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A Waste of Space:
Some Thoughts on the Fabulous Career of Philip Johnson, Architect

PhilipJohnson5,595 words

“Architecture is the art of how to waste space.” — Philip Johnson[1]

“You know I’ve always wanted to pretend to be an architect.” — George Costanza [2]

“Don’t be stupid, be a smarty / Come and join the Nazi Party” — Mel Brooks, The Producers

Damn you, Philip Johnson! Damn you and your brilliant and (but?) “mercurial” intellect; damn you and your father-gifted portfolio of Alcoa stock, worth millions before you entered Harvard; damn your Packard convertible for touring conveniently the sites of modern architecture on your yearly European jaunts during what some experienced as The Great Depression, and above all, damn your little portable typewriter!

Some saints may have been Wild Boys, but at least one chap I’ve designated as a Wild boy is a saint, or at least, has a feast day — December 16th — in the Episcopal calendar: Ralph Adams Cram.

I’ve written about Cram before[3] but don’t really have anything new to say about him. Rather, I’d like to use this occasion to take a look at a modern pretender to the title of America’s greatest Right-wing, ambisexual architect: Philip Johnson.

There are two things every good NPR-listening, New York Times-reading, PBS on in the living room sophisticate knows about Philip Johnson: he designed — and lived in — a glass house, and he was a Nazi, though, unlike other targets of today’s SJW’s, no one ever wanted to talk about it.

Deciding to finally get to the bottom of this, I obtained a used copy of Franz Schulze’s big, apparently definitive 1994 biography Philip Johnson: Life and Work.[4]

So, what’s up with Philip Johnson? How does it stand with (as the Heideggerians would say) Philip Johnson? Is he, bluntly, one of Us? Is he another one of the great intellects of the XXth century that were on Our Side? And is he another architect, to stand beside, or follow on, from Ralph Adams Cram?

Sadly, no.

There’s a reason most people only know of the Glass House: there’s nothing else as interesting, at least to the layman.

From the start, with a rather over-long Part One, Schulze labor mightily, like the usual biographers these days, to find some aspect of heredity or the home environment to account for Phillip’ rather . . . striking . . . personality. Not his homosexuality, which, again after the fashion of biographers today, is a simple fact of nature, to be questioned only by the bigoted.[5] Rather, a personality described here variously as “mercurial,” subject to “mood swings,” or outright “manic-depressive.”[6] This, like his good-looks and high intelligence, seems pretty solidly genetic.

So Schulze spends a lot of time trying to get us to feel sorry for the poor little rich boy. Oh, the trauma of moving from one exclusive school to another as the family moved from one mansion to another, perhaps seeking better golf opportunities.[7] How sinister, the concern for fresh air and healthy food![8] I’m reminded of young lady of my acquaintance who complains to this day about the traumas of her life with her adopted parents . . . in the Hamptons.[9]

In fact, if one were looking for parental malfeasance, I would locate it in what seems a rather generous and well-thought out gesture. Philip’s father believed in giving his children money while they were still young enough to make use of it; so, before going off to Harvard, after giving his sisters some “solid” real estate holdings,[10] he handed Philip some speculative stock in a new, fly-by-night company that would soon become Alcoa, making Philip richer than his father, a millionaire when, as Schulze rather oddly points out, “it really meant something: rich, rather than comfortable.”[11]

This, I think, is the key development, although Schulze doesn’t make much fuss about it. Philip, already a rather . . . unique individual, now has all he needs to indulge every whim of a very whimsical personality.[12] He can live wherever he wants at Harvard (no dorms for Philip!), travel wherever he wants (buying luxury sedans if needed; they’re called “touring cars” for a reason, you know), major in any damn thing he pleases — classics, then some philosophy, how about a little art history?

In short, Philip becomes that guy I — you too? — just love to hate. The guy you just want to punch in the face, hard. He’s the Ultimate White Guy, living the life all us White guys are now being punished for supposedly sharing as well; born on third base and thinking we hit a triple. Think George W. Bush, with brains, and no post-Jesus moral rehab.[13]

But I’m clearly a minority, as it were, compared to the people in this book, where it counts. For, most people, the right people, the useful people, seem to find Philip so damned charming; another win in the genetic lottery.

He remembered being at his best with [Alfred] Barr, which meant behaving towards him with his mother’s intellectual concentration, his father’s sociability and extroversion, and the nervous vitality that was his own. [47]

It’s clear that Johnson in persona possessed the power to ingratiate, to amuse, to please; he “had a way with him” one might say;[14] he had charm, like Sebastian Flyte; creamy English charm. As Anthony Blanche knew,[15] even the English could fall for it:

Neither the aging teacher [Whitehead, the star of Harvard’s department] . . . nor his wife could help liking his student’s rapid wit, elegance, and cultivated good manners . . .

Yes, Alfred North Whitehead himself! I confess a considerable about of personal/professional pique at reading about Philip waltzing around Harvard,[16] getting his “gentleman’s C’s” and charming everyone, from Raphael Demos in Classics to the aforementioned Whitehead. It makes one think there’s something to that affirmative action business after all; surely there must have been one member of the Talented Tenth in Harlem who would have benefited more from a Harvard “education”?[17]

But the buck stops with Whitehead; the passage just now continues: “but these assets by themselves were inadequate to a life in philosophy.”

Philip, like many a bright undergraduate, fell in love with Plato, and dreamt of becoming a metaphysician.[18] But Whitehead’s ‘B’ was not a “gentleman’s” B but a signal of failure; “I was hopeless in metaphysics and he knew it.”

What to do? For surely Philip must have some arena to shine in. Quite coincidentally (at least, that’s how Schulze’s nonchalant transition makes it seem) Philip, like many other bright undergraduates, discovers Nietzsche, and Nietzsche, conveniently enough, teaches us that guys like Whitehead are just a bunch of old meanies! As Schulze quotes Zarathustra:

Evil I call it, and misanthropic — all this teaching of the One and the Plenum and the Unmoved and the Sated and the Permanent.

In Nietzsche Philip now has the justification, he thinks, for exactly the life he wants — needs? — to live: devoted to Beauty, not Truth, Art, not Philosophy, and above all, the imposing of his whims through clever talk and charm, rather than tedious hard thinking.

Now, whether this is a correct, or even possible, interpretation of Nietzsche I leave to others — although for my part, it would seem that Nietzsche’s actual life of penniless wandering is about as opposed to Phillips as one could be.[19] As for Whitehead, I know even less, but even I would think that the whole point of Whitehead’s “process” metaphysics was to create a version of Plato that would meet Nietzsche’s objections,[20] so maybe Philip deserved that failing ‘B’.[21]

The important point here, though, and the most amazing thing I got out of reading this book, is that Philip is still talking about Art, not Architecture, which he hasn’t quite discovered yet. And this is the thing: all that “modern architecture” you hate, especially that “postmodern” stuff, is the way it is because Philip Johnson thought it was beautiful.

And that is the big, the shocking revelation of this book: all that awful Modern architecture looks that way because Philip actually, bless his soul, thought it was “art”; he thought it was “beautiful.”[22]

Before any “architectural” concerns — which, as we’ll see, Philip mostly dismissed, seeing architecture as essentially part of the history of art — the poor sick bastard thought it was beautiful, and that he was doing us a favor — noblesse oblige! — to give it to us . . . good and hard.

Anyway, after no more than a few bumps (including a couple of nervous breakdowns), Philip finally graduates — summa cum laude! — after no less than seven years,[23] and moves into his new job at MOMA.

Wait, how’d that happen? The same way everything happens in Philip’s World: privilege and charm. He reads an article on modern architecture by an older Harvard contemporary, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Jr.[24] Then, he meets — at his sister’s commencement at Wellesley — one Alfred Barr, of the new Museum of Modern Art. Despite one course in art history — dropped — and having read one article on architecture, Phillip, of course, turns on the charm (the encounter as quoted above) and hey presto, he’s agrees to become the (unpaid) head of the architecture department at MOMA.

And that’s it, really. As the book goes on, it’s hard to care about anything, since it’s simply a chronicle of how baby Philip got his way and imposed his random tastes and ideas on colleagues and the world. To paraphrase the Stoics, if not the necessarily the Sophists, nothing is good or bad, but Phillip thinks it so.

Within a matter of weeks, Barr, Hitchcock, and Johnson formed a bond of companionship based on a concordance of taste[25] that eventually exerted a profound effect on the course of American art and architecture. (p. 60)

At MOMA, Philip essentially creates “modern” architecture by mounting a show of his favorite architects from around the world, with an accompanying book that canonizes it by announcing four “principles” of what he calls “The International Style.”[26] Schulze gives us a clear exposition of these “principles,” which attempt to shoehorn architecture into the supposed mainstream of art history, but he gingerly notes that they aren’t even close to being an accurate description of the works included in the show.[27] Nevertheless,

From about 1945 to 1960, the architectural world was dominated by values and ideas that [were] traceable most directly to the book and exposition that appeared in New York in 1932. (p. 85)

It’s interesting to note, then, that at the time “the reaction to both was unexceptional.” Even Wright, shoehorned into the exhibit to prevent the public from feeling — correctly — that a gaggle of Europeans was being shoved down the public’s throat, eventually exploded with this Roarkian/Randian rant: the Internationalists were, in Schulze’s paraphrase,

Apostles of architectural sterility marching in lockstep, latter-day eclectics poorly disguised as revolutionary saviors of the art, enemies of freedom and democracy who were now being sold to America by “a self-advertising amateur [Johnson] and a high-powered salesman” {Hitchcock] (p. 83)

Then, at the peak of his youthful career, having achieved mastery of architecture (without, remember, even a B. Arch.) he decided to become a Nazi.

How did this happen? That’s what I really wanted to know, and although Schulze devotes Part Two, nearly a quarter of the book to what he calls Johnson’s “Inglorious Detour,”[28] you can tell by the title itself that Schulze isn’t the man for the job.

Schulze, for all his research and skill is of course a Goodthinker; for example the sort of person who still thinks that “the Soviet Union [was a place] where Constructivism was still more a dream than a reality, but nevertheless driven by a will to redesign the future” (p. 48).

Ah yes, the will to redesign the future. We know how that worked out. But it would be impossible for Goodthinker Schulze to use, or even tolerate hearing, similar language used about NS Germany. There, the will to redesign the future is Bad; in fact, it’s not even a will at all, just a kind of infantile temper tantrum (like the ones toddler Philip was famous for?) or cynical political con game:

The Nazis had made capital of Germany’s resentment over the Versailles Treaty by heaping the blame for the nation’s current grief on its mistreatment by its old enemies France and England and no less on the Jews. Hitler’s message of sustained execration was effectively linked with a call for national resurgence, which he promised through a radical, if simplistically expressed program of economic reform.

Yes, no real problems, only grudges; nor real enemies, only old stereotypes. No program of reform, only execration, simplistically expressed. Whether it succeeded in pulling Germany out of the Depression and transforming it into an envied economic powerhouse, while America languished in the no doubt very sophisticated prognoses of “Dr. New Deal,” is neither asked nor answered.

Worst of all, the nasty Nazis are the enemies of all that wonderful Weimar culture:

The cultural momentum of Berlin had not yet slowed as much as it would several years later with the Nazi accession. . . . (p. 65)

It was the best of times. The German capital was at the peak of a cultural fever that had made it the most galvanic metropolis in Europe during the late 1920s. The great traditional German performance arts of music and drama were in full flower, sharing the Beliner Luft with an irreverent avant-garde that was active in all the creative fields, most aggressively in a wide-open cabaret scene where the collapse of middle-class morality was celebrated nightly. (p. 54)

As an example of that “cultural momentum,” Philip writes to his mother:

Recently, in Berlin, it seems, the law against homosexual relations has been repealed, apropos of which the conferencier[29] said that at Easter the law against relations with animals will also be repealed and that the normal only will be prohibited. The audience thought it very funny, as I did myself, bur then of course, I would not admit it. (pp. 53-54)

As a further “taste” of that cultural momentum, one might consider this vignette of Philip in Berlin, 1931:

“He showed me,” the art dealer Julien Levy later wrote, “a Berlin night life such as few could have imagined. The grotesque decadence I was to discover over and over again in Berlin those few sow weeks could only be compared, on might suppose, to Paris during the last days of Louis XVI.”

As a side note, it’s often interesting — when its not infuriating or boringly predictable — that the Left, or even plodding academic Goodthinkers like Schulze, never see any contradiction between their idealizing both Stalinist tyranny and Cabaret-style “divine decadence.” Yet Schulze and others feel the need “explain” how a proponent of Modernism, and a practicing homosexual, could find anything to praise in National Socialism.[30]

For Goodthinkers like Schulze, there’s only room in the Modernist pantheon for one group imposing itself on the future, so no matter how many millions are killed it’s just a few tragic “mistakes” or the actions of some “bad apples,” while any opposition, to say nothing of alternative projects, is Totally Evil.

Although Schulze sees, correctly, that “the Neue Bauen or ‘New Architecture,’ that emerged in Germany during the second half of the 1920s was a legitimate outgrowth of [two] interlocking developments” — new technologies able to solve problems arising from social upheavals — he is the sort of thoroughly culturally-distorted thinker who cannot imagine such developments continuing, or even accelerating, under National Socialism, which simply represents a sudden, inexplicable halt and an interregnum of Dark Age primitivism or even a descent into Chaos.

By contrast, Roger Griffin, in Modernism and Fascism, understands

[T]he ease with which an elective affinity could grow up between the “latest’’ economic or demographic theories and the New Italy in the mind of those bent on transforming Italy into a modern nation, [resulting] in an overtly modernist synthesis between fascism and technocracy . . . far from . . . the popular “image” of Fascism as a primitive phenomenon of mass hysteria and mass hypnosis. [31]

In every case [such as a “cult-like obsession” with rayon, which was called “a crystalline modernity that had emerged out of the dark shadows of decadence”] was that Fascism was not just modernizing, but pioneering a healthy, rooted modernity . . . [Fascists] saw themselves not pitted against modernity, but only against the decadent aspects of modernity allegedly manifested most clearly in the moral degeneracy of the US, which it otherwise longed to emulate.[32]

Neither Griffin in his book nor Clarke in his review would find Philip’s move at all puzzling. As Clarke explicates Griffin:

[Modernism] is further divided by Griffin into what might be called introvert and extrovert reactions: the introvert reaction is generally individualistic and in Griffin’s expression an “epiphanic modernism” — the path of the artist — while the extrovert, collective reaction is defined as “programmatic modernism.” The latter seeks to change the world and resolve the permanent crisis of modernity (“all that is solid melts into air” — Marx) by a collective act of “reconnection forwards” (Moeller van den Bruck). It is not difficult to make the short step from “programmatic modernism” to fascism; the transcendent politics proposed by van den Bruck at the beginning of the Twentieth Century are not so different from Guillaume Faye’s “Archaic Futurism” at its end. Both are, in the phrase of Guy Debord, “technically equipped archaism.”[33]

“Not difficult” to move from modernist art to fascist politics, indeed; especially for someone whose lifelong characteristic was rapid cycling from one extreme to the other. Indeed, arguably, if Schulze could just clear his mind sufficiently, Philip had already been imposing his aesthetic views on the supine masses of the good old US of A:

Some of the most perceptive sensibilities of the day consorted regularly with Philip and he with them, and their mutual gravitation was both cause and effect of a historic reordering of the priorities of the national cultural scene. They were the people who had been schooled early in their lives in the nineteenth-century Ruskinian world-view that identified culture with gentility and ennobling good taste — thus with values presumed to be lacking in the United States — but who grew impatient with that decorous tradition when they discovered the rambunctious modern European arts. They did more than give it up. They came to look upon their own native America not as a wasteland to escape but as a fertile field awaiting the nourishment they could provide. . . . In any case, they remained elitist in their objectives. They meant to document and institutionalize culture, not to advance democracy. (p. 93)

But if it’s on the Left, and they succeed, so none dare call it Fascism.[34]

Unable to deal with the issue at this level of sophistication, Schulze falls back on psychobabble: a “recurrence of some form of manic-depressive crisis.” Perhaps his wealth allowed him “the luxury of an interpretation” (p. 90). And most pseudo-profoundly,

Whatever the irreducible core of Philip’s personality, it lay beneath multiple layers of motivations manifest in an almost unnatural facility at the intermingling of activities and interests, not all of them discernably consonant with one another.

Even Roger Kimball, no apologist for Fascism, asks whether the last two reasons mean anything “in English.”[35]

But perhaps it’s a mistake to look for a profound explanation for anything Philip Johnson did. Perhaps Schulze is onto something here; Johnson became a Nazi out of personal pique.

Swanning around Germany in his big, expensive car and with his big, custom-made camera (not expensive since it was build onsite for him by impoverished German craftsmen), Johnson meets, for the first time since Whitehead at Harvard, someone who stands up to him. Deciding to write about the architecture of Luwig Persius, he meets with the leading Persius scholar who tells him, “You need a doctorate for such a study, not a fancy camera.”

“Fatefully,” Schulze goes on, Philip then meets an American art critic (just as he chanced to meet Alfred Barr when casting around for something to do post-graduation) who talks up this Hitler chap. Just as Philip aestheticized architecture, so he immediately aestheticizes Hitler’s struggle to “lift a demoralized nation from the depths to the heights” with “his own personal experience with modern architecture”:

That too, was a mission, no mere task. Power and art were somehow inextricably linked. [H]e could attribute [the success of the 1932 show] to the efforts of himself, Barr, and Hitchcock, singular fellows, above the herd.[36] [On the other hand,] critical reaction to it he could identify with the institutionalized grievances [of Germany]. (p. 90)

Johnson, in short, reacted to his first professional set-back (another one of those damned scholars demanding qualifications rather than charm) in typically infantile fashion, taking his ball and going home to play a new game; as the New York papers announced: “Two [Johnson and pal Alan Blackburn] Quit Modern Art Museum for Sur-Realist Political Adventure.”

There’s more:

TWO FORSAKE ART TO FOUND A PARTY; Museum Modernists Prepare to Go to Louisiana at Once to Study Huey Long’s Ways. GRAY SHIRT THEIR SYMBOL Young Harvard Graduates Think Politics Needs More ‘Emotion’ and Less ‘Intellectualism.’[37]

The results were as you might expect; no, actually, funnier, from briefly meeting with a pajama-clad Huey Long,[38] to running (unsuccessfully) for local office back home in Ohio as the tribune of the dairy famers, to war correspondent in Europe for Fr. Coughlin’s Social Justice. Again, Schulze is not really the man for the job, treating the American Right, populism, Catholic social democracy and the largest American peace movement in history (the so-called “Isolationists”) like stinking fish he has to clear out.[39] Nevertheless, Counter-Currents readers will find much information and amusement here, especially those interested in the very contemporary question of how to organize a Rightist opposition in America.[40]

Because although the swing from art to fascism might make psychological sense, it does not follow that talent in one area would imply talent in the other. Hitler, for example, if we accept the legendary picture of him as a “failed artist,” might be said to have make the discovery that his talent lay in the extroverted realm; Johnson, then, presents the opposite case; even if we were to grant him artistic talent (questionable) his political adventures were a disaster for all concerned.

Nothing about his letters is more striking that the contrast between his knowledge and the sophistication of his mental processes on the one hand and on the other, an infantile self-indulgence aired almost proudly. (p. 50)

For Schulze the “infantile self-indulgence” is an explanation for his “Nazi” politics. For us, it explains why he was incapable of truly serious commitment to, role in or even understanding of politics.

As Whitall Perry said about Alan Watts, in a rather different context, “A speculative intelligence drew him hither [Traditionalism/Fascism] and a speculative unintelligence drew him thither [Krishnamurti/Modern architecture].”

In the end, everyone agrees to say no more about the lad’s embarrassing misadventures[41] and Philip returns to his natural habitat. Still stung, perhaps, by Wright’s “self-advertising amateur,” he decides to become a professional architect, and, despite having taken seven years to get a degree in Classics, he’s accepted into the Harvard School of Design.[42] After graduating, he begins his career as an architect, although, in typical fashion, he can’t be bothered to actually take the licensing exams, so he has licensed architects sign the work. Ah, charm.

His subsequent career does not show growth and development so much as it does the usual mood-swings and frivolity, moving from the initial Philip-defined “modernism” to, in the last years, an enthusiastic abandonment to the frivolous camp of “postmodernism” which may well be his “legacy.”

Johnson’s one real achievement in architecture was to get Mies the commission for the Seagram Building (Philip only worked on the restaurant, The Four Seasons, which has recently closed). Again, it’s morbidly interesting that neither had a license to practice at the time, although Mies did undergo the indignity of providing proof of graduation from a German technische Hochschule, which New York State licensing board ruled more than sufficient for practice in the Empire State.

To the non-architect public, the one building of Johnson’s that continues to interest (in the “watching on PBS or reading in the Times means I’m smart” way) is the postwar (1949) “Glass House,” a 1,800-square-­foot transparent rectangle. Inevitably, he “borrowed” the idea from Mies,[43] who was already working on his own version, although admittedly Philip did actually build it first. And also inevitably, even this minimalist object is constructed mostly of charming PR. Not only was the idea from Mies, neither did Philip (entirely) live within the confines of “his house” tout court; as we recently read in the Times:

WHEN PHILIP JOHNSON’S Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., was featured in Life magazine soon after its completion in 1949, architects and designers downed martinis at the Oyster Bar, pondering the future of the International Style. But that probably wasn’t what most people were thinking about as they looked at the pictures. They likely leaned back in their Barcaloungers and wondered: How could he actually live in a clear box, without walls, without privacy, without any stuff?

The answer was that despite our indelible impression of Johnson . . . he never really did live in the Glass House. At least not in the self-contained sense in which the rest of us occupy our homes.

Instead, the Glass House was merely the focal point of what eventually grew to be a veritable architectural theme park on 49 meticulously tended acres, comprising 14 structures, in which Johnson and David Whitney, the collector and curator who met him in 1960 and became his life partner, and who died just months after Johnson, enjoyed their impossibly glamorous weekend existence.[44]

See what I mean about the NPR style? It’s just like Mad Men — martinis at the Oyster Bar! — but intellectual! As the Times develops its heady cocktail of retro thrills (martinis and Barcaloungers) and progressive politics (life partners), we find that, inter alia, Philip actually slept in “the bunker­like Brick House.”

Now, all this talk about compounds and bunkers is interesting, because Schulze reveals another interesting fact, that the inspiration for one of the key features of the Glass House itself, the turret, (“a brick cylinder holding the chimney and bathroom,”) did not come from Mies (who would have dismissed it as a “painterly touch” whatever that is) but was inspired by Philip’s inglorious account, for Social Justice, of visiting — as a guest of the Wehrwacht — a burned-out Polish village:

It reminded him, remarkably, of “a burnt wooden village I saw once where nothing was left but foundations and chimneys of brick.” [197]

Or, as he put it in a 1939 letter that made its way to his eventual FBI file:

The German green uniforms made the place look gay and happy. There were not many Jews to be seen. We saw Warsaw burn and Modlin being bombed. It was a stirring spectacle. (p. 139)

With that in mind, the second building added, the aforementioned “bunker,” does indeed resemble nothing so much as one of the out-buildings of a concentration camp, perhaps, even, one of those “gas chambers” that must have been very much in the news during the years of conceiving and constructing. And, as the Times reveals, all of it eventually comprising a “theme park” or, later and perhaps more obviously, a “Glass House compound”?[45]

The Times says that “the collection of buildings formed Johnson’s idea of the perfect deconstructed home.” I suggest it’s more like a reconstructed prison camp. Was sleeping in a brick bunker some kind of penance for his NS-dabbling? Or was it, more likely, his supreme joke, the unrepentant “ex-Nazi” aesthete hiding in plain sight, “enjoy[ing his] impossibly glamorous weekend existence” in an Auschwitz theme park?

Did Philip Johnson, while not exactly bravely sticking to his political guns, at least tacitly have the last laugh on the PC art mavens? Does the joke involve living in glass houses? Or, less dramatically, did Philip “step over” the past?[46]

Perhaps, but I think it’s more likely Philip (if he even was thinking along these lines) was just indulging in another one of his infantile, sub-Nietzschean whims.

Speaking of “hiding in plain sight,” once again the Nietzsche-inspired homicidal homos of Rope[47]  come to mind, who kill an old school friend (the dead past?), hide his body in an old Italian trunk, and then hold a cocktail party around it. As their old teacher Mr. Cadel upbraids them, demanding a Platonic ethical accounting:

By what right do you dare say that there’s a superior few to which you belong? By what right did you dare decide that that boy in there was inferior and therefore could be killed? Did you think you were God, Brandon? Is that what you thought when you choked the life out of him? Is that what you thought when you served food from his grave?[48]

Which brings us back to our beginning again, Philip the Nietzschean Clown, and what a real Nietzschean like Cadel would say about it:

[Y]ou’ve given my words a meaning that I never dreamed of! And you’ve tried to twist them into a cold, logical excuse for your ugly [architecture]! Well, they never were that, Brandon, and you can’t make them that. There must have been something deep inside you from the very start that let you do this thing, but there’s always been something deep inside me that would never let me do it, — and would never let me be a party to it.

What would Johnson say in response? Talking in London in the late ’60s:

“I studied philosophy as an undergraduate, instead of architecture. Perhaps that why I have none now. [I suppose he means philosophy, not architecture]. I do not believe there is a consistent rationale or reason why one does things.”

Commenting on this, Kimball says

Anyone who has looked into Johnson’s career cannot help being struck by the uncanny fusion of wit and cynicism that he exhibits. He exudes charm, but it is a charm that conceals, barely, a deep-seated brutality.[49]

Johnson’s post-war fate — fame without responsibility for his past — as well as his jejune philosophizing, make for a striking, and informative, contrast with Francis Parker Yockey, another scion of the Midwest haute bourgeoisie, who actually got the law degree Philip only flirted with, and who also worked on Fr. Coughlin’s magazine, Social Justice.

One wishes Schulze had made the connection, but Yockey was too obscure a figure for him to bother with; at least, he doesn’t appear in the index. Yockey’s biographer Keven Coogan doesn’t return the snub, spending a couple pages on Philip, based on Schulze’s book.[50]

But Coogan is also able to spot the difference between them: “Unlike Johnson, Yockey couldn’t afford to walk away from [step over? Walk between the raindrops?] the game.”[51] As Schulze told us, the millionaire Johnson could afford the luxury of an “interpretation” of Fascism. Coogan then adds this from Yockey:

What would be a world without politics? Nowhere would there be protection or obedience, there would be no aristocracy, no democracy, no empire, no fatherland, no patriotism, no frontiers, no customs, no rulers, no political assemblies, no superiors, no subordinates. For this world to come about or to continue to exist, there would have to be a total absence of men with lust for adventure and domination. No will-to-power, no barbarian instincts, no criminals, no superiority feelings, no Messianic ideas, no unpeaceable men, no programs of action, no proselyting, no ambition, no economics above the personal level, no foreigners, no race, no ideas.[52]

Yockey could not rest with a merely aestheticized existence. He was one of the postwar men that Ernst Jünger called a Vabanquespieler, which Coogan glosses[53] as “an adventurer willing to stake it all on a roll of the dice.” The postwar fate of this Coughlinite in the Kali Yuga could only be the jail cell and the cyanide pill (suicide or not); the Big House and the Big Sleep, not the Glass House.[54]

Well, then, what have we learned?

  1. Phillip Johnson was a rich, clever, charming, asshat.
  2. Modern architecture is all bosh.[55]
  3. They deserve each other.

I won’t list “A little Nietzsche is dangerous” since we already knew that. The man who called himself “dynamite” is valuable as a means of demolishing Christian and bourgeois complacency but dangerous for those too weak to transcend the resulting nihilism, as Baron Evola emphasizes in his Ride the Tiger.[56]

Philip’s “abandonment of the classics and philosophy for art and architecture” [57] makes an interesting contrast with, say, Baron Evola’s career trajectory. One might think this was Philip moving from the “abstract” to the “concrete,”[58] from airy-fairy theory to “engaging with the real world” but Evola took the opposite path, moving from Dada poetry and Futurist painting to an intensive study of German Idealist philosophy, developing his own theory of the Absolute Individual which he then sought to locate in political history on the analogy of the primordial Lawmakers at the root of the various world Traditions, as found in the works of René Guénon. On this basis he tried to “rectify” the mass movements that were attempting to preserve the European traditions in the first half of the twentieth century, exerting far more influence that Johnson or even Yockey, though small enough and ultimately just as futile.[59]

So, why then does no one harp on the “Nazi past” of Philip Johnson, as they do with, say, Heidegger or Philip’s fellow post-modernist, Paul de Man? Well, precisely because he is Philip Johnson, not Heidegger. The Right doesn’t want him, or, as I’ve suggested, need him, and the cultural Left knows that, precisely because he’s what he is, he may be more or less useful as a culture-distorter but there’s no reason to take anything he ever said or did seriously.

Thus, any resemblance between Philip and the sainted — or at least feted — Ralph Adams Cram is only superficial. Both architects, both famous in their lifetimes (possible the only architects to appear on the cover of Time magazine), both ambisexual (though Philip, as befits the times, more openly and exclusively homosexual), both, even, designers of massive cathedrals (Cram of New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the largest Gothic structure on Earth and still unfinished; Philip the Crystal Cathedral of Christian New Thought televangelist Robert Schuler), there the comparison ends. Cram was a man of principles, no matter how unfashionably pre-New Deal they may have been,[60] while Philip, as we’ve seen, disdained anything so vulgar as following out a thought to its conclusion,[61] to say nothing of abiding by that conclusion when something more attractive came into view.


[1] New York Times, Dec. 27, 1964.

[2] Seinfeld, “The Marine Biologist” (1994). For a compendium of George’s architect fantasies, see here.

[3] See “Ralph Adams Cram: Wild Boy of American Architecture,” here and reprinted in my collection The Eldritch Evola … & Others (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2014).

[4] Franz Schulze, Philip Johnson: Life and Work (New York: Knopf, 1994).

[5] I tend to agree, actually, but it’s the inconsistency that irks me, like the political Liberal’s refusal to consider anything else as genetic.

[6] Diagnosed by a therapist of the ’20s as “cyclothymic disorder.”

[7] Yes, his father buys a house in South Carolina specifically because he liked the links there.

[8] In Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder, dining with Sebastian’s sister for the first time, tries to make conversational fodder out of his widowed father’s eccentricities, but Julia Flyte will have none of it: “He seems a perfect poppet” she interrupts, and leaves them at the table.

[9] Another genetic contribution, perhaps, was longevity; Philip’s parents were in their ’90s when they died, like him; his epitaph for them was “I didn’t give a damn what my father wanted. They were expendable. He wasn’t any use in the world.”

[10] “You see that building? I bought that building ten years ago. My first real estate deal. Sold it two years later, made an $800,000 profit. It was better than sex. At the time I thought that was all the money in the world. Now it’s a day’s pay.” — Gordon Gekko, Wall Street (1987).

[11] I’m reminded of when Steve Forbes, running for President, released his financial statements and it was sneered that he really wasn’t rich at all; he was living on interest, not the interest on interest. “The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth, five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons and what I do, stock and real estate speculation. It’s bullshit. . . . I’m talking about liquid. Rich enough to have your own jet. Rich enough not to waste time. Fifty, a hundred million dollars, buddy. A player. Or nothing.” — Gordon Gekko, Wall Street.

[12] Schulze refers to a combination of “intellectual sophistication and “infantile self-indulgence” (p. 50).

[13] Philip was godless but willing to pretend if the price was right. At the dedication of the Crystal Cathedral he designed for televangelist Robert Schuller, Philip got up and essentially thanked Jesus. Later, “Philip briefly buried his head in his hand in mock shame, then grinned and replied. ‘Wasn’t that awful?’” (pp. 341-42).

[14] “Dixon had often wondered how Welch had contrived to marry money; it could hardly have been due to any personal merit, real or supposed. . . . Perhaps the old fellow had had when younger what he now so demonstrably lacked: a way with him.” Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1953; New York: NYRB Press, 2012), p. 65.

[15] Over and over again the word is used to describe Sebastian and his . . . manner of speaking. In just his first conversation with Charles, Anthony says that “Sebastian has charm […], such charm,” suggests that in a church confessional he was “just being charming through the grille,” reiterates that “he has such charm” and that “[he’s] so charming, so amusing,” claims that “those who are charming [like Sebastian] don’t need brains,” calls him “a little bundle of charm,” concludes that in fact all the Flytes are “charming, of course,” and finishes by saying “there was really very little left for poor Sebastian to do except be sweet and charming.” He says the only reason Sebastian still visits is father is “because he’s so charming,” and advises that Charles not blame Sebastian for being “insipid,” “simple,” and… “charming.” OK. We think we’ve made our point. — Schmoop Notes on Brideshead Revisited, here; video clip  here.

[16] For a look at the Harvard philosophical milieu at an earlier date, see my review of Owen Wister’s Philosophy 4: A Story of Harvard, here and reprinted in The Eldritch Evola … & Others (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2014). As I discussed in “Dachau Blues: Applying History to Science & Science to History,” my goal in life has been to attend the London School of Economics, like Pierre Trudeau or Mick Jagger.

[17] After all, it’s not as if Philip needed a job; he briefly flirts with teaching Classics at Oberlin and law school, but clearly as amusements; eventually, he’ll work for the Museum of Modern Art for free, even paying for his own secretary.

[18] “My hobby? Metaphysics. What is metaphysics? Well, there’s a long, complicated answer to that. . . .” [Crow T. Robot interrupts:] “Which he’ll be happy to give us.” MST3k, Episode 612, The Dead Talk Back.

[19] “Even if we ignore his works . . . we absolutely cannot deny the greatness of his private practice.” Anthony Ludovici’s “Preface to the Third Edition” of his collection Friedrich Nietzsche on Wagner – The Case Of Wagner, Nietzsche Contra Wagner, Selected Aphorisms (Spastic Cat Press, 2012). I may note that that while my dissent on Wagner (reprinted in The Eldritch Evola, op. cit.) was based on Coomaraswamy’s Platonic — i.e.., Traditional — view of art as communicating a message, and thus subject to the virile verdict of Truth or Falsehood, the vituperative reactions of “But just listen, it’s beautiful” instance the feminine idea of art as mere passive “feeling” (hence, aesthetics), thus, in terms of the Nietzsche/Wagner conflict, placing Nietzsche on the side of Plato and Wagnerites on the side of Philip. See, anachronistically, Ludovici’s “Preface (to the First Edition),” loc. cit.

[20] See David Ray Griffin, Whitehead’s Radically Different Postmodern Philosophy: An Argument for Its Contemporary Relevance (SUNY Series in Philosophy), 2012). Griffin is also, perhaps best, known for his philosophically sophisticated discussion of the 9/11 event, suggesting that concern for the One need not obviate concern for the Many.

[21] Schulze thinks Whitehead “understood him no better than his father” (pp.39-40) .

[22] Some may dare to disagree with Philip: “Ah, modern architecture. Efficient and beauty-free.” Tom Servo, MST3k Episode 918, Devil Doll.

[23] “Seven years of college down the drain” — Bluto, Animal House.

[24] A hyphenated first name and a Jr.; just the sort of bloke to appeal to Philip.

[25] What I’ve called a “bad Männerbund,” superficially approximating the Aryan warrior band but actually run for selfish aggrandizement, like Capt. Ahab’s ship or Al Capone’s gang. I like to think of them as the smug, elitist killers Philip (yes!) and Brandon, with their Nietzschean prep school teacher Rupert, in Hitchcock’s Rope; for more on Rope and the “good and bad Männerbunde” in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables see my “Essential Films … and Others,” here.

[26] Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus supplied (unknowingly) the name, Hitchcock the ideas, Barr the museum, and I suppose Philip supplied the charm.

[27] Most egregiously, as Schulze observes, Mies’ masterpiece, the Barcelona Pavilion, was a free-standing space, diametrically opposed to the supposed principle of thinking of building as enclosed volumes.

[28] Making Johnson an Inglorius Bas-tour-d, I guess.

[29] Willkomen, bienvenue, welcome!

[30] Since both ends of the paradox suit the needs of Judaic subversion, it’s “good taste” not to note the doublethink. In the same way, one could have just guessed that the Village Synagogue (another oddity, but this is Greenwich Village; itself a redundancy [Green Village Village] and note to Lovecraftians: on the same principle, it’s Dunnich not Dun-which]) would have not just a homosexual rabbi, not just female rabbi, but an all-out lesbian rabbi. And yet how many pages have been devoted to “explaining” such phenomena as “gay Nazis” or “gay Skinheads”?

[31] Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler;
(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p243; see Alisdair Clarke’s review, “Fascism and the Meaning of Life,” here.

[32] Ibid, p. 244. Here and before, all italics are Griffin’s.

[33] Clarke, op. cit., emphasis mine. Interestingly, neither mentions Philip Johnson.

[34] “‘Treason doth never prosper.’ Why? Because if it prospers, none dare call it treason.” Jim Garrison, JFK (Oliver Stone).

[35] “Philip Johnson: the architect as aesthete,” The New Criterion, November 1994.

[36] I imagine the discussions back home were rather like those in Rope: Brandon: “The few are those men of such intellectual and cultural superiority that they’re above the traditional moral concepts. Good and evil, right and wrong were invented for the ordinary average man, the inferior man, because he needs them.”

Kently: “So you agree with Nietzsche and his theory of the superman.”

Brandon: “Yes, I do.”

Kently: “So [does] Hitler.”

Brandon: “Hitler [is] a paranoid savage. His supermen, all fascist supermen, [are] brainless murderers. I’d hang any [of them]. But then, you see, I’d hang them first for being stupid. I’d hang all incompetents and fools.”

[37] Joseph Alsop (no less!), New York Herald-Tribune, December 18, 1934; see excerpt with a very Leopold & Loeb photo of Johnson & Blackburn here.

[38] See Schulze’s amusing chapter “Zarathustra and the Kingfish” on PJ’s quixotic journey to Baton Rouge, a sort of Ignatius Reilly in reverse, driving a Packard rather than riding a Greyhound Scenicrusier.

[39] “The grubbier American right-wing flotsam of the 1930s” as he says on p. 189.

[40] See Greg Johnson’s forthcoming collection, Truth, Justice and a Nice White Country (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2015), especially the last section, “Vanguard Strategies;” and especially relevant to Johnson is the essay “The Smartest Guy in the Room.”

[41] Abby Rockefeller dismissed questions about Philip’s past with an airy “Every young man should be allowed one big mistake” (p. 143). Honi soi qui mal y pense, you peasants. As Jim Garrison says to Clay Shaw — wealthy elitist and secret homo-fascist — “People like you just walk between the raindrops.” (JFK). Charles Ryder’s avuncular cousin Jasper admits to having gotten involved with an objectionable group of Christians who “ran a mission to hop pickers in the long vac.,” while Charles himself insists to the reader that “though its toys were cigars and silk shirts, and its naughtiness high in the catalog of grave sins,” his fumbling adventures (as Dr. Lecter recalls to Clarice Starling) with Sebastian “preserved a nursey sweetness.”

[42] Most intriguingly, despite constantly promoting Mies van der Rohe as the greatest living architect, Philip shuns studying with him at IIT (just as, earlier, he had lauded Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion but somehow avoided actually seeing it in his European travels). Is Chicago too declassee? Or, as Schulze suggests, is he shying away from Mies’ rigorous, Old School training methods, including — horrors! — actual drawing, which Philip is hopeless at. Indeed, reading Schulze’s Johnson book not only lowers one’s opinion of Johnson and his work, but raises ones opinion of Mies, about whom Schulze has written another big book earlier, now available in a second edition (Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography, New and Revised Edition; University of Chicago Press, 2012). Mies, for all his “Modernism,” saw himself as emerging from the craft system — his family historically stonemasons, emphasized technical skill, not flashy “artistic” effects — and even had attempted to work with the National Socialists, designing — like the early Howard Roark — some service stations for the Autobahn. See Frederic Spotts, Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (2002; Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2004), pp. 340-41 and 392 on Mies, adding that “doctrinal disputes among architects did not interest Hitler” and that “When it came to his autobahns, Hitler was a Modernist.”

[43] Schulze says it “harks back almost to the point of plagiarism” to a 1934 unbuilt project, but insists that “Derivative it may have been, and one more sign of a constitutionally eclective temperament, but the Glass House in final form is … a good deal more than … the Son of [Mies’[ Farnsworth [House]” [p.193]. How much more we will see. Wright, again, has the most devastating comment: “Is it Philip? And is it architecture?” (p. 224).

[44] “Philip Johnson’s Not Glass Houses” by Alexandra Lange; February 13, 2015, here.

[45] The only Americans who live in “compounds” are gangsters, Kennedys, and now Philip Johnson.

[46] A key expression of Jonathan Bowden’s. As Greg Johnson explicates it: When an exponent of white revival is asked, “Well what’s your view of the Shoah then?” Bowden recommends simply saying: “We’ve stepped over that.” Meaning that we have overcome it, that we are moving forward, that the future calls, and we are a people who wish to have a future again, and we recognize that the holocaust is being used to abort that future. To the retort, “What do you mean you’ve ‘stepped over’ that? Are you minimizing its importance to humanity?” Bowden counsels the reply, “We are minimizing its importance to our form of humanity!” See “Dealing with the Holocaust,” here.

[47] According to the Times, “the cozy 18th­-century timber-frame house the couple used as a TV room” was called Grainger; Farley Grainger plays “Philip” in Rope. While “Philip” plays piano, our boy is clearly Brandon, who shares PJ’s stutter and house in Connecticut (though not a glass one).

[48] View it here; or download waveform: Did-you-think-you-were-God-Brandon.mp3

[49] Kimball, op. cit.

[50] Dreamer of the Day: Francis Parker Yockey and the Postwar Fascist International (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1999), pp. 148-49.

[51] When Jerry and George hijack an airport limo and George winds up impersonating “the leader of the Aryan resistance,” he is called upon to comment on “his” book, The Great Game. Seinfeld, Season 3, Episode 18: “The Limo.”

[52] Chapter 27, “Internationale;” See Francis Parker Yockey, Imperium : The Philosophy of History and Politics. (Edited by Alex Kurtagić; Foreword by Kerry Bolton; Afterword by Julius Evola); Abergele, England: The Palingenesis Project, 2013; p. 263.

[53] Although he misspells the word; see Michael O’Meara, “The Jitterbugs & the Vabanquespieler: On Yockey’s America,” here.

[54] In fiction, there can be at least justice. In Rope, Cadell eulogizes their victim — imprisoned and dead, like Yockey — as actually superior to Philip and Brandon: he “could live — and love — as you two never could;” just as the politically active life of Yockey is superior to the sophistical aestheticism of Johnson. Then he summons the police, so that “they never will” live or love again, as the state will ensure that “you’re going to die, both of you.” I suspect that audiences today will condemn Cadell as an evil, heteronormative enthusiast for capital punishment, and will regard Philip and Brandon as innocent gay victims of social oppression (in their million dollar Upper East Side penthouse).

[55] Again, as with “charm,” Brideshead Revisited tells us all we need to know: “‘Charles,’ said Cordelia, ‘Modern Art is all bosh, isn’t it?’ “‘Great bosh.’ “‘Oh, I’m so glad. I had an argument with one of our nuns and she said we shouldn’t try and criticize what we didn’t understand. Now I shall tell her I have had it straight from a real artist, and snubs to her.’” Video here.

[56] See Ride the Tiger: A Survival Manual for Aristocrats of the Soul (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2003), especially Part One: “In the World Where God is Dead.”

[57] Schulze follows that phrase with this offhand remark: “There is little doubt that the plurality of homosexuals among [the MOMA crowd] not only encouraged but reinforced the expression of their uncommon gravitation and receptivity to the sensuous arts.” (93) I’m not sure I understand this enough to even doubt it. Is architecture a “sensuous” art, as opposed to say, music? If anything, I should think the opposite. If the contrast is with poetry or classics, is there any reason to find these more hetero, in today’s terms, than say painting? While there is a cultural stereotype of the arts as being “queer” (for reasons I explore in the title essay of my collection The Homo and the Negro (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2012), actual sexological research shows the issue to be more fine-grained: within music, for example, violinists are more likely to be homosexual than pianists, which makes it PJ’s keyboard talent a problem for Schulze’s “no doubt” standards. See C. A. Tripp, The Homosexual Matrix (New York: McGraw Hill, 1975), p. 260.

[58] Though Hegel would beg to differ; see his 1808 essay “Wer Denkt Abstract?” (Who Thinks Abstractly?” in W. Kaufmann, ed. Hegel: Texts and Commentary; Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1966, pp. 113-18.). Long before, Plotinus had tried to communicate to his listeners that contemplation was not just real but “more real” than mere “making” or “doing,” but there is no evidence that PJ ever got past Plato to Plotinus, and even so, it is unlikely he would have “grasped” the idea without the guidance of my own mentor, Dr. John N. Deck; see his Nature, Contemplation, and the One: A Study in the Philosophy of Plotinus (Toronto: 1967); reprinted 1991 (Burkett, NY: Larson Publications), especially the chapters “Is Nature Real for Plotinus” and “Making and Efficient Causality.” When we read there that “Nous and nature, as contemplators, produce the sensible world without learning, without seeking, without resolve, without hands, tools or instruments” (p. 94) we may be reminded of various supposedly “Eastern” notions such as wei wu wei and other ways of “acting without acting” which are characteristic ways of being, or trying to become, the Universal Man at the center of the manifest world; see Evola, East and West (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2015).

[59] See the various publications of Evola from this period, now conveniently collected by Arktos — with informative introductions by E. Christian Kopf and helpful notes by John Morgan — as Fascism Viewed from the Right (2013, reviewed by F. Roger Devlin here), Notes on the Third Reich (2013, reviewed by Devlin here), and, most recently, A Traditionalist Looks at Fascism (London: Arktos, 2015).

[60] See his eugenic/elitist manifesto, “Why We Do Not Behave Like Human Beings,” (hint: because most of us aren’t), reprinted in Robert M. Crumden, ed., The Superfluous Men: Conservative Critics of American Culture, 1900-1945 (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 1999).

[61] “I was stinging under [Harvard classics star Raphael Demo’s] reproach that I was a lazy thinker and never criticize my thoughts, so I got busy and thought for five minutes. As a consequence, I have a thorough knowledge of the psychological foundations of the state and got an A in the quiz this morning” (p. 38). Admittedly, a letter to his mother, but one still can’t help but think again of the impudent triviality of Sebastian Flyte: told by Anthony Blanche that Charles has the makings of a great artist, he replies (according to Blanche) “Yes, Aloysius [his teddy bear] paints too, but he’s rather more modern.”


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  1. Ray Symm
    Posted December 30, 2015 at 12:52 am | Permalink

    Interesting that Johnson was writing for Fr Coughlin’s publication along with Yockey.

    Johnson supplicated himself before the organized Jewish community, apologizing for his past. Otherwise his rival in the architectural world Kaufmann would have sic’d the jews on him. It is strange how Johnson dropped his politics so fast. I guess he realized all he had left was his architecture career, so he cut off his politics for it. I think what attracted Johnson to NS was the visual grandiosity and boldness of it along with ideological openness to matters of race. I say this because the AT&T bulding and the Crystal Cathedral are grandiose and bold but they’re awkwardly open and twisted, as if he’s promoting his past but simulataneously turning on it. I think you’re right that for Johnson everything was aesthetics and personality. Anyway, I think u summed it up well when saying Johnson started with the abstract and descended into the real wheras Evola did the reverse.

  2. coinherencei
    Posted December 10, 2015 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    Nietzsche was not “penniless”. He was granted a subsidy early in his career and took full advantage of it.

    • James O'Meara
      Posted December 10, 2015 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

      “Penniless” was inaccurate, but what I meant was simply that Nietzsche, unlike PJ, had to to “pinch pennies.” Your question has led me to look around to try and pin this down. N received not a “subsidy” (which suggests one of Wagner’s wealthy patrons) but a pension amounting to 2/3 his salary at Basel, when his health forced him to resign. This was small enough already, but also invested in govt bonds for safety not big returns, and his investment manager was prone to sudden, bad ideas. His books had desultory sales and likely lost more than they made. “As far as money is concerned, I know only two things, to spend little and to save.” See references to “pension” in The Nietzsche Canon ( While PJ’s father would approve of N’soidance of speculation in stocks, the irony is that PF’s stock happened to be Alcoa, which did in fact boom in the 20s, making him richer than Nietzsche could have dreamed.

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