The Later Thought of Rene Girard

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Rene Girard (1923 – 2015)

History, and increasingly the mere daily record of events, are together apocalyptic.  They lay bare human nature for what it is primordially before the agonizing laboratory of the millennia creates the Christian society that its beneficiaries, swiftly taking it for granted, petulantly reject that they might go “forward” into a liberated horizon beyond the one defined by the Gospel. “Progress” names that particular folly. A blood-drenched folly it is, beginning with the religious wars of the Seventeenth Century and reaching fullness with the mobilization of the whole society fomented by the Jacobins and institutionalized by their superman-successor, Napoleon Bonaparte. From the guillotine henceforth, modernity blurts itself sanguinely in the Commune, Leninism, Stalinism, Hitlerism, and resurgent Islam (Jihad), which continues belatedly the sparagmatic trend of the late and unlamented Twentieth Century. Yet despite the academy’s authoritative three-decades-long declaration of Dionysiac “Postmodernism,” despite the polysyllables of doctrine-inebriated intellectuals, Modernity in its lynch-mob vehemence has not succeeded in realizing its rainbow utopia. No fulfillment of the destructive quest heaves in prospect. Modernity spirals with dizzying speed to its destined abyss, dragging with it those who know full well its madness but who find themselves sucked along with the lunatics into the maelstrom of psychosis.

The contemporary West resembles nothing so much as an archaic society in the full panic of social breakdown, searching desperately for the scapegoats whose immolation will induce the gods to intervene. So perverse has Modernity become that people eagerly seek victim-status although of course they can only do so by indicting other people as their persecutors. The old gesture of designating the victim has therefore been turned inside out and the nomenclature along with it. Objects of collective passion, those who are about to die at the hands of the mob, are now called victimizers, not victims.

No one can fully understand the contemporary situation without first understanding archaic religiosity, and archaic religiosity only reveals its meaning in contrast with the higher, scriptural religiosity, which at one time informed the civilized condition. In the same degree as the contemporary West spurns the spiritual maturity of Judaism and Christianity, its situation reverts to archaic patterns. Thus, in the sacrosanct name of “Progress” – wretched regress. And in tandem with that regress travels the obliteration both of consciousness and conscience, as the individuated man dissolves into the moral crudity of the Caliban-collective. No one has understood archaic religiosity – no one understands the modern age as a case of accelerating sacrificial panic – with greater clarity and penetration than René Girard (1923 – 2015), who remained intellectually active right up to his death. Two late books by Girard, Evolution and Conversion (2008) and Battling to the End (2010), demand attention from those who sense that the liberal-secular order ever more excruciatingly confronts and denies the revelation of its own nullity.

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Colin Wilson Redivivus: A Plea

Age of Defeat

New Aristeia Edition of Colin Wilson’s Age of Defeat

Aristeia is a small start-up press in London whose initial project, undertaken in collaboration with the Joy Wilson and Colin Wilson Estate, is to return to print in a uniform edition Wilson’s “Outsider Cycle.” People of my age and my intellectual proclivities will likely remember Wilson (1931 – 2013) as the author of non-conformist philosophical books that took the modern condition to task and as a prolific novelist whose Ritual in the Dark, Necessary Doubt, The Mind Parasites, and The Philosopher’s Stone, among others, rehearsed the non-fiction arguments with allegorical verve. Wilson’s first book, the non-fictional Outsider, appeared in 1956 and became a surprise bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. Wilson’s emergent currency even got him on the cover of Life Magazine.

Aristeia has previously put out a new edition of Religion and the Rebel (which bore the brunt of the establishment’s abrupt turn-around regarding Wilson); it has now given us a new edition of the third installment of Wilson’s philosophical cycle — The Age of Defeat. I am humbled to have been asked to participate in this project by supplying an introduction, “Bucking the Whimper,” to The Age, a book that remains as relevant to the West’s cultural decline as it was when it first appeared. Indeed, the book is the more relevant because the situation is six decades worse than it was in 1958.

The Age, along with Religion and the Rebel, is available either directly through Aristeia or through Amazon. The Amazon price is fifteen dollars, which gets the buyer a handsome trade paperback printed extremely legibly on good paper — not to mention Wilson’s rapier-like critique of the post-war anti-heroic and self-de-masculinizing society of Western Europe and North America. I strongly recommend The Age and hope that no few readers of The Orthosphere will take the risk of purchasing it.

Two Theories of the Renaissance – Berdyaev’s and Spengler’s

Rafael 01 School of Athens

Raphael (1483 – 1520): The School of Athens (Completed 1511)

In the Eighteenth Century, self-congratulatory pamphleteers and encyclopédistes, wanting to effectuate a break with tradition, extol their autonomy, and celebrate what they themselves named the Enlightenment, invented the tripartite historical construction of Antiquity – the Medieval Period – and Modernity.  Edward Gibbon and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel assume this sequence, as do Voltaire and Auguste Comte.  Modernity, the third term, functions for such thinkers as the designation of their own intellectual super-clarity, which they see as the goal and consummation of history.  Hegel, like his successor Francis Fukuyama, believed that the progress of the human spirit had indeed found its goal in his very cogitations and insights, after which further speculation would be otiose.  The Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev (1874 – 1948), writing in his essay on “The End of the Renaissance” (1922), and in the aftermath both of the Great War and the October Revolution, rejects the construction.  Berdyaev offers a prediction: “The school delineations of history into the ancient, the medieval and the modern, are becoming quickly outmoded and will be discarded from the textbooks.”  Whereas the tripartite construction of history has proven itself quite stubborn despite Berdyaev’s conviction at the time, stubbornness nevertheless validates nothing.  Berdyaev gives his reasons.  Modern history, a term that Berdyaev puts in quotation marks, “is now ending,” he writes, “and there is beginning something unknowable, an historical epoch not yet named with a name.”  An epoch is a break in continuity.  If a new unprecedented phase had broken away from modernity such that “we depart from all the customary historical shores,” then that development would necessarily disqualify modernity from its claim of being the end and validation of all historical processes.  “The world is passing over,” Berdyaev claims, “into a state of flux.”

Berdyaev by 1922 already knew the work of his slightly younger contemporary Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936), the second volume of whose Decline of the West appeared in that year.  Spengler, like Berdyaev, dismissed the tripartite construction of history as a petty conceit of limited minds.  “In fact,” Spengler writes in the Introduction to the first volume of the Decline (1919), “the lay-out of world history is an unproved and subjective notion that has been handed down from generation to generation… and stands badly in need of a little of that skepticism which from Galileo onward has regulated and deepened our inborn ideas of nature.”  Spengler characterizes the tripartite construction of history as “an incredibly jejune and meaningless scheme, which has, however, entirely dominated our historical thinking.”  Spengler, like Berdyaev, foresees the abandonment of the construction.  “The Cultures that are to come,” he writes, “will find it difficult to believe that the validity of such a scheme with its simple rectilinear progression and its meaningless proportions… was, in spite of all, never whole-heartedly attacked.”  Positing itself as the third-stage goal of a three-stage development, the cynically self-naming modernity “rigs the game.”  Spengler detects in the construction the traces of a displaced apocalypse; it is “Magian,” he writes, owing its essentially religious character to Persian and Jewish apocalypse and to the later offshoots of these, “the Gnostic systems.”  The construction designs to justify “one’s own religious, political or social convictions” by the method of “endowing the sacrosanct three-phase system with tendencies that will bring it exactly to one’s own standpoint.”

Neither Berdyaev nor Spengler denies the existence of a modern phase in the temporal continuity of the West.  On the contrary, both Berdyaev and Spengler acknowledge modernity as something like a total and commanding presence, inveigling itself dictatorially into every corner of life, but they never assent to modernity’s notion of itself.  Whereas modernity sees itself as Reason or Enlightenment, Berdyaev and Spengler see it as occlusion – as a radical diminution of consciousness far from liberating in any true sense, but rather as oppressive and destructive.  Berdyaev and Spengler view modernity in negative terms, as the cause of violent upheavals.  The two writers also agree on the origins of modernity, the earliest glowering of which they assign, perhaps surprisingly, to the Twelfth Century.  Both Berdyaev and Spengler, mention the work of the monk Joachim of Fiore as a foreshadowing of the modern tendency to close down history by calling it to a halt in the consummative present moment.  Both Berdyaev and Spengler see again in Joachim’s hermetic vision the initial glimmerings of what they commonly regard as the first distinctive phase of modernity – the so-called Renaissance of the Italian city-states beginning in the Fourteenth Century.  Naturally, neither Berdyaev nor Spengler interprets the Renaissance as modernity interprets it.  What then is the real character of the Renaissance? And what is the real relation of the Renaissance to the prevailing cultural dissolution of the modern centuries, according to the two thinkers?

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Grove of Academe, Air Strip One, or Inferno?

Bosch Third Panel (B)

Garden of Earthly Delights (Completed 1505) by Hieronymus Bosch (1450 – 1516): Right Panel: Hell

To document pictorially my increasing suspicion about the real nature of the contemporary college campus, I took my digital pocket camera to work with me today and in my spare time between classes snapped a little portfolio of vistas, which I offer below.

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Identity — The Future of a Paradox

Identity 16 Masked Antifas

Those Highly Individuated Champions of the Oppressed Bravely Hiding their Faces

When Publius Virgilius Maro, more familiarly Virgil, accepted the commission from Augustus, formerly Gaius Octavius, to create a national identity for the Roman people by matching the epic precocity of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in Latin verse, the imperial presumption can only have been that such an identity did not yet exist or, at least, did not adequately exist, but required to be conjured into a useful state of being.  Virgil’s famous ambiguity about his manuscript of the Aeneid – his having composed a note during his fatal illness asking his friends to burn its pages on his death – has been ascribed by one faction of scholarship to his worry about metrical imperfections in some verses of the poem’s second half.  As only a few such technical flaws make themselves evident, however, some other explanation must be sought.  The German novelist Hermann Broch, in his Death of Virgil (1945), suggests a crisis of conscience, reflecting the poet’s qualm that in synthesizing a myth of Latin and Roman origins so as to settle legitimacy on the adoptive heir of Julius Caesar, and thus also on the newly constituted monarchy into which the Republic had been absorbed, he had falsified tradition and served propaganda, whereas his highest calling was to honor the muse by cultivating her art.  The crisis of identity appears as a theme in the Aeneid, the first six books of which narrate the exile and homelessness of the refugees from Troy, whose buildings the besieging Greeks have toppled and burned, whose men they have slaughtered, and whose women and children they have impressed into slavery.  Troy is no more and no more is the Trojan people.  There is only a desperate remnant in the urgency of its flight. Continue reading

Sunday’s Symposium

Richard Fader Lazar

Left to Right: Richard Cocks (philosopher and writer); Richard Fader (ex-city worker and philosopher); Lazar Sokolovski (Russian expatriate resident of Oswego; poet and philosopher). The scene is Old City Hall (cornerstone laid 1832; building completed in 1836) in Oswego, on Water Street. Old City Hall is the cultural heart of Oswego, which was in the Eighteenth Century America’s first frontier. The City of Oswego perches itself on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, at the mouth of the Oswego River.  I tell my visitors, if your feet are wet, you have gone too far to the north!

The Occasion: The usual Sunday-afternoon symposium at Old City Hall; and I am learning to use my new digital camera. Topics of conversation: Nicolas Berdyaev (Russian philosopher); Vassily Kallinikov (Russian composer); Dmitri Shostakovich (Russian composer); Boris Pasternak (Russian novelist); James Fennimore Cooper (American historian and novelist); Edgar Allan Poe (American poet and philosopher); Konstantin Balmont (Russian translator of Poe).

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Jorge Luis Borges and Karen Blixen on Ideology and Violence

Borges 08 Orqwith

A Comic-Book Riff on the Second Reality

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.

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Upstate Consolation University Extends Diversity Recruitment to Triffids

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Triffid in Traditional Costume

Triffids constitute a woefully underrepresented minority in college undergraduate enrollments and are not represented at all in graduate programs such as Screen Studies and Whiteness Studies, research has shown. In order to address this crisis, which has been exacerbated by the dictatorial intransigence of the Trump administration, Upstate Consolation University has fully committed itself to the inclusion of Triffids under the criteria of its Alternative Holistic Recruitment Program.  That program makes eligible for admission to UCU members of historically excluded intersectional groups who might not qualify to attend college when judged solely by their high school grade-point-averages or their SAT scores.  According to Lardner Amitol de Brainepanne, UCU’s newly appointed Interim Quasi Vice Dean for Inclusive Diversification: “It’s all about the transformative experience of diversity, equity, and transgression – that and moving forward.  If you’re not moving forward, you’re not really moving at all, as least not in the way that we here at UCU want you to move.”  In a press briefing, de Brainepanne revealed that UCU had begun Triffid recruitment in marshy and fetid regions of the state last year, with special effort being made to bring to campus those Triffids who identify as trans- or cis-gendered or who can document their refugee or DREAMER status.  Asked to describe the practicalities of Triffid recruitment, de Brainepanne said that UCU’s recruitment officers had been aided by Special Forces of the State National Guard who have trained to operate in swampy and flooded terrain.  “Casualties have been surprisingly light,” de Brainepanne added.

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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.”