Author Archives: Ancien Regime

Big Tent

The fourteenth-century North African philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldun singled out tents as one of the emblems of royal authority and luxury. Certainly, they could be of palatial dimensions. According to Clavijo, the Castilian ambassador, one of Timur’s tents, pitched on the plain of Kani-Gil outside Samarqand, was large enough to shade ten thousand people. Clavijo, who was in Samarqand in 1404, described another of Timur’s tents as having gates, a domed ceiling, upper galleries, a turret, and battlements. A fortune was spent on the inner furnishings, including tapestries, silks, and gold brocade; and it is illuminating to know that Timur, who had grown up among the nomadic Chagatay Mongols, relegated the Gok Saray, his palace in Samarqand, to the role of a storehouse and prison.

Robert Irwin, Islamic Art in Context: Art, Architecture, and the Literary World, 1997

Sacred Art

The love of ‘formulae’, that is, of formal syntheses which are both concise and rich in possibilities, is characteristic of every sacred art. Buddhist iconography is made up of type images of this kind, and the same is true of Hindu and Taoist art, as well as of the icons of the Eastern Church , whose colouring and composition are fixed by tradition. In each case the imagination of the individual artist is subordinated to the traditional model; his imagination is free only in an inward sense in that he endeavours to attain to the spiritual kernel of his model and to remake the image from that. In the case of Islam, it is in architecture and ornamentation that one must look for the formulae of prototypes which the artist ceaselessly reproduces and varies according to circumstance. These prototypes are inexhaustible because they are true.

This fidelity to models, which religion does not actually prescribe but which the consensus of believers has in a sense consecrated, has earned for Islamic art the stigma of being the victim of ‘stagnation’, as if its stability over the centuries had been the result of inertia or lack of awareness. In reality, the alternatives of stagnation are highly inapplicable to sacred art, which is either faithful to its principles, and hence active and aware, or forgetful of them, thus entailing decadence and collapse.

Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam: Language and Meaning, 1976

Islamic Art

The methodological importance and intellectual interest of Islamic art, at least in its formative stages, lies in the encounter between extremely complex and sophisticated uses of visual forms and a new religious and social system with no ideological doctrine or behavioural need for them.

Richard Ettinghausen and Oleg Grabar, The Art and Architecture of Islam: 650-1250, 1987

The Poverty of Modernity

. . . what is called the Renaissance was in reality not a rebirth but the death of many things; on the pretext of being a return to the Greco-Latin civilization, it merely took over the most outward part of it, since this was the only part that could be expressed clearly in written texts, and in any case, this incomplete restoration was bound to have a very artificial character, as it meant the re-establishment of forms whose real life had gone out of them centuries before. As for the traditional sciences of the Middle Ages, after a few final manifestations around this time, they disappeared as completely as those of long distant civilizations long since destroyed in the cataclysm; and this time nothing was to arise in their place. Henceforth there was only “profane” philosophy and “profane” science, in other words, the negation of true intellectuality, the limitation of knowledge to its lowest order, namely, the empirical and analytic study of facts divorced from principles, a dispersion in an indefinite multitude of insignificant details, and the accumulation of unfounded and mutually destructive hypotheses and of fragmentary views leading to nothing other than those practical applications that constitute the sole real superiority of modern civilization–a scarcely enviable superiority, moreover, which by stifling every other preoccupation, has given the present civilization the purely material character that makes of it a veritable monstrosity.

René Guénon, The Crisis of the Modern World, 1927

Amour Propre

DOLMANCE: . . . What is it one desires when taking one’s pleasure? that everything around us be occupied with nothing but ourselves, think of naught but of us, care for us only. If the objects we employ know pleasure too, you can be very sure they are less concerned for us than they are for themselves, and lo! our own pleasure consequently disturbed. There is not a living man who does not wish to play the despot when he is stiff: it seems to him his joy is less when others appear to have as much as he; by an impulse of pride, very natural at this juncture, he would like to be the only one in the world capable of experiencing what he feels: the idea of seeing another enjoy as he enjoys reduces him to a kind of equality with that other, which impairs the unspeakable charm despotism causes him to feel. ‘Tis false as well to say there is pleasure in affording pleasure to others; that is to serve them, and the man who is erect is far from desiring to be useful to anyone. On the contrary, by causing them hurt he experiences all the charms a nervous personality relishes in putting its strength to use; ’tis then he dominates, is a tyrant; and what a difference is there for the amour-propre! Think not that it is silent during such episodes.

The act of enjoyment is a passion which, I confess, subordinates all others to it, but which simultaneously unites them. This desire to dominate at this moment is so powerful in Nature that one notices it even in animals. See whether those in captivity procreate as do those others that are free and wild; the camel carries the matter further still: he will engender no more if he does not suppose himself alone: surprise him and, consequently, show him a master, and he will fly, will instantly separate himself from his companion. Had it not been Nature’s intent that man possess this feeling of superiority, she would not have created him stronger than the beings she destines to belong to him at those moments. The debility to which Nature condemned woman incontestably proves that her design is for man, who then more than ever enjoys. his strength, to exercise it in all the violent forms that suit him best, by means of tortures, if he be so inclined, or worse. Would pleasure’s climax be a kind of fury were it not the intention of this mother of humankind that behavior during copulation be the same as behavior in anger? What well-made man, in a word, what man endowed with vigorous organs does not desire, in one fashion or in another, to molest his partner during his enjoyment of her? I know perfectly well that whole armies of idiots, who are never conscious of their sensations, will have much trouble understanding the systems I am establishing; but what do I care for these fools? ‘Tis not to them I am speaking; soft-headed women-worshipers, I leave them prostrate at their insolent Dulcineas’ feet, there let them wait for the sighs that will make them happy and, basely the slaves of the sex they ought to dominate, I abandon them to the vile delights of wearing the chains wherewith Nature has given them the right to overwhelm others!

Marquis de Sade, Philosophy in the Bedroom, 1795

Onanism

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1913

Marcel Duchamp

In considering the question of abstinence, far too little distinction is made between two forms of it, namely, abstention from any kind of sexual activity at all, and abstention from heterosexual intercourse. Many who are proud of maintaining abstinence successfully have only been able to achieve it with the help of masturbation and other similar means of satisfaction, which are connected with the auto-erotic sexual activities of early childhood. But this very connection makes these substitutive measures of sexual satisfaction by no means harmless; they predispose to the numerous forms of neurosis and psychosis, which are conditional on a regression of the sexual life to its infantile form. Nor does masturbation at all correspond to the ideal demands of civilized sexual morality, and it therefore drives young people into the same conflicts with the ideals of education which they design to escape by abstinence. Further, the character is undermined in more ways than one by this indulgence; first, because it shows the way to attain important aims in an otiose manner, instead of by energetic effort, in line with the view that the attitude to sex is the prototype of the attitude to life; and secondly, because in the phantasies accompanying this gratification the sexual object is exalted to a degree which is seldom to be reproduced in reality. A witty writer, K. Kraus in the Vienna Fackel, has, as it were, expressed this truth paradoxically in the cynical saying: “Coitus is merely an unsatisfactory substitute for onanism!”


Sigmund Freud, “Civilized’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervousness” (1908)

Open Mind, No Mind

Raoul Hausmann

The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always something concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there be such a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas. The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty. When we hear of a man too clever to believe, we are hearing of something having almost the character of a contradiction in terms. It is like hearing of a nail that was too good to hold down a carpet; or a bolt that was too strong to keep a door shut. Man can hardly be defined, after the fashion of Carlyle, as an animal who makes tools; ants and beavers and many other animals make tools, in the sense that they make an apparatus. Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.

G.K. Chesterton, Heretics