by Kenneth WHITE

There was a time, first in Glasgow, then in Paris, when I was plunged in Russian literature and Russian problematics. I often walked up and down Nekrassov Street and looked along the Neva prospect…




What preoccupied me in Glasgow was the relationship between nationalism and cosmopolitanism : the big 19th century debate in Russia between the Occidentalists on the one hand and the Slavophiles on the other, both of them concerned with the evolution of culture in Russia and with the question of native genius.

Russia has always oscillated between the European West and the Asiatic East. It was overwhelmed from Asia by the Golden Horde, and was aggressed from the West by the Teutonic Order. It expanded West into the Baltic and East across Siberia. If there were peaceful relations – economic and cultural – between Russia and Europe as early as the pre-eminence of Kiev, if they were developed, towards England, France and Spain, in the 16th century, if Boris Godunov accentuated the thrust towards a Russia of Europe, it was with Peter the Great that the great turning-point occurred in Russian history, with a massive move towards European ways of working and thinking. This was the beginning of Occidentalism.

Peter the Great, whom we might more usefully call Peter the Pragmatist, opened up, materially and intellectually, the Nevski prospect. The image he had of Russia was of a country steeped in superstition and obscurantism euphemistically dubbed « spirituality », whose Church calendar went back to « the creation of the world », a country economically backward, with no significant volume of trade, no adequate financial system, an army hardly worth talking about, and a navy that was non-existent, the only port open to the West being Arkangelsk, blocked half of the year by ice. Peter’s aim was to lift Russia out of its murky Middle Ages and set it on an equal footing with the modern states of Europe.

Read more: Politics and Poetics

 by Kenneth WHITE

« Dawn and the great sun and the bright Moon, and Earth and wide Ocean and the dark Night. »


In that classic text-book for biologists, Forbes and Hanley’s Molluscs, you find the following general description of the octopodidae :

« The cuttle-fishes of this family have mostly more or less global, inflated bodies. They have rather small heads, prominent eyes protected by eye-lids, fleshy lips to their mouths and strongly curved compressed beaks. Their arms are eight in number, and all similar though more or less unequal ; they bear sessile suckers. The mantle is always attached to the neck. They are active animals, swimming and creeping with facility, but living chiefly among the crevices of rocky ground. »

Thereafter, in a section devoted to what Lamarck called octopus vulgaris (« the species of this genus were the polypi of the ancients ») you have the following details as to colour :

« Its colour is tawny grey above, with brownish spots marking the position of the warts. The intensity of its hues, as in other cuttle-fishes, is exceedingly variable and transient. The back of the arms and the head are similarly coloured, but beneath and around the head it is bluish white. »

The octopus may not be the most beautiful of animals (though some species can perform amazingly graceful movements), indeed to some minds it may be positively repulsive, but it is interesting. First of all, it is intelligent, very. I’ve heard a biologist say that if it could exist outside the saline element it needs, if it could live longer and had some means of communicating acquired knowledge down the line, the octopus could rival (ain’t that something ?) homo sapiens himself. And when you see it abstracted, reduced to its geometry, as on so many Greek pots, it has a definite fascination.

What is certain is that it fascinated the early Greeks. It was connected in their minds with the origins of the world, and with a certain type of thinking. In order to get into this area, I propose now we move back from modern marine biology into some of the sea-myths of ancient Greece.

Read more: A Wave and Wind philosophy

by Kenneth WHITE

« Worlding »



Over the centuries, civilization has been carried by various powers : myth, religion, metaphysics. Although remnants of all these remain, usually in degraded forms, today civilization is carried by nothing — it just grows and spreads, like a cancer.

The last driving force was history itself, as put forward by Hegel, who claimed to see a Weltgeist (« spirit of the world ») at work in it.

From Hegel on, the conviction would be that history was reasonable, that it had a purpose, and that it was leading somewhere. The ideology of progress (with Growth and Prosperity as its motto) was born. The « somewhere » supposedly on the horizon differed according to the various ideological contexts. In Bismarck’s Germany, it was an all-powerful State, which would lead into the Nazi Drittes Reich (the « Third Empire » — after that of the Romans and that of Charlemagne). In Marxist Russia, it would be the creation of a great State whose mission would be to put an end to all States and usher in World Communism. In the liberal West, it would be some kind of immense Supermarket, offering a package deal of happiness to all (providing you kept in line and didn’t criticize the management). The Bismarck-Nazi project ended up among the smoking ruins of Berlin. The Marxist light faded into greater and greater gloom in the latter years of the twentieth century, and then suddenly sputtered out. Only the Supermarket still stands on the horizon.

And we have the Contemporary Situation. A hollowness, filled with more and more images, more and more noise. Mediocracy triumphant — the mediocre raised to a social and political power. Down the centre, a mindless helterskeltering. Along the rim, a literature, an art, that is little more than a reflection of this situation, this condition.

What is now evident — whatever people may have hoped, even in a passing or tangential way, from nationalism, socialism, national-socialism, communism, fascism, liberalism, or whatever — is that there is no strictly political solution to the condition described above. All politics on its own can do, and that is all we can expect from it, is try to cope with symptoms, in a more or less competent way.

The fundamental question is cultural rather than political, but only, as I have stressed, if the concept of culture be understood in a sense deeper than the one prevalent.

Read more: An Outline of Geopoetics

 by Kenneth WHITE

« As intelligence and language, thought and the signs of thought, are united by secret and indissoluble links, so in like manner, and almost without our being conscious of it, the external world and our ideas and feelings. »
(Humboldt : Cosmos)




« In each age of the world distinguished by high activity », says Whitehead in Adventures of Ideas, « there will be found at its culmination, and among the agencies leading to that culmination, some profound cosmological outlook, implicitly accepted, impressing its own type upon the current springs of action. »

If we’re willing to admit the hypothesis that there exist, in the present age, at least some fields of « high activity », it may be interesting to see what « cosmological thought » is in the air, giving its shape to our mental space.

In his studies on the spiritual crisis and revolution of the seventeenth century (From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe) Alexander Koyré reduces the changes made at that time in the conception of the world to two main elements : the destruction of the notion of Cosmos and the geometrisation of space. This new cosmology set aside the geocentric world of the Greeks (the original kosmos), and the anthropocentrically structured world of the Middle Ages, replacing them with the decentred world of modernity. The consequences of such a fundamental transformation were many, two of the main ones being the displacement of the mind from contemplation and teleological philosophy to the mechanistic mastery over nature, and the rise of modern subjectivity accompanied by a sense, more or less vague, of having somehow lost the world. The poet of the crisis is John Donne, a sharp and subtle mind, who declares : « 'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone, all just supply and all relation. » The typical writer of the new age, swimming sceptically in the waters of his (learned) ignorance, enjoying, despite everything, the divagations of his floating personality, is Montaigne.

Read more: Elements of a New Cartography
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