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.
A guest post by Orthosphere commenter PBW:
Faithful Catholics are expected to accept that, although the Pope is elected by the Conclave of (eligible) Cardinals, the One who really selects the Pope is the Holy Ghost Himself: the cardinals are His catspaws, so to speak. It is a grave offence to leak the proceedings of the Conclave (which is why such leaking is so rare), but if the preceding is to be accepted, the machinations in the Conclave are irrelevant. Therefore, I can appreciate both the smile and the squirm of orthodox Catholics who, in these very pages, see the so-ordained Pope described as … ahem … Pope Fruit Loops I.
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.
At Gates of Vienna, I review, somewhat belatedly, Pierre Manent’s book Beyond Radical Secularism (2016). The book carries the subtitle How France and the Christian West Should Respond to the Islamic Challenge. I offer an excerpt. —
What is radical secularism? Manent defines radical secularism as the opinion, pervasive in modern Europe since the end of World War Two, that views religion merely and strictly “as an individual option, something private, a feeling that is finally incommunicable.” Manent argues, however, that this opinion is not native to those who hold it, but rather is the result of a propaganda regime in place for many decades. “The power of this perspective over us,” Manent writes, “is all the greater because it is essentially dictated by our political regime, and because we are good citizens.” It belongs to the bland conformism of the modern – or postmodern – person that he wishes to participate in such self-lauding phenomena as “enlightenment” and “progress.” Not even “the acts of war committed in early 2015 in Paris” seem to have shaken that conformism, which confirmed its blandness with a brief rush of emotion followed by a return of the characterless routine. France finds itself in a state of “paralysis,” Manent concludes. Its program, from the presidency down through the institutions right to the conformist mass of citizen-individuals appears to be to see nothing and to do nothing. The Muslim problem exists, according to Manent, because the French state is weak and cannot produce the secularity, which would integrate Muslims, and which it declares as its program. Whereas “the State of the Third Republic had authority” and “represented that all held sacred,” as Manent argues; “our state [the Fifth Republic] has abandoned its representative ambition and pride, thus losing a good part of its legitimacy in the eyes of citizens.”
Manent continues: “Our state now obeys a principle of indeterminacy and dissipation.” Indeed, the French state, committed to the European Union, is programmatically self-minimizing. This trend attaches to another: The rising hostility to and elision of national culture and national identity. Manent points out that “the work of the state… has tended to deprive education of its content, or empty these contents of what I dare call their imperatively desirable character.” Under the Third Republic, pride in the achievement of one’s nation – or at the very least, the explicit acknowledgment of those achievements – expressed itself robustly and informed the national curriculum. The existing curriculum, in the name of multiculturalism, has elbowed the lesson in what it means to inherit the French nation out to the margin of the page or out of the textbook altogether. “How can we begin from the beginning,” Manent asks, “and gather children together in the competent practice of the French language, when we have done so much to strip this language of its ‘privilege?’” Given that secularity itself is such an empty concept, how might teachers teach secularism, the primary principle supposedly of the state – say, to Muslim students who crowd France’s urban schools? One can teach the heritage of a nation, but one finds himself hard-pressed to teach a self-evacuating notion. “Under the name of secularism we dream of a teaching without content that would effectively prepare children to be members of a formless society in which religions would be dissolved along with everything else.”
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.
My essay A Westerner Reads the Koran appears at the Gates of Vienna website. In it, I offer a type of reader-response critique of the second surah of the Koran. That surah bears the title “The Cow,” which possibly entails a rather oblique allusion to the episode of the Golden Calf in Exodus or, as a scholarly footnote suggests, to a passing reference to an occasion of heifer-sacrifice overseen by Moses, as recounted in Numbers. I offer an extract:
The Western layman approaching the Koran for the first time must experience something like befuddlement. Supposing that the layman possesses a good education, including knowledge of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and the core classics of the Greek and Roman worlds, the Koran will strike him as something like the opposite of that with which he enjoys familiarity. Take the Bible’s Genesis: It deals in straightforward narrative, as does its Near Eastern precursor texts such as the Babylonian Creation or Enuma Elish. The very opening words of Genesis invoke the concept of a beginning, which implies in advance both a middle-part and an end. The same is true of the Greek poet Hesiod’s account of the generations of the gods – Elemental, Titanic, and Olympian – in his Theogony. After Hesiod explains his own function as an interpreter of the lore concerning these things, he launches into his genealogical story whose episodes follow one another in comprehensible sequence: Once again, a beginning, a middle-part, and an end. In much the same way, the New Testament follows the Old Testament so that, taken together, they constitute a unified tale. The events in Homer’s Odyssey similarly follow in a comprehensible way the events in Homer’s Iliad. The essential seriality, as it might be called, of Western narrative and exposition contributes mightily to their seriousness and comprehensibility. Both the Old Testament and the New also sort out their chapters so as to keep non-narrative prose separate from narrative prose. This consideration helps the reader. To whomsoever compiled the Koran these principles meant nothing. The Koran lards non-narrative exposition into its narratives – promiscuously and confusingly from a readerly point of view. A properly chronological narrative can, by a difficult labor, be reconstructed from the Koran’s chapters or surahs, borrowing the history of prophecy from the Old Testament, but the naïve Western reader who proceeds from one surah to another will encounter no orderly arrangement of episodes such as he might expect in the Bible or Homer.
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.
In a recent essay, I suggested that the angels are the concrete archetypes of the Platonic Forms. This in response to a few Ockhamian challenges to Plato regarding the Forms that I there adduced:
What’s the Platonic Realm, for Heaven’s sake? Where is it? How does it interact with our own? If it does interact with our own, then isn’t it really integral with our own? If so, then what sets the Forms apart from their contingent instantiations here below? What does eternity have to do with creaturity?
… If [the Platonic Realm is concrete], and therefore ineluctably particular, then how is it universally and archetypally Formal?
Well, OK. Stipulating to the notion that the angels are the concrete archetypes of the Forms, how does that help us answer those questions?
In his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1597), theologian Richard Hooker (1554 – 1600) undertook one of the earliest comprehensive critiques of Puritanism – specifically of the insurgent English Puritanism of his day. Hooker’s analysis of the tactics of agitation and propaganda used by the Puritans, and again of the narrowness of the Puritan consciousness, so impressed the political philosopher Eric Voegelin that he devoted a chapter of his New Science of Politics (1952) to it – Chapter 5, “Gnostic Revolution: The Puritan Case.” Voegelin’s thesis that the modern or progressive mentality revived the Gnosticism of Late Antiquity might indeed be said to have sprung, in no little part, from his reading of Hooker’s exposition. Voegelin’s “Second Reality,” the radical vision of a reformed and utopian cosmos to be realized through the conversion or annihilation of all parties who resist it, finds a powerful anticipation in Hooker’s description of the agitator’s cause and his method of seducing gullible others to underwrite it. According to Voegelin modernity is Gnostic by virtue of its four central conceits, all of which are deformations of Christian symbolism: (1) The linked conceptions of history as closed, such that its plan might be discerned and even hastened, and of redemption as entirely this-worldly and within the capacity of man to effect; (2) the necessity of a leader styling himself as “Paracletic”; (3) the “prophet of the new age,” who might be identical with the leader; and (4) “the brotherhood of autonomous person.” Voegelin finds that Hooker recognizes these four conceits in the ultra-protestant sects of his day.
Hooker’s Elizabethan prose style, with its many postponements of the final clause, puts obstacles in the way of comprehension so that Voegelin, in his commentary, wisely quotes from the book selectively and otherwise contents himself with paraphrasing its arguments and insights. It is nevertheless worth the effort to read Hooker’s original exposition as fully as possible. I have made some slight alterations in Hooker’s syntax, mainly by eliding supernumerary clauses, so as to render the long sentences a bit more comprehensible to a Twenty-First Century reader. The suite of paragraphs below, taken from the Preface of The Laws, constitutes the heart of Hooker’s analysis. In addition to simplifying Hooker’s syntax, I have introduced the paragraphing. In my facsimile of the original there is no paragraphing whatsoever. I remark in advance with no little surprise that Hooker, like Oswald Spengler, makes reference to the Pythagoreans as a prototype of Puritanism. I offer a few comments after the transcription. –
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.