That Fellaheen Feeling

“This fellaheen feeling about life, that timeless gaiety of people not involved in great cultural and civilizational issues.” 

Jack Kerouac, Lonesome Traveler (1960).

In Arabic, fallaha means to plow, and fellaheen is therefore a collective name for the plowing peasants of Egypt and the Levant.  The fellah is a patient, plodding son of the soil, quite unlike the dashing Bedouin that rove the rough wastes of Arabia.  There is no reason to suppose that the fellahin are especially given to anything that Kerouac would have recognized as “gaiety,” for most are by habit pious and austere, but the old dharma bum said they were gay because they were “timeless,” and he said they were timeless because he believed they had laid the burden of civilization down.

Kerouac was not interested in Levantine peasants.  The fellah was, for him, an emblem of dropping out and letting go.  He plowed his field beneath the ruins of a dead civilization that he did not understand, and did not mourn, and was therefore (aside from the working) an inspiration and example to every beatnik, dropout and dharma bum in the moribund West.  As a traveler in Palestine described him in 1913:

“Within the shelter of a ruin, perched on a hillock or mountain top and telling the eternal tale of grandeur and decadence, the fellah makes his home and installs his herds.” (1)

The Ruins of Tyre, Lebanon, David Roberts (1858)

What Kerouac meant by the “fellaheen feeling” was this blithe disregard for either the grandeur or the decadence of civilization. In the long cycle of cultural evolution, the fellah stands far beyond the mere reactionary, with his alarms, lamentations and elegies.  The fellah is a man entirely of the aftermath. He is not “involved in great cultural and civilizational issues.”

What is more, Kerouac assures us he is inwardly delighted unto gaiety because he is no longer involved.

For as Freud taught, it is a weary business to carry civilization on your back, and more especially in your head. Civilization is a cumbersome knapsack bulging with cruel repressions, painful exactions and dubious compensations. What a relief to lay it down!  How gay and lightsome this makes one feel!  That was the beatnik gospel.  That liberation caused the timeless gaiety of the fellaheen.

A writer who was present at the birth of the Beats wrote:

“Civilization as we know it today turns out to be a kind of elaborate . . . device whereby sexual starvation is foisted upon the young by the bitter old” (2).

This is true, although its arrow of causality points in the wrong direction.  I do not submit to being thin because that is the price of starving myself.  I submit to starving myself because that is the price of being thin.  Until the day comes when that price seems too high and I join the fellaheen, as it were, of the happy and fat

Sexual starvation is, likewise, a means to the end of “high destinies” (Oswald Spengler’s phrase), and men will submit to some degree of sexual starvation so long as their “longing for high destinies” remains lively and keen. But the day comes when that high destiny fades, the price of continence seems too high, and they will be liberated to join the fellaheen of fornication.

* * * * *

Karnak, William James Müller (c. 1839)

Whether it came to him directly or by hearsay, Kerouac got the symbol of the fellahin from Oswald Spengler.  In Decline of the West (vol. 2, chap.6)Spengler proposed a “morphology of peoples” in which a “fella-peoplewas the third and final stage. You must bear in mind that Spengler uses the word morphology in the old sense of stages of development.  As a biologist explained in 1878:

“The work of the morphologist is to trace the germ to the adult . . . to map out each form, passing into succeeding forms. . .”  (3)

The basic stages in Spengler’s morphology of peoples were “peoples before, within, and after a Culture.”  In other words, primitives, men of Culture, and fellahin.  Of this last stage, he wrote:

“That which follows a Culture we may call, from its best-known example, the Egyptians of post-Roman times, fellah-peoples.”

The fellah is, as I said, a man of the aftermath who lives without thinking among the ruins.

Spengler’s middle stage of Culture divides into four sub-stages that he likens to spring, summer, autumn and winter.  In the last of these, the lifeless form of the Culture endures as a stiff and ossified “civilization.”  The stage of the fellaheen comes after that.  The fellaheen do not dominate a Culture in its decadence.  They are the residue that lingers when that Culture has fully decayed.

This is why Spengler says that a fellah people has dropped out of history and returned to life at “the zoological level.”  At this level they are, like their primitive forebears, content to feed and sleep and strut and rut, just as the mood takes them.  They live a life of what we might call low destinies.

“Life as experienced by primitive and fellahin peoples is just the zoological up and down, a planless happening without goal . . . where occurrences are many but, in the last analysis, devoid of significance.”

By “zoological up and down” Spengler means spasmodic pursuit of the low destinies proposed by our animal appetites, the mundane cycles of hunger and satiety.  Such a life is not altogether planless and without goals, but its plans are petty and its goals are low.  Men rise from this “zoological level” when they are given a “longing for high destinies,” when they receive a conviction that they have been put on this earth to do more than feed and sleep and strut and rut.

In Spengler’s morphology, a Culture is the spiritual unity of a body of men who share a conviction of “high destiny.”  They are moved by something greater than zoological drives.  This is how these “destiny-men” transcend zoology and enter into history. And they remain in history until their conviction of high destiny dies in the rigid formulas of an ossified civilization, whereupon they once again sink to the zoological level and become a fellaheen.

The German title of Spengler’s book is Der Untergang des Abendlandes, and the word Untergang can mean sinking as well as downfall.  His central argument was, indeed, that the men of the West were sinking back to the zoological level of a fellaheen. 

And a beatnik like Jack Kerouac thought this sinking could not happen fast enough. 

* * * * *

Ruins of the Temple, Kom Ombos, Upper Nile, Egypt, David Roberts (c. 1842)

A “longing for high destinies” does not destroy the longing for low destinies—the longing to live, as St. Paul called it, “in the flesh.”  A later age called this longing nostalgie de la boue, or “homesickness for the mud,” and it is yielding to this homesickness that causes the men of a Culture to at last sink to the zoological level of life “in the flesh.”  In the words of the great classicist Gilbert Murray:

There seems to be a certain primitive effortlessness level of human life, much the same all the world over . . . . a kind of world-wide swamp above which a few nations have built what seem like permanent and well-weathered dwellings.  Others make transient refuges which sink back into the slough.  La nostalgie de la boue —‘homesickness for the mud’—is a strong emotion in the human race” (4).

When Murray wrote this line in 1907, Western culture may have seemed like a “permanent and well-weathered dwelling.”  Seven years later, it gave every indication of having been a “transient refuge” that was rapidly sinking back into the slough.  Four years after that, Spengler published Der Untergang des Abendlandes.

In it, Spengler said there were no permanent dwellings, since the flesh is weak and the call of the mud is strong.  And even in the high summer of a Culture, when the longing for the high destiny it proposes is widespread, there will always be a mass of disgruntled under men (untermenschen) who are enthralled by the nostalgie de la boue.

“What the Under-Man wants is, not progress, but regress—regress to more primitive conditions in which he would be at home . . . .” (5)

In the mind of this Under-Man, such a regression to primitive conditions does not entail material privations, for he does not see why swamp-dwellers should not enjoy anesthetics, streaming videos, and all-you-can-eat buffets.  As Spengler says, he does not see why there cannot be bread and circuses in the mud.

Spengler tells us that cosmopolitans and pacifists are the “the spiritual leaders of the fellaheen.”  Today we call these men multicultural globalists.  They seek to lead men, like Moses, out of the bondage of Culture and into the promised land of mud. The cosmopolitan tells them they have no high destiny, unless it be to ensure that all men are equal in their enjoyment of the low destinies of zoological fulfillment. The pacifist tells them that nothing is worth a fight, unless it be a fight to destroy any man who argues that we are put on this earth to do more than feed and sleep and strut and rut.

Their motto is

“Back to the mud, men!  Back to the mud!”

While others look upon this melancholy spectacle and say:

“Look at these Fellahin,
Cinders of men, poor over-roasted snipe,
Fuel for their fat masters” (6)


  1. Philip Baldensperger, The Immovable East: Studies of the People and Customs of Palestine (1913).
  2. “The New Cult of Sex and Anarchy,” Harper’s Magazine (1947)
  3. “Morphology,”British Medical Journal (1878)
  4. Gilbert Murray, The Rise of the Greek Epic (1907).
  5. Lothrop Stoddard, The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Under-Man (1922).
  6. Selden Rodman, Lawrence, the Last Crusade (1937)

33 thoughts on “That Fellaheen Feeling

  1. As an aside, I believe Spengler used the terms ‘Untergang’ and ‘Abendlandes’ quite deliberately for poetic effect and as a nod to Nietzche’s influence on him (credited explicitly in the foreword of ‘Decline Of The West’).

    In Zarathustra, Nietzsche writes about this word ‘Untergang’ as a spiritual metaphor from it’s literal meaning ‘under-going’, a going down into the ‘Abend-landes’ or ‘evening lands’.

    Just another example of the sheer depth packed into even seemingly prosaic elements of Spengler’s prophetic work which I always found intriguing.

    • Yes, I think Abendlandes was meant to denote the West, but also connote the end. It’s an extraordinary book that has been dismissed in the usual modern way, by quibbles over details.

      • A shame as it’s prophetic in its scope. Perhaps some are put off by its almost alt-right style title despite the fact its subject matter deals with more than just the occident. I am currently editing a pdf of a rare book written on it called ‘Spengler’s Future’ which utilises his theories to predict the next 7 centuries of the West; if you are interested I will be posting it on my blog in due time for download.

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  3. The contemporary North American version of the fellah-condition is wandering around while staring — perpetually — at a cell phone.

    • It seems that “cell phone” is alhatif alkhalawi in Arabic. Perhaps these postmodern persons of the aftermath should be called alhatifheen, which is as much Arabic as I can manage to mean People of the Phone, or Phone People, or, may I suggest, Phonepeeps. I like this word Phonepeeps because People of the Phone are really high-tech peeping Toms. Phonepeeper is an acceptable alternative.

  4. This struck a deep chord with me and I don’t know why. It reminded me of that markedly non-poetic work, the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. The farmers of Trantor grazing their livestock about the ruins of the once-great city-world. I hadn’t thought of that in a long time. Neither did I realize there was a word for the phenomenon. Something about that really sets my gears a-turning.

    Honestly I think a fellah analog would be the late, great, ZippyCatholic. His rejection of Voting was a kind of withdrawal from the fallen empire of Modernity and Liberalism. He no longer needed to bear the weight of civilization on his shoulders, and could turn his attention to those things of infinite and spiritual importance. Maybe i’m dressing up his reality in clothes made in my imagination; clothes he surely would never have worn. In any case, it seems to me there is a kind of ‘zen’ to that kind of fellaheen.

    Though it looks like you equate fellaheen to Zippy’s “Low Man”, which is hardly how I would describe Zippy. My former description was that of a hermit living independent of the goings-on about him; but fellah takes on a character of civilizational residue, which is markedly not ‘zen’ but ‘blissfully ignorant’. I do like and somewhat agree with the idea of there being “No permanent dwellings” specifically because of what i’ve read about ethnic migrations over the millenia. A few of my favorite examples: Bulgarians were from a Bulgar-Khanate, who migrated from an area closer to Crimea. The Hungarian Magyars who invaded the Carpathian basin migrated from a region near Kazakhstan. The Germans and French are the same people folded into themselves repeatedly over millenia. The Gauls were celts, more akin to the Scottish than to the present residents. The Franks were germanic tribes that displaced the Gauls. Charlemagne was a Frankish king who re-conquered all german peoples. Russians are derived from the Kievan Rus (established in Kiev, Ukraine), a kingdom which was settled by a possibly legendary finno-scandinavian Rurik dynasty.

    Each of those examples probably seemed at the time to be a permanent residence; but each of those civilizations was born, flourished, matured, died, and been buried. I guess Western Civilization is the summary “High-destiny” hopes of all of those peoples, combined. I guess the difference between that and fellaheen is keeping those embers of high-destiny warm.

    • The symbol of a fellah is certainly a Low Man, Under-man or Untermensch. But I agree with you in sensing the need for a symbol to represent a man of the aftermath who has surrendered in body but not in spirit. Even the word reaction contains the idea of action, but there is a state beyond that of passive mourning. This has something to do with what Bonald has been calling gestural reaction, although the gestures are performed for a very small audience (perhaps of one). This is what I was trying to get at last fall in my post (and video) on Loyalty to Lost Causes. I suppose the Biblical term would be a “remnant.”

      • That is an interesting etymological question. I suppose a liberal interpretation of ‘ideologue’ might fit, but it involves adding meaning to an existing word rather than eliciting new meaning. A pithy way to say it might be ‘Saint’ but that has the same problem. The original greek ‘Idiotes’ was someone who refused to participate in civic life, but in their democratic system that word took on the pejorative meaning it has today. So the puzzle is to find (or contrive) a word that checks the box of: *Continued loyalty to a lost cause *spiritual resistance, if not actual *non negative/pejorative connotation. Most words seem to be negative, connoting the victory of one people over another. The Conqueror would retain no word for the disloyal conquered.

      • Loyalty to a lost cause is noble only in the eyes of the loyalist. To everyone else you will look absurd, sad, or wicked. That’s why whatever name you choose will become pejorative. To the outsider, they are all just synonyms for “sore loser.”

      • “So the puzzle is to find (or contrive) a word that checks the box of:
        *Continued loyalty to a lost cause…”
        Jacobite? Dunedain? Christian?
        Some causes that are lost, stay lost. Others do not.

  5. “A nation is humanity brought into living form. The practical result of world-improving theories is consistently a formless and therefore historyless mass. All world-improvers and world-citizens stand for fellaheen ideals, whether they know it or not. Their success means the abdication of the nation in favour, not of everlasting peace, but of another nation. World-peace is always a one-sided resolve.” Oswald Spengler, Decline of the West, Vol II, Chapter VI, “Cities and Peoples,” Sub-Section V.

    • Cosmopolitanism is just the artillery barrage before the attack. The same principle on a more personal scale is that equality is what people ask for right up to the point that they have enough “equality” to knock you over the head.

      • When we’re all ‘equal’, we’ll be the equivalent of a field of turnips, with nobody considered of any special value but instead disposable as being just more of the same. Fields of turnips are traditionally ‘thinned’ for the health and welfare of the survivors.

    • “A nation is humanity brought into living form.”
      Rubbish. A nation is the tribe (or polis) writ large.
      The tribe (or polis) is the clan writ large.
      The clan is the family writ large.
      The family is the basic unit of society.
      ‘Humanity’ is too large a term for the context.

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  7. Thank you for describing the american fellaheen so concisely.

    Free Northerner has mentioned these people before as the ‘Middle American Radicals,’ or MARs, and has described why they never manage to organize, but he has never described why they fail. They’re clearly patriotic (indeed, the only patriotic conservative faction) but they’re loyal to an america that doesn’t exist anymore.

    And the MARs are not the whole of the fellaheen, they’re only the small number that radicalized. The vast majority are the ‘phone people’ who have few concerns outside of their immediate social network. The MARs get strange ideas into their heads and start fighting back, while the true fellaheen can’t even conceive of america as anything other than some platitudes that they need to mouth.

  8. It’s a good post, thought-provoking.

    But I don’t think the premises are correct. For example, I think Kerouac was wrong to suppose that agricultural peasants are happy and carefree in the way he suggests – although hunter gatherers did seem to be, from the surviving reports – the transition came with the invention of agriculture.

    Also, for all Spengler”s insights and inspirations (which can, I agree, be intixicating and overwhelming!); we need to bear in mind that Christianity regards cultural time as linear and sequential – not, ultimately,as cyclical.

    History was qualitatively changed by the advent of Jesus; and since then, there has been no exact repetition, no going-back – and indeed no lasting stability.

    Anyway – thanks for this stimulating reflection. And Lonesome Traveller is my favourite Kerouac book (although I’m only a very moderate fan of K, I did read a fair bit for a few years) – very much in the tradition of Whatman’s Specimen Days (which is my favouritie Whitman).

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