If you have never clicked through the links to see John's archived site in all it's 1990s glory, you should. In this case, you are missing the topical links John embedded in the left sidebar. I'll excerpt one that is particularly relevant now:
Victor Davis Hanson's Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power perhaps needs a companion volume about wars the West lost.
Hanson is fairly well-known as a conservative academic and a supporter of invading Iraq after 9/11, and has written a number of influential volumes on the history of classical Greece as an important constituent of the Western way of life. In this particular volume, Hanson argues that there is a fundamental difference between the Asiatic way of war and the Western way of war. Many battles in classical antiquity were pathetically unorganized affairs. Both sides would meet in some dusty plain and mill around for a time. Various enthusiastic hotheads from either side would ride out to goad challengers, and eventually either the delay would produce some kind of useful truce, or a clash of mobs would occur, and the army that broke ranks first would be slaughtered as they fled.
Greece, and Rome after her, was fantastically successful by drilling soldiers in formation and insisting on rigid discipline. Soldiers that stick together and follow orders are typically much more successful, although far from invincible. When you bring hoplites and cavalry to the Middle East and the Mediterranean Basin, you get Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire. The Romans did have problems with barbarians such as the Germans [much bigger than the typical Imperial Roman soldier due to different diet and genetics] and the Huns [the Romans didn't place much emphasis on missle weapons, and so had trouble with mounted archers. An English long bow vastly outranges the shortbows mounted archers use, and horses are big targets, but the Romans didn't have anything like a longbow].
Hanson contrasts the Asiatic way of war, which aims for psychological effect, with the Western way of war, which seeks to annihilate the enemy army. This is true, so far as it goes, but there is really more than one Western way of war. An influential alternative is maneuver warfare, which seeks to destroy the ability of the enemy to resist rather than the enemy's army per se. This is an idea that goes back at least to Sun Tzu, but would have been familiar to Hannibal as well. Maneuver warfare is nonetheless shares more in common with the more direct Western approach [what Jerry Pournelle calls WARRE] than the Asiatic way.
By way of comparison, consider the current state of ISIS. A great deal of ink has been spilt over this group, but ISIS probably has fewer than 30,000 members. Probably a lot less with US help. There is a certain amount of media hype involved, but this is an accurate expression of what Hanson was getting at: numbers matter less than politics and posturing in Middle Eastern warfare. [this may also explain why Hanson was sometimes conflated with the War Nerd.] If a country like Tunisia practiced war like the United States, it could send 500,000 young men to Syria and Iraq, rather decisively settling the current conflict.
Nonetheless, the very attention that ISIS generates in Western media indicates that the Asiatic way of war has its advantages. The curious thing is that they can only win if we pay attention to them.
There was a flurry of stories on Monday, August 12, that set me scurrying to what few sources I have to find out whether the war with Iraq was imminent. Certainly that was what the oil markets suspected. That was the day when the Iraqis took the trouble to remove as a bargaining chip the possibility of further weapons inspections. They did this despite the fact the Saudis were still trying to use the prospect of inspections to negotiate a deal with the UN. There were somewhat confused reports that the US military was buying up commercial shipping space to take helicopters to the Gulf area on an expedited basis. There were even reports that the Israelis were preparing for an Iraqi missile attack at any time.
The flurry has continued, but I have resisted the impulse to comment on these items as they appear. Possibly I don't have the true blogger temperament. Another factor is that I am on record in print, in this month's Business Travel Executive, suggesting that a war is most likely in late October. How dare mere history contradict my speculations?
Actually, the US debate does have a blind spot. All the war plans we have been reading about recently presuppose a passive Iraq. At most, the plans contemplate that Iraq might seek to inflict maximum casualties on attacking US forces, with the hope of causing Somalia-like revulsion at home. There is also speculation that the Iraqis might do something "crazy," like respond to a conventional US attack by launching against Israel whatever weapons of mass destruction they may have. Because of the certainty of Israeli retaliation if the WMDs actually worked, the latter strategy would be the Iraqi national equivalent of a suicide bombing.
Victor Davis Hanson, author of Carnage and Culture, has described the "Asiatic" way of war as the kind that really is diplomacy by other means. The chief strategy is to inflict a humiliating coup on the enemy, whose leaders then lose so much face at home that they have to seek terms. This strategy does not work well when it confronts a power able to employ the Western model of war, which is aimed not at psychological effect, but at the annihilation of an opponent's armed forces. It is reasonably clear that Iraq cannot defend itself militarily against the US for any length of time. Something we have to keep in mind, however, is that the "Asiatic" model is not without its successes, and against the US in particular. The Asiatic model is arguably the sane model to apply against an opponent with limited cohesion and political will.
Political will is not lacking in the US at the moment. The assertion that the Administration has yet to make the case to the public for an invasion of Iraq is beside the point. The people as a whole support an invasion, the sooner the better. The calls for debate and dialogue come from influential minorities who want to delay action long enough for the national consensus to evaporate. Where the will is lacking is in the West as a whole.
The US can, and probably should, conduct the Iraqi campaign without substantial support from its allies, if only to show once and for all that their material support is unnecessary. The US can and probably should act without UN authorization, beyond that remaining from the Security Council resolutions of 1990 and 1991. Passive disapproval is one thing, however, and active opposition is another. It would be beyond the political ability even of the United States to conduct an invasion if the EU and UN were diplomatically engaged in the region at the time.
The obvious way to secure such engagement would be to link the Iraqi and Palestinian situations. Iraq has international defenders but no friends; the regime is a pariah even to those states which object to seeing it changed by force. Palestine, on the other hand, is the apple of the eye of the European Left. Even on the Right, it is more popular than Israel. The same networks that organized the boycotts against the apartheid government of South Africa are having some success in organizing boycotts against Israeli goods, and even blackballing Israeli academics. If support for regime change in Iraq could be made to seem to be support for apartheid, that would change the situation substantially.
Iraq tried to create a link during the 1991 war with its Scud attacks on Israel. Iraq failed then, because the linkage was so obviously artificial. What is different now is the continuing suicide-intifada, which has at least the appearance of a guerrilla campaign. It also provokes genuine military reprisals from Israel. Iraq could create a linkage by making its own reprisals to those reprisals. Iraq could plausibly claim to be defending the Palestinian people, if it attacked Israel with missiles or drone aircraft while Israel was engaged in another reprisal. Assuming the Iraqi attack did not include weapons of mass destruction, Israel's counterstrike would be within Iraq's tolerances, or at least the tolerances of Iraqis in very deep bunkers. The US would then have to consider the fact that any action it took in Iraq would make it an active ally of Israel, united in attacking on an Arab country.
Just as important, the world's diplomatic machinery would then go into high gear to prevent the situation from "spinning out of control." The US could block Security Council action, though not a humiliating Security Council debate. In any case, a general conference to consider the whole Middle East could be called by some regional organization, or by an ad hoc coalition that would certainly include US allies. The US might find that it could not start an invasion without endangering diplomats on the ground.
For any of this to happen, it would have to start soon, before the US has forces in position that could preempt Iraqi support for the intifada. In reality, Iraq has a history of dithering while temporary advantages melt away; they could have dislodged the US from Saudi Arabia in 1991, had they acted quickly. With any luck at all, this time they will also dither until it is too late
This is John's review of Evola's best-selling book, Men Among the Ruins. It amounts to a primer of Evola's thought, and a useful summary of why I find Evola disturbing. There are certainly some ideas here that seem interesting. Taken in isolation, I think you could find a way to appeal to a large number of people with some of these ideas. It is the organic whole that gives one pause. These are truly revolutionary ideas, but also ideas that are largely untried. By common agreement, no state has ever really embodied Tradition, although some states started to move in that direction shortly before they were destroyed.
I am not sure I want to find out what kind of state Evola would have created if given the chance.
Men Among the Ruins:
Post-War Reflections of a Radical Traditionalist
By Julius Evola
Inner Traditions, 2002
(Translated from the revised Italian edition of 1972;
First Edition 1953)
310 Pages, $22.00
Julius Evola (1898-1974) was the villain from Central Casting. A monocle-wearing baron and a distinguished occultist, Evola spent much of his life trying to bring about a future that would be both post-Christian and post-democratic. He wrote the racial policy for Mussolini's government, one that focused on elites rather than the general population. In 1945, he was permanently crippled during the Russian bombardment of Vienna, while working on a "secret history of secret societies" for the SS. Evola was a key figure in "esoteric fascism" after World War II, in Italy and throughout Europe. In 1951, he was tried and acquitted of inspiring political violence. Some called him "the Marcuse of the Right," while others dismissed him as "the Magic Baron." Still, it is clear that Evola's radical rejection of the modern world inspired radicals of all stripes. Both the politics and the esotericism of the early 21st century owe a great deal to the Magic Baron.
"Men Among the Ruins," as the title suggests, is an interpretation of the postwar world. The war had not turned out as Evola had hoped, but then Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy had not been radical enough for him, either. The new situation had possibilities. The book was intended to give advice to Evola's young admirers, whom he had just been acquitted of inciting to terrorism. The Foreword to this edition, by Joscelyn Goodwin, says that the book is "by any standard far from being Evola's best work, and should never be the gateway to his thought: that function belongs to his masterwork, 'Revolt Against the Modern World.'" Still, we may note that "Men Among the Ruins" came closer than any of Evola's works to bestseller status. Moreover, this edition has a 114-page preface, by H. T. Hanson, that gives a dispassionate summary of the baron's life and thought. This edition really is not a bad place to start, though it would be better with an index.
Evola's system of thought is a philosophy of Nietzschean descent, but with a transcendent element. It both rejects and resembles Existentialism: Evola's ethics and politics are based on a defense of the essential self that goes beyond mere self-preservation. Personal action should be absolute, without looking for punishment or reward. Even the state rests not on force, but on the power of its idea. This Platonic foundation transcends mere history. This is what Evola, and his sometime colleague René Guénon, meant by Tradition.
Evola represents a segment of the Right that is simultaneously anti-socialist, anti-capitalist, anti-democratic, and anti-Christian. It is even, to some degree, anti-national. Though sometimes associated with the German "Conservative Revolution" (an association of which Evola approved), there is nothing very conservative about this Traditionalism. As Evola himself acknowledged, little now deserves to be preserved. Tradition is as revolutionary a doctrine as any that has appeared since the 18th century.
The model for Evola is a New Rome, governed by a sacral, organic hierarchy, at the pinnacle of which is a sacred monarch. His idea of monarchy is rather Taoist; the monarch rules by non-action, by the mere magic of his existence. Evola's Traditionalism is sometimes called "Magical Idealism." Simply invoking the Transcendent has an effect. The principle of social organization seems to be that "if we build it, they will come." "They" are the men suited by training and enlightenment to constitute the hierarchy; "we" are an esoteric Order, dedicated to Tradition.
In some ways, the Fascist and National Socialist regimes were moving toward Tradition, though in their decadence they turned toward socialism. In the end, it was the people, the race, who failed fascism. As for Nazism, the Führer principle was defective; the Führer acted for the Volk, not for the Transcendent. For Tradition, in contrast, "common ideas are the fatherland."
The Conservative Revolution does not seek to preserve antique forms, but to actualize perennial principles. Pretty much the whole of politics and culture since 1789 should be overthrown. This need not happen, of course. The future is a myth; it is not determined beforehand. Moreover, the future promises no real novelty, but simply the struggle to reverse decay. Those who have dominated history have not been adventurers, but those who sought to reconnect with essential Tradition. Though the discussion in "Men Among the Ruins" is too compressed to explain the grounds for these notions, Evola was probably thinking about the repeated restorations of Confucian orthodoxy in Chinese history.
The state is the intrusion of a higher order of reality, naturalized in the social world as a power. The state comes before all natural rights and historical associations. It is certainly on a higher level than mere community. The sovereignty of the state is absolute, since he who is the law has no law. Citing Carl Schmitt, Evola repeats the principle that the sovereign is he who can make exceptions. The state is masculine; society is feminine. Socialism and democracy are essentially anti-state. So is the nation. At most, the nation is formed by the state. Both liberal democracy and Communism are supra-national ideas, but inadequate ones, antithetical to Tradition. An adequate idea is needed to form the Order, the caste or sacred society, which properly embodies the state. Ideally, the Order is the meaning of the state.
Evola believed that the world had been on the way to the Finland Station for some time. Eighteenth century liberalism is the font of all later subversions. Equality is illogical. Equal individuals would be indiscernible from each other, and so would necessarily be a single entity. Liberalism confuses persons with individuals. Justice requires inequality. Equality is the will to formlessness.
Natural law is a superstition about individuals, who are minuses. Persons are prior to society. They are even prior to the impersonal state described by ideologies. The state is a pyramidal hierarchy of persons of different dignities. At the summit is the monarch, the "absolute person," who is the opposite of an individual.
Freedom means self-mastery. One has the right to govern others in the degree to which one can govern oneself. The ancients saw the superiority of the self-governing man as "mana," as a sacred force. Those who cannot rule themselves are elevated by being governed by those who can rule themselves. The inferior needs the superior, not the superior the inferior.
The state is legitimized by its anagogical function, which is the ability to orient people to the spiritual realm. This should not be confused with the categorical function, the impulse to mere consistency. That is a subversive principle, though both it and the anagogical function are anti-utilitarian.
Liberalism is violent. It elevates the principle of human freedom, yet coerces the minority to submit. Totalitarianism is really an extreme form of liberalism, not of the organic state. Liberalism is necessarily external and mechanical. Private property, in the absence of transcendent legitimation, is easily questioned and subverted.
The organic state forms around a central idea, a symbol of sovereignty, and a symbol of authority. This center is attractive, like gravity, yet it promotes differentiation. The notion of a "party state" is incoherent. The organic state is anti-partisan. Totalitarianism, in contrast, allows no private sphere. It tends toward bureaucratic hypertrophy. "Statolatry" is an attitude proper to a state not based on a Transcendent idea. The materialist state requires coercion, because its people cannot be connected to it internally. No secular power can properly require an oath. Similarly, it is "sociolatry" to expect someone to sacrifice himself for society. Totalitarianism is honest liberalism. Bonapartism is the extreme form of representative democracy. It makes a difference whether a leader's prestige is based on promises, as in the liberal state, or on demands, as in the Traditional state.
A constitutional dictator may be a genius, but the monarch is not chosen for any personal abilities. The Olympian quality he is supposed to embody is not heroic. For that matter, even the true aristocrat is not a superman, but regally impersonal, the embodiment of an idea. True leaders are not Machiavellian, contemptuous of the masses. In states that have more or less embodied Tradition, the ruling caste is not blind to the higher impulses that can be invoked in ordinary people. The Traditional state assumes the existence of heroic and other noble impulses. It is not a system of checks and balances designed to stem human corruption.
The economy is not the destiny of the state. The justification for the modern state, the management of the economy, is historically eccentric. Economism is anti-hierarchical. As Evola might have said, the rich are different from us only in that they have more money. Economic autarky is an ethical imperative for the state, just as self-mastery is for the individual. Self-government and austerity are better than mere national prosperity.
Evola qualifies Pareto's idea of the "circulation of elites." What history really shows is a "regression of castes." First there are ruling priests, then warriors, then plutocrats, and finally revolutionaries. Marxism caused the "social question," not the other way around. Work-worship is part of the problem. Cultural creation and leadership are actions, deeds, not work. Calling them "work" proletarianizes the higher spheres.
Historicism is based on the transition from a civilization of being to a civilization of becoming. People stopped looking to eternity, and began deifying flux. Evola condemns Hegel's philosophy of history, plus Hegel's formulation of the Absolute State. For good measure, he discountenances Transcendental Idealism, too. Contra Hegel, the past merely provides the conditions for history; the past does not determine the future. More fundamentally, Evola insists that the Real is not necessarily the Rational, nor the Rational the Real. Historicism's search for the Rational is subversive. "Conservative" Hegelianism is just as bad: it posits the principle that everything that exists is rational, and so promotes acceptance of the decadent status quo.
"Men Among the Ruins" reviews the main themes of Evola's political philosophy, but it was written with an eye to developments in Italy. Evola says that, to begin a new historical cycle, Italy must make a choice of traditions. The nationalist history taught in Italian schools is actually a hoax. The medieval struggle between the Ghibellines, who supported the Holy Roman Empire, and the Guelphs, who supported the Communes, was really a conflict of supra-national castes. It was not a conflict of German versus Italian.
It might be said of Evola that he did not think that Hitler had the right idea, but that Frederick Barbarossa nearly did. The Communes, the young Italian city-states, were on the road to decadence that eventuated in the French Revolution. As for the Risorgimento, there was good reason why it was regarded with the same horror as Communism was later. Both were stages in the same process. Masons led the national revolutions, and wrote the historiography in a way that obscured the deeper causes.
In more recent times, Italy's true path had been with the Dreikaiserbund of Hohenzollern Germany, Habsburg Austria-Hungary, and Romanov Russia. Those empires did not embody Tradition perfectly, but they could have formed a barrier against the spread of ever less Traditional forms. In any case, Italy should certainly have remained with the Triple Alliance in the First World War. The Allies on whose side Italy finally fought (including Evola as an artillery officer) were the champions of chaos. After the war, Fascist Italy chose the Roman version of Tradition, however imperfectly realized. This was the correct choice, as was the alliance with Germany and the war they fought together. Unfortunately, that was the World War that Italy lost.
The opposites in the nature of Italy are Roman and Mediterranean. A renewal must choose to crystallize around the former. Only a minority can be expected to have the virtues of the Roman Tradition. That, however, is all that any society needs. A nation is drawn upward by its elites.
Evola insists that Anglo-American society is naturally civilian, even pacifist. This is because of its origin in the bourgeois caste. In a democracy, there can only be soldiers. The other major European possibility, the Prussian, is militaristic because it comes from the Order of the Teutonic Knights. The knights were not mere soldiers, but warriors. The warrior-based society, with its hierarchy and high ethics, has the higher right as opposed to democracies. This does not mean that warriors need be the actual governors; the barracks is not the ideal state. Rather, the Traditional state is imbued by the military virtues.
When war occurs, it is not a mere negative for the warrior state. In the just war, Uranian light fights against telluric chaos. Just wars can occur even between good men, who also battle the chaos in themselves. Warrior hierarchies come next lower in the scheme of things than priestly hierarchies, of course, but the warrior ethic is nonetheless fundamentally ascetic. Evola gets some consolation from the belief that modern war requites a cold, lucid heroism, divorced from sentiment and patriotism. Modern war means the de-individualizing of force. Evola cautions that future wars will be meaningless from the point of view of Tradition. Still, warriors and not soldiers will fight those wars. They will lack the hatred that characterized the wars of the democratic era.
Many of Evola's friends were "integralists," people who hoped to re-sacralize modern societies by making them Catholic theocracies. Evola, in contrast, presents the spectacle of an Italian "traditionalist" who was not just anti-clerical but anti-Catholic. While Evola acknowledged that there were Traditional elements in Catholicism, he insisted that Tradition was wider than the Church, and that in some ways Catholicism was contrary to Tradition. All religions are historically conditioned, and so more or less orthodox in terms of the eternal and universal Tradition. Catholicism's claim to exclusive truth, even after Vatican II, severely limits Catholicism's ability to participate in this supra-orthodoxy. Only ignorance about history and other cultures, Evola says, would try to maintain exclusive Christian claims to truth.
Ghibellinism, though historically unique in some ways, does present many of the universal issues inherent in the relationship between religion and sovereignty. The Ghibelline Empire was an ideology about the Holy Roman Empire. In the Ghibelline ideal, the Empire was a supra-national institution, like the church. Its sovereignty was divine, too: the rite of kingly coronation differed little from that of episcopal consecration. In the Roman view, which was closer to tradition, there was no dualism, but a single imperium that was both political and sacred.
The Christian principle of "rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's" implies a disparaging view of Caesar. The Church has always had a relativist view of the value of the state, holding that no particular constitution is willed by God. It will tolerate any state that serves religion. Kings have accommodated this indifference: Philip the Fair started the long slide toward the secular state by distinguishing political from ecclesiastical government.
Church politics itself has always been on a democratic, socialist trajectory, but this is not simply because of the missteps of churchmen. Indeed, to some extent Catholicism managed to inject Traditional elements into Christianity. The real problem is Christianity itself. Its virtues are those of the humble, not of those for whom the exercise of power is normal. The state must be both just and merciful, but mercy can be granted responsibly only by the victorious.
The bourgeois world is corrupted and deserves to be destroyed. Realism unmasks it. However, the realism of reductionism leads only to the sub-personal. This is also the case with existentialism. Existence does not precede essence, because existence has meaning only in relation to something outside itself. It is possible to be anti-bourgeois and to be more radical than the Communists.
Excessive regard for high culture is a trap. The "aristocracy of thought" is a bourgeois notion. The bourgeoisie has nothing to do with Tradition. Certainly the bourgeoisie could not aid a revolution for Tradition. A new beginning requires a worldview, not a new culture. Tradition uses thought to clarify what is already known to be true through extra-rational means. (The early Wittgenstein might have approved this principle.) Worldviews are not just theories, but existential determinants. A new, anti-bourgeois Traditionalism would create a new kind of man.
The institutional mechanism for the renormalization of society into harmony with Tradition is the "corporation," characterized by communal necessity and impersonal dignity. Corporations would be like medieval guilds, non-capitalist entities for which finance was extraneous. Corporations will de-proletarianize the worker and eliminate pure capitalism. To do this, however, corporations should be organized toward the higher, political plane, not to the lower trade-union level. The state must act, bringing revolution from above.
The new Traditional state might have a Lower House of corporations, whose members might be chosen by elections and other representative devices. However, unlike in Mussolini's Italy, there must be not only a House of Corporations, but also an Upper House, controlled by an Order.
Regarding demographic policy, Evola says that the real objection to population growth is not Malthusian, a merely materialist objection. The problem is that massive populations promote a "mass civilization." The decrease of population would mean the end of high capitalism. The superior element among the people can grow only arithmetically, but the inferior breed geometrically. Additionally, family life is an impediment for members of an elite: wife and children are bourgeois distractions. We know from history that a successful Order need not reproduce itself physically.
The social and economic explanations for the problems of the modern world are true as far as they go, but they do not reveal the final causes. Those who look at history in three dimensions see that an Occult War is underway. Not all historical forces are merely human. There is a subterranean dimension. This is not to be confused with the subconscious of depth psychology, though the war is waged in part in the subconscious of history's objects. Intelligences are at work. Evola presents a system of non-religious dualism, in which cosmos battles chaos.
The Cunning of History, the fact that consequences are often so different from what the actors intended, shows that deeper forces are at work. They rarely appear directly. Rather, they make subtle cracks in the structure of events, and so give the development of the world a direction. Though one should assess the effect of these forces only with prudence, there is something suspicious every time a historical effect transcends its apparent cause. Wild speculation has prevented the formulation of a science about this, thus meeting the expectations of the hidden enemy.
Evola wrote a supportive preface and appendix for "The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion," a book he also discusses in "Men Among the Ruins." He does not endorse the "Protocols" as literal fact, noting that real secret organizations do not leave documents like that. Still, even though the "Protocols" clearly draw on fictional sources, that does not mean that the plan they present is unreal. He says we should take the book seriously, because its predictions are reliable. We are dealing, he suggests, with prophetic premonition.
The "Protocols" is correct in saying that the primary modern ideologies were devised by forces that knew them to be false, but which promoted the ideologies for their subversive effect. Conspiracy theory itself is part of a program of demoralization. For that matter, "Traditionalism" can be an evasion, a tactic of chaos. Jung, for instance, represents a turn away from the Transcendent, masked in a system suitable for those too smart for Freud.
Antisemitism is another misleading ideology. The "Protocols" exaggerates the role of the Jews in the Occult War, perhaps for the purposes of those further in. The process of subversion started in the Renaissance; the Jews enter the mainstream of European history much later. The "Protocols" also distracts attention from Masonry. As the Regression of the Castes continues, the Occult War could turn against both the Masons and the Jews as the age of plutocracy ends and that of the proletarian revolution begins.
Evola had no enthusiasm for global government. He wanted Europe out of the UN. However, he endorsed a united Europe in principle, though he disapproved of the steps in that direction which had been taken so far. Before 1945, he asserts, there was a European army, in the form of the SS, which might have been the basis for future unity. The European Community of his day was objectionable because it was founded on mere economics. He believes that a "Nation of Europe," founded on common historical experience, is chimerical. The dynasties of historical Europe created their nations, and none is available for the larger project. A European Empire is a possibility, however. In such an Empire, the historical nations might continue to exist, but there would be no nationalism.
Imperialism, Evola notes, is just distended nationalism. The organic Empire, in contrast, would be an organism of organisms. Authority must be anti-democratic, particularly among the elites on the imperial level, but also to some extent in each country. Evola returns again and again to the need for an Order. On the European level, this might have a core of the old nobility, with a larger, active membership of warrior mentality. The Order also needs a leader. Evola is too modest to speculate about a suitable candidate.
Unfortunately, neither a suitable religion nor culture is available for a united Europe. The culture that liberals want to defend in Europe is disintegrating. However, creating just another superpower in opposition to America and Russia would not be worth the effort. Europe should bracket modernity, as Japan did after the Meiji Restoration. It should take such modern elements as are necessary for survival in a competitive world, but cultivate its own spirit.
This brings us to the question of Evola's influence, even on the popular level. Was the revolutionary New Age anthem, "Ride the Tiger," by the musical group Jefferson Starship, inspired by Evola's tract of roughly the same name? It is not impossible; the tract was read aloud to striking students in Europe in 1968. Then there is the Muslim connection. Evola's theory of the sacral state is not very different from the Muslim ideal, and in fact René Guénon embraced Islam and became an influential Sufi.
Many writers come to mind who have invoked themes similar to Evola's. To take a currently popular author, Evola's "Empire" clearly has something to do with that of Antonio Negri, but then both were also influenced by the Augustinian "City of God." Evola's idea of an esoteric Order also chimes with Negri's idea of post-bourgeois, non-theist "Franciscans." Of course, Evola's Order upholds the Empire, while Negri's Order undermines it. Both Evola and Negri have models of history that are permissive rather than deterministic. In both cases, a new society is a matter of will.
Among other recent writers, one might note that Robert Kaplan's idea of "ancient pagan virtue" in his book, "Warrior Politics," is not so different from Evola's concept of warrior ethics. Both Evola and Kaplan might have profited from a reading of Victor Hanson's "The Western Way of War," which argues persuasively that warrior societies are losers, especially when they engage liberal democracies.
Evola reviewed and gave qualified endorsement to Francis Parker Yockey's pseudo-Spenglerian tract, "Imperium" (That title, by the way, recurs in Evola's biography as the title of a journal with which he was associated, and with at least one political organization.) The doctrine of "Magic Idealism" clears up the cryptic assertion in Yockey's "Imperium" that merely reading the book is a political act.
One need not seek only among the wicked for what seems to be Evola's influence. C.S. Lewis's novel "That Hideous Strength, written during the Second World War, has a character belonging to an occult conspiracy who explains to a captive why he should join the conspiracy. Oddly, the conspirator is a psychologist of the behaviorist school, and for most purposes an extreme materialist. The captive asks how the reasons the behaviorist offers can be persuasive, if in fact all the captive's behavior is physiologically determined. The behaviorist answers that, once the training has begun, initiates see that their motives are epiphenomenal; they find they can function more efficiently without them. This is very close to Evola's idea of "absolute action." Lewis was a serious scholar of medieval Italian literature, and a somewhat less serious student of the occult. It would hardly be surprising if he were familiar with Evola's ideas.
As the Magic Baron advised, we should be cautious about identifying hidden actors in history. Still, many events look a little different, once you know that there is such a thing as Traditionalism in the world.
I was lent this book by a friend. I had never read anything by Frederik Pohl before, but I knew of him because he wrote the introduction to the collection of Cyril Kornbluth's short stories that I read recently.
This was a cracking good read. Hard scifi, mildly didactic regarding stellar astrophysics, along with some reasonable speculations about setting up colony ships that cannot travel faster than light. Pohl played around with General Relativity and some of the proposals that have been floated to unify gravity with the electroweak forces.
I found the main character thought-provoking. Viktor Sorricaine is perhaps a bit of an anti-hero; it takes him until the end of time to stop being a selfish bastard. Nonetheless, I found Viktor likeable, and I could easily get inside his head even when he did things that made me cringe [perhaps in self-recognition?]
The other main character, whose life unexpectedly parallels Viktor's, is Wan-To. Wan-To lives inside a star, possesses immense power, has a lifespan measured in very large exponents, and has the ethics of a toddler. I actually find this plausible. Wan-To's life, which spans nearly the whole interval from the Big Bang to the heat death of the Universe, is remarkably static. What Wan-To reminds me of is an angel, albeit a fallen one.
St. Thomas Aquinas is known as the Angelic Doctor because he spent a great deal of time speculating about what what angels are like. This is primarily of interest because Thomas used angels as a thought-experiment: he tried to discern how a mind worked by thinking about things that are nothing but a mind, and deducing what properties they must have. One of the properties of an angel is that they are immaterial, minds without bodies.
Pohl describes Wan-To as something very much like Aquinas' disembodied intelligences, except that Wan-To very much has a body, albeit one composed of plasma. What is similar is that Wan-To largely lacks the capacity to change. Part of what makes the material material is the ability to change from one form to another. Immaterial things, by definition, lack this ability.
Since Wan-To is actually material, he can change a bit, but his life history is so slow that it takes him a very long time to do so. Unlike humans, who are so very fragile and perishable, but who possess a remarkable ability to change very much over their short lifespan. There is a venerable conceit in literature that our transitory nature is really our greatest strength. Dante and Milton suggested that the fallen angels in particular, envy us, because a human being can make an entire lifetime of mistakes, and yet be redeemed at the end by a singular act of contrition, whereas an angel only ever gets one choice, without any possibility of redemption.
A more recent example from the same tradition is J.R.R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. The relatively eternal and blessed elves lose the world to the raucous and fecund men, precisely because Tolkien's elves lack the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. A similar idea is at work in Pohl's book, but is only implied. Like the elves, Wan-To's long life, and the very few creatures like himself that he encounters, render his conceptual universe small and fixed. Despite the unspeakable eternities that Wan-To experiences, nothing happens to him. Accordingly, he has few opportunities to learn from his mistakes, or see that someone else has done it different and better.
Wan-To lacks socialization: he completely lacks the common human experience of being raised by someone older and more experienced. All he has are his [admittedly ample] wits and native powers. Against any mere human, or human-like creature, Wan-To is clearly superior. However, in a Providential occurrence, Wan-To's destructive attempts at self-preservation purify a remnant of humanity of the Thanatos impulse by accidentally flinging them to the end of time. Conflict is created thereby, because the nuclear energy of the suns the humans enjoy is unique in the dissipated universe at the end of time, and Wan-To, being material, needs energy to survive. Pohl leaves us with an inevitable future collision between Wan-To and the sons of man. Strongly implied, I think, is that Wan-To will be tested, and found wanting, when this lesser Day of Judgment arrives.
This post of John's is a good reminder of how we got ourselves into this mess. The first Gulf War was a rousing success. In the lead-up to that war, lots of respectable people said the war would devolve into a messy guerrilla campaign and there was nothing in Iraq worth American boys dying for.
All of those people were discredited when the first Gulf War turned into a quick and easy rout of the Iraqi army. Some of the things that were said were silly, such as the suggestion that America would bomb Iraqi cities flat like we did to Japan and Germany in WWII. However, now all the critics of war can plausibly say: I told you so. What is less clear is what would have actually happened had the critics of war in Iraq prevailed.
Part of the reason that John took the stance that he did was that he felt 9/11 was fostered by an attitude of indifference to the petty territorial squabbles and the multitude of terrorist organizations that characterize not only the Middle East, but the whole Third World. John felt that the "mind our own business" solution to attracting the lethal attention of terrorist organizations had already been tried in the 1990s, and found wanting.
I'm sympathetic to the "mind our business" point of view. I think the most memorable version of this is Steve Sailer's "Invade the World, Invite the World." What stops me from embracing it wholly is John's counter-factual: "okay, what else then?" In order to realize the posited alternative, we would need to completely change American policy and attitudes towards immigration, as well as roll up some or all of our overseas military commitments. How likely is this to happen? And if we succeed, what kind of world will result from our decision?
The build-up to Gulf War II has this advantage over the build-up to Gulf War I: at least now we know who to ignore. To take a particularly egregious example, National Public Radio's coverage was so tendentious the last time around that Scott Simon did a very funny apology after the war was over.
No, the treads did not fall off the tanks, as NPR interviewees suggested they would. No, cities were not leveled by carpet bombing. No, the war did not drag out into a guerrilla campaign. In fact, though the failure to remove the Baathist government did mar the victory, it became impossible to disguise the fact that Gulf War I was a war of liberation. A surprising amount of the old peace movement had been able to mobilize to prevent US intervention, but it was so discredited by the outcome that little of it survives today.
Perhaps the saddest case is the veteran columnist, Mark Shields. He would appear on the McNeil/Lehrer show night after night in 1990 to make plausible predictions of catastrophe if the US advanced into Kuwait. Speaking as a war veteran, he insisted that there was nothing at issue in the Gulf that was worth young Americans dying for. Again, his warnings about the course and outcome of the war turned out to be wrong, but it was hard to dismiss their sincerity.
It's not hard anymore. Shields is a liberal Democrat, but he had once been able to break ranks and say things that were novel and often important. Like most of the commentariat, he lost that ability during the Clinton Administration. Republicans are often just as unthinkingly partisan, but Shields had once been worth listening to.
What brought this to mind was a recent appearance of his on the Jim Lehrer New Hour (McNeil having long-since retired) to make almost the same arguments he had been making a dozen years ago. He praised the strange stories that the New York Times has been running. These stories claim to report leaks that show the US military is against an invasion of Iraq, and that it will agree to an invasion only if huge forces are used that take at least six months to prepare. Shields insisted vehemently that this attitude is the correct one for the military to take: it's the men and women in uniform who are going to be on the line, not the civilian hawks in the Defense Department, he insisted.
That is backwards. It is precisely American civilians who are on the line in the terror war. In fact, the civilians in the Pentagon turned out to be in more danger than the armed forces on September 11. Thousands of American civilians were killed on that day; hundreds of thousands will be killed at no distant date, if the regimes of the Axis of Evil are not changed in short order.
It is actually very unlikely that the Times stories represent thinking inside the military. General Tommy Franks of the Central Command has been tarred with a reputation for obstructionism that he does not deserve. However, it is true that a replay of Gulf War I would not be good enough. If it were really true that the best the military can do is promise to build the Maginot Line on the Euphrates by 2005, then it would be time to take the institution apart and rebuild it from scratch.
Let me put it this way: the plausibility that force will be used is a force multiplier. The Maginot Line is actually a good example. When the Germans sent a token force into their own Rhineland in 1936, an area that was supposed to remain demilitarized, the French prime minister asked the army commander-in-chief to dislodge it. The commander was rather shocked. He said he could order a general mobilization, but he had nothing like the standby expeditionary force the prime minister seemed to be contemplating. The Germans knew this too, so they risked reoccupation, despite the overwhelming superiority of the French at the time. The fact is we need a military that can deploy a war-winning force anywhere in the world in a week or two. We also need a political situation in which this can happen routinely, scarcely making the front pages.
The constitutional objections to presidential war-making authority are chimerical. Though the Constitution says that only Congress can declare war, the Constitution also says that only Congress can grant letters of marque and reprisal. Letters of marque and reprisal were creatures of the law of nations that became extinct in the 19th century; the declaration of war pretty much disappeared in the 20th. The power of Congress over the military is now chiefly through the budget, and it is quite enough.
As for deployment anywhere in the world within two weeks, the idea is nonsense on it's face. It's still necessary.
John has been definitely refuted here by the events that followed not only the downfall of the Baathist Iraqi state, but also Syria and Libya. Deposing Middle Eastern tyrants has shown us there are indeed worse evils. I suppose the one consolation we have is that while President George W. Bush was a true believer in the American gospel, spreading peace and democracy everywhere we go, whereas President Obama seems rather indifferent. This hasn't really affected our involvement in the Middle East since foreign policy is conducted by the same people under both Presidents, other than they do seem to have learned that Americans really don't want boots on the ground in the Middle East.
All of this might be less objectionable if our Deep State hawks were a little better at what they do. Instead, we get what Jerry Pournelle calls Incompetent Empire. We are exceptionally good at the breaking things and killing people part of Empire, what we are less good at is the political maneuvering afterwards. One needn't look far to find examples of competent Empire. Both the British and the Romans were quite adept at this kind of thing. The Deep State seems largely to be populated with folks who share whiggish understandings of human nature: democracy and liberty are culturally neutral goods sought by everyone at all times and in all places.
Something in John's favor is that he did understand that forms of government are culturally dependent, and that not all things are possible in all times and all places. John correctly notes that Iran is not liable to same weaknesses as many other Middle Eastern states. Some sort of state has existed in Persia for a very long time, the people there identify with their history and their nation. The last time we interfered in their internal affairs to any great effect, the Iranians rose up and threw us out. On the other hand, John felt that Iraq was a fictional country [it is], with a widely despised government [it was], such that you ought to able to depose one government and put another in its place without too much fuss [possible?].
If we were better at the game of Empire, perhaps we could have done this. As it turned out, we did not succeed.
For the last week or two, we have been overwhelmed with plans for the war with Iraq. The invasion will happen next spring and involve a quarter-million regular Army troops, or it will happen almost immediately with just a few thousand members of the special forces. It will be a matter of all heavy armor or just air power, according to taste. The war will last some time between 72 hours and six months.
There really is a range of respectable opinions about strategy. Newspapers get an anonymous quote or two from someone associated with the military when they publish stories about these things, but I don't give special credence to these "leaks" from the Pentagon. In reality, the press has just been stating the obvious.
For me, at least, the obvious strategy has always been to shut down all intercity movement and communications in Iraq for a few days, install a provisional government based in the north and south, and then bring heavier forces to bear against the government's bunkers and other redoubts. From what I understand, the Iraqi military is largely irrelevant to the war it would have to fight. The heavy armor it favors simply cannot be used when the enemy has air supremacy. Small forces could defeat the large Iraqi military because that military would never be able to concentrate. The slow, massive, campaign favored by the US Army would obviate the advantages that Iraq offers.
A lightning campaign ought to foster or even create uprisings in the north and south of the country; the Iraqi government could be deprived of most of its territory at a blow. Additionally, the US should seek to eliminate the Iraqi government as a diplomatic actor within hours of beginning the assault. Ideally, that government should be unable even to communicate with its UN delegation. We might see not only most of Iraq's military quickly defecting, but also its diplomatic corps.
We have also recently seen another class of stories related to the war. These are assessments depicting the chaos that would follow the removal of the Baathist regime from Baghdad and the opprobrium in which the US would be held for doing such a thing. Unlike the matter of military strategy, such stories do not reflect a range of plausible opinions. They are uniformly tendentious. George Bernard Shaw, in his silly old age, opposed the British declaration of war against Germany in 1939. "What on earth would happen if we did defeat the Germans?" he would ask. "Is our policy to overthrow the governments of Germany and the Soviet Union, and replace them with the British constitution?" The difference between today's anti-war propaganda and that of 1939 is that Shaw was honestly stupid.
There is such a thing as overreaching, however. We see an example of this in Reuel Marc Gerecht's Weekly Standard article of August 5, "Regime Change in Iran?" The piece acutely points out that President Bush's approach to the war on terror is a species of "liberation theology." The article does not propose invading Iran while we are in the neighborhood, but simply that we should promote the overthrow of the Islamic Republic, not seek to engage it.
There are mysteries in this matter that do not apply to Iraq. One can plug and unplug the governments of most Middle Eastern countries because they are make-believe states to begin with. Their peoples barely tolerate them. This is particularly true of the Baathist government of Syria, the removal of which is the key to solving the Palestinian situation. Iran, in contrast, is a real country. It has a lively civil society and a notable cultural life, both rarities in the region. It even has an imperfect democracy. Gerecht's argument is that, with a little push, Iran could become a secular, democratic state like Turkey.
Maybe, but I have misgivings. For one thing, the Wilsonianism-with-teeth that the Weekly Standard promotes really is a "liberation theology," even if the people who favor it imagine that they are encouraging secular neutrality. Muslims often look on Western secular humanism as a kind of Protestant Christianity, and they have a point.
Islam is not a "medieval" civilization awaiting its Reformation. Mohammed was a sort of Luther, who brought simplicity and egalitarianism to the orthodoxies and heterodoxies of the Middle East. He even brought "sola scriptura," which would not enter Christianity for another 900 years. Islam is in fact a fossil Reformation. You can shatter a fossil, but you cannot get it to grow again.
This is why I do this. Coming back to this barely remembered book review after many, many years is much like reuiniting with an old friend. I can see in these paragraphs things I have said, and things I have thought, forgetting their true source. This post is a rich vein of the insights that I have applied over the years.
John liked Robertson Davies for the same reason I like Tim Powers, he was an author you could use to cleanse your palate after reading some modern drivel. There is something disheartening about so much modern fiction, that it is a real joy to read a book that doesn't drag you down. John notes that while Davies was never opposed to modern culture as such, Davies managed to avoid modernity's worst excesses by looking beyond modernity to what is inevitably to come.
Davies' novel is grouped where it is in John's blog because it is thematically related to Tradition, the political embodiment of the perennial philosophy. You could read John's post as an indictment of Tradition, but mostly I think he wanted to draw attention to something that possesses latent power, and his review of The Cunning Man seeks to draw out the good there is to be found in the perennial philosophy, much as Davies looked for the good in modernity.
John felt that the perennial philosophy at its best was far from the worst possible world, but probably also not capable of achieving the best. Graceful despair was how he characterized it, perhaps most memorably embodied in the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius. However, John clearly also felt that the hermeticism of the perennial philosophy could conjure a world that none [or almost none] of us really want.
Searching for the even better alternative was John's ultimate purpose, and by extension it is now mine.
by Robertson Davies
Viking Publishers, 1995
$23.95, 469 pp.
The Breath of Coming Winter
Some years ago, for reasons that seemed sufficient at the time, I read Doris Lessing's great novel, "The Golden Notebook." The novel takes the form of a long, agonized memoir by a progressive young woman in the middle of the 20th century, in which the protagonist tries to come to grips with the political and sexual struggles of her time. This really is a great book. It succeeds like few other works in conveying to the reader the dismay and self-disgust of the modern mind. Then I happened to read Robertson Davies' novel, "The Lyre of Orpheus," the first of his books I had ever encountered. Reading it was like being cured of an abscessed tooth. Since then, I have been reading everything by him I could find.
I don't think that my reaction to Davies is altogether unique. Many people find his prose to have the same curative effect. His books breathe compassion and an intelligent sense of history. In contrast to so much of what goes on in fiction these days, his vision seems to capture the light of sanity. In his latest book, "The Cunning Man," he puts a fittingly old name to this light: the perennial philosophy. (This term has been variously defined, but perhaps Aldous Huxley's book, "The Perennial Philosophy," comes closest to an extended exposition of what Davies means.) Today, many people speak of the end of the modern era, and some even say it has already ended. They call our time "the postmodern age." This is nonsense, of course. Postmodernism is merely a satirical epilogue to modernity. Robertson Davies, though often accounted a somewhat old-fashioned author, shows us in his books one of the spiritual regimes that could actually succeed modernity when it does end. If so, it will be better than we deserve. Even now, however, with modernity still largely undismantled, it is not too early to begin to understand that the perennial philosophy is in essence a form of graceful despair.
"The Cunning Man" consists of a series of reflections and character sketches, held together by a loose account of the life and times of one Dr. Jon Hullah, master diagnostic physician of the city of Toronto. There are three stories here: Hullah's school life and professional career, the growth of the cultural life of Toronto to world-class status, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of orthodox religion. The doctor, like so many other characters in Davies' books, is a wizardly man, a bachelor and a bit of a misanthrope with some odd intellectual interests. After a boyhood in the Canadian north and a tough-but-fair elite boys' prep school, he has an early infatuation with Freudian theory when it was still new and not particularly respectable, at least in Canada. He has some occasion to put this interest into practice while treating "friendly fire" casualties during World War II. Back in civilian life, the doctor develops into a physician in the tradition of Paracelsus. This means that, in practice, he learned the value of just listening. He is, of course, perfectly expert in scientific medicine, but he tends to take his science as a metaphor. There are genuine mysteries in the case histories of his patients. To illustrate this, he has a bas relief of a caduceus on the wall of his waiting room. Its two intertwining snakes symbolize empirical science and "wisdom" respectively, while above both is written the Greek word for "fate."
The health of every individual, the doctor believes, is as unique as each soul, and so is every disease. The point is not that all diseases are psychosomatic; they aren't. However, the conditions to which the body is prone are usually expressions of the mind, and the patient's state of mind is of critical importance to the success of any therapy. Dr. Hullah acquires a quiet but wide reputation as a "diagnostician of last resort," a physician whose results other doctors cannot quite explain and which they usually have the sense not to ask about. His clinic, it happens, is located in a building in close proximity to a high episcopal church.
At the time of the main action of the story, St. Aidan's was a very high episcopal church indeed, with a congregation that provided a good social cross-section of Toronto. In those glory days, its pastor was the saintly Father Hobbes, a man who literally went hungry to feed the poor. We meet him as he sinks in his last years into a pious and well-beloved dotage. Though the pastor was willing to accommodate elaborate ritual practice, the church's splendid liturgies during the late period of his tenure were the work of the parish's sophisticated music directors, and even more so of the curate, Fr. Iredale, one of Dr. Hullah's old schoolmates. The artistic life of the church was greatly enriched by, indeed it really only reflected, what went on next door in Glebe House. This old mansion had once been parish property, but came into possession of two representatives of another stock type in Davies' books, the Lovable Lesbian Artists. Called the Ladies, they were friends with their tenant Hullah (his clinic is located in a building that had been Glebe House's formidable stone stable). Starting first with artistically-inclined people at St. Aidan's, they came to host a weekly salon that attracted most of the musicians and plastic artists of the nascent artistic world of Toronto at midcentury. (The Ladies invited few writers, since writers proved to drink too much.)
Lest anyone miss the moral, this arrangement is supposed to illustrate the fruitful relationship that art can have with religion. The artists themselves are in large part infidels and persons whose private lives do not bear close scrutiny, yet their community is created by the need of the church for music and vestments and sculpture. Once assembled, they develop their art according to its own needs, but the church continues to benefit from the new creations it has neither the funds nor the imagination to produce itself. During the Golden Age of St. Aidan's, faithful parishioners like the Ladies and Dr. Hullah do not of course believe in the tenets of orthodox Christianity. They are attracted to the church because they intuit that there is a dimension of Being beyond the material. They see that the Good is often the occasion for the Beautiful, as illustrated by the beautiful ceremonies presided over by the genuinely admirable Fr. Hobbes. They are, however, too sophisticated to believe that the Good must also be linked to the True. The Gospel taught at St. Aidan's is a kind of significant poetry. To think otherwise is a bit of naivete that might be tolerated in simple people, but which leads to disastrous results in the hands of men with intellect and imagination.
Such, unfortunately, was Fr. Iredale. Everyone agreed that the pastor was a saintly man. His curate, however, inspired by private visions he could not dismiss, came to regard Fr. Hobbes as a living saint in the most literal sense. The book is in small part also a murder mystery, so it would not be appropriate to set out here just what steps the curate took to prepare the pastor for canonization. Fr. Iredale wanted nothing less than that for the late Fr. Hobbes: a shrine, a cult, and finally official recognition of sainthood by the whole Anglican communion. The cult of Fr. Hobbes was to save not only Toronto, but the whole of North America. The problem, the curate soon found, was that the enthusiasm he had whipped up could not be kept within church walls. One of Dr. Hullah's truly psychosomatic patients declared herself cured by the lately deceased saint's miraculous intervention, and began preaching in the little graveyard by Glebe House where he was buried. She attracted dangerous crowds of those whom Fr. Hobbes had helped in life, street crazies, thieves and invincible alcoholics. (The Unworthy Poor are another staple of Davies' fiction. Here they take the Orwellian name of "God's People.") The bishop of Toronto, alarmed at the disorder and credulity at St. Aidan's, sends his favorite hench-cleric to preach on the dangers of ritualism. Fr. Iredale is banished to a parish in the farthest north. There he must listen to the private revelations of his landlady and try to adapt to a poor rural congregation (actually six small ones at various widely-separated churches). He takes to drink and becomes himself one of God's People, eventually dying in Dr. Hullah's care.
We learn of all this as Dr. Hullah explains it many years later to his godson's wife, an investigative reporter in Toronto. (Newspaper journalism, like the theater and the academy, is yet another stock feature of Davies' fiction. He has, after all, had significant careers in all three professions.) Thus, we get to look at these events from their aftermath. One Lady has died and the other moved away. In any event, the artistic life of the city has become too large and too commercial to fit into one of their artistic evenings. St. Aidan's has become a parish of the rich and tonedeaf. Dr. Hullah has stopped accepting new patients. We see him planning a great literary study for his retirement, a compendium of medical diagnoses of the great characters from literature, based on their spiritual conditions as set out in the texts.
We are given various hints that these personal things are not all that is ending. The doctor's indispensable nurse-therapist, for instance, is a great reader of Toynbee and Spengler, especially the latter. The era of classical modern culture with which the doctor literally grew up seems to be drawing to a close with his career. As a doctor, he has less and less faith in contemporary science, even as metaphor. AIDS and cancer research go on and on, costing ever more but yielding few results. Even the old diseases he thought conquered as a young man are staging comebacks. The suspicion grows that the whole business of research is just that, a business, perhaps finally a bit of a racket. One of his old friends discourages him from making a bequest to a university unless he attaches strict conditions. Otherwise, the greedy scientists will eat it up without licking their lips. Like the monasteries of Henry VIII's time, the laboratories have become bloated and corrupt. The time is coming for a cleaning out.
Robertson Davies has never set his face against the trends of the modern world. Insofar as modern culture has had a strong psychoanalytical component, his novel "The Manticore," which deals with a course of Jungian analysis, may someday be seen as one of the key texts. His novel "The Lyre of Orpheus," which deals with a university production of an original opera about King Arthur, is open to the possibility that there may be worth in today's experimental musical styles. In "The Cunning Man," he even manages a few kind words for feminism, of a sort. Though he clearly prefers some cultural usages of previous periods to those of the twentieth century, he has always been willing to acknowledge whatever good the world has on offer. Still, he suggests that modern culture, at least as it has been known in Canada, is drawing to a close. There is no Spenglerian gloom associated with this development. Empires may crumble and the arts go into hibernation, but the wise do not despair. Every historical era is equally far from God, but the perennial philosophy is there to console us in each.
Davies' idea of enlightenment seems to bear a certain family resemblance to that of the English novelist and former Oxford philosopher, Iris Murdoch, who has been promoting a brand of moderate Platonism for years. The reference point of Murdoch's philosophy is not a personal God, but the abstract Good. The Good, of course, issues no orders, but informs every choice we make, even those that deliberately contravene it. It does, if you will, set the agenda. It does not punish, but reality exacts a price from those who do not seek the Good, which is also the ultimately Real. Popular religion provides a form of the Good that can be understood even by people without a philosophical education. For the mass of mankind, the search for the Good can be reduced to a set of crude injunctions. This is at least sufficient for the purpose of maintaining social order. Sophisticated minds, however, will usually find that, as they climb the ladder of moral perfection, they will eventually no longer need a personal God in order to understand the Good. They need not then abandon God, but may continue to cherish Him as a metaphor. Indeed, Murdoch is a great promoter of High Church practices. As limited beings, we need symbols to help compose our minds to higher things. Ritual links us to the past and so to each other; it helps constitute society. Murdoch is the kind of Anglican who cares little whether her priest believes in God, but a great deal whether he reads from a Bible other than the Authorized Version.
There are a number of flaws one might find with an idealism so chilly. For one thing, a lot of people with expensive philosophical educations, such as St. Augustine and C.S. Lewis, found that the Good was a steppingstone to God and not the other way around. In any event, Davies' philosophy (to the extent it can be derived from his novels) is much less desiccated than Murdoch's. Davies has, for one thing, a strong taste for the merely uncanny. Although there is little actual magic in his books, there is great deal of talk about astrology, alchemical philosophy, and archetypes of one kind or another. These factors are hardly an impediment to sales in today's intellectual climate. He does favor his readers with significant coincidences, effective curses, the odd ghost (his last novel, "Murther and Walking Spirits," was a posthumous narrative by a murdered man) and one memorable case of the Evil Eye. One way of looking at the supernatural is that it is just a plot device that got out of hand, but one of Davies' attractions is that his use of it makes his fiction feel more realistic. Some people all their lives, and others during one or more vivid passages, sense a purpose or presence behind everyday life. Modernity, unlike most cultural periods, has been dedicated to dismissing this intuition as an illusion, or to explaining it in material terms. Davies' kind of realism does not do this. His vision, which perhaps reached its clearest expression in his deservedly-best selling book, "What's Bred in the Bone," can claim the designation "perennial" with some justice.
A taste for the uncanny is a long way from a religious perspective, of course. The uncanny can be a source of bad as well as good, of horror as well as illumination. If you believe in C.G Jung's idea of luck, the "synchronous event," then you must believe in the possibility of bad luck and inescapable ill-fortune. The ultimate that we sometimes sense beneath the surface of our lives is not necessarily friendly. Those characters who seek to understand it, like the diabolical old Jesuit in Davies' "Fifth Business," may be merely entertaining. On the other hand, like the nihilist monk Parlebane (another Anglican ritualist) in "The Rebel Angels," they can become formidable monsters. This view is not a kind of Manicheanism, the idea that there are independent and roughly equal forces of Good and Evil in the universe, each perhaps with its own god. Rather, it is the suspicion that God is both good and evil, that He and the devil are the same thing as seen from different angles. A God of this kind might be respected, and probably should be placated. However, it just presents another problem for human life, it is not a solution to anything.
All of this, Evil Eyes and intuitions of Being and so on, may be gross superstition. For that matter, maybe the Good and the cult of the Authorized Version are subtle superstition. The fact is, however, that educated people in most times and places who did not accept the formal theology of a major religion believed something like this. Even the secular Enlightenment of the eighteenth century was suffused with "hermetic" ideas of this type. They are, if you will, the "default position" for the sophisticated human mind, a kind of historically-informed skepticism that gives no special priority to materialism. For over two hundred years, the progress of scientific theory (and only secondarily of the technology incorporating it) has kept these ideas at bay. Today, one may argue, this perennial philosophy is returning. The problem is not that science has failed. It has almost succeeded in everything it set out to do. We understand much of the chemical aspects of biology. Even the progress of cancer research is not quite the shell-game Davies seems to think it is. We may soon have a Unified Field Theory short enough to write on T-shirt. Even before we have complete solutions to these problems, however, we know that they will not be enough.
What is true of physics is also true of morality. Nietzsche promised us a thorough-going reexamination of all values, and damned if we did not get it. Today, the experiments have all been run, and it is pretty clear to all but the most obtuse observer that the only alternative to something like the traditional systems of ethics is no human life at all. The alternatives will simply kill any society that tries to adopt them. We know what we set out to discover, and now it remains only to implement our findings. To this extent, perhaps, the future is not problematical.
What is problematical is the atmosphere in which this reconstruction will occur. It is easy to imagine a transition in which "secularism" gradually ceases to mean materialism and comes to mean something very like the perennial philosophy. This would make sense. The excitement of modernity being over, it only follows that the more relaxed "default" position would kick in. It would not be the worst thing that could happen, but one can't help but wonder whether it would really be the best. The perennial philosophy is, after all, not really very optimistic about the world or about mankind. It is not ambitious to do things that has not been achieved before. Its highest value is order. Of course, in the terminal stages of modernity, order is nothing to be sneezed at. In the final analysis, however, I think that we will finally come to see that order is not enough, either.
The idea that the Nazis were into the occult has become a widely popular idea. When Indiana Jones battles Nazis for the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, no one needs any backstory to make this plausible. We just all accept it and move on.
What is perhaps more interesting is how the ideas that animated the Nazis have evolved. In the last seventy years, fascism and the occult have merged to produce something that potentially will again have popular appeal.
In this review, John was surprised to discover a Satanic-Nazi strand in heavy metal and Industrial music. I'm not surprised, but then John was a lot older than me and probably never listened to that kind of music. Perhaps he had better taste than me.
Something that did come as a bit of a surprise to me is the relationship between fascism and the German counter-culture. Nazism flourished in the same circles that were fond of nudism and vegetariansim, people who entertained what we would today call New Age beliefs, but in their time included a signifcant nationalist element.
I usually assume that any American espousing New Age beliefs is on the Left, but this isn't necessarily so. You need to be an American in the early twenty-first century to assume that nationalism is a right-wing phenomenon.
This is particularly important because most Americans probably view fascists, occultists, and occult fascists as losers on the wrong side of history, and therefore not worth our attention. Fascists in popular culture are perceived as objects of parody.
When I think of Nazis, this scene from the Blues Brothers is what I see in my head:
All of this might have gone nowhere, except that neo-fascists have been willing to openly state the widely felt anxieties occasioned by demographic change. Ths has propelled them to a fame that vastly exceeds their numbers. However, it worth noting that this kind of neo-fascist does not represent the kind of right of center party that actually wins elections in Europe, even if some of their concerns are the same, their motivations are entirely different.
What makes the occult fascists interesting is that they are natural allies of the anti-globalization, anti-capitalism, and anti-Western movements. Right now, this is prevented by the Right/Left dichotomy. We can only hope that this prejudice prevails.
Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism and the Politics of Identity
By Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke
New York University Press, 2002
371 Pages, US$24.97
Nazi Germany has become Atlantis. The historical Nazi regime was peculiar enough, of course. In some ways, it was more like a cult in power than a state controlled by a totalitarian party. After it was over, however, the regime was increasingly portrayed as an empire of dark magic. The belief spread that its rise and fall were not just uncanny but historically inexplicable. Its end was sudden and complete, so complete that the shards of evidence on the surface seemed less significant than the excavation of the occult underground. In some circles, the mythology has progressed even further: Nazi Germany became not just a vanished civilization, but also an ideal civilization, destined to rise again.
Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke is perhaps the foremost serious scholar of the relationship between the Third Reich and the occult. (The Occult Roots of Nazism, which he published in 1985, is not the only good book on the subject, but it is still a good place to start.) In Black Sun, he is chiefly concerned with the development of postwar esoteric fascism, which includes but is not limited to novel forms of magical Nazism. He is particularly concerned with its inflection into both terrorist politics and the mainstream New Age movement since the 1970s. He also argues that the social changes in Middle Europe that helped to plant the underground seeds of Nazi Germany 100 years ago now obtain to a greater or lesser degree throughout the West and Russia. The author draws dark inferences about what today's underground could produce by 2030.
Most of the information in Black Sun has appeared elsewhere, but even people familiar with the literature will get a few surprises. I had never heard of the pro-Nazi science fiction of Wilhelm Landig, for instance. For that matter, I had been only vaguely aware that there was a Satanic-Nazi strand in heavy metal and Industrial Music. Also, though the author had to take the principals at their word, the book has the first coherent account I have seen of the origins of the Order of the Nine Angles.
As for the rest, it is very useful to have something like the whole story between two covers. There are the key figures of the immediate postwar period, the American renegade Francis Parker Yockey, and Baron Julius Evola, who helped transform Nazi racism into a kind of aristocratic snobbery. There are the people who deified Hitler, or at least turned him into a Messianic figure, notably Savitri Devi and the former Chilean diplomat, Miguel Serrano. There are the early American neo-Nazis, such as James Madole, who combined Nazism and Theosophy to create a vision of America as the New Atlantis. There are the greater and lesser Satanists, whose ideas have tended to become more political and metahistorical with the passage of time. There is also a review of the Christian Identity movement, a largely independent phenomenon that nonetheless parallels esoteric fascism in its ontological rejection of the Jews and its expectation of a racial apocalypse in the future.
The role that the occult played in the foundation and policies of the Nazi regime is a matter of continuing research. Certainly the party grew out of völkish circles, people who entertained what we would today call New Age beliefs, but with a nationalist tilt. Important influences included the "Ariosophy" of the Viennese mystics Guido von List and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, whose notions about the need for a knightly "Order" to advance pan-Germanism clearly affected Heinrich Himmler's model for the SS. The Nazi Party used ideas and symbols long familiar in occult circles, notably the swastika itself. Alfred Rosenberg's Myth of the 20th Century, which was at least nominally the party's ideological guide, invoked the familiar esoteric idea that the Aryan race originated in Atlantis. This essentially Theosophical model of history saw the past as a progression of ages that each had own master race, and that each age was separated by a transitional disaster. Generically, that is also the way that some of the Nazi leadership looked at the 20th century. However, this does not mean that the occult is necessarily the key to the study of the Nazi phenomenon.
As Goodrick-Clarke points out, the evidence that any of the Nazi leaders ever performed black magic is quite thin. Himmler did subsidize research into occult subjects. This included at least one SS man, an Otto Rahn, who hunted across Europe for information about the Holy Grail. I might note that Rahn does seem to have been a Satanist, in the sense of sympathizing with Lucifer and agreeing with the Cathar rejection of the God of the Old Testament. Still, even he was probably engaged in folkloric research rather than looking for an actual artifact. In Mein Kampf, Hitler himself made fun of völkish groups, with their rune-magic and their attempts to revive Nordic paganism. Hitler in some ways was intensely superstitious. He was arguably a millenarian of sorts. However, there is no reason to think he was playing out a specific esoteric agenda.
Esoteric agendas did exist, especially in the SS. The problem was that there was more than one. Should the Nazi regime simply promote German power, or should it seek to unify all Aryans everywhere, including in Russia? What attitude should the Nazi government take to anti-colonial movements, particularly in India and the Middle East? Was the future to be secular or religious? Was Christianity compatible with fascism? The German leadership deferred deciding these issues right up to the point when the working language in Hitler's bunker changed from German to Russian. After 1945, however, fascist ideology was freed of the compromises necessary for government. Black Sun describes the trajectory it took thereafter.
Postwar esoteric fascism falls into two periods, joined by a phase of startling mutation in the 1970s. The first period was backward looking, essentially a salvage operation from the wreck of the Reich. The pan-European orientation of the Waffen-SS finally won out over that of the German-chauvinist Black SS, if for no other reason than that Germans were a distinct minority in the early postwar networks. Oswald Spengler's model of history was adopted in various hermetic forms, often involving the identification of the terminal crisis of modernity with the Kali Yuga. There was an increasing tendency to call in the Russians to counterbalance America, now wholly identified with the Jews. Hitler was literally deified in some circles, thus carrying to its logical conclusion a line of speculation started by C.G. Jung himself. The fascists whispered about Hitler's survival, in this world or another. They also traded stories about secret Nazi bases surviving in the Arctic and Antarctic, where wonder-weapons were still under development. They quickly seized on the advent of flying-saucer reports in the late 1940s as confirmation of their hopes.
Though political fascism in the1950s and '60s could still display a lethal edge, particularly in Italy, in most places it was a sad affair. American neo-Nazis marched in Nazi finery and invited attack from passersby, in the mistaken belief that this would excite public sympathy. Nothing was behind such "movements" but perverse historical nostalgia.
Two trends were underway by the 1970s that would make esoteric fascism relevant. The first was the New Age Movement and the concurrent general increase in mysticism. Books began to appear in great numbers that depicted the Second World War as essentially a war of wizards. Jean-Michel Angebert's Morning of the Magicians got the trend fairly underway in 1960. The genre peaked in the '70s; the best-known book of this type is probably Trevor Ravenscroft's Spear of Destiny (1973). Some of the information that continues to circulate in this literature is wholly spurious, some of it relies on sensationalist accounts from the 1930s, and some of it is strange but true. The effect of the new mythology was to give the evil of the Nazi regime a metaphysical dimension.
It was this spiritualization of Nazi wickedness that attracted the attention of Satanist groups, which were starting to expand at just that time. Modern Satanism usually means the rejection of Christianity and the idea of natural order, rather than the worship of a literal Satan. Still, the budding diabolists were intrigued by the notion that there had been a "Satanic" government in Europe in the first half of the 20th century, in the sense of a regime that was the adversary of everything that had traditionally been thought good. For followers of the Left Hand Path, people who choose to pursue liberation through nihilism, it made sense to adopt the real or imagined rituals of the Third Reich, and to make its memorials places of pilgrimage. Additionally, many of the postwar esoteric fascists were also noted writers on Tantra, Jungian depth psychology, or ritual magic. Essentially magical techniques thus became central to some new forms of Nazism.
There had been some fantasy literature during the Nazi years about the life of the Aryans in Hyperborea and Atlantis. (As a matter of fact, I might note that there was quite a lot of it in English, from writers like Robert Howard.) In the 1970s, a form of pro-Nazi science fiction began to appear. This chronicled the adventures of Germans who escaped the downfall of the Third Reich by fleeing to secret bases in the Arctic or Antarctic. (The names to remember for the Arctic are Point 103, the Blue Island, and Midnight Mountain; for Antarctica, the venue was usually Neuschwabenland, an actual territory explored by Germany before the war.) As part of a secret international society engaged in defending the world against Jewish domination, the refugees abandoned the swastika and conventional German insignia. The symbol of the society was the Black Sun.
The Black Sun design can consist of a black or deep-violet disk with a lightening bolt striking it, or a disk alone. This symbol perhaps came originally from the alchemical shorthand for the lowest point the Great Work. It had some currency in Germany in the 1930s; Himmler had may have had it worked into the floor of the SS castle at Wewelsberg, though it is not certain that is what the design there is supposed to mean. The Black Sun is also related to the Theosophical notion of the Invisible Sun around which the universe is supposed to revolve. This seems to have been what Himmler's wizard, Karl Maria Wiligut, had in mind when he described an extinguished star that had once shone on Hyperborea, and whose rays still energized the Aryan soul. In any case, this symbol of the low point of history has become the preferred symbol for esoteric Nazism.
All of this imaginative fiction and pseudo-history might have done little harm, had it not appeared at just the point when demographic changes were giving ideas like this some popular traction. Low birthrates and massive immigration began to manifest themselves throughout the West in the 1970s. The author asserts that the situation in German-speaking Europe in the late 19th century was similar, when an influx of Slavs and Jews from eastern Europe occasioned resentment and anxiety, particularly in Austria.
In previous books, Goodrick-Clarke has made a good case for the argument that this immigration sparked the mystical racism that resulted in the Nazi Party a generation later. One may, of course, question how strongly the analogy holds for 21st century Europe, much less for the United States. Demographic changes are not sufficient to explain the outbreak of violent extremism. In the US, for instance, there was a severe agricultural depression in the Midwest in the 1980s that spread alienation and populist radicalization.
Nonetheless, large-scale immigration is always disruptive, especially in societies that have no experience of dealing with it. Certainly the conviction has spread in many nations that the homeland is becoming unrecognizable, and that the elites are complicit in the process. Black Sun summarizes the violent reaction that appeared almost everywhere in the '80s and '90s, from the incipient guerilla war of the Order in the United States to the arson campaign against Norwegian churches by neo-pagans. In these events, there was usually some connection with the new fascism, whether by ideology or organization. There is in fact a Nazi international today.
Reading about these events in retrospect, one cannot help but be struck by the small numbers of activists actually involved. Were there ever more than a few thousand British skinheads? The Oklahoma City bombing seems to have been carried out by just two or three people. Organizations that seemed powerfully ominous online turn out to have had no more than a few dozen members. One might also note that this brand of neo-fascism is unrelated to the right-of-center parties in Europe that actually receive measurable numbers of votes in elections. It has nothing at all to do with American conservatism, which somehow manages to be simultaneously evangelical Christian, libertarian, and pro-Israel.
Still, Goodrick-Clarke is probably onto something when he notes that esoteric racism is essentially a multicultural phenomenon. In a world in which one's ethnic group can determine what benefits one is eligible for, people tend to find an ethnic identity and cling to it for dear life. Today, people in pursuit of ancient wisdom are more likely to hunt for it among their own ancestors than in the habits and beliefs of distant or alien peoples. The past is a different culture, particularly when it is imaginary. Some neo-pagan groups, notably those associated with the Nordic cult of Ásatrú, have replicated almost exactly the mixture of beliefs entertained by the proto-Nazi völkish groups that appeared before the First World War.
Beyond this, though, is the "perfect storm" that coalesced after September 11, 2001, against the liberal West. The continuing attacks on Israel and the United States must be counted as a success for postwar fascist underground, which began aiding radical Muslim interests even before the Second World War ended. The anti-globalization movement constitutes just the sort of international anti-capitalist and anti-Western alliance of which some leading Nazis dreamed. Environmentalists who think of themselves as good liberals have in fact adopted the biological mysticism that was a notable feature of the Nazi regime. Almost unnoticed, eugenics has progressed from an aspiration to a roaring success: few children with genetic abnormalities are allowed to come to term in advanced countries.
In the Chancellery bunker in 1945, Propaganda Minister Joseph Göbbels exhorted his colleagues to make a courageous end. He asked them to imagine a color motion picture, made in the year 2050, about what they said and did in the final days of the Reich. The question they each had to answer, he told them, was whether they wanted to appear as a hero or a villain in that film. Even today, I think we can be pretty sure that the identities of the good guys and the bad guys will not have changed much from the Allied point of view in 1945. Still, Black Sun is a useful reminder that some people have different ideas for the scenario.