had done several times before seeing a movie, we made the traditional intellectual pit stop at the nearby Chapters [bookstore].

While my brother, ever the aviation fanatic, looked over the latest publications pertaining to his field of interest, I made my way over to the history and political science sections. At one point I came across a title that sounded very catchy, i.e., Where the Right Went Wrong. It happened to be last one on the shelf. I also noticed that the author’s name rang a bell: Patrick J. Buchanan. Having read the summary and the recommendations I had no doubt this was the book I wanted to spend the rest of Summer 2005 with. By that time my political views were solidly grounded, nurtured by the excellent ethics and philosophy lectures at my alma mater, the Catholic University of Lublin.

I set out to find why the United States since 9/11 acted the way it did. The conventional Amerika-type explanations were simply unsatisfactory. Here finally was a tour de force of the malaise. I must admit that before reading Where the Right Went Wrong I could have asked the same question that apparently George W. Bush once posed to his late father: “What’s a neocon?”

Buchanan laid it all out: the ideological creed of that unsavory band of warmongers called neoconservatives, the emphasis on the unparalleled hubris of the Bush II administration attempting to “rid the world of evil,” all combined into a historical, political, and sociological analysis of a country that was on the road to perdition. A conservative takedown of a conservative-in-name-only administration. And all this from a former adviser to American presidents, three-time presidential candidate, public intellectual, tv personality and, what struck me most, a Latin Mass attending Catholic. Finally, a book I could truly call “foundational.”

As the years went by, I would become a certified Pat Buchanan fan of sorts. Back in my native Poland, I quickly devoured the local translation of The Death of the West. Names like “Gramsci” and terms like “Frankfurt School” would become essential parts of my vocabulary in heated political discussions. Buchanan was an influencer of sorts, who with precision and whit would hammer away in intellectual shock and awe fashion at all our common enemies: globalism, the European Union, the heresy of Modernism in the Catholic Church, the neocons, the multicultural Left. Reading Pat’s books and columns simply became an intellectual necessity—and remains so to this day.

The crucial (to some paradoxical) lesson of Pat Buchanan’s long career in politics and journalism is this: loyalty and taking a principled stand go hand in hand. To see why, I recommend reading his last two-volume memoir of his days with Richard Nixon, before and during the presidency. Only Buchanan can combine stories of how he bummed cigarettes from Pat Nixon with timeless political insight and historical reference. The esteemed Ronald Reagan biographer Craig Shirley wrote in 2015, “like Moses, Buchanan wasn’t allowed to go to the Promised Land, but over the years he has been vindicated on many, many issues.”

There is no need here to elaborate on the obvious and well-documented, by both friendly and hostile authors, ideological affinity between the man who coined the term “Silent Majority” and Donald J. Trump. Suffice to say that Buchanan is the only public persona that I know of to whom Trump offered apologies after having engaged in some very nasty name calling in the heated race for Reform Party presidential nominee in 2000.

It can be argued that if it were not for “pitchfork Pat,” who planted the seeds of populist nationalism during his insurgent presidential campaigns, Jerry Goldsmith’s epic theme from Air Force One might have preceded someone else’s remarks during election night 2016.

As one of the founders of The American Conservative, Buchanan would give American patriots and “conservatives of the heart”, disgusted with the trajectory of their beloved country, a platform from which to intellectually strike at the enemies of “the Old Republic” and whose influence cannot be underestimated. We have come a long way since those heady days of neoconservative supremacy when anathemas against “unpatriotic conservatives” really made a difference.

I can also testify that Pat Buchanan has become a global symbol of what true American conservatism stands for. It would be hard to find anyone in my circle of political and journalistic colleagues who is not familiar with Buchanan’s works. Pat is an icon of an older, better America. American readers know exactly what I mean when I refer to America’s better days; still, I would submit that Timothy Stanley captured it well when he wrote in his biography of the man: “Buchanan’s America—a world of religious mystery, Joe McCarthy, obedient wives, patriotic teamsters, Latin Masses, Saturday Night at the Movies, Buck Rogers, apple pie, stink bombs and Sputniks—was long gone. Even Georgetown was now a plush shopping district, more Ralph Lauren than Roman Catholic. When country-and-western singer Johnny Cash died in 2003, Pat said in an interview ‘Johnny Cash is gone and it is fitting, because the America we grew up in is gone, too. We grew up in another country. Johnny Cash wrote and sang our songs’.”

“Another country” indeed.

On the other hand, if it were not for the “fire in the hearts of men” that this American legend lit in so many of his fellow countrymen, setting the stage for any eventual populist counterrevolution part deux—an imperfect one having already occurred in 2016—in the United States would be a lot harder. After all it was none other than David Brooks who just a few days after Trump’s election described Buchanan as “the most influential public intellectual in America today.”

In honor of this great American on his 83rd birthday, I encourage all to settle down with a Pat Buchanan book, listen to one of his many interviews given over the years (the ones about adventures with Nixon are a historic treasure) or even re-live the humor accompanying the 1996 presidential campaign. It’s always a good time to seek inspiration and insight from this intellectual and political titan. To paraphrase the campaign slogan of his former boss, Richard Nixon, “Pat Buchanan now more than ever!”

Mr. Buchanan, from all of us here in Poland, sto lat!

Michał Krupa is a Polish historian and commentator. He has published in various Polish and American media outlets, including The American ConservativeConsortium NewsChronicles Magazine and the Imaginative Conservative. His Twitter handle is: @MGKrupa.

Paul Cantor (1945-2022): The Philosopher, Tricked out as Clown

By a twist of fate, our eulogy of Professor Paul Cantor was first drafted shortly after the death of Elizabeth II. [Note: This article assesses Mr. Cantor’s contribution to Shakespearean scholarshipit is not an endorsement of his politics].

Struck down by the same malady which killed Paul Cantor, only now have I learnt of his death. Professor of English Literature at the University of Virginia and guest Professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, he died in February 2022 at the age of 76, having devoted his life to teaching Shakespeare.

Here is our first enigma: for 45 years and to over ten thousand students, Cantor taught a Shakespeare and Politics seminar, erudite and above all, thought-provoking. That notwithstanding, he was greeted with stony silence in Europe and even in England. Not once, saving error, was he engaged as consultant to a history play, not once was he invited to speak before a European scholarly society.

Through all those years, Cantor’s international contacts were restricted, if that is the word, to hundreds of telephone and e-mail exchanges with foreign students, including students from the PR of China. What could possibly explain the void in academe?

As it happens, Paul Cantor lived a double-life: one as a neo-conservative ideologue in economic matters, a friend to avowed war-mongers such as William Kristol. Apologist to Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek, Cantor espoused the Austrian School of Economics, notorious for players like Milton Friedman or Margaret Thatcher, who would have wreaked rather less harm in vaudeville.

That said, Cantor’s role in that côterie was rather that of the Court Fool, whom he much resembled physically. Short, well-padded and ever-jolly, Cantor spoke with a thick Brooklyn accent and wore his coat-sleeves dangling to the fingertips. Hardly the image projected by notable Shakespeareans such as Jonathan Bate, now Sir Jonathan—tall, slender, elegant, with thoughts as gracefully policed as their every gesture.

Court Fool, perhaps. But another enigma: how did a scholar and polymath of such calibre (at Harvard, he nearly opted to study astronomy), take up with a clique of the gimlet-eyed fanatics who lie behind every major US policy disaster since Dallas, November 22, 1963?

Scroll back the decades.

Paul Cantor’s birth-year was 1945, the year of the US atomic firestorm at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Meanwhile, in a New York putatively at peace, the child Cantor had access to his father’s and grand-father’s large private libraries. Very evidently a victim neither of material nor cultural deprivation, Cantor’s childhood and teenage years were nevertheless marked by two other firestorms sowing fear amongst American Jews, of whom many had recently fled Germany or Eastern Europe: the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage in 1953, and the allegedly “anti-Communist” terror campaign (circa 1949-1955), spear-headed by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee. The targets were “Communists,” or “homosexuals”—whether real or imagined is irrelevant—largely Jewish intellectuals from the East Coast, theatre people and Hollywood script-writers, as well as leading academics and State Department career diplomats; what that motley crew had in common was opposition to the Doctor Strangeloves of this world.

The elephant in the room in Cantor’s youth was thus the hell unleashed by HUAC; its figure-head was a drug-addict and doubtless blackmail victim, Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose substances for abuse are now known to have been procured by the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

HUAC’s hearings in the US Senate led to suicides, countless dismissals, and exile for some of the country’s most remarkable citizens. Amongst HUAC’s celebrated victims one finds the actor and producer Sam Wanamaker (Wattenmacher in Yiddish), who left for London with his family and never returned; it was Wanamaker who had the Globe Theatre, of which Shakespeare had been shareholder, rebuilt on Bankside. Another victim was Jerome (Rabinowitz) Robbins, dancer and choreographer of West Side Story. Crumbling under the pressure, Robbins denounced to HUAC a string of real (?) or make-believe (?) “Communists” among his fellow artists, with disastrous results.

From a press release by a HUAC victim, the blacklisted Shakespearean actor Morris Carnovsky, one gets a whiff of the pornography of violence that typifies HUAC: “an inquisition into the inviolable areas of one’s deepest manhood and integrity—the end result is the blacklist, the deprivation by innuendo of one’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in work. And here we have what the black opera singer and actor Paul Robeson threw back at HUAC.

As it happens, Paul Cantor knew Carnovsky well, of whom he recalls: “at the then flourishing American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, among the many performances I experienced there, the highlight was seeing Morris Carnovsky in the role of King Lear (twice!). To this day, I consider this the greatest Shakespeare performance I ever saw and it inspired my devotion to King Lear and Shakespeare in general.”

In 1956, a sensational film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, was released. Cunningly disguised as a horror-film, it is an allegory of the conformism disfiguring US society, turning citizens into zombies, as HUAC’s Iron Curtain slammed down on independent thought.

Thence emerged what now goes by the terms “Wokism” and “Political Correctness”: once the thought-police had dealt with so-called “Communists,” or whatever, backing into the same tight corner the so-called Right and traditionalists was like taking candy from a baby.

Moreover, something one might readily forget here in Europe: until the year 1965, Apartheid reigned in the USA under the term “Segregation”—and again, amongst the White activists in the Civil Rights Movement, Jews were the majority. Slandered, assaulted and sometimes murdered, these intellectuals, dixit Earl Lively of the John Birch Society, intended to set up an “independent Negro-Soviet Republic”[sic] (Invasion of Mississippi).

As for Cantor’s adolescence in the 1960s, it was marked by a series of murders designed to throw open the citadel to the Strangeloves: John F. Kennedy (November 22, 1963); Malcolm X (1965), Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King (1968), and a host of small-fry such as Jack Ruby, “disappeared” for having gleaned bits and pieces of the puzzle.

The Articles of Faith, 1536—2022

As a subject of His Britannic Majesty, the author of these lines is well-acquainted with the leaden cape cast over the Kingdom since Henry VIII and his Articles of the Faith (1536) which were imposed by extortion, intolerance and violence. A Kingdom, where since the theocrat Henry, freedom of thought and political action have lived on only in Shakespeare’s theatre.

Although the USA may for a moment in history, have been a temple of liberty, since that day at Hiroshima in 1945, the people of the USA have cowered in a Don’t-Go-There mind-set, feverishly seeking to comply with whatever the day’s Articles of the Faith may enjoin.

Accordingly, and without pressing the point, I would venture to suggest that Paul Cantor may have unconsciously sought shelter under the wings of a clique seen as both fearsome and eminently respectable. And as Cantor lived in the cool shade of the Ivy League’s ivy leaves, he had never to confront in person the reality of the dead, the mutilated, the bankrupt, the exiled, strewn in the wake of his self-satisfied, war-mongering friends.

In Europe, the academic milieu, leaning “centre-left,” appears to have resolved to stonewall a Shakespearean who, unlike his more duplicitous colleagues, owned very frankly to such untoward acquaintances. Error! For Paul Cantor—another enigma—is amongst the few who have understood why Shakespeare wrote what he did, and among the few who have inspired tens of thousands of youths to serious study.

Academic, and Mountebank

To his students, Paul Cantor was an interpretative artist like Dinu Lipatti or Pau Casals; he neither “explained” Shakespeare, nor “criticised” him, but tried to think his way into his thoughts.

In the best sense of the term, Cantor remained a child all his life, gazing at the world through the eyes of his idol. He rejoiced like a child at a student’s awkward question; riding the waves of his idol’s ideas, he cheerfully took a slap in the face whenever Shakespeare wrecked a fond neo-con belief. When William Kristol asked whether Shakespeare might be neo-con compatible? Cantor retorted—no—would have been nice, but Shakespeare will not be pigeon-holed.

As mountebank, Cantor, who wrote extensively on US television, had seen classical theatre collapse through lack of subsidy and an apprentice-system, and had realised that for his own lifetime, the class-room would have to be the theatre, and the professor, an actor on that stage.

The groundlings standing on their own two feet before the stage, and who in Shakespeare’s day made up the bulk of the audience—were Cantor’s students, lucky to have access to a master free of cynical utilitarianism. The good news for posterity is that while Cantor’s writings may not perhaps be ground-breaking, his true and irreplaceable contribution, those marvelous in-person seminars where Cantor, thinking out loud, revels in the to-and-fro with students, have largely been filmed.

“Idiocene” or Ideas?

In his life as a Shakespearean, Cantor knew that it was the average citizen’s intellect would decide the fate of the republic. In July, the Italian politician Pino Cabras summarized the point thusly: “though the notion of staking our hopes on the optimism of will-power may be attractive, I would nonetheless suggest that this crisis is without precedent, and that consequently, the ruling classes, frightened out of their wits, will concede nothing, not an inch. Meanwhile, those who object to their rule suffer from backwardness, be it cognitive, cultural or political, while we are the ‘first generation which cannot afford to make mistakes.’” (See also Teresita Dussart). Taking on that backwardness was Cantor’s mission, and this is what he said of his 40 years’ teaching:

“…the only thing I teach where the students continue to respond with the same enthusiasm is Shakespeare. With other things, things vary in time—and you can see trends and fashions—but Shakespeare is a sure-fire hit. Shakespeare doesn’t need our help. You know it’s John Milton, Geoffrey Chaucer, they need our help; that’s where you see the curriculum collapsing.

“Shakespeare stands on his own two feet and basically you can’t keep students away from Shakespeare courses. They’re the most heavily enrolled at the University of Virginia… The poetry is so beautiful, the drama is so powerful, and they all can relate to it on some of the most basic levels.”

(Of course, Cantor refrains from concluding that it was his seminars that had students piled to the rafters).

Cantor, an Anti-Exceptionalist on the US Island

Through Cantor’s study of Shakespeare, he came to see that the USA was a sort of island, remote from the realities of this world, and that his students needed to grasp this as a peril rather than a privilege: “Shakespeare understood that different forms of government shape different kinds of people … his Romans are different from his Englishmen and in fact his Republican Romans are different from his Imperial Romans. He understood that not all human types are available at all times. So, for example, he’s very aware of how living in a pagan republic as his characters do in Coriolanus is very different from living in a Christian monarchy as, say, his characters do in his history plays.”

Thus, in Cantor’s seminars on the Venetian plays—Othello, The Merchant of Venice—he notes that Shakespeare weighs arguments asserted variously by Muslims, Jews and Christians. Taking no sides, he scrutinises the impact on public life of each thought-system, comparing Venice, a thoroughly oligarchical republic practising religious tolerance for commercial motives, to the tottering theocracy of Elizabeth I, as the latter took the worst possible path to stabilise the state, i.e., empire-building.

In so doing, Cantor led his students to wonder whether their own, American personality, sprung from a given time and place in the reign of imperial exceptionalism, might truly be an Ideal of Man, in an Ideal State?

“Not all human types are available at all times” … Quite. But would the American Regina Dugan perhaps be a latter-day replica of the condottiere Gilles de Ré? A point to ponder.

Monarchist? Republican?

Which brings us to the republican question. From Cantor’s standpoint, neither was Shakespeare Calvin, nor England, his Geneva:

“Now, traditionally in literary criticism, people assume Shakespeare was an uncritical supporter of the English monarchy. I think he really was thinking about the monarchy and how it might be reformed.… I think he understood the greatest defect of monarchy was succession. That no matter how good a king might be, there was no guarantee that his son or daughter would be equal.… Moreover, I think Shakespeare was interested in the way being brought up to the throne is a corrupting influence, and something he shows about Richard II, and much of the Henry IV plays, I think, are designed to show how a king might get a good education.

“So, I don’t think Shakespeare was an uncritical supporter of monarchy as a form of government in the abstract.… he shows an unusual interest in republics for someone who’s supposed to be just supporting monarchy.

“I think that Shakespeare is accepting the fact that England is a monarchy. He’s not going to try to bring about a revolution and institute a republic … But he was interested in how could we reform the monarchy and maybe move it more in the direction of a republic? And that I think is the key to the story of Henry IV and Henry V.”

The Professor remarks that Shakespeare was well aware of the keen interest with which the élite, up to the Monarch herself, followed his plays (on Richard II, Elizabeth I famously declared in private conversation “I am Richard, know you not that?”), and that accordingly, his scrutiny of Rome’s systems of government from the primitive Republic (Coriolanus), to its fall and the premises of Empire (Julius Caesar) and the Empire itself (Anthony and Cleopatra) would—eventually—most likely have political repercussions.

To Cantor, Shakespeare is a tough realist, who saw England as too immature politically for a republican revolution in his time without smashing the crockery; pig-headed and pitiless, Malvolio in Twelfth Night is a kind of premonition of Oliver Cromwell, dictator. Conversely, how might one sow the seeds of an ideal republic and throw a few sops to the nobility, without cracking the State’s foundations? Can this succeed with a starving, desperate, dangerous people? In Coriolanus, Shakespeare concludes that where a purportedly republican élite holds its own people to be “rabble,” they will give the State over to treachery, civil war and war. A state of affairs we are currently come up against.

Philosopher in a Clown Suit

Despite being surrounded, some might say fenced in, by neo-cons entangled with a certain small state in the Middle East, Professor Cantor was anything but a Professional Jew, and he always refused to howl with the wolves. Few save Cantor have noted that in The Merchant of Venice, the Christians are depicted as liars, hypocrites and self-righteous in their cruelty, whereas Shylock unashamedly advertises his nastiness. Translated into Yiddish in 1900, the play had the great Jewish actors all vying to play Shylock, including the aforesaid Morris Carnovsky.

Cantor had no time for the ludicrous authorship controversy. Perusal of the abundant and coherent documentation and especially, the internal evidence, left him in no doubt that William Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. In this context, we cannot resist quoting Robert Gore-Langton’s delightful article on the launch of Shakespeare North; here he is questioning the Trust’s Chairman, Edward Stanley, Earl of Derby: “Is there any belief in the family that Shakespeare was actually a cover name for the 6th Earl of Derby, as some believe? The short answer is an emphatic no. “I once asked my uncle and he said: ‘have a straightforward answer to that: we could have never been bright enough; it couldn’t have been any of us.’”

Bright, Paul Cantor certainly was. In an essay he penned in 2014 on Arthur Melzer’s Philosophy between the Lines, intitled “Philosophy in a Clown Suit,” and which I came across only after formulating the thoughts above on his double life, Cantor appears to give us the key:

“Imagine, then, the plight of philosophers who commit their dangerous thoughts to writing and thereby threaten to publicize their disagreements with the political and religious establishments. Philosophers had to learn an art of writing that would enable them at one and the same time to conceal and reveal their thoughts—to conceal their unorthodox ideas from a potentially hostile public and yet reveal them to like-minded, potential philosophers whom they wished to develop as students. The result was the famous ‘double doctrine of the ancient philosophers.’ They learned to write in such a way that their works had an exoteric and an esoteric meaning, a conventional meaning on the surface that would placate would-be censors and persecutors, and an unconventional meaning tucked away between the lines.”

Mendelssohn Moses is a Paris-based writer.

Knut Hamsun: Between Modernity and Tradition

Knut Hamsun was an adventurer, who has travelled through styles, genres and eras. A Norwegian genius, who is now largely unknown and forgotten, has left the literary world a work as dense as a northern forest, alternately obscure and enchanting. As a modern storyteller, he tried to escape the shackles of the literature of his time, working on both the psychology of his characters and language like a goldsmith.

If the Scandinavian writer Martin Nag describes Knut Hamsun as the “Norwegian Dostoyevsky,” it is undoubtedly because Hamsun was very much influenced by the realism of the author of The Possessed (to be clear, Russian realism is not that of the French tradition), even if his literary career took him much further. It was through an article published in 1890 in the magazine Samtiden, entitled “On the Unconscious Life of the Soul” that Knut Hamsun revealed his literary project. In this theoretical counterpart to his major novel, Hunger (1890), Hamsun showed the connection he sought to make, at least in an unconscious way, between Nietzsche’s individualism (although he neither read nor met him) and Franz Kafka’s modernity. Hamsun was impregnated by Nietzschean philosophy, thanks to the influence of Georg Brandes, who from 1888 onwards, gave a series of lectures, in Scandinavia, on the author of the Gay Science, a mindset that can be found in “Dark Sky,” the last chapter of the last book that Hamsun devoted to his trip to America. Blithely mocking his predecessors, especially Guy de Maupassant, he explored the depths of the human soul, starting with his own. This is how Hunger takes the form of a quasi-autobiographical novel. Knut Hamsun made the main character, an anonymous, modern urban, faceless, without roots, proof of his desire to break with the old codes of realism and naturalism of the declining nineteenth century—naturalism, which was more concerned with describing places, characters and objects in detail, with the aim of faithfully re-transcribing “nature.”

Knut Hamsun and the Modernity of Language

Much more than a social novel dealing with the misery and wandering of a man in a European capital that is totally unknown to him, Hunger is a psychological novel that puts its narrator in front of an alter-ego, an ambiguous companion, whom he maintains in order to cultivate the inspiration necessary for his literary work: “I had noticed very clearly that if I fasted for a long enough period, it was as if my brain was flowing very slowly from my head and leaving it empty.” This character runs through the novel, balanced between moments of genius and brilliance, between physical and mental torture. He writes thus: “God had stuck his finger in the network of my nerves and discreetly, by that way, had tangled up the threads a bit.” This ambivalent character allows Hamsun to evoke his own neuroses and to announce another objective of his life: the aesthetics of language. He never stopped working at it; sometimes with fever.

Kristofer Janson, a poet and priest who knew Hamsun, said that he knew “no one as sickly obsessed with verbal aesthetics as he was… He could jump for joy and gorge himself all day on the originality of a descriptive adjective he read in a book or found himself.” In Hunger, the character has an unpredictable and tumultuous relationship with writing: “It was as if a vein had burst in me, words follow one another, organized themselves into sets, constituted situations; scenes accumulated, actions and lines piled up in my brain and I was seized with a wonderful well-being. I write like a man possessed. I fill page after page without a moment’s respite… It keeps bursting into me. I am full of my subject and each word I write is like a dictation.”

His first novel thus inaugurated a work on the aesthetics of language. Previously, Hamsun spoke a Norwegian still “bastard,” peasant, and quite far from the bourgeois Norwegian of the capital. This is probably what he had in mind when he wrote in an article in 1888: “Language must cover all the ranges of music. The poet must always, in all situations, find the word that vibrates, that speaks to me, that can wound my soul to the point of sobbing by its precision. The word can metamorphose into color, into sound, into smell; it is up to the artist to use it to hit the nail on the head… You have to roll around in the words, to revel in them; you have to know the direct but also secret force of the Word… There are high and low resonance strings, and there are harmonics.”

Hamsun’s writing is therefore unquestionably psychological and introspective. The hunger of the hero serves to exacerbate the deepest traits of his personality. Similarly, in Pan, Hamsun delivers the character of the captain in exile, to better confront his thoughts with the wilderness: “I am sitting in the mountain and the sea and the air are whispering, which bubble and groan horribly in my ears because of the weather and the wind… The sea rises in the air, foaming and staggering, staggering; it is as if populated by great furious figures that spread their limbs and bawl at each other. No, it is a feast among ten thousand hissing demons that sink their heads into their shoulders and circle, whipping the sea into foam with the tips of their wings. Far, far away…”

We can also notice the influence of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground on the novel Mysteries and more particularly on the character of Nagel, a man who has a taste for contradiction, and who nourishes an irrepressible need for escape. Nagel shocks by his habits, by his behavior, by his attire. Indeed, if Hamsun’s stories are full of details about the clothes of the protagonists, we know almost nothing about their physical portrait. Thus, the character of Hunger attaches particular importance to his vest, which he leaves “in the hock” to be able to get some money; but his name is never mentioned. And Nagel is always dressed in a suit and a hat. Hamsun’s characters are thus reduced to a silhouette, flat areas of neo-impressionist colors that reveal only their most intimate and sometimes most brutal psychology, like Thomas Glahn in Pan, who kills his dog without apparent motive.

Knut Hamsun, the Man of Tradition

If Knut Hamsun’s characters are modern in their resolutely introspective treatment, they evolve in a surprisingly traditional setting. Indeed, Knut Hamsun, raised in the Protestant tradition by his uncle, and drawing from his mother a deep attachment to his country, fed his stories with a telluric and almost carnal energy.

Hamsun reveals himself in a less obvious way as a man of tradition, in many ways a “pagan who adores Christ,” to quote Nicolás Gómez Dávila. One thinks of the setting of his novels, such as Pan, in which he shows his attachment to the nature of the North, or Markens grode (The Fruits of the Earth, or Growth of the Soil), a rewriting of Genesis. Very critical of bourgeois materialism, Hamsun maintained throughout his life a close relationship with spirituality, which occupies an important place in his books. Thus, in Victoria (1898), he writes in praise of the Gospels: “Love was the first word of God and the first thought that crossed his mind. When he commanded ‘Let there be light,’ love was. All his creation was successful and he did not want to change anything. And love, which had been at the origin of the world, was also its master. But its paths are strewn with flowers and blood. Of flowers and blood.”

Hamsun’s detestation of the bourgeois world is also apparent in a 1917 work entitled, Segelfoss By (Segelfoss Town). In it, Hamsun evokes a city “as if resurrected from the dead,” where people live in “small and old-fashioned” conditions, which is “as it used to be, a long time ago.” This neighboring city is symbolically outside of space and time. However, there is no nostalgia in Hamsun, who is aware of the changes and ruptures of time. Enemy of the modern world and major player in the Norwegian literary revival, his fate is similar to that of Ezra Pound in the United States or Louis-Ferdinand Céline in France.

Antoine Pizaine is a historian, monarchist and Maurrassian. This article appears through the kind courtesy of PHILITT.

Featured: “Portrait of the Author Knut Hamsun,” by Alfredo Andersen; painted in 1891.

In Memoriam: Darya Dugin

On August 20, 2022, Darya Dugin, scholar, journalist, pattriot and daughter of Alexander Dugin, was assassinated by a car-bomb. There was a worldwide outpouring of grief and consternation at the untimely death of one so gifted. Below, we dedicate some of these expressions.

Christ is Risen!

Darya Dugin: An Obituary

by Alexander Markowitz

On the evening of August 20, 2022, 29-year-old Darya Dugin was killed in a terrorist attack in Moscow. Who was she? First and foremost, a philosopher who defended her native Russia in word and deed and advocated for a better world. As an advocate of the Fourth Political Theory, she fought for a more just, multipolar world and an end to the domination of the globalist West.

For this, Darya worked tirelessly for the Eurasian Movement, founded by her father Alexander Dugin. Her numerous speeches and interviews, as well as the organization of all kinds of events, were aimed not only at freeing Russia and Eurasia from the globalist yoke, but also for the good of Europe, whose peoples and cultures she sought to free from the influence of modern decadent elites. This was a matter of her heart, for she was a connoisseur of French culture, spoke fluent French, and interviewed Alain de Benoit in Paris, among others.

Darya devoted her dissertation to Neoplatonism in the Roman Empire. As an academic, she researched the roots of the Indo-European tradition and spoke not only on geopolitics, but also on representatives of the Conservative Revolution, such as Julius Evola, Ernst Jünger and Martin Heidegger. As a journalist, she spoke out against Russian globalists on television and covered hot topics, such as Syria and Donbass. For example, she recently released a report from Mariupol, which had been liberated from Ukrainian fascists. Her stories from the NATO-inspired hell in Syria are also impressive, where on the one hand she spoke with great feeling about the grief of the locals, and on the other, she found the strength to speak with complete confidence about the coming victory over globalism.

Recently, I have met Darya on several occasions in person. Whether in Vienna, Moscow, Sochi or Kishenev, I was invariably greeted by a young and intelligent, and at the same time brave and full of humor, woman who was the epitome of an Indo-European and Turanian warrior. Today it is rare to meet such people. To the common man it might seem that she stood in her father’s shadow. To those who knew her, however, she was always an individual in her own right. Darya’s time on this earth may be over—God rest her soul—but in our memory she will live forever.

Her murderers want to scare all of us who stand for a free Europe and a free Russia in a multipolar world. But a bomb can only kill a person—but not an idea! Evil may try to defeat us, but it will never prevail! Darya’s murderers made her a martyr of the multipolar world, the Fourth Political Theory and the war against the forces of darkness. We will remain faithful to Darya’s ideas and continue the fight. May the memory of the heroine of Eurasia live on! Her sacrifice is a call to battle!

Eternal memory!

[Courtesy of Geopolitka].

The Murder of Innocents and the Geopolitics of Anti-Russian Terrorism

by Yuri Roschka

Our good friend and fellow ideological fighter Darya Dugina-Platonova was the victim of a terrorist attack in Russia that left her dead. Her car exploded shortly after the famous journalist and conservative activist drove off.

Apparently, the target of this terrorist attack was the famous Russian traditionalist thinker Alexander Dugin. Alexander Dugin miraculously survived. He was about to get into the same car, but at the last minute he got into a friend’s car.

I was friends with the Dugin family for many years; translated four books and a series of articles by this outstanding philosopher into Romanian and edited his books in Romania and Moldova. I was very attached to his daughter Darya, a brilliant student of her father, who had received a very solid philosophical education in France, and was a formidable journalist and an excellent organizer. Darya was a very unusual young woman. Unlike her colleagues of her generation, who lived carelessly and outside any ideals and great aspirations, Darya was a person completely devoted to her father’s cause, which she shared with devotion and loyalty.

Several years ago, together with Alexander Dugin and his tireless and charming daughter Darya, I organized the Kishinev Forum, an international conference that brought together leading intellectuals from the new European anti-Atlantic dissidence and from former communist countries. In 2019, with the direct participation of Alexander and Darya, we organized an international team of anti-system intellectuals from different countries that toured Syria, where we held a series of public meetings to express solidarity with the Syrian people in their struggle against Israeli-American aggression. In our delegation, Darya was the only woman who was exposed to all the risks with us as we traveled through war-torn Syria.

The assassination of Darya Dugin and the attempted assassination of her father, Alexander, are extremely significant. Russia’s enemies today aim to physically eliminate the centers of strategic thought in this country, the most important thinkers capable of conceptualizing the current historical scene and presenting an ideological alternative to neoliberal totalitarian globalism.

The assassination of Darya Dugin represents a radical turning point not only for Russia, but also for international politics. Her death may accelerate some processes that have been in a state of latency or stagnation.

Russia’s enemies have defiantly thrown down the gauntlet. And this comes at a very critical time, not only for this country, which is in the midst of a war with the collective West on Ukrainian territory, but also for the entire international community. Moscow cannot remain impassive in the face of such a serious act of terrorism. We still do not know how the Kremlin will react. However, there is no doubt that after the murder of Darya, the world will no longer be the same. We are entering a much more dangerous phase.

Alexander made the supreme sacrifice on the altar of his own ideals. Darya also learned her father’s lesson well, that the ideal must be served to the end, even at the cost of her own life. The people of this spiritual family voluntarily put on the garb of martyrs. They serve God and the people; and faithfulness to Christ and the Fatherland sometimes obliges us to accept death as the ultimate gesture of love and purpose in the struggle.

A Dieu, dear Darya!

[Courtesy of Geopolitika]

To the Great Sea: In Memoriam Darya Aleksandrovna Dugina

by Alexander Wolfheze

Since precisely six months ago today, since 24 February 2022, a sea of blood has been spilled and is still being spilled, across the fields of Little Russia and, as the violence escalates and spirals outwards, now also on the highways of Great Russia—and no one knows how far beyond the Russias it may reach yet. No one is spared, neither soldier nor civilian, neither adult nor child, neither man nor woman, neither guilty nor innocent. No words suffice to express the revulsion and outrage of millions as they are forced to stand by and witness this bloodshed, continuing beyond all reasons and all boundaries – as the Empire of Lies is feeding off the blood and pain of those whom it seeks to force into compliance, silence and oblivion—or “cancel” out of existence. No words should be wasted on those who now rule that Evil Empire, arrogantly seated on the ruins the ex-free West and now hell-bent on enslaving the whole world in webs of usury, deceit and terror – it rulers only understand deeds. Sufficient words of wisdom were spoken in the West before it fell into evil – these few will suffice to express the determination of all good men, and women, to resist that evil:

Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said: “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, 4 March 1865).

The memory of all who have sacrificed—some, much, all—in the ongoing Last War of the World Island – their number increasing daily – requires more than mere words: it requires giving meaning to their suffering and death. Russian journalist, writer and philosopher Darya Aleksandrovna Dugina, daughter of the leading light of the Eurasian movement, did so with the fiery heart of a true patriot and the unclouded mind of a true believer. Her early death, on 20 August 2022, the work of terrorist mercenaries plotted by the overreaching evil that now rules the West, is mourned by all those who shared this Geopolitica space with her. Unwittingly, however, the cowardly assassins who brought her Earth-life to an end also gave her immortality. Her memory will outlast theirs. Her name, which means “Great” as well as “Sea” is now part of the Greatest Sea of all. Unwittingly, her assassins carved her name into the stone of history forever. By her sacrifice she has already entered the Home of Heroes:

Smart girl, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose
But round this early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland that is now this girl’s.

(theme by Alfred Edward Housman: : “To an Athlete Dying Young”)

Maiden-philosopher Darya Platonova now takes her place among those she admired most in her short Earth-life. Those she left behind should now confidently take up her cause where she fell, trusting the justice of the One to Whom she has now returned: her Creator, her heavenly Father. Because most surely, she will be avenged:

To Me belongeth vengeance and recompence
their foot shall slide in due time
for the day of their calamity is at hand
and the things that shall come upon them make haste

(Deuteronomy 32:35).

[Courtesy of Geopolitica].

Deconstructing Western Conspiracy Theories about Darya Dugina’s Assassination

by Andrew Korybko

The common thread tying these kooky explanations of last weekend’s terrorist attack together is that they all go to great lengths to deflect from Kiev’s complicity, yet that fascist regime’s mask just slipped after its Ambassador to Kazakhstan told local media about his government’s genocidal plans.

The FSB confirmed that Darya Dugina was assassinated by a Ukrainian special agent who infiltrated Russia under the cover of being a single-mother refugee from Donbass. She reportedly entered the country with falsified documents, spied on her for nearly a month after renting an apartment in the same building, and might even have used her teenage daughter to plant the bomb. The terrorist is considered to be a member of the banned Neo-Nazi Azov Battalion and is thought to have escaped to neighboring Estonia, which Russia asked to extradite her even though that’s unlikely to happen.

These are the facts as they objectively exist as revealed from the official investigation thus far, yet some in the West have taken to concocting several conspiracy theories about her assassination in order to mislead their targeted audience about Kiev’s complicity. In fact, these false narratives were preemptively introduced prior to the earlier mentioned findings being shared with the public for the purpose of sowing the seeds of confusion. Examples abound on social media and are mostly shared by NAFO trolls, but some influential forces have also jumped on the propaganda bandwagon.

US-funded Russia expert Kamil Galeev, who became infamous after sharing a treasonous and pro-terrorist thread on Twitter, speculated that the Kremlin, the European far-right, and/or interest groups in Russia might have been behind Darya’s assassination. US Helsinki Commission advisor Arthur Paul Massaro III, who was recently banned from Russia because of his hostile lobbying, threw a bone to his many NAFO followers by blaming the FSB. Amidst all of this, Newsweek amplified a Ukrainian-based marginal former Russian politician’s conspiracy theory about an imaginary “resistance group”.

The most influential fake news propagator, however, is indisputably the BBC. This British outlet gave a platform to Ekaterina Shulman, who’s a designated foreign agent that previously left Russia. They deceptively declined to inform their audience of her official designation in their article about her conspiracy theory very strongly implying that Darya’s own government killed her in order to ramp up support for an internal crackdown despite having previously reported about it on their site. Shulman also ridiculously hinted that many media figures were earlier tipped off about this supposed inside job.

The common thread tying these kooky explanations of last weekend’s terrorist attack together is that they all go to great lengths to deflect from Kiev’s complicity, yet that fascist regime’s mask just slipped after its Ambassador to Kazakhstan told local media about his government’s genocidal plans. In his own words, “We are trying to kill as many [Russians] as possible. The more Russians we kill now, the fewer our children will have to. That’s it.” Although not directly admitting it, the timing of his statement can easily be interpreted as innuendo that Kiev carried out Darya’s assassination despite officially denying it.

That crumbling former Soviet Republic’s foreign patrons are panicking because they correctly predict that the evidence that’s emerging from the FSB’s investigation will unquestionably confirm that it’s Kiev and not Russia that’s the real state sponsor of terrorism. In fact, Moscow appears to be preparing to share its findings more widely with the world as strongly suggested by the condolences that President Putin just sent to Darya’s father, the philosopher and political scientist Alexander Dugin, which preceded Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzya vowing to discuss her killing at the UNSC on Tuesday.

There’s no such thing as the so-called “perfect crime” so it was inevitable that the evidence that’s now emerging would confirm Kiev’s complicity in Darya’s assassination, which in turn completely discredits the US-led West’s proxies in that Eastern European country, thus further contributing to the erosion of the “official narrative” about the Ukrainian Conflict. Presciently foreseeing this scenario, Western influencers sought to preemptively shape popular perceptions through the propagation of false narratives ridiculously blaming everyone but their fascist allies for this terrorist attack.

It’s unlikely, however, that any of their target audience even believes the nonsense that those voices are spewing. Their conspiracy theories so kooky and aggressively propagated that they come off as insincere even among those observers who might not have any previous knowledge of the situation and/or those individuals’ blind bias in support of Kiev. At all costs to their already sordid reputations, they’re obsessed with obfuscating the facts surrounding this case in order to push the crackpot theory that Russia itself was behind Darya’s assassination and that it’s “deep state” is thus irredeemably divided.

The truth is altogether different, as is always the case, since “The Russian Deep State Is United Like Never Before” without any cracks within or between the members of its permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies. Nevertheless, the increasingly desperate panic that these Western influencers are experiencing as Russia continues sharing evidence implicating Kiev in Darya’s assassination – and thus shattering their target audience’s false perceptions about their governments’ proxies – provides the chance for them to make one last-ditch shot at pushing this larger conspiracy.

Having exposed the true motivations behind these folks’ perception management operations after deconstructing their conspiracy theories about Darya’s assassination, it’s much easier to understand what they’re up to. It wasn’t even that they were tipped off ahead of time about this terrorist attack, but simply that they immediately knew how to react upon it being reported with respect to preemptively propagating false narratives in order to obfuscate the facts from the investigation that would inevitably prove Kiev’s complicity, which is obvious to all objective observers at this point.

To that end, they’re heavily relying on the larger conspiracy theory that was earlier discredited by subsequent developments alleging that Russia’s “deep state” is irredeemably divided and that rogue forces within it might even be plotting to overthrow President Putin. The only reason why they’d incorporate that unconvincing speculation into their latest narrative is because they literally have no other recourse absent simply telling the truth by admitting Kiev’s complicity. All that they’re doing is further discrediting themselves and their side, though, which inadvertently advances Russia’s interests.

[Courtesy, Oneworld]

Fly like an Eagle, Darya Dugina

by Pepe Escobar

Darya Dugina will be flying like an eagle in an otherworldly sky.

Darya Dugina, 30, daughter of Alexander Dugin, a smart, strong, ebullient, enterprising young woman, whom I met in Moscow and had the honor to cherish as a friend, has been brutally murdered.

As a young journalist and analyst, one could see she would carve for herself a glowing path towards wide recognition and respect (here she is on feminism).

Not so long ago, the FSB was directly engaged in smashing assassination attempts, organized by the SBU, against Russian journalists, as in the case of Olga Skabaeyeva and Vladimir Soloviev. It’s mind-boggling that Dugin and his family were not protected by the Russian intelligence/security apparatus.

The key facts of the tragedy have already been established. A Land Cruiser Prado SUV, owned by Dugin and with Darya at the wheel, exploded in a highway near the village of Bolchie Vyazemy, a little over 20km away from Moscow.

They were both coming from a family festival, where Dugin had delivered a talk. At the last minute, Darya took the SUV and Dugin followed her in another car. According to eyewitnesses, there was an explosion under the SUV, which was immediately engulfed in flames and hit a roadside building. Darya’s body was burned beyond recognition.

The Russian Investigative Committee soon established that the IED—approximately 400g of TNT, unencapsulated—was planted under the bottom of the SUV, on the driver’s side.

The investigators consider that it was a premeditated car bombing.

What is not already known is whether the IED was on a timer or if some goon nearby pressed the button.

What is already known is that Alexander Dugin was a target on the Myrotvorets list. Myrotvorets stands for a Center for Research of Signs of Crimes against the National Security of Ukraine. It works side by side with NATO collecting info on “pro-Russian terrorists and separatists”.

Denis Pushilin, the head of the DPR, took no time to accuse “the terrorists of the Ukrainian regime” for Darya’s assassination. The inestimable Maria Zakharova was more, well, diplomatic: she said that if the Ukrainian lead is confirmed, that will configure a policy of state terrorism deployed by Kiev.

An Existential War

In several essays—this one being arguably the most essential—Dugin had made extensively clear the enormity of the stakes. This is a war of ideas. And an existential war: Russia against the collective West led by the United States.

The SBU, NATO, or quite probably the combo—considering the SBU is ordered by the CIA and MI6—did not choose to attack Putin, Lavrov, Patrushev or Shoigu. They targeted a philosopher and ended up murdering his daughter—making it even more painful. They attacked an intellectual who formulates ideas. Proving once again that Western Cancel Culture seamlessly metastasizes into Cancel Person.

It’s fine and dandy that the Russian Ministry of Defense is about to start the production of the hypersonic Mr. Zircon as it continues to churn out plenty of Mr. Khinzals. Or that three Mig-31 supersonic interceptors have been deployed to Kaliningrad equipped with Khinzals and placed on combat duty 24/7.

The problem is the rules have changed—and the SBU/NATO combo, facing an indescribable debacle in Donbass, is upping the sabotage, counter-intel and counter-diversionary dial.

They started by shelling Russian territory; spread out around Donbass—as in the attempt to kill the mayor of Mariupol, Konstantin Ivachtchenko; even launched drones against the HQ of the Black Sea Fleet in Sebastopol; and now—with the Darya Dugina tragedy—are on the gates of Moscow.

The point is not that all of the above is irrelevant in terms of changing the facts on the ground imposed by the Special Military Operation. The point is that an upcoming series of bloody psyops designed for pure PR effect can become extremely painful for Russian public opinion – which will demand devastating punishment.

It’s clear that Moscow and St. Petersburg are now prime targets. The Ukrainian ISIS is a go. Of course, their handlers have vast experience on the matter, across the Global North/South. All red lines are gone.

The Coming of the Ukrainian ISIS

The cokehead comedian has duly pre-empted any Russian reaction, according to the NATO script he’s fed on a daily basis: Russia may try to do something “particularly disgusting” this coming week.

That’s irrelevant. The real—burning—question is to what extent the Kremlin and Russian intel will react when it’s fully established SBU/NATO concocted the Dugin plot. That’s Kiev terrorism at the gates of Moscow. That screams “red line” in bloody red, and a response tied to the reiterated promise, by Putin himself, of hitting “decision centers”.

It will be a fateful decision. Moscow is not at war with the Kiev puppets, essentially—but with NATO. And vice-versa. All bets are off on how the tragedy of Darya Dugina may eventually accelerate the Russian timetable, in terms of a radical revision of their so far long-term strategy.

Moscow can decapitate the Kiev racket with a few hypersonic business cards. Yet that’s too easy; afterwards, who to negotiate the future of rump Ukraine with?

In contrast, doing essentially nothing means accepting an imminent, de facto terrorist invasion of the Russian Federation: the Darya Dugina tragedy on steroids.

In his next before last post on Telegram, Dugin once again framed the stakes. These are the key takeaways.

He calls for “structural, ideological, personnel, institutional, strategic” transformations by the Russian leadership.

Drawing from the evidence—from the increased attacks on Crimea to the attempts to provoke a nuclear catastrophe in Zaporozhye—he correctly concludes that the NATO sphere has “decided to stand on the other end to the end. They can be understood: Russia actually (and this is not propaganda) challenged the West as a civilization.”

The conclusion is stark: “So we have to go all the way”. That ties in with what Putin himself asserted: “We haven’t really started anything yet.” Dugin: “Now we have to start.”

Dugin proposes that the current status quo around Operation Z cannot last for more than six months. There’s no question “the tectonic plates have shifted”. Darya Dugina will be flying like an eagle in an otherworldly sky. The question is whether her tragedy will become the catalyst to propel Putin’s strategic ambiguity to a whole new level.

[Courtesy, Strategic Culture]

Herder’s Concept of Intellectual Biography

On the completion of his studies at Königsberg in 1764, Johann Gottfried Herder accepted a position as a tutor in Riga, and was a preacher to local congregations in the vicinity of the Baltic city beginning in 1765. His time in Riga gave Herder the leisure and opportunity to involve himself in contemporary debates on literature and philosophy. It was in this way that he became familiar with the philosopher and author Thomas Abbt. Abbt was part of the Friedrich Nicolai circle, and wrote articles for the Briefe, die neueste Literatur betreffend, which Nicolai edited together with Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Moses Mendelssohn between 1759 and 1765. Abbt was appointed professor of mathematics at the University of Rinteln in 1761, and held various administrative posts at the court of Count Wilhelm zu Schaumburg-Lippe from 1765 onwards. Herder’s engagement with Abbt’s philosophical views occupies a central position in the fragmentary treatise on contemporary German literature, Ueber die neuere deutsche Literatur (1766-67) [On Recent German Literature], which made Herder a household name among the German reading public. When he learned of the sudden death of Abbt, only six years his senior, in 1766, Herder wrote to Nicolai, “Abbt’s death is an irreplaceable loss for Germany. If there were ever an author who could consume me with his mood and way of thinking: it was Abbt and his writings.”

In the course of the following year, Herder came up with a plan to erect a “written memorial” to Thomas Abbt. The idea was not merely to pen an appreciation of a single individual, but to extend his reflections on Abbt to include two other recently deceased writers whose works had influenced Herder and whose thinking he wished to develop further: Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten and Johann David Heilmann. Herder decided to write a three-part obituary, devoted in equal measure to the memories of Abbt, Baumgarten and Heilmann as thinkers whose loss was untimely yet whose work could be continued and completed by others.

Throughout 1767, Herder worked on the portrait of Abbt and also produced some drafts for this more comprehensive concept, as well as some fragments of the memorial to Baumgarten. However, he was
dissatisfied with the piece on Baumgarten and soon turned to other projects. Only the first part of the Thomas Abbt obituary was published, under the title Ueber Thomas Abbts Schriften, der Torso von einem Denkmal, an seinem Grabe errichtet, Erstes Stuck [On the Writings of Thomas Abbt, the Torso of a Memorial Erected at his Graveside, Part the First], in early 1768.

Herder prefaced the reflections on Thomas Abbt with an extensive prologue and introduction. In the prologue, he referred to the original idea of a threefold memorial and discussed the necessity of engaging with the minds of the dead, as they lived on in their works. The introduction outlines the method of the treatise, and as such constitutes a statement of Herder’s biographical concept. He refers to the “art of portraying the soul of another,” an art which underlies any authentic depiction of the biographical subject. Only in the third part of the Torso does Herder come to deal in detail with Thomas Abbt, his works and his style. The priority he gives to theoretical questions surrounding biography, over and above the specific discussion of Abbt’s life and works, can be understood as an effect of the original plan to include Baumgarten and Heilmann—the tripartite obituary would have called for more generally applicable reflections on biographical portrayal. The prologue and introduction however stem from a desire to review critically the traditions of obituary and appreciation, and to reflect afresh on the conditions and possibilities of biographical writing.

In the following pages, I wish to demonstrate with reference to the Torso that biography serves Herder not only as a means of affirming a successfully completed life-course, but also as a medium of intellectual engagement with a variety of political, historical, theological, anthropological and aesthetic issues. Herder expands the thematic and discursive scope of the genre beyond the recounting of the life story, thus setting the course for the development of biographical writing in German throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

1. Re-animation

“[T]he desire to speak with the dead” has long been a central motivation of both literary studies and historical research, from Herder’s time to that of the New Historicists. This notion of literature and history as an act of communication between the living and the dead, a kind of mediation, is particularly relevant to the modern conception of biography. The re-animation of the souls of the dead through the act of remembrance was a key motivation in Herder’s understanding of biographical writing. In his Briefe zu Beförderung der Humanität [Letters for the Advancement of Humanity], Herder writes:

Lass Tote ihre Toten begraben; wir wollen die Gestorbnen als Lebende betrachten, uns ihres Lebens, ihres auch nach dem Hingange noch fortwirkenden Lebens freuen, und eben deshalb ihr bleibendes Verdienst dankbar fur die Nachwelt aufzeichnen. Hiermit verwandelt sich auf einmal das Nekrologium in ein Athanasium, in ein Mnemeion; sie sind nicht gestorben, unsre Wohltäter und Freunde: denn ihre Seelen, ihre Verdienste urns Menschengeschlecht, ihr Andenken lebet.

[Let the dead bury their dead; we will consider the departed as living, will rejoice in their life, which continues to affect us after their departure. With gratitude will we set down for posterity their lasting achievement. Thus shall the Necrology become an Athanasium, a Mnemeion; they are not dead, our benefactors and friends: for their souls, their achievements and contributions to humanity, their memory lives on.]

For Herder, biography involves more than the mere description of a life. It is rather a medium which carries life within it and, more importantly, transmits living knowledge, serving in this way to enliven the minds of its readers. The biography of Thomas Abbt claims to present the reader with his spirit, which lives on after the death of his body. Herder characterises the process of transmission from the biographical subject through the biographer to the reader by means of an eloquent metaphor of animation, wherein the dead author’s mind is not only re-animated by the biographer but where the encounter with Abbt’s spirit also breathes new life into the reader. Here Herder has recourse to a vein of metaphor that can be traced to the creation story of the Old Testament, as well as to the Homeric epics: the soul as the breath of life, which can be inhaled or exhaled. In the Old Testament, it is the breath of God which gives life to all creatures. By contrast, Homer uses the idea of pneuma, which later comes to stand for the soul, to refer exclusively to that power which departs from humans when they faint or die. The thinking, feeling soul is not originally encompassed by this concept. Herder uses soul in the archaic sense of “breath of life” in his study of Thomas Abbt. Abbt’s mind (Geist) can survive the death of his body and continue to exist in the “spirit world,” ultimately exerting an animating influence, like the “breath of life” in the Old Testament.

To illustrate this animation process, Herder uses two further metaphors, magnetism and anointment. Human souls—here Herder alludes to Plato’s dialogue Ion—can exert “power” over each other, much as magnets do. Plato used this comparison to explain poetic inspiration, and for Herder, too, the ideas of “power” and “force” (Kraft) are particularly relevant to the aesthetic sphere. The animating spirit of the deceased is a creative force that does not ebb away after death, but can be transferred to others, to the living. For this transfer to occur, however, the spirit (Geist) of Thomas Abbt must be located in his written legacy, in the corpus of writings he has left to posterity, and liberated from the “husk” of “dead words.” An “ointment” with which to anoint the writer’s intellectual successors can, and should, be distilled from the writings—the implication being that this is the biographer’s main task. Before the animating influence of the deceased’s spirit can exert itself, it must first be extracted from the writings by a capable hand. The metaphor points to the biographer’s hermeneutic role, which consists in the selection, interpretation and explanation of the subject’s writings with the aim of distilling that person’s thought and transmitting its essence to the reader; this is undoubtedly how Herder conceived his own task with regard to the legacy of Thomas Abbt.

Throughout the treatise on Abbt, Herder’s reflections on the performative aspect of biographical practise are closely connected to the questions of life and death. Abbt’s death is, according to Herder, not so much the culmination of his life as the starting point for a fruitful engagement with the scholar and his writings. Herder draws on the traditions of graveside oration and written obituary, but he also departs from these traditions in significant ways.

In the opening words—”Ich trete an das Grabmal eines Mannes” [“I approach the tomb of a man”]—Herder evokes the tradition of the funeral oration, imaginatively situating his own text at the graveside of the deceased, he recalls a rich and extensive literature on death and mourning. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, funeral addresses or funeral sermons in printed form enjoyed widespread popularity in Germany.

The structure and content of these texts was strictly determined by established rhetorical norms. In contrast with later customs, the funeral oration of this period was not intended to express emotions of loss and grief, but rather to generate these affects by means of a concerted use of rhetoric. The emotion of grief was seen as a deliberate consequence of the oration; as such, it lay within the control of the speaker.

Furthermore, just as the oration was supposed to generate grief, so too was it intended to bestow consolation; the offer of comfort and hope as a way of overcoming grief was built into the performative concept of the speech. Thus, Grief, as a state of emotional excitation, is considered to be less an affective reaction to the death of another than an effect produced by language and rhetoric. While the funeral sermon of the Baroque period emphasised the affective, consolation bringing elements of speech—movere—by the time of the Enlightenment, the didactic aspects of the eulogy—docere—were considered to be of foremost importance. During the latter period, remembrance of the dead serves above all as an appeal or admonition to the living.

Biographical narration in German takes on a new significance insofar as it can contribute to an Enlightenment program of Bildung: in the vita of the Enlightenment eulogy it is not death, but rather the exemplary life that occupies centre stage. The notion of biography as a kind of practical guide to living becomes, in the Enlightenment period, a way of legitimising the genre for the rising middle class. At the level of performance, the perlocutionary intention of the obituary shifts from the regulation of the affects to the affirmation of a bourgeois ideal; the aim of the memorial speech is no longer emotional consolation, but instruction, guided by reason. In the system of Baroque rhetoric, the event of death, mediated by the rhetoric of the eulogy, generated an affective impact; by contrast, during the Enlightenment, the life of the deceased itself becomes a didactic text. Among other things, the changes in the genre of the obituary from the Baroque to the Enlightenment make manifest the transition from a “rhetorical” to a “hermeneutic” culture in Europe.

Herder realises the full import of this ongoing transition in biographical discourse. The praise of rulers dominated biographical writing in the Baroque period, but the bourgeois career becomes the paradigm for the Enlightenment; accordingly, Herder focusses primarily on the biographies of writers and scholars. He develops principles of biographical reading that allow for an integrated approach to life and work, so that a “living” portrait of the writer can be drawn from both, thus providing a model for future lives and writings. In this way, Herder’s program of Bildung departs not only from the Baroque but also from the rationalist model of the early Enlightenment, which was determined by abstract scientific and aesthetic concepts. For Herder, the life and individuality of exemplary figures provide crucial orientation for the process of Bildung.

Another way in which Herder breaks with the early Enlightenment is through the greater significance he accords to emotions in biographical discourse, revealing his debt to key concepts of sensibility or Empfindsamkeit, concepts such as the ‘language of the heart” or “sympathetic communication.” Underlying these concepts is the idea that the emotional and mental world of the individual person could flow without rupture into the text and be authentically contained by it. The paradigmatic expression of this idea can be found in Christian Fürchtegott Gellert’s instructions to letter writers. Influenced by English epistolary novels, Gellert calls for a Herzenssprache which could facilitate the sympathetic rapport between two individuals through the communicative medium of the letter. This idea, so central in the German context not only to the Empfindsamkeit movement but also to the cult of genius in the late 18th century, occupied a decisive position in Herder’s understanding of biography. The Baroque regime of the affects is reversed: it is no longer intended that the text should induce mourning. Rather, Herder follows a modern understanding of the affects, in that he locates the necessity for biographical memorialisation in the mourning for the dead. The sentiment itself is taken as read, and not subjected to critical scrutiny. In this sense, emotions form the basis of communication in Herder’s biographical concept: the mourning of the dead unites biographer and reader in a community of loss.

The biographer sees his work as a “gift of love” only through “loving enthusiasm” can he fulfil the expectation that the biography provide a faithful portrait of the deceased. He describes this approach in erotically charged language which draws on numerous topoi of love poetry while pointing to a key problem of modern biography, namely its inherent voyeurism. He writes of the necessity to “watch for those moments in which the soul disrobes and reveals itself in its enchanting nudity, like a beautiful woman: so that we may nestle against the other’s way of thinking and learn wisdom as if through a kiss.” Emotion is in these terms no longer an effect of speech, but rather the fundamental condition for communication and understanding. What we are dealing with here—as Herder emphasises—is an encounter mediated through the printed word. The works of an individual—in the case of Thomas Abbt, the man’s philosophical and political writings—bear authentic witness to his soul; attentive and intelligent reading provides access to the “naked,” thus “authentic” soul of the author. The biographer is first and foremost a reader, in keeping with the Herderian concept of authorship, which is indissociable from readership. His own authorship is secondary and serves as a vehicle for transmitting the biographical subject’s spirit to a broader public.

As in all of his writings, Herder emphasises in his biographies the significance of living insight, which derives both from contemplation and sense impression. It is the combination of the author’s creativity with the imaginative powers of the reader that breathes life into dead documents and allows them to speak. Herder’s biographical writing reveals the influence not only of the paradigm shift in the area of rhetoric but also of the secularising tendencies of the Enlightenment. In the 17th century, the understanding of death was still embedded in a system of Christian anthropology and religious practice; death was seen as a passage from one world to the next. The anthropology of the Enlightenment, with its focus on this world rather than on the world to come, undermines this traditional concept of death. Fundamental questions arise: is there life after death? What vanishes when the life of the body comes to an end—and what remains? Can an “Enlightened” Christianity continue to insist on the immortality of the soul? These questions were hotly debated by German intellectuals in the 1760s. Thomas Abbt himself had commented extensively on these issues in a debate with Moses Mendelssohn and it thus comes as no surprise that Herder’s obituary on Abbt positions itself within this discourse.

In response to the influential German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s Gedanken iiber die Nachahmung der Griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst [Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture] (1755), Gotthold Lessing published his Laokoon oder iiber die Grenzen der Malerei und Poésie [Laocoon, or the Limits of Art and Poetry] in 1766, initiating a controversial dispute on the representation of emotions in visual arts and literature. Lessing’s publication of Wie die Alten den Tod gebildet [How the Ancients Represented Death] (1769) combined the issue of representation in the arts with the question of immortality. Herder published an essay with the same title in 1774, in which he comments extensively on Lessing and in which his understanding of immortality undergoes several transformations. Herder’s Torso developed in the midst of this aesthetic debate, and must be seen as a predecessor of Herder’s Wie die Alten den Tod gebildet. In the memorial for Thomas Abbt, only one form of life after death is considered: the secular form of immortality guaranteed by the lasting reputation or fame that the dead enjoy among future generations.

Wenn überdem solche Manner aus unvollendeten Planen gerissen warden… alsdenn sollte auf ihrem Grabe die himmlische Stimme schallen, die andere aufriefe, zu vollenden diese verlassne Entwürfe, und da in die Laufbahn einzutreten, wo sie dem andern abgekürzt wurde, um mit einem mal näher dem Ziele zu sein…. Denn das, glaube ich, ist die wahre Metempsychosis und Wanderung der Seele, von der die Alten in so angenehmen Bildern traumen… wenn uns, wie dort Agammemnon ein Traum vom Jupiter in Gestalt des weisen Nestors erscheint; noch wachend seine Stimme in unserm Ohr tonet, und uns aufruft, in ihre Fussstapfen zu treten: wenn alsdenn unser Herz schlägt, und in unsern Adern ein Feuerfunken spruhet, wie sie zu sein! Dies, glaube ich, ist das einzige Mittel, dem Tode zu trotzen, wenn er die Blüten eines Landes abschlägt, damit stets neue hervorkeimen, und er doch endlich sagen musse… siehe! der ist mir doch entronnen.

[When such men are torn from unfinished plans… then the divine voice should echo from their tomb, calling upon others to complete these abandoned projects and thus to join the path at the point where the departed quit it, taking up where they left off…. For this, I believe, is the true metempsychosis and transmigration of souls, that the ancients dreamed of in such pleasant pictures … when to us, as to Agamemnon, a dream of Jupiter in the form of the wise Nestor appears; as we awake his voice still sounds in our ear, calling upon us to follow in the footsteps of these men; when then our heart beats and our blood runs like fire in our veins, to be like them! This, I believe, is the only means of defying death, when it cuts down the flowers of a nation so that others can bud forth and blossom in their stead, so that Death is forced to say: behold! these have escaped me.]

The individual—in the case of Thomas Abbt, the scholar or writer—lives on after the death of his physical body in his intellectual corpus, his works; and not only does the author’s spirit live on in his works, it also becomes capable of animating or enlivening his readers. This is the role of biography in this context, according to Herder. The biography is the voice that calls us to follow the paths trodden by the dead while they lived; the biography is Jupiter appearing to Agamemnon in the guise of Nestor. More prosaically, biography is a means of mediation between author, text and reader. Biography is called upon here to do much more than merely reiterate the external details of a person’s life. The scope of biography is expanded by Herder beyond the traditional practices of eulogy, obituary and funeral oratory, to become the “art of representing the soul of the other.” It is no longer merely the life story of the individual that interests Herder, but rather the story of his mental life, or more accurately, the story of his intellectual development. The biography thus has the double task of portraying the Bildung which formed the soul of the subject during his lifetime, and of exerting a formative influence on the reader.

Eine Menschenseele ist ein Individuum im Reiche der Geister: sie empfindet nach einzelner Bildung, und denket nach der Stärke ihrer geistigen Organen. Durch die Erziehung haben diese eine gewisse eigne, entweder gute oder widrige Denkart geformt, zu einem ganzen Körper, in welchem die Naturkräfte gleichsam die spezifische Masse sind, welche die Erziehung der Menschen gestaltet…. Meine lange Allegorie ist gelungen, wenn sie es erreicht, den Geist eines Menschen, wie ein einzelnes Phänomen, wie eine Seltenheit darzustellen, die wùrdig ist, unser Auge zu beschäftigen; noch besser aber ware es, wenn ich durch sie, wie durch eine Zauberformel, auch unser Auge auftun konnte, Geister, wie körperliche Erscheinungen zu betrachten.

[A human soul is an individual in the realm of minds (Geister): it senses in accordance with an individual formation (Bildung), and thinks in accordance with the strength of its mental organs. Through education these have received a certain either positive or negative direction of their own, according to the circumstances which formed or deformed in the individual in question. In this way our manner of thought is formed, and becomes a whole body in which the natural forces are, so to speak, the specific mass which the education of human beings shapes…. My long allegory has succeeded if it achieves the representation of the mind of a human being as an individual phenomenon, as a rarity which deserves to occupy our eyes. But it would be even better if, through this allegory, as through a magical spell, I were also able to open our eyes to see, to observe, minds as if they were a form of corporeal phenomena.]

2. Biography, the Author and the Soul

The biographical concept sketched here by Herder could well be described as intellectual biography, a concept differentiated from mere literary criticism by the emphasis it places on the soul. In his text Uebers Erkennen und Empfinden der menschlichen Seele [On the Cognition and Sensation of the Human Soul] (1774), Herder shows that the human mind and human reason cannot be separated from the world of the senses and thus do not transcend time; rather, in the form of each individual soul, it undergoes a specific development, being shaped and influenced in crucial ways by the world in which the individual lives. Herder’s explicit intention is to sketch Abbt’s character and to draw on his writings to create a unique portrait of his soul and its development, since within Abbt’s works lies his creative power, the genius of his soul. This genius precedes the works and generates them.

It may seem as if the works themselves are the sole means by which the reader can gain access to the soul of the author. However, one has to bear in mind that the image a biographer can generate in a biography is a fictional construct. Herder thus speaks of the “art” of depicting the soul, well aware that this portrait will only ever be one representation of the deceased. Concepts of authorship in late eighteenth-century Germany are rooted in the idea that the creative mind of the author shines through the literary text. This valorisation of the authorial figure, beginning in Germany with Klopstock and central to the poetics of Empfindsamkeit, Sturm und Drang and to Weimar classicism, proceeds through a projection—often deliberate—of textual and rhetorical phenomena onto the person of the author. A perfect love poem, under this view, could only be produced by a loving mind. Herder’s understanding of biography is founded on the same assumption. From the deeds of a man we can deduce his character, and an image of the writer’s soul can be deduced from his writings. The concept of biography underlying Herder’s text on Thomas Abbt thus stands in a relationship of tension to both author and work. It is an approach that goes beyond the more conventional biographies of writers, biographies which seek merely to interpret the literary work with reference to the author’s life. Herder’s understanding of the relationship between author and work is considerably more complex than that suggested by the biographical fallacy: that the genre of literary biography derives its legitimacy from the existence of the author’s writings.

In addition, for Herder, the biographer himself must experience some emotion for his subject: “Does it not take a small degree of loving enthusiasm to imprint one’s man in the imagination so deeply that one can afterwards bring forth his image, as if from one’s head?” Biography thus presupposes reception to a certain extent. In an inversion of the process of literary production, here the concern with the writings necessarily precedes the concern with the person of the writer. Admiration of literature relates in the first instance to the text and only indirectly to the person who produced it. However, Herder’s text on Abbt emphasises that the aim of engaging with the literary work is to “unlock” the specific “mind” [Geist] of the author. A constitutive assumption of Herder’s biography is that writing can be “made to disappear,” that texts can become transparent and render visible the “soul” of their author. The paradox of the “dead author” and the “transparent text” can only be resolved if the constructed character of that which Herder refers to as the author’s “soul” is acknowledged. The author’s soul, according to Herder, can be found in the textual traces left behind by the physical author after his death. This recalls Klopstock’s notion of the “Auctor,” which involves the projection of rhetorical phenomena onto the figure of the author. Herder introduces this concept into biographical discourse with reference to the author’s “soul.” The authorial soul, speaking through the text to the reader, binds the text to the real, physical Thomas Abbt. The narrative of the life-story thus serves as a thread of continuity through the work of the author. At the same time, the question of the soul’s immortality is resolved: the construct of the soul, conceived of as immortal, can survive the physical death of the author.

3. Biography as Dialogue

The part of the Torso intended to introduce Thomas Abbt begins with the familiar topos of describing his life, but does not offer a detailed account of Abbt’s background, childhood and education, turning instead to the subject’s role as scholar: “The birth of Thomas Abbt contributed without doubt to the fact that one can see him as a writer for humanity, a wise man for the common people.” Abbt was the son of a wig-maker, and as such not patently predestined for a career in letters. Herder thus sees him as a mediator between the academic sphere and the world of the common man. This vision of Abbt leads Herder to explore in more detail the relationship between a scholarly education and the more mundane spheres of everyday life. He considers whether the forces of education and academic learnedness might not in fact be detrimental to “sound common sense in the matters of common life.” He then proceeds to Thomas Abbt’s preoccupation with classical literature, introducing a motif that will later to develop into a key Herderian theme: the question of how historical knowledge is relevant to the present. Abbt, according to Herder, did not merely copy the model of the ancients, but rather learned from them, teaching himself according to their style but without disregarding the question of contemporary relevance:

Wenn ich gesagt habe, dass Tacitus und Sallust unserm Abbt den Geist der Geschichte eingehaucht: so meine ich ja nicht, dafi seine Welthistorie eine Sallustianische und noch minder eine Geschichte des Tacitus zu nennen sei: ich schreibe es ihnen bloss zu, dass sie Abbt Geschmack an der Historie und jenen Reflexionsgeist eingeflösset, der sich in alien seinen Schriften aüssert; denn wie Sallust und Tacitus über Begebenheiten und Personen philosophieren, um sie zu beschreiben und zu erklären; so philosophiert er iiber Wahrheiten und Erfahrungen, um sie zu erläutern und zu beweisen. Er wollte aber vom Tacitus und Sallust noch mehr lernen: wie sie zu schreiben.

[When I say that Tacitus and Sallust breathed the spirit of history into our Abbt, then I do not mean that his World History can be called Sallustian, less still a History of Tacitus: rather, I attribute to them the taste for history and reflective spirit imbued in Abbt, which expresses itself in all his writings; for in the same way as Sallust and Tacitus philosophise about events and personages in order to describe and explain them; so too does he philosophise about Truths and Experiences, in order to elucidate and demonstrate them. He wished to learn still more from Tacitus and Sallust: how to write as they do.]

Later in the course of the text, Herder asks how a German author—he sees Abbt very much in these national terms—can best relate to language and culture in general. He maintains the importance of learning from other nations and their authors, whether historical or contemporary, while at the same time bearing in mind the particularity [das Eigensinnige] of each language, culture and epoch. In Herder’s view, Abbt died before he could achieve this synthesis of ancient and modern, old and new. Yet the path towards this goal, a path Herder would seek to travel in a lifetime of writings, was indicated by Abbt in his work. In the final part of the treatise, Herder deals with Abbt’s various philosophical positions, particularly the latter’s position regarding the integration of the national question with theological issues: “Abbt wishes to prove that love of the fatherland enjoins to a fear of death: he does so in a way that shews that only religion can raise us above the horror of the grave.” Here as elsewhere, Abbt’s style and method provide the starting point for Herder’s further reflections. Thomas Abbt frequently illustrated his political and philosophical commentaries with comparisons to Biblical narratives. Herder defends this method, emphasising again the contemporary relevance and usefulness of historical knowledge. Biblical motifs in particular, because of their vivid expressiveness and general familiarity, provide an effective backdrop for philosophical discussions.

Though Torso constitutes an attempt to present the primary elements of Thomas Abbt’s thinking, Herder nevertheless finds room therein to set forth his own convictions. In later texts, Herder uses the epistolary form as an appropriate medium for a “lively” or animated exchange of ideas; similarly, the appreciation of Thomas Abbt takes the form of a dialogue with the deceased. In the living portrait of Abbt which Herder seeks to convey, the biographer himself is also vividly present.

An examination of the life and work of the scholar Abbt becomes for Herder an occasion for exploring a broad range of topics: pedagogy, style, national identity, and religion, among them. The popularity of the biographical sketch in the eighteenth century results partly from this formal openness and thematic diversity. Herder openly concedes that the “spirit” [Geist] of Abbt, as he portrays it in the Torso, is a construct derived primarily from the works of the deceased, correlating only in certain ways with the real personality of Thomas Abbt. Herder’s biographical concept is thus far removed from a naive, affirmative realism which would aim for the greatest possible correspondence between the literary text and the lived reality; rather, his text and the referential claim he makes for it demonstrate a keen awareness of textual status and intertextual provenance. What might appear from the perspective of realism to be a flaw or shortcoming in the Torso text can be perceived at the literary and rhetorical level as an opening up of new biographical possibilities.

The biographical approach Herder chooses in the Torso allows him to reflect on the relationships between classical and modern languages, the meaning and purpose of literary criticism in scholarly journals, and the forms and conditions of biography. A biographical concept that would uphold a realist presentation of the biographical subject as the normative rule of the genre would judge such reflections as a deviation or digression.

In the Herderian biographical essay, in contrast, these reflections constitute an integral component of the biographer’s subjective response and a legitimate expression of the thinking mind. The key to understanding Herder’s biographical concept lies in the question of knowledge transfer. Current theories of memory, such as those advanced by Jan and Aleida Assmann, differentiate between knowledge stored in an archive, understood as a mere repository, and the functional or affective processes of cultural memory. Aleida Assmann designates these two forms of memory with the German terms “speichern” versus “erinnern.” As far as Herder was concerned, simply to store or archive the sum of human knowledge would result in dead, unused knowledge. Herder proposed an alternative approach to knowledge, one that would activate and even animate it, and this idea lies at the core of his understanding of intellectual biography.

Biography can succeed in personalizing abstract knowledge: it is no longer the dead cipher, but a living voice that speaks to us from Thomas Abbt’s works. As Gerhard Sauder has pointed out, the project of a “European literary history” and the related concept of “world literature” [Weltliteratur] is a key concern throughout Herder’s works. Herder’s invention of intellectual biography not only lays the foundations of a biographically-based literary historiography, but opens the prospect of a global history of the mind:

Eine Geschichte der Schriftsteller… welch ein Werk wäre sie! Die Grundlage zu einer Geschichte der Wissenschaften, und des menschlichen Verstandes.

[A history of writers… what a work that would be! The foundation of a history of sciences and of the human intellect.]

Biography becomes in this way a medium through which Herder can engage with a broad range of issues, as can be seen most clearly in the Briefe zu Beförderutig der Humanität and in his later polemic Adrastea. The biographical sketches that can be found throughout Herder’s work provide him with a framework for the exploration of a variety of philosophical, religious, anthropological, literary and art-historical issues. Herder’s concept of biography will go on to influence biographical practice throughout the 19th century. The scope of biography will expand to accommodate questions spanning the entire range and complexity of human culture, but with each individual work still being held together by the unity of the specific biographical subject.

Tobias Heinrich is Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in German at the University of Kent. He is the author of Leben Lesen: Zur Theorie Der Biographie Um 1800 [Reading Life: On The Theory Of Biography Around 1800]. This article was first published in Lumen, 28 (2009), 51–67, and translated from the German by Professor Caitríona Ní Dhúill (University of Cork).

Featured: “Portrait of Johann Gottfried Herder,” by Gerhard von Kügelgen; painted in 1809.

François Villon, the Heavenly Robber

This essay, by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) was written in 1910 (or perhaps 1912) and revised in 1927 and is a tribute not only to the medieval poet, but a meditation on exile and the quest for unadorned reality and the Divine.


Astronomers accurately predict the return of a comet, after a long period of time. For those who know Villon, the Verlaine phenomenon appears to be just such an astronomical miracle. The resonance of both voices is strikingly similar. But apart from timbre and biography, the two poets are bound together by almost the same mission in the literature of their time. Both were destined to appear in an age of artificial, hothouse poetry, and just as Verlaine smashed the serres chaudes [an allusion to Maeterlinck’s collection of poems Hothouses (1889)] of symbolism, Villon challenged the mighty rhetorical school that can rightly be considered fifteenth-century symbolism. The famous Roman de la Rose first built an impenetrable fence, within which the warming atmosphere necessary for the survival of the allegories created by this Romance continued to flourish. Love, Danger, Hate, and Insidiousness are not dead abstractions. They are not incorporeal. Medieval poetry gives these ghosts an astral body, as it were, and tenderly cares for the artificial air so necessary to sustain their fragile existence. The garden where these peculiar characters live is enclosed by a high wall. The lover, as the beginning of the Roman de la Rose tells us, wandered for a long time around this fence in a vain search for an unobtrusive entrance.

Poetry and life in the fifteenth century were two independent, hostile dimensions. It is hard to believe that Maître Allain Chartier was subjected to real persecution and endured life’s troubles, arming public opinion of the time with a too-harsh sentence on the Cruel Lady, whom he drowned in a well of tears, after a brilliant trial, with all the subtleties of medieval legal procedure. Fifteenth-century poetry is autonomous; it occupies a place in the culture of the time, like a state within a state. Recall the Court of Love of Charles VI: a variety of seven hundred ranks, from the highest signoria to petty bourgeois and lower clerics. The exceptionally literary character of this institution explains the disdain for class partitions. The hypnosis of literature was so strong that members of such associations walked around the streets adorned with green wreaths, a symbol of falling in love, wishing to prolong the literary dream in reality.


François Montcorbier (de Loge) was born in Paris in 1431, during the English rule. The poverty that surrounded his cradle combined with the misery of the people and, in particular, with the misery of the capital. One might expect the literature of the time to be filled with patriotic pathos and a thirst for revenge for the offended dignity of the nation. Neither Villon nor his contemporaries, however, had such sentiments. France, enslaved by foreigners, showed herself to be a real woman. As a woman in captivity, she gave her main attention to the minutiae of her cultural and domestic toilette, looking curiously at the victors. High society, following its poets, was still carried away dreaming into the fourth dimension of the Gardens of Love and the Gardens of Joy, while for the people the tavern lights were lit in the evenings and farces and mysteries played out on holidays.

The feminine and passive era left a deep imprint on Villon’s destiny and character. Throughout his dissolute life he carried the unshakable conviction that someone had to take care of him, manage his affairs and bail him out of difficulties. Even as a mature man, thrown by the Bishop of Orleans into the lower dungeon of Meung sur Loire, he cried out to his friends: “Le laisserez-vous là, le pauvre Villon” [Will you leave there, poor Villon]. Francois Montcorbier’s social career began when he was taken into the care of Guillaume Villon, honorary canon of the monastery church of Saint Benoit le Bestourné. By Villon’s own admission, the old canon was “more than a mother” to him. In 1449 he received his baccalaureate degree; in 1452 his licentiate and maître. “Oh Lord, if I had studied in the days of my reckless youth and devoted myself to good manners—I would have had a home and a soft bed. But what can I say! I ran away from school like a wicked boy; as I write these words my heart bleeds.” Strange as it may seem, Maitre François Villon at one time had several pupils and taught them, as best he could, the wisdom of school. But, in his characteristic honesty, he was aware that he had no right to be called Master, and he preferred to call himself a “poor little scholar” in his ballads. And it was especially difficult for Villon to study, since, as if on purpose, the student riots of 1451-1453 happened during his years of study.

Medieval people liked to think of themselves as children of the city, the church, the university. But the “children of the university” exceptionally acquired a taste for mischief. A heroic hunt was organized for the most popular signs of the Paris market. The deer was to marry the Goat and the Bear, and the Parrot was supposed to be presented to the young as a gift. The students stole a boundary stone from the possessions of Mademoiselle La Bryuère, erected it on Mount St. Genevieve, calling it La Vesse (the fart) and, forcibly grabbing it from authorities, fastened it to the spot with iron hoops. On the round stone they placed another, oblong one, the Pêt au Diable, and worshipped them at night, showering them with flowers, dancing around them to the sound of flutes and tambourines. The enraged butchers and the offended lady made a case. The Prevost of Paris declared war on the students. The two jurisdictions clashed—and the defiant sergeants had to kneel, with lighted candles in their hands, to beg the rector’s forgiveness. Villon, who was undoubtedly at the center of these events, chronicled them in his novel Pêt au Diable [the Devil’s Fart], which has not survived.


Villon was a Parisian. He loved the city and idleness. He had no affection for nature and even mocked it. Already in the fifteenth century, Paris was the sea in which one could swim without being bored and forgetting about the rest of the universe. But how easy it is to stumble upon one of the countless reefs of idle existence! Villon became a murderer. The passivity of his fate is remarkable. It is as if it were waiting to be impregnated by chance, whether evil or good. In a ridiculous street fight on June 5, Villon kills the priest Chermoit with a heavy stone. Sentenced to hang, he appealed and, pardoned, went into exile. Vagrancy finally shook his morals, bringing him into the criminal gang la Coquille, of which he became a member. On his return to Paris, he participated in a major theft at the Collège de Navarre and immediately fled to Angers—because of unrequited love, he asserted, but in reality to set things up for robbing his rich uncle. Fleeing from the Parisian skyline, Villon published the Little Testament. Years of indiscriminate wandering followed, with stops at feudal courts and prisons. Amnestied by Louis XI on 2 October 1461, Villon went into deep creative turmoil, his thoughts and feelings became unusually acute, and he created the Great Testament, his monument to the ages. In November 1463 Francois Villon was an eye-witness to a quarrel and a murder in the Rue Saint Jacques. Here ends our account of his life and his dark biography.


The fifteenth century was cruel to personal fates. It turned many decent and sober people into Job, grumbling at the bottom of their stinking dungeons and accusing God of injustice. A special kind of prison poetry was created, imbued with biblical bitterness and severity, as far as it is accessible to the polite Romance soul. But out of the chorus of prisoners, Villon’s voice stands out sharply. His rebellion is more like a court trial than a rebellion. He managed to combine in one person the plaintiff and the defendant. Villon’s attitude never crossed the known boundaries of intimacy. He is gentle, considerate, caring to himself no more than a good lawyer is to his client. Self-pity is a parasitic feeling, detrimental to the soul and the body. But the dry legal pity with which Villon invests himself is for him a source of vivacity and unwavering confidence in the rightness of his “case.” A thoroughly immoral “amoral” man, as a true descendant of the Romans, he lives entirely in the legal world and cannot think of any relationship outside the jurisdiction and norm. The lyric poet, by nature, is a bipolar being, capable of innumerable cleavages in the name of inner dialogue. In no one is this “lyrical hermaphroditism” more pronounced than in Villon. What a diverse selection of charming duets: the grief-stricken and the comforter, mother and child, judge and defendant, proprietor and beggar.

Property, all his life, beckoned to Villon like a musical siren and made him a thief… and a poet. A miserable vagabond, he appropriated for himself the goods unavailable to him with a sharp irony.

Modern French Symbolists are in love with things, like possessive owners. Perhaps the very “soul of things” is nothing other than the sense of ownership, spiritualized and ennobled in the laboratory of successive generations. Villon was well aware of the gulf between subject and object, but understood it as the impossibility of possession. The moon and other neutral “objects” are irrevocably excluded from his poetic habitat. On the other hand, he is immediately animated when he speaks of ducks roasted with sauce or of eternal bliss, which he never loses the final hope of appropriating for himself.

Villon paints a charming intérieur in Dutch taste, peeking through the keyhole.


Villon’s sympathy for the scum of society, for everything suspicious and criminal, is by no means demonic. The shady company, which he so quickly and intimately became part of, captivated his feminine nature with a great temperament, a powerful rhythm of life that he could not find in other walks of life. One should listen with what savor Villon tells, in the Ballade de la grosse Margot, about the profession of pimping, to which he was obviously no stranger: “When clients come, I grab a jug and run for wine.”

Neither ebbing feudalism nor the newly emerged bourgeoisie, with its pull for Flemish gravity and importance, could provide an outlet to the enormous dynamic capacity, somehow miraculously accumulated and concentrated in the Parisian cleric. Withered and black, beardless, as thin as a Chimera, with a head that resembled, by his own admission, a peeled and toasted walnut, hiding his sword in the half-woman’s garb of a student—Villon lived in Paris like a squirrel in a wheel, not knowing a moment’s peace. He loved the ravenous, gaunt beast in him and treasured his battered skin: “Isn’t it true, Granier, that I did well to appeal,” he writes to his prosecutor, having escaped the gallows, “not every beast would have managed to wriggle out like that.” If Villon had been able to give his poetic credo, he would surely have exclaimed, like Verlaine:

Du mouvement avant toute chose! [Movement above all else – Verlaine: Music above all]

A powerful visionary, he dreams of his own hanging, on the eve of his probable execution. But, strangely, with incomprehensible exasperation and rhythmic fervor, he depicts in his ballad how the wind sways the bodies of the unfortunate, back and forth, at will… And he endows death with dynamic qualities and here manages to show a love of rhythm and movement… I think it wasn’t the demonism that captivated Villon, but the dynamics of the crime. I don’t know if there is an inverse relationship between the moral and the dynamic of the soul? In any case, both of Villon’s Testaments, big and little—this feast of magnificent rhythms, the kind French poetry still does not know—are incurably immoral.

The wretched vagabond writes his will twice, distributing left and right his imaginary possessions like a poet, ironically asserting his dominion over all the things he wishes to possess: if Villon’s mental experiences, for all their originality, were not particularly profound, his relationships in life—a tangled web of acquaintances, connections, accounts—represented a complex of ingenious complexity. This man contrived to become a living, vital relation to a huge number of persons of the most varied rank, at all rungs of the social ladder, from the thief to the bishop, from the alewife to the prince. With what pleasure he tells their background! How precise and marked he is! Villon’s Testaments are ever captivating because they report a lot of accurate information. The reader feels that he can make use of them, and he feels like a contemporary of the poet. The present moment can withstand the pressure of centuries and retain its integrity, remain the same “now.” One has only to be able to pluck it out of the soil of time without damaging its roots—otherwise it will wither away. Villon knew how to do this. The bell of the Sorbonne that interrupted his work on the Little Testament still rings.

Like the troubadour princes, Villon “sang in his Latin”: once, as a schoolboy, he had heard of Alcibiades—and as a result the stranger Archipiade joins the graceful procession of the Ladies of former times.


The Middle Ages clung tenaciously to its children and did not voluntarily yield to the Renaissance. The blood of the true Middle Ages flowed in Villon’s veins. To it he owed his integrity, his temperament, his spiritual peculiarity. The physiology of the Gothic—and such it was, and the Middle Ages are precisely the physiologically-genius era—replaced Villon’s worldview and rewarded him abundantly for his lack of a traditional connection to the past. Moreover, it provided him with a place of honor in the future, as nineteenth-century French poetry drew its strength from the same national treasury, the Gothic. They will say: what has the magnificent rhythmic of the Testaments, now trickling like a bilboquet, now slowed down like a church cantilena, to do with the mastery of Gothic architects? But isn’t the Gothic the triumph of dynamism? Another question is, what is more fluid, more dynamic—the Gothic cathedral or the oceanic ripple? What, if not a sense of architectonics, explains the wondrous balance of the stanza in which Villon entrusts his soul to the Trinity through the Mother of God—the Chambre dela Divinité—and the nine heavenly legions. It is not an anemic flight on the wax wings of immortality, but an architecturally based ascent, corresponding to the tiers of the Gothic cathedral. He who first proclaimed in architecture the moving equilibrium of the masses and built the crossed vault gave an ingenious expression to the psychological essence of feudalism.

Medieval man considered himself in the world building as necessary and bound as any stone in the Gothic edifice, enduring with dignity the pressure of his neighbors and entering as an inevitable stake in the general game of forces. To serve was not only to be active for the common good. Unconsciously, medieval man regarded service, a kind of deed, as the unvarnished fact of his existence. Villon, an afterthought, an epigone of the feudal worldview, was immune to its ethical side, the circular bond. The stable, moral in the Gothic was quite alien to him. On the other hand, indifferent to the dynamic, he elevated it to the level of amorality. Villon twice received letters of pardon—lettres de remission—from kings: Charles VII and Louis XI. He was firmly convinced that he would receive the same letter from God, with forgiveness for all his sins. Perhaps, in the spirit of his dry and reasoned mysticism, he put up the ladder of feudal jurisdictions into infinity, and a wild but deeply feudal feeling roamed vaguely in his soul that there was a God above God…

“I know well that I am not the son of an angel crowned with the diadem of a star or another planet,” said of himself the poor Parisian schoolboy, capable of much for a good dinner.

Such denials are tantamount to positive certainties.

1910 (1912?), 1927

Featured: “François Villon,” woodcut from Grand Testament de Maistre François Villon, 1489.

William de Morgan

This biographical essay was published in 1917 (in the March issue of The North American Review). Although little know today, William de Morgan (1839-1917) was a well-known potter, tile-maker and then a widely read novelist, who was a friend of both William Morris and Charles Dickens.

The author of this essay, William Lyon Phelps (1865-1943), the American scholar, single-handedly promoted and popularized the novel in America, especially by way of his essays on various novelists, of which this is one.

It was in August, 1911, that I first saw William De Morgan. The meeting—ever memorable to me—took place at Church Street in Chelsea, in his own home, a building filled with specimens of his tiles and graced with his wife’s paintings. After some time, we adjourned to what the English call a garden and what is known in America as the back yard. He fetched the manuscript of a nearly-completed novel, A Likely Story, and read aloud many of the detailed chapter-headings, chuckling with delight (even as a diplomat) over the apparently candid profusion of language with the successful concealment of the writer’s intention. For example (A chuckle after each sentence):

How Fortune’s Toy and the Sport of Circumstances fell in love with one of his nurses. Prose composition. Lady Upwell’s majesty, and the Queen’s. No engagement. The African War and Justifiable Fratricide. Cain. Madeline’s big dog Caesar. Cats. Ormuzd and Ahriman. A handy little Veldt. Madeline’s Japanese kimono. A discussion of the nature of Dreams. Never mind Athenaeus. Look at the prophet Daniel. Sir Stopleigh’s great-aunt Dorothea’s twins. The Circulating Library and the potted shrimps. How Madeline read the manuscript in bed, and took care not to set fire to the curtains.

Mr. De Morgan was then seventy-one years old. He was tall and thin. The latter adjective comes near to expressing his entire physical presence in one word. Everything was thin. His body was thin, his beard was thin, his voice was thin. But his nature and his manner had all the heartiness and geniality we commonly associate with rotundity. He was in fact exactly the kind of man that the author of his novels ought to have been. What more can one say?

In the Spring of the following year, I saw Mr. and Mrs. De Morgan again, this time in their apartment on the Viale Milton in Florence. It was deep in the afternoon, and a pile of manuscript a foot high rested on the table, the ink on the summit not yet dry. “The American people do not like my last two books,” said he with a cheerful smile, “but perhaps they will like this one, for it is the most De Morgany novel I have yet written.” His hope and his statement were both justified, for the manuscript was the first part of When Ghost Meets Ghost. Unlike many writers, he found the morning hours unfavorable for original composition. ” I am an old man, and my vitality does not reach much strength until late in the day. I do my best writing between tea and dinner.”

We talked of the Titanic, and of the war that Italy had carried into Africa. At that time he and I, with all the difference between us that the possession of genius gave to him, had one thing in common: we were both pacifists. Knowing his passionate love of Italy, I feared that he would ap prove of the war, and glory in the certainty of Italy’s victory. I was happy to find that his love for the country and for the people did not blind him to the wickedness of that selfish and greedy war. … It is only fair to him to say that his pacifist principles failed to survive the early days of August, 1914. He was aggressively for England to his last breath, and his letters showed constant surprise at his own thirst for blood. Yet while rejoicing in English victories, he could not help deploring the loss of many brave enemies of his country. In October, 1914, he wrote to me:

I am sorry to say that I am barbarous by nature and catch myself gloating over slaughter—slaughter of Germans, of course!—half of them men I should have liked—a tenth of them men I should have loved. It is sickening—but…

Again, in December, 1915:

I put aside my long novel, because, with Kultur in full swing, I felt I should spoil it. I took up an old beginning—sketched in immediately after Joe Vance—and have got about half-way through, with great difficulty. The trail of the poison gas is over us all here, and I can only get poor comfort from thinking what a many submarines we have made permanently so. All the same, one of my favourite employments is thinking how to add to their number—a grisly committee—coffinsfull of men very like our own. For all seamen are noble, because they live face to face with Death.

In our London conversation he told me the now familiar details of his becoming an author. Never during his long life had he felt the least flicker of literary ambition. In his letters he was always insisting on the additional fact that he had never read anything: “I scarcely looked in a book, un less it was about pots and mechanism, for forty long years. There’s a confession!—a little exaggerated in form from chagrin at the truth of its spirit, but substantially true for all that.” As a matter of fact, he knew Dickens as few readers have ever known him, and he had many of the shorter poems of Browning by heart, though he never read The Ring and the Book.

If he had not taken a slight cold in the head when he was sixty-four he might never have written a novel. This cold developed into a severe attack of influenza, and as he lay in bed, he amused himself by writing the first two chapters of Joseph Vance. “If I had not had the ‘flu,’ I should not have thought of writing a book. I started Joseph Vance ‘just for a lark.’” He had in mind no scenario, no plot, no plan, no idea whatever of the course of the story, or of what would become of any one of the characters. He just began to write, and his writing ceased—forever, as he thought—with his recovery. The world owes his completion of the story to Mrs. De Morgan, who insisted on his continuing. Then he came near destroying the early chapters, for they seemed to him to be too much like Dickens. In 1905 he was half-way through Joseph Vance, and it was published in July, 1906, when he was sixty-six years old. Its rejection by a publisher, owing to the appalling size of the manuscript, its subsequent acceptance by Mr. Heinemann, who saw it only after it had been typewritten, and its instant success, are now matters of general knowledge.

In an article I sent him he was impressed by the “sudden” opening of a story by Pushkin, Tolstoi’s delighted comment upon it, the immediate challenge of a friend to imitate it, with the result—the first page of Anna Karenina. In 1910 he wrote to me:

I must give you a parallel case to yours. Somehow Good began thus: I had written a good deal of another story, and liked it. I read it to my wife, and she didn’t. She said, “Why can’t you write a story with an ordinary beginning?” I said, “What sort?” and she answered, “Well—for instance: ‘He took his fare in the two-penny tube. Said I, “An admirable beginning!” and put my story in hand away, and began writing forthwith what is now Chap. 2 of the book. Chap. 1 was written long after, to square it all up. But the incident was substantially the Tolstoi story again, and chimes with all your comment on it.

The above account of the origin of Somehow Good is the more interesting because, of all his novels, this has the most orderly and best-constructed plot, and, viewed merely as a story, is his masterpiece. Which does not mean that I would trade it for Joseph Vance. To my mind his finest novel is the first one, and his greatest character is old Christopher Vance. With all my heart I hope that the latest book he was working on was completed, for he wrote me that it was even more “demorganatic” than the demorgany Ghosts.

He was deeply interested when I told him that the John Hubbard Curtis prize at Yale University in 1909 was offered for the best composition on the three novels which he had published before that year. He asked if he might see the successful essay, which was written by Mr. Henry Dennis Hammond, an undergraduate from Tennessee, and published in the Yale Courant for June, 1909. Two copies were sent him; one he returned to the young author, with highly diverting (and important) manuscript marginal notes. These notes were accompanied by a cordial letter, from which I make the following extracts:

I have scarcely an exception to take. What I have is to he found among some jotted comments on the margins of the Courant that I return to you. I daresay you will see that your irreverence (shall I call it?) for Dickens has occasioned some implication of cavil from me.

But all you young men are tarred with the same feather nowadays. Your remark about the red cap in David Copperfield made me re-read the chapter. I am obliged to confess that the red cap is absurd—a mere stage expedient ! He would have seen the hair, like enough. But, oh dear! What a puny scribbler that re-reading made me feel!

Here follow some of the marginal annotations, which explain themselves:

I am a successful imposter about music—I know nothing of it—but am a very good listener… I must have omitted some distinguishing points in these folk, to leave the impression of similitude. You see, I know them intimately still, and can assure you that they are, as a matter of fact, quite different. Dear, good old Mrs. Heath was worth both the others twice over… Come, I say—isn’t it quiet, wise, and lovable to smoke cigarettes? Very!—I think: Still, it’s true poor Janey died before English girls took to ‘baccy… But then Dickens was my idol in childhood, boyhood, youthhood, manhood, and so on to a decade of senility—even until now… Concerning realism and idealism, I’m blessed if I know which is which!… the attempt is to found the ghosts only on authentic ghost stories with the same explanations, if any… The first meeting of David C [opperfield] and Dora covers any number of sins… Anyhow, folk read the stories, and there will be another Sept. 23.

Merely to call the roll of Mr. De Morgan’s works is impressive, when we remember their size, their excellence, and the short period of time in which all were written: In eight years this wonderful old man published over a million words, and left several hundred thousand in manuscript—every word written by hand. The mere mechanical labor of writing and proofreading on so gigantic a scale inspires respect. Joseph Vance appeared in 1906; Alice-for-Short in 1907; Somehow Good in 1908; It Never Can Happen Again in 1909; An Affair of Dishonour in 1910; A Likely Story in 1911, When Ghost Meets Ghost in 1914.

The romantic revival in modern English fiction, which negatively received its impelling force from the excesses of naturalism, and positively from the precepts and practice of Stevenson, flourished mightily during the decade from 1894 to 1904. Unfortunately no works of genius appeared, and it was largely a fire of straw. Then just at the time when three phenomena were apparently becoming obsolescent—pains taking realism, very lengthy novels, and the “mid-Victorian” manner—William De Morgan appeared on the scene with Joseph Vance, a mid-Victorian realistic story containing—after William Heinemann had exercised the shears—two hundred and eighty thousand words! Within a short space of time the book had just as many readers as it had words. This is what Carlyle would have called “a fact in natural history,” from which we are at liberty to draw conclusions. One conclusion is that William De Morgan has had more influence on the course of fiction in the twentieth century than any other writer in English. For he gave new vogue to what I call the “life” novel, which differs from the popular novels of the ‘eighties as Reality differs from Realism, and whose sincere aim is to see life steadily and see it whole. In England, Arnold Bennett published The Old Wives’ Tale in 1908; H. G. Wells published Tono-Bungay in 1909; and the same year marked the appearance in America of A Certain Rich Man, by William Allen White. These three books are excellent examples of the new fashion, or the old fashion revived, which ever you choose to call it.

Henry James has said somewhere that in the art of fiction and drama we experience two delights: the delight of surprise and the delight of recognition. Of these happy emotions, readers of Mr. De Morgan feel chiefly the latter kind; although Somehow Good contained plenty of surprises. Nearly every page of his longer books reminds us of our own observations or of our own hearts; and many pages drew from solitary readers a warmly joyous response. Even the most minute facts of life become so interesting when accurately painted or penned, that the artist’s victim actually receives a sensation of pleasure so sudden and so sharp that it resembles a shock. One cannot possibly read Joseph Vance or When Ghost Meets Ghost with an even mind.

It is true that William De Morgan wrote An Affair of Dishonour. But Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities; Thackeray wrote Esmond and The Virginians; George Eliot wrote Romola; and Charles Reade wrote The Cloister and the Hearth. Why should we have quarreled with him about that? Any realistic writer may surely take a holiday in the country of Romance, if he chooses to do so. Yet the American attitude toward this particular historical romance was positively hostile; so hostile, that not only did the An Affair of Dishonour fail from the publishers’ point of view, but the four novels that preceded it practically ceased to sell for a whole year; at least, so their author told me.

He took the rebuff good naturedly, and extracted humor from the fact, as the postscript to A Likely Story proves; but he could not understand why he should be “punished” for daring to write an unanticipated work. I tried to explain to him that the anger of the American public was in reality complimentary; that he had set so high a standard in his four novels that the expectation of a vast circle of men and women was enormously keen, and that from a man of genius we always expect a work of genius, which no man—except perhaps Milton—has been able invariably to supply. He was not comforted. Seven years have passed since the publication of An Affair of Dishonour; and it is certain that the book ranks higher in the estimation of intelligent readers than it did during the first months that followed its appearance. It is, in fact, a powerful story, told with great art; destined, I think, to have a permanent place in English fiction. It lacks the irresistible charm of the other books; but it is rich in vitality.

After reading the first four novels, I inquired of the author: “Why do you make elderly women so disgustingly unattractive? Does your sympathy with life desert you here?” And what an overwhelming reply I received in When Ghost Meets Ghost! Were there ever two such protagonists? Not elderly, but old—tremendously old, aged, venerable. And what floods of love and sympathy the novelist has poured out on these frail old waifs of time! How one feels, like a mighty stream running under and all through the course of this strange story, the indestructible power of the Ultimate Reality in the universe—Love, Love Divine.

This leads me to the final reflection that William De Morgan was not only an artist, and a novelist, and a humorist: he was also a philosopher. Each one of his stories has a special motif, a central driving idea. I mean that underneath all the kindly tolerance through which every great humorist regards the world, underneath all the gentle irony and the whimsicality, the ground of these books is profoundly spiritual.

William De Morgan, like his brilliant father, belonged to the believers, and not to the skeptics. He was of those who affirm, rather than of those who deny. He was a convinced believer in personal immortality, or “immortalism,” as he preferred to call it. He believed that all men and women have within them the possibility of eternal development; those whose souls develop day by day are “good” characters; those whose souls do not advance are “bad” characters. This is the fundamental distinction in his novels between folk who are admirable and folk who are not. In the fortieth chapter of Joseph Vance—a chapter that we ought to read over and over again—we find a sentence that, although spoken by one of the characters, reflects faithfully the philosophy of William De Morgan, who believed, with all his strength, in God the Father Almighty and in the Life Everlasting: “The highest good is the growth of the Soul, and the greatest man is he who rejoices most in great fulfilments of the will of God.”

Featured: “William De Morgan,” by Evelyn De Morgan; painted in 1909.

Stefan Zweig, Vienna and Times Past

The great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) witnessed the end of a world, that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of a certain Europe that disappeared after the First World War.

Under his polite and elegant airs of a good-natured author, Stefan Zweig was part of the serious avant-garde, at the beginning of the 20th century, which shone in the most beautiful capital of Europe, Vienna. This placid, well-to-do, charming, happy, distinguished and successful author, from the Jewish and literate bourgeoisie—true to form, immaculately dressed, velvet eyes a little melancholic, trimmed moustache—lived on a volcano, in a Europe of crisis; knew the fall of the old Austrian Empire and the terrible First World War; then exile and the defeat of hope.

Of all the authors that Vienna produced, Zweig is the one who most illustrates the cosmopolitanism of a glittering intelligentsia, of an elite that was sure of itself and its qualities. A friend of Freud, Schnitzler, Richard Strauss, he was one of those writers, like Paul Morand, who saw Europe as a vast salon where life was lived in cafés; he spoke French like a native and thought of Venice as an archipelago. It is a higher cosmopolitanism which prolonged the Concert of Europe, that gallant Europe. A great friend of Emile Verhaeren, Romain Rolland and Paul Valéry, he conceived London as the center of his business affairs and Paris as the second homeland he knew in 1902, with its omnibuses and its carriages. Familiar with bookshops and concerts, a billiard player, a lover of unpublished manuscripts, walks in museums, women and Verlaine, his beloved poet—he lost himself happily in the vibrant whirl of beefsteak washed down with Brouilly and bistros on rue Campagne-Première. “For me, Paris is a reward;” everything was there.

In Zweig there is a tension between voluptas in motu, an infernal nomadism, and voluptas in stabilitate, pleasure and things; between movement and fixity; displacement and scrutiny. When he wants to write about Mary Stuart, he goes to London; he comes back to Paris to write about Marie Antoinette. Zweig could write without traveling. This tension is present in his work, but also in his life, the most striking synthesis of which is The World of Yesterday, a sort of autobiographical testament published in 1942. As he says in the preface, he seeks to recount “the destiny of a generation, our singular generation.”

The “volcanic” upheavals shook Europe, and it is up to Zweig to narrate them: “I was born in 1881 in a great and powerful Empire, the Habsburg Monarchy; but let no one look for it on the map; it has been erased without a trace.” The golden age of security. A nebula of artists, from Rilke to Mahler via the secessionists and Otto Wagner, participated in the greatness of the capital of an Empire that recognized its limits. It turned inward, shaping its own security, to be in the vanguard of the arts: “Austria no longer asserted political ambitions nor experienced particular success in its military ventures, so that patriotic pride was most strongly transferred to the desire to conquer artistic supremacy.” Who would have believed it—the Empire—in the image of old Franz-Josef—devoting itself to the Ver Sacrum, to new ideas, sensing the new sense of art.


The whole of Vienna was frenzied in ebullition. “Live and let live” was the famous Viennese maxim “instead of this German value which finally poisoned and disturbed the existence of all other peoples.” Vienna of the cafés and of a triumphant, precocious youth, gifted for literature, love and the arts, like Hofmannsthal. The Jung-Wien. The brothels were an institution to which all youth rushed; syphilis, the mark of the Devil, condemned many talents to an early silence. Sexuality remained, although its era could no longer be considered pious, and tolerance was now a central value, tainted with an anarchic, disturbing aura that agitated modern minds of which Freud was the exorcist.

Music was a hard drug, where the simple mistake of a violinist at a concert was worth the disgrace for life in musical circles. Only accuracy. But already the inevitable First World War was on its way—the conclusion of national consciences all over Europe, from the Italy of the Risorgimento to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867. Austria, subjected to Prussia, qualified as vulgar and arrogant, submitted to a disgraceful alliance; the death of Franz-Ferdinand, if it was not synonymous with tragedy because the archduke, successor of the old emperor, was far from unanimous, led to war by a game of alliances that led to the intervention of France and England to the rescue of Serbia. “Es steht schlimmer als je, die Maschine ist doch schon im Gang—It is more serious than ever, the machine is already in motion.” It was the defeat of Europe, the end of empires, the fall of the dream into a generalized civil war.

Stefan Zweig had a delicate but also lively, almost dry and stripped writing style, a style with a light, concise and efficient smile that he shares with Arthur Schnitzler, and a style which cultivates this feeling of erosion, this motif of the irremediable flaw dear to decadentists like Catulle Mendès. Zweig’s fragrant, pleasant style cuts like a scalpel, butchers the heart of man. Unlike his friend Josef Roth, he does not have a talent for lyricism and the burlesque, as one can find in The Radetzky March, a novel of collapse, a roman à thèse and a comic-tragic novel about the saga of the overturned world of the von Trottas.

Zweig’s novels are lively, with a talent for finesse. Noteworthy is Confusion. A university student recalls the memory of his philology professor who opened up the ways of the mind to him. Beyond the love of study, this text evokes the bond between two men and the ambiguities which agitate against the morals, the law and in the glances of others. The professor has a double and disconcerting attitude towards the student—sometimes he lets him get close to him, sometimes he coldly pushes him away. This behavior plunges the student into a deep confusion that quickly turns into a great torment.

This work, praised by Freud, has a recurrent logic: to highlight internal struggles, triggered by an external event. This logic is present in Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, the story of a young woman who runs away from her world with a young man she met only one day before. The comments of the narrator and an elderly English woman go to great lengths to describe the fires and consuming passions which, despite the extinguished embers, still stir the purest of hearts.

Zweig also excelled in the art of biographical portraiture, to discover the key to genius and its mysteries. A gallery could well be made of his portraits in the Louvre or the Prado. Nietzsche describes the philosopher as the martyr of the world, a man who gives birth to his ideas in pain, a man of nerves of steel ready to break, with a head boiling like a still. His Magellan fires the imagination, with the tough and courageous adventure of a gentle dreamer; his Balzac is a monument to creative force; Tolstoy traces the how and why of a mystical conversion of a writer at the height of his fame.

The End of a World

Yes, yesterday’s world is over. In 1916 the old emperor died. In 1918 the Empire became a federal republic, gangrened by socialism. In 1938 it was annexed to the German Reich as a large province of the empire. What disgrace! Zweig, so quick to detect the perversities of the heart, but not very lucid in politics, did not see the rise of Nazism. In Salzburg, he saw nothing of Hitler’s rise to power, whereas Josef Roth, a supporter of the restoration of the Empire, had already in 1938 in The Emperor’s Tomb identified the appearance of men in black uniforms, Hugo Bosses swarming the cafés. The eagle flags, yellow and black, were replaced by swastika flags on a red background.

Zweig believed that the order of history would get rid of Hitler without any drama. That was Zweig’s big mistake. Then came exile. Farewell to the Europe that was disappearing. Hofmannsthal died in 1929. Schnitzler in 1931. Roth in 1939.

After exile in London, here he was, lost at the other end of the world, in Brazil, in Petrópolis.

In 1942, in good health but consumed by the black bile buried in his heart, he committed suicide with his wife, in despair at seeing his world collapse, which would never recover and whose resurrection is impossible.

Fortunes and misfortunes carried off Zweig. The society he loved so much has disappeared, but his words yet preserve that world’s likeness and its core essence.

Nicolas Kinosky is at the Centres des Analyses des Rhétoriques Religieuses de l’Antiquité. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy La Nef.

Featured: Stefan Zweig in Rio de Janeiro, 1936.

Ernesto De Martino: Crisis of Civilization

Ernesto de Martino (1908-1965) was an Italian historian of religions whose work is still not well-known in the English-speaking world, but his study of magic and its use in modernity is essential.

Student Years under Fascism

It is no coincidence that Ernesto de Martino published his first scholarly article as a twenty-one-year-old student at the University of Naples on Oswald Spengler’s (1880–1936) The Decline of the West (1918), one of the most important books published during WWI.1 Although scholarship has lamented that “The Decline of the West” (La decadenza dell’Occidente) consists of only “two immature pages,” and has hastily denied it the status of “insight, or, even less, formulation of specific hypotheses or theories,” it is of immense value to the historian of ideas. In fact, it is the starting point of what would become the marking trait of de Martino’s thinking for the rest of his life, namely a profound fascination with the crisis of his own civilization.

Besides the fact that Ernesto de Martino was born in Naples on December 1st 1908, we do not know much about his childhood and upbringing. Ernesto’s father, who gave his own name to his only son, was an engineer for the Italian State Railway, and his mother Gina Jaquinangelo was a teacher. About Ernesto Sr. it is said that he was secularized and patriotic. Introducing his mother, scholars emphasize that she was secular yet open to mediumistic and spiritualistic experiences. De Martino’s family was required to move frequently due to the profession of the pater familias. As a consequence, the young Ernesto moved in between Florence, Naples, and Turin. After finishing the liceo, where he studied Latin and German, he enrolled at the Polytechnic University (Politecnico) to study Engineering in 1927. Having done so in order to please his father, he became quickly dissatisfied with this inherited course of studies. A year later, de Martino left the Piemontese capital to return with his family to Naples where he commenced his studies in philosophy and religion.

The ideas lived out by his parents—between religion and the nation— thematically inform his early intellectual activities, which also move between these two concepts. In fact, de Martino’s early explorations of religion were closely related to his political engagement with fascism. Not unlike their generous treatment of other eminent Italian historians of religion—such as Raffaele Pettazzoni (1883–1959) and Giuseppe Tucci (1894–1984)—scholars have been slow to grasp the weight of de Martino’s youthful endeavors. In the case of de Martino, commentators have generally reduced his involvement with fascism to a mere outgrowth of the indoctrination in the Italy between the world wars.

There is, of course, some evidence for such a reading. After the March on Rome in late October 1922 and Benito Mussolini’s rise to power, the Duce quickly made the myth of Italy as new nation and as herald of cultural rebirth into his regime’s “political program.” To use a term coined by French sociologist Jean-Paul Willaime, Mussolini’s fascism became an “état éducateur.” In practice, this was nowhere more apparent than in his endeavors to portray fascism as a movement of youth and in his efforts to establish a program of political catechism. This led to “a gigantic operation of ‘public relations’ and ‘social pedagogy’,” which was first introduced in schools and universities, and then in other realms of culture, until it pervaded most sectors of Italian society.

De Martino entered the University of Naples in 1928 and immediately joined in the Neapolitan section of the GUF, the Fascist University Groups (Gruppi Universitari Fascisti), which served as the central vehicle for political persuasion in university education. Two years later he registered with the National Fascist Party (Partito Nazionale Fascista, PNF) and, in 1932, he joined the Blackshirts (Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale). In her influential book, entitled Ernesto De Martino: Les vies antérieures d’un anthropologue (2009), the French anthropologist Giordana Charuty has convincingly shown that the newly established GUF were aimed at making university students into “apostles of the revolution [who] operate the pen just as well as the sword.” The fascist groups offered the students many benefits, such as a center to study, a library, and medical services. Charuty notes that all of these were “measures of ‘assistance’ through which the regime favors the learning process of variant competences necessary for the progression within the new social hierarchies, while simultaneously endeavoring to exercise ideological control on the teachers as well as on the students.” This being said, it is imperative to acknowledge that de Martino’s fascism was much more than merely convenient opportunism. In fact, I will demonstrate that he regarded fascism as a result of and response to a profound crisis affecting the modern Western world.

As for his early intellectual formation, de Martino was shaped by a trident of teachers: Adolfo Omodeo (1889–1946), Raffaele Pettazzoni (1883–1959), and Vittorio Macchioro (1880–1958). In 1932, he defended his dissertation on Greek ritual practices under the supervision of his most official teacher, Italy’s foremost historian of Christianity, Adolfo Omodeo. Two years later, as he proceeded to publish his research in Italy’s preeminent journal for scholars of religion, Studies and Materials in the History of Religions (Studi e materiali di storia delle religioni), he did so upon the invitation of the journal’s founder, the towering figure of religious studies in Italy, Raffaele Pettazzoni.

This being said, the theme of his earliest piece of academic scholarship, the “gephyrisms,” ritual jeers performed on the bridge of Cephisus in Athens during the procession of the Eleusian mysteries, point to the third and most esoteric of de Martino’s teachers. Vittorio Macchioro, indeed, wrote a highly influential book on Greek mystery religion by the name of Zagreus (1920/30), which offered an analysis of the paintings in the Villa of the Mysteries (Villa dei Misteri) in the Ancient Roman city of Pompeii after their discovery in 1909.

The villa in the South of the peninsula is famous for a series of spectacular and well-preserved frescos. Pursuing a career as curator in archeological museums, Macchioro had privileged access to these frescos, which are generally believed to depict the initiation of a young woman into the Greco-Roman mystery cult. Largely due to the neglect by the official Italian academic world—unlike the two renowned professors at the universities of Rome and Naples, de Martino’s third guide would never fulfil his dream of gaining access to a university position—Macchioro’s massive impact on his student’s thought has remained obscured for a long time. Considering that the creative interpreter of Greek religion was lecturing at some of the world’s most prestigious institutions and cultivated contacts with such luminaries as Mircea Eliade and Aby Warburg, it is indisputable that he is one of the most underestimated Italian intellectuals of the twentieth century.

De Martino and Macchioro maintained a fertile correspondence that started in the summer of 1930 when de Martino was stationed as a military cadet in Northern Italy. It would last for nearly a decade and provide us with precious insights into a profound and complex relationship. After the initial letters in 1930, the correspondence was interrupted for almost five years during which Macchioro traveled to lecture throughout the world—particularly in Europe, the United States, and India. During this time, the teacher’s career was “in full bloom,” while de Martino, finishing his dissertation in 1932 and making his first forays into religious studies journals in 1933 and 1934, matured from student to scholar. When their correspondence resumed, Macchioro still resided in India and prepared for his return to Trieste. De Martino, on the other hand, lived in the Southern Italian city of Bari where he taught history and philosophy at the Liceo Scientifico A. Scacchi. Around the same time, de Martino married his guru’s favorite daughter Anna (1911–72), who after finishing her studies in art history became a teacher at the technical institute of Molfetta, in December 1935. Just as Mussolini and the women of his nation—giving up their gold wedding rings in exchange for rings of steel during the “Day of Faith”—entered into a “state of mystic communion,” the wedding between Ernesto and Anna played a unifying role in the relationship between him and his new father-in-law. Vittorio, isolated from his own family, was relying on his new son-in-law for some of his emotional connection with his daughter and wife, who lived with him in an apartment on Corso Vittorio Emanuele in Bari. With the birth of Ernesto’s first daughter Lia in 1936, the bond between the two men deepened further. At this time, de Martino started to address his mentor no longer as “illustrious professor,” but rather as “dear professor,” “dear friend,” and, finally, “dear Papa.” The same is true for Macchioro who extended his paternity from his daughter to his son-in-law, signing every letter as “your father.”

What strikes the reader of their correspondence is not its content, but rather the apocalyptic atmosphere, the prophetic hope, and the overall dramatic tone expressed therein. Macchioro’s existence was marked by moments of intense crisis, religious experiences of rebirth, and radical metamorphosis. First and foremost amongst them was a “disheartening and aporetic” moment as a volunteer during WWI. According to Triestine scholar’s own account, it was during the night of Maundy Thursday (Giovedì santo) in 1916 when he was saved by divine hand and encouraged to dedicate the rest of his life to religion. What followed were multiple spiritual conversions, leading him first from Judaism to Catholicism, then to Protestantism, and finally back to Catholicism. In this vein, Macchioro liked to assume the mantle of the spiritual guide or the prophet towards the young Ernesto. In a letter he sent from Calcutta on September 3 1935, we read:

These are great days, my son. Apocalyptic days: God is revealing himself. If we could chat, I would tell you other things that provide you with a more complete picture of the apocalypse. I feel it like an enormous power: It started with my sickness that destroyed and reconstructed me, and now it continues with the testament and with the marriage. No one can tell what the apocalypse is yet to bring and how the revelation will continue, but I believe that one thing is certain: God is with us.

It is apparent that Macchioro felt a deep spiritual connection to his son-in-law, projecting the atmosphere of apocalypse and rebirth into their relationship. He described their bond, in a letter sent to de Martino in 1939, as a “spiritual symbiosis” and a “progressive fusion of two destinies and two souls.” There is little doubt that de Martino felt quite likewise for most of the 1930s. In his first letter, he told his prophetic guide about being “saved by a personal religious experience” in his quest to study Italian myths through the lens of Rudolf Otto’s numinous. A few years later, he mentioned a first adolescent “religious crisis” during his years in Florence, before he wrote the following lines in January 1939:

From now on, I should look at you with other eyes, and this means not the way one looks at the scientist or the artist, but the prophet. You might be suspicious of my enthusiasm. Nonetheless, I am certain, very certain, that the things are this way. My studies, of which you are the guardian angel, confirm it for me every day. Your existence does not solely concern the realm of my ideas, in which case it would not be that big of a deal. It concerns all of my spiritual life, my feelings, my character. I now look at things differently; I judge and feel differently.

Ruptured Modernity in Need of Orientation

While the letter exchange does not leave any trace of Macchioro ever offering his new son the “complete picture of the apocalypse,” de Martino himself would go on to dedicate much of his academic research to the revealing of such a vision. Throughout his career, he identified the radical rupture brought about by modernity as the most fundamental factor contributing to the cri-sis of his civilization. The idea that modernity represents a moment of crisis would remain remarkably stable throughout de Martino’s life. Consider, for instance, the following reflections stemming from the end of his life, where he makes a distinction between “traditional civilizations,” which “base them-selves on the intellectual intuition of a transcendent and sacred eternal truth,” on the one hand, and the modern Western world, on the other. Describing it is as “the only existing anti-traditional culture,” a “monstrosity,” and “a barbarity,” de Martino elaborates his time’s key attributes:

With the modern age… the patrimony of the eternal, metaphysical, and sacred truths has entered into crisis. Disorder, individual opinions, loss of unity, dispersion in groundless multiplicity… agitation, lack of superior principles… Democracy is the separation of the temporal from the spiritual, the social order from the sacred… the formation of modern nations, another element of dispersion and of disorder, of division and contradiction in the modern civilization.

Elsewhere, de Martino found the first signs of modernity’s crisis in the Renaissance period, which he similarly described as “the source of this loss of unity.” More importantly, he argued that the true issue might not simply lie in a loss of unity, but rather in its inability to reestablish cultural coherence: “The Renaissance was the time when the nascent modern civilization very quickly manifested an insufficient power of expansion and incorporation of the relics of the past, a defect that later on remained, at least to some extent, its constant characteristic.”

If we look a bit deeper, it becomes apparent that this loss of unity was due to two major transformations that dominated our culture during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: The secularization of politics and the scientification of reason. On the one hand, it was a time during which the old Christian world-view was gradually abandoned and a new secular vision started to dominate the Western world. Liberalism, as a set of political ideas, arose out of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century wars of religion and culminated “in the Treaty of Westphalia,” which drastically recalibrated the balance between poli-tics and religion in Europe. In the political realm, modernization meant that religion would be “replaced by an autonomous politics,” which was “based on purely secular foundations,” conceived in exclusively “human terms, without appeal to divine revelation or cosmological speculation.” As de Martino put it in some hand-written notes in the early 1930s: “Westphalia: When the interest in that which you believe in diminishes, one declares ‘religious tolerance.’ The peace of Westphalia only represents a decline in Christian faith, both catholic and reformed.”

Mattias Koenig, more comprehensively, summarizes the most important modernization theories as being marked by their common emphasis on the “rationalization of previously religious world-views,” “a differentiation of religion and non-religious institutions,” “a pluralization and privatization of religious beliefs,” “a general decline of religion,” and then rightly elaborates on “the core of the classical paradigm of secularization, namely the thesis of a differentiation between politics and religion.” In Germany, this process was accelerated after the establishment of the German Reich in 1871, which brought a further distancing from the traditional Christian worldview by means of an unprecedented urbanization and industrialization. On the other hand, these political, industrial, and economic revolutions had significant scientific consequences as they allowed for the enlightenment of culture. Of particular importance was the unprecedented collection of data. Not only did Western people learn more about their bodies and the material world surrounding them, but they also accrued a massive amount of information about other cultures and other times through historical and philological research.

These transformations in the political realm—where the sacred world of Christianity gave way to a new political vision premised on the autonomy of man—and in the scientific realm—which was marked by an unprecedented accrual of new data about the world in its full cultural and temporal reach— had important consequences for the self-depiction of Western modern humanity. Indeed, although Western culture was empowered by its new socio-political and scientific accomplishments, the rupture of the old worldview and confrontation with many others, caused an unprecedented “need for orientation (Orientierungsbedarf).”

Modernity’s preferred tool to reestablish order in its socio-political, scientific, and, ultimately, cultural self-understanding was temporal in nature. For much of modernity, at least since the Enlightenment, the single most valuable tool for making sense in this new world was “progress.” Reinhard Koselleck—a wonderfully insightful expositor of modernity—has laid bare that modern man’s relationship to time changed dramatically between 1750 and 1850, what he calls the Sattelzeit or Neuzeit. It was during this period that the Western world experienced the “temporalization of history” (“Verzeitlichung der Geschichte”). This meant that the term “history” was for the first time thought of as a “linear and irreversible ‘arrow of time’,” as a totalizing force capable of encompassing all the particular histories, events, and processes.

As experts have demonstrated, in light of the overwhelming rise of alterity through new discoveries, the discipline of religious studies appropriated this new “time regime” because it offered its scholars a “comprehensive paradigm for ordering the new data.” With Hanegraaff, we could say that “the concept of ‘religion’ emerged, during the early modern period, in response to a crisis of comparison caused by the increasingly overwhelming evidence for global diversity in human belief and modes of worship.” Without much hesitation, students of religion used it to reestablish order in a godless world by locating any new culture, language, or religion that they encountered along a temporal axis that was driven by progress and moved inexorably from primitive cultures to the Western world’s superior sophistication. This became particularly evident in anthropology, where Auguste Comte’s (1798–1857) positivist model of cultural development and Charles Darwin’s (1809–1882) biological theory of the evolution of species found their places within the humanistic framework of “evolutionism” developed by Herbert Spencer (1820–1903).

The creation of the concept “religion” coincided with the coining of others, such as “savage,” “barbaric,” and “civilized.” Serving the purpose of giving meaning to a disoriented civilization, these concepts turned the “heavy, tumultuous thickness of history, into an airy, die-straight thread.” The evolutionary current of religious studies was offering orientation in response to the overwhelming number of new discoveries in space by lining them on a temporal string. As one scholar noted many years ago: While the sighting of alternate histories “encouraged men to see parallels between primitive and civilized practices,” the theory of progress and evolution “drew the sting and the stimulus from the comparison by regarding the former as relics, aliens from another era.” Since then, especially in the wake of post-colonialism, an impressive cohort of scholars from diverse disciplines, primarily history, religious studies, and anthropology, has continued to argue that modern thinkers organized special realms (cultures, natures, and people) along a temporal axis that was based on evolution. As Eric Sharpe noted for the term “religion:” “Religion became something which it had never really been before. From being a body of revealed truth, it became a developing organism.” Thanks to these types of studies, I can move on without digging deeper into the petrified soil of our past to unearth the skeletons buried by scholars of religion.

In the modern time regime, the political and the scientific transformations were ultimately mapped onto the model of progress. If progress provided the axis, “religion” and “liberalism,” as well as “irrationalism” and “reason” were used to indicate specific positions along the axis. Indeed, religion and irrationalism were henceforth seen as a “tradition,” an inferior form of culture, relegated to some early strata of civilizational development, considered as conservative, and usually studied in cultures far removed from our own secularized world. Liberalism and science, by contrast, were considered to be “modernity,” that is, progressive and future-oriented categories used to describe our own culture and its advanced principles.

The Crisis of the First World War and the Rise of Oswald Spengler’s Cultural Pessimism

Everything would change with the devastating events of WWI. With the “sacred canopy” of religious order lifted, the “traditional structures and lifeways” torn into pieces, the pre-modern embeddedness within fixed conceptions of time and space “emptied out,” and with “progress” no longer a viable option in light of the destructive historical circumstances, a new sense-making crisis ensued. De Martino, like many of his contemporaries, started to doubt the validity of the premises of liberalism. In unpublished archival notes, written during the early 1930s, he commented that “the liberal individual is still a slave because of the existence of nature, an evil that dodges the jurisdiction of its will, an evil that it needs to endure.” Consequently, so de Martino concluded, “the liberty of the individual of liberalism [is] a useless declamation.” As political thinkers started to doubt the validity of liberalism, scholars of religion too abruptly abandoned their faith in reason and in evolutionary theories while getting pulled into the whirlwind of crisis. Talk about crisis and decline was one of the most popular responses to the collapse of the progress-liberalism-science nexus. In his analysis of the discourse of the crisis of modernity during the Weimar years, Michael Makropoulos has not only identified “crisis” and “contingency” as the two key terms for this period, but also emphasized the tremendous impact of WWI on the consciousness of modernity. “The 1920s,” so he remarks, “were not in this perspective the crisis of modernity, modernity was itself the completion of the historical crisis of the modern age.” Put differently, only with the cataclysmic failure of the myth of progress following the First World War does the crisis becomes so acute that even the past centuries are read under the category of “crisis.” As a student at the University of Naples, when the young Ernesto published his first article, he did so by standing on the shoulder of one of the twentieth-century’s greatest crisis-thinkers, Oswald Spengler (1880–1936). Spengler’s eponymous The Decline of the West (1918) had a “seismological” impact when it was first published in 1918; hitting the “nerve of time,” it became an immediate bestseller in the post-WWI climate of Germany. Even Ernst Cassirer, a neo-Kantian philosopher of a radically different orientation, was impressed by the book’s fortune noting that “the cause of Spengler‘s success is to be sought rather in the title of his book than in its contents,” as it “was an electric spark that set the imagination of Spengler‘s readers aflame.” Based on its pseudoscientific morphology of world history according to which each culture functions like a biological organism, moving through a series of stages that invariably culminate in a final period of destruction, it perfectly reflected the pessimistic worldview that dominated those years. Although there existed individual voices of pessimism before the outbreak of the war—I am thinking here particularly of Jacob Burckhardt (1818–1897) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)—and Spengler started his epoch-marking work before its outbreak, it was Germany’s disastrous defeat in 1918 that “tilted [its] delicate balance,” throwing the country in an unprecedented crisis. Even more, the war has been described as “the great seminal catastrophe of this century,” as a caesura that “initiated the European self-destruction and the end of European supremacy in the world,” and as the beginning of a thirty-year long “European civil war.” It is therefore not surprising that Spengler’s Untergang and its “epic metanarrative of how the sun of an entire civilization was setting, [turned] into an international bestseller.”

While this cultural pessimism might have been particularly prominent in Germany—perhaps, as Ian Kershaw speculates as a consequence of the “wide-spread feeling of national degradation” resulting from the Treaty of Versailles (1919), the blame for the war, and the significant debt payments—the sense of crisis was a pan-European phenomenon. Consequently, Spengler was only the most prominent of a series of prophets of crisis proclaiming the West’s downfall in increasingly apocalyptic tones. Italy was pulled into the war in the summer of 1915, a year after the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne. Unsurprisingly, the nation, which already before the war was one of the “weakest of those states that had developed a minimal level of modern industrialization,” was “plunged into an even deeper structural crisis after the cessation of hostilities,” which claimed the lives of six hundred thousand of its young men. Besides Spengler, who was well received in Italy, the peninsula had its own share of cultural pessimists.

In some ways, both the prophetic figure of Macchioro and the young Ernesto were part of this group of people. This is not only apparent if we look at their correspondence, but also if we examine de Martino’s writings during those years. Between 1932 and 1934, a few years after his inaugural writing on his century’s most famous pessimist, the newly-minted PhD published three articles in which he furthered his inquiries into the crisis of his civilization—“Letter to the Universale” (1932), “Current Observations” (1934), and “Critique and Faith” (1934). Here too, de Martino’s message remained the same: He spoke of the “days of crisis,” of the “explo[sion] of the crisis of the System,” of the “disorientation of the consciousness facing its fate to change its own Weltanschauungtoto caelo,’” and of “a crisis… that befalls the West to this day.”

De Martino was aware of the fact that the change on the temporal axis—the replacement of “progress” with “decline”—had to be accompanied by a critique of the ontological and the epistemological convictions of modernity. In describing the latter, he struck up one of the most reverberant tunes of the pessimist’s swan song by blaming the “excessive development of our critical faculty [which is] locking itself into the lucid concept of the philosopher” for the crisis of modernity. Experts have noted that de Martino’s “critical faculty” can be identified with “critical reason,” the “calculating and utilitarian ratio of Enlightenment origin.” Regarding the ontological crisis, de Martino appreciated that the conceptualization of religion is the result of a backward-looking attitude that was “armed with historicism” and characterized by an exclusive “enthusiasm [for] historical considerations: One could even say that for [the historian] only the past holds dignity and grandiosity.” He also defined the darkness surrounding him as a “crisis of ideals and faith” and, citing a paragraph of Ernest Renan’s The Future of Science (1891) that he “holds particularly dear,” he blamed “the critical spirit” for “prohibiting chimeras by poisoning them.” De Martino juxtaposed the modern conception of religion as historical fact to that of pre-modern times, when religion was conceived as myth, which is always marked by “propulsive,” “enthusiastic,” and based on a sense of “duty-to-be.”

Flavio Geisshuesler, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is a historian of religions with an expertise in the contemplative systems of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. [This article is an excerpt from his recent book, The Life and Work of Ernesto De Martino.]