Will Europe Follow Atlantis? Part III: The Modern West

Lewis Spence and the revolt against the modern world

Spence himself invokes William Blake, in Will Europe Follow Atlantis, by references to the Lambeth seer’s America a Prophecy (1793) and Europe a Prophecy (1794).  Spence understands Blake in the context of Bardic Poetry and the Grail Saga, describing him as “of the lineage of the Sons of the Grail” and as enjoying “the birthright of Britannic poets and prophets.”  Blake would also figure for Spence as one of those “critics of insight” who, never minding the polite categories, see into the essences of things.   Given that Spence is by self-denomination a Traditionalist whereas Blake is something of a revolutionary, and given Spence’s condemnatory judgment of revolution, Spence’s attraction to Blake might seem a contradiction – but it is not so.  Both America and Europe make Atlantean allusions, especially the former.  Blake’s Atlantis is, moreover, not the decadent Atlantis in Plato or Spence whose hubris invites nemesis through the Druidic causality of eneidvaddu, as Spence argues in Occult Causes.  Blake’s Atlantis is rather the redeemed Atlantis that has reclaimed the virtues of its divine origin from their theft and debasement by the technocratic regime – for surely when Blake saw Atlantis resurgent he thought of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1620), that blueprint of a scientistic utopia, as a reigning paradigm that would however in future be justly controverted and overthrown.

Lewis Spence and the revolt against the modern world

“If what Bacon says is true,” writes Blake in a marginalium of 1798, “what Christ says is false.”  As did his younger contemporary Wordsworth, Blake later tempered his early enthusiasm for Jacobinism, which, despite its promise of liberté, soon proved itself another form of secular tyranny.  In America, the tyranny of George III culminates a dominion that begins with James I, whom Blake called “Bacon’s Primum Mobile,” and which confronts at last in the Platonic ideal of the Declaration of Independence its mortal term.

Blake never mentions the name Atlantis in his America, but in Will Europe Follow Atlantis Spence plausibly intuits the Atlantis Myth behind the poet’s imagery.  Blake’s lowering Albion, a Titanic version of the human tyrant, is “the Demon red, who burnt towards America,” moving in the opposite direction, east to west, of Plato’s Atlantean conquerors, but with the same intention of subduing all freedom.  “Then had America been lost, o’erwhelmed by the Atlantic,” Blake writes, had not the rebels, with Attic justification, “roll’d back with fury… on Albion’s Angels.”  The imagery becomes diluvian as Biblical retributions afflict the aggressor: “Over the hills, the vales, the cities, rage the red flames fierce”; and when, as it comes to pass, “the Heavens melted from north to south,” the chief of all Blake’s tyrant-demons, Urizen, is seen “falling into the deep sublime!”  In Blake’s Europe, Albion again appears, now as high-priest of “the ancient temple serpent-formed” that Blake names “Verulam” in an allusion to Bacon.  The arch-priest hatches a plan to subjugate mankind by severing communion between consciousness and “the infinite” through barring the gates where perception is “turn’d outward.”  In such figures, admittedly obscure, Spence must have intuited a new iteration of Plato’s claim how the doom that befell Atlantis stemmed from witting self-estrangement from the divine.

The nemesis of freedom in Blake’s visions might justly receive the label of Technocratic Puritanism.  Being eccentric to his own Calvinistic heritage, Spence felt no aversion to criticizing Puritanism.  In Will Europe Follow Atlantis, Spence laments the “reign of narrow and bigoted religiosity [that] rendered Scotland and the American Colonies… so dismal under the regimes of early Presbyterianism and Congregationalism.”  But, as Spence observes, a democracy might be as narrow and bigoted, and quite as theocratic, as a theocracy, the people seeing itself in its own projected image as god.  Spence writes: “Even at its worst – and, as a Scottish Presbyterian, I freely admit that it was a pretty bad worst – the Puritanical rules of which I speak, were a thousand times superior to the present demi-anarchy and false democracy.”

In such pronouncements Spence draws himself parallel to the critiques of Guénon and Berdyaev, not to mention José Ortega, concerning Modernity, which happen to be contemporary with his.  Guénon, Berdyaev, and Ortega attend to democracy with deep suspicion.  There are other parallelisms assimilating these thinkers.  In Guénon’s Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times (1945), in the chapter on “The Limits of History and Geography,” the name “Atlantis” appears as the nisus of an epistemological inquiry into the modern historical mentality, which Guénon sees as radically anti-historical.  Guénon remarks, “How vain are all discussions to which the profane… may wish to devote their time on matters connected with earlier periods of the Manvantara, with the ‘golden age’ or the ‘primordial tradition,’ or even with much less remote events such as the biblical ‘deluge,’ taking this last only in its more immediate literal meaning in which it relates to the cataclysm of Atlantis.”  Modern thinkers, Guénon asserts, “are unable to admit the existence or even the possibility of anything whatever that eludes their investigations.”  The foundering of Atlantis represents for Guénon a milestone in what he calls the “solidification” of reality under an increasingly materialistic dogma – which obviously predates any recent or historical century.

The Atlantis Myth being other than a profane story, Guénon writes, the modern mentality is unequipped to comprehend it.  “Profane science,” as Guénon puts the matter, is “bounded by the modern world in which alone it had its birth” and it will never see past the “barriers” that its own perceptual narrowness imposes.  In Will Europe Follow Atlantis, as readers will recall, Spence exercised the temerity not merely politely to doubt the validity of Darwinism, but to reject it as having dealt a “fatal blow” to human self-understanding.

Like Spence and Guénon, Berdyaev grasps Modernity as the radical diminution of perspicacity in tandem with the apotheosis of conceit.  In The Destiny of Man (opus posthumus 1955), Berdyaev writes how the positivistic type of anthropology has trapped itself within “methods and principles of investigation [that were determined] by the evolutionary theory of the second half of the nineteenth century.”  In their speculations about primitive man, modern investigators have inferred man’s past from his present, by studying “modern savages” despite the fact that “ancient man and his life were infinitely more significant and mysterious than anthropologists and sociologists suppose.”  Berdyaev supposes at least as much “regress” as “Progress” in the human record.  Citing the case of Atlantis, for belief in which there are as he writes “considerable reasons,” Berdyaev concludes that, “it is… likely that the savages as we know them are a product of degeneration and retrogression, and do not represent the primary stage of human development.”  The Atlantis Myth, Berdyaev writes, should stand as a lesson to modern man, who nevertheless refuses to heed it or even to grant it plausibility.  Modernity is, for Berdyaev, abundantly a degenerate phase of the human story, debased, vulgar, brutal, and – dare one say – savage.

No one thinks of Ortega’s Revolt of the Masses (1929) as communicating thematically with the Atlantis Myth, but the book is implicitly a moral parable and it resembles a deluge saga.  No one thinks of Ortega as a Traditionalist – but what else to call his defense of the Aristocratic ethos?  Ortega characterizes “Mass Man” as a case of infantilism in obstreperous revolt against all norms, as arrogant, and as concupiscent.  “As the masses, by definition,” he writes, “neither should nor can direct their own personal existence, and still less rule society in general, this fact [of their sudden predominance] means that actually Europe is suffering from the greatest crisis that can afflict peoples, nations, civilizations.”  Mass Man sees himself as “exempt from restrictions.”  He confronts the world that he providentially inherits from previous generations with “radical ingratitude.”  Finally, in a construction that would be foreign neither to the text of Spence nor of Guénon nor of Berdyaev, Mass Man “accustoms himself not to appeal from his own to any outside authority.”  By his quality of being numerous and thus of constituting a ubiquitous multitude Mass Man in his advent is rapidly submerging the vestiges of any truly qualitative order.  It is clear to Ortega that Mass Man represents no new civilization struggling to be born but rather the dissolution of an old one – the European civilization or Europe itself as a meaningful idea.  Ortega either quotes Nietzsche or plausibly imagines something that Nietzsche might have written, but in either case with transcendent aptness: “I see the floodtide of nihilism rising.”  Après moi – le déluge!

Are the “Atlantean” allusions in this reading of The Revolt only a hopeful guess that strains credulity?  Far from being merely hopeful is that guess.  Fascinating it is to see the pieces of a puzzle falling into place like the formerly scattered verses of a self-recreating poem.  Five years before The Revolt, Ortega had published a book, today largely forgotten, under the title Las Atlantidas, in which he considers the phenomena of lost cultures and civilizations from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age that are betokened today only by their archeological or mythic remains, not least the broadcast indicia of fabled Tartessos.  These objects signify a remote horizon of history, tentative insofar as it might be extended, as indeed often it has previously been extended, which stands in a relation to consciousness.  Extending the horizon of the past is essential because man, as a self-reflective entity, is historical, and when he opens out the existing limit, the result is an increase of self-definition and self-understanding.  To grow in intellectual or moral stature man must quest.  Atlantis serves in Ortega’s view for an unseen center-of-gravity that draws the quest.  Ortega sympathizes even with the most literalistic of Atlantis-hunters because they respond to the “sentido histórico” that leads them into the “disturbing and suggestive” realms of untold centuries.

Ortega’s dates are 1883 to 1955, making him ten years Spence’s junior but roughly of the same generation.  The two share the year of their mortality.  Another Spanish name is much less well-known than that of Ortega: Jacint Verdaguer (1845 – 1902).  A Catalan poet, Verdaguer belonged to the generation before Ortega.  Although Verdaguer died relatively young he bequeathed in his early thirties a minor masterpiece to posterity.  Where Ortega’s title uses the plural, Verdaguer’s uses the singular.  L’Atlantida (1876), which must have exercised an influence on Ortega, is an epic poem that integrates elements of Iberian, North African, and Atlantic legend with Greek myth and, in particular, with the Atlantis Myth, combining all of that with Columbus and his first voyage.  From 1925 until his death in 1946, the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla set Verdaguer’s poem as an opera, thereby emphasizing its contemporary relevance.

Verdaguer, in his prose prologue to L’Atlantida, invokes Plato’s Critias, expressing his anguish that such a noble story should have been broken off by its author’s demise.  (The scholarly consensus is that Plato left his dialogue intentionally unfinished.)  The story strikes Verdaguer as crying out for completion, but he wants nevertheless to apologize for having “dared” the attempt.  In the opening verses, the Coryphaeus tells how “the Atlantic still tosses up its bits of debris.”  In mute waters, submerged, resides what remains of the Hesperides, with their “cities” of “marble palaces” where now only the seals play and the waving tendrils of seaweed grow.  “Atlas was their king,” who “to the children of Greece… looked like a mountain.”  Later, a prophetess recites for Columbus the tragedy of degeneration – from the just kingdom into the debased power: “Woe to you, Atlantis, woe to your empire.”  She speaks of the “land in disarray,” and of “virgins and children… made sacrifices” at the “criminal” altar amidst obscene “incense.”  Once the cities “proclaim their vices,” they have sealed their doom.  The ocean must overwhelm them like a “wild animal” turning ferociously on a provocateur.  Falla, in setting Verdaguer, has translated the wrath of nature against the profanation of her law into masses of choral lamentation with strident fanfares from the brasses and seismic rumblings from the lowest strings.  In Falla’s operatic version, Verdaguer’s poem strives towards the cinematic.  A cinematic treatment might well be the only way to do the work full justice.

Spence’s chapter in Will Europe Follow Atlantis on “How Europe May Follow Atlantis” (VIII) has a cinematic character.  “Let us review,” Spence writes, “the probable causes of the destruction or chastening of a continent which, instead of producing naturally and by gradual development that species of exalted culture which a beneficent Providence intended it to bring forth, has chosen futile and uninstructed paths of its own, with results that must now be apparent even to the most reckless and abandoned among its warring masses.”  Spence finds meteoric impact unlikely, despite his awareness of the Tunguska event of 1908.  He likewise doubts the probability of a sudden shift of the axis mundi.  He prefers the method of submergence or inundation.  Central Europe might seem geologically quiescent, but Spence ransacks the farthest corners of Erdkunde to make plausible his prediction of a great collapse admitting the cold ocean into the continental heartland.  “Any day, geologically speaking, terrific floods and a sinking of the crust might submerge Holland and North Germany beneath the North Sea, and the unstable portions of Bavaria might well crash and fracture up under the contiguous impact.”

Aside from their awareness of the Atlantis Myth, what have Spence, Guénon, Berdyaev, Ortega, Blake, and Verdaguer in common?  They are what Spence himself denominates under the category “men of insight.”  Spence, to paraphrase de Camp, might not have escaped the lunatic fringe of Atlantology, but he did escape from the intense and generalized lunacy, the Puritanical insanity, of his time, as did his eccentric peers.  Excepting and yet also despite Ortega’s tenure at the Escuela Superior, neither Spence nor any of the others was a professor of the establishment, but rather each was an individual standing at an odd angle to the self-trumpeting Grand Narrative of his time.  No self-trumpeting Grand Narrative, they would have agreed, is quite as insipid as the Grand Narrative that declares itself to be the last and final Grand Narrative that cancels all the previous ones, demonstrates their intolerable untruth, and punishes adherence to them.  The reigning Grand Narrative is always a regime.  It is a restriction on what is epistemologically permissible – and none is as restrictive as the liberal-scientistic or technocratic-puritanical Grand Narrative of Twenty-First Century Modernity.  The rules of the encyclopedia are perhaps necessary and yet they are also insufficient for human understanding.  The encyclopedia is written by the Cartesian ego.  That ego believes that it is ensconced outside the cosmos, contemplating it while remaining aloof from it, and in a position to manipulate it and rewrite its conditions.  Myth corrects the error.  Man remains implicated in the Cosmos.

bertonneauThomas F. Bertonneau earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Califonia at Los Angeles in 1990. He has taught at a variety of institutions, and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. He is the author of three books and numerous articles on literature, art, music, religion, anthropology, film, and politics. He is a frequent contributor to Anthropoetics, the ISI quarterlies, and others.

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