Against Nihilism: Julius Evola’s “Traditionalist” Critique of Modernity

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Julius Evola (1898 – 1974)

With the likes of Oswald Spengler whose Decline he translated for an Italian readership, and Jose Ortega y Gasset, Julius Evola (1898 – 1974) stands as one of the notably incisive mid-Twentieth Century critics of modernity.  Like Spengler and Ortega, Evola understood himself to owe a formative debt to Friedrich Nietzsche, but more forcefully than Spengler or Ortega, Evola saw the limitations – the contradictions and inconsistencies – in Nietzsche’s thinking.  Evola differed from Spengler and Ortega in another way: like certain other Men of the Right during the same decades, he involved himself deeply in matters mystical and occult, creating a reputation during the last part of his life as an expert in such topics as Eastern religiosity, alchemy, and the vast range of esoteric doctrines.  Hermann Keyserling comes to mind also, as having directed his interest to these matters.  Nevertheless, Keyserling, who knew Evola’s work, avoided Evola, rather as Spengler had shied from Keyserling.  It would have been in part because Evola’s occult investment struck Keyserling as more blatant and far-reaching than his own and in part because Evola appeared, in the early 1930s, to be sympathetic to Fascism and National Socialism, whereas Keyserling, like Spengler, saw these unequivocally as signs of the spreading decadence of his time and so criticized them from their beginnings.  While Evola’s transient proclivities justified Keyserling’s misgivings, swift mounting mutual distaste put actual distance between Evola and the dictatorships.  Had he known, Keyserling might have warmed to Evola.  By the time war broke out, the self-styled Baron had explicitly repudiated dictatorial principles.  Evola, who had his own theory of race, expressed particular revulsion towards Nazi race-policy and Mussolini’s aping of it in Italy after 1938.

Evola nevertheless makes difficulties for those of conservative temperament who would appreciate his critique of modernity.  He could be dismissive of Christianity, at least in its modern form, as a social religion; and like his counterparts on the Left, he despised the bourgeoisie and its values, so much so that at least one of his biographers has compared him, by no means implausibly, to Frankfurt-School types like Herbert Marcuse and Theodor W. Adorno.  Yet Evola’s all-around prickliness belongs to his allure.  Thus in a 1929 article, “Bolchevismo ed Americanismo,” Evola condemns with equal fervor Muscovite communism and American money-democracy, as representing, the both of them, the mechanization and dehumanization of life.  Unlike the Marxists – and unlike the Fascists and National Socialists – Evola saw the only hope for Western Civilization as lying in a revival of what he liked to capitalize, on the one hand, as Tradition and, on the other, as Transcendence; he thus rejected all materialism and instrumentalism as crude reductions of reality for coarse minds and, so too, as symptoms of a prevailing and altogether repugnant decadence.

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Globalism as Sacrificial Crisis: Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s Mark of the Sacred

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The Wicker Man of the Pagan Celts

Gregory Copley has argued in his study of Un-Civilization (2014) that the global human arrangement, a creeping improvisation of the last three or four centuries, nowadays has outlived its ad hoc semi-functionality so that it totters on the verge of a radical spontaneous reconstruction whose survivors will have experienced it as nothing less than a catastrophe.  Eric Cline, in his recent study of The Year Civilization Collapsed (2014), underscores the likelihood of such a calamity as the one that Copley predicts.  Cline marshals the details of an archaeologically attestable prototype of “systems collapse” that occurred around the date 1177 BC when a vast swath of the civilized Eastern Mediterranean literally went up in flames, inaugurating a “dark age” that in some places lasted four hundred years.  That it has happened increases the possibility that it might happen.  Jean-Pierre Dupuy, like Copley and Cline, is a student of crises, but unlike them he is primarily a religious thinker, one who takes seriously the insights of the man whom he calls the Albert Einstein of Twentieth-Century social science, René Girard.  Dupuy’s title, The Mark of the Sacred (2008; English, 2013), recalls the title of Girard’s seminal Violence and the Sacred (1966; English, 1972).  In that work, Girard discovered, in myth, ritual, and tragic poetry, the signs of a “sacrificial crisis” ubiquitously and regularly afflicting archaic societies.  In the sacrificial crisis, the social group suffers structural breakdown in rampant, violent mimesis or imitation that resolves itself through the production of an arbitrarily selected victim; the victim’s immolation then promotes him to godhead and generates the basic forms of culture.

One might think analogously of the basic architecture of the pyramid in relation to death-by-stoning: The former results from the latter, concealing the victim under an aesthetically pleasing form that dissimulates its own origin.

As Girard sees it, and as Dupuy reiterates, this “scapegoat mechanism” made humanity, but it also entrapped humanity in the closed epistemology, gory practice, and mendacious rhetoric, stomach-churning to inspect, of the sacred.  In Girard’s argument, which Dupuy again adopts, people could not begin to escape the delusion of the sacred until the decisive event of Christ’s Passion, as recorded in the four Gospels.  In The Mark of the Sacred, Dupuy explores the implications of this – to him – persuasive view.  Those implications entail, among other things, a reassessment of existing normative models of economics, political theory, cognitive science, and, indeed, modernity’s total view of itself.  The prideful, deforming error of modernity, as Dupuy demonstrates in a series of five topically various but logically closely-related chapters, is to believe fanatically in its own claim to be thoroughly and justifiably secular, thus licensing itself to reject everything that it categorizes as religious or irrational.  In itself, Dupuy’s case is hardly unprecedented.  Among others and as early as the beginning of the Nineteenth Century S. T. Coleridge and Joseph de Maistre identified the Revolution, that declaration of an absolute break with all tradition, as essentially religious, but as by no means an advance beyond the Christianity that it condemned.  Yet Dupuy, assimilating Girard, takes this argument in new directions.

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The Gedanken Policy Test of Christianity

One reason you pick out and blame a scapegoat for the sins of the whole people is so that you can be sure you yourself are not among the number of the evil ones who pollute the City, and thus yourself in no danger of ostracism or banishment. This you can do without ever troubling with the beam in your own eye, provided you go along with the mob’s condemnation of the chosen scapegoat. It’s an easy “fix” for your own anxiety about your wickedness.

But it’s not a true fix; it doesn’t remove your inward knowledge of your own impurity, or your awareness that your impurity might be soon found out, so that you were then yourself ostracized. It doesn’t permanently salve your anxiety. All it does is ensure that you are not going to be singled out for punishment this time. It is a temporary reprieve, and no more: so that you remain as it were a condemned man, whose sentence of death has been deferred for one more day.

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The Sexual Left Devours Itself

The Great Sex Harassment Witch Hunt of 2017 is mostly hitting liberals. It is leaving conservatives largely unscathed (at least so far). Why should this be?

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Truth versus the West

At least since Nietzsche, modern European pagans of the more reckless jejune sort have been wont to proclaim that Christianity gutted Europe of her original, chthonic, manly, distinctive culture. The process took millennia, they say, but it has now been pretty much completed. Europe has been unmanned by the pale Galilean who had already sapped Rome and the wider Hellenic world with his flaccid Oriental mysteries, and lies now prone before her Mohammedan conquerors.

It’s a silly conceit. For one thing, the West began her precipitous Modern decline at exactly the moment that her formerly deep and utterly preponderant Christian faith began to weaken and splinter – thanks in no small part to that madman, Nietzsche himself (and to a few other madmen, such as Voltaire). For another, if Christianity really did gut Europe of such a vigorous exuberant cult, then … that cult must have been rather weak after all, mutatis mutandis – and so, by its own lights, deserving of death.

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Truth versus the Crowd in the Work of René Girard

Girard Excellent Photo-Portrait

Born in Avignon in 1923, the late René Girard (deceased 2015) trained in Paris during the German occupation of France as a specialist curator of medieval documents; beginning in 1949 he taught in the USA as a professor-generalist in history. He would eventually arrive at a fundamental insight regarding human nature that puts him on the level with the most profound anthropological thinkers in the Western or any other tradition. The road to this insight reached across a decade and required a change of scholarly interest. Girard first made his name, after switching his scholarly focus and obtaining a doctorate in French Literature at Indiana University in 1958, as a literary critic, with his study of vanity and resentment in prose narrative called, in French, Mensonge Romantique et Vérité Romanesque (1962). Deceit Desire & the Novel studies the authorial obsession with the genesis of misery in the tendency of the human subject to acquire his desires from what he takes to be the desire, or object-of-desire, of another person. Novelistic protagonists indeed imagine that absolute being, seemingly denied to them, resides embodied in the other person so that the subject wants and attempts to become that other person. Girard had discovered in the novelists the non-originality of desire. He had also discovered—or rather, the novelists had discovered—a complex psychology and a related oblique rhetoric, the Mensonge Romantique or “Romantic Lie” of the French original, that systematically deny this non-originality of desire and claim the complete, yet miserable, sufficiency of the ego. Even more simply, Girard had discovered the centrality of mimesis or “imitation” in psychology and culture.

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Howard Hanson: The Music of God in Nature

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Howard Hanson (1896 – 1981) circa 1930

Nebraska-born of Swedish ancestry, Howard Harold Hanson (1896 ─ 1981) became by his mid-thirties what he had determined to become from an early age, the most popular American composer of serious music in the European concert tradition.  He had also become a sought-after teacher, orchestra leader, and musical administrator.  Hanson poured his seemingly inexhaustible vitality not only into the promotion of his own creativity, but, generously, into the promotion of his fellow composers, many of them, as time went on, his students at the Eastman School where he presided.  A radio documentary about the composer from the late 1980s revealed another side of the man.  Several of those interviewed by the producer complained – one of them indeed rather bitterly – about Hanson’s alleged egocentrism and insistence on getting his own way.  No doubt but that Hanson, believing himself a force, often stormed over those who, as he saw it, put themselves in the way of his schemes, his magnanimity in other circumstances notwithstanding.  The man being dead, however, and his personal entanglements being buried with him, the impressive practical and artistic achievements remain.  Paramount among these stands Hanson’s compositional legacy: Seven substantial symphonies, at least as many symphonic poems, a handful of concerted scores, numerous choral works, and an opera, which should have a more active place in the repertory, and not only by way of recordings.

With his contemporaries Roy Harris (1898 ─ 1979) and Aaron Copland (1900 ─ 1990), and with the slightly younger Samuel Barber (1910 ─ 1981), Hanson created a recognizably American sound in concert music, and demonstrated that American composers could adapt European musical forms to the conditions of a new society seeking to set its own mark on an inherited culture.  It is useful to compare Hanson’s legacy with the legacies of his countrymen-composers in the first half of the Twentieth Century.  Harris certainly matched Hanson in egocentrism, maybe exceeding him; but Harris lacked Hanson’s talent, peaking with his Symphony No. 3 (1937), really an extended passacaglia for orchestra, and repeating himself, at ever lower levels, for the remainder of his career.  Copland began as an avant-garde composer in the 1920s, assimilating influences from Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky; he found his marketable voice in the “cowboy” ballets of the 1930s and the populist, large-scale Symphony No. 3 (1946), for whose finale he adapted his own earlier Fanfare for the Common Man.  Copland wrote a surprisingly small number of works and ceased to compose altogether after 1964.

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The Pagan Ordeal of Dominique Venner

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Dominique Venner

My article on the late Dominique Venner (1935 – 2013) has appeared at The Sydney Traditionalist Forum in three parts (here, here, and here), handsomely presented by the Forum’s convener, Edwin Dyga, whom I would like to thank publicly for his care and thoroughness in the matter.  Venner, whose death took the form of a ghastly suicide in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Paris, was a founder of the French New Right and a prolific author of articles and books.  As far as I can tell, only  one of Venner’s books is available in English, The Shock of History (Arktos 2015), which seems to be based on material for his last book to be published in French, Un Samouraï d’Occident: Le Bréviaire des insoumis (Pierre Guillaume de Roux 2013).  I have addressed, in the article, Venner’s Histoire et tradition des Européens: 30,000 ans d’identité (Éditions du Rocher 2002), summarizing and commenting on its overarching thesis: Namely that there is an indubitable, traceable, coherent European Identity whose basic motifs can be followed back through Medieval and Classical history into the archeology of prehistory and finally to the cave-paintings at Chauvet, which science now dates to 30,000 years ago.  The Histoire also contains a potent double critique of modernity and liberalism comparable to similar critiques undertaken in the Twentieth Century by such as René Guénon and Julius Evola.

Part I of the article explores the possible motives and the meaning – or lack of motive – of Venner’s self-destructive act; Part II concerns itself with Venner’s oeuvre, especially the Histoire.  Part III deals with the grossly hypocritical journalistic reaction to Venner’s demise and attempts to set his work in a larger Traditionalist context by showing how its argument often converges what one might call Christian Traditionalism.  I argue, for example, that passages from Father Seraphim Rose on the topic of nihilism could be traded with passages by Venner on the same topic, and that the switch would be undetectable.  I am, finally, an advocate for Venner’s work, which I would like to make available to an English-language audience.

[The title Un Samouraï d’Occident: Le Bréviaire des insoumis might be translated as A Samurai of the West: The Breviary of the Unsubjected; the title Histoire et tradition des Européens: 30,000 ans d’identité might be translated as History and Tradition of the European People: 30,000 Years of Identity.]

Sex, Movies & Traditionalism on Mars

Of possible interest to Orthosphereans, my essay concerning Sex, Movies & Traditionalism on Mars  has appeared at Angel Millar’s invariably edifying People of Shambhala website.  The essay concerns independent Minnesota-based filmmaker Christopher Mihm, whose Saint Euphoria Studios has found a niche – and an audience – in the production of low-budget black-and-white retro-pastiches resembling the B-grade science fiction and horror movies of the 1950s.  I argue in Sex, Movies & Traditionalism on Mars that Mihm’s Cave Women on Mars (2008) is a cryptically non-politically correct film that employs a studied rhythm of low-comic japes and serious storytelling to argue for sexual dimorphism, with all its attendant and historically understood differences, as the basis of social life, expressing itself most essentially in the formation of the customary family, with its aim of bringing procreation under morality.

The essay also explores the question whether, in a politically correct environment, it might nowadays only be possible to articulate traditional insights, in public, by indirection. Mihm’s  film-festival audiences are undoubtedly liberal, and it appears that he has found a formula for making his dissentient points subliminally and covertly.

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Of Possible Interest: Flaubert on Early Christianity

Flaubert

Given the productive discussion that has ensued from my quotations from Constantine’s Edict of Milan and Theodosius’ Codex here at The Orthosphere, I thought that it would not be inappropriate to call attention to an article of mine that appears in the latest number of Anthropoetics, the online journal of Generative Anthropology and related sciences.  The article bears the title, Flaubert’s Tentation de Saint-Antoine : Three Approaches.  Educated people know Gustave Flaubert (1821 – 1880) mainly as the author of Madame Bovary (1857) and A Sentimental Education (1869), classics of the Nineteenth Century social novel – and simply of the novel.  Like the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867), Flaubert stands in a line of dissentient artists and intellectuals who, in France, stem from the counter-revolutionary thinking of Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821).  That fact by itself should attract the interest of Traditionalists; but more than that, Flaubert maintained a lifelong fascination for the history of religion, most particularly that of Christianity.  Indeed, the work that occupied Flaubert longer than any other and which he considered to be his masterpiece, is La tentation de Saint-Antoine (final version 1870).  La tentation is difficult work to describe.  It is in some fashion a novel, but it is otherwise a drama of the imagination in the form of an internal monologue by the famous instigator of desert monachism (the Thebaïd) whose life spanned the last half of the Third and the first half of the Fourth Centuries.

Flaubert wrote a number of other works with a religious content, notably his Trois Contes or Three Tales (1877), one of which is about Herod, John the Baptist, and Salome, another about St. Julian the Hospitaler, and the third about a naive but pious woman who lives out her life in the confines of small village. Flaubert’s Salammbô (1862), set in Carthage just after the First Punic War, treats the notorious Moloch Cult in detail.

The article not only offers an interpretation of La tentation  from three perspectives – Voegelinian, Girardian, and Gansian – but it also traces the unexpected influence of the masterpiece on later writers. John Dos Passos’ first important novel, Three Soldiers (1921), an autobiographical fictionalization of its author’s wartime experiences, frequently alludes to and may be said to absorb La tentation.