Jorge Luis Borges and Karen Blixen on Ideology and Violence

Borges 08 Orqwith

A Comic-Book Riff on the Second Reality

That most clear-sighted of critics of ideology in the Twentieth Century, Eric Voegelin (1901 – 1986), often called on literature for the light it sheds on distortions of perspective in social doctrine and deformations of consciousness implicit in political movements.  The novelists, poets, and essayists, being often, to the extent that they are non-ideological, highly attuned psychologists and social observers, can penetrate, with heightened perspicacity, into derailments of orderly life and the demonic workings of the libido.  The obvious examples are the novels of the dystopian tradition beginning with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Possessed (1871) and embracing Valery Bryussov’s Republic of the Southern Cross (1903), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1922), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Karin Boye’s Kallocain, and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948).  Novels that one would not ordinarily group with the dystopias can, however, penetrate just as deeply into the genesis of totalitarianism.  The Princess Casamassima (1886) by Henry James is one such brilliant work; Under Western Eyes (1912) by Joseph Conrad is another.  Two even less obvious — but remarkable — cases present themselves in the form of mid-Twentieth Century short fictions by authors whom one would not ordinarily conjoin:  “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (1940) by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899 – 1986) and The Poet (1934) by the Danish writer Isak Dinesen (the pen-name of Karen Blixen, 1885 – 1962).  A consideration of the two stories will show that Borges and Dinesen had insights that run in parallel with Voegelin’s analysis of totalitarianism as a type of secular religiosity or “Gnostic derailment,” a term whose meaning will emerge in the discussion.

Borges 04 Labyrinths COVER

In Which “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” Appears

I. Literary criticism typically casts Borges as an ironist and genre-parodist, a master of the essay and the short story, one of whose technical mainstays is the oblique literary allusion. John Sturrock’s Paper Tiger (1977) exemplifies the trend, with its abstract treatment of the Borgesian “text.” Critics like Sturrock characterize Borges’ possibly most famous story – “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” – as an instance of the so-called mise-en-abîme of the internally and exclusively self-reflective composition: A clever exercise in symbol-manipulation and erudition for their own sake that closes itself against any real-worldly reference – and therefore cannot be taken as a commentary on the world.  Borges becomes for academic readers of the Sturrock type a pure formalist engaged in a purely formalist experiment, the result of which offers a perfect example of Jacques Derrida’s Deconstructive claim that, “there is nothing outside the text.”  Nothing could be farther from the truth, however.  For such criticism indeed, far from elucidating the story, has the aim of disarming the narrative’s – any narrative’s – real import.  Borges’ fable indeed directly concerns the insidiousness of all Deconstructive or radically formalist or reality-denying claims.  Deconstruction as such did not yet exist when Borges wrote “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” but its precursor-doctrines existed.  Borges understood their tendency.  More than that – he linked them to the socialist dictatorships of the mid-century.

The date of publication of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” immediately suggests that the story is an instance, not of empty literary sophistry, out of contact with the world, but rather of genuinely referential fiction, with the “Thirdness” of the title’s final element fixing the reference.  “Thirdness” afflicted the Twentieth Century, from the ersatz religion of Marxism-Leninism, which conceives of itself, starting with Marx, as the final term in the sequence of feudalism-capitalism-socialism, to the Third Reich, to the Swedish “Third Way.”  Whatever socialism calls itself – whatever multiculturalism, an adjunct of socialism, calls itself – it remains as dogmatic and destructive as ever, seeking to obliterate inherited customs and institutions, and the openness of the market, as the conditions of its own fulfillment.  “Thirdness,” one notes, participates in a type of closed religious symbolism, which classifies all precursor-doctrines, whether in fact they really were doctrines or not, as evanescent, as foreordained to vanish, but declares itself as final and unchangeable.  Mimicking the Trinitarian theology of the Gospel, “Thirdness” also suggests what one could call a fulfillment-interpretation of a given doctrine’s own status.  The ideologue has gazed into the prophetic glass of history and he sees there, standing revealed at the end of time, the image of himself, the living embodiment of doctrinal correctness.

Borges 06 Tlon 01

The Fantastic Allure of Tlön

Mirrors and their distorting effects figure prominently in Borges’ story, which turns on the discovery, first, of a spurious volume of an otherwise ordinary encyclopedia and, next, of a single volume from a full encyclopedic set dedicated rigorously to the description of a hitherto unknown and perversely attractive world incompatible with the actual world.  All forty volumes of The Encyclopedia of Tlön later turn up and become a literary sensation.  Tlön, the ideological new reality in the story, fascinates by its bloody character, its extremity of logical outrage, and its totalizing ambition.  Tlön originated as a kind of intellectual prank cooked up by Eighteenth-Century Idealists (George Berkeley allegedly being one of them), but changed its quirkily experimental and innocuous character when a certain “ascetic millionaire” named Ezra Buckley took over the enterprise by suborning its authors and then decisively stamped it with his own irate “nihilism.”  One notes that the name Buckley mirrors yet also distorts the name Berkeley, and that the name Ezra has prophetic overtones.  Borges identifies Buckley as a Southern slave-owner and militant atheist whose support of the project stipulated that, in elaborating the new artificial world, its fashioners would “make no pact with the impostor Jesus Christ.”  Buckley also insists that the agenda go forth in secret as a cabal, to be launched in public only when completed.  In stipulating Buckley’s atheism and in linking it with Berkeley’s idealism, and finally in making Buckley a messianic nihilist, Borges has composed a short history of the modern ideologies, whose density is remarkable.

In The New Science of Politics (1951), Voegelin writes that an important effect of Christianity in the period between the disintegration of the Roman Empire in the West and the High Middle Ages was the “de-divinization of existence.”  What does this mean?  For Jews and Christians, nature is Creation, but it is itself neither a divinity nor in any way a proper object for veneration.  People should direct their worship lovingly to the transcendent God, whose non-interference in daily life guarantees freedom of conscience and self-responsibility, not to images or objects.  Another effect of Christianity was to replace the mundane experience of the divine, symbolized by the elemental gods of polytheism, with experience of the divine as a transcendent ground or goal.  In this goal, the imperfections of the natural world and the social order might be redeemed, but, importantly, not in this life, where only degrees of amelioration are possible.  The Gospel, much more articulately than Pagan wisdom, tells men that they must reconcile themselves to the limitations inherent in their existence.  They must come to terms with the order of being and the structure of reality.  The Gospel, as Voegelin argues, generated a new demand on human consciousness for the delay of gratification, from which stems the whole range of specifically Christian ethics and from the impatient reaction to which stems the whole range of Gnostic tantrums.  Platonic philosophy and Christianity defer ultimacy and perfection; they commonly ask people to adjust themselves in the meanwhile to reality and to take consolation in love.

Borges 07 Tlon 02

The Fantastic Allure of Tlön Continued

Deferral is faith.  Voegelin argues for faith, which postpones certainty, and which incorporates doubt, as present in philosophy and as essential to Christianity.  Uncertainty and doubt afflict some people, however, with terrific anxiety; and when, historically, these anxious parties could not fall back into pre-Christian forms, which had gradually disappeared, they availed themselves of “the Gnosis” that formed “an accompaniment of Christianity from its very beginnings.”  Voegelin writes: “Gnostic speculation overcame the uncertainty of faith by receding from transcendence and endowing man and his intramundane range of action with the meaning of eschatological fulfillment.”  The new Gnostic rebels-against-reality thought that they could, in other words, realize in this natural world, using the crooked timber of humanity, the perfection and redemption that Christianity postpones to the City of God; and that they could become gods themselves, deposing the Gospel deity, and annulling the patience that faith demands.  Reality being intractable, the Gnostic foredooms himself to rapidly increasing frustration in respect of his libidinous schemes.  The deific hubris being a neurotic delusion it inevitably degenerates into destructive demonism.  Such degeneration belongs to every single revolutionary or socialist experiment since the Cult of Reason, most recently to the socialist regime in Venezuela.  It threatens today the lives of ordinary citizens of the United States of America.

Voegelin notes that there is a Pagan Gnosis, a Jewish Gnosis, as well as a Christian Gnosis, but that in each case, the reactive position defines itself initially and largely by its implacable enmity against the normative stance; the reactionary position, in Voegelin’s analysis, must be total, because the rebel against reality, determined to erect his second reality, can tolerate no vestige of that which he despises lest it remind him of his humiliating inadequacy.  It is the Revolution not the established order that is reactionary, despite the appropriation of the term reactionary by the Left in order to calumniate the order-conserving Right.  “The revolution of the Gnostics,” writes Voegelin, “has for its aim,” one at least among others, “the monopoly of existential representation.”  It cannot abide challenges or alternatives to itself.  In addition to this, the Gnostic assault on reality seeks “a change in the nature of man and the establishment of a transfigured society.”  Finally, according to Voegelin, Gnostic agitation inclines its followers to conceive of existence as “a struggle by the world of darkness” wickedly to nip their own luminous “universality” in the bud.  Borges’ Tlön qualifies as a Gnostic undertaking, in being a totalizing ersatz religion, or belief-system, locked in resentful hostility with every orthodox judgment and indeed at war with the structure of reality, which it would transform.  The word Gnostic occurs in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” in connection with certain “heresiarchs of Uqbar.”  Borges even gives, in his description of Buckley, the definition of the Gnostic split-consciousness: “He wanted to demonstrate to [the] nonexistent God that mortal man was capable of conceiving a world.”  It was to designate such a split-consciousness that Voegelin coined his term pneumopathology.

Borges 13 Gnostic Masters

Gnostic Masters

In accordance with the project’s cosmic antinomianism, the epistemology of Tlön attacks degree-zero concepts of the prevailing reality, like causality.  For the metaphysicians of Tlön, then, “the world is not a concourse of objects in space,” which have a universal relation to one another along a temporal dimension, but rather the world “is a heterogeneous series of independent acts,” where an arbitrary difference is everything.  On Tlön, it seems, “philosophy is by definition a dialectical game, a Philosophie des als Ob,” through which intellectuals “do not seek for truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.”  Seeing in causality an intolerable necessity, these dialecticians would substitute for moral and natural consistency the heterogeneous acts of their serial preference, which can only translate itself practically by the fiat of a dictator’s will who is careless about contradicting itself.  The same dictator will make use of the confusion of thinking that results from a constant deliberate misapplication of ordinary terms, often to mean the opposite of what they signify lexically, and by appeals to emotion and curiosity rather than to logic or evidence.  In this vein, the intellectuals of Tlön declare that, “the past has no reality.”  Only the present has reality and its reality is, so to speak, borrowed from the futural perfection toward which all activity in the present must be directed.  Other aspects of Tlön, popular in journalism rather than in learned discussion, are its “transparent tigers and towers of blood,” which suggest that a type of bestial rapacity underlies the metaphysical gymnastics of the fabulous superstructure.

Auto-apotheosis, abolition of the past, and appeal to extremes; disdain for the customary or the orderly: These features reveal themselves in all ideological discourse since the French Revolution.  Once the glamour of the extreme takes hold on a society, the dearly achieved habit of established order begins to disintegrate and the false second reality subdues standing judgment.  In Borges’ story, publication of the Encyclopedia of Tlön swiftly corrodes settled life, as pamphleteering did in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries and as propagandizing did in the Twentieth, using the modern means of communication.  The emergent second reality of the “Orbis Tertius” conspiracy ceases to be an enigma or an oddity and turns nightmarish, as “contact [with the collective fantasy] and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world.”  Says the narrator, commenting laconically on the usurpation, “Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) ‘primitive language’ of Tlön,” and a concocted history “has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood.”  These drastic alterations of the civic environment are quite familiar processes, with which even casual students of modern history will be familiar.  Soon, the narrator says, “This world will be Tlön.”  While Tlön is the fantasy in Borges’ story, the story itself is not a fantastic one.  It is hardly even an allegory. From the perspective of its date of publication, the story is historical (the disintegrative process it describes had already occurred in France, Russia and Germany) and prognosticative: For the juggernaut of enthralling discourse – the dialectic, actually a monologue, of counter-intuitive propaganda – would continue its campaign inspiring murder and destruction wholesale.  “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” represents in a mete way the condition of the West at the present moment.

Borges 05 Seven Gothic Tales COVER

In Which The Poet Appears

II. The Danish author Karen Blixen (1885 – 1962), writing under her pseudonym of Isak Dinesen, creates in her novella The Poet (published 1934) a story about the origins of the modern, thoroughly distorted notion of reason and its link to the revolutionary upheavals of society that began at the end of the Eighteenth Century with the French Revolution. The distortion of reason in the name of a spurious progress is the theme that amalgamates The Poet with the otherwise dissimilar Borges story, written only five years later. In neither the world of Blixen’s novella nor in our own world, have the proliferating metastases of reason, their model venerated as a substitute-deity, ceased to afflict the social fabric.  North Americans have indeed seen a recent intensification of the condition.  Blixen’s examination of the unitary origin of those metastases provides a valuable insight that readers can apply to their own understanding of the contemporary situation.  Set in Denmark, a nation affected early and thoroughly by the Enlightenment, which also experienced the Romantic reaction against the Enlightenment, The Poet records the last years of Kamerraad or Privy Councilor Mathiesen, a retired diplomat in his fifties living the life of an aristocrat-grandee in provincial Hirschholm.  He enjoys the perquisites that accrue to him because of his elevated social status among the respectful country folk and villagers.  The time is the 1830s.

Voegelin can help readers to understand The Poet just as he can help them to understand “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”  In The New Science of Politics, Voegelin reminds those who attend to his argument that Gnosticism provided the driving force behind the emergence of the modern world, with its pattern of social arrangements that violently displaced those of the medieval period.  “Gnosticism,” writes Voegelin, “effectively released human forces for the building of a civilization because on their fervent application to intramundane activity was put the premium of salvation,” that is, of ­self-salvation, in such a way that the result seems “experientially justified.”  But this “justification” cannot withstand too much scrutiny, as the achievement, while real, owes itself in large part to the many victims that the stringently secular order, when accounting for itself, consigns to oblivion: “The death of the spirit is the price of progress,” as Voegelin writes: “The more fervently all human energies are thrown into the great enterprise of world-immanent salvation, the farther the human beings who engage in this enterprise move away from the life of the spirit.”  Voegelin here thinks, of course, not only about the vanity in so-called progress, but also about the murders that pave the way to the progressive triumph – the regicides, slaughters, and killing-fields, all in the name of a radiant future – and to the constriction of life in the name of rationality that accompanies the victory.

Borges 12 Hirschholm 03

The Idyll of Hirschholm

Blixen’s narrative reveals that, despite the rather bland, careerist-bureaucratic impression generated by his fixation on rank, and despite his priggishness, Mathiesen had, in his youth, participated in “the fatal and restless times” of “the French Revolution and the wars of Napoleon.”  This little remark-in-passing implies much: Not least that Mathiesen must share culpability for the slaughter and mayhem of the great European disruption beginning in 1789, to whose demonism he seems, however pettily, to have contributed.  After his youthful ardor in hopes of remaking the world, Mathiesen had resided for a period at Weimar, where he met Goethe.  To that genius, writes Blixen, Mathiesen might have applied the term “superman… if the word had been invented.”  The story subtly implies that Goethe found Mathiesen nothing more than a nuisance, but Mathiesen, oblivious to the snub, still thinks of himself secretly as “a superman in miniature,” on the adored model.  One might say, with support from Voegelin’s analysis of modernity, that Mathiesen believes his own activities to have redeemed him, elevating him in rank to a dignitary of public service, whose résumé then renders him a fit object of rewards and entitlements; but the agitation in which Blixen says he once took part has addled his thinking, leaving him a self-absorbed prig, without a genuine critical perception.  The reference to the “superman” fits perfectly with Voegelin’s argument that the Gnostic, in rebellion against everything contained in the idea of God, wishes to become God.  Blixen’s Mathiesen thus resembles Borges’ Buckley, but there is also in him something of Comte’s Positivism and the Religion of Humanity.

Blixen’s story also calls Mathiesen “a rearranger of existence” in a context that implies of the man that he is capable of lying to himself about reality, even as he meddles in it, seeking Godlike to alter it.  He cannot foresee the mayhem that his rational good intentions will unleash.  So considered, the Kamerraad has more than a little in common with his decadent friend, Count Augustus, a hashish addict with whom Mathiesen discusses G. W. F. Hegel.  Mathiesen has undertaken two human projects at Hirschholm, a place with a history of aristocratic decadence and madness.  The first project is his grooming of an artistically precocious peasant-lad, Anders Kube, to be a poet; Mathiesen has secured Kube a petty office in the district and acts to him as a Macaenas towards a beneficiary.  The second project is his de facto guardianship of a young widow of Italian origin who had married Mathiesen’s Hirschholm friend, the district pharmacist.  The friend, many years older than his bride, died at Hamburg while returning with her from Naples.  After scheming to marry Kube to the widow, Mathiesen changes his mind and decides that although he is more than twice the woman’s age, he rather than the poet shall have her to wed.  That this change of mind constitutes a betrayal appears not to bother Mathiesen – and that reveals his fundamental lack of moral conscience.

Borges 15 Carline Mathilda

Caroline Mathilda by Carl Gustav Pilo

Mathiesen perversely reasons his way to these decisions, but his reasoning is sophistic and self-deluding; he justifies by roundabout arguments what are, in fact, capricious and appetite-driven changes of mind.  He is, in other words, a tyrant; his motives are, at bottom, crass ones.  Mathiesen’s notion of an orderly world entirely subject to the dictates of logic and utility makes no room however for the elements of reality that Blixen has already highlighted beginning with the opening lines of her story.  The scandal of King Christian VII, “a sort of Caligula in miniature,” and of his young English Queen Carolina Matilda, took place in the very locale where Blixen sets the action of The Poet.  Mathilda, spurned by the king, took as her lover her husband’s physician, Herr Struensee, whom Blixen characterizes as “a reckless revolutionary tyrant.” Struensee’s egocentric indiscretion led to his execution and to the queen’s exile to Hirschholm, where she died insane at the age of twenty-three.  Mathiesen’s schemes are a type of repetition of the old royal scandal – a repetition at a lower level of the hierarchy, but doomed to produce the same general results.  He sees not people but chess-pieces at his disposal.  Libido, not reason, moves the Privy Councilor, but this should surprise no one, as the Will to Power is an invariant element of Gnosticism, wherever it appears.

Blixen piles up her themes: The deformation of Eros into libido, rebellious tyranny, psychic distortion, self-delusion, and reason as a dictator’s mendacious trope of his own nihilistic flamboyance.  The self-absorbed Mathiesen, abetted by the unwillingness of the fawning locals to say to him that the emperor has no clothes, blithely treats people as so many chits in a solitary game over which he presides as the undisputed master.  It has escaped Mathiesen entirely that by putting his two protégés in propinquity, he will have inflamed the Eros whose fire he imagines himself, in a Promethean conceit, to control.  Yet the rebellion of the proletariat, when it comes, represents no triumph of moral restoration.  Blixen possesses the acumen to see, hence also to show, that the dehumanizing scheme of the tyrant morally deforms everyone within his influence and so sets the stage for an even higher degree of depravity, as when the bestialized oppressed rise in resentment against their oppressor-manipulator.  “These old men are mad,” as Fransine, the Italian girl, tells Kube in the moonlit gardens at La Liberté, the little house were she lives; “they want strange things of you.”  Mathiesen, concealed in the darkness, overhears.  When Mathiesen and Kube cross paths, Kube shoots Mathiesen on impulse, with a bird rifle.  It is not merely homicide, but a kind of regicide, and even a kind of deicide.  Lying in his own blood, the astonished Mathiesen wonders desperately how he might “control his world once more.”  When Mathiesen crawls into sight of Fransine, he believes that she might still deliver him.  Like “a maenad,” however, she tears loose a great stone and – while muttering to herself, “Puppets, sacred puppets” – finishes the job that Kube had begun by bludgeoning Mathiesen into the next world.

Borges 09 Struensee's Execution

The Execution of Struensee

In her compact system of nested metaphors, Blixen has reminded her readers that an inflated notion of rationality contributed to the bloody paroxysm of the French Revolution, and that the forces unleashed have metastasized murderously down through two-and-a-quarter centuries to our own blighted times.  The schemes of little gods have made of the modern period, a resurgence of ancient brutality that it has been our penance to endure.  Blixen grasps clearly the law of causality that the cabal in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” wants people to forget, the better that the cabal might rearrange reality according to its savage whims.  Borges, too, understands modernity as demonic, and the deracinated masses, without the resource of faith, as highly prone to endorse novelty simply because, in its bland affluence, it experiences a painful boredom.  Taken together, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and The Poet constitute a profound analysis of the actual catastrophe of modernity.  They illustrate Voegelin’s paradoxical insight, from The New Science of Politics, that: “A civilization can, indeed, advance and decline at the same time – but not forever.  There is a limit toward which this ambiguous process moves,” and a society reaches this limit when “an activist sect that represents the Gnostic truth organizes the civilization into an empire under its rule.”  As Voegelin writes, “Totalitarianism, defined as the existential rule of Gnostic activists, is the end form of progressive civilization.”

III. Voegelin reaffirms his thesis in his essay on Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (English version, 1968): “The structure of the order of being will not change because one finds it defective and runs away from it.  The attempt at world destruction will not destroy the world, but will only increase the disorder in society.”  In both “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and The Poet the schemes of Progress culminate in the atavism of sacrifice; and Progress itself, because it blots out history and tradition, becomes the obliteration of consciousness.  Borges’ narrator remarks how, “Enchanted by [Tlön’s] rigor, humanity forgets over and over again that it is a rigor of chess masters, not of angels.”  Tlön is a closed system, which far from liberating those who embrace it, enslaves them as it were to the limitations of an algorithm.  The novelty of Tlön has nevertheless proven itself metastatic.  As Borges’ narrator testifies “the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) ‘primitive language’ of Tlön”; and a fictitious history of Tlön “has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood.”  Borges, whose language is never accidental, anticipates Orwell.  The “primitive language” functions as Newspeak will in Nineteen Eighty-Four, subverting the traditional language – and therefore also the thinking capacity, the stored up perception, and the identity inherent in that language – by insinuating a new, restricted language designed to place an opaque barrier between consciousness and reality.  The false history abets that function.  Because reality and consciousness have a dialectical relation, to put up such a barrier is not merely to limit, but ultimately to negate consciousness.  The Kingdom of the Anti-Christ, in its founder’s words, would not only “make no pact with the impostor Jesus Christ,” but would bespeak the God in whom that founder “did not believe,” that “mortal man was capable of conceiving a world.”  Borges explicitly links the “Orbis Tertius” program to “dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, [and] Nazism.”  The “Blood Towers” of Tlön, objects of speculative fascination in the press, suggest the violent motive impelling the scheme.

The year of The Poet, 1934, links it by prolepsis to “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”  The year 1934 marks the death of President Hindenburg, Hitler’s takeover of the German state, and the legal beginning of the Third Reich.  In another of her stories from 1934, “The Deluge at Norderney,” Blixen once again examines the teleology of Progress, and in so doing produces a critique of the Eighteenth Century’s rationalistic and essentially Godless Enlightenment.  Everywhere in “The Deluge at Norderney,” set in a Danish seaside resort in 1835, Blixen has her characters make reference to the French Revolution – or rather to the two French Revolutions, the one of 1789 and the more recent anti-monarchical June Rebellion of 1830.  Like the aficionados of Tlön in Borges’ story, the visitors to Norderney seek novelty.  They are minor aristocracy for the most part, the jejuneness of whose interests tells of a social affliction.  They find in civic insurrection, for example, as lately in Paris, the assuagement of their demand for diversion from the triteness of their existence.  Rumors of insurrection crop up everywhere and filter their way to the ears of those who are, as it were, addicted to the news.  The deluge of the story title, the cause of which Blixen never explains, signifies metaphorically the destructive potential in deracination and boredom – the susceptibility to political Messianism of a de-cultured and intellectually chaotic society.  The story even makes reference to the apocalyptic writings – predicting a utopian “third age” – of Joachim of Flora.

In Science, Politics, and Gnosticism Voegelin remarks that, “The temptation to fall from uncertain truth into certain untruth is stronger in the clarity of Christian faith than in other spiritual structures.”  Voegelin invites his readers to consider the minimalism of the Mosaic Revelation.  God from the burning bush utters the mere phrase “I am that I am.”  He never authors a system.  Jesus speaks, not in pronouncements, but in brief parables and aphorisms.  Again there is no system.  In the Western Tradition going back to the Old Testament and embracing Plato, Christ, and the medieval Saints, there is no system.  There is a coming-to-terms with the order of being and the structure of reality.  Because the human mind cannot fully compass the order of being and the structure of reality, its condition is necessarily one of uncertainty.  That very uncertainty belongs to the world to which the human mind must adjust itself.  Systems appeal to people because they offer themselves as certain.  Voegelin writes: “The Gnostic mass movements of our time betray in their symbolism a certain derivation from Christianity and its experience of faith.  The temptation to fall from a spiritual height that brings the element of uncertainty into final clarity down into the more solid certainty of world-immanent, sensible fulfillment, nevertheless, seems to be a general human problem.”

14 thoughts on “Jorge Luis Borges and Karen Blixen on Ideology and Violence

  1. Pingback: Jorge Luis Borges and Karen Blixen on Ideology and Violence | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: Jorge Luis Borges and Karen Blixen on Ideology and Violence | Reaction Times

  3. This post is an illuminating piece to my current reading of The Myth of Sisyphus that I was motivated to read after another one of your posts. One thing I have commented on before in my posts, and to people in general, is a weariness of someone who claims to have all the answers. At the end of Camus’s first chapter he highlights three consequences that come from a full acceptance of the absurd: revolt, freedom, and passion. Please correct me if I am wrong, if an individual does submit to an authority, person, or institution claiming to have all the answers that gives someone a final clarity then those three consequences are taken away. We live with the inclination to revolt, seek freedom, and unleash passion.

  4. You could say that a criminal “seeks freedom.” He seeks the freedom to practice his criminality, but that freedom is incompatible with the general freedom, always qualified, of the community. (It is no coincidence that the Left celebrates criminality.) When we chastise and educate our children as they grow up, we aim to prevent them from becoming criminals; we prefer that they become law-abiding citizens who participate in the general qualified freedom of the community. We want them to know the law and to observe the law. We recognize that in law — formed in a centuries-long continuum of experience — is truth, the truth about human nature. We recognize that there is a human nature and that, like the rest of nature, it is unalterable.

    Borges and Dinesen show the inevitable consequences of insubordination against truth, especially the truth about human nature.

    • And radically limiting government. As we are learning, government officials can be as much the enemies of ordinary people as are the members of the criminal class.

      • Authority is conserved though, so “limiting government” in practice means “limiting the kinds or instances of authority to which we apply the label ‘government’”.

  5. As usual with my comments in The Othrosphere, I fail to fully explain my comments the first time so an addendum needs to be added. When I referred to an individual, authority, or institution claiming to know the the absolute truth and all truths we surrender something important in our decision to accept their claims of providing absolute clairty. We surrended our ability to revolt against those who claim to know the absolute truth. Our freedom and passion to actually revolt against something that claims of absolute clarity that you mentioned. This is one reason why I go back to the novels of the Brontes because they always have something different. I reminds me of a conversation we had about not figuring out Ibsen and his plays ( I apologize if I lack the correct wording of the conversation we had). I didn’t mean for the original comment to reflect a standard for people to act like teenagers and children without an rules.

    • There is a supposedly Buddhist saying whose actual Buddhist pedigree I cannot guarantee but which seems appropriate in the present context: Should you see the Buddha coming down the path — kill him! Beware of gurus and cultists and people who claim to possess a unique vision of the truth at variance with the truth that we sense and know.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.