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Non-Fiction (Books) Archive

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Lawrence Brown’s The Might of the West

Lawrence Brown's long-lost milestone in the Spenglerian tradition of historionomy is dug up and astutely reviewed by the Good Count.

Most if not all good Europeans of our time have read or at least are familiar with the cyclical, cultural-organic philosophy of history developed by Oswald Spengler in his masterpiece The Decline of the West. They will also probably know of Francis Yockey’s further development of this model in Imperium. Strangely though, this work we are discussing, The Might of the West, published in 1963 by another American Spenglerian, is little read and talked about today, despite having received a rave review by Virginia Kirkus when it was first published — indeed, this reviewer has been unable to ascertain whether or not the author, Lawrence Brown, is alive or deceased, nor any biographical information on him besides the brief mention on the book cover that Brown is a journalist and an engineer. Brown and his work do not deserve the obscurity which they have fallen into, and The Might of the West is well worth a read if you can find a rare copy of it.

Taking Spengler as his point of departure, Brown’s work focuses on the question “What makes the West special, sets it apart from other cultures, in other words what is the West’s soul?” His answer is that Western-ness is a worldview in which the universe is logical and orderly wherein all occurrences follow set laws and patterns that can be known and observed; and this worldview is what connects all of Western thought from mediaeval scholastic theology to modern physics. After having read Brown’s 550 pages of small-print text, I came to agree with his conclusion by following the sequence of his argument. His first chapter is a re-telling of the Spenglerian thesis — though dense, Brown’s writing style is typically American: to the point, professional and scientific. For those more accustomed to flowery German prose in which Spengler indulges, Brown’s style will come as somewhat of a relief in terms of clarity and comprehension. From this very first chapter, the reader will find it an easy matter to follow and grasp what the author is proposing.

In the second and third chapters, Brown explores the other 7 civilizations that preceeded the West (namely Egyptian, Assyrian-Babylonian, Indian, Chinese, Native-American, Greco-Roman and Levantine), showing their defining features and their utter alien-ness to the Western spirit. In regards to the Greco-Roman civilization, this might seem strikingly odd and counter-intuitive. However, Brown’s line of reasoning, following Spengler, is very persuasive: that this society which prised the immediate, the sensual, the pleasurable, the superficial, bears little in common with we whose values are forward-thinking, chaste, self-sacrificing and deep. It is in regard to the Levant that Brown is perhaps most controversial — he proposes that the Jews, Moslems, and Orthodox Christians form a common civilizational culture, sharing core values of fatalism, belief in magic, occult knowledge as the only means of understanding the universe, a coming end of the world, and religious belief as the determinant of nationality.

Brown takes some length to describe what he perceives as the original teachings of Jesus and places them in the context of this culture, to show that Jesus’s beliefs are not truly part of the West at all, but have been only a misunderstood veneer over our traditional rational thinking. Christians will understandably find this hard to bear. Likewise though, non-Christians may not like Brown’s description of how the Frankish peoples, in the process of creating what would become the West, over the course of the 5th through the 8th centuries transformed Levantine orthodoxy into what is now known as Roman Catholicism, a purely Western belief system that was the foundation of Western culture and identity until the Reformation. Even while seeing Catholicism ultimately as a failure due to its inability to combine successfully the thinking of the Western soul and Biblical tradition, Brown admires it — especially the philosophical attempts of St Thomas Aquinas to systematise all rational and Biblical knowledge into one logical philosophical system — and believes the Reformation was a decline and a break of the former religious unity of the West. Likewise the Renaissance, with its abandoning of the Western spirit for an imitation of the dead Greco-Roman tradition was also a decline. After having outlined what is Western and what is not, Brown ends his work rather abruptly by simply stating in a few sentences that the French Revolution, democracy, socialism and the build-up and results of the world wars are a result of Western man’s abandoning the Western soul. Since the rest of the book proceeded at a steady pace that kept up attention without sacrificing any facts, the ending was disappointing. The dust jacket states that Brown was intending to write a series of books, none of which was ever published after this one. It would be intriguing to know why Brown ceased his work after a spectacular start with The Might of the West, but for the time being at least, this reviewer will have to keep guessing.

All in all, The Might of the West is a very important read because it will serve as an aid for the modern Westerner, divorced from his heritage, to discover what his ancestors believed and thought and why the bright world they created a thousand years ago became the chaos it is today. Brown cannot be boxed into any of the categories of pseudo-philosophical, trash-mongering, political writings that exist today, which will make reading him with an objective mindset an enlightening, enriching and thought-provoking experience.

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The Encounter as Reminiscence (A Review of ‘Encounters’ by Paul Gottfried)

Last year, ISI Books released the quasi-autobiographical book Encounters: My Life with Nixon, Marcuse and Other Friends and Teachers by Professor Paul Gottfried. I say ‘quasi’ because it is not a cut-and-dry autobiography. The acknowledged pater familias of the current incarnation of the paleoconservative movement has written something which is not so much an extended treatment of his life as such, but rather tracing exactly what it says on the cover — the extraordinary people he has encountered throughout his life. What he shows, through what he admits was a difficult selection of some subjects to the detriment of others, is the trajectory which passes through these great coordinates. From the outset, he attempts to stress that this work is, if you like, a detailed treatment of remarkable people and events which played a part in an otherwise unremarkable life.

I finally read Encounters at the beginning of this year. The period during which I had set aside time to do so, along with the tone of the book itself, made this a fairly leisurely reading. This review article benefits from the time taken on this first reading, as well as from a subsequent (and much quicker) second reading. Like any good meal, Encounters should be digested slowly and properly.

An illuminative and responsible review should ask the question: ‘What marks this book [in our case, Encounters] as distinct from other biographical writings?’ The answer is largely, if not wholly and simply, the author’s style. In his writing, as in conversation, Gottfried is very natural, relaxed and easy. There is an apparent effortlessness to his writing which Encounters best typifies. In this book, he delves into anecdotes and his characteristic digressions which, despite being such, never detract from the storytelling or its balanced pace. Gottfried, albeit a tenured professor, never lectures from on high or commands his reader ex cathedra. Rather, he speaks to the reader. He relates the mutually distinct experiences he has of the book’s different subjects. The writer himself seems to function merely as the locus of Erfahrung or continuous experience. Where some writers try to relate (certain pictures of) themselves through the conduit of an autobiography, he instead treats himself, where he stood at the time, as a conduit through which each person he portrays becomes, to a greater or lesser extent, miraculously accessible.

In a way, Encounters is a collection of surreal stories, but their rewardingly mundane and authentic flavour is undeniable. The people he writes about are human, with all the ingrained foibles and delicate virtues that entails. (Encounters is affectionate, but far from mere hagiography.) Part of Gottfried’s mastery of this slightly-out-of-genre piece is the way in which he is able to capture the all-too-human aspects of his encounters with others. It is worthwhile to note at this point that the title of the book is very important. Gottfried does not merely describe ‘events’, as ‘objective’ historians are wont to do; beyond such dry demonstrations, he relates genuine encounters — that is, his own unique experiences of equally unique people. His subjectivity augments, rather than limits, the historical pursuit.

Gottfried’s introduction, a preparation for the book, sets the tone. What we are given is a series of memoirs tied loosely (but deftly) together with a thread of intellectual (auto)biography.

The first chapter, Apam (meaning ‘My Father’), is an intensely personal portait of Gottfried’s father. One might sense that he strives to be as even-handed in this depiction (objectivity per se is neither possible nor desirable in this sort of work); and the spirit of fairness shines through — albeit shining through his obvious respect for his apja. This chapter perhaps provides the bedrock of the book — even as it describes how the bedrock of Gottfried’s character was formed.

Chapter Two is Gottfried’s recollection of university life. It’s arguably the closest which he comes to cut-and-dry autobiography in the whole book. Even then, it appears to be in the book far more to tie the memoirs together than to self-aggrandize. It also informs a fair amount of what is said in the chapters which follow. Certain enjoyable and enlightening digressions later in the book refer back to what is covered in this chapter. In a very important sense, the second chapter is the bridge from Chapter One (broadly speaking, his childhood) to the rest of his life.

Perhaps the more interesting passages of a scholarly (and, indeed, more than scholarly) bent, are those about the Marxists, former Marxists and merely nominal Marxists whom Paul Gottfried has known over the years. Some of these stand out very clearly, given the stylistically supple treatment which Gottfried achieves throughout Encounters. It is perhaps because we are often the blindest to our own behaviour. Encounters, in places, is an effort (perhaps unintended) to fulfil our unfulfillable wish ‘To see oursels as ithers see us’, in the words of Burns. Gottfried paints life-like pictures of supposed Marxists who, in an almost comical sense, seem to be the last to know that they are not destined for Marxism.

One particularly startling example of this is his discussion of Paul Piccone as a thinker. Despite differing with Piccone on details of opinion, Gottfried lays out these details fairly. Few writers these days can argue for a position, without making it either a straw man or a badly thought-out closing argument some lawyer might insincerely give to dazzle a jury. Paul Gottfried deftly avoids such traps. His exposition of the ideas so passionately articulated by the Telos editor/publisher seem to express them in the best voice possible. In fact, Piccone’s opinions are laid out in such a way that I could relate to them while reading. It seems that in the debate over the merits of bourgeois civilization, I would be inclined toward Piccone, although I substantially agree with Professor Gottfried on a swathe of political and cultural issues. In any case, this was one of the most enjoyable parts to read, of a wholly enjoyable book. One might be left wondering whether or not it was one of the most enjoyable parts for Gottfried to write.

After all, in this book, he writes comparatively little about himself.

One gets the impression as one reads that Professor Gottfried is a humble man — even self-effacing. This is an accurate impression. His humble style of writing is not a façade which the good Herr Professor affects for an audience. There is no deception involved. His resistance to praise — and conspicuous lack of self-praise — is a startling exception to La Rochefoucauld’s maxim that such resistance is indicative of the wish to be praised twice. I have both read Professor Gottfried and met him. In correspondence and in the flesh, the surreal sincerity of his humility is one of the very first things I noticed about him. In his published articles and books, I find that he is not as explicitly opinionated as one might expect from one who has defined (and even named) the political movement to which he still contributes. Perhaps this is because, as he says in the book, he was forced into the kind of political, polemical writing for which he is best known. He is not being trite when he implies that his political interests are largely borne of a more fundamental interest in intellectual consistency.

This leads inevitably to my next point.

The only failing of Encounters has nothing to do with the book itself. There is nothing wrong with what he writes — but rather with what he fails to add in. It seems that Gottfried fails to give himself credit where it is due. He leaves out the importance of his own contribution to the encounters which he describes. Nevertheless, the reader can almost feel the vivacity of these contributions emanating from the pages, even as he focuses on the subjects of the book. This is due, of course, to the humility which is mentioned above. This is a quality which he displays to a fault. So, the shortcoming of Encounters is merely that it is not a different book. However, one can pursue this to a reductio ad absurdum — that being written any differently would destroy both the focus and the consistency of the book, two things which are important to Gottfried. Also, since this quality is per accidens — and the most tenuous sort of accidental quality — one must feel bad for pointing it out. Therefore, this is no shortcoming at all. Rather, it is precisely the strength of Encounters that it is not another book. The ‘negative dialectic’ of this supposed failing will surely please Gottfried, as one familiar with Hegel and as the supposed “right-wing exponent of the Frankfurt School” (which is how Gottfried encapsulates David Gordon’s “amusing” misrepresentation of him).

We see Gottfried the historian at work, too. In a somewhat surprising way, Encounters displays his mastery as a historian more clearly than some of his straightforward academic-historical work. This is not because those works somehow lack something, but because Encounters has something which supererogates the ordinary duties of historical writing. Nor does it wax hagiographic, as I have already said. The book captures the kind of subjective vividness one would expect from the likes of Jacob Burckhardt, only with the added intensity which comes with Gottfried having personally known his subjects. In this sense (and many others), Encounters is an astounding success for what it is intended to be.

The choice of men to whom the pages are devoted is, in a word, fascinating. A rather remarkable aspect of this book is that — besides the more esteemed and, yes, famous figures discussed (e.g. Marcuse and Nixon, respectively) — it contains fair and lengthy discussion of a few thinkers who, I fear, might soon be forgotten. Such a sad fate would be nothing short of inexorable, but for Paul Gottfried’s conscientious intervention.

Furthermore, Encounters itself is a perfect example of why we should not forget Paul Gottfried. Far from it, we must learn from him all that we can. We must realise what he means personally to those of us who know him, as a compagnon du voyage, and what he means to our ‘movement’, so to speak, as it stands today, in his capacity as its godfather, its mentor and still, undeniably, its foremost intellectual.

Encounters is a fruitful read. Those who don’t have the pleasure of knowing Paul Gottfried or even being familiar with his other works will nevertheless benefit richly from what this book says; and those of us who do, on the other hand, will benefit from its allusions to what he has imparted to us. Supposing I recommend only one book to read over a couple of days this Summer, it would indubitably be this fine offering from this fine thinker.

Encounters: My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers is published by ISI and has been available to purchase since 2009. It can be found in hardcover via its Amazon.com listing or the one on Amazon.co.uk, as well as from various other good booksellers. It’s well worth the price.