Art generally or literature specifically, insofar as it comes down to the present from the past, tends to be conservative and traditional. Any essay, poem, play, story, or novel is formed in its completion by its author and retains that form every time it is re-read or re-issued. Not even the postmodern contemnors of Shakespeare as the exemplary Dead White Male dare to alter his text, however spitefully they address it; they never speak of a “Living Hamlet” in the way that they speak of a “Living Constitution” that lends itself to re-composition on a whim. The interpretation of Hamlet changes, but the document possesses a taboo that protects it from tampering. In the moment when any essay, poem, play, story, or novel is formed, moreover, the spirits of the age and place imbue the work with their character even in cases where the author opposes himself to their character. George Elliot (a.k.a. Mary Anne Evans) might have been a socialist and feminist, but she was also a child of the Victorian era – and many things that scandalize Twenty-First Century conservatives and traditionalists would have scandalized her just as much. H. G. Wells advocated such programs as a type of radical but non-Marxist socialism, world government, eugenics, and much else, but one will find in his novels and essays no promotion of “gay marriage,” abortion, or mass immigration. Wells criticized the English society of his day, but he remained fond of England. He would no doubt be shocked by aspects of Twenty-First Century London. And then there are the authors who are thematically conservative.
Cervantes might be the first, in that his Quixote, Part II, criticizes the notion of the modern, finding in it a type of bland self-orientation. Indeed, as the centuries pass, modernity creates a bifurcation among writers: There are those who see themselves as modern and conform to modernity’s expectations; and there are those who breast the stream. The present essay treats two American novelists who belong to the second category. One of these novelists lived in the first half of the Nineteenth Century. The other lived in the middle of the Twentieth Century. Whatever the expectation might be, they are startlingly close to one another in their moral analyses of modernity, especially of its “progressive” aspect. Whether either author would have applied to himself the label of conservative or traditionalist, in the present context that label settles on him willy-nilly. Perhaps it is so that integrity – of insight and judgment as well as of literary execution – is an intrinsically conservative trait.
Albert Camus produced in L’Homme revolté[Man in Revolt] or The Rebel (1951) a milestone of postwar philosophical writing, widely admired for its diagnosis of a combat-shattered, God-deprived, and ideologically disgruntled world. In The Rebel Camus (1913 – 1960) was distancing himself from Existentialism – that of Sartre, anyway – in favor of something more like a tradition-rooted perspective. Existentialism had already caricatured itself in the early 1950s so that its slogans might serve undergraduates and taxicab drivers. Camus quoted at length from Friedrich Nietzsche and Fyodor Dostoevsky; he reiterated that modernity itself was askew and had become bitterly unsatisfying to those caught up in its tenacious grip. Despite his range of reference, however, Camus makes no mention in The Rebel of Gustave Le Bon (1841 – 1931), author of The Psychology of Revolution (1895) and The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1896). Nevertheless Le Bon’s sharp-eyed meditations prefigure Camus’ “Absurdist” critique of society and culture, but from a non-disgruntled and distinctly right-wing point of view. Le Bon’s book The World in Revolt: A Psychological Study of our Times (1920) even anticipated Camus’ title. Le Bon’s follow-up, Le déséquilibre du monde[The Disequilibrium of the World] (1923) offered a trope – that of vertigo – which the Existentialists, including Camus, would eagerly receive and exploit. Camus’ protagonist in The Stranger, Meursault, feels such dizziness just before he murders a random Arab on the Algerian beach.
Except for The Crowd, Le Bon’s work has largely disappeared from the institutional memory. The Crowd maintains a tenuous grip because of its debt-holding position in respect to the work of René Girard. But because Le Bon belongs on the political right, his few contemporary commentators treat him dismissively. The Wikipedia article on Le Bon offers an example. The article-writer attributes to Le Bon the recommendation of various techniques for crowd manipulation employed by the totalitarian states in the mid-Twentieth Century. In various books related to the French Revolution and the First World War, Le Bon had indeed described such techniques, always critically, while condemning them for their corrosiveness of individual responsibility. Such confusion of the descriptive with the prescriptive offers itself as entirely deliberate – an attempt to anathematize a perceptive thinker because he rejected socialism. In an amusing exchange among Internet correspondents at a “Gustave Le Bon” chat-site, the message-writers argue this way and that whether a Société Gustave Le Bon ever existed or whether it still exists. No one seems to know. The issue lingers unresolved. Occultists have sometimes heard of Le Bon, who expounded the theory that matter had evolved, and who argued that each atom was a separate microcosmic world.Le Bon had many admirers, not least the poet Paul Valéry, another Man of the Right, and the philosopher Henri Bergson.
A critique of cultural relativism, Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (1992) by Robert B. Edgerton (1931 – 2016), an anthropologist and ethnologist who taught at UCLA for many years, has implications not only for how one might evaluate the pre-modern, non-Western folk-societies (primitive societies) studied by professional ethnographers and anthropologists, but for how one might understand both institutions and social practices – and perhaps even political ones – more generally. Sick Societies provoked moderate controversy when it appeared, but probably few remember the book today. Nevertheless, Sick Societies deserves not to disappear into the oblivion of the library stacks; or, more likely in 2018, to be purged from the shelves. Revisiting it twenty-five years later indeed shows it to have maintained its relevance. Provocative in its day, it remains provocative. Sick Societies might well be a meditation on culture urgently apposite to the current phase of the West’s seemingly interminable crisis at the end of the second decade of the Twenty-First Century.
I. Adaptation, a Darwinian evolutionary concept, plays a central role in anthropology. The theory of adaptation articulates the anthropologist’s conviction that all societies manage to come to terms optimally with their external environment, and with the internal difficulties presented by communal life, as a people strives to fit itself in its environmental niche. This optimal coming-to-terms will be the case even when it might seem to uninformed or prejudiced outsiders that the beliefs and practices of a given community operate inefficiently or counter-productively and that they therefore fail to meet the requirements of human happiness. Under this view, a modern Westerner’s disdain for magic or witchcraft or for elaborate rituals or proliferating taboos would itself indicate a deformation (“ethnocentrism”) because the objects of that disdain, which the anthropologist or ethnographer properly understands even where the lay person does not, operate by a concealed rationality that only the initiated might perceive. On this assumption, seemingly irrational commitments and practices would in fact be just as rational as modern Western arrangements, but in a way that Western prejudice prevents people from recognizing. From this position, in Edgerton’s words, “it follows that any attempt to generalize about either culture or human nature must be false or trivial unless it is confined to people who live in a specific cultural system.” This would imply, in turn, that “Western science is only a culturally specific form of ethnoscience, not a universally valid way of verification or falsification.” Edgerton does not directly state, but rather he implies, that, if the idea in the last sentence quoted above were true, as anthropologists and ethnographers by consensus assert, then that truth would hold important implications for anthropology and ethnography themselves. Why, for example, must one validate the tribal belief in magic while withholding validation for the modern Western suspicion about magical thinking? But ethnography does not treat Western skepticism about the other as adaptive.