Beyond Radical Secularism

Manent

At Gates of Vienna,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.”

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance (1852) and Philip K. Dick’s VALIS (1981)

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The Forms

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.

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Robert Edgerton’s Sick Societies (1992) Revisited

Edgerton 02 Sick Societies COVER

Hardcover First Edition (1992)

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.

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Berdyaev on Culture and Christianity

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Current Edition of The Fate of Man

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.

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Nicolas Berdyaev on Dehumanization

Berdyaev Fate of Man

1960s-Era paperback Edition of The Fate of Man in the Modern World

“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.

Mika Waltari’s Dark Angel (1952) – A Novel for Our Time

Waltari 01 Dark Angel Cover

Early 1960s Paperback Edition

The name of the Finnish novelist Mika Waltari (1908 – 1979) reached the peak of its currency in the mid-1950s when many of his titles had transcended the isolation of their original language to come into print in English, French, German, Italian, and Swedish.  One of these, The Egyptian (1945), had reached the big screen in 1954 in a lavish Hollywood production directed by Michael Curtiz, with a cast including Edmund Purdom, Victor Mature, and Jean Simmons.  Curtiz’s film adhered closely to Waltari’s story, which concerns the attempted religious reforms of the pharaoh Akenaten, which Waltari, the son of a Lutheran minister and a serious student both of theology and philosophy, regarded as an early instance of ideology.  Basing his fiction on the best information available at the time, Waltari strove to show how, despite the sincere intention of the reformer, the reforms themselves so contradicted Egyptian tradition that they devastated the society.  The novel operates intellectually at a high level.  So does Curtiz’s cinematic version, which likely explains its poor box-office on release.  The Hollywood connection nevertheless boosted Waltari’s foreign-language sales and meant that his books would remain in print into the 1960s.  Today Waltari’s authorship is largely forgotten along with those of his Scandinavian contemporaries such as Lars Gyllensten, Martin A. Hansen, Pär Lagerkvist, Harry Martinson, Tarje Vesaas, and Sigrid Undset.  Anyone who has seen the film Barabbas (1961) with Anthony Quinn in the title role has, however, had contact with Lagerkvist, on whose novel director Richard Fleischer drew.

All of those writers might justly be characterized as Christian Existentialists, heavily influenced by Søren Kierkegaard, who saw their century, the Twentieth, as an era of extreme crisis at its basis spiritual, and who saw the ideologies – the rampant political cults – of their day as heretical false creeds that fomented zealous conflict.  It is unsurprising that such a conviction should have taken hold in Scandinavia.  Two of the Scandinavian nations, Denmark and Norway, had endured conquest and occupation by Germany in World War II.  Sweden avoided that fate, but as Undset wrote in her account of escaping the German invasion of Norway, most Swedes expected disaster to strike at any time from 1940 until the end of hostilities, either from the Germans or from the Russians – or possibly from both, with the nation becoming a battleground.  In Finland, which had only won its independence in 1918, first by rejecting Russian rule and then by defeating a Communist insurrection within its own borders, the sense of acute crisis realized itself in the Soviet attack in the winter of 1939 and 40, during which Waltari worked in Helsinki in the Finnish Government’s Information Bureau, and again in the subsequent Continuation War of 1941 through 1944.  These events are the immediate background to Waltari’s composition of The Egyptian, and they are by no means irrelevant to Dark Angel, published seven years later.

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The “Great War” and Tyranny: E. E. Cummings and John Dos Passos on the Destruction of Order 1914-18

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American Troops at Ready, 1917

The reactionary-traditionalist historical view tends to correlate the ascendancy of the ideological dictatorships with the degrading tumult of World War II, making of the Nazi-Communist rivalry in the 1930s the tense build-up to that war while interpreting the conflict itself as a paroxysmatic re-ordering of world politics.  The regulation of the re-ordered world would be technocratic and autocratic – it would be ideological – whether the victorious global hegemon was the United States of America or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  A type of elective étatisme hung in the air in 1945.  The British majority, for example, voted socialist immediately the conflict ended, contemptuously booting the architect of the victory, Winston Churchill, from office.  France and Italy contended with large, well-organized Communist Parties and likewise embarked on the nationalization of their economies and the provision of generous welfare guarantees to the citizenry.  The liberal colonization of institutions begins in this period, to become implacable and irreversible about the time that the Soviet Union dissolves in 1990.  Quite apart from historical discussion, many non-scholars who think of themselves as conservatives nourish the notion that the “soft” totalitarianism of the contemporary politically correct regime in the West has only a short pedigree and that, but a few decades ago, as in the 1950s, perhaps, tradition still reigned and things were in their proper proportion and arrangement.  Of course such a view ignores the “enlightened” managerialism of Woodrow Wilson and the socialist quasi-dictatorial style of Franklin D. Roosevelt, just as it ignores the mobilized character of such phenomena as Suffragism and Prohibitionism, early phases of the liberal project that confusingly coincided with the anti-immigration and anti-Communist movements.  Then again the anti-immigration and anti-Communist movements only became a reality because of immigration and Communism.

The most famous literary dystopia, George Orwell’s 1984, sees publication in 1948, but the most plausible literary dystopia, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, sees publication in 1932.  The 1920s and 30s see a flood in spate of critical anti-modern discourse, not least, and quite ironically, in the single most definitive, formally modernist, text of all, T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land (1922); but also in philosophical works by Oswald Spengler, Nicolas Berdyaev, Herman Keyserling, René Guénon, Paul Valéry, Christopher Dawson, and Jacques Maritain, and in novels and short stories by, among others, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pär Lagerkvist, Thomas Mann, Huxley himself, and two American contemporaries of Fitzgerald, E. E. Cummings (1894 – 1962) and John Dos Passos (1896 – 1970).  Cummings and Dos Passos attended Harvard as undergraduates at the same time, studied there with George Santayana, and absorbed their teacher’s skepticism about modernity.  The two classmates decided, before Wilson took America to war, to see the front first-hand by joining the volunteer ambulance corps.  Cummings and Dos Passos served in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps as volunteers.  In The Enormous Room (1922), an experimental non-fiction novel, and in Three Soldiers (1923), a novelistic panorama of America at war, Cummings and Dos Passos respectively and decisively break ranks with what they have come by convergence to regard as the claptrap of war talk and the enlistment of whole societies in a project of total conflict.

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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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Reading Count Gobineau

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Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau (1816 – 1882)

The name of Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau (1816 – 1882) rarely appears nowadays except in a context of moral dudgeon.  The first sentence of the Wikipedia article devoted to Gobineau perhaps unsurprisingly informs the reader, in rather lazy prose, that “Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau… was a French aristocrat who was best known by his contemporaries as a novelist, diplomat, and travel writer but is today most remembered for developing the theory of the Aryan master race and helping to legitimise racism by scientific racist theory and racial demography.”  (Punctuation corrected.)  The term “scientific racist theory” especially courts self-condemnation through its editorial heavy-handedness and its retrojection of a contemporary item of ideological cant: Objectively, Gobineau sought only to articulate a scientific racial theory or a scientific theory of race.  The term “master-race” moreover is foreign to Gobineau’s text; and “Aryan,” as Gobineau properly uses it, is an ancient tribal self-designation.  Had someone accused Gobineau of racism, or of being a racist, the term would have baffled him entirely.  The reliably left-leaning Wikipedia is not alone, however, in treating Gobineau as thoroughly toxic.  The New World Encyclopedia, in its online version, asseverates that “although [Gobineau’s] racial theories did not receive immediate attention in Europe,” nevertheless “it was through the influence of the Bayreuth circle and Richard Wagner that his views became popular, and his anti-Semitic theories developed.”  The Encyclopedia’s rhetorical maneuver draws on the widely circulated notion that National Socialism began proleptically with Wagner, who therefore qualifies himself as morally pernicious, and it extends Wagner’s supposed vileness backwards to the one who planted the seed of wickedness in Wagner’s mind – namely Gobineau in his proper person.  That reading Gobineau’s prose inspired Wagner to be a rabid anti-Semite and led to the Holocaust seems to be the implication.

Leaving aside the imputation that Wagner was a Proto-Hitler, which while of considerable interest belongs in another discussion, these slick mischaracterizations of Gobineau’s treatise on The Inequality of the Human Races (1854) reveal themselves as being based on prejudicial and superficial readings of that book; or perhaps on a universal omission to read it.  What then would a careful and unprejudiced reading of The Inequality of the Human Races yield?  The present essay proposes to answer that question.  (Note: Inequality is a work in four extensive volumes that touch on a variety of topics and that in many ways establish the science of comparative ethnography; the first volume, however, functions as an extended introduction to the other three, summarizing their contents in advance.  For the sake of tractability, I confine my remarks to that first volume.)

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Writing about Literature Revisited (Coleridge)

Xanadu

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan…”

I wrote previously about student responses in my “Writing about Literature” course to Percy Shelley’s famous sonnet “Ozymandias,” which I set them to interpret on the basis of workshops in identifying the formal and meaningful  elements of poems.  Last week I set the same students to write up in class an interpretation of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (1797), a rather more challenging poem than “Ozymandias,” although Shelley proved challenge enough, but at the same time possibly easier to interpret because its phantasmagoria allows for considerable play on the part of the reader.  Coleridge’s poem has its origin in a bizarre and unrepeatable incident.  In September 1797 while a house guest of his friend William Wordsworth, who had taken him in because he found himself in a phase of indigence, Coleridge one morning took a dose of opium, as was his wont, and fell into a visionary trance.  A major ode of some two hundred lines manifested itself to Coleridge, complete, during the psychedelic phase, and as he returned to ordinary consciousness he began to transcribe it.  At that moment, one of Coleridge’s creditors came knocking loudly at Wordsworth’s door, and in the shock of hearing it, the majority of those two hundred finished lines slipped away from the poet’s grasp into oblivion.  Coleridge could rescue only thirty-six lines, which constitute Part I of the poem as it was published, finally, in 1816.

The poem appears in its paradoxical truncated entirety below. –

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