Reverting to Pictures…and Structures
Words cannot describe, indeed, words are no longer permitted to describe, the tragedy of American higher education. From beacons of light, freedom of thought and expression, edification, and religion, our universities have become Centers of Barbarism. Today, the untutored thought of the average garage mechanic is likely to be more liberal, more sincere, more unprejudiced than the snarky chit-chat of today’s illiberal colleges of arts, and I might even venture, that the mechanic’s conversation is actually less “mechanical” in terms of knee-jerk predictability. With but a few rare exceptions, the American academy has become noxious, a parasite both dependent upon and poisoning society as a whole.
We are left speechless, which is the intent of the modern educators, namely, to destroy language and hence the capacity for thought. What use is dialectical refutation when the evil a person tries to denounce is embraced through what Friedrich Nietzsche called “the trans-valuation of values.” I show you the evil of your ways, you say that yesterday’s evil is now good, and rejoice. As the expression goes, what can a person wash down their throat with when they are choking on water!
Indeed, how should we argue, we who are sworn against the evils of the times? Well, perhaps when words become vain, pictures will suffice, for a timely parable will often quicken the spirit even while reason slumbers. Sadly, but usefully, the Academic apocalypse has a material analogy, for the very stones cry out in an elegant revelation of our tragedy and its origin. Anyone who strolls through an old, established, American campus can see this great tableau of moral and intellectual decline engraved on the monuments which have been erected by successive generations of scholars, students, and sundry souls. I’m talking about buildings, or what the moderns and their post-modern heirs would call “the physical plant.” There is good and bad architecture, and their correspondence to correlative moral epochs is no accident.
Physical light has always been the analogue of mental enlightenment. Where do we see this amplification of light but in the architectural style exclusive to Western Europe and its outliers, the vertical style of the great cathedrals of the middle ages. Abbot Suger (France 12c.) put it best when he described the upward intensity of light leading the soul to the Father of Lights himself, an experience which was made available in the ancient “virtual reality” of stone and glass work, the “poor man’s bible” of the middle ages. Yet this style has been stuck with the label “Gothic” since the late Renaissance, the Renaissance being the first attempt by Westerners to sweep their own past into the dustbin of history. Originally the Gothic style had been called “French-work” from the epicenter out of which it spread over the civilized world. Yes, I make bold to say, over that portion of the Earth which was then most civilized, an inescapable value judgement. One can never avoid aesthetic judgments, and neither can one avoid moral judgements. No two things are ever equal in value, least of all architectural style.
We may not agree on either our opinions or our nomenclature, but the fact remains, some things (including buildings) are essentially barbaric, while other things are essentially civilized. Note that on the surface, the advocates of multiculturalism seek to abolish the civilization/barbarism duality. However in practice, even they cannot avoid valuation. Rather, they now stigmatize Western Civilization as barbaric, even if the word “barbarism” is avoided to give the illusion of value-freedom. The previous valuation has simply been inverted, with the non-West now being viewed as civilized in relation to the barbaric West.
Where have we seen this before? We have seen it in the literal demonization of traditional Christian architecture ever since the late Renaissance. It is called Gothic, but what does that mean? To those who revived the classical architecture of pagan antiquity, Gothic meant barbaric, while to our contemporaries, “Goth” is something or someone dark, dangerous, perhaps even satanic. In reality, the Goths were an ethic group, now vanished, who were migrating into Christendom, struggling, however inconsistently, towards the light. They had nothing to do with the architectural style now called “Gothic.” Therefore, even if we must conform to the accepted nomenclature and call this style Gothic, we must remember that it is the physical embodiment and symbol of civilization, while its critics (Islamic, classical, or modernist) are to varying degrees barbarous.
As a preliminary exercise, let’s compare the Gothic cathedral of the middle ages and the mosque of the same era. We will make a little gamble, and the winner will get to pick what we call “civilization”. After all, we have to play the game fairly. If I maintain that there is always a preeminent civilization, and that all other cultures must be evaluated according to its standard, then we must entertain the possibility that this preeminent civilization is not the West, but some other culture on the face of the Earth. The middle ages is an interesting case in point, for there are many sober and diligent scholars who claim that the Islamic world was the most advanced portion of the globe during the time span of roughly 1000-1500AD. During this time, it is claimed, the Christian West declined into relative barbarism. Furthermore, this is is not just a sectarian dispute, since the thesis is upheld by many Christian and secular scholars as well as by, of course, most muslims. If you are a philosopher and can judge the works of say, Averroes against those of, say, Aquinas, then perhaps you can form an educated opinion on the matter. Most people can’t, so they need a “poor man’s bible”…a sensory object against which they can make an aesthetic judgement, and hence to the basis of a moral judgement. An aesthetic judgment goes as follows “…yes, that is beautiful…but not as beautiful as this.” Of course, aesthetic judgements may be wrong, and may even change as a person’s perception becomes more refined.
Now, compared to the barbarism of modern secular architecture, the classical Islamic mosque is beautiful indeed. However compared to the Gothic cathedral, the mosque seems unoriginal, even boring. The enthusiast for mosques will, at some point, try to diverge into the subject of ornamentation, however I want to stick with the fundamental structural principles characteristic of architectural styles. The mosque (and yes, anything can be a mosque in a religious sense, I am talking about the typical mosque of the Near East during what we call the middle ages) was largely dependent on the architectural principles which had already been developed by the time of the late Roman empire. Interior space had been enlarged by putting a dome upon four supporting walls, a feat made possible by the plasticity and strength of Roman concrete. A prime example of this is Haggia Sophia in what was once Constantinople, now Istanbul. One or more towers was added to this Roman design, and voila, we have a mosque.
The development of the Gothic Cathedral also started out on the basis of late Roman, or “Romanesque” architecture. However the cathedral diverged from the Roman plan in a radical way that the mosque did not. Height and interior space was enlarged by buttresses, and the ratio of building material to surface was minimized, making room for enormous, translucent, windows. The salient point here is that while the Roman and Islamic form depended on material strength, the Gothic style solved the problems of height and space through pure geometry. To put it in more prosaic terms, it was by structural engineering rather than by material engineering that the cathedrals were constructed. The cathedrals did not spring up from the Earth, they were translated to their sites from the heavens of the mind.
I know that this sounds fanciful, but the builders and patrons of the cathedrals themselves saw their works not as mere constructions, but as the manifestations of pure geometrical forms, sometimes called Platonic Ideas, and being Christians, they believed that these Ideas were not naturally birthed in the minds of mortals, but rather needed to be quickened in their souls by the operation of the Holy Spirit.
From Gothic to Barbaric
The “Gothic cathedral” cannot be stuffed into a secularist pigeonhole called “religion.” During the middle ages the cathedral was also a school, until it got too large and had to be moved into an annex and called a university. Thus Gothic style and the Western academic tradition were coeval and indistinguishable. One was the physical correlative of the other, but as we have seen, even the physical plant of the early academy was spiritual in both design and intent.
In contrast, the architecture of modernism reflects the fact that today’s academic system is, for the most part, a vast money-making and consciousness-molding machine. To go into the details of the machine would be tedious, but simply to consider, in the eye of the mind, the structural principles which house the machine is revealing. The modern university consists mainly of large rectangular concrete blocks, devoted to residence, instruction, and administration. The academic environment is marked off from the rest of the urban environment by greater uniformity of structure which creates a clean, almost antiseptic, space which is generally safe for both humans and their supporting devices. There are also oblong temples for the body, called sports areas. These arenas augment the otherwise soulless academic environment with a kind of spirit, ostensibly a clean spirit, though never quite the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit was not expelled from the academy in a single act of apostasy. Here we are eschewing intellectual history, the insidious and multi-faceted rise of secularism, but rather would epitomize the fall of the West through the story of its monuments, the degeneration from Gothic, to neo-Classical, and finally the modern. This was not a single line of development, but a surge of iterating movements, each adapting, rejecting, or ignoring the stage before it. Originally there was no such thing as “academic Gothic” for there was no separation between school and church, and hardly any between the chapel and the quadrangle, the vertical and the horizontal Gothic.
The classical style was a step backwards, quenching the Spirit, yet initially it was the product of good intentions, a quest for purity. Granted, the mental and material reformations were somewhat out of sync. While Cranmer and Hooker both preached and studied in the Gothic halls of England, their American successors took up lodgings in the neo-Classical as soon as they could move out of log cabins. Even Darwin was a Cambridge divine at first, and it took many decades before the acid of his thought was able to eat away at the stones which nurtured him. It was in America where academic and ecclesiastical architecture first parted ways, but not for long, as the neo-Gothic movement surged back and captured the imagination of the romantic generations. The enthusiasm for the old architecture soon infected the academic world, even though 19th century materialism had given secular studies a charter of independence from the church. It was a revival in stone which mirrored the many spiritual and intellectual revivals of America’s new republic.
Despite the church bona fides of the neo-Classical style (eg., St. Paul’s of London) the Gothic revival arrived as a protest against secularism. Is it too broad an accusation to claim that the neo-Classical was a secret portal to atheism? We may esteem Jefferson and his practical design of Monticello, but the faith of Jefferson was that of an Epicure who admired Christianity from afar. Neo-Classical was the style of the Puritan divines, but also of men who’s orthodoxy was less than pure. The rational principles of Neo-Classical architecture became embedded in the secret language of deists and occultists, and the building profession itself lent its name to a great secular fraternity which in some times and places has operated as a secret alternative to the church, even to this day. In contrast to this modern Masonry, neo-Gothic raised the banner of that faith once delivered to the cathedral builders.
In American Gothic (the movement, not the painting!) one name stands out above all others. It was Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942) who revolutionized, or perhaps we should say, “reactionized” American ecclesiastical architecture. Yet this Gothic tsunami swept beyond the church and into the heart of American higher education, and without this revolution we would scarcely even have our stock image of “ivy covered halls.” Apart from his church buildings, the palisades of Rice University (Texas) are usually considered Cram’s masterpiece. It was with Cram’s style that, as a child living in a another university town, I grew up.
Whatever Cram’s faults (and he was more than a bit of a snob) he understood the essential principle, that the spirits of men must exist in harmonic resonance with their dwellings. Cram, the arch-Goth of American architecture, imitated his Creator by placing a firmament between the ecclesiastical and academic applications of his art. He understood that that the era of transcendence was past, and that the Man of the Earth had arrived. Accordingly, when he designed Rice University he eschewed the vertical architecture which characterized his cathedrals. A comparison of St. John the Divine and the Rice administration building gives a wordless testimony to how, even by the early 1900s, a half-way covenant had been made with secularism. Rice is more Romanesque than Gothic, and indeed has a Moorish flavor about it, as if the Alhambra had been spirited off to Houston. The temple of American learning remained a palpable temple, however it was no longer the First Temple, that of Solomon, but the Second Temple, that of the Idumeans and the Arabians.
It would seem that Cram, cathedral architect, had taken (or mistaken) modern scholars to be children of lesser gods, hence he stooped down to provide them with decent, if not uplifting, habitations. The experiment worked, and for several generations thereafter it was possible to stroll along an academic porch and gently converse over the ideas of Nietzsche and Freud with the same tenor and consideration that one might grant to a reading of Jane Austen. The eclectic architecture of the mid-20th century reflected a half-way covenant between civilization and barbarism, and indeed, it lasted so long that people began to mistake it for a genuine covenant, rather than a truce.
Insidiously, the corrosive ideas of modernity began to eat away at the stone, as each cohort of graduating scholars received a fainter imprint of the original Spirit which had animated Western learning. A time came when it was thought suitable to construct buildings without any reference to antecedent human tradition, buildings which were smoothly operating machines designed for human habitation. Such machines can be well oiled without being truly anointed.
I will not foster any hypotheses on you. Did the minds make the buildings or the buildings make the minds? I have my notions about efficient and final causes, but they are irrelevant here. I am not interested in making arguments or “causing a scene” in front of those whom I would deem barbarians, those who have made civil discourse impossible. Rather than my words, look at the scene itself, look at the bricks and the stones, and see if you can draw out their inner spirits. Stroll through any college campus and look at the testimony of those monuments which speak softly of antiquity and modernity. See when they were built, and imagine what kind of person would have constructed such an edifice.
Then use your own mind, use it like the staff that Moses used to strike the rock in the dessert. You will find palpable truths written in stone, and discover that you have become an archeologist, a discoverer of the past, present, and possible future of Western civilization. Not, “an” endangered civilization….but civilization, which is endangered.