From Bauhaus to Our House

Tom Wolfe’s delightfully savage 1981 account of the rise of modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House, remains as relevant today as ever. Most of all it provides a fascinating insight into the bizarre and disturbing ways in which cultural elites work.

The roots of the horror that is modernist architecture go back to the early years of the 20th century, a time when the worlds of art, literature and music were all beginning to embrace the cult of modernism. In architecture things really got going when Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus. 
Of course no-one actually wanted the bleak, depressing and ugly architecture promoted by the Bauhaus. The only clients these architects got were socialist governments wanting to build housing for the workers. The workers, naturally, were not asked how they felt about having to live in these architectural horrors.
Modernist architecture got its big break when suddenly these European architects, people like Gropius and Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, arrived in the United States as refugees in the 30s. As Wolfe puts out, they were welcomed like great white gods who had consented to come down to earth and dwell among mortals. American architectural schools were falling over themselves to employ these godlike beings and young American architects eagerly abandoned any thought of trying to create distinctively American architecture in favour of a slavish colonial devotion to whatever the Europeans told them was the latest thing.
The result of all this was the abomination that became known as the International Style. Boxes. Boxes of glass, steel and concrete. 
The Bauhaus had been a kind of arty compound, cut off from the real world. The emphasis, as with modernist painting, was on theory. It was not necessary for the Bauhaus architects to have the buildings they designed actually built. Buildings that only ever existed on paper were just as good as real buildings. This emphasis on theory was something they brought to America with them. Getting academic posts was what counted. Once the modernists dominated the schools they could ensure that the International Style became the only approved style. It was the new orthodoxy and it was to be enforced.
An exclusive focus on theory was of course the hallmark of modernism in every field.
The horrors of modernism are of course mostly avoidable but architecture is kind of hard to avoid. People could not be forced to enjoy modernist paintings or modernist music but they could be forced to live and work in the soul-destroying boxes of modernist architecture.
Having done a brilliantly effective hatchet job on the modernists Wolfe then turns his attention to the post-modernists and proceeds to savage them as well, and rightly so.
In politics there is no weapon quite so devastating as ridicule and Wolfe is the master when it comes to wielding that particular sword. He’s in top form here. From Bauhaus to Our House is a very very funny book. Not just amusing but laugh-out-loud funny. But it’s not just funny, it offers extremely perceptive and important insights into the ways in which political and cultural elites operate. Wolfe understood right from the start just how vital cultural and artistic battles are.

the trouble with paganism

I’ve been reading Dan McCoy’s The Love of Destiny: The Sacred and the Profane in Germanic Polytheism which I guess could be described as an exercise in neo-pagan apologetics.

The problem of religion is one that has been exercising my mind for quite some time. I’m fairly clear about the natures of the problem. I don’t think atheism is healthy for society and I don’t think it’s healthy for the individual. What I’m not clear about is the solution to the problem.
It’s a problem that many (possibly even most) people in the dissident right, alt-right or whatever you want to use as an umbrella term for such groups are aware of. The two most popular solutions are a revived Christianity or some form of neo-paganism. It’s the neo-pagan solution I’m concerned with at the moment.
I understand the attraction of the neo-pagan solution. Christianity hasn’t done much of a job of defending our civilisation in the past century or so and neo-paganism has the advantage of offering a distinctively European alternative. Blood and soil and all that.
I have however always had reservations about neo-paganism. This is a short summary of my reservations (and as you’ll see they’re all pretty much related). 
Firstly, any kind of polytheistic religion by its very nature will tend towards fragmentation. There was a time when the whole of Europe was pagan but it was certainly not a golden age of religious unity. At the time that wasn’t a major problem but what we need today is unity.
Secondly, neo-paganism has always been short on doctrine. Certainly very short on anything approaching a unified doctrine. Within incredibly broad limits you can more or less choose your own beliefs. Every man can in effect have his own private religion. The difficulty with that is that it must inevitably lead to the kind of atomisation and sense of alienation which are the very things that make liberalism so deadly. One of the functions of religion is to bring people together, not to divide them.
Thirdly, there’s no standardised neo-pagan morality. Each cult can adopt its own morality and in practice every individual can adopt his or her own moral standards. Obviously that’s a recipe for social chaos.
Fourthly, neo-paganism can very easily become just a vague woolly New Age spirituality. Even worse, it can become a sort of glorified pantheism. And pantheism is itself a sort of glorified atheism.
Fifthly, not only is neo-paganism not conducive to social discipline it’s also not conducive to self-discipline. It’s an open door to every kind of self-indulgence – moral, intellectual, emotional and spiritual.
McCoy is aware of these weaknesses but unfortunately he considers them to be features, not bugs. This is one of the many disturbing things about this book.
McCoy starts out in his introduction by assuring us that he has no animus against the monotheistic religions. We then move on to the first half of the book which is a sustained, hysterical, intellectually incoherent attack on what he considers to be the many evils of the three great monotheistic religions. Interestingly enough for McCoy the three great monotheistic religions are Judaism, Christianity and Science. His main beef with these religions seems to be that they’re anti-Nature and moralistic. For McCoy Nature is all good and morality is all bad. Because we’re all part of Nature, man, and it’s all good because, well, it’s just all good because it is. Morality of course is bad ’cause it’s oppressive, man. This is pretty much the hippie worldview.
The second half of this brief volume is marginally more interesting, giving us a brief rundown on Norse mythology and the Northern European pagan worldview. The problem here is that, to me at least, that worldview sounds impossibly bleak, fatalistic and depressing. Submitting to fate seems to be the essence of it. 
Of course it would be unfair to dismiss neo-paganism out of hand based on this one book. Nonetheless this book does confirm every one of my worst fears on the weaknesses of neo-paganism and the unlikelihood that it is going to be of much use in saving our civilisation. Mind you I suspect that the author would not be bothered by this, since civilisation is oppressive, man.

Hilaire Belloc’s Elizabethan Commentary

I spoke in a recent post about foundational myths. Intriguingly the foundational myth of Protestant England is centred not on Henry VIII but on his daughter. Elizabeth I, or Gloriana or Good Queen Bess, is Protestant England’s Joan of Arc.

Hilaire Belloc’s Elizabethan Commentary, published in 1942 (and issued in the US as Elizabeth, Creature of Circumstance), is an entertaining hatchet job on this myth. Belloc believed, absolutely correctly, that the Reformation was the key event in European history and he retuned to it again and again. As a result some of the ground covered in this book is also covered in his other books on the subject.
Belloc approaches his task with his usual combative zeal and it follows his usual idiosyncratic approach to history. He has no interest in a connected narrative, or in any narrative at all. That does not mean this is social history in the generally understood sense of the term although there are elements of this. When writing about the past Belloc’s main aim is to capture the spirit of the age with which he is dealing and he does so far more successfully than most modern historians.
As in his other books he stresses the importance of the rising power of the moneyed class and the greed of that class. The Reformation saw the seizure of the abbey lands in England and this despoiling of the Church was on a breath-taking scale. As much as a third of the wealth of the country was involved. Had this wealth remained in the hands of the Crown the English Crown could have been the richest in Europe and subsequent disasters like the Civil War would have been averted. England might have remained a monarchy until the present day. Unfortunately the hapless Tudors allowed all of this wealth to slip through their fingers to enrich the already wealthy. More importantly this represented a fatal shift of power from the Crown to the moneyed class.
In some ways the highlights of the book are Belloc’s many digressions. He has some interesting things to say on the nature of monarchy. 
There’s also a fascinating chapter on torture. This was a fairly uncommon practice prior to the 16th century, became extremely common during that century and then fairly quickly disappeared from the English scene. Belloc stresses that the purpose of torture was not punishment but to extract information. It was widely used in the 16th century because there were so many plots and the government therefore had a very strong incentive to extract information from suspects possibly involved in such plots. In other words governments are inclined to use torture when their own power is threatened. The history of the past hundred years would appear to confirm this, with governments being very willing to use extreme methods to protect their own power.
He makes the further point, often overlooked, that to the 16th century mind it was almost unthinkable to execute a man unless he confessed. Without modern forensic science, and (another very intriguing point) without modern legal cross-examination procedures, it was difficult to establish guilt. The most effective way was to torture a man until he confessed. Torture was considered to be morally preferable to running the risk of executing an innocent man. It’s another example of Belloc’s thesis that you can’t hope to understand history unless you accept that the past really is a foreign country and they really do do things differently there.
Belloc makes no apologies for presenting a Catholic view of English history, as a counter-balance to hundreds of years of anti-Catholic propaganda. In this instance there’s also the need to present some kind of alternative to the myth of Elizabeth I as the great queen, a myth that remained unchallenged in England for centuries. It’s a task that he approaches with relish.

Evola’s Revolt Against the Modern World.

My current reading is Julius Evola’s Revolt Against the Modern World. It’s heavy going, especially if you limited tolerance for the wilder shores of mysticism, esotericism, magic and the occult. If you persist with it though there are plenty of profound and important insights into the sorry state in which our civilisation has landed itself. The second half of the book in particular is filled with key insights.

Evola’s idea of a revolt against the modern world is breathtakingly radical. In his view things started to go wrong a very very long time ago, and they went wrong in very fundamental ways. And his ideas on tradition are not exactly conventional.
There’s a lot of material to plough through in this book and I remain sceptical of much of it. I really wouldn’t feel in the least bit qualified even to attempt to review this book. There are however a few things that happened to catch my interest as they connect to other things I’ve been reading recently.
The first is his spirited championing of caste systems. Given that egalitarianism has proven to be a dangerous chimaera and that hierarchies are almost certainly both inevitable and necessary in a healthy society, and given that class divisions produce endless futile conflict, a caste system does seem to have its attractions.
The second point that struck me in this book is Evola’s enthusiasm for the ideal of chivalry. This is a little surprising at first in view of Evola’s disdain for Christianity. He argues however that the medieval ideal of chivalry was not entirely Christian in inspiration and that it avoids many of what he sees as the flaws and decadent features of Christianity. Of course it could be objected that chivalry was an ideal that was in all probability seldom practised, at least in a pure form. That doesn’t really matter. The fact that the idea of chivalry existed and that it struck such a powerful chord in the medieval imagination is what’s important.
My own reservations about Christianity are centred on its passive and excessively feminised nature and its unfortunate tendency to encourage the cult of victimology. These regrettable tendencies seemed to be much less evident in medieval Christianity, and the ideal of chivalry did seem to be a way of minimising those negative factors.
Medieval Christianity was a masculine religion that respected women. Such a thing is possible.
There seems to be no question that Christianity has lost its way and that this has been a gradual process that has taken centuries. The Middle Ages was the high water mark for the Christian faith. It’s been all downhill since then.

Courtly Culture: Literature and Society in the High Middle Ages

I’ve been reading Joachim Bumke’s Courtly Culture: Literature and Society in the High Middle Ages. It was published in German in 1986 and the English translation dates from 1991. It’s an odd book. Bumke isn’t arguing that the courtly literature of the 12th and 13th centuries accurately reflected the realities of aristocratic society at that time but he does seem to be arguing that the literature does tell us something real about the period, or at the very least about the way that society viewed itself.
Like most modern historians he seems reluctant to draw actual conclusions. After he has presented masses of intriguing evidence the book just stops. 
There is some fascinating stuff here though. In the 11th century western European aristocratic society was still very much an honour-based warrior society. It was Christian, but not thoroughly Christianised. It certainly had little use for Christian notions of morality. Over the course of a couple of hundred years the Church engaged in a fierce struggle to change this. The contest ended in a fairly complete victory for the Church. 
The lords regarded marriage as a purely economic and dynastic arrangement. Marriages were arranged and if you didn’t like your prospective bride or groom it was too bad. Force could be, and was, used to compel agreement. The Church was having none of that. The Church’s position was that no marriage was valid unless both partners consented. By the later Middle Ages they had more or less won their point. A degree of coercion might still be employed but if you absolutely refused your consent you could reasonably expect the Church to back you up.
The aristocracy also had a free-and-easy attitude towards fornication and even adultery, at least as far as men were concerned. The Church’s position was that sexual misconduct was sexual misconduct regardless of the sex of the transgressor. The Church certainly didn’t win a complete victory on this issue but they did manage to change attitudes to a degree.
The Church also tried, with some success, to limit the endless feuding of the nobles.
The Church was acting as a civilising agent at a time when western European society badly needed such an influence. Of course it’s all a matter of balance. This was a society that was excessively violent and immoral so at that time the civilising and feminising influences of the Church were a good thing, shifting the balance in a healthier direction.
The other thing that really intrigues me in this book is the survival of an oral literary tradition possibly as late as the 13th century. The idea that you could be totally illiterate and be a poet seems bizarre today but in the High Middle Ages there were indeed poets, and great poets at that, who were illiterate.  What’s really interesting is that the oral literary tradition and the written literary tradition co-existed for centuries. Some of the most important literary works of the period, such as the Nibelungenlied, certainly originated within the oral tradition. Other epic poems written at precisely the same time originated as             written works. 
We don’t actually know how the audience of the time consumed (for want of a better word) their poetic works. Most were presumably sung or recited but whether there was an actual reading audience is unknown. The literacy levels at the various princely courts varied widely so we have no idea how much of the audience for literature comprised actual readers.
All interesting stuff, and it’s helping to feed my growing obsession with things mediaeval.

Hilaire Belloc’s James II: book review

James II
Hilaire Belloc’s James II appeared in 1928 and it’s typical of its author’s slightly idiosyncratic approach to both history and biography. He has little interest in connected linear narratives or in chronicling the events of his subject’s lifetime. He offers us a series of impressions, each of them calculated to shed as much light as possible on the underlying truth.
The story is also of course a tragedy. James II, the last legitimate King of England, lost his throne in 1688. The tale has been told a hundred times but almost always with a conscious or unconscious anti-Catholic bias, and of course with an anti-Stuart bias (England’s current queen being a representative of the usurping house that ousted the Stuarts).
The Stuarts also suffer from the disadvantage of being the historical losers and history, as the saying goes, is written by the winners. It’s easy to assume that the losing side must have lost because their defeat was inevitable. Unfortunately history is rarely so clear-cut although admittedly the odds were stacked against the Stuart kings.
In approaching this volume it helps of you’ve read some of Belloc’s other books, specifically those dealing with the Reformation. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was the culmination of the English Reformation. As Belloc is at pains to point out the Reformation in England was largely about money. The issues of church discipline and organisation could in time have been sorted out. The Reformation became permanent because it offered the great landowners the chance to enrich themselves still further, to enrich themselves in fact to an obscene degree, by helping themselves to land stolen from the Church. Some of this land theoretically went to the Crown, but only temporarily. The Crown ended up poorer than it had been prior to the Reformation.
While helping themselves to Church lands the great magnates also took the opportunity of adding even further to their wealth at the expense of the small independent landowners. This was a social revolution, a revolution of the rich against both the poor and the Crown.
The impoverishment of the Crown forced the English kings to rely on Parliament for money, their income being hopelessly inadequate to carry on the government of the realm. Parliament in the seventeenth century had of course nothing whatever to do with democracy. It was an assembly of rich men, selected by themselves, to advance their own interests. If the King had not been reduced to penury then Charles I would have had no need to summon the Parliament that brought about his downfall. Charles II would have had a chance of restoring the royal powers. James II might then have inherited a secure throne. 
Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953)

Religion of course played a major role in the downfall of James II. His conversion to the Catholic faith gave the enemies of the Throne the weapon they needed. They were able to exploit religious paranoia and bigotry to overthrow the King. Belloc points out that the idea that the Catholic Church could be restored to its position as the national church in the late 17th century was absurd and James had no thought of trying to achieve such an aim. At most he hoped to give Catholicism as chance of survival in the kingdom.

The King’s personality played its part as well. Belloc portrays him as a man of intelligence and application of very strong principles. Alas these useful qualities were combined with others far more harmful. The King was very inflexible and he was a remarkably poor judge of men. James would not compromise his principles even in relatively small things even when it would have been wise to do so, and in the country’s interests as well as his own.
To Belloc the Glorious Revolution was the end of the line for the English monarchy although in fact it had already been grievously weakened. James II may have been England’s last legitimate monarch but Charles I was the last king to exercise anything like genuine royal power. Whether James II ever had any real chance of restoring the fortunes of the Crown is doubtful but he at least was determined to make the attempt. 
In Belloc’s view the undermining of the monarchy was a disaster, the King being the only real defence of the common people against the greed and viciousness of the rich. Since the Glorious Revolution British monarchs, apart from not being legitimate, have been mere pawns of the wealthy ruling class.
Belloc can always be relied upon to offer a view of history that is refreshing original, provocative and eccentric. Highly recommended.

The Dreyfus Affair

Hundreds of books have been written about the Dreyfus Affair. Piers Paul Read’s 2012 The Dreyfus Affair is perhaps a little unusual in that it tries to be as even-handed as possible. Read is a Catholic but this is not really a Catholic account of the affair. On the other hand it is at least not an anti-Catholic account, unlike most books on the subject.

In 1894 French counter-intelligence obtained a letter (stolen from the German Embassy in Paris) which indicated that a French officer was selling military secrets to the Germans. The stolen letter had been written by the spy and it also included details of the secrets involved, which substantially narrowed down the list of suspects. It soon became apparent that the most likely suspect was an Alsatian Jew, Captain Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus had access to the documents concerned and the hand-writing on the letter seemed to resemble Dreyfus’s hand-writing rather closely. Dreyfus was arrested after an investigation which was not as thorough as it should have been. The officers involved in the investigation sincerely believed that Dreyfus was guilty but the actual evidence was a little thin. Dreyfus was found guilty by a court-martial and sent to Devil’s Island.
The entire proceedings were characterised by excessive haste, excessive zeal and considerable carelessness. The result would be a controversy that would rock the country for years to come.
France was split into two warring camps, the Dreyfusards (who believed Dreyfus was the victim of a miscarriage of justice) and the Anti-Dreyfusards (who were convinced of his guilt). The Anti-Dreyfusards tended to be fanatical supporters of the Army while the Dreyfusards were more likely to be equally fanatical supporters of the secular Republic.
Of course the issue that has dominated the affair for most historians has been the allegation that Dreyfus was a victim of anti-semitism. This might appear to be quite plausible except that it does not take into account the situation in late 19th century France. French Jews at that time were wealthy and powerful and privileged. It is not very likely that Dreyfus was victimised because he was a Jew – in fact it’s perhaps more likely he was accused in spite of the fact that he was Jewish, it being known that Jews had powerful protectors.
While the accusations against Dreyfus do not appear to have had any anti-semitic component the aggressive tactics of the Dreyfusards, especially after Émile Zola took a break from writing his loathsome degenerate novels to throw himself into the fray, did unleash a real wave of anti-semitism. This was however rather minor stuff compared to the vitriolic anti-Catholic campaign that was to follow.
There was a very great deal of discrimination on the grounds of religious in late 19th century France but it was directly almost entirely at Catholics. Catholics had been persecuted intermittently but brutally since the Revolution. It’s possible that as many as 170,000 Catholics were slaughtered in the Vendée in the 1790s). The Third Republic established in 1870 was fiercely anti-Catholic.
The fact that Anti-Dreyfusards were likely to be Catholics while Dreyfusards were much more likely to be Jews, Protestants or atheists made the Dreyfus Affair a significant event in the religious Cold War of the time.
There was in fact a culture war being waged in France, with the anti-Catholic forces determined to utterly destroy the Catholic religion in France. Unfortunately the fallout from the Dreyfus Affair strengthened their hand and the result was another round of persecution. The pettiness, the vindictiveness and the viciousness of the French Third republic almost defies belief. All combined with staggering levels of corruption and incompetence. It’s not difficult to understand the modern French enthusiasm for national self-destruction when you consider that the French have been trying to destroy themselves for more than two centuries.
As for the case of Dreyfus himself it seems that he was the victim of the extraordinary incompetence and duplicity of the French intelligence service. The trouble with spies is that they grow so used to deception that they end up lying to everyone, including their own government. The cynicism of self-serving peacetime senior officers concerned purely with protecting their own interests also contributed.
Read’s book is interesting enough as an account of the Dreyfus case itself but it’s much more fascinating as an examination of a fateful and squalid period of French history that has considerable relevance to the culture wars of today. Recommended.