Wednesday, August 10, 2011

First Primitivist Church of the Planet Earth: Part One

Photos of Arvid Shulenberger (1919-1964) from his WW II days. Photos published with permission of his son, Dr. Eric Shulenberger.

In this and the next installment in the Mad Hermit series, the Mad Hermit remembers some fundamental doctrines (teachings) of the First Primitivist Church of the Planet Earth. The heresies of this church are one, which is called Forgetting. Apostasy from the First Primitivist Church is called Postmodernism, which is also a new kind of forgetting. Followers of certain sects of Protestantism, or modernist Catholicism, both of which are known in the desert as Protestantism Enlightened or Gnosticism Lite, as well as all sorts of people who no longer have any idea what they are, are sure to be offended by the Mad Hermit.

The Second in a Series of Mad Hermit Visions

The Mad Hermit can elude much of the world, but he cannot escape memory. He is seeking God in contemplation, but he has lived a life, and he knows he must allow times when he goes back into the memories and wonders what to think now. Here on Masirah Island he climbs on the sperm whale’s skeletal head and stares at the ocean to the south. There are over 8000 miles of uninterrupted ocean between the whalebone head and the icy wall of Antarctica. That is why the Anglo-Saxon poets called it the “hwalrade,” the whale road. It is a kind of blankness, like the blankness of Melville’s white whale, which is what the contemplator needs, but today he has a reckoning with what humans can do in the face of that blankness. The answer, he realizes, is one of the fundamental principles of what he laughingly calls, with some redundancy, the First Primitivist Church of the Planet Earth. In this installment and the next, we will listen to his musings. So let us hear from the Mad Hermit as he suns his aches on the whale’s warm bones:

I dozed and woke stretched out on this massive blank cranium. I dreamed that I was in a long and annoying (they all were) discussion in graduate school in English, fifty years ago. The argument among the faculty (the gods who controlled our academic destinies) was over what the Ph.D. program I was in should be called. A Ph.D. in Rhetoric was what the department was leaning toward; another was a Ph.D. in Hermeneutical Phenomenologies. Other names were proposed. A mere graduate student, I suggested a Ph.D. in Poetics, which drew silence. In the ensuing nightmare discussion one professor said (for what reason I cannot recall) that a Muslim once told him that going to the mosque is “a blaze of glory in a dying light.” In my dream a light went on in my own mind and I awoke to the sound of waves and said “that’s what great art is!” I remember, in my exultation of insight, leaning over to taking a cigarette from a scurrying crab . . . and then I awoke before inhaling. But the teacher’s words, slow and deliberate, came back in a blaze of glory:


Art is making, or if good art is meant, right making. The word poetry derives from the Greek for to make. Law, medicine, bricklaying, teaching are arts. Art (a making) is distinct from science (a knowing), although it presupposes science in the maker (artist).

He was a tall and lanky ex-Air Force radar officer named Arvid Shulenberger, and when he stretched out his long arms, he reminded me of Frost’s image from “A Mending Wall” of an old farmer carrying a small boulder “like an old stone savage armed,” for he was earthy and elemental in his thinking as in his presence. I was terrified of him, for I knew he knew something about life and learning. In the whirl and blur of graduate school nonsense with this prof saying this and that prof saying that, suddenly there was a blaze of glory in the dying light. Shulenberger was a writer who had sought answers to perennial questions, answers he always referred to as the philosophia perennis, a phrase attributable to Leibnitz but also found in substance in St. Augustine and Al Farabi. It was popularized by Aldous Huxley in his book of the same name.

In class after class, Shulenberger talked on as some of us wrote down and drank in every word, which we discussed afterwards over home brewed beer, a particular West Texas version calculated to inspire robust discussion and headaches that would crack granite. Gradually, Shulenberger unfolded all the principles of the Orthodox Poetic, a chief virtue of which was, he said, that not one word or idea in it was original. It was the truth of the ages, carved in stone. Over the semester this seminar in literary criticism aroused anger and prompted notoriety among graduate students and graduate faculty, a few of whom began to slip into the room and take notes for themselves.

We asked questions and we listened. It was as though the man had been to the mountain top and come down with the answers. Something was going on that did not go on in other literature seminars, in which no one ever said anything they considered true or real. It is called teaching. As we sat as his students, we began to learn just how Shulenberger came by this wisdom. Fond of saying that the primary purpose of criticism was pointing, he pointed us to the sources he had used to distil these questions and answers, which he had then put into a slim mimeographed document in the form of brief, concise questions and answers: The Orthodox Poetic: A Literary Catechism. The, not a. As we learned, the sloppy seas of relativism receded and we stood on what we knew was hard, firm rock. I now say a prayer of gratitude for him and his teaching, which then informed my teaching for the next fifty years.

I sigh again, remembering the joy of those days, the joy of reaching an island while exhausted by intellectual storms. Then I sigh yet once more, tears coming to my eyes, for all the failures of my own teaching, of always feeling on the edge of communicating some of the great traditional answers to the great perennial questions and never quite getting there. “You must form your whole person into a question before you can begin to find or understand the answer. You must live in questions,” I would say time and time again. Looking back now, I see that I and Shulenberger and a handful of others were isolatoes in the crowd of post-modernists, who were just then coming into existence—though their next of kin had walked the streets of Athens, Rome, Alexandria, London—

What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

The Old Possum—T.S.Eliot—had it pretty well figured, I guess: the towers of the West were collapsing. The time had arrived when all belief has disappeared and when the primal things have been forgotten in the ruined cities. The makers of poems now saw only their own reflections in mirrors of despair, now machines threw pots only for money, now the last cathedrals were crumbling into dust or, worse, into museums and salons des refuses, another variety of consumer junk for ego bolstering.

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Shulenberger told us, was Curator of the Boston Museum of Fine Art and yet he believed that museums were unnatural frauds and should be abolished. In Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art and The Transformation of Nature in Art, this great Orientalist argued cogently for the medieval view of art—Christian and Oriental—that art is making for a purpose, and that purpose is truth through beauty—beautiful and useful poems, cathedrals, pots, swords, dresses—for our lives. Otherwise he said, art is merely superstition, even an idolatry. I think of the railways trains full of paintings hoarded by the Nazis in their belief in “kultur.” I think of a thousand inane conversations overheard in art galleries and bookstores: “but is it art, my dear? How do you know?”

Shulenberger, with his grasp of Aristotle, Coomaraswamy, St. Thomas Aquinas, Jacques Maritain, Dr. Samuel Johnson, and the nature of writing itself, blew the academic fogs away. Now, sitting on this desert beach and staring south, I remember what a delight came from the simple statement, art is making, and the consequent understanding that when we spoke of art, we were not talking about the estoterica of museums, salons, and classrooms, or the romantic delusion that art is creation, but of a fundamental human activity Aristotle and other Greeks had defined in the principle, art imitates nature. More, as Shulenberger explained, art as a process of making imitates nature in the process of becoming. A man making a pot ten thousand years ago and a poet in Greenwich Village making a poem last night and a computer brain crafting a new program in Iceland and a gunsmith in Kentucky making a long rifle are all engaged in one fundamental human activity: art imitating nature, which is the foundation of culture. Homo faber we are, art is what we do.

Further, there is no division between the “fine arts” and the “servile arts,” an artificial division fostered by some of the romantics. Works of art have a purpose: a poem should be able to hold water or hit a target. All great art is religious and its purpose is to glorify God or the gods or at least to depict the world in reality and truth. One of Shulenberger’s favorite words was “phony.” “Faulkner is a phony academician” (gasp). His other zingers—like “Northrop Frye[a new critic much admired then] is a poop”-- which he fired in between explaining the doctrines struck the devotees of the academe like thunderbolts. And pissed them off royally. But they inspired thought and discussion that brought fresh air into the university.

I sit here laughing just to think about the uproars he caused. One of his students proposed to write a Master’s Thesis on “the truth of Hemingway’s fiction.” “The truth?” one committee member sputtered. “All his fiction?” another sneered. And, finally, “you, a Master’s degree student, are going to do all this?” The doughty student: “Sir, I thought that was what we were here to do.”

No, no, no, the precious (another Shulenberger curse word, like “queer,” “academic,” and “sophisticated”) committee maintained that the purpose of the study of literature was to analyze, analyze, analyze, never to judge or reach conclusions. Shulenberger taught that the purpose of education was precisely to learn to judge things, even if we made mistakes. Education, like art, had an end, and that end had something to do with becoming fully human in the classical sense.

In his classes, we learned that we were sitting in a vast colloquium with the greats—Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Socrates, Johnson, Cervantes—and that we had a right to be there and participate in the great dialogue.

Ah, the winds blow in off the Indian Ocean. An older dhow rounds the tip of the island and chugs north on its ancient diesel. The night is coming on, in more ways than one. Even Masirah is now being sucked up into the world of phoniness. Back to prayer, before they find I don’t have a current passport or visa and ship me back to the country where mind has lost its moorings.

Some time ago The Mad Hermit made a list of the works any aspiring student of literature or the arts in general should know. The first, of course, is Shulenberger’s:

If that link does not work for you, try the link here:

Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art. New Delhi, 1994 (reissue).
Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. The Transformation of Nature in Art. New Delhi, 1995 (reissue).
Maritain, Jacques. Art and Scholasticism. New York, 1934.
Maritain, Jacques. Art and Poetry. London, 1945.
Johnson, Samuel Dr. Preface to Shakespeare (1765) and Lives of the English Poets (1781).
Bate, Walter Jackson. The Achievement of Samuel Johnson. New York, 1961.
Aristotle, Poetics (330 BC).
Plato, The Republic and other dialogues (c380 BC).

Note: Arvid Shulenberger also wrote a novel, Roads From the Fort; a study of James Fenimore Cooper’s fiction; several volumes of poems; and this delightful piece:

His son, Dr. Eric Shulenberger, has written a major account of his father’s WW II flight squadron:

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