H. P. Lovecraft wrote his famous story, The Call of Cthulhu, in 1926 and saw it published in Weird Tales in the February 1928 number of that pulp periodical. The story pieces itself together through the gimmick of having its narrator, the nephew of a mysteriously deceased scholar of ancient Semitic languages, sort through his uncle’s papers – among which figure prominently a cache of documents under the label of “CTHULHU CULT.” In the last few years of his life Professor Angell had fixed his interest on this esoteric topic. Evidence indicates that the cult, traces of which appear worldwide, dates back to prehistory; it also manifests its existence in the archaeology of historical religions, particularly those that center on human sacrifice. The deceased scholar had concluded that the cult’s reality extends into the present and that, after a dormant period, it had resumed its activity. As the reader makes his way through Lovecraft’s deliberately fragmented story line, he learns that Cthulhu, the entity whom the cultists worship as a deity, belongs not to the category of the supernatural (nothing in Lovecraft does) but rather to that of the superhuman in an implacably materialistic and Darwinian version of the cosmos. In the immensely distant past, Cthulhu, one of the “Great Old Ones,” descended to Earth from a distant star and enslaved the primitive humanity through his faculty of telepathic manipulation. A rival power, indifferent to humanity, checked Cthulhu and condemned him to hibernation in the sunken city of R’lyeh in the South Pacific. In the final paragraphs of the story’s first section, the executor describes a sheaf of newspaper clippings that Professor Angell had collected. These items, the narrator avers, “touched on cases of panic, mania, and eccentricity,” which betoken Cthulhu’s return to potency. As the nephew records: “A fanatic [from South Africa] deduces a dire future from visions he has seen; and “a dispatch from California describes a theosophist colony as donning white robes en masse for some ‘glorious fulfillment’ which never arrives, whilst items from India speak guardedly of serious native unrest toward the end of March 22-23.”
A proposition that can’t be acted upon must be false, or even meaningless. So its contradiction must be true. Thus you can’t think that you can’t think, e.g.; so you can think, period full stop.
The corollary is that if you cannot avoid acting as if a proposition is true, then it must be true. You must at every moment act, willy nilly; so it is true that you can act. Your agency is real. There is literally no way around this operational presupposition. There is no way for us to be, except by an implicit presupposition of its truth. And the only way for us not to be – namely, suicide – is a way that, again, implicitly presupposes its truth. You can’t kill yourself if you can’t act. You can kill yourself. So you can act. QED.
You can’t act as if you can’t act, for example. So, it is not true that you can’t act. Likewise, you can’t think that you can’t think; can’t be aware that you can’t be aware; can’t mean that there is no meaning; can’t yourself suffer the illusion that your self is an illusion; and so forth.
This is the practical aspect of the fundamental epistemological criterion of truth, which is adequacy to quotidian experience.
Extending this notion a bit further: you can’t say that there is no such thing as metaphysical truth other than by asserting a putative metaphysical truth. Ditto for moral truths, and aesthetic truths: you can’t say that morals or aesthetics are relative except by asserting a moral or aesthetic absolute. Indeed, this holds for any sort of truth. You can’t say there is no political truth other than by asserting a putative political truth, for example.
Nominalism and positivism both fall before this scythe. Nominalism can be asserted only by means of the very universals it reprehends. Positivism itself is among the propositional systems that cannot be logically or empirically demonstrated, and insists are therefore meaningless; so that its assertion is its contradiction.
Also, of course, you can’t for very long successfully live as if an important falsehood were true. We’ve all proved this for ourselves a million times.
Thus the very rejection of God is an implicit recognition of him. You can’t rebel against a nonexistent Lord.
James Chastek’s Just Thomism is one of the sites I read without fail. I like it because he teaches me lots of things. He closed comments a while ago because responding to them took up too much time. So here is what I would have commented at his blog if he still allowed comments, in response to this post:
Many of the books in the “decline of the West” genre – which was already old by the time Weaver published Ideas have Consequences in 1948 but which still sells (Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed) – tell a curious narrative of decline over very large time scales. If Nominalism or Hobbesianism were as harmful as claimed, why is the diseased host still alive a half-millennium later?
Now that’s a good question. I myself have contributed a fair bit to the literature wailing and bemoaning nominalism. How do I answer the question?
On the train last evening I spotted – or perhaps I should say, I was assaulted by – a placard advertising a music festival. I thought: Is this what women really want for themselves? Is this supposed to be attractive?
Honestly, the woman looks like she’s being tortured. Fun!
Berdyaev points out that if God and the individual human Personality are not someone’s highest ideal then that person is effectively promising to sacrifice the individual in the name of that supposedly higher ideal. The logic is simple and undeniable.
If someone says that under any circumstances, no matter what competing goods there may be or seem to be, the Personality is sacrosanct and to be protected at all costs, then that person is elevating Personality to the highest level of their morality in the manner that Berdyaev identifies as necessary and has abandoned his former allegiances.
Alternatives to the genuine highest good include the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, well-being, just plain “happiness,” social justice, feminism, equality, the nation, workers of the world, rationalism, science, and progress.
Every one of those “goods” is a murderous cult bent on the immolation of the human individual. If any object to this accusation, let him agree that Personality is paramount and beats out all competing ideals and that his former highest good is now secondary and always, in every situation, to be trumped by God and Personality. Continue reading
For the Russian philosopher Berdyaev, freedom is absolutely fundamental. And freedom is connected with subjectivity and Spirit, rather than the objective (measurable) external world.
All attempts to locate meaning and value in things outside the human soul are doomed to fail. Thinking of the universe as an organism, for instance, seems like an improvement over thinking of it as a dead mechanism. It turns the cosmos into a living entity with a purpose, but it also means thinking of people as mere cells in this organism to be subordinated to the larger whole. Nationalism turns the nation into a false idol to be worshipped. Neither “history,” nor “progress,” nor “the human race,” nor Platonic Forms are particularly significant or even real. They are hypostatizations and abstractions. For Berdyaev, the concrete individual personality is the full locus of reality and value. Anything else renders the personality a meaningless nothing to be used as a means to some other end.
Kant, who also saw human beings as ends in themselves, pointed out that freedom must be a fundamental aspect of human subjectivity because love exists. This is known directly from experience. Each one of us has loved and been the recipient of love. Love cannot exist without freedom. We should let the datum of love determine our theories and speculations about ultimate existence. If love is possible, and we know it is, then freedom exists.
[Note: This essay appeared some few years ago in the Sydney Traditionalist Forum, shortly after the death by suicide of its subject. The work of Venner remaining relevant, I re-post the essay here, with a few small changes.]
Dominique Venner (born 16 April 1935) ended his life publicly and dramatically by shooting himself in the mouth before the altar of Our Lady of Notre Dame in Paris six years ago on 21 May 2013. The bullet passed through Venner’s brain and exited the back of his head. In the opening paragraph of a suicide note that he sent to his publisher, Venner sought to justify his action:
I am healthy in body and mind, and I am filled with love for my wife and children. I love life and expect nothing beyond, if not the perpetuation of my race and my mind. However, in the evening of my life, facing immense dangers to my French and European homeland, I feel the duty to act as long as I still have strength. I believe it necessary to sacrifice myself to break the lethargy that plagues us. I give up what life remains to me in order to protest and to found. I chose a highly symbolic place, the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, which I respect and admire: She was built by the genius of my ancestors on the site of cults still more ancient, recalling our immemorial origins.
A reader cannot avoid remarking the contradictions in Venner’s testament. A professed love of life comports itself awkwardly with a gesture of self-annihilation. One could argue that Venner meant by “life,” not his own, but the collective, trans-personal vitality of his children and their descendants; he refers after all to “the perpetuation of [his] race and [his] mind.” Seen in that way, his suicide might rise to being a Stoical demonstration, like those of Petronius and Seneca in the time of Nero. Even so, no few problems remain; not least the dis-relation between Venner’s professed respect and admiration for the “highly symbolic place” of the Lady Church and his having blemished its consecrated precincts with his effluvia. How moreover would such an act “break the lethargy that plagues us”? More likely – even patently, looking back on the event – it would merely add to the pernicious confusion of the times. The explanation of these contradictions is undoubtedly linked to the fact that while Venner acknowledged his belonging to a specifically Christian civilization in its late phase, he never himself identified as an adherent of that faith. Like his countrymen-contemporaries Guillaume Faye (b. 1949) and Alain de Benoist (b. 1943), Venner espoused Friedrich Nietzsche’s Neo-Pagan view of Christianity as “slave morality,” a religion of defeat and death, and the cause of rather than the antidote to the malaise of modernity unleashed. Like Nietzsche, whom Venner admired, and who signed his last letters as “The Crucified One,” the suicide might well have been experiencing a revilement of Christ which was, at the same time, a desire to rival and replace Him. That would account for Venner’s characterization of his act as an instance of “self-sacrifice” and for his references to “cults still more ancient” than the Cult of the Virgin on the Ile de la Cité, with whose pre-Christian religiosity he would have identified in opposition to Christianity.
The basic problem with freedom of speech and of religion is that in principle, and then inevitably in practice, it opens the agora to the discussion of the pros and cons of every alternative cult. No topic is prohibited. So, no sort of doctrine or rite is forbidden within the pale. There ensues a proliferation and interpenetration and confusion of heresies and petty foreign cults. The cult of Moloch is then sooner or later bound to enter the lists. Where there is freedom of speech and of religion, no one will be able to prevent that entry legally.
Where it is legal to advocate and to practice Molochism, it will sooner or later be advocated and practiced, by at least some few.
Of the French Symbolist School of poetry, Nicolas Berdyaev writes in his Crisis of Art (1917) that its contributors not only acutely sensed the profound spiritual crisis that had shaken and shattered Western culture since the Eighteenth Century at least, but attempted a new, redemptive synthesis that would function as the equivalent of “the sacral art of the ancient world and of the Medieval world.” (The translation is that of Father S. Janos.) The Symbolist poets, as Berdyaev plausibly describes their aspiration, “wanted to lead art out of the crisis through a return to the organic artistic era”; they sensed that the arts “are a product of differentiation” of an historical type, and that they “derived from a temple and cultic origin… developed from an organic unity” and “were subordinated to a religious center.” The Symbolists, Berdyaev asserts, were the last Western artists to strive for pure beauty before the schools of aschemiolatry, in a spasm of “empty freedom,” began their program of bespattering the cosmos with mud and offal. Berdyaev even ascribes to the Symbolists a theurgic propensity. In The Meaning of the Creative Act (1916), he defines theurgic art as “creating another world, another being, another life,” even to the extent of “creating beauty as essence, as being.” (The translator identifies himself only as “D. A. L.”) For the Russian, theurgy in art consists in a revelation of “the religious-ontological, the religious meaning of being.” Theurgy, as “free creation,” seeks to imitate, under the limitations of mortality and temporality, the original creative act of the World Maker, not so as to challenge, but only so as to imitate, the God whose image man bears. The Symbolists in this way make themselves followers of such as Rembrandt van Rijn and Johann Sebastian Bach, artists who attributed their creativity hence also their creations not to themselves but, as faithful Monothreeists, to the Three-in-One.
Berdyaev’s observations in The Creative Act and The Crisis are themselves strongly indebted to the poetry and prose of the Symbolists, not least to the musings of Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé, but also to the works of Richard Wagner and Alexander Scriabin. Like their Kiev-born inheritor, the Symbolists were mainly reactionary – as the cases of Baudelaire and Wagner well illustrate. Again like Berdyaev, the Symbolists combined in their creative work and in the explanations thereof their keen sense of transcendence, their anthropological clarity, and their profound vision of cultural decline. Such men were somewhat paradoxically modern in asserting new genres in their respective artistic domains while at the same time both rejecting modernity per se and advocating for the virtues of the West’s pre-modern phases, sometimes in the Middle Ages and sometimes in antiquity. The Symbolists also tended to valorize Christianity. In Mallarmé’s Coup de dès or Roll of the Dice (1897), for example, whose bewildering anti-verses seem in their typographic dispersion to represent the chaos of false freedom, Christ appears as “Le Maître,” “The Master,” who is also the early Nineteenth Century Right-Catholic critic of the French Revolution, Joseph de Maistre. Baudelaire (1821 – 1867), whom Mallarmé took as his model, explicitly identified himself as the successor of the same Maistre. In these essential gestures, Symbolism links itself to the larger reactionary critique of “progress” and “revolution” that first becomes explicit in Edmund Burke and in the very same Maistre. The Symbolists must then exert considerable allure on the reactionary, anti-modern consciousness of the early Twenty-First Century – one hopes.
The present essay proposes to examine two short Symbolist poems, both sonnets, and both from the early phases of the movement. These are “Vers dorés” (1846) by Gérard de Nerval (1808 – 1855) and “Correspondences” (1857) by Baudelaire, the latter appearing in the poet’s famous verse-anthology Les Fleurs du Mal or Flowers of Evil. In its commentary on the two poems, the essay will bring to bear the insights into Symbolism of Berdyaev, certain elements of the anthropologies of Maistre and René Girard, and the Weltanschauung and generalized convictions of the reactionary consciousness of the Twenty-First Century. The mixture might strike readers as a bit arbitrary or even as vertiginous, but its fundamental coherency should gradually make itself evident. It is a premise of the reactionary consciousness that art is fundamentally conservative and that in its highest expression it is a species of prophesy or apocalypse, at once illuminating the fallenness of the world and pointing the fallen creature towards transcendence of its condition.