[NOTE: This entry was originally posted on Feb. 7, 2012. Unfortunately, Jonathan Bowden died on March 29 of this year, of a heart attack. He was 49. On the recommendation of a reader, I have changed the title of this post, which originally included the word “DEATH”, in order to avoid any confusion. This entry is merely a musing on Bowden’s work and the influence of one of my own teachers, and nothing else.]
I’ve been aware of the English political thinker Jonathan Bowden for a couple of years now. He’s hailed as an excellent orator, and I agree with that characterization. But, though he has a masterful command of his native language and spits out forceful and felicitous phrases with ease and regularity, he doesn’t have a particularly majestic vocal timbre. Indeed he speaks almost too rapidly and often trips over his own words. The real force of Bowden’s oratory comes from his solid thinking, his command of history (both ancient and modern), and his philosophical depth.
I don’t agree with every single thing that Jonathan Bowden has ever said, naturally, but I find him refreshing and bracing like a dip in one of the cold, freshwater lakes of the Cascade Mountains near where I live. Such a swim can be a little uncomfortable, and it makes the skin tingle, but it’s always invigorating and you never regret having gone for a swim. If it’s comfort we want, well I have electrical heating in my home and a cushiony couch I could sit in all day if I really wanted to.
Recently, Bowden has begun a regular weekly appearance on Richard Spencer’s podcast at Alternative Right (the podcast was rechristened “Vanguard” around the same time). I respect the work Spencer does, and he and Bowden have proven so far to be a natural team. Spencer is more than pure interviewer; that is, he offers his own opinions on subjects and feels free to interject. Still, the format is more or less to have Spencer set the table with some introductory remarks, and then let Bowden just go. It works very well. Spencer is younger, speaks somewhat more slowly, has a standard American accent, and gives off a vibe of somewhat bemused detachment (not ironic or spiteful, just rather relaxed). Bowden provides the spark, with his saliva-speckled British tenor, his firecracker demeanor, and his rapid-fire surveys of intellectual and political history.
If you enjoy podcasts and radio programs while you do the laundry or the dishes, as I do, or as you drive to work, I recommend checking out the archives at Alternative Right here. Particularly good was the recent program they did on the topic of democracy.
Tonight I listened to an archived speech by Bowden given in November called “European Culture: A Bullet through Steel.” This is Bowden at his best, and dealing with a topic that interests me more. He considers Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon” and Shakespeare’s “King Lear” as stand-ins for the greatness of European cultural achievements. And then he considers the ideologies behind modern adaptations of these classical works as indicative of the sickness of modern Western culture. I love Greek tragedy and I love Shakespeare, so it was exhilarating to hear Bowden’s synopses of these great works. And his critique of what theater has become (and his argument that it’s a representative sample of what Western culture in general has become) is incisive.
[Unfortunately, that recording is part of the Sunic Journal radio program, which is sloppily produced. The introductions and programming breaks are arbitrary and jarring. Also, the end of Bowden’s speech is abruptly cut off (and there’s no explanation or warning on the Sunic site). Tomislav Sunic himself (who makes no appearance in the program I’ve linked above) is an interesting person and he produces interesting programs (like, again, the Bowden one). But he’s also unfortunately obsessed with Jewish power (through banks, Hollywood, etc), a topic which I’m not particularly interested in. I don’t consider it a laughable topic, nor irrelevant, but in my experience people who obsess over it are usually incapable of understanding the complexity which is and always has been a defining feature of human societies. That is, while Jewish bankers (or Freemasons, or Trotskyites, or Muslim fanatics, or whoever) have had a role in the formation of our modern world, I find laughably simplistic any formulation which pretends that they are somehow the prime source of any and all dysfunction that we can observe. Sunic sometimes seem to speak as if this were not only true, but that we’re all dupes for not agreeing with him. Thanks but no thanks. Incidentally, I’ve seen Lawrence Auster decry and dismiss the Alternative Right website because of consistently anti-Semitic statements by commenters. I don’t really read the comments there, but I do check the articles once a week or so, and read the ones that interest me. I’ve never noticed any serious anti-Semitism in the main articles, and some of them (especially by the remarkable and quite young Mark Hackard) are excellent.]
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A reminiscence while I’m at it. When I was a senior in public high school, I had a class called “Humanities Block,” which was an honors-level class that took up the first two hours of every morning. It was team-taught by Mr. Wall and Mrs. Newman. Mr. Wall was a Vietnam veteran who held an early morning running session before class, twice a week for any boys who wanted to attend (I never went, I was too lazy). He taught philosophy. Mrs. Newman was a small, energetic, artistic and somewhat shrill old woman who always had it in for me (I think she thought I was a cavalier jock-type, which actually now that I think of it, was probably pretty accurate). She taught us literature and art history.
Our readings were necessarily quite rapid and rather shallow. Their goal was to get 50 high school students all the way through Western culture from Homer to Dostoyevsky in one school year. Even though we often had to rush through various books and artists, and even though I didn’t always *ahem* do all the reading, it was from Newman and Wall that I got my first real introductions to Gilgamesh, Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Genesis and Job, Roman architecture, Augustine, the Hagia Sophia, the Taj Mahal, the Mahabharata (not EVERYTHING we studied was Western), Beowulf, Chaucer, Aquinas, Descartes, Gothic cathedrals, Dante, Macchiavelli, Raphael, Shakespeare, Milton … I’m already exhausted by trying to keep this all roughly chronological. But it included the heights of French studio-era painting, sprawling Russian novels, English lyric poetry. Oh man, all the good stuff!
I bring this all up because Bowden’s discussion of “Agamemnon” reminded me fondly of something from that class. Mrs. Newman had a few catchphrases she liked to shout in her shrill voice early in the morning, presumably to wake up a bunch of laggardly teenagers at 7:30 am on a Tuesday morning in the depths of the dark, northern Seattle winters. One of her favorites was a reference to “Agamemnon.” She loved Greek tragedy more than anything, and in fact the license plate on her old Volvo jalopy read “CLY”, in reference to the husband-killing Clytaemnestra from that play. (She was a bit of a feminist, but not so much so that she ruined great literature with juvenile interpretations, as my later college professors would teach me to do. She just seemed to get a thrill from the sheer willful bloodiness of characters like Clytaemnestra and Lady MacBeth, which I begrudge her not).
To Mrs. Newman, the moment at the end of “Agamemnon” when the bloody corpses of Agamemnon and Cassandra are wheeled out in a bathtub and we find Clytaemnestra standing over them with a gory axe was the defining example of tragic catharsis. “DEATH … in the bath tub!” she yelled at us teenagers in the sleepy early hours of the day. And any time that we encountered tragic reversal in a work of literature (and such moments are almost the defining characteristic of the great Western tradition of tragic literature), such as at the end of Hamlet or (ha ha) in Jacque-Louis David’s “Death of Marat”, she loved to scream out “DEATH … in the bath tub!” I didn’t appreciate it fully at the time, but this charming/annoying idiosyncrasy of hers was probably secretly instrumental in giving me the ability to see the ever-morphing, ever-renewed, and yet eternal through-lines that make Western culture into the integrated whole that it has been since, well, death in the bath tub.
Finally, lest I make Mrs. Newman out to sound like some kind of revenge-minded harridan, let me say that another one of her favorite lines to talk about was something quite different. It got repeated fewer times, but only because the “Agamemnon” was one the first things we read and this other line came from The Brothers Karamazov, which we naturally read towards the end of the year. The line was “the sticky little leaves.” And instead of shouting it at us with a joyful/insane shriek, she said it with her eyes narrowed and her voice calm. As if to say, “Ah. Yes… the sticky green leaves. Isn’t that marvelous?”
For those of you who haven’t read The Brothers Karamazov in a while, here’s the scene she was referring to.
[Ivan is speaking to Alyosha]
” … Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring. I love the blue sky, I love some people, whom one loves you know sometimes without knowing why. I love some great deeds done by men, though I’ve long ceased perhaps to have faith in them, yet from old habit one’s heart prizes them. Here they have brought the soup for you, eat it, it will do you good. It’s first-rate soup, they know how to make it here. I want to travel in Europe, Alyosha, I shall set off from here. And yet I know that I am only going to a graveyard, but it’s a most precious graveyard, that’s what it is! Precious are the dead that lie there, every stone over them speaks of such burning life in the past, of such passionate faith in their work, their truth, their struggle and their science, that I know I shall fall on the ground and kiss those stones and weep over them; though I’m convinced in my heart that it’s long been nothing but a graveyard. And I shall not weep from despair, but simply because I shall be happy in my tears, I shall steep my soul in emotion. I love the sticky leaves in spring, the blue sky — that’s all it is. It’s not a matter of intellect or logic, it’s loving with one’s inside, with one’s stomach. One loves the first strength of one’s youth. Do you understand anything of my tirade, Alyosha?” Ivan laughed suddenly.
“I understand too well, Ivan. One longs to love with one’s inside, with one’s stomach. You said that so well and I am awfully glad that you have such a longing for life,” cried Alyosha. “I think everyone should love life above everything in the world.”
“Love life more than the meaning of it?”
“Certainly, love it, regardless of logic as you say, it must be regardless of logic, and it’s only then one will understand the meaning of it. I have thought so a long time. Half your work is done, Ivan, you love life, now you’ve only to try to do the second half and you are saved.”
“You are trying to save me, but perhaps I am not lost! And what does your second half mean?”
“Why, one has to raise up your dead, who perhaps have not died after all. Come, let me have tea. I am so glad of our talk, Ivan.”