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.
Having lived through the Russian Revolution and seen its results two powerful writers wrote brilliant critiques of the entire mode of thought associated with it. Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote WE, a dystopian futuristic novel where the One State had achieved “happiness” by reducing its members to nameless drones. Free will, religion and imagination have been banished and societal problems have been “solved” via extreme rationalism and mathematical equations. Zamyatin’s novel was the progenitor of Brave New World and 1984 but published in 1922. It was immediately banned. Nikolai Berdyaev, with the help of Dostoevsky’s amazing prescience in novels like The Possessed, also understood the dire consequences of the revolution, finding himself exiled about the time of WE’s publication. Two brilliant assertions Berdyaev made, among others, was that without the idea of God there can be no idea of man and every highest good other than God leads murderously to treating men as means to achieving the hoped-for goal – “happiness” included.
Sam Harris rose to fame as one of the self-proclaimed Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens being the other three) AKA as the New Atheists. Embracing the horsemen moniker seems like wearing your nihilism rather too evidently on your sleeve, but Harris was only too happy about it.
Harris has a significant following. He is a determinist, with all the logical paradoxes such a position engenders, and embraces a hyper-rationalism. He has hopes to save the world through “rational” debate and ridding the world of religion. He has found himself in trouble with his liberal brethren by being openly critical of Islam and being willing to talk to Charles Murray of The Bell Curve fame.
Tom Bertonneau recently commented to me that Christianity is engaging in a new revelation; namely the effects of its withdrawal from large sectors of the Western world resulting in the current frenzy of scapegoating and a pervasive dreary nihilism hopefully leading to its future re-embracement. The Russians had a foretaste with the banning of religion after the revolution and the various utopian fantasies that invariably seek to replace Christianity giving writers like Berdyaev and Zamyatin particular perspicuity. These two writers brilliantly anticipated all the main rhetorical and intellectual stances of Sam Harris and others like him, and point out their logical and real-world consequences long before Harris was ever born.
The following article, kindly published by The Sydney Traditionalist, – Sam Harris; the Unconverted outlines the way Berdyaev and Zamyatin anticipate and critique Harris and his ilk.
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.
The spectacle of decadence has appealed to poets since the time of Juvenal, the heyday of whose authorship came early in the Second Century AD. The hypertrophy and grotesquery of the Imperial City thus provide the background for Juvenal’s remarkable Satires, which presciently mirror the cultural degeneracy of the early Twenty-First Century’s civic scene, quite as well as they do for that of their own Latinate-Imperial milieu. Did Juvenal’s eyes witness him the Urbs on the Tiber or the City by the Bay? Is he writing about Rome’s Stoic salons or UC Berkeley’s Philosophy Department during the visiting professorship of Michel Foucault or again about the disintegration of the humanities departments generally under Deconstruction? “Infection spread this plague, / and will spread it further still… You will be taken up, over time / by a very queer brotherhood,” as Juvenal writes. Rome had its mysteries two thousand years ago, but then so does West Hollywood today: “You’ll see one initiate busy with an eyebrow pencil [while] a second sips his wine / from a big glass phallus, his long luxuriant curls / caught up in a golden hairnet.” Nor is the modern milieu less free than Rome was under Domitian, say, or Hadrian, of secret police, informers, and goon-squads. A ready inclination to cry lèse majesté belongs to the ripeness of a politically and culturally corrupt scene. So too do the insipidity of literature and the jejuneness of art.
Juvenal’s scathing wit, which approximates the metaphysical, has exercised its influence down through the centuries, the satirist’s spirit being noticeable, for example, in Samuel Johnson’s “London” (1738), which the learned doctor patterns after Satire III, and in contemporaneous prose passages from Jonathan Swift. The “City” passages of T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land owe a debt to Juvenal, including the allusions to gross homosexual solicitation. To invoke Eliot, however, is to invoke Eliot’s models, the French Symbolist poets, who took their vision from the eldest of them, their spiritual father as it were, Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867). That keen-eyed king of flâneurs knew his Juvenal well, as he knew literature well, all of it. Concerning Baudelaire’s prose poem “Portrait of a Mistress,” for example, Rosemary Boyd in her study of the poet (2008) remarks that the “Portrait” reads like an “urbane version of Juvenal’s sixth satire, with its attacks on women and its suggestion that a perfect wife, that rara avis, would prove not just tedious but infuriating in her ability to show up the faults of her husband.”
The reality that modernity is and that it also causes crises, severe ones, in the cultural and civilizational fabric dawned on perceptive observers at the turn of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Joseph de Maistre in the Francophone world and Edmund Burke in Anglophone offer themselves as early outstanding analysts of emergent modernity. Their work constitutes the bedrock of a steady tradition of anti-modern criticism that has, somewhat paradoxically, accompanied modernity for more than two centuries, becoming ever more acute as modernity increased in its perniciousness. The first half of the Twentieth Century produced a number of outstanding commentators in this vein – not least that Colossus Oswald Spengler, but also René Guénon, Julius Evola, José Ortega, Simone Weil, Paul Valéry, and Eric Voegelin, to name but a few. And that is to count only the essayists. Poets and novelists add themselves to the tally. Another important name that wants a place in the list belongs to Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), whose curriculum vitae heightens the plausibility of his critique. Born of the minor aristocracy, Berdyaev in his youth associated himself with Marxism and the Bolsheviks even to the extent of supporting the October Revolution. The regime permitted Berdyaev to teach and to publish, but the brutality of Lenin’s new order swiftly alienated the philosopher, who began to criticize the state and its actions from a specifically Christian point of view. At one point the police arrested Berdyaev but then released him. Berdyaev continued his criticism until finally Lenin exiled him in 1922. He went first to Berlin, but the chaos of the early Weimar years made it impossible for him to work. in 1924 he traded Berlin for Paris where he remained. Berdyaev lived by writing and lecturing. His authorship offers itself both as an intrinsically useful assessment of the modern deformation and as a complement to the work of those other, mainly Western European writers named above. Berdyaev possessed a perspective all his own.
“The central theme of our epoch is that of all history – the fate of man. What is taking place in the world today is not a crisis of humanism (that is a topic of secondary importance), but the crisis of humanity. We face the question, is that being to whom the future belongs to be called man, as previously, or something other? We are witnessing the process of dehumanization in all phases of culture and of social life. Above all, moral consciousness is being dehumanized. Man has ceased to be the supreme value: He has ceased to have any value at all. The youth of the whole world, communist, fascist, national-socialist or those simply carried away by technics or sport – this youth is not only anti-humanistic in its attitudes, but often anti-human. Does this mean that we should defend the old humanism against today’s youth? In many of my books I have called attention to the crisis in humanism, and tried to show that it inevitably develops into anti-humanism and that its final stage is a denial of man. Humanism has become powerless and must be replaced. Humanism bound up with the renaissance of antiquity is very frail; its development implies an aristocratic social order and democracy has dealt it terrible blows, with the masses and the the power of technics breaking into cultural life. The machine dehumanizes human life. Man, desiring no longer to be the image of God, becomes the image of the machine. In its process of democratization, beginning with the eighteenth century, humanism goes along the line of subjecting man to society, to social ordinariness, it generalizes man – it is losing itself.”
Nicolas Berdyaev, The Fate of Man in the Modern World (1935), Chapter II “Dehumanization,” Section I, Paragraph 1.
In our sessions at Old City Hall, Richard Cocks and I often exchange ideas with our friend Richard Fader – a true Christian gentleman whom we both greatly admire – and among the recurrent topics is that of Puritanism. Fader, as we call him, is part libertarian, part social conservative, well read, and a lively conversationalist. The question used continuously to come up: Who are the Puritans of the present day? Fader, who despite his socially conservative instincts, has voted Democratic all his life, was, when these colloquies began, all too ready to identify the Puritans with the people whom he called “conservatives.” Richard and I, who work on the same college campus, have repeatedly explained to our friend that it is not “conservatives” who want to ban free speech, who physically threaten speakers with whom they disagree in order to silence them, or who abuse public institutions for the purpose of political indoctrination. It is not “conservatives” who preach the lynch-mob sermons of our day. Fanaticism and hatred, we have argued, are nowadays located almost entirely on the political left, which has taken over the Democratic Party and just about every institution. As Fader has come around significantly on the issue, the question has changed from its original form to become one of definition: What is Puritanism? I recently came across a provocative definition of Puritanism in a book that I periodically re-read.
The extended passage below comes from Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, Volume II (1922), where it appears in Chapter IX, “Pythagoras, Mohammed, Cromwell.” Chapter IX is the third of three chapters that Spengler devotes to what he calls “The Problems of Arabian Culture.” The “problems” that Spengler discusses are both intrinsic to Arabian Culture and associated with the Western misinterpretation of Arabian Culture. In the original, the passage is one long paragraph. I have broken it into three shorter paragraphs in order to facilitate its reading. I offer a few glosses and comments after the quotation.
Beginning in the mid-1990s and for about ten years I published a number of articles about the dismal state of the humanities and one of its causes: The savage war against literacy being waged in the public schools by the state-university departments of education that set curricula for K-12. My Modern Age article from 2003, “Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition,” synthesizes several of my argumentative strands at the time and suggests the dire state of American literacy already nearly twenty years ago. (Click on the emboldened link to go to a PDF of the article, which may be read online or downloaded.) Things have not improved and they are getting worse all the time.
I find myself prompted to call attention to “Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition” by the appearance at The American Thinker recently of an article by Bruce Dietrick Price under the title “K-12: History of a Conspiracy against Reading,” which I strongly recommend. (Again, click on the emboldened link to go to the article.)
The decline into a post-literate condition, in which there is no intact oral tradition to which the deprived parties might repair, belongs to the general subscendence of our age.
I believe that “Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition” does a fairly good job of summarizing the findings of three important scholars of literacy: Walter J. Ong, whose Orality and Literacy (1981) is indispensable; Eric Havelock, who wrote on the early phases of alphabetic literacy in Greece (see his Preface to Plato, 1963); and Barry Powell, whose Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet (1991), is bold and monumental.