Cowper Powys on catastrophic world-events. by Gerardo Muñoz

In the short epilogue “Historical Background to the year of grace A.D. 499” to his novel Porius (1951), John Cowper Powys lays out a remarkable prophetic evaluation of a world fallen into a permanent catastrophic condition. Powys’ return to the sixth century in his novel departed from the fascinating fact that during the mid-fifth century there appears to be “an absolute blank” page about the history and culture of its people. And the only historical record proves that the central element was the Arthur’s commanding political dominion over the English territories. In these blank pages of history there are no tormented voices or traces of everyday existence, but the most absolute compacted pressure of barbarism and grandiose “crafty personal diplomacy” oriented by political rule. For Powys, this is the movement of abstract historical force that raises up the mirror of civilization and barbarism in the West.

However , this mirror is completely alien to any notion of happiness, imagination, and sensibility between the surviving human species. A world war had just concluded and atomic menace was the strange tune of daily life. But, in contrast to the triumphalist and historical narrative of postwar diplomatic theaters, Cowper Powys directs his vision (like Hölderlin and Pound before him with Greece and the Latin Mediterranean poets) to a prehistoric strata where language and sensation still had a chance against the civilizational collapse of the West. Against both civilization and barbarism, Powys prepares himself to drift away from something major, perhaps more even more catastrophic, which he never names directly in the Porious prologue, although he can unravel its essence in the last paragraph:

“As we contemplate the historic background to the autumn of the last year of the fifth century, it is impossible not to think of the background of human life from which we watch the first half of the twentieth century dissolve into the second half. As the old gods were departing then, so the old gods are departing now. And as the future was dark with the terrifying possibilities of human disaster then, so, today, are we confronted by the possibility of catastrophic world events compared with which those that Arthur and his Counsellor and his Horsemen contented against seem, as the Hebrew poet said, a “very little thing” [1]”.

It is thanks to the genius of Cowper Powys that the coming of catastrophe is understood not as another phase in world-history, but rather, as the opening of endless catastrophic world-events. Even before Martin Heidegger would define the essence of cybernetics as the consummation of the calculation of world events, Powys had already suspected that a stealth rationality towards calculation of events was the catastrophe that crossed the very line of the polarity of barbarism and civilization. The catastrophe of world-event consummation was hinged upon the total convergence of machine and humanity that would liquidate the free relation of the living in the world. As Powys had written in The Meaning of Culture (1930) decades prior: “Money and machines between them dominate the civilized world. Between them, the power of money and the power of the machine have distracted the minds of our western nations from those eternal aspects of life and nature, the contemplation of which engenders all noble and subtle thoughts” [2].

The ascent of atomic existence and the absolute dependency on administrative infrastructure to contain the world, will validate Powys’ astute observation about the ongoing catastrophe at a moment when its development was barely beginning to gain traction. And against futile political fictions, Powys was aware that in a civilization of collapse, political chatter becomes the only legible foul discourse: “Among other aspects of our destiny in this modern regime, the rumor of politics makes itself only too audible” [3]. The seriousness of this rumor has only deepened almost a century after.




1. John Cowper Powys. “Historical Background to the year of grace A.D. 499”, Porius (1952), xi.

2. John Cowper Powys. The Meaning of Culture (Jonathan Cape, 1932), 150. 

3. Ibid., 302-303.

The future of Saint Cassian. by Gerardo Muñoz

There is a painting from the early sixteenth century at the galleries of the University of Bologna that depicts the gruesome death of Saint Cassian of Imola at the hands of his own students. The story goes that Cassian was a fleeing Christian in the Roman Empire who found a teaching position in the town of Imola, until he was discovered and exposed. In the saints’ hagiographies, it is emphasized his passion concerning reading and writing for his students. This would confirm the high price of Cassian’s punishment: torture and death at the hands of young students (some allegedly even brought their sharpened styli). The Bologna painting is, in fact, a miniature of about five by seven inches, and it depicts eight young students striking at a naked and tied up Cassian. The anonymous painter has chosen carefully to have all of the figures turn away from the spectator, except for a student in the far right corner of the painting who seems to be holding a sort of bowl in the air. He seems disengaged from the frenzied mob. And yet, there are no wounds or bruises in Cassian’s body, which could be an allegorical statement by the painter about the martyrdom condition, or, more literally, the plain fact that the cruel feast has just begun. Cassian’s face is monotone, and one of disbelief, but not yet of someone consumed by the ecstasy of bodily suffering. He is definitely humiliated amidst such violent and naked act. This is highlighted by the stage-like setting of the assault, which does not seem to be taking place somewhere outside, but rather in a strange room whose only way out is a dark and ominous black counter to the left side of the painting.

This black square immediately recalls martyrdom. And yes, in modernity this means David’s Death of Marat (1793) floating figure who stands as the secularized martyr at the year zero of modern representation. In the early modern bolognese painting we are far from there, but the resources at the painter’s disposal (myth, depth, and figure) speak to a postreligiousity at the threshold of a new historical time. Strangely, the figure of Saint Cassian as represented here by the anonymous bolognese painter throws a shadow to our present, given that the teacher or professor has been sacrificed, not so much the literal violence of his students, but by the an even greater disposition towards a shameless nakedness driven by value and a complicit abandonment of its mission. In the United States at least, the long dispensation of the “closing of the American mind” – driven by competition, ranking, placement, mentorship, cultural wars, and identity politics – entails the uttermost collapse of the teacher into the administrator and facilitator of a rather unknown enterprise.

Even in 1983 Carl Schmitt could identify the martyrdom of Saint Cassian as an emblem of the professor betrayed by his former students: “I have also been stabbed by my students”, he will confess to Lanchester [1]. So, just four decades ago the teacher could still stand as an object of fidelity and betrayal. It would be hard to make the case for this hypothesis today, since the pain of the teacher is no longer of betrayal, but of indifference insofar as he can be disposed of. In this sense, only something that possesses a certain aura can be said to be betrayed; while something that can be discarded altogether is something that has seen better days and no longer has value. And if universities and schools today have become larger centers of monotony and alienation of the most basic activities (such as discussion, reading and writing), this is because both students and professors have been, for the most part, replaced by “mentors” and consumers” under the holy contract of hypocrisy, the true and last ethics of the enlightened metropolitan class.

Anyone that has ever had the good fortune to encounter a good teacher or professor will know that his example springs not from what he knows or professes to know, but rather from what he can transpire unto others: to search of a form of one’s own path. The ethos of a teacher has little do with specialization or success, and everything to the incarnation of a gestalt that is not accidental or transient, but perpetually springing from its myth, as Carchia suggested for the work of art [2]. And myth is the sensorial mediation that resista to be instrumentalized into the endless amassing of value by the powerful administrative subjects. This amounts to saying that the teacher finds self-legitimization in its capacity to inspire the shared sense of wonder of the inaccessible.

Or, at least, this has been the teacher at its most groundbreaking moments. The eradication of teaching – which like mostly every other area foreclosed by the crisis of the human experience was unveiled during the years of the pandemic – and its complete abdication to models of “leadership” and “training” (under the fictitious rubric of the syllabus as an economic contract) is the bleakest of the futures that Cassiano could have taken. A nihilist future that, it goes without saying, will be void of martyrs and myths.




1. Carl Schmitt. “Un jurista frente a sí mismo: entrevista de Fulco Lanchester a Carl Schmitt”, CSS, 1, 2017, 220.  

2. Gianni Carchia. Il mito in pittura: la tradizione come critica (Celuc Libri, 1987), 155.