The Long View 2007-04-18: Soggy Internet, Virginia Tech Massacre, The Secret Glory

The infrastructure failure that John mentions here where a big storm inundated NYC and affected theoretically robust networks like the Internet would be repeated on a much larger scale five years later with Hurricane Sandy.


Soggy Internet, Virginia Tech Massacre, The Secret Glory

No, it wasn't a nor'easter: That storm that dropped nine inches of rain on the New York City area over Sunday and Monday was not a coastal storm, which is what nor'easters (I hate that contraction: northeasters) are. The pattern was more like that of a winter continental storm that brings a blizzard.

Anyway, my own neighborhood is right at the mouth of the Hudson on New York Bay. Short of the Deluge, there is no way to get the sort of flooding here that forced evacuations further inland. On the other hand, the ground becomes completely saturated; my condominium's basement took a foot of water, and that was with the pump working.

I mention the storm here only because, while it was happening, the Internet slowed to a crawl and became unusable for a time. This has happened repeatedly in civil emergency and bad weather. I thought the point of the Internet was to be a communication system that would keep working even during a nuclear war.

Maybe it will, if the weather's fine.

* * *

The first mention I saw of the Virginia Tech Massacre characterized it as an assault on our Second Amendment right to own guns. Other variations on this offensive-defense include this surreal column: Virginia Tech's Gun-Free Zone Left Cho Seung-Hui's Victims Defenseless. Actually, if you are a Second Amendment buff, the massacre should cause you no concern. The new Democratic majority in Congress, NPR noted this morning, is based on representatives from rural districts who won election largely by adopting the National Rifle Association's position on gun rights. As we have noted before, the high strategy on the Left is to trade guns rights to the western states in order to secure their support for the Darwin Award Agenda on reproductive and marriage issues.

It could work.

I suspect that, even in Thomas Jefferson's day, students were not expected to come armed to the lecture halls.

* * *

We should compare this latest incident with the murder-suicide at Harvard in 1995. Cho Seung-Hui produced disturbing writings and otherwise gave signs of mental deterioration. So did the Harvard student in her diaries, as well as in letters to perfect strangers asking for help. In both cases, the students absented themselves for a long time from their classes before taking violent action. Perhaps steps should be taken to ensure that faculty note such absences and that the school administration investigate them. That would be more practical than requiring faculty to carry guns, even stun-guns.

The Harvard student was clearly depressed, and was even getting some futile counseling from the school medical service, but did not seem to be dangerous; at least, not to people other than herself. The Virginia Tech student, we are now told, frightened his teachers and fellow students. I wonder how seriously to take that: he was scary, we learn, because he was so, well, so quiet. Even in retrospect, I would not read too much into the violent themes he chose for his class assignments. This is evidence not that he was homicidally insane, but that he had been seeing the films created for his cohort.

* * *

Speaking of violent films, I recently ordered a set of DVDs from Amazon Canada of the films of documentarian and horror-director Richard Stanley. The one item that interests me is his documentary, The Secret Glory, about the life and alleged Grail Quest of Otto Rahn. I got started on this because I just reviewed Rahn's book, Crusade against the Grail. After I finished the book, it occurred to me that Rahn would make a good subject for a documentary. Then I discovered it had already been done.

By the way, despite its vulnerability to inclement weather, the Internet has now advanced to the point of Rahn blogging, as we see at Arcadia, Andrew Gough's blog.

There would still be something to be said for a biopic of Otto Rahn, but it would be a mistake to view him as a hero. Esoteric fascism has never been a good thing.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Crusade Against the Grail

Otto Rahn is one of those characters who would have had to be invented, if he didn’t actually exist. And if that were the case, you might accuse the author of fantastical speculations far beyond reason.

This book review by John J. Reilly serves not only as a short biography of Rahn, but also a capsule history of the Albigensian crusade.


Crusade against the Grail
The Struggle between the Cathars, the Templars, and the Church of Rome

========= By Otto Rahn =========

German Original Kreuzzug gegen den Gral: 1933
Translation by Christopher Jones
Inner Traditions International, 2006
229 Pages, US$16.95
ISBN-10: 1-59477-135-9

https://amzn.to/2YKUVOp

Anyone who undertakes the study of the intellectual underpinnings of Nazi Germany (1933-1945) will soon notice that at least some members of the regime were doing things that are not covered by the typical survey course in political theory. Researchers who attempt to investigate these anomalies will dig through a swamp of popular and crank literature about the Third Reich’s connection to the occult underground, some of it coincident with conspiracy theory and some of it (often the most coherent works) purely fictional. Nonetheless, a sober study of primary sources will reveal that not all the fantastic rumors were made up out of whole cloth. When researchers strike bedrock, one of the things they find is this book by Otto Rahn, the Nazi who really was looking for the Holy Grail, or at least for traditions about what it was and what happened to it.

Otto Rahn (1904-1939) was an amateur German folklorist with a keen interest in speleology. In company with the Swiss mountaineer Paul-Aléxis Ladame and the folklorist Antonin Gadal, he explored the regions of southern France associated the with Cathar heresy and its suppression in a series of military and evangelical campaigns in the 13th century. The Cathars had made extensive use of the spectacular caves of the mountainous southeast of France as fortresses and refuges, and Rahn duly found new evidence of their occupation of those sites, as well as greater knowledge of the size and interconnection of the caves themselves. He also collected stories and traditions from the local people about the Cathars, the crusade against them, and about the region in general. Most of this book deals with what Rahn calls “Occitania.” The one map the book provides depicts part of the modern region of Languedoc-Rousillon, though the story extends across Alpine and Pyrenean France into Catalonia. Occitania is really a linguistic term, referring to the Romance language of that region, which French has still not wholly displaced. Occitan, better known as Languedoc (which is also a better known term for the region), was the language of the French troubadours, and once was a serious rival to the language of northern France that became modern French.

SS leader Heinrich Himmler might be supposed to have had more practical matters on his mind in 1933, but he found time to read Rahn’s book. Then he invited him to an interview and immediately offered him a job as a professional folklorist for the SS, of which Rahn eventually became a member. Rahn continued to pursue his researches and to write, but he does not seem to have been a happy Nazi. He died of exposure during a hike in 1939; his death was ruled a suicide. The sympathetic Translator’s Introduction notes briefly that there had been rumors about homosexuality and Jewish ancestry. We are not told that alternative (and admittedly unsupported) versions of his biography have him dying in a concentration camp in 1944.

Crusade against the Grail supports the thesis articulated by Joséphin Péladan (1858-1918) in a short work, The Secret of the Troubadours. Péladan, a novelist who favored occult themes, had argued that the legend of Montsalvat, the fortress of the Grail, and the Grail legend as a whole, were closely connected with Montségur, the last great Cathar stronghold, with the Cathar heresy, and (inevitably) with the Templar order of knights that was suppressed early in the 14th century. More particularly, Rahn tried to show that the people and places in the German version of the Grail story created by Wolfram von Eschenbach (1170-1220) are lightly allegorized renderings of real people and places in Occitania in the early 13th century, when Eschenbach composed his Grail epic, Parzival. The most important of these identifications was of the fortress of Montségur (which fell in 1244 to the forces of orthodoxy) with Montsalvat, also known as Muntsalvaesche, or Munsalvaesche, and other variants.

Trying to substantiate Eschenbach’s version of the story has some odd consequences. The original Grail story, composed by Chrétien de Troyes probably in the 1180s, was artfully unclear about the nature of the Grail, except that it was a sort of dish or table that carried the Eucharist and provided nourishment and healing. In the Anglo-French tradition, thanks to the romancer Robert de Boron who wrote a generation after Chrétien, the Grail became associated with the plate or cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. In Eschenbach’s telling, however, the Grail became a Stone that conferred immortality. Moreover, according to Eschenbach, this Stone had been brought to Earth by angels of ambiguous allegiance during Lucifer’s rebellion against God. In later German tradition, this Stone was said to have broken off from the crown of Lucifer when he fell from Heaven. If we are to believe Rahn, the folk tradition of Occitania also took this view of things. A shepherd is quoted thus:

When the walls of Montségur were still standing, the Cathars, the Pure Ones, kept the Holy Grail inside them. Montségur was in danger; the armies of Lucifer were before its walls. They wanted to take the Grail to insert it again into the diadem of their Prince, from where it had broken off and fallen to Earth during the fall of the angels. At this most critical point, a white dove came from the sky and split the Tabor [the local peak] in two. Esclarmonde, the keeper of the Grail, threw the precious relic into the mountain, where it was hidden. So they saved the Grail. When the devils entered the castle, it was too late. Furious, they burned all the Pure Ones, not far from the rocky castle on the camp des cremats.

One of the interesting differences between a Stone and, say, a chalice (as the Grail was usually pictured in later years) is that the provenance of a chalice would be awfully hard to prove, but stones really do fall from the sky. It is also not unknown for meteoric rocks to become cult objects, as the Kaaba at Mecca exemplifies. So, it is not quite impossible that the Cathar treasure which Rahn frequently mentions could have included a sacred stone. It’s even possible that Rahn was looking for it; that’s part of Rahn’s legend. However, no such specific quest is apparent in Crusade against the Grail. Moreover, though the Translator’s Introduction mentions the meteorite possibility, Rahn, perhaps surprisingly, does not.

Be this as it may, it is very unlikely that Rahn’s thesis about the historicity of Parzival is correct. The fit between Eschenbach’s story and medieval Occitania just is not very close (or so we must judge from this account, which does not describe either systematically). Moreover, the thesis is based on Eschenbach’s claim to have found a more reliable version of the Grail legend than that of Chrétien de Troyes. There is no evidence at all for that. Chrétien’s modest romance was original, and Eschenbach was just exercising his poetic license to take the story in a grander direction.

Even if Rahn was wrong as a historian, his book is by no means without interest as a record of influential esoteric thought. He was not the only person in the first third of the 20th century who admired the Cathars. Another admirer, according to Otto Wagener, an aide to Adolf Hitler in the 1920s, was Hitler himself. Wagener, his book Memoirs of a Confidant (1978), quotes an apparent reference by Hitler to Catharism and its suppression:

During the Middle Ages, a new movement of inner liberation and the establishment of the natural link of man to his God began, which fell back on the true teachings of Christ and the instinctive apprehension of the truth. The reaction was not long in coming. The Inquisition and witch-hunts rooted out all aspects of the heresy, as the hypocritical priesthood called it...

That was, pretty much, Rahn’s understanding of the history, too. In large part, Crusade against the Grail is an anti-Catholic polemic, recounting history “in the tradition of the French Romantic historians,” such as Jules Michelet. This school saddled later generations with the myth that millions of people were executed during the witch-burnings of the late medieval and early modern periods, and that the Inquisition (usually depicted as a single institution, rather than a class of court) would torture thousands of people anywhere in Europe at the asking of an awkward question in a seminary class. The actual crusade against the south of France in the 13th century (yes, it was an official crusade, sanctioned by Pope Innocent III (1161-1216) in the same terms as an expedition to the Holy Land) did not lack for low motives and atrocity. As is usually noted, its chief supporters were the kings of France, whose control of the wealthy and culturally prestigious south traditionally had been nominal. It was also the campaign to which we owe the expression, “Kill them all; let God sort them out!” Nonetheless, Rahn’s account of the suppression of Catharism is simply uncritical popular history.

Who were these Cathars whom Rahn championed? The term “Cathar” is Greek for “pure.” Those who were fully initiated into the Cathar church were “Cathari,” that is to say, “Pure Ones.” (The German word for heretic, by the way, “Ketzer,” is derived from the term.) Catharism, sometimes called Albigensianism after a city in the region, was a form of Gnosticism, a cult of esoteric wisdom that purported to teach its adherents the way to salvation. It incorporated elements of Manicheanism, which held that the world is a duality of spirit and matter; the meaning of salvation was liberation of the spirit from an irredeemably corrupt physical world.

Rahn had a theory that Catharism was a refined resurgence of a form of Manicheanism called Priscillianism. This rather intellectual doctrine had become popular in northern Iberia and southern Gaul in the fourth and fifth centuries. It was the first heresy to be violently suppressed by the secular government (in this case, the collapsing Roman government, which, like Himmler, might be thought to have had more practical things to worry about). Rahn somewhat fantasticates this hypothesis by arguing that Priscillianism worked on the pre-existing Druidism of the region, which already would have included ideas like metempsychosis. Thus, he tells us, the Manicheans converted the Druids to Christianity.

Be that as it may, the Cathar laity of the High Middle ages, called “the believers,” were of every class and way of life. They married and had children. They conducted business and politics in the ordinary way. (Indeed, the Catholic Church may have been so alarmed by Catharism because of its many followers among the aristocracy of Languedoc.) However, Catharism despised matter and even life; birth was a matter of regret. The fully initiated were those who had received the Cathar sacrament called the “consolamentum.” They were expected to be celibate and sterile for the rest of their lives. Similarly, the fully initiated would not kill, even for food, and so were vegetarians. Except for an elite who functioned as clergy, most Cathars took the consolamentum only on their death beds. This book does not mention the rumor that the Cathars encouraged sodomy because it was inherently nonreproductive. It does mention the less controversial point that the Cathari were permitted to take their own lives, preferably through starvation, provided they did not do so from boredom or to evade a duty.

The Cathars despised the physical world because, like most other Gnostics, they held that God had not made it. The world and its ways were the creation of the demiurge, the God of the Old Testament, who had entrapped the spirits of angels in the mechanisms of the world. This reviewer has seen accounts of Rahn’s later work which say that, for Rahn, the demiurge may be the devil, but Lucifer might not be. Rahn is sometimes characterized as a “Luciferian,” which is to say, one who regards Lucifer as the liberator of mankind, and the true object of Cathar devotion. However, that position is not even hinted at here.

In any case, the Cathars held that the demiurge kept the entrapped spirits in its prison universe. These spirits passed from incarnation to incarnation, deluded by the demiurge’s pretension to be the true God. Nonetheless, like Marcion, the 2nd-century heretic who had similarly rejected the Old Testament, the Cathars insisted they were Christians. They accepted parts of the New Testament, particularly John’s Gospel, and held Jesus for their savior. He was the emanation of the true God from beyond the world. However, they also held that Jesus had never had a physical body, but only pretended to be an incarnate being. (The term for that doctrine, incidentally, is “Docetism.”) Thus, Mary was not the Mother of God, and Jesus had never really been crucified. It may or may not be significant that this is also a Muslim doctrine. In any case, the Cathars distained the use of the cross.

They had other liturgical eccentricities, too. In the Lord’s Prayer, which they retained, they asked for “our supersubstantial bread” rather than “our daily bread,” thus perhaps referring to the bread used at the consolamentum and certainly expressing contempt for anything so material as the bread necessary for everyday life. In this they had the support of the Latin text of the Vulgate Bible, where Matthew’s Gospel has “panem...supersubstantialem.” Luke’s Gospel has “panem...cottidianam,” “daily bread,” but both phrases translate the same Greek term, “epiousios,” which means literally “above the substance.” The Greek Orthodox Churches in English-speaking countries today translate that “daily bread.” Go figure.

In any case, Rahn tells us that the Cathar church was also the Church of Amour, the Church of Love. The troubadours of southern France were the apostles of this doctrine, disguised as the cult of chivalric love. (The German troubadours were called “Minnesinger,” which is “love-singers”; “troubadour” means “inventor.”) The novelty is that this love of Languedoc was a cultural novelty: a practice intense personal devotion to some selected individual that systematically rejected sexual consummation. The doctrine of the troubadours was, in effect, a discipline by which human beings could cultivate among themselves the pure love of God, which generates nothing in this world.

Few of these ideas were altogether new even in Rahn’s day, and some may have merit. However, despite the fact the author was not attempting a full account of Grail scholarship, one wishes that he or his translator had addressed a few other issues. For instance, if you are looking for references to Cathars in the Grail stories, the most obvious place to start would be the great French synthesis of the Grail legend, the anonymous, The Lancelot-Grail. In the part of that romance that treated of the Grail Quest, it is precisely the failure to display the cross that excites the suspicion of the Grail knights about the orthodoxy of a monastery they later destroy. That looks more like Innocent III’s crusade than anything Wolfram von Eschenbach had to say.

One might be forgiven for suspecting that the point of Rahn’s hunt for the Grail had less to do with discovering an ancient secret than with divorcing Christianity from its Jewish roots: that would seem to be an implication of a theory that identifies Jehovah with the devil. However, the actual Cathars did not draw antisemitic implications from their doctrine, and neither did Rahn. Indeed, in his praise of Occitanian civilization, he cites the high positions of public service occupied by Jews, and compares it unfavorably with the condemnation of Jewish office-holding by the Church of Rome. Still, quite aside from what he has to say about the Cathars, Rahn tells us that Christianity was a deluded and resentful thing that, in the case of Catharism, happened to form the container in which something quite different appeared. There is demythologized Christianity for you.

Any defects in Rahn’s theological acumen are rarely made good by the translator, who restored Rahn’s citations and added some notes of his own. The text has some oddities. For instance, we are told that the penitential yellow crosses that former Cathars were forced to wear “measured five centimeters wide and ten high [two inches wide and ten high].” The brackets are presumably an editorial insertion, but even editors should be able to do better math. More seriously, there are what appear to be artifacts of translation. For instance, we learn that former Cathars were whipped at Sunday Mass between “the Epistle and the Evangelism.” The German word for “Gospel,” which is “Evangelium,” might also be rendered “Evangelism” in English, but to make that choice here suggests that the translator is not very clear about what happens at an ordinary Catholic liturgy. Aside from the whippings, I mean.

Finally, there is also this: in the long list of people whom the translator thanks for helping to see this book through to publication, we find Michael Moynihan and Alain de Benoist, both notable ornaments of today’s esoteric neo-fascism in its Traditional dimension. Despite Himmler’s patronage, people like Otto Rahn never got the opportunity to make their case freely during the Third Reich. Times change.


Click here for a review of
the companion volume
of this book:
Lucifer's Court


Click here for the truth about the Holy Grail:

Click here to learn about Esoteric Fascism:

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Enemy at Home

I’m not sure it was even fair in 2007 to describe Dinesh D’Souza like this:

Dinesh D’Souza, a noted public policy expert now resident at the Hoover Institution

But by now, it is clear that D’Souza is a hack, but at least he maintains a reasonable sense of humor, as the tweet below demonstrates.

Still funny

Still funny


The Enemy at Home:
The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11
By Dinesh D’Souza
Doubleday, 2007
333 Pages, US$26.95
ISBN 978-0-385-51012-7

Dinesh D’Souza, a noted public policy expert now resident at the Hoover Institution, has been regaling his readers for years with tales of the political and cultural depravities of the American left. In The Enemy at Home, he takes this polemic to a more cosmic level. The result is a thorough, thoughtful book that mixes many valid points with others that are, at best, problematical. The author’s critique of the left has a subtext that conservatives might want to think twice about before signing on for his planetary culture war.

“Why do they hate us?” spokesmen for the cultural left asked immediately after the attacks of September 11. Then they pointed their fingers at their allegedly bigoted and militaristic conservative countrymen. D’Souza’s thesis is that the fingers should have been pointed in the opposite direction. The essentially bohemian cultural and family mores of the cultural left have been foisted for two generations onto American society as progressive social policy; more recently, the left has used popular culture and the increasing coercive power of the UN and transnational agencies to impose these policies abroad. The effect has been to incite outrage among traditional peoples worldwide. In the case of Islam, the outrage created a violent radical faction that struck back. This is the state of things today:

“So, realize it or not, American conservatives are fighting a two-front war. The first is a war against Islamic radicalism and fundamentalism. The second is a political struggle against the left and its pernicious political and moral influence in America and around the globe. My conclusion is that the two wars are intimately connected. In fact, we cannot win the first war without also winning the second war.”

The book is very precise in identifying the cultural left. In fact, towards the end, there is a helpful list of the politicians, academics, artists, and organizations who are its most well-known proponents. As a matter of definition, though, the cultural left consists of those people who look to their subjective intuitions for moral standards, rather than to a pre-existing standard outside themselves. The latter is the mark of traditional peoples the world over, including Christians. These traditional moral systems, we are assured, differ only in detail. Cultural leftists do have a morality, but a modern, highly aggressive morality based on personal autonomy. The author never ceases to remind us that cultural leftists love America and wish to spread its ideals universally. The problem is that the America they love is exclusively their own:

“Here in America, a longtime man of the left, Christopher Hitchens, argues that modern America represents the values of secularism, feminism, and homosexuality. An outspoken atheist, Hitchens is the author of a book vilifying Mother Teresa entitled The Missionary Position. It is ‘godless hedonistic America’ and the state of Massachusetts’s recent sanction of practices such as homosexual marriage, Hitchens gleefully points out, that provoke the ‘writhing faces and hoarse yells of the mullahs and the fanatics.’ It is in defense of this godless, hedonistic America that Hitchens supports the Bush administration’s war on radical Islam.”

The author supports that war too, including the war in Iraq, in part because America’s enemy in that war is what he calls “radical Islam.” The latter is a modern deformation of traditional Islam, though these two differ in tactics and political temperament rather than theology. Only through alliance with traditional Islam is there hope for traditional, Red State, Christian America. (Late in the book, traditional Judaism gets a friendly nod, too.) The author contends that though “liberalism” in the Hollywood sense is repulsive to traditional people, classical liberalism is not. Islam, in the author’s telling, is entirely consistent with democracy, market economics, the rule of law, and the decent treatment of women. If America again becomes known in the world as the chief proponent of those things, as well as for respect for religion, the popular base for the radicals will evaporate.

The author is a Catholic from India, a country whose Hindu heritage is quite as traditional as that of Islam. Muslims are tempted to fly airplanes into American skyscrapers but Hindus are not, if I understand the argument correctly, because the Islamic world is governed by “liberal tyrants.” These regimes curry favor with transnational institutions by importing the latest ideas about family law and homosexuality from the West, and particularly from America. By the end of the 1980s, the domestic opposition to the liberal tyrants had despaired of overthrowing them. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and then the apparent unwillingness of the Clinton Administration to suffer military casualties, persuaded the radicals that America itself might easily be intimidated into a retreat from the Muslim world, thereby leaving the American client-regimes vulnerable.

Once the attacks began (and remember, they began in 1993 with the first bombing of the World Trade Center), the cultural left has either opposed any forceful American response to them, or has insisted that the response be restricted to futile law enforcement. There are several reasons for this opposition, none of which is connected with pacifism. For one thing, some members of the left immediately imagined that their own critique of American society was also held by its enemies, and so they pronounced the attacks justified. Another reason for opposition, at least according to the author, is that the Bush Administration has sought to spread democracy. The left has soured on democracy as a method of implementing its cultural agenda; it is much happier working through the courts and through transnational institutions. Finally, and most important, the attacks of the radical Islamists may be directed at America in general, but they are not directed at the cultural left in particular. Indeed, Osama bin Laden has increasingly adopted the rhetoric of the antiwar left. American conservatism, in contrast, represents an existential threat to the cultural left. If the Republicans won the war in Iraq, there might be no getting rid of them. Thus, the cultural left is in a de facto alliance with radical Islam against Red State America.

Yikes.

Regarding the author’s most sensational charge, we may note that there is some sentiment among the European left, particularly in France, to nominate Islam as the successor revolutionary ideology to Marxism. That is not quite what he accuses the cultural left in the United States of, which is just as well, since there seems to be little of that sentiment in America. As for the strategic alliance he discerns between radical Islamists and the cultural left, one could see how that might make sense from their point of view. Still, it’s not clear who, if anyone, has actually thought these things. The current antiwar left differs from its Vietnam era counterpart in that it has little to do with revolutionary ambition. Rather, it is founded on incredulity at the proposition that the United States might actually be in danger.

Some of the most provocative elements of the author’s thesis are true. The cultural progressivism that is promoted by transnational organizations really is an annoying hoax, often promoted with the aid of front organizations designed to give a Third World veneer to the latest clap-trap from the American law schools. It is also true than many of the creations of American culture, both high and low, raise doubts not just about their creators’ virtue, but about their sanity. The cultural left really does make America look ridiculous and repulsive abroad. At home, of course, the cultural left is a menace because of the ever-present danger that a majority of the people might accept its transgressive view of the world. A transgressive culture is not worth dying for, or even perhaps worth living for. (We get only a brief mention of the phenomenon of the demographic collapse of culturally liberal societies; maybe that is another book.)

Be that all as it may, the author does the Islamists, and particularly al-Qaeda, too much honor in accepting their own account of their grievances. Osama bin Laden’s statements in particular about the dealings of the United States government with Muslims societies over the past two decades are Big Lie propaganda. The behavior of the Islamist radicals does not suggest desperate defense, but confident ambition. Yes, they think America is vulnerable, but getting rid of America is only a step in a program that includes winning a civil war against the House of Saud. Perhaps the dazzling prospect of Islamic revival blinds them to reality, but they are not acting because they are frightened. A less contemptible America would not necessarily draw less fire.

Readers of The Enemy at Home will note points that are familiar from other writers. The idea that the United States should seek out allies among traditional Muslims is unexceptionable. The point was mentioned, for instance, in Walter Russell Mead’s Power, Terror, Peace, and War (2004). In many ways, though, D’Souza’s more thorough development of this strategy updates the proposal that Peter Kreeft made in Ecumenical Jihad(1996) for an alliance of all people who believe in natural law against the degenerate aspects of the West. As the title suggests, Kreeft had particularly high hopes for an alliance of Muslims and conservative Christians.

D’Souza goes even further with the principle that the traditions of the world’s “traditional peoples” are fundamentally the same, and therefore the people who retain these traditions should be in active alliance against an aggressive and implacable modernity. When “tradition” is spoken of in this way, one will sometimes find that the speaker does not use the term in the conventional sense of “cultural inheritance.” Rather, the speaker means “Tradition” in the sense of René Guénon. That French mystic held that each of the world’s great religions was linked primordially to the Transcendent, that each was equivalent in dignity, and that each was radically at odds with a demonic but transitory modern world. There is no reason to suppose that D’Souza is a thoroughgoing Guenonian. Still, we should note that, in this book, the chief authority on Islam and its relationship to the West is the noted Iranian cultural historian, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who also happens to be the most eminent contemporary Islamic proponent of Guenonian Tradition.

D’Souza frequently finds not just that recent outbursts of Muslim outrage are explicable, but that the Muslim point of view is the correct one. The Danish cartoons of Mohammed, for instance, really were an assault on Islam, and the outrage they occasioned was justified, even if the violence was not. Saudi women, we learn, are not in the least annoyed by the legal prohibition against their driving a car. The author does not quite condemn Benedict XVI for his remarks at Regensburg, but he deplores the remarks themselves. He also gloats a bit over the continuing discomfiture of Salman Rushdi, the provocateur who went into hiding when someone was actually provoked. The Afghans had a right to be aggrieved when the United States imposed its notion of tolerance to prevent the execution of a convert to Christianity. The degree of sensitivity that this book evinces is consistent with the Traditional principle that no primordial tradition may be criticized from outside. Actually, this degree of sensitivity would be consistent with a mild form of sharia.

D’Souza is correct to note that there are resources within Islam that are friendly to democratic governance. It is also true that the Islamist radicals are a modern innovation: if anything, he underestimates their disruptive effect on traditional Islamic society. Despite these points, however, it is not at all clear that Islam of any description can adequately make the distinction between leftist cultural liberalism and ordinary Western culture.

The book frequently cites Sayyid Qutb, the great theoretician of modern Islamic radicalism, whose descriptions of the pervasive depravity of American life form the basis of the Islamist critique of America to this day. The problem is that Qutb’s horrified account of his sojourn to America is a surreal reworking of his experiences in the 1940s. That was a long time before the point in the 1960s when, as D’Souza would have it, leftist America departed from the universal traditional consensus. It is one thing to object to a cultural milieu that finds Kill Bill to be normal entertainment; it’s another to call a society depraved where a typical film is It’s a Wonderful Life.

We are assured in this book that there is no “clash of civilizations.” That is because, in D’Souza’s telling, Western civilization really no longer exists, or shouldn’t: American conservatives are advised to abandon Europe to its debauched fate. Even America is no longer really one country, and conservatives should not hesitate to accuse individual members of the cultural left of giving aid and comfort to the radical Islamist enemy. The solution we are offered, in fact, is to abandon “tradition” in the conventional sense of the word and join a league of the world’s “traditions” in a somewhat more exotic sense.

Just how is this different from surrender?

End

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The Long View: Third Law Conservatism

John Reilly proposes here an interesting psychology of schism:

The usual motive for schism, however, is conservative: new groups form because they believe that the old one has departed from tradition in some way.

For groups like the Old Catholics [split from the Catholic Church after Vatican I proposed papal infallibility] and the Old Believers [split from Russian Orthodoxy after a 17th century liturgical reform], this seems just so. One might argue the Great Schism of 1054 and the Protestant Reformation fall into this pattern as well, but that might stretch the point too far, and not entirely be fair to the latter events.


Third Law Conservatism

According to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that is rapidly approaching a state of badly edited omniscience, Clarke’s Third Law runs thus: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The Clarke here, of course, is Arthur C. Clarke, the venerable science-fiction writer who is credited with conceiving the communication satellite. His Third Law (the other two need not detain us) is among the most widely quoted aphorisms in the culture of cyberspace, and indeed among the enthusiasts for all new technology with an information component. It expresses the hope that matter can be wholly subjected to the imagination.

The Third Law is not without empirical support; certainly it reflects something of the experience of anyone who has lived a reasonably long life in an advanced country during the past two centuries. It also seems to be the case that the latter technological innovations are more uncanny than the former ones. Perhaps technological progress is inevitable and perpetual. More likely, it approaches an ultimate state where reality is a work of art. In any case, the point I want to make here is that the freedom afforded by technological power does not simply dissolve the world and human nature in mere caprice: quite the opposite, in fact.

Consider, for instance, Jonathan V. Last’s piece in First ThingsGod on the Internet. In that survey of religious expression in cyberspace, the author makes all the points that conservatives usually make about the cultural effects of the Internet. Religion online, Last notes, tends to become politicized, consumerist, and worst of all, denominationalist. Little groups of the saved create their webrings of the like-minded where neither authority nor informed criticism can enter. In this regard, cyberspace has lent its unique facility of disintermediation to the extension of what was already a deplorable tendency in modern religious life.

But there is this: these little cyberchapels are rarely liberal, much less daringly original. We find almost none of the new mutations of the spirit that many people (including me, frankly) were expecting only a few years ago to emerge from the ether of electronic environments.

Denominations form online for much the same reasons that they form in the outer world. Occasionally, someone pronounces a doctrinal innovation and convinces a fraction of an older religious body to break off and form a new group. The usual motive for schism, however, is conservative: new groups form because they believe that the old one has departed from tradition in some way. And in fact, conservatism in this sense has been typical of cyberspace in general. There are many reasons why conservative politics prospered in the United States through the latter 20th century, but part of the answer has to be just this pattern of refusal by newly empowered individuals to follow what they believe to be departures from historical norms of governance.

The Third Law has merit if by magic we mean the magic of fairytales. That kind of magic is normally conservative, or at least nostalgic. We see it deployed in the fantastically successful Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter film series. Purely surrealist fantasies have also been cinematicized, sometimes with commercial success, but none has had the impact of the works that present traditional themes and traditional images. To some extent, the reception of these was prepared by their familiarity as literature, but we must also consider that their force rests on the inherent power of their traditional elements: indeed, that those elements became traditional because they are powerful. The new power of illusion serves to visualize a world that never was, but that, somehow, always is.

Christian parents who worry that these series are propaganda for an occult view of the world should not be lightly dismissed. There is popular entertainment, particularly branches of popular music, which seeks to do just that. Magic in that sense, however, is magic in the sense that some anthropologists use it: magic as the illicit and private appropriation of a society’s religion. This is almost never a feature of digitalized sword-and-sorcery.

Whether on the screen or in print, this type of fantasy can be used to allegorize an orthodox religious message, as C.S. Lewis and Tolkein have demonstrated. (The Lord of the Rings is really about the relationship between grace and works, but that is another essay.) By no means do all such stories have a spiritual message, however, or even most of them. Was there ever a more secular institution than Harry Potter's Hogwarts? It is essentially a trade school. The Harry Potter stories might not work all that differently if the school had been founded to educate young prodigies with an aptitude for computer programming; instead of invoking supernatural powers, the students might as well use their dog Latin to operate voice-activated computer interfaces.

What all these stories have in common is an animate world, an ensouled world, that responds directly to the human mind. The world of animism is the most intuitive for human beings. Science itself assumes such a mind-friendly world even when it is dispelling crudely animist superstition. Given the premise of historical progress, whatever is intuitive is easy to see as inevitable. Clarke's Third Law implicitly posits a model of history in which the world evolves from material to animate.

This seems to be the real implication of Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near : When Humans Transcend Biology. The notion is pure Hegel, which is hardly a criticism. Kurzweil hangs his forecast from computer science, and suggests that a very radical disjuncture from history and biology will occur by the middle of the 21st century. We should note, however, that much the same model can rest on different premises (and indeed many lesser lights have made many of the points that Kurzweil has). Most notably, the historian Henry Adams proposed an analogous idea 100 years ago, in the essays “The Tendency of History,” “A Letter to American Teachers of History,” and “The Rule of Phase Applied to History.” The idea achieved bestseller exposure in the Adams autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams: specifically in Chapter 34, A Law of Acceleration.

Adams derived his progression from growing energy use as measured by the consumption of coal. Like Kurzweil, his acme point was projected for just a few decades in the future, which in Adams’s case meant the first half of the 20th century. The physical model he favored as an analogy to the evolution of mind in the modern era was a cometary hyperbola. The comet moves very slowly, except for its brief stay in the inner solar system. Then it accelerates with stunning swiftness until it makes its closest approach to the sun. After that, it is flung out into space, where it again moves slowly among the stars. Adams's model allowed for the possibility that Earth might literally explode when historical acceleration reached its peak, but he suggests that the human race will "change phase," like a solid turning to a liquid, or a liquid to a gas. Modernity is simply the era of transition. After modernity will follow a future that, like the premodern past, is essentially changeless.

We know a bit more about the cultural effects of technology than Adams did. As we have seen above, one of the things we know is that technology sometimes favors the archaic. It has become a cliché to note that technological progress promotes personal interaction and networks. Human beings are not herd animals, and are never entirely comfortable being part of a mass. The drift of technology is toward a future in which everyone can act like a pack animal again: the rifleman of the First World War is wholly obsolete, but the knight is back, in electronic body armor.

Important as this trend is, I would suggest that the most important conservative effects of technology are more subtle. It might be too much to say that every human being secretly wishes to live in Minas Tirith, or even in the Shire. However, it may well be the case that the heart’s desire does not volatilize in all directions when freed from the constraints of physics and economics. In the space of the imagination, there are islands of stability. Information technology allows us to explore them in fine detail, but that technology did not create them, or even discover them.

In The Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye notes that the progression of history in the Bible is marked by a change in man’s relationship to the world. In the beginning, the human body is contained in the garden that is the world. At the end, the body contains the world. The body is the New Jerusalem, the symbol of the humanized universe. By no means do I wish to equate the world of fairy tales with the eschaton, even the world of very good fairy tales like Tolkien’s, or to suggest that technological progress is the engine of salvation. Nonetheless, the humanization of the world that Frye proposes is at least in part a tale of technology, and the result must be something very like the magic of Clarke’s Third Law.

The irony is obvious. Technological optimists these last few centuries have trumpeted the power of technology to supersede all historical institutions and to replace them with radically new forms of life and thought. However, when freed from constraint, the creative impulse does not necessarily pursue the radically new. Frye suggested the opposite, at least with regard to literature: the only way in which writers can really be original is by reaching back to the origins, to the small set of plots and character types that inform all fiction. Original works in this sense simply break through ephemeral artistic conventions to a fresh representation of primordial forms. Similarly, the magic of the Third Law has in recent years served more to revive and conserve old ideas than to generate genuinely new ones.

Conservatism in this sense is not necessarily a bad thing, but then neither is it necessarily a good one. No one in his right mind would want to be the subject of a fairy-tale kingdom, even one without dragons. There can be tension between Burkean conservatism and Third Law conservatism, between the conservatism of deference to sentiment and the conservatism that seeks to incarnate archetypes which history may illustrate but does not define. Perhaps the most radical of all 20th-century ideologies, Tradition, has yet to be fully heard from. Tradition in this sense comes in various forms, but at its worst, it looks directly to the archetypes and distains all actual history. As an element of fascism, it had limited scope to develop. In a world where reality is becoming a work of art, its projects may be more practical.

For myself, I do not believe that Third Law Conservatism tends to a dark tyranny. Quite the opposite: we are dealing here with another version of Hegelian optimism, which itself was only a timid restatement of Joachim of Fiore's millennialism. One takes all such notions with a grain of salt, but we are wrong to dismiss their optimism. Indeed, faith in the providential structure of history is not just comforting, it is the predicate of sanity. It must, therefore, figure somewhere into any usable conservatism.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-04-18: Conspiracy Unmasked!

French philisopher Réne Guénon in 1925   By Unknown - cafeexpose.files.wordpress.com, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5515108

French philisopher Réne Guénon in 1925

By Unknown - cafeexpose.files.wordpress.com, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5515108

A few years ago, there was a movement on the fringes that called itself neo-reaction, or a variety of other things. This used to be the only places I ran into people who knew who Evola or Guénon were. I used to be amused when it was asserted C. S. Lewis and Tolkien and Chesterton were part of Tradition. Not everything they said was crazy, even if a lot of it was.

It was the non-movement Conservatives in the United States [those who were on the Right in one way or another, but estranged from the Reaganesque fusionism that blended the Religious Right with high finance and Chamber of Commerce types and a gloss of libertarians]. In the end, they were infiltrated by neo-Nazis and white nationalists, and eventually became the alt-right. Lots of people were disgusted and annoyed by this usurpation, and dropped out, ensuring that the alt-right would never have anything like the potential to be a mass-movement.

At this point I suspect the real win for Tradition, in the United States at least, would be on the Left. There is less white space than you might think between the radical Left and Tradition. Frances Parker Yockey worked for the Soviets, for example. There is also better message discipline and better organization on the Left at this point. A successful takeover could spread like a seed crystal in a super-saturated solution. Then you'd see what crazy really looked like.

How's that for horseshoe theory?

[fun note, the photo Réne Guénon in 1925 puts him at the same age as me right now]


Conspiracy Unmasked!

 

Well, maybe not conspiracy, since none of the information is secret, but there do seem to be certain anomalies in the provenance of Neo-Conned!: Just War Principles: A Condemnation of War in Iraq, a widely-praised anthology that was edited by John Forrest Sharpe and D. Liam O'Huallachain (otherwise known as Derek Holland) and published by the IHS Press. (Sharpe is the director of IHS.) The matter is of immediate concern, perhaps, only to the most conservative variety of Catholic. I did not run across it through the Catholic connection, but from the other end, through my continuing study of post-1989 anti-Americanism and the role played in it by esoteric fascism and the (often covert) influence of Guenonian Tradition. We must note that the contributors to the Neo-Conned! books (there is a sequel) cover a wide range of political and theological perspectives and cannot be held responsible for the views of their editors. Nonetheless, ordinary paleoconservatives who cite or recommend the books should consider that its publisher seems to have an agenda of which few Americans of any political persuasion would approve.

Before I begin, let me offer a hat-tip to Matthew Anger at Fringe Watcher and Christopher Blosser at Spero News. The most comprehensive treatment is at Against the Grain.

As readers no doubt know, The Society of Pius X is a schismatic group that thinks itself quite literally more Catholic than the pope, though it is currently in negotiations with the Vatican for a form of reconciliation that would allow it to keep the old Latin liturgy. The LeFloche Report is sympathetic to the Society of Pius X, but notes a strange ideological infiltration:

For years, many Catholics have been disturbed by the emergence of strange and novel ideas in their chapels. Among these are; the belief that one must move out of the city to a farm in order to live an integral Catholic life, that all forms of modern technology are intrinsically evil and must be avoided, that women are not to obtain a higher education, and that the total breakdown of civil society is to be wished for in order to bring about the emergence of a new Distributist economic order.

Tradition (or as the LeFloche Report prefers, Perennialism) is an apocalyptic doctrine which holds that the modern world is disintegrating because of its rejection of the link with the transcendent that is the organizing principle of human societies. The notion that society requires a transcendent dimension is not a very alarming idea. Tradition can be scary, however. Sometimes this knowledge of the inevitable collapse of the modern world inspires nothing more than the formation of groups of adepts who hope to manage the transition when civilization collapses. Sometimes, however, Tradition has sparked the creation of anarchist political groups that hope to accelerate the collapse.

The latter seems to have been the case with one of the editors of Neo-Conned!, Derek Holland, whose theory of the political soldier was an adaptation of the esoteric existentialism of the fascist ideologue, Julius Evola. Holland was involved in fascist circles in Britain during the breakup of the old National Front. He was among the founders of a new tendency, the International Third Position (ITP), which sought to bring British fascism more in line with Continental neofascism.

One of the features of political Tradition has been the search for a school of the transcendent that could serve as the organizing principle of a new society. Theoretically, any of the great religious traditions might serve. In practice, though, Traditionalists have usually chosen a radical version of Islam or some kind of neopaganism; some became Satanists.

The neopagan tendency strongly criticized the International Third Position, as we see in the Official Statement on the International Third Position Issued by the National Revolutionary Faction. One of the complaints is that ITP extended too much sympathy to antiquated reactionaries like Franco and Petain. Another was that the ITP seemed to be distancing itself from the rest of the anarchist movement. What most annoyed fellow fascists, however, was that the ITP seemed to be becoming a Latin Mass group with a "small is beautiful" economic agenda. (The latter is the "Distributism" mentioned in the Le Floche report: essentially a proposal, once favored by G.K. Chesterton, to replace capitalism with a society of small-holders.)

There have long been religious people who are "traditional" in both the colloquial and the esoteric sense of the word. However, as we have seen, Christian Tradition is rare. The attempt by the ITP and related groups to make it a major force is interesting because that is the road that founder of Tradition, Rene Guenon, considered in the early 20th century but did not take. His theory of spirituality held that the transcendent could be accessed only through one of the great, historical, religious traditions, because they each included a rite of "initiation," a rite reserved for the elect. After exploring Catholicism for many years, Guenon eventually concluded that Christianity had once had a method of valid initiation but had probably lost it. So, he turned to Islam and Sufism, but did not exclude the possibility that Christian Tradition might be possible.

Guenon's disciple, Evola, broke with Christianity far more decisively. He also politicized Tradition to a novel degree. Evolan Tradition became, in large measure, a generations-long insurgency against the liberal, democratic, capitalist West. Indeed, it became an international insurgency against the United States, as the exemplar and central pillar of the modern world that was characterized by these great evils. Though Evola himself was a man of the Right, his disciples frequently embraced some form of "national socialism." They sometimes worked with the Soviet Union, when that was an option. Now they work with Russian "Eurasianists." The consolidation of the European Union, however, revived the hopes of the pan-European Traditionalists. The ITP is one example of this tendency, and the Neo-Conned! books seem to be another.

There are reasons for objecting to the Iraq War, or to the principles of American foreign policy; there are even reasons for disliking the United States. However, we should be aware that, running through the flow of ordinary politics that deals with these questions, there is a dark thread of something far more sinister, a tendency that seeks defeat for the United States, not because of anything the US has done or plans to do, but simply as a predicate to a universal chaos that the tendency seeks for its own purposes.

And you thought you were worried before.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-12-29: Generations, Thermodynamics, Defeatism

November pageviews

November pageviews

I took a long break from the blog for Thanksgiving, but I'm back refreshed. Here we are at the end of another calendar year of John's blog. John's book reviews tend to be the most popular, but sometimes a blog post or two will sneak into the top ten.

Items about Tradition are perennial favorites. Evola and Guénon represent something genuinely different than anything mainstream Western politics have to offer. I don't think we really want to find out what will happen if Tradition gets its day in the [black] sun.


Generations, Thermodynamics, Defeatism

 

My regard for Strauss & Howe's model of American history remains undiminished. This is one of the class of models that view history as a recurring sequence of generational types. I still get mail asking whether the Crisis has begun yet. Be that as it may, even back in the tranquility of the late 20th century, it was clear the model would be capable of generating a kind of millenarianism among its adherents. Consider, for instance, The Fourteenth Generation, an essay by recent college graduate Hans Zeiger, which seems to be a realization of this possibility. There are some novel elements, however:

If, as President Bush said last year, it is to be “liberty’s century,” the members of the Fourteenth Generation are the appointed guardians...The first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel opens the New Testament with a genealogy...Matthew 1:17 summarizes the genealogy. “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations.” Fourteen is a Providential number....Fourteen generations ago was the age of the men and women who first called themselves Americans. It was the elder generation of the Founding Fathers, the contemporaries of the Great Awakening: Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams. About fourteen generations before them lived Christopher Columbus...The vanguard of the Fourteenth Generation is now graduating from high school, in college, entering the work world, and defending America in the Middle East. ...We are not protesters or slobs like the Baby Boomers. We are not slackers or radical individualists like the Xers.

For comparison, you might want to look at the model of Joachim de Fiore, the 12th century abbot who created the prototype for the three-stage outline of history (and who is usually remembered, quite unfairly, for predicting that the world would end in AD 1260):

For Joachim, the basic unit of history is the Status (Status=age or stage). History is divided into three ages, each with seven steps. The first status is the age of the Father, captured in the Old Testament, with seven steps represented by the seven seals mentioned in the book of Revelation. This first age had a germination period of 3x7 = 21 generations from Adam to Jacob and a fruition period of 3x7 = 21 generations from Jacob to Ozias. The second status is the age of the Son, with seven step represented by the opening of the seven seals in the book of Revelation. This second age had a Germination period of 3x7 = 21 generations from Ozias to Jesus and a fruition period of 3x7 = 21 generations from Jesus to St. Benedict.

As for the 14ers themselves, their defining characteristic so far is that they have haircuts like new chia pets.

* * *

Here is an embarrassment for you, from Granville Sewell, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas El Paso and visiting professor at Texas A&M University, who defends the proposition that Darwinian evolution is incompatible with the Second Law of Thermodynamics:

Anyone who has made such an argument is familiar with the standard reply: the Earth is an open system, it receives energy from the sun, and order can increase in an open system, as long as it is "compensated" somehow by a comparable or greater decrease outside the system...In these simple examples, I assumed nothing but heat conduction or diffusion was going on, but for more general situations, I offered the tautology that "if an increase in order is extremely improbable when a system is closed, it is still extremely improbable when the system is open, unless something is entering which makes it not extremely improbable." The fact that order is disappearing in the next room does not make it any easier for computers to appear in our room -- unless this order is disappearing into our room, and then only if it is a type of order that makes the appearance of computers not extremely improbable, for example, computers. Importing thermal order will make the temperature distribution less random, and importing carbon order will make the carbon distribution less random, but neither makes the formation of computers more probable.

This is, of course, a good argument for why hurricanes could not occur. Hurricanes are quite complicated structures that are possible because Earth is an open system. Under the influence of Coriolis Force, they form spontaneously in the atmosphere over the oceans. Complicated things routinely form out of simpler things. No one, as far as I know, has ever argued that the fact a system is open is an explanation for why that happens, just that openness is a prerequisite

* * *

So you want a lost war, do you? Here some oddly familiar spin from Francis Parker Yockey, the American Nazi spy and later Soviet agent. The excerpt is from Imperium, the magnum opus that he wrote in the late 1940, which is now, perhaps not altogether fortunately, available online here:

Not only Europe, but also the American People, lost the War. Since the Revolution of 1933, this People has been working, producing, and exporting. It has given its treasures and the lives of hundreds of thousands of its sons; it has blindly obeyed Culturally alien leaders not of its choosing, and in obedience to them it has curtailed its standard of life and parted with its soul — and in return it has received nothing of any kind, spiritual or material. Nor is its time of sacrifices over. It will continue to pay for the Second World War, which it lost, for many a year. In America's cup of "victory," there was poison for the soul of America.

This is exactly what the extreme Right and the extreme Left say about the Iraq War. I, for one, find this coincidence disturbing.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-12-16: Better Paranoia; Testable Origins; Kantian Complacency

The manner in which radial organizations of the Left and Right are supported by organizations with nefarious motives, is a topic that doesn't seem to lose its currency.


Better Paranoia; Testable Origins; Kantian Complacency

 

Legend has it that, in the days of the Republic of Venice, a hollow statue of a lion stood in the Plaza of St. Mark. Into the statue's mouth informers could drop notes that anonymously identified the enemies of the Republic. For several centuries, that lion was the last word in paranoia technology. Now, however, the folks at Frontpage Magazine have set a new standard with their Discover the Network engine.

In some ways, it's like any other database. You enter the name of someone on the Left you want to know about, or perhaps of some foundation that supports lefty causes, and you will get a prose narrative describing the malefactions of the object of your suspicions. The wonderful part, however, is the Image Map. Click on the icon for that, and you get a spider-web graphic that shows who that party knows and who finances that party's operations.

David Horowitz, whose industry brings us this service, really is onto something. Scratch the surface of the noisier antiwar groups, and you will find that many of its constituent parts belong to the creepy-crawly region of the Left. They are the sort of people who show up for every demonstration, but who have to work through front organizations, because their own agendas are too repulsive to expose to the public. The Frontpage folks also have a lively sense that this old New Left network is now in cahoots with Islamism, which is arguably now the world's most formidable revolutionary ideology.

Still, without having examined the database exhaustively, it seems to me that it misses something. The network is not merely Red-Green, but Red-Brown-Green, at least on the ideological level. Fascists and mystical nationalists are mixed up in it, too. The really radical Right in the US, the LaRouchies, the Russian Eurasianists, and the deformation of Shiism that rules Iran can, at times, be heard to sing a remarkably similar tune. Are there organizational links as well? I don't know, but a hunt merely for the residual Left could obscure the question. The mid-century hopes of Black Traditionalists like Francis Parker Yockey have progressed from insane to merely very unlikely.

* * *

The herd of independent minds is even larger than I thought. I had planned to post here about a certain advertisement that seemed to me to sin against geography, but then I found that many other people had noticed the same thing. Consider Diary of a Necromancer:

A question, raised by lying about watching TV all afternoon because I wasn't exactly up to much else yet: some of you may have seen that CG Coca-Cola commercial where the penguin gives the Coke polar bear a bottle of his favorite sugarwater; now, speaking off the top of your head, do you know if this is a likely scenario? Because I mentioned this to Mum as a prime example of how dumbed-down Society has gotten, and she expressed her doubts as to whether the average American on the street would think twice about the penguin and the polar bear...

There are no polar bears in Antarctica. Apparently, everyone knows this, but we all think that everyone else does not know. The one good point about solipsism is that you have so much company.

Of course, if there were polar bears near the South Pole, they would be antipolar bears.

* * *

Whatever happened to primordial soup? When I was in school, every biology text had a section on Stanley Miller's famous experiment that seemed to suggest that life could be expected to arise spontaneously in a reconstruction of the primitive environment of Earth, which you could reproduce using Tupperware and ordinary household cleansers. Thanks to a link from Danny Yee, however, we can now all get up to speed on the origin-of-life question. Science writer Richard Robinson, in his article Jump-Starting a Cellular World: Investigating the Origin of Life, from Soup to Networks, has this to say about the Miller experiment:

“The initial Miller experiment was earth-shaking,” says Harold Morowitz, Professor of Biology at George Mason University, and a long-time theorist and researcher in this area. The suggestion that random chemistry could produce the molecules of life “held the field for a long time.” But later calculations appeared to show that the early atmosphere contained much more carbon dioxide and much less hydrogen than Miller's model required, and correcting these concentrations cast doubt on the likelihood that complex molecules would form in abundance. Where, then, might organic precursors have come from? There is some, albeit scant, evidence for their arrival on comets colliding with the earth, but there is little enthusiasm for this as a solution. Finally, there is no geologic evidence, in either sediments or metamorphic rocks, that such a soup ever existed.

The thinking now is that the kind of life we have today, with its DNA heredity, could not have arisen from prebiological components in any conditions that now obtain on Earth or that obtained in the past. (Why? I think the short answer is that early DNA and its catalyzers would have destroyed each other before they could organize.) However, it is possible to imagine that RNA-based life might have arisen spontaneously, because RNA, unlike DNA, can both encode information and catalyze other bits of RNA. It is not such a big step to imagine RNA life acquiring a DNA component, with RNA retreating to the auxiliary role it plays in the biology we know.

Apparently, some interesting feedback loops have been created using RNA. Should such reactions one day produce RNA life in a test tube, then the Intelligent Design hypothesis would have been falsified. Again: can anyone suggest a comparable test of Darwinian evolution?

* * *

But who first settled the Americas, you ask? A programme aired by the BBC supports something that a mad physical anthropologist told me almost 30 years ago:

"DNA lineage predominantly found in Europe got to the Great Lakes, 14,000 to 15,000 years ago"

The speaker is one Douglas Wallace of Emory University, who has been keen on explaining why the famous Clovis Point of Clovis, New Mexico, which has been dated to 11.5k years ago, resembles tools make in Europe during the Solutrean Ice Age. Modern Eskimos say that they would have had no trouble navigating around the edge of the extended ocean ice sheet between Europe and North America. Now, apparently, there is a bit of DNA evidence involving the Ichigua people, who live around the Great Lakes, to suggest that someone may have done it.

When I went to find more information about the Ichigua, by the way, I found that White Nationalist websites were featuring this story, in the misguided hope that a new model of the peopling of the Americas would allow them to win the game of more-indigenous-than-thou. Actually, though, you would have to reconcile any such claims with other new findings, such as this:

The 7,500- to 11,000-year-old remains suggest the oldest settlers of the Americas came from different genetic stock than more recent Native Americans. Modern Native Americans share traits with Mongoloid peoples of Mongolia, China, and Siberia, the researchers said. But they found dozens of skulls from Brazil appear much more similar to modern Australians, Melanesians, and Sub-Saharan Africans.

Somedays I think Tolkien's make-believe history is less misleading than the archeological consensus.

* * *

Fans of Peggy Noonan will know that, though she generally supports President Bush for much the same reasons I do, she also finds that the style of the Administration grates.

David Brooks noted last Sunday on "Meet the Press" that in private Bush aides are knowledgeable and forthcoming about the war--this is working, this isn't, we made a mistake here and are fixing it in this way--but that in public they rely too much on platitudes and talking points.

It's true. The Bush White House treats the message of the day as if it were the only raft in high seas. Hold, cling, don't let go. Their discipline seems not persuasive but panicky.

They think their adherence to spin is sophisticated and ahead of the curve, but it is not. What is sophisticated is to know that the American people have been immersed in media for half a century and know when they're being talked to by robots who got wound up in the spin shop. They are not impressed by rote repetition, cheery insistence or clunky symbolism. They see through it. When you have the president make a big speech and he's standing under the sign that says VICTORY, the American people actually know you're trying to send an unconscious message: Bush equals victory, Bush will bring victory, victory is coming. It's not so much nefarious as corny.

This political style seems to be shared by the Bush family. The elder President Bush had a sterling record of public service at every level of government. Few more knowledgeable men had ever sat in the White House. Nonetheless, he chose to run his 1988 presidential campaign as an extended visit to a flag factory.

On the other hand, Bush the Younger is not really ineducable. He has started to present his strategy for Iraq repeatedly and cogently, and events on the ground seem to be cooperating. Now it is the proponents of immediate withdrawal who seem locked in a logic loop when they repeat that the president has failed to articulate a strategy. This is all well enough, as far as it goes, but the White House must resist the temptation to move on "to the rest of its agenda." The war is the agenda. There is no other.

Speaking of events on the ground, Instapundit echoes some pointed questions about the establishment media's coverage of yesterday's parliamentary election:

THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE: Ed Morrissey wonders why the New York Times editorial page isn't excited about Iraq.

Similar questions might be asked about me, too, but my silence is not malicious: I rarely talk in detail about events in Iraq, because I have no special sources of information. As for the significance of those events, I tend to follow the example of the old guy in Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy:

I would sit here, in perfect confidence, if the [imperial forces] landed on the planet, Trantor, itself.

Anyone seeking a similar degree of metahistorical equanimity might consult the website of R.J. Rummel. Kant's Perpetual Peace, plus some AH novels: what more could a reasonable man ask for?

Well, Hegel, maybe.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-12-02: Tradition, Optimism & Cartography

It is rather sad that John didn't live to see the rise of the tradinistas. He would have enjoyed pointing out they make the same arguments as Tradition.


Tradition, Optimism & Cartography

 

Over at First Things, Fr. Neuhaus has noted that there may be a contradiction between the goals of the magazine and the argument against capital punishment that Joseph Bottum made in his famous article published over the summer. I have already remarked on the piece here. What drew Neuhaus's attention, however, was a comment by Caleb Stegall in the remarkable quarterly, New Pantagruel. In "Natural Law, the Death Penalty, and Political Theology," Stegall observes:

Bottum’s point about liberal forms forsaking history in favor of the dead letters of the social contract is quite good and right. What is startling is his blithe acceptance of this as the necessary result of Christianity... When, in the wake of religious wars, old Christendom attempted to do away with political theology altogether by demythologizing history (and the state along with it) and by rationalizing all order as nothing more than a social contract, it made the conscious decision to rely on positive law...

The problem, of course, is that First Things is dedicated to the reintroduction of a natural law perspective into American political life. Bottum's analysis rubbed me the wrong way because it too closely resembles the critique of the liberal state put forward by Tradition. Note that Stegall ends his piece by suggesting that the project of the liberal state should be abandoned In favor of an explicitly Christian political culture. Bottum, in contrast, says that it was one of the great victories of Christianity to whittle the state down to liberal dimensions. Go figure.

* * *

Speaking of Tradition, I recently came across this site, created in admiring memory of the British fascist leader, Oswald Mosley.

The site is managed by neo-fascists, so it tilts toward the Continental Conservative Revolution. There is a long quotation from Julius Evola, for instance, on the prerequisites for the creation of a European nation . (Mosley did have thoughts along these lines in the 1930s, but he focused on them only after the Second World War, when he was little more than a national amusement.) The startling thing is the encomiums on the introductory page from people like AJP Taylor and Michael Foote. The site's editors have expanded their possible audience by using the word "Jew" very sparingly. The material is useful for anyone studying the interwar years, but it could mislead uninformed Youth.

Mosley and his ideas, as they appear here, remind me of HG Wells more than of anyone else. Wells, in his later years, had much the same notions. I don't mean just the obvious stuff, like the disgust with parliamentary democracy. Mosley and Wells both advocated turning the judiciary into a cadre of sociological experts with the power to make law, without reference to the constitution, and over the objection of the government. Today, this has a familiar ring, in both the US and the EU. It is startling to see it in a British context, since the notion of judicial review is quite limited in British jurisprudence. An idea that has gone down the memory hole entirely in recent years, however, is Mosley's proposal that the franchise should rest on the basis of occupation rather than geography. In the US, that was quite a Lefty notion in the 1930s.

Roger Eatwell once remarked that Mosley had the best-worked-out programme of all the fascists in Europe. No doubt Mosley suffered from the "if we build it, they will come" syndrome. In reality, if you build it, people will be able to see it from a distance, and they may have the sense to run away.

* * *

Am I too optimistic about Iraq?. Maybe, but then I see items like this one by Victor Davis Hanson, which recently appeared in National Review, and my assessments are reconfirmed:

Almost everything that is now written about Iraq rings not quite right: It was a “blunder”; there should have been far more troops there; the country must be trisected; we must abide by a timetable and leave regardless of events on the ground; Iraq will soon devolve into either an Islamic republic or another dictatorship; the U.S. military is enervated and nearly ruined; and so on.

In fact, precisely because we have killed thousands of terrorists, trained an army, and ensured a political process, it is possible to do what was intended from the very beginning: lessen the footprint of American troops in the heart of the ancient caliphate.

When Hanson speaks here of lessening the footprint, he seems to be referring to drawing down the number of troops present in Iraq now. However, we should not forget that reducing the military face of American influence in that region was one of the reasons for the Iraq War in the first place. As Walter Russell Mead has noted, there was no peace in and around Iraq even before 2003. The United States and Great Britain were involved in a low-level air-war with Iraq that began the last time the Baathist government kicked the UN weapons inspectors out. The Iraqi government was being forcefully restrained from entering its own Kurdish region, lest it murder the inhabitants. It was prohibited by force from flying its aircraft in the south of the country under the ceasefire agreement that ended the war of 1990-1991. Sanctions were kept in place that impoverished the population, enriched government officials and their agents of influence in the West, and created a propaganda theme that could be used against United States.

People sometimes object to the statement that the Iraq War was a reaction to 911. The objection is inapposite, whatever role the Baathist government might have had in the destruction of the World Trade Center. (There are actually pretty good reasons for believing that Iraq was directly involved with the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, but that's another story.) After 911, the situation in Iraq had to be settled. Every day the regime survived was more evidence that even losing a war to the United States had a limited price that other regimes might be willing to pay.

* * *

If you are looking for the official manufacture of disinformation, Washington is probably not the place you should start. In yesterday's New York Times, there is a piece in the Business Section that records the continuation of an old Soviet tradition:

From the maps the Russians gave Mr. Monroe, he could never really know where he was, a mystery for him as an oil engineer at a joint venture between BP and Russian investors. The latitude and longitude had been blotted out from his maps and the grid diverged from true north....Even now, Mr. Murrow and his colleagues can use only Russian digital map files that encrypt and hide the coordinates of his location. Officially, only Russians with security clearances are permitted to see well field maps with a scale [finer than] 1:2500.

During the Cold War, it made a certain amount of sense for the Soviets to give false coordinates for the locations of their cities. Most of the information was available from pre-Revolutionary maps, of course. The locations of newer industrial facilities probably were not such great secrets, either. Still, the practice added another layer of complexity to nuclear targeting. In any case, the Times piece suggests that the continuation of this practice may be due to more than simple bureaucratic inertia. It's a jobs program, for one thing: the Russian Federal Security Bureau keeps a large cadre of cartographers harmlessly employed removing and falsifying the coordinates of important industrial facilities. Then there is the security-clearance angle. If only Russians are allowed to know where they are, then, all things being equal, it is better to hire Russian engineers.

And yes, they do have Google Earth in Russia. That is beside the point.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-07-09: The Three Rings; Transformations & Transitions

What lies beneath?

What lies beneath?

John makes an argument here that would make its way into international prominence with the publication in 2015 of Michel Houellebecq's Submission. The Charlie Hebdo shooting on the day of its publication in France only enhanced Houellebecq's reputation [or notoriety.]

I think John deserves credit for making this connection in 2005, but I also think it is too easy to draw facile inferences about an as yet hypothetical Traditional alliance. For example, after Afghanistan and Chechnya, I doubt the Russians would have anything to do with any self-consciously Islamic movement except as useful idiots and distractions.


The Three Rings; Transformations & Transitions

 

Never let anyone tell you that pathos is only in novels. Imagine a screenwriter who produced a script in which the people of a city were cheering in the streets one day because they had won the right to host the Olympics, and then the next day were removing the dead and injured from subway tunnels. He be would be roundly and justly condemned for writing an arbitrary melodrama. Only reality can get away with making a conjunction like that.

Of course, the main conjunction was not at all arbitrary. All those people were killed in London on July 7 because Britain was hosting the meeting of the G8 at Gleneagles. Note that G8 meetings are no longer limited to the G8. The New York Times says this in a piece about how the bombings distracted the conference participants from their agenda:

In addition to the leaders of the eight major industrial nations - the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, Canada and Russia - those of China, India, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa were also on hand for Thursday's session.

The country was full of press; eager, if that is the word, for a soft-news summertime story. And in fact few stories had ever been whipped to a more mushy-soft consistency. In addition to the regulation NGO demonstrations and anarchists' riot in Edinburgh earlier in the week (the anarchist action seemed perfunctory to me, but that may be an illusion of distance), a network of musical concerts was coordinated globally under the name "Live 8" to focus attention on the part of the summit's agenda that dealt with aid for Africa. The other major item on the agenda was action against global warming, a cause to which the Bush Administration was at long last willing to give at least rhetorical support. This was the sort of globalized social-work conference that Bill Clinton loved.

The problem is that maybe you can't do this sort of thing anymore. Remember, after the first big anti-globalization riots in 1999, when anarchists and associated rabble boasted that they could make meetings of the major organs of transnational governance so dangerous and expensive that they could no longer be held? Now it may be that the protests will not be able to occur, at least as media events. The London bombings knocked Live 8 and the G8 agenda out of public consciousness.

Think of a system of three concentric rings. At the center we have ordinary statecraft, both international and transnational. In the next ring there are the transnational activists, some of whom have substantive agendas, but many of whom regard politics as a sort of therapy. In the outer ring are the Islamofascists, who hope to replace the Western international order with Dar es-Salam. Any institutional activity of the first ring that attracts the attention of the second ring will also attract the attention of the third. Since the third ring's tactic is to paralyze its victims through horror, any occasion on which the third ring acts will make the second ring seem unimportant. Additionally, the first ring will eventually stop reacting to the second ring as it concentrates on the third.

We should note that membership in the third is in principle fluid. There is at least the theoretical possibility for a Traditional alliance against world order that could also include Russian chauvinists and neofascists, as well as the radical Green movement. There are individuals and organizations that advocate such an alliance, but then there have been such people since the Second World War. As far as I can tell, only the Islamofascists are operationally active in the third ring today.

* * *

Speaking of things that you might prefer to ignore, genetics has taken an odd turn, if you believe a new study about Explaining Differences in Twins:

But a whole new level of explanation has been opened up by a genetic survey showing that identical twins, as they grow older, differ increasingly in what is known as their epigenome. The term refers to natural chemical modifications that occur in a person's genome shortly after conception and that act on a gene like a gas pedal or a brake, marking it for higher or lower activity....There are two possible explanations for Dr. Esteller's findings. One is simply the well- known fact that epigenetic marks are lost as people get older...A second possible explanation is that personal experiences and elements in the environment - including toxic agents like tobacco smoke - feed back onto the genome by changing the pattern of epigenetic marks.

Dr. Esteller believes he is seeing both processes at work.

No doubt I misunderstand the issues here, but I cannot help wondering: might the day come when we have to apologize to the shade of Lamarck?

And Lysenko? But no: that way madness lies.

* * *

In my entry for July 4, I asked the world at large why John O'Sullivan had been dismissed without comment or thanks from The National Interest. Quick as boiled asparagus, a perspicatious reader directed me to Social Affairs Unit, where a brief comment notes that O'Sullivan's departure was connected with the recent fall of the publishing magnate, Conrad Black. He had been supporting The National Interest, on whose Advisory Council he still sits. Now it is wholly operated by the Nixon Center.

* * *

The Summer issue of The National Interest, by the way, is full of stuff you don't ordinarily see, including what appears to be a trade piece by one Doug Brooks of the International Peace Operations Association. And just what is the IPOA? We read at their website:

The International Peace Operations Association (IPOA) is an association of private sector service companies engaged in international peace operations around the world. Member companies are involved in all sectors of peace and stability operations including mine clearance, logistics, security, training, and emergency humanitarian services.

If I understand his article correctly, Brooks argues that mercenaries can be trusted not to abuse and despoil the populations they are sent to protect, abstinences which are not always observed among the military forces that the United Nations scratches together from member countries for peace-keeping operations these days. However, private-sector units need a clearer legal framework. For that matter, they need a body of law that they can carry with them and enforce in the areas they control.

* * *

The protests by spelling reformers at the National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC, have gotten a bit more press coverage, from North Carolina and New Zealand. Note that discussion in the latter piece about the difficulty of creating a single spelling system for the many local pronunciations of English is a red herring. All major languages have pronunciation differences. All they ask of their spelling is that it reliably indicate a possible pronunciation.

-------------------

Alert visitors will have noticed that we are not in Kansas anymore, or at any rate, that my site now has a new URL. I seem to have been the last person who maintained a large site but did not have a personal domain name, a deficit that has occasioned increasing levels of malicious hilarity.

My choices were constrained if I wanted to use my own name, which seemed advisable for a personal website. The domain "johnreilly.com" was long since taken, of course; so was "johnreilly.net." I would not have minded being a "johnreilly.org," which has a fine institutional ring, but alas! I probably would not have used "johnreilly.biz," but was the spared choice, since someone beat me to it. So, that left me with:

johnreilly.info

The extension "info" is good. It makes me sound helpful.

I will maintain the old site for a while. However, if you have links to it, I would ask you to redirect here. Only the domain is different; the files still have the same names and extensions (for instance, this page is still "jjrblog.html"), except that the top page is now "index.html."

I have tried to make the transition as seamless as possible, but glitches are inevitable with this kind of project. If you find anything that does not work, please let me know. And thanks again for visiting.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Holy Grail

The chalice in question

The chalice in question

A nice overview of the grail stories, and how they fit into European history. This was part of my background reading for Tim Powers' The Drawing of the Dark and Last Call.


The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief
By Richard Barber
Harvard University Press, 2004
463 Pages, US$17.61
ISBN 0-674-01390-5

 

At the climax of the French prose romance, The Quest of the Holy Grail, Sir Galahad looks into the dish that was the object of the long and perilous search by himself and his companions, Sir Perceval and Sir Bors. This is his report:

“For now I see openly what tongue cannot describe nor heart conceive. Here I see the beginning of great daring and the prime cause of prowess; here I see the marvel of all other marvels.”

That is as good a description of the Grail as we have. This survey of the subject defends the sensible thesis that the original Grail stories, which were written between 1180 and 1250, were closely connected with the development of Eucharistic adoration and of the concept of the Beatific Vision. The audience for these stories was a class of increasingly sophisticated knights, who wanted a transcendent ground for their careers of adventuring and their ethic of duty and loyalty. Now that's simple enough, isn't it?

The great merit of this excellent study is that its author, Richard Barber, realizes there is no single key to understanding the Grail. He has written many academically serious accounts of medieval subjects for a general audience. In this work, he does the service of lucidly summarizing the major versions of the Grail story. We get accounts, sometimes necessarily speculative, of the Grail authors, and of the history of the texts that have come down to us. Just as important, Barber describes the revival of interest in the Grail in the 19th and 20th centuries, with particular emphasis on its new role in conspiracy theories of history.

None of this is a debunking exercise: Barber is willing to give Jungians and comparative mythographers a respectful hearing, and he at least entertains the possibility that the “secrets of the Grail,” so often alluded to in the Grail poems and romances, may have included some spiritual exercises that bordered on “white magic.” He does, however, let us know where evidence ends and speculation begins.

The chief source for all streams of Grail lore begins about 1180, with The Story of the Holy Grail by Chretien de Troyes. Little about him is known. His Story is an unfinished poem, not obviously of cosmic significance. Young Sir Perceval, who had been knighted at King Arthur's court, comes a across a mysterious castle. There resides a wounded lord. He invites Perceval to a feast, during which a procession occurs. It includes a lance, which drips blood, and a beautiful dish. (“Grail,” “graal,” “greal”: they are all variations on the word used for “dish” here: it is not a new coinage.) These objects are borne through the hall and into another chamber. Perceval had been taught not to ask questions, so he does not ask, “Whom does the Grail serve?” Had he done so, the lord would have been healed, and order would have been restored to that land. As it was, he awoke to a deserted castle. Then he began a career of aggression and cruelty, in the course of which he forgets about God. At the end of the poem, he meets a hermit, who turns out to be his uncle. The hermit explains that the wounded lord (the Fisher King) is yet another uncle. The Grail, which the hermit describes as “such a holy thing,” carries a consecrated host to the Fisher King's father, on which the old man subsists. Perceval repents. He promises to find the Grail castle again and ask the question. Meanwhile, the hermit teaches him a regimen of penitence, including some secret names of Christ that are not disclosed to the reader.

Bits of this tale might be traced, but not the ensemble: the basic Grail story is as original as Tolkien's Ring story. It is barely conceivable that the motif of the clueless young knight comes from Wales. It is also possible that the Grail is a refined version of the Welsh “cauldron of plenty.” However, there is no obvious way that those elements could have come to Chretien's notice, and it is not clear how our understanding of the story would be enhanced if they had.

As it stands, Chretien's account is little different from the sorts of adventures that fictional knights routinely experienced. What we do know is that Chretien's hints and omissions provided hooks for new story elements that snapped into place with lightening speed. New versions of the story said the Grail was not just present at the feast in the Grail castle, but magically provided the food. The Grail's ability to cure the Fisher king expands to the ability to cure all maladies, and eventually to confer immortality on those who remained in its presence. By the time we reach the Quest of the Grail, the chief Grail-quester is Galahad, whose spotless character and ultimate success in his endeavor is contrasted with the failure of his father, the adulterous Lancelot. The disorder of the Grail kingdom occasioned by the wounding of the king becomes the uncanny Wasteland, the suspension of the natural order while the quest is unfulfilled. In some versions, King Arthur himself becomes a Grail hero.

The Grail knights achieve their quest by finding the castle and asking the right question, thereby curing the Fisher King. Then, depending on the version in question, they may take part in a Mass using the Grail, at which Christ himself is seen to be present.

The Grail itself undergoes many modifications and improvements. The most important is that the Grail becomes associated with Joseph of Arimathea, a minor character in the New Testament. In Grail stories, he is said to have come to Britain, bringing various relics with him. Thus, the Grail becomes the dish used at the Last Supper, or the cup that Jesus used then, which is sometimes also the cup in which the blood of Jesus was collected at the Crucifixion.

That lance, by the way, becomes the Spear of Longinus, which pierced the side of Christ at the Crucifixion. It, too, is sometimes the object of a quest within the larger Grail framework.

If you want to explore the Grail stories, there are two versions to start with. One is The Quest of the Holy Grail , an anonymous prose work in French from about 1220-1230 (actually part of an extended romance called The Lancelot-Grail). The other is Wolfram von Eschenbach's epic poem, Parzival, from about a decade earlier.

The Quest is the basis, more or less, of later Grail stories in French, and also of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. (Written about 1470, it was one of the first books printed in English.) King Arthur's Round Table in the French and English stories might seem like an Order of the Grail, but if so, the Order is ephemeral: the beginning of the quest is often the beginning of chaos. Their Grail is generally a plate or cup; it might appear in several such guises in the same story.

Parzival established a somewhat different Grail tradition, which we see in Richard Wagner final opera, Parsifal, the work that so infuriated Friedrich Nietzsche. In the German version, the Grail is a mysterious stone, the center of a sort of Grail utopia from which the world is secretly regulated. In Wolfram's version there is even a Grail dynasty. The connection of the Grail with a sacred bloodline has been revived sometimes, rarely to good effect. Some bad etymology helps here: “Holy Grail,” or “Sangraal,” was quickly mistaken for “sangre real,” or “royal blood.”

Some of these ideas are not self-evidently orthodox, and conceivably they came from a theological underground. I for one would suggest that Barber pays too little attention to the Grail tradition that the first bishop was Joseph of Arimathea. That would give England priority over Rome; it would certainly give Joseph's traditional seat at Glastonbury priority over Canterbury. Still, the medieval religious authorities took no official notice of the Grail stories. Several relics were identified as “the Grail,” in the sense of the cup or dish used at the Last Supper, but no one tried very hard to connect them with the Grail romances.

Interest in the Grail waned with the Middle Ages. Because of the strong Eucharistic associations of the stories, the new Protestant establishments condemned the whole Grail tradition, to the extent that they knew of it. Even in Catholic countries, though, literary taste moved on to other things. It was only in the 18th century that systematic interest in the subject revived, largely for antiquarian reasons. With the beginning of the Romantic movement, the Grail reentered popular culture. It also began to acquire an esoteric dimension that, probably, it had not had before.

Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur was being reprinted by the early 19th century, and soon became a favorite source for artists. There was a revival, or a reinvention, of the rhetoric of chivalry and quest, quite often in the service of movements for social reform. The immensely influential Pre-Raphaelite Movement embraced the Grail. There was great demand for murals depicting Grail themes, for instance. In France, and especially in Germany, there were parallel developments.

There was a problem, though. The key scenes of Grail imagery were also often Catholic imagery. This was awkward in Protestant England when such works were commissioned for public places. It required tact on the part of the Anglo-Catholic artists to whom the subject most appealed. But it was also a problem in Catholic countries. People who might be attracted to the Grail material esthetically might also be alienated from the Catholic Church, whether theologically or politically. A trend began to separate the Grail from its obvious Christian context; or better, to show that the Grail was actually subversive of that context. Thus, perhaps inevitably, the Grail became part of the furniture of the occult revival.

Already in the 18th century, the suggestion had been made that the Grail knights were really Templars. The Masons had rather favored unsubstantiated theories that linked themselves to the Templars, too. One result was that, when a vast Masonic conspiracy was blamed for the French Revolution, the Grail tradition became an object of suspicion. In Metternich's Vienna, the theory was not unknown that perhaps the plot to overthrow Christianity had been operating as early as the 13th century. The people who identified the Grail with the Templars, and later the Cathars, generally regarded the identification as an indictment. However, even paranoids have enemies. By the end of the 19th century, there were people who were attracted to the Grail precisely because they thought that subverting Christianity was a really keen idea.

Of these perhaps the most flagrant was Otto Rahn, the Nazi researcher who is sometimes credited, on dubious evidence, with actually finding the Grail. What we know he did do was publish several books with titles like The Crusade against the Grail and The Courtiers of Lucifer. His argument was that the Grail legends masked Cathar doctrine. The Cathars worshipped Lucifer, understood as the liberator from the Jewish God, and the true Grail was the lost Cathar treasure.

One can see where these ideas might come from. In later German tradition, the Grail is made from a jewel that fell from Lucifer's crown, and of course Wolfram himself introduced the disturbing idea that the guardians of the Grail had been the Neutral Angels, who neither rebelled against God nor remained obedient to him. On the other hand, there is no way to connect these notions with the Cathars, much less with the Grail. There is also no reason to believe that these issues, or Rahn's researches, were especially interesting to the Nazi government. Still, they are not as idiosyncratic as one might suppose.

Much more intellectually serious was the attempt by Rene Guenon, one of the most influential of obscure 20th-century intellectuals, to incorporate the Grail into his theory of the Primordial Tradition. Tradition in this sense is the supposed orientation toward the transcendent that is shared by all the great religions. In their exoteric forms, these religions may be more or less corrupt, but Guenon suggested, along with other occultists, that the Grail stories might have been created by an esoteric Christian elite. Barber does not note this, but Guenon was always looking for means in the great religions of “initiation.” Guenon claimed to be frustrated in his search for a living initiatic tradition in Western Christianity. The vision of the Holy Grail, however defined, would have done quite nicely. Eventually, though, Guenon gave up on Christianity, and became a Muslim Sufi.

One of Guenon's disciples, Julius Evola, undertook to create, or recreate, an anti-Christian elite. Evola argued, along with Dante, that the Holy Roman Empire was a divine institution, and essentially the European expression of the primordial archetype of universal dominion. Unlike Dante, he dismissed Christianity, in both its contemporary and historical forms. Rather, Evola said the Grail represented the spirituality of the empire, and especially of a secret movement of knights and crusaders who were the true Grail knights. As a notable ideologist of fascism both during and after the Mussolini regime, he hoped to create a new Order of initiates around which the empire could form again, but this time without the Christian trappings. His success was mixed at best.

(But speaking of imperial Grail conspiracies, what about Lord Alfred Milner's Round Table Groups, so clearly derived from the Pre-Raphaelite Grail craze? But no: that way madness lies.)

The keynote poem of the 20th century was The Wasteland, a term from Grail mythology. In general, the 20th century tended to treat the Grail as an ominous symbol: Barber's survey of the literature is fascinating. The great exception he finds is the work of Charles Williams, who was a former occultist, a long-time editor at the Oxford University Press, and a friend of C.S. Lewis. He wrote several novels with Grail themes, and a major poem, Taliesin Through Logres. Barber credits Williams with doing what the medieval writers never quite managed: recasting the Arthurian material in a coherent structure around the quest, and giving the search for the Grail a universal significance. Moreover, Williams did this while returning to the idea of the Grail as the Beatific Vision, but with the added notion of the Grail as a mode under which the divine intervenes in history.

My quibbles with this book are very minor. Barber does not attempt a systematic history of the liturgy of the Eucharist, but his offhand remark that the Mass started as community morale-boosting sessions is almost certainly wrong. It might have been well to emphasize that there is more than one theology of the Real Presence, even though Aquinas's theory of Transubstantiation did become the orthodox one in the Catholic West. For that matter, it is a little misleading to define that latter doctrine as saying that the bread and wine at the time of consecration “are transformed into physically different substances.” Actually, they are transformed into different substances, but their physical “accidents” remain the same. (What's the difference? Go ask Aristotle.)

Despite the great length of this review, there is much more in this book than I have been able to cover. Anyone interested in the subject must read it.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Linkfest 2017-03-03

A Cold War era power plant could save us from ourselves

Thorium reactors are an idea that has been around for a long time. We'd try it if we got desperate.

Top professional performance through psychopathy

Being resistant to the feelings of others can be a good thing, or a bad thing. It depends on what end you put yourself towards.

Socialism is bad

When tradinistas say they want socialism, I have a hard time taking them seriously. Mostly, I just don't know what they really mean. Here, Adam Ozimek points to an essay by Matt Bruenig that helps me figure out what they are talking about. I still can't take them seriously.

USA Today has an excerpt of Thrawn by Timothy Zahn

I'm very excited about this. Thrawn is one of my favorite characters, and it looks like Timothy Zahn has been able to transfer the core of the character into the new Star Wars storyline.

The Islamic world did liberalize — but then came the First World War

Ed West reminds us the Middle East was having quite a bit of success integrating into the wider world during the first episode of globalization in the 19th century. Then we blew it all up. Makes you sympathetic to Edward Said.

The Amazon Rainforest Was Profoundly Changed by Ancient Humans

When I was a kid, the environmentalist narrative was very much about preserving and restoring pristine habitats unsullied by the hand of man. I'm glad to see this starting to change. I was first introduced to the Terra Preta of the Amazon by the now defunct Anthopogene blog. That blog had a number of fantastic articles on archaeological finds that helped to illustrate just how much the world has changed during human history. 

10 things about human evolution (genetics) you should know

Razib's listicle about genetics.

Danish Companies Seek to Hire, but Everyone’s Already Working

The horrors of actual full employment.

The Politics of Retelling Norse Mythology

The claim to being a modern 'pagan' is probably worse cultural appropriation than an author retelling old stories. I've never met a pagan who wasn't just a Christian heretic.

White self-interest is not the same thing as racism

A look at what counts as racist for whom.

Fascism in the White House?

A splash of cold water in the face of the minor panic that ensued when someone noticed that Steve Bannon knew who Julius Evola was.

What We Know About the 92 Million Americans Who Aren’t in the Labor Force

I love a great graph.

The US Special Forces Major who fought in the SS

Larry Thorne aka Lauri Allan Törni is the kind of guy who couldn't sit out a good war. So he fought in Finland against the Soviets, twice, against the Soviets again in Germany, and then in Vietnam against the Communists.

How Uber used secret Greyball tool to deceive authorities worldwide

I'm impressed. This is how big data works in the movies. And apparently in real life sometimes too.

Is there really a war on cops?

Short answer is no. More complicated answer is that the same advances in medical technology that keep the murder rate down in general keep cops alive too [I'm not saying this adjustment would make the trend line go up BTW], and that hostility to the cops certainly seems like it is on the rise. It would be interesting to make a third graph using cops per capita to adjust for changing employment. I have a hunch the long upward trend in the late nineteenth century was due to increasing use of police forces instead of citizen volunteers. However, that data seems to be hard to find.

The Legend of Zelda - Breath of the Wild Explained

I can't wait for my copy to arrive!

The Long View 2004-09-08: Death Cult

Here, on the grounds of millenarian movements and apocalyptic expectations, I think John was at his best when describing what Islamic terrorism is. There is a link to esoteric fascism too, the ideology of Tradition. Pray that men such as these don't have their day in the sun.


Death Cult

 

Peter Preston wrote a piece for The Guardian that appeared on September 6, entitled Writing the script for terror. He is incredulous of the idea that the Beslan Massacre was the work of international terrorism. He is also patronizing toward Tom Clancy, which is easy to do, but ill-informed: Clancy's novel, Rainbow Six, described a school hostage taking and the sort of force needed to deal with it, a point worthy of attention. Chiefly, though, he implies that the best way to deal with incidents like Beslan is not to report them, or at least not to report them so prominently:

For the difficult, inescapable thing, watching those pictures, is an eery feeling of manipulation. Somebody planned this and reckoned the cameras would be there....Two bleak things follow. One is that - whether or not it exists on any organised level - we shall gradually come to identify a force called international terrorism, a force defined not by the coordination of its strikes or creeds but by the orchestration of its inhuman propaganda. I manipulate, therefore I exist...The other thing is self-knowledge for media-makers and media-watchers.

Certainly the Islamofascist strategy is based on creating spectacles. However, I don't think that "we shall gradually come to identify a force" behind this propaganda. I think the force has done a pretty good job of identifying itself.

* * *

The strangely ubiquitous David Brooks writes in The New York Times (September 7) about this force:

We should by now have become used to the death cult that is thriving at the fringes of the Muslim world. This is the cult of people who are proud to declare, "You love life, but we love death." This is the cult that sent waves of defenseless children to be mowed down on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war, that trains kindergartners to become bombs, that fetishizes death, that sends people off joyfully to commit mass murder.

This cult attaches itself to a political cause but parasitically strangles it. The death cult has strangled the dream of a Palestinian state. The suicide bombers have not brought peace to Palestine; they've brought reprisals. The car bombers are not pushing the U.S. out of Iraq; they're forcing us to stay longer. The death cult is now strangling the Chechen cause, and will bring not independence but blood.

This new phenomenon is just as nightmarish as Brooks suggests. However, if it's a cult, it's a cult without an essential theology. The massacres are apocalyptic, both in the popular sense of indiscriminately destructive, and in the scholarly sense of revealing the insubstantiality of the ordinary world. However, the death cult seems to be only incidentally related to eschatological belief systems. It's a mime, a ritual.

Nonetheless, I think I have some notion of what's going on here. In an e-book, I suggested that the final phase in the life of a great culture is a tendency toward pure destructiveness. I called that "The Terminal Apocalypse," to distinguish it from earlier versions of millenarianism, which are revolutionary and often creative. Of course, this tells us nothing about the subjective state of the people who experience this terminal mood. Brooks suggests this:

It's about massacring people while in a state of spiritual loftiness. It's about experiencing the total freedom of barbarism - freedom even from human nature, which says, Love children, and Love life. It's about the joy of sadism and suicide.

Maybe, but I would remind readers that people do the worst things for what they imagine to be the best reasons. The terminal apocalypse seems to have something to do with the spiritual autonomy sought by esoteric fascists: neither life nor death, nor the failure of all one's historical hopes, can deflect the adept from his course. He can be killed, but not defeated.

This brings us to the question of how to manage these people. Brooks says:

This death cult has no reason and is beyond negotiation. This is what makes it so frightening. This is what causes so many to engage in a sort of mental diversion. They don't want to confront this horror. So they rush off in search of more comprehensible things to hate.

It is not true that the followers of the death cult make no demands and cannot be negotiated with. As Anonymous tells us, al-Qaeda fundamentally wants the United States out of the Arabian Peninsula. That could be negotiated. The people who did Beslan want the Russians out of Chechnya. That could be negotiated, too. The problem is that the death cult is what its followers do, not what they want or believe.

Surrender doesn't help. The Russians actually tried that, after Yeltsin's first attempt to subdue Chechnya by force failed. They withdrew, in the expectation that a provisional government would form with which they could do business. What actually happened was that the state in Chechnya disappeared, and the chaos began to spill over into the neighboring areas of the Russian Federation. The state similarly disintegrated in Afghanistan, in Lebanon, in Somalia. The same would be true in Palestine, were it not for subventions from Europe.

The rubble produced by the death cult is contagious. Perhaps it, too, cannot be defeated, but only killed.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

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The Long View 2004-07-26: Spies & Pigeons, Catholic Tradition, Catholic Muslims, Pre-Fab Politics

Ordinarily, I would trust John's judgment on a matter of legal interpretation, but I do wonder whether his opinion on the Valerie Plame affair was unbiased. We don't have a legal decision to look back on, since the courts declined to take up the charge, although in this case it doesn't truly seem that Plame was much harmed, in retrospect.

John expresses an idea here that I brought up in a comment at Steve Sailer's blog: the present political environment in the United States is ripe for personal politics, in part because American lack of corruption makes politics relatively cheap, and also because the political parties are losing power as institutions.

Not really. What this activity leads to is a system in which prefabricated components can quickly assemble around attractive candidates. The comparison we should think of is the production of a major motion picture. The sums involved for a presidential campaign are oddly similar, too: some small multiple of $100 million. In any case, as the article notes, the year to focus on is 2008.

The amount of money Hillary spent is arguably not a small multiple of $100 million, but Trump's spending falls in that range.


Spies & Pigeons, Catholic Tradition, Catholic Muslims, Pre-Fab Politics

 

Anyone can write about the Wilson-Plame Affair, so I can do it, too. The question is whether a felony was committed when someone in the Bush Administration leaked the news to a columnist that Plame, Wilson's wife, was a CIA agent. For what it's worth, I would say "no."

The key provision is 50 USC 421 [Protection of identities of certain United States undercover intelligence officers, agents, informants, and sources]. There are separate subsections creating liability for leakers and leakees in that section, but they both do so only for an offender "knowing that the information disclosed so identifies such covert agent and that the United States is taking affirmative measures to conceal such covert agent's intelligence relationship to the United States." The term "affirmative measure" suggests some step in addition to the original designation of someone as working undercover. More specifically, 50 USC 426(4)(A)(ii) defines "covert agent" as someone "who is serving outside the United States or has within the last five years served outside the United States."

There are factual issues here, of course, but also more questions of statutory interpretation. Suppose an agent simply traveled abroad on intelligence business: would that reset the five-year secrecy period? The CIA might not be well advised to pursue the widest possible interpretation of the statute in this case. If a court decides the ambiguity against the Agency, then the broad interpretation can no longer be used as a threat.

These are not new points. However, while looking up the statutes in the United States Code, I did make some startling discoveries. For instance, there was once a Chapter 7 of Title 50 of that Code that Jorge Luis Borges would have loved: Interference with Homing Pigeons Owned by United States. The provisions have long since been repealed. Casual readers of the US Code who are too lazy to hunt for the original legislation in the US Statutes, which is the uncompiled and unclassified output of Congress, must make do with these enigmatic repealer notes:

Section 111, act Apr. 19, 1918, ch. 58, Sec. 1, 40 Stat. 533, related to prohibited acts affecting homing pigeons owned by United States. See section 45 of Title 18, Crimes and Criminal Procedure.

Section 112, act Apr. 19, 1918, ch. 58, Sec. 2, 40 Stat. 533, related to possession of pigeons as evidence of violation of law. See section 45 of Title 18.

Section 113, act Apr. 19, 1918, ch. 58, Sec. 3, 40 Stat. 533, related to punishment. See section 45 of Title 18

I used to write repealer notes, when I worked for West Publishing many years ago, so I know what extraordinary details may lurk behind the studied blandness of these memorial summaries. In particular, we must wonder what terrible punishment Congress deemed fitting for those who would molest the Pigeons of the Great Republic.

* * *

Even before I read Mark Sedgwick's Against the Modern World, I had reached the stage where I saw Traditionalists lurking in every footnote of every critique of modernity. I got this way because, in many cases, they do lurk in such places, but don't get me started. In any case, a more fruitful way to study Tradition is to read what people who identify themselves as Traditionalists have to say. I have become particularly interested in the overlap between Tradition in the Guenonian sense (which is what Sedgwick chiefly studied) and Catholic Traditionalism. The best-thought-out synthesis is the work of Rama Coomaraswamy, a retired thoracic surgeon and a priest in a group with its own bishops that continues to use the old Latin liturgies.

In his essay on Philosophia Perennis and the Sensus Catholicus, the Reverend Doctor Coomaraswamy does an interpretation of salvation history that is new to me, but which makes perfect sense in a Guenonian context:

It is also necessary to consider history, not as a progressive advance from primitive times to the present "enlightened" era but more realistically as a continuous degeneration from a former golden age. Adam’s fall from paradise is a paradigm for understanding the present situation. God did not abandon His creation and Adam found regeneration, and is indeed considered by the Church to be a saint. In ancient days, saving revelation, in accordance with man’s more direct apprehension of truth, was appropriately more simple. With each succeeding "fall," God provided more stringent requirements for man to follow if he sought to reverse the process of degeneration, until the time of Moses when the rules required encompassed every aspect of life. This is well reflected in the Sacrifice of Abel, followed by that of Abraham, and finally by that established through the medium of Moses. Yet throughout all this we have the Sacrifice of Melchisedech, renewed once again in Christ.

The author is a "sedevacantist." Such people believe that, quite literally, they are more Catholic than the pope. Because the pope supports the decisions of the Second Vatican Council, the author holds that the See of Peter is vacant. (Other sedevacantists say there is a pope, but someone other than John Paul II: an opinion that need not detain us.) It is interesting to note how sedevacantism recapitulates the original Guenonian critique of Catholicism. Rene Guenon said 70 years ago that the "initiatory" element in Catholicism had been lost for centuries, so that the chain of primordial Tradition was no longer intact in the Catholic Church. Sedevacantists say that everything was fine until the Second Vatican Council cut the cord.

It's not just that the decrees of the Council are heretical, they say, but that the new rites of ordination for priests and bishops that were among the new liturgies promulgated after the Council are not valid, for much the same reason that Anglican ordinations are not valid. Thus any Mass, even a Mass in Latin, said by a priest who was ordained by a bishop consecrated using the new rite is not a valid Mass. Thus, bishops consecrated after 1982 are not real bishops, and the Catholic hierarchy is gradually being replaced with imposters.

The really interesting point here is that "traditional" Catholics are usually keen on the exclusive truth of Catholicism and the almost inevitable damnation of everyone who is not a member of the visible Church (or, sometimes, of one's own schismatic sect). How does this square with the Guenonian principle of the "perennial wisdom," which all the great Traditions of the world supposedly share? In Dr. Coomaraswamy's version, the two meanings of Tradition can be reconciled by emphasizing scriptural rather than hermetic proofs for this wisdom, and also by leaning very heavily on the notions of "the baptism of desire" and the "invincible ignorance" of some unbelievers, including intelligent ones. Those points, at least, are not off the reservation of respectable Catholic opinion, but they are not the sort of thing usually embraced by conservatives.

The moral, I think, is that we have yet another instance in which we see that Tradition should never be confused with conservatism. Perhaps it would be too much to state this categorically, but we can clearly see this trajectory in every form of Tradition: for a Traditionalist, no public institution in his own society is legitimate.

* * *

Global Policy Exchange has been holding discussions on whether what Islam really needs is a Reformation. In the August/September issue of First Things, one contributor to the discussion, Paul Marshall of Freedom House, has an essay whose title, "Islamic Counter-Reformation," sums up a contrary position:

My view is that many of the problems of contemporary Islam are more like Protestant problems than like Catholic problems, and therefore more akin to a dilution of Protestantism is required.

You can make your own list of Islamic "Protestant problems": a principle of "sola scriptura" based on the Koran that makes flexibility impossible; a neglect of natural law; the lack of hierarchical oversight of charismatic leaders. Randall suggests that what Islam needs is a renewal of the ancient science of interpretation, along with the creation of a more centralized system of authority to issue such interpretations.

I might point out that Spengler, in The Decline of the West, identified Islam as a Reformation of Eastern Christianity within what he called "Magian Culture," or at least as the Puritan phase of a Reformation. The problem is that Islam may not only have had its Reformation, but also its Counter Reformation: that is arguably what Shia Islam was all about. Particularly in the Islamic Republic of Iran, there is a strong hierarchy and a sophisticated magisterium. There are also the makings of nukes, in the hands of people who should not be trusted with sharp objects.

* * *

As part of the New York Times coverage of this week's Democratic National Convention, the newspaper's Sunday Magazine section of July 25 had a long article by Matt Bai, entitled Wiring the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy. The story is about the efforts of leftist-progressive-democratic rich people to fund a network of new foundations and activist groups to counter the depredations of the American Enterprise Institute and the National Rifle Association and suchlike rabble.

There is something terribly delusional about all this. The organizers of the lefty network claim that they were blindsided by the fearsome new foundations and news outlets that the Right has assembled. Does the Hoover Institution really hold a candle to the Kennedy School of Government? Is FOX of much account compared to all three broadcast networks? About Hollywood we need not speak.

Be that as it may, the article is interesting because it emphasizes that the system of political financing is disengaging from the two major political parties:

The second potential outcome to which Dean alludes -- that the Democratic Party, per se, might not always exist in America -- might sound, coming from Dean, characteristically overwrought. But it does raise a significant question about the political venture capitalists: what if, in the future, they decided not to support Democrats at all? ... When I suggested this to Stern, the service employees' union president, he thought about it for a moment before answering. ''There is an incredible opportunity to have the infrastructure for a third party,''

Not really. What this activity leads to is a system in which prefabricated components can quickly assemble around attractive candidates. The comparison we should think of is the production of a major motion picture. The sums involved for a presidential campaign are oddly similar, too: some small multiple of $100 million. In any case, as the article notes, the year to focus on is 2008.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Against the Modern World

This book review is part of the reason I distrust Religious Studies departments. Anything influenced by Evola and Guénon probably bears close watching. John's warning here is pretty important in the post 9/11 era as well:

If you've been reading about Islam in English, you have probably been reading material heavily influenced by Traditionalism. The discipline of "religious studies" was largely founded by "soft Traditionalists."

It is always hard to come at a religious tradition from the outside. The relatively unknown ideology of Tradition makes that even harder.

I've been following Tradition for fifteen years now. As John says, there is a danger in thinking this movement stronger and more prevalent than it actually is. However, the alt-right, much in the news of late, really is influenced by Tradition. Or at least a small number of relatively uninfluential Twitterati are. The broader populist political movements in the West are not. Even the Russians don't pay much attention to Tradition.

I've also often felt relieved that Guénon deemed Catholicism [Christianity in general really, but he was from France] unsuitable ground for Tradition. Like John, and other authors who have studied Tradition, I find something intriguing about the idea, but at root, it seems wicked and perverse. Some seeds fall on on stony ground.


Against the Modern World:
Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century
By Mark Sedgwick
Oxford University Press, 2004
370 Pages, $35.00
ISBN 0-19-515297-2
Companion Website: www.traditionalists.org

“Some theories which he may meet in modern Christian circles may prove helpful here; theories, I mean, that place the hope of society in some inner ring of 'clerks,' some trained minority of theocrats. It is no affair of yours whether those theories are true or false; the great thing is to make Christianity a mystery religion in which he feels himself one of the initiates.”

--C.S. Lewis
The Screwtape Letters

This general history of the Traditionalist movement starts with the author in a smoldering building in Moscow, wondering whether the security services had just tried to burn out his borrowed apartment in order to impede his investigation of the Tradition-influenced National Bolshevik Party. As a matter of fact, they hadn't, and the National Bolshevik Party turned out to be more a political performance-art ensemble than a serious political party. Still, anyone who has tried to assess the place of Traditionalism in 20th-century intellectual history has probably experienced something like his mild paranoia.

If you've been reading about Islam in English, you have probably been reading material heavily influenced by Traditionalism. The discipline of "religious studies" was largely founded by "soft Traditionalists." That is also true of some fields of anthropology, particularly regarding the Plains Indians. The paranoia sets in when you learn there is good reason to look for Traditionalism in the works of an apparently endless list of authors, including Thomas Merton, T.S. Eliot, and E.F. Schumacher. (Prince Charles is involved, too, a little.) The fact that some academic Traditionalists take care not to cite their Traditionalist sources only adds to the impression of a vast, shadowy network that includes everyone in the world but you.

Happily, this sober survey does not spin conspiracy theories. It also does not make the mistake of overestimating its subject, a movement that is important but not central to understanding the last century. The author, Mark Sedgwick, is a young British scholar at the American University in Cairo. He encountered Traditionalism while studying the spread of semi-secret Sufi orders among Westerners, a process that began in the early 20th century. From there, the study spread to mutations in French Freemasonry, to the development of the theory of esoteric fascism, and then to the nihilist political violence of the 1960s and '70s. The story goes on to Eurasianism, which is an anti-Western but increasingly respectable school of thought in Russia, and to the effects of Traditionalism on Islamism and on the politics of non-Arab Muslim countries.

In addition to paranoia, one of the dangers of studying Traditionalism is that you soon bite off more than you can chew. The only flaw I find in this book is that it does not cover nearly enough. Also, a note on nomenclature: self-identified Traditionalists generally refer to their system in print as "Tradition" or "tradition." However, this survey settled on "Traditionalism," so this reviewer is not going to argue.

Traditionalism is firmly rooted in Western hermeticism. Its most important element, "perennialism," may be traced to Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) of the Platonic Academy of Florence, who developed the hypothesis of the "philosophia perennis." (The term was coined later, though: Sedgwick credits Agostino Steuco at around 1540; Aldous Huxley, in The Perennial Philosophy, credits Leibnitz.) Ficino used the "Corpus Hermeticum," a venerable collection of neoplatonic texts, to argue that a primordial metaphysical basis lies behind all the world's major religions, which could therefore be said to be transcendentally united.

The problem was that the "Corpus Hermeticum" was not as venerable as the Renaissance thought. In the early 17th century, it was proven that the "Corpus" dates from the early centuries of the first millennium, and not from ancient Egyptian times, as had been supposed. Thus, it no longer seemed so remarkable that the texts contained Platonic and even Christian elements. Still, though Ficino's arguments for perennialism had been discredited, the idea never entirely went away. It received new support in the 19th century, when the availability of Vedanta texts made it possible to argue for metaphysical universals on a cross-cultural basis.

That was where René Guénon (1886-1951) came in. Traditionalism was his creation, and its history is largely the tale of his influence. The son of an ordinary French bourgeois Catholic family, he wandered from what otherwise might have been a conventional teaching career into Indic studies and thence into the occult milieu of the Belle Époque. His Traditionalism was a reaction to the Theosophy and spiritualism of the time, though a disinterested observer might be forgiven for concluding that it is simply another school of the same sort.

To the principle of perennialism, Guénon made two powerful additions. One was the principle of “initiation.” This meant that spiritual advancement required a direct link to the supernatural, which usually meant induction into a chain of adepts going back to some historical source of power. In his occult phase, which lasted until about 1920, Guénon was initiated into no fewer than six Masonic or mystical groups. One of these was the Sufi order, the Shadhiliyya Arabiyya. Guénon took the Arabic name “Abd al-Wahid.” Sedgwick insists this initiation was not a conversion; certainly Guénon did not begin to live as a Muslim for another decade.

One of the most important consequences of the principle of initiation was a tendency toward “vanguardism” (a term Sedgwick does not use). Traditionalism sought to create an elite, sometimes thought of as a saving remnant of the Western world. Traditionalism differs from Theosophy and other occult sects in that it has never sought a mass audience. In practical terms, this meant that Traditionalism expressed itself in Masonic groups and other semi-secret societies. When it took the form of Sufi orders, it often turned them into clandestine organizations, which is not how Sufism works in Muslim countries.

Guénon's second innovation was “inversion,” the principle that all the change in the Western world since medieval times was for the worse, indeed that all historical change is a decline. What the West thinks of as progress is really decay, leading to an inevitable collapse. Guénon defined modernity in terms of the privation of the good: “If everyone understood what the modern world was, it would immediately cease to exist.” Inversion gave Traditionalism its apocalyptic content. In some contexts, it gave Traditionalism revolutionary potential, as adepts sought to hasten the end of modernity.

When discussing Traditionalism, there is always the danger of attributing to Guénon projects that were really worked out in detail only by his followers. Still, it does not falsify his system to say that his general intent was to create an order of persons who could make the West a Traditional civilization again, either by arresting its decay or rebuilding it on Traditional lines after its collapse. The most interesting constraint on this ambition was Guenon's rejection of Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular as a possible basis for reconstruction. He sometimes wavered on this point, and there have always been Christian Traditionalists; in Paris, Guénon is still a “Catholic” author. Generally, though, Guénon argued that the chain of initiation had been irremediably broken in the Catholic Church. Thus, the true Tradition was to be sought in Vedanta, Sufism, Freemasonry, Taoism, or even High Paganism, but not in the public spiritual heritage of the West.

If Sedgwick is to be believed, one of the key inflections in the development of Traditionalism, the turn toward Islam, was an accident. Guénon's metaphysical point of reference was always Vedanta. Nonetheless, in the 1920s, when he wrote his principal books, Guénon seemed to be just a slightly eccentric Catholic intellectual. (His most-cited books, incidentally, are The Crisis of the Modern World (1927) and The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times (1945).), He attended Mass regularly with his devout wife. For a time, he lectured at the Catholic Institute in Paris, where he was a protégé of Jacques Maritain. He did get into increasing trouble for declining to acknowledge Catholicism as the fullest expression of the truth, and he was quite capable of equating the Third Eye of Shiva with the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In any case, after his wife's unexpected death at the end of the decade, Guénon made an unsuccessful business trip to Egypt. Perhaps simply because it was cheaper, he remained in Cairo, and took up the life of a Muslim. He started a new family. He did not abandon his perennialism, but thereafter advised his growing cadre of followers of the necessity to observe the full practice of one of the great Traditions, as he observed the Sharia.

The spread of Sufism in the West during the 20th century is a tale in itself, one that intersects only at points with Traditionalism. Sedgwick names Robert Graves as a Sufi, for instance, though apparently not of a Traditionalist order. (I would suggest that Graves's novel, “Seven Days in New Crete,” actually expresses the Traditionalist agenda quite well, but there's the paranoia again.) Rudolf Freiherr von Sebottendorf, the alchemist and numerologist who managed the Thule Society in Munich in the 1920s and who founded the party that eventually became the Nazi Party, was also a Sufi, but again, not a Traditionalist. (Hitler was neither, by the way.) There is even something called “Neo-Sufism,” which divorces Sufi initiation from Islam entirely.

By far the most important Sufi in Traditionalist history was Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998), a man of complicated Franco-German parentage who acquired Swiss citizenship, but finally created a sort of commune in Bloomington, Indiana. Guénon seems to have entertained high hopes that Schuon's Alawiyya order (later the Maryamiyya order), then based in Switzerland, would develop a way to indigenize Traditionalism in Europe. That might spare the old continent the indignity of eventually being culturally annexed by alien Islamic societies. Schuon's version of Traditionalism had its own trajectory, however.

Schuon rejected Guénon's position that Christianity had lost the power of initiation: both baptism and confirmation really were the initiations they claimed to be, in his estimation. Schuon, in fact, is among the best-known exponents of the transcendental unity of religions. However, he went beyond perennialism to something like universalism, which mixes and matches elements of the major Traditions: a grave error for most Traditionalists. Moreover, he seemed to acquiesce in the belief among his followers that the Traditions were united, not just primordially, but in himself. In any case, he had considerable effect on several academic disciplines. His keen interest in Native Americans, for instance, ensured that friendly anthropologists would write about Black Elk from a Traditionalist perspective.

Traditionalism has often sought political influence, and not without success. For instance, the Iron Guard in Romania, which supported the alliance with Nazi Germany, grew out of a sophisticated Christian Traditionalist movement, the Legion of the Archangel Michael. Mircea Eliade famously supported the Legion, though he distanced himself as the movement became less spiritual and more political. However, the most important political Traditionalist, and indeed the best known of all Traditionalists after Guénon, was the Italian occultist, Baron Julius Evola (1896/8-1974).

Evola was able to get a hearing in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany for his ideas about the cultivation of elites and the need to reconstitute the Holy Roman Empire on a non-Christian basis. Sedgwick emphasizes, however, that Evola had little effect on policy. The loss of World War II set Evola free. His philosophy was arguably a kind of existentialism; hence, perhaps, its influence in the postwar world, along with other kinds of existentialism. In the 1960s and '70s, Evola's ethic of “spontaneismo armato” inspired first a wave of rightwing anarchism, and then spread to the left.

Evola's ideas, and perhaps Evola himself, were connected with some early attempts to forge a “Red-Brown” alliance against the liberal West, a story that Sedgwick misses. However, Sedgwick gives considerable attention to efforts along these lines in post-Soviet Russia. Chief of these is the Eurasian Movement, organized by the Traditionalist and former-dissident, Alexander Dugin. Dugin's movement is not a political party; it maintains institutions to advise the government, which apparently takes it seriously.

Eurasianism combines the geopolitics of Sir Halford Mackinder with the Slavophilism of Konstantin Nikolayavich Leontyev. Its model of world history is a struggle between the spiritual Heartland and the materialist Atlantic Bloc. In this version of Traditionalism, Russian Orthodoxy plays the role that Islam plays in other versions. Russia's destiny is no longer to spread Marxism-Leninism, but to promote Slavic Christianity.

The same dissident group that produced Dugin also produced Gaydar Jamal, who somehow manages to support Russian policy in Chechnya while maintaining links to the Islamist leader Hasan al-Turabi of the Sudan. Jamal's own version of Islamism is heavily influenced by Traditionalism, but has enough orthodox Islamic elements to make it difficult to classify. It is possible to speak of a “Red-Brown-Green” coalition (with green as the color of Islam) in some contexts, but Sedgwick reports that Traditionalism has little influence in the Arab world, except perhaps in Morocco. Its profile is higher in Turkey, Iran, and Malaysia, where its role is more cultural than political.

The most important Traditionalist institution of the 20th century was the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy. It was founded by the eminent scholar, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and generously funded by the last shah's government. The Academy was a serious academic institution, created to study Islamic art and philosophy, as well as modern science, from a Traditionalist perspective. Sedgwick notes the ironies in its history. Though Nasr is a man of conservative disposition who endorsed the monarchy as a Traditional form of government, the studies his Academy sponsored were a part of the renewal of enthusiasm for Iran's spiritual past that ultimately overthrew the shah. The academy survived the Islamic Revolution, but Nasr sought exile in the United States, where he is now an ornament to the faculty of George Washington University.

Actually, for followers of a philosophy with a name that suggests reverence for the past, Traditionalists are peculiarly liable to get into trouble when they try to deal with actual history. Ananda Coomaraswamy, one of the earliest of Guénon's followers, was already in an unassailable position as curator of the Indian collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts when he became a Traditionalist. He continued to do valuable work, and he added an esthetic element to Traditionalism that it never lost. However, even his admirers noted that his interest in history evaporated in favor of metaphysics. Guénon himself failed to get a doctorate from the Sorbonne because his thesis on Indian philosophy dispensed with the historical-critical method. When scholars influenced by Traditionalism do not cite to Traditionalist authors, they were not necessarily trying to conceal the connection; the sources are sometimes just too embarrassing.

One could add a critique of Traditionalism as a kind of fancy-dress. Guénon was relatively isolated in Cairo: he soon discovered that the spiritual East of Traditionalism often had little to do with the merely eastern East. From the 1970s into the '90s, the face of “Islam” in Italy was largely that of another European Sufi, Felice (Abd al-Wahid) Pallavicini. Unfortunately, his career as a participant on interfaith dialogues was interrupted by the immigration of Muslims, who pointed out that his theology and practice were not very orthodox. Particularly in the Arab world, the open exponents of Traditionalism are told that perennialism is not an Islamic doctrine. Indeed, in the Islamic world since the 19th century, the Sufism that Guénon identified with initiatic Islam has been in retreat before Salafism and Wahhabism.

Despite these weaknesses, and the odd turns that Traditionalism has sometimes taken, Sedgwick cautions that we should not dismiss Traditionalism as evil or deluded:

“Traditionalism was the exhilarating attempt to reinstate a divine order, the response of sensitive and intelligent individuals to an alien world...”

He doubts that it has much of a future in the West, where it is merging with the esoteric background from which it came. However, it may have an impact on those societies that are still trying to decide between East and West. Whatever you think of this assessment of Traditionalism's future influence, it is certainly high time that more attention was paid to its impact on the past.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The System of Antichrist

Here is an excellent example of why I still think John J. Reilly has something to say all these years later. This book review is a synthesis of ideas he had been working on for nearly ten years, nicely summarized by the links he put in to his earlier work. And also, this paragraph:

Like Foucault, Upton notes that evolution in modern thought replaced ontological hierarchy with historical development. In fact, the fallacy that makes all the other New Age fallacies possible is the belief that new Truth (that, is truth not already contained by Tradition) can come to light in history. Upton's critique in this regard is not so different from other criticisms of "Process Theology," which might be summarized by the principle that God is the best that exists at any given time, not the best that can be.

Reminds me of this current controversy in the Catholic Church. These ideas haven't gone away, or even changed very much.


The System of Antichrist

Truth & Falsehood in
Postmodernism & the
New Age

By Charles Upton
Sophia Perennis, 2001
562 Pages, US$27.95
ISBN 0-900588-30-6

A Review by
John J. Reilly

 

Globalization, the New Age Movement, and postmodernism did not merely arise at about the same time, according to The System of Antichrist. Rather, they are all manifestations of a common impulse, one that is not entirely of human origin. They are in fact symptoms of the impending end of the world. As is the way with eschatological analysis, much of the book's argument is best taken metaphorically. However, these are the sort of metaphors you neglect at your peril.

The author, Charles Upton, began life as a conventional Catholic. He experienced the 1960's Counter Culture and subsequent New Age spiritualities, which he now views as pathologies that have been marketed to a mass audience. Eventually, he washed up on the shores of Tradition, and became a Muslim Sufi. Upton's book is largely a synthesis of the theological metaphysics of Frithjof Schuon's The Transcendent Unity of Religions with the eschatology of Rene Guenon's The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times.

The System of Antichrist does not attempt to summarize Tradition systematically, so neither will this review. Suffice it to say that Tradition is a curious blend of neoplatonism and comparative religion that was devised in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Tradition, or corruptions of it, crops up in the most extraordinary places, from Black Metal music to the writings of Robertson Davies. As a matter of intellectual history, it belongs in the same class as Madame Blavatsky's Theosophy, Jung's psychology, and the comparative mythology of Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell.

Additionally, I think it important to point out that Tradition is also closely related to the reaction against speculative philosophy that we see in Heidegger, with the vital difference that Traditionalists find that the Transcendent, rather than Being, is inescapably "thrown" to them.

As we will see, Traditionalists tend to believe that the state of the world is very unsatisfactory, and fated to get worse. Wicked Traditionalists not only believe that the world is ending, but are keen to help it along. (One of the most puzzling features of this book is the failure to engage directly the esoteric fascism of Julius Evola.) In the sense in which Upton uses the term, however, "Tradition" means almost the opposite of world-hating Gnosticism. Gnostics deny the value of the world; Traditionalists see eternal value in the world. For Tradition, the creation of the world was not a mistake, but an act of divine mercy. Everything in it tells us something about God. These things include the human institutions ordained by God, the most important of which are the world's revealed religions.

This is where Tradition differs from ordinary syncretism. Tradition is a spiritual practice that needs a revealed matrix. Traditionalists can be Muslims, or Jews, or Christians, or Buddhists, or even shamanists, but they cannot mix and match. These traditional religions, at least according to the Traditionalists, are united by the transcendent object toward which they look. Each represents a revelation of the divine nature; the differences between them can be resolved only eschatologically. The attempt to create a world spirituality, in fact, is one of the satanic counterfeits of these latter days.

Although The System of Antichrist has its biases, it is not religiously partisan. Many of its theological points are perfectly orthodox. For one thing, Upton never departs from the principle that eschatology is fundamentally personal. Creation and apocalypse are always present. Eschatological history is only a symbol of the death of the ego and its replacement by God. In one sense, you are the Antichrist, and in your own latter day that tyrant will be overthrown. On the other hand, there is no denying that eschatology also has a universal dimension. The book usually works on the assumption that a personal Antichrist will appear in the penultimate stage of world history; several of the world's religious traditions say as much, and personification facilitates the discussion. However, Upton reminds us repeatedly that the concept of Antichrist can also be taken to refer to a collectivity, one that has existed as long as Christianity itself. That collectivity becomes coherent and visible as the end nears.

Admirers of C.S. Lewis will be happy to know that they may have already read some fictionalized Traditional metaphysics, in the form of Lewis's novel, That Hideous Strength, which deals with a conspiracy of scientific magicians to open a branch office of Hell in central England. In The System of Antichrist, Upton seeks to make explicit the suppositions behind that story:

"[A]s this cycle of manifestation draws to a close, the cosmic environment first solidifies – this being the result and the cause of modern materialism – after which it simply fractures, because a materialist reality absolutely cut off from the subtle planes is metaphysically impossible. These cracks in the 'great wall' separating the physical universe from the subtle or etheric plane initially open in a 'downward' direction, toward the 'infra-psychic' or demonic realm (cf. Rev. 9:1-3); 'magical realism' replaces 'ordinary life.' It is only at the final moment that a great crack appears in the 'upward' direction..."

If you don't like esoteric metaphysics, this would still be an interesting statement about the history of philosophy. The rejection of the transcendent resulted in materialism, which, like all monisms, is at best incomplete. By the middle of the 20th century the materialist edifice was riven by skepticism toward scientific and historical knowledge. With the coming of postmodernism, very strange substitutes for metaphysics began to appear. Upton means much more than this, but this is one way to look at it.

The Intellect is the faculty of the mind by which we perceive "self-evident truths." During the 19th century, the Intellect could no longer look to a transcendent God; even metaphysical first principles were rejected after Kant. In consequence, emotion became divorced from the truth. The affective part of human nature was expressed, for a while, as the irrational sentiments of Romanticism. The postmodern declension from Romanticism is emotional numbness, enlivened by atrocity and sinister fascination. There is such a thing as emotional intelligence, and the trajectory of the postmodern world is to stultify it. Postmodernism removes the possibility of romantic heterosexual love as a spiritual exercise. Worse yet, it makes God inaccessible.

The New Age might be called "folk postmodernism," except that folk religion is better structured. In traditional civilizations, there is a hierarchy of the religious life: popular practice, an institutional church, and esoteric tradition. The New Age collapses these layers, so that the transcendent element that had been the object of esoteric spirituality is lost. All that remains is the psychic, meaning both ordinary psychology and the shadowy realm that surrounds the material world but is not necessarily superior to it. The result is people who channel extraterrestrials, or embrace psychological management techniques, or are attracted to some of the less-grounded forms of Pentecostalism. The forgetting of the distinction between psyche and spirit makes Antichrist's counterfeit of the spiritual possible.

Like Foucault, Upton notes that evolution in modern thought replaced ontological hierarchy with historical development. In fact, the fallacy that makes all the other New Age fallacies possible is the belief that new Truth (that, is truth not already contained by Tradition) can come to light in history. Upton's critique in this regard is not so different from other criticisms of "Process Theology," which might be summarized by the principle that God is the best that exists at any given time, not the best that can be.

Anti-historicism is central to Tradition. The school arose in opposition to that other tradition, the one that proceeds from the French Revolution. Tradition denies the possibility of historical progress. It is resolutely anti-Hegelian. Also, largely in response to the evolution-based postmillennialism of the Theosophical Society, it will have nothing to do with the concept of evolution. Even if new forms of life appeared over time, they were simply the instantiation of preexisting archetypes. The only historical change is decay:

"It is certainly true, according to esoteric philosophy, that the created order returns to its Divine Source through the conscious spiritual unfolding of individual sentient beings. But this 'evolution,' this unfolding of the individual through a transcendence of the self-identified ego, is not a continuance of the cosmogonic process, but a reversal of the process..."

One could expand at length on the misapprehensions in this book about evolution. The chief one is the common error that the Second Law of Thermodynamics forbids local increases in order. As a corrective, one might refer to Robert Wright's "non-zero-sum" model of evolution, which gives a persuasive explanation for why history must be, in some sense, both progressive and teleological. Actually, the idea that evolution may be a process by which "ideal forms" incarnate is not so far off the scientific reservation, according to Simon Conway Morris. However, even a Platonic approach to evolution requires that higher forms appear with the passage of time.

Be this as it may, the point Tradition tries to make is that religious novelty is never for the better. This has proven to be the case with the New Age. There is such a thing as a New Age agenda, one with a long pedigree. New Agers suppose that belief in anything beyond the psychic is patriarchic oppression. The major New Age writers usually envisage the end of Christianity, and particularly of the Catholic Church.

Upton gives us a selective tour of some of the fashionable New Age belief systems of the past three decades. James Redfield's Celestine Prophecies gets a rather more thorough critique than the matter merits. (Upton does hit the nail on the head by calling the cult of the books a manifestation of "New Age singles culture.") Deepak Chopra comes in for measured criticism for seeming to equate enlightenment with material well-being. Some of these writers have always been obscure and have become only more so with the passage of time. Still, their ideas have permanently affected the popular imagination.

Upton believes that "A Course in Miracles" is the acme of New Age thought. It is based on the channeling of the "Seth Material" by Jane Roberts. As you might expect, this is a lengthy revelation that is supposed to come from a supernatural entity named Seth. The resulting doctrine does, at least, accept the existence of a divine absolute. The problem is that the absolute is so absolute that God does not even know this world exists. "A Course in Miracles" purports to go beyond the dichotomy of transcendence and immanence by saying that this ego-generated world is too unreal for God to be immanent in.

I was previously unfamiliar with "A Course in Miracles." It seems to be almost classically Gnostic, complete with a dying and senescent demiurge in the form of the Christian God. Remarkably, "A Course in Miracles" adapts the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics as the basis of a theory of simultaneous incarnation. That is unlikely to be true, but it is very ingenious.

Upton is so impressed by the Seth material that he wonders whether it may have been designed to lead astray the metaphysically inclined. He has particularly harsh words for its treatment of the question of whether God is personal: "The tendency to use the Impersonal Absolute to deny the Personal God, all-too-common among many people shallowly interested in mysticism and metaphysics, is simply another form of the ego's desire to be God." Depersonalizing God distorts the divine essence into a mere cosmic potentiality. We may use it, but it can make no demands on us. In Christianity, Upton points out, the meaning of the incarnation of the Second Person is that no one may approach the Godhead except through personality.

There is a larger metaphysical point here that is worth a little attention: the distinction between transcendence and abstraction. An abstract idea is merely a selection of common features. Upton's notion of a transcendent idea, in contrast, sounds like a "phase space." It encompasses all that something can be. Archetypal ideas are ideas of this order. In Upton's system, an entity of this sort is just what we mean by a "person." God is more than personal, but he is also personal in this way.

If great archetypal ideas are personal, it by no means follows that they are necessarily friendly. The powers of darkness appear as unconscious belief systems and social mores. An unconscious false belief on the psychological level is a demon at the psychic or spiritual level. The world is misled by fallen entities of a high order: cherubim, demons of the Intellect rather than of the will. In Upton's estimation, these shadows of the Four about the Throne can be characterized as Law, Fate, Chaos, and Self. These false alternatives war among themselves, and foment war on Earth. Self-deluded, they delude us.

The postmodern world presents a greater peril than merely a disordered cultural climate:

"Friedrich Nietzsche said, 'Be careful: while you are looking into the abyss, the abyss is looking into you.' This is why I caution the reader not to open this section while in a state of depression, anxiety, or morbid curiosity. Whoever already knows how bad UFOs are, and is not required by his or her duties to investigate them, should skip this chapter."

Despite the warning, Upton's account of extraterrestrials as a postmodern demonology is not without a certain morbid fascination. The growth of the popular cult of UFOs means that the blackest kind of black magic has gone mainstream; an assessment that, oddly enough, echoes Michael Barkun's conclusion that the UFO mythology have served to distribute "stigmatized knowledge" throughout the whole culture.

Upton relies heavily on the UFO researcher Jacque Vallee, who is best-known for arguing that the reports of UFO encounters closely resemble folkloric accounts of meetings with faeries, incubi, and (Upton's favorite spooks) jinn. Vallee does not limit the phenomenon to folklore. In the more than fifty years of UFO reports, there are real physical effects, instances of mass psychological phenomena, and human manipulation. About this Upton says: "The critical mind tries to make sense of this, fails, and then shuts down. It is meant to."

Upton sketches a history for us. The earliest accounts of meetings with extraterrestrials, which date from the mid-20th century, come from people with connections to the occult underground. Black magicians, who earlier in the Occult Revival had been able to invoke demons only for themselves, had been searching since the beginning of the century to invoke them for the masses. This was not entirely the magicians' idea. The Jinn, or at least the malicious ones, are seeking a stable incarnation in this world. They induce people to welcome and worship them. They also, perhaps, inspire computer technology and genetic engineering. These technologies undermine the human image. They also could be media through which the jinn achieve bodily form. They would then either displace the human race, or corrupt it to their purposes.

I would say that little of this is likely to be literally true. Still, it is true that there is a deep connection between flying-saucer cults and transhumanism. In any case, these dark desires, whether human or demonic, interpenetrate seamlessly with the spirituality of what has been called "the transnational class," but which Upton calls simply "the global elite":

"The characteristic 'religion' of some (but not all) sectors of this global elite is a kind of 'world fusion spirituality' – which, however, is essentially psychic, not spiritual – made up of texts, music, ritual objects, yogic and magical practices, and even shamanic initiations from around the world."

The spiritual disorders that arise from the denial of the personal God are important precisely because they are integral to the drive toward world unification. Neither side of the globalization struggle is strictly on the side of the Antichrist, but then neither is necessarily opposed to him.

Postmodernism is one of the reasons what a united world would be intolerable. Upton correctly notes that pluralism and the subjectivity on which postmodernism is based are incompatible. Postmodernist globalism, under the cover of multiculturalism, creates unity by denying its possibility. Metaphysical unity is a reality, always and everywhere. When it is denied, it reasserts itself as power rather than as cognizance. On the other hand, the multiplicity of cultures is metaphysically necessary, because each reflects some aspect of the divine. Suppress that multiplicity, and the result will be inter-ethnic chaos, which only force can control.

As is so often the case in this book, one notes that Tradition comes in different forms, and that all of them use the cultural resources of historical societies in a selective fashion. Other writers influenced by Tradition emphasize the archetype of the "empire," of the necessary unity of humanity, which is found in many civilizations. Even Islam, which makes a point of officially tolerating the existence of other confessions, contemplates that this toleration should occur in the context of a universal Caliphate. Upton's critique echoes the common anti-globalist complaint that both the unity and the diversity offered by globalization are disingenuous.

In any case, Upton asserts that today we live in a world that has moved from "the revolt of the masses" (which old-style conservatives like Guenon worried about) to "revolt of the elites" (which troubled another of Upton's favorites, Christopher Lasch). For the first time in history, it is the wealthy and educated who want to remake the world. As a critique of globalization, The System of Antichrist is in many ways a more lucid version of Hardt & Negri's "Empire." (That book, despite it postmodern Marxist rhetoric, expresses many Traditional themes.) Actually, for a book that is supposed to reflect the viewpoint of primordial truth, Upton's seems to accept uncritically the "litany" of the anarchist left, from alleged environmental collapse to corporate malfeasance. Fundamentally, however, politics and economics are epiphenomenal to what is really happening.

The Antichrist appeals to the best in us; therefore he is at his worst when he most closely approximates the truth. Beyond the vulgar New Age, we learn, there is a long-running tradition of "counter-initiation." The people engaged in this project do not seek to destroy the revealed religions, but to subvert them in all their forms, exoteric and esoteric. The Theosophical Society is the best–known example, but Upton is most alarmed by those he calls the "false traditionalists." Most famous of these is Carl Gustav Jung, who is a well known inspiration for the world's proto-global elites. The object of Upton's peculiar ire, however, is one William W. Quinn, Jr., author of The Only Tradition. While sometimes deploring the dissolution of traditional cultures and religions, Quinn sees it as a necessary step toward the creation of a Traditional Planetary Culture, one that will be simultaneously scientific and religious, a post-democratic world ruled by a hierarchy of adepts. This is very much what the system of Antichrist would look like in its maturity.

Upton admits he was strongly tempted by the prospect of a Traditional Planetary Culture, but overcame the glamour. False Tradition of this kind is a mere "higher empiricism." It views revelation, not as the word of God, but only as data. The result is metaphysics without religion; in other words, a sort of psychic engineering. Again, God becomes a resource, not a person.

As for the apocalypse itself, we are given a comparative tour of mythologies as they relate to the endtime. (I once attempted such a study myself, by the way, in a book called "The Perennial Apocalypse.") Upton's survey includes aspects of the eschatological ideas found in Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity (chiefly in its Orthodox version), Islam, and the religions of the Hopi and the Lakota. As you might expect, the survey finds a high incidence of Antichrist-like figures who deceive the world in the latter days, and Messianic figures who briefly restore Tradition before the end.

We learn quite a lot about the Shiite idea of the "occultation": messianic figures disappear for centuries, until they are ready to play their endtime role. Despite the high incidence of millenarian hopes throughout history, we are given to understand that a literal Millennium, of a perfected earthly society, is not Traditional. However, Upton intriguingly parses the possibility of a "short Millennium." This might be consistent with the reign of the Mahdi, or the period alluded to in Revelation that occurs immediately after the Second Coming. This period is variously described as lasting a few days, or months, or years; in one Shiite version, it lasts 309 years.

Our destiny is the New Jerusalem, the perfection and crystallization of our world. Though Upton is no more clear than his sources, one gathers that will occur Elsewhere. There may be some continuity of our physical world with a following one. It is possible that Earth will not be destroyed, and even that there may be a few human survivors. That next world, however, will be another creation. Our business is with salvation in this one.

Upton suggests some spiritual possibilities unique to the endtime. The latter days allow for detachment, since at last we know enough not to place our hopes in history or "the future." There is also a unique opportunity to acquire encyclopedic spiritual knowledge from around the world. Indeed, the very advent of the Traditionalist school is a providential "sign of the times." Finally, we may hope for the spread of serenity like that which accompanies the old age of just persons, through whom eternity begins to shine.

On a practical level, we must not forget that the forces of globalization and those opposed to it are equally apt to the hand of Antichrist. He might even come to power to overthrow a previously established world system. The System of Antichrist suggests that we deal with this situation in the way that Jesus did when he was asked whether it was licit to pay taxes to the Romans. To that he answered that we should render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. We must avoid being trapped in crooked choices. Our goal in the latter days is not to save our lives, but our souls. Even politics can be a "liturgy," in which we play the role we are assigned.

* * *

Upton's analysis merits comment. So does the doctrine of Tradition itself.

No doubt it is true that God forgives even theologians for their theology. Nonetheless, the principle of the transcendental unity of religions is open to question. The doctrine holds that the revealed religions are more similar to the degree that they approach their Object. This is not obviously so. Regarding personal eschatology, for instance, the Buddhist "moksa" is not equivalent to the Christian Beatific Vision; neither is self-evidently identical to the model of collective immortality that Upton himself seems to favor. The latter's best known exponent is the Muslim mystic Ibn al-Arabi. That is an important point.

In addition to Western Hermeticism, Tradition exhibits quite a lot of Sufism. The primordial Traditionalist, Rene Guenon, famously became a Muslim, and Upton followed suit. There are Christians, indeed Latin Christians, who consider themselves Traditionalists. Still, sometimes I can't help but wonder whether Tradition is just a very refined form of Sufism. This suspicion is probably misplaced, but Tradition is nonetheless parochial in a more fundamental way.

Sufism is a wisdom that crystallized from an age of skepticism and heresy. So, for the most part, are the other civilized esoteric traditions from which Tradition was composed. Tradition is not primordial. It's like the music of Solesmes, which was created at almost the same time as Tradition, and for much the same reasons. The Traditionalists are right, surely, when they say that it is mere bigotry to look on the past as inferior simply because it is past. We have a duty to extend the same sort of imaginative sympathy to the modern era that we do to distant times and places. The West is still going through its own centuries of skepticism. Someday, modernity could appear as primordial as Atlantis.

End

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: The Coming World Civilization

William Ernest Hocking

William Ernest Hocking

The most interesting idea to come out of this book by William Ernest Hocking is the 'unlosables', those aspects of a culture that persist even when the society that created them falls into decay. It the unlosables that we speak of when we refer to the Greek or Roman heritage of the West. In many ways, Western Civilization has very little in common with Classical Greece or Rome. The Roman ideal of justice, for example, would be seen as unspeakably brutal by nearly everyone in the United States or Western Europe. Yet, there is a certain something that we do share, that has outlived its creators by millennia.

Hocking wanted to sift out what is unlosable in our civilization. John wasn't entirely sure he got there, but it is much harder to evaluate our own selves in such a way.

There are a couple of really striking paragraphs here:

First, from Hocking:

“We have taken it for granted that the state can deal with crime, as its most potent function in maintaining public order. We have believed that it can educate our young. We have assumed that while leaving economic enterprise largely to its own energies, the state can cover the failures of the system, protecting individuals from destitution, caring for the aged and the ill. We gave taken it as axiomatic that it can make just laws, and provide through a responsible legal profession for the due service to the people.
“We are discovering today, startled and incredulous, that the state by itself can do none of these things.”

And next, from John Reilly:

One does not often come across new ethical principles for the first time, but this book states one that was new to me: only the good man can be punished. Bad men can, presumably, be deterred, and their behavior can be modified in other ways, but the disposition of the individual concerned makes a difference. Rights assume the presence of good will in the citizen. That good will can come only from a pre-political condition, which the state cannot control. That is what religion is for.

These two ideas have stuck with me for a very long time. Perhaps not unlosable, but pretty good. I shan't speculate what might fit that requirement; the only way I know to identify them is after the fact. If you could identify these ideas in advance, that Golden Age scifi conceit of truly scientific social science might become a reality.

Richard Dawkins' memes have not proven to be particularly useful as scientific concepts, but Hocking's unlosables seem to share a family resemblance to memes. In an analogous way to how genes outlast the species in which they evolved, unlosables can persist when a culture has been entirely eliminated from the Earth.  More's the pity that Dawkins never read anything by a real philosopher, it might have helped him shore up his most distinctive idea.


The Coming World Civilization
By William Ernest Hocking
Harper & Brothers, 1956
210 Pages

 

 

This book is about just one feature of the hypothetical coming world civilization: the nature of the religion that civilization will need to undergird it. The gist of the answer is that Christianity is best suited for that role, but a Christianity stripped of mythology, and reconceptualized in existential terms. The book's argument has many similarities to esoteric Tradition, but is devoid of reference to the modern esoteric writers.

William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966) chaired the philosophy department at Harvard University around 1940; Alfred North Whitehead was a colleague. This book is influenced by the Harvard pragmatists friendly to theism, William James and Josiah Royce, whose careers at Harvard ended about the time Hocking's began in 1914. However, Hocking wrote “The Coming World Civilization” when Toynbee was in flower. That was the last time, before the 1990s, when people were inclined to speculate about universal states, the role of religion in world order, and the conflicts among civilizations. Already in 1956, Hocking was trying to view the modern era as a whole, and to imagine what would come after it.

Hocking does not trouble to argue for the inevitability of a world civilization. He simply notes that, though civilizations rise and fall, they never fall below the starting point of the last rise. Civilizations create “unlosables,” technologies and ideas and ethical principles, which become part of the ever-increasing common heritage of the race. Mechanically, the world was already unified by the middle of the 20th century. The problem Hocking addresses here is that a world civilization, like any other civilization, needs something more than a common technology, or even a common politics:

“[T]he secular state by itself is not enough...just as economics can no longer consider itself a closed science, so politics can no longer consider itself a closed art – the state depends for its vitality upon a motivation which it cannot by itself command.”

Hocking's description of the limits of the competence of the state is fascinating for several reasons, not the least of which is that he takes propositions as self-evident that neoconservatives were just beginning to articulate thirty years later:

“We have taken it for granted that the state can deal with crime, as its most potent function in maintaining public order. We have believed that it can educate our young. We have assumed that while leaving economic enterprise largely to its own energies, the state can cover the failures of the system, protecting individuals from destitution, caring for the aged and the ill. We gave taken it as axiomatic that it can make just laws, and provide through a responsible legal profession for the due service to the people.

“We are discovering today, startled and incredulous, that the state by itself can do none of these things.”

One does not often come across new ethical principles for the first time, but this book states one that was new to me: only the good man can be punished. Bad men can, presumably, be deterred, and their behavior can be modified in other ways, but the disposition of the individual concerned makes a difference. Rights assume the presence of good will in the citizen. That good will can come only from a pre-political condition, which the state cannot control. That is what religion is for.

Many Traditionalists, however defined, foresee that the modern age will not last forever. Often they see it as a total loss, and they cannot wait for it to be over. Hocking, too, looks for the end of modernity at no very distant date. (The nearly 50 years since the writing of this book are still no great distance in history.) His endeavor, though, is to discern the “unlosables” that modernity has achieved, and to separate them from the characteristic faults of the era.

Modern individualism, in Hocking's estimation, is one such advance. Unfortunately, it is tinged by the malady of meaninglessness. Because of Kant and Descartes, it has a subjective base, which serves to separate the individual from any greater whole from which meaning might descend.

The problem of modern individuality is solipsism. It cannot be remedied by a retreat to pre-modern religion, not if we are to preserve the depth of modern subjectivity. (The loss of which would mean what? A world without autobiographical novels?) Rather, we must pass straight through modernity, to the other side. The key to that is the recognition that each subject has a common experience: the Thou-art relationship.

The “thou” here is not just other people, but also the experience of a world. A world is far more than a mere collection of experiences. It is coherent in the way that our experience of other people is personal. In fact, the world is personal, if not quite a person. As for the “selves” in this world, we must recognize that we know other selves in much the way we known our own thinking self: the self is a concept, never a matter of direct perception.

The experience of the Thou is the foundation of science, which is identical to the intuition of the existence of God:

“All this is wrapped up in the spontaneous impulsive summoning of one's will to think, the simplest and most general response to the presence in experience of the universal Other-mind.

“The strength and persistence of that response is seen in the corporate and historic edifice we call 'science,' a building surely not made with hands.”

The religion of the coming civilization will mend the link between the modern soul and the Absolute. At any rate, it better. Modern subjectivity and science are among the unlosables. They will become universals. The problem is that, in the West, these advances were predicated on specific motivations and a characteristic morale; the advances meant specific things, and Western civilization developed the reflexes to deal with them. These predicates are not found in other civilizations. If subjectivity and science are not incorporated into a spirituality, the result will be incalculable. That is why Christianity is most likely to play the central role in integrating the world's great faiths in the coming era: the problems of modernity are Christian problems, with which Christianity is learning to deal.

Consider, for instance, the most extreme view of 19th-century science, that the world is nothing but dead matter. Hocking calls that “the Night Vision.” He also argues that it is a great moral achievement. Western science is based on the virtues of humility and austerity: humility before the facts, and the rejection of extravagance in the making of hypotheses. Francis Bacon said: “We cannot command nature except by obeying her.” Science is the willful suppression of self-will. Only thus could the will of God be known, as manifest in the created world.

Hocking also points out that only the purposeless physical world revealed by science could morally become the object of human purpose. Opening the world to human exploitation is another real advance.

The science of Christendom naturally pushed toward autonomy, toward a system of the physical world in which God does not interfere. The tension between this science and the religion that created it haunts modern man, but it is a fruitful tension. Religion rests on a broad empiricism, which understands that the world transcends scientific questions, but which does not challenge science within its own sphere. Much of the modern malaise comes from false science, which tries to put forward metaphysical propositions about meaning and truth for which science offers no warrant.

In Western history, as the arts and sciences were freed from religion, they curbed and instructed Christianity. By removing the historical and cultural excrescences that had made Christianity specifically Western, free thought is making Christianity universal. Christianity is not going to lose its particularity, or the marks of its history. However, if it is to play a universal role, it must be purged and purified and simplified enough to represent universals to the whole world.

Christianity, Hocking assures us, is a religion of induction. This is how Jesus could say that love of God and love of neighbor are the whole of the Law and the Prophets. There are, of course, particulars of Christian ethics, which are often paralleled in other traditions: kindness to enemies; the need for rebirth; the injunctions, not just to do certain things, but also to feel in a certain way. However, this can all be summed up in the Great Induction: “He that loseth his life for my sake, the same shall save it.”

Christianity is not a sacrifice, then, but the will to create through suffering. Its moral code is inseparable from a worldview in which the most real is the all-loving.

Hocking allows for a supernatural only in the sense that not all real questions are scientific questions. Thus, the will, particularly the will to futurity, is supernatural: what the world should be like in the future is not a question science can answer. Similarly, the sense of sin is direct participation in the divine nature. This creedless experience of God is always immediate: at this deep level, there are no disciples at second hand.

Assume that the Christian movement succeeds in purifying itself to its simple essence. It would thereby cease to be specifically Western, and so more fitted for a universal role. But what would the religious system of the coming world civilization look like?

The key is that a universal system can affirm some things without necessarily rejecting everything else. Hocking assures us there is an intuitive recognition of mystic by mystic across the boundaries of the great religions. Thus, the great religions are already united at their summits. This is far from saying that every religion is essentially the same, or that one is no better than another. Indifferentism, relativism, and syncretism betray the search for truth.

The historic faiths will survive in the world civilization, but will not seek to displace each other. Rather, they will share a “reverence for reverence.” The struggle against idolatry will continue, but within each religious tradition, not between them. In much the same way, nations in the coming civilization will retain their value and historical mission. A spiritually and culturally homogenous world would be a nightmare.

* * *

Readers will have gathered that, to some extent, this book is a period piece. At least in the field of religion, I have encountered few other works that appealed so strongly to the authority of experience, while insisting so hard that experience must behave itself. Quite aside from Hocking's unconsidered dismissal of the supernatural as conventionally understood, there is something odd about his tendency to equate “mysticism” with the existentialist's intuition of Being. Agony and ecstasy, much less flaming chariots and the dread of Hell, seem to play no part in the spirituality of the world civilization. Hocking is aware of this himself. He expresses the hope that the East might add healthy fanaticism to the West's maturity. The problem is that all this rather misses what religion means to people at all levels of sophistication.

Hocking's account of Christianity as a system of inductions is fascinating, but it's not Christianity. People bother with Jesus because of the Atonement; Christian ethics is simply a radiation from that core. The ethics is not, frankly, all that interesting. In the early 21st century, a stripped-down form of Christianity does in fact bid fair to become a universal religion, but it has less to do with existentialism than with Pentecostalism.

Nonetheless, this book is full of wisdom. It gives a satisfactory, if not wholly unchallengeable, answer to the problem of solipsism. That “quiet music in the back of the mind” (I think of it as a prosaic hum) that William James described as the everyday sense of the presence of God may not be the Beatific Vision, but it is not a bad place to begin theological inquiry. There is nothing wrong with a phenomenological approach to the spiritual life. That is what John Paul II has been up to all these years.

And what about the central questions of the book? Does a world civilization require a world religion? Can this religion be unified at the top, in the sphere of religious genius, while the spiritual life of ordinary mankind continues in its colorful variety? No, not if the religion is God's doing. God doesn't start at the top. You can look it up.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Coming World Civilization
By William Ernest Hocking

The Long View: The Demoralization of Society from Victorian Times to Modern Values

This book is probably best read in productive counter-point to Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms. It is not possible to understand the modern world without understanding both genetics and moral reform. Victorian England was the product of at least 1500 years of selection that made the most prudent, hard-working, and law-abiding population on the face of the Earth. However, there is enough slack in the leash biology keeps on culture to allow an oscillation between Regency dissipation, to Victorian prudery, back to yobs, within the space of 200 years. There is no known genetic mechanism that would allow that much change in that time span, so that leaves other causes. Since I haven't completed the demonstrative regress, I cannot claim that the moral revolution of the Victorians was the exclusive cause of the change for the better in the nineteenth century. However, I can claim it to be plausible to be one of the causes.

We do have the Victorians to thank for changing caritas from love in general into alms for the poor. In their eminent practicality and domesticity, the more rarefied meaning was lost, or perhaps discarded. We probably also owe our notion of progress in the Anglosphere to the Victorians. Progressive politics as such was a late Victorian/Edwardian thing, but the ball got rolling much, much earlier than that. 

One of the big differences between the attitude of the early Victorians and anyone who self-described as a "Progressive" at the time, is how they saw the poor. The attitude of the earlier Victorians is echoed in C. S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man. In a passage describing the difference between a trendy English textbook of the day and what Lewis chose to call the Tao [Natural Law was too Romish]

If they embark on this course the difference between the old and the new education will be an important one. Where the old initiated, the new merely "conditions." The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly: the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds—making them this or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation—men transmitting manhood to men: the new is merely propaganda.

The progressive era was also the era of eugenics. Lewis was astute to notice that the attitudes of his social betters tended to see the poor as livestock. It isn't an accident that eugenics and evolutionary theory grew up together among country gentlemen who bred animals for sport.

The other aspect of decadent Victorianism that largely goes unsaid here was the occult revival. John was familiar with this, as a student of the occult. I do think I detect something of this in the last lines of John's essay, but this a topic for another time.


The Demoralization of Society From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values
by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Alfred A. Knopf,1995
ISBN 0-679-43817-3
$24.00

 

Nietzsche's Victory

 

Educated people in England and America around the year 1900 believed in social progress because they had experienced it. In England, where our statistics are best, crime and illegitimacy rates at the time Queen Victoria died in 1901 had fallen by about half from their mid-nineteenth century high. Public drunkenness became rare and alcoholism ceased to be an accepted fact of private life. Literacy became nearly universal, sanitation and diet improved at every level of society. People put great effort into staying clean, and governments built infrastructure that enormously increased the availability of water to common people. Wages nearly doubled in a generation. The entire adult male population was enfranchised. Married women gained control over their own property. All this happened while large towns became sprawling cities and severe financial panics periodically shook the economy. (The term "depression" is a later American euphemism).

This level of civilization was maintained through the first half of the twentieth century, through two world wars. Then, in the 1950s, the statistical indices of social pathology began to creep upwards. In the 1960s, they vastly accelerated. By 1990, crime rates were ten times their nineteenth century high, illegitimacy over four times. (Remember, these former highs had been reached in the most Dickensian years of the Industrial Revolution.) Additionally, in some ways the population was getting appreciably stupider and sicker. As the century neared its end, it had become fashionable to belittle the idea of progress. No wonder.

So what happened? That's the question that Gertrude Himmelfarb, Professor Emeritus of the City University of New York (and wife of neoconservative scholar Irving Kristol) tries to answer in this brief and very readable overview of social history. There is no attempt here to turn the Victorian era into paradise lost. Victorian women may not have been the silent slaves depicted in feminist mythology, but they were sufficiently dissatisfied with their lot that they collectively exerted themselves for almost a century to widen their public role. Society was riddled with class and racial prejudices that most people today would find gruesome. (Curiously, the word "imperialism" does not even appear in the index, though the book treats mostly of England in the last fifty years of the nineteenth century.) Though working people were not as poor as they used to be, they still worked appalling hours for wages not far above subsistence levels. The Victorians were even more familiar with poverty, ignorance and disease than we are. The difference is that they believed these things could be greatly mitigated. Their belief was not irrational; they really knew how to do it.

If you need an example of a society in a state of moral and social collapse, you might do worse than to study England in the second half of the eighteenth century. Cities were growing in an almost unregulated fashion as the impoverished peasantry were driven off the land. The capital was intermittently in the hands of a mob bent on revolution. Crime was so common that the hundreds of capital offenses on the books were no longer considered sufficient deterrent, so the transportation of criminals to Australia was begun. The national government was corrupt to a degree that would have embarrassed Boss Tweed. Parliament was the tool of aristocratic factions. The aristocracy itself was violent, promiscuous and ruthless. The Church of England, though blessed with a few great apologists, served mostly as a source of undemanding careers for less gifted younger sons. The country was obviously in a chaotic condition, but its rulers had no plans to put it back in order, or even any clear idea of what was wrong. Though hardly unprejudiced observers, the American Founding Fathers tended to assume that the British Empire was about to go the way of the later Roman Empire.

It was not the rulers of Britain who saved the nation, but the pious middle class. Led most famously by John Wesley and his Methodists, the English evangelicals and nonconformists (i.e., people belonging to non-Anglican protestant churches) began a program of moral reform that, within a century, had transformed society almost as much as technology had transformed the economy. It was a moral revival. Its mechanism was the dissemination of virtues in churches, in schools, and, where applicable, whenever the state met the citizenry. The revival was a long march through all the institutions of the nation. It took four generations, and it was one of the most successful social enterprises in the history of the world.

This work was not accomplished through social bureaucracies; for the most part, they did not exist until the end of the period. The Victorian era (which for many purposes began before Victoria's actual accession to the throne in 1837) was the great age of private philanthropy. Though philanthropy did involve large financial donations, to a large extent it was a hands-on affair. University graduates and professional people established and worked in settlement houses in poor neighborhoods. They taught adult education classes and provided free health care. Successful businessmen undertook surveys of health and poverty at their own expense. Using skills learned in the business world, they invented empirical social science. More to the point, they were able to craft proposals for reform that could be understood by other practical men in government.

The state helped where it could, for good or ill. The workhouse system under the Poor Laws, which in principle required unemployed able-bodied people to live in a workhouse, was leniently applied in practice. It was cheaper to support the indigent if they lived on their own. However, the system helped to stigmatize poverty, even poverty through ill-fortune. Particularly in the final decades of the century, a series of remarkably strict antipornography laws were passed. The state became concerned with discouraging abortion and contraception (some feminists supported these policies, some opposed them). The state served to promote private morality best, perhaps, through the example of the royal family. Though George III had been popular, neither George IV nor William IV had been especially well-liked, for good reason. In contrast, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, surrounded by their innumerable children, were the very picture of domestic bliss. The wealthy and powerful often led the sort of irregular lives that the wealthy and powerful sometimes do. However, they were at pains to maintain the appearance of propriety. Any history of high society from the period is replete with sham marriages and shocking discoveries found posthumously in the personal diaries of eminent Victorians renowned in life for their moral rectitude. This was not hypocrisy, in the sense that naughty Victorians were pretending to standards in which they did not believe. They did believe in them; they just were unable to live up to them. Their pious impostures, however, gave many lesser contemporaries the strength to succeed where prominent persons failed.

Lists of the "Victorian Virtues" have multiplied since that day in the 1983 when a reporter was so ill-advised as to suggest to Margaret Thatcher that her social ideals were merely Victorian. She immediately took the offensive in the cause of the Victorians, one that this review, perhaps, is continuing. The virtues the Victorians cherished were "domestic" in the general sense of personal, practical, humble. While they were consistent with the noble virtues expounded by Aristotle and the theological virtues as summarized by St. Paul or St. Thomas, they were the versions of these ideals which would appeal to people who had to work for a living. Aristotle endorsed wisdom, justice, magnanimity, temperance and courage. The Victorians, more prosaically, were interested in diligence, cleanliness, honesty, sobriety, civic pride. "Charity" ceased to mean love and came to mean the dutiful support of the deserving poor.

Victorian attitudes toward sex varied, though Ms. Himmelfarb is careful to debunk some of the extreme anecdotes on the subject as later satires. (Victorian matrons did not really put little skirts around the bottoms of their pianos to cover the legs. I, for one, am disappointed.) On the other hand, the Victorians did bowdlerize Shakespeare so that salacious passages might not offend innocent eyes. (Thomas Bowdler was the ingenious publisher who gave us this eponymous verb.) They did the same to Gibbon in order to expunge the impieties from "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." However, throughout the period, they never lost sight of the virtue of chastity itself. It was a positive good, not simply the failure to commit evil.

Victorian virtues were also domestic in the specific sense of being centered on the home and the family. "Respectability" was something that Victorians worried about, particularly the working class. It meant that husbands worked as much as they could, and then they came home and gave their paypackets to their wives, who might then give them some spending money. It meant that the mothers of large families kept her children clean and sent them to school. In a world without washing machines or food that could be stored for more than a few days, this was no small proposition. Perhaps a quarter of Victorian women worked for wages, either at home or in commercial settings. This was "respectable" because it was necessary, but it was not regarded as a good in itself. Women of the professional and upper classes often had what amounted to demanding careers, but these were likely to be volunteer positions in charitable or social service enterprises.

I suspect that Ms. Himmelfarb underestimates the rates of marital breakup and illegitimacy before the nineteenth century and into its first half. She argues, on the basis of selected statistics from parish registers, they such things were rare going back to Tudor times. As Paul Johnson's "The Birth of the Modern" explains, "marriage" in the early years of the century was still a surprisingly slippery notion. Only marriages before a Anglican clergyman were automatically valid. People married in a Baptist chapel might not bother with a license. There was also the ancient and amiable institution of the "common law" marriage. (In common law marriages, the state usually takes no notice of the arrangement until one partner dies and the other claims the departed's property.) There were also popular customs, a sort of common law divorce, for ending these unions. The most picturesque of these was the public "wife sale." (The portrayal in Thomas Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge" is misleading, since these performances were not open auctions.) A full legal divorce in England literally took an act of parliament, but some large percentage of the married population was not "married" in way of which the law took cognizance. The regularization of marriage and divorce laws in England must therefore be included among the century's reforms. It was made easier to get married, and control over marital disputes was removed from the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts. Popular behavior gradually conformed to the law. The early Victorians, particularly the common people, were rather lax about these matters. The latter ones were not, and divorce was rare.

The Victorians did not exactly invent childhood, but they made it a special stage of life. They created the peculiar culture of children, the literature and the clothes and the toy industry. It was Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic who gave us Christmas trees and "The Night Before Christmas." Maybe more important, they gave us universal compulsory education and the first restrictions on child labor. School became the career of Victorian children, in principle of the children of all ranks. When marriage laws were amended, one of the principle goals was the protection and support of children. Producing children and raising them were unambiguously the chief priorities of both sexes and of all classes. Only at the very end of the period did serious people begin to suggest that maybe career or eugenic factors should play a role in these matters.

Nietzsche did not cause the end of the Victorian era. He was early read and appreciated by people like Shaw, of course, but the fin de siecle had interests other than the German philosopher's aesthetic nihilism. However, he understood what was happening, and what was going to happen, better than anyone else. God had died for a growing fraction of the intellectual class of the West sometime in the middle of the 19th century. Without a theological grounding, he realized, virtues would become "values," social conventions that could be debated and modified as convenience suggested. Nietzsche had only contempt for his contemporaries' comfortable assumption that society would go on much as it had, except that people would no longer go to church. The moral system of Western civilization is founded on Judaism and Christianity. Once this foundation was removed, the superstructure would start to crumble. Although it was not until the 1960s that the effects would be felt on a popular level in the English-speaking world, the moral imagination of the West was becoming visibly unhinged in Nietzsche's lifetime.

The moral revival had succeeded because it was not original. The working classes and the rural poor did not have a system of morality different from that of the reforming middle class. The virtues the reformers sought to encourage were principles that just about everyone acknowledged. There were rare exceptions, such as the Poor Laws turning poverty into a near crime, that could be characterized as social engineering. Even in those cases, however, the state cannot be accused of trying to make up a virtue out of whole cloth. In the second half of the century, in contrast, that is precisely what the increasingly secular intellectual class tried to do. The aesthetes, for instance, tried to develop an ethics of art-for-art's-sake. While the actual art produced by the self-conscious "decadents" of the end of the century is an acquired taste, it was in fact during this period that art became a substitute for religion for many people. Other late Victorian reformers began to promote more intrusive measures to improve public health or fix the economy. Even when some of these measures were plausible ideas, like the total prohibition of alcohol, they were not to most people self-evident moral principles. The new reformers, however, continued to press them with the self-assurance of their pre-Darwinian forebears. They became moralists who had forgotten what morality looked like.

This era also saw the appearance of eugenics, originally one of the enthusiasms of the Fabian socialists. Earlier Victorian social reformers had looked out on the drunken and dirty laboring classes and seen fellow creatures who needed to be lifted from their deplorable state. The term "patronizing" does not quite do justice to this attitude, but at least it was an attitude of one human being regarding another. The Fabians, on the other hand, such as G. B. Shaw and Beatrice Webb, began to regard their countrymen as cattle in need of an intelligent breeding program. The attitude did not change even when their interest in eugenics wavered; thirty years later these people were also enthusiastic supporters for totalitarian experiments on the continent. Shaw and the Webbs (Beatrice and her co-author husband Sidney) were conspicuous for their support of the Soviet Union during the worst phases of Stalin's regime. (Shaw, by the way, was not as ignorant of what was happening in the Soviet Union as he pretended in public.)

The problem with these opinion-maker enthusiasms is not that they are necessarily wicked, though many of them are. The problem is that they are constructs, something that someone made up. They cannot form the basis of a social consensus, because they are alien to all but their makers. Even when, as in totalitarian societies, they can be imposed by the police, the police themselves are likely to lose interest in them after a while. What happened in the twentieth century was that the opinion-makers continued the cottage industry of value-making which the decadent Victorians had founded. They busied themselves concocting what were, in effect, exotic poisons in the arts and politics and the principles of personal relations. For the first half of the twentieth century, the major institutions of society continued along the vector which the Victorian moral revival had imparted. Teachers knew how to teach, the police knew how to keep the streets safe. For that matter, the Post Office knew how to deliver the mail. However, these funds of institutional wisdom were scarcely inexhaustible. By the middle of the twentieth century, it was obvious that some novel thinking was needed about everything from race relations to the control of industrial pollution. So society applied to the opinion-makers for guidance. And the injection of the poisons began.

Today, we live in a time that bears comparison to the eighteenth century. We have a fatuously self-confident upper class, the New Class of information manipulators, who have forgotten the moral law. We have an increasingly feral underclass who have never heard of it. We also have a very lively sense that something is radically wrong. Many people these days look to the Victorian moral revival as a model for us to follow. If the Victorians were able to reconstruct their society, surely we can engineer a revival of our own?

What happened once can happen again, and certainly not all the cultural indices are falling these days. However, we have to remember that the Victorian moral revival was a side-effect of a popular religious movement. Though the political and economic powers of the time frequently manipulated it, they did not originate it or control it. How could they? No one could have conceived where it would lead. The problem with what many people believe to be the incipient moral revival of America is that we are still playing by Nietzsche's rules. We continue to talk about establishing values, not discovering virtues. To every secularist's considerable surprise, religion is back in politics to a degree not seen for a hundred years, but there is something artificial about the phenomenon. The Methodist revival began as a movement for personal reform that only later developed political significance. (The Labor Party, Ms. Himmelfarb notes, was practically born in a nonconformist chapel.) Today, however, one may be forgiven for suspecting that much of the new-found piety of American conservatives is a political tactic to coopt evangelical and conservative Catholic votes. Secular conservatives seem to think that they can conjure up God to be their familiar spirit and serve their interests. They may well succeed in conjuring up something, but maybe not exactly what they expect.

End

This article originally appeared in the July/August 1995 issue of Culture Wars magazine. 

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Glass Bead Game

I don't think this counts as a prediction, but there is an interesting parallel to subsequent events. John says:

“The Glass Bead Game” is about the education and career of one Joseph Knecht, whose surname means “serf” or “servant.” He rises through the elite schools of his society to the pinnacle of intellectual life, the position of Magister Ludi, the Master of the Game. Though Knecht's career as a scholar and a diplomat owes something to his native charisma, his life is the tale of how he masters and perfectly embodies the traditional role for which he has been trained. Then, having reached the summit, he walks away from the whole structure, making a resignation rather more shocking than a papal abdication would be. Hesse tries to show that this withdrawal was not a rejection of Knecht's upbringing, but its fulfillment.

After Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, John said that Pope Benedict is exactly the kind of man who would enjoy playing the Glass Bead Game. As it turns out, he is also exactly the kind of man who enjoys resigning from the Glass Bead Game.


Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game

By Hermann Hesse

German Original “Das Glasperlenspiel” (1943)

English Translation by Richard and Clara Winston (1969)

520 Pages; Approximately US$18.00

ISBN: 080501246X

Editions are available from Henry Holt and Bantam.

This book earned Hermann Hesse his Nobel Prize for literature in 1946. World War II had just ended then, so the novel's depiction of a debellicized future for Europe no doubt had special appeal in the German-speaking world. “The Glass Bead Game” is not an arbitrary Utopia, however. (The renderings of the title for some editions are arbitrary, unfortunately; sometimes it's “Magister Ludi” or the English equivalent, “The Master of the Game.”) What we have here is an example of speculative fiction that applies a humane gloss to the model of history in Oswald Spengler's “Decline of the West.” The result belongs to that small set of speculative futures that are both surprising and plausible.

Hermann Hesse was born in Germany, in 1877, where he achieved early success as a journalist and novelist. During the First World War he was an example of that modern conundrum, the pacifist activist. His career took off in 1919, when he published “Demian” and moved permanently to Switzerland. At his death in 1962, he was thought of as an esoteric and even somewhat obscure writer. Immediately afterward, however, his books gained wide popularity as guides to the path of spiritual enlightenment.

Because of the assimilation of his work by the Counter Culture of the 1960s, Hesse is often remembered, whether fairly or not, as the novelist of the truculent intellectual adolescent. This reputation is reflected in the four novels for which he became best known in the English-speaking world: “The Glass Bead Game,” “Siddhartha,” “Demian,” and “Steppenwolf.” The first three are Bildungsromane: novels about education and growing up. In all three, the protagonists eventually transcend cultural norms. The fourth is about a midlife crisis, but “Steppenwolf” deals, on the surface at least, with sex, drugs and rock-and-roll (well, with jazz; it was published in 1927). Perhaps for that reason, it has often served as the smart teenager's answer to “The Catcher in the Rye.”

The Counter Culture has long since become the middle-aged establishment, but Hesse's books still renew their readership. For one thing, they are informed by a Jungian interpretation of Chinese and Indian mysticism, features which are all perennial favorites for several audiences. Hesse's Spenglerian view of history fell out of fashion after the middle 20th century, but that does not seem to have hindered the reception of his books. Quite the opposite, in fact: without familiarity with Spengler, “The Glass Bead Game” in particular seems even more original and mysterious. I might also mention that Hesse's German is very accessible, and it translates well into English.

The text does not say just when the story takes place. However, Hesse let it be known that the principal narrator is supposed to be writing around the beginning of the 25th century, about a person who had lived long enough ago for legends about him to spring up. The action, then, is probably in the early 2300s. We learn pieces of the historical background, which we will discuss below, but part of the book's purpose is to depict an era that is anti-historical, or post-historical. Indeed, the book is largely devoid of the sort of things that novels set in the future often emphasize. We are told there are radios, telephones, ground cars, and trains: so much for technology. It is clear that a “Century of Wars” lies in the past, but the usual term for what we call modernity is the Age of the Feuilleton, of trivial and occasional literature. There are different states, or at any rate countries, which have parallel cultural and educational institutions. We learn almost nothing about the state of the world, except that Europe is extremely peaceful and has been so for longer than living memory.

“The Glass Bead Game” is about the education and career of one Joseph Knecht, whose surname means “serf” or “servant.” He rises through the elite schools of his society to the pinnacle of intellectual life, the position of Magister Ludi, the Master of the Game. Though Knecht's career as a scholar and a diplomat owes something to his native charisma, his life is the tale of how he masters and perfectly embodies the traditional role for which he has been trained. Then, having reached the summit, he walks away from the whole structure, making a resignation rather more shocking than a papal abdication would be. Hesse tries to show that this withdrawal was not a rejection of Knecht's upbringing, but its fulfillment.

All this is expounded through long talks and little incident (there is one stinging memorandum). At school, Knecht is assigned to defend the educational system against a schoolmate named Plinio Designori (there are many Italian names in this book) who later facilitates his departure from his exalted status. Knecht receives precocious promotions. Knecht's mentor turns out to be a saint. Aside from Knecht's resignation, the most dramatic episode is a long stay in a Benedictine monastery. There Knecht is instructed in the neglected subject of world history by wise old Father Jacobus, whom critics say is supposed to represent the great Swiss historian, Jacob Burkhardt. (The most annoying character is a neurasthenic named Tegularius, who represents Friedrich Nietzsche.) There is just one, very minor, female character: Designori's wife. Knecht dies of heart failure on his first day as tutor to Designori's son, thereby giving the sulky good-for-nothing something to live up to. The conversations are really interesting.

One should note that the life of Joseph Knecht in “The Glass Bead Game” was planned as just one of a number of lives of the same man; Hesse had at first envisioned an anthology of incarnations, from the prehistoric past to the distant future. In the course of composition, however, the bulk of the book became a hagiography of the famous and infamous Magister Ludi. Just three other incarnations survive as appended stories, supposedly as examples of the school exercises the students of Knecht's time are assigned to develop the historical imagination. They deal with the life of an ancient shaman, a Desert Father, and a hard-luck Indian raja.

Hesse renders the Glass Bead Game of the title absolutely believable by not describing it in detail. We are never told just what a match consists of. Some early prototype of the Game used actual glass beads. The great annual Game matches are followed as closely and widely as international soccer (the latter isn't mentioned in the book, by the way). Those matches use some unspecified projection equipment. Calligraphy enters into it. So does music. On the other hand, people can and do play by themselves.

The Game seems to be about spotting and extending homologies in the phenomena of nature and in cultural history. The notes of a musical scale, for instance, can conform to the arrangement of the elements in the Periodic Table, or the growth pattern of a plant can conform to the expansion and leveling off of an animal population. Organic growth in general can be shown to have something in common with the efflorescence and exhaustion of an artistic style. Aquinas called these commonalities “intelligible elements”; Leibnitz actually tried to create a numerical language that could express them and even generate them. Hesse posits that some such project eventually succeeds and becomes institutionalized. The Game players seek to express all the phenomena of history and science in the Game language. An international authority oversees additions to the form and subject matter.

All in all, the Game sounds like a competitive jazz of literary and scientific allusions. It serves as an outlet among the finest minds for the creativity that in prior eras would have found expression in art. It is more than a mere trial of mental dexterity, however, because it contains a strong component of meditation. Indeed, many people pursue it as a path to spiritual enlightenment, as a way to perceive Being behind the shimmering veil of thought. The Game simply makes the veil visible, however; it is no business of the Game to suggest what may lie behind the veil.

The hints we get about the Game make it sound more than a little like the “I Qing,” the famous Chinese book of divination. However, Hesse goes out of his way to dispel any implication that they might be equivalent. One Sinicizing teacher of Knecht says this to his suggestion that a Game might be based on the “I Qing”:

“Anyone can create a pretty little bamboo garden in the world. But I doubt the gardener would succeed in incorporating the world into his grove.”

As Magister Ludi, Joseph Knecht presides over the Game center at Waldzell, which is located in an unnamed German-speaking country. The Magister Ludi is just one of the dozen Magisters of the national Board of Educators, however. There is also a “Magister Mathematicae,” for instance, and a “Magister Musicae,” and so on. The primary duty of the Magisters is to oversee the teaching of their subjects in the elite schools. The Magisters as a group oversee Castalia, the “province” (it is never clear to what extent the characterization is geographical or administrative) of all disciplines.

The students in the system of elite schools, all boys, are recruited as children. They normally serve as teachers, researchers or Game players for life. The Order to which they belong, in fact, holds them to a life of comfortable poverty and bachelorhood; to judge by this book, that also means celibacy after their student years. The people call them “Mandarins,” with some reason. Unlike the Mandarins of traditional China, however, their power does not extend beyond pedagogy.

There are also ordinary schools, up through the university level, which prepare their students for the practical professions. Castalia provides many of the teachers for the public system, but the Magisters do not control it. Castalia is wholly dependent on public funding. The Magisters even spend a fair amount of time lobbying.

It is a measure of the distance that the West has traveled by the Age of Castalia that the 20th century idea of biography has become a historical curiosity. The narrator of Knecht's life puts it this way:

“[F]or the writers of those days who had a distinct taste for biography, the essence of a personality seems to have been deviance…We moderns, on the other hand, do not even speak of major personalities until we encounter men who have gone beyond all original and idiosyncratic qualities to achieve the greatest possible integration into the generalities.”

In the age of Castalia, the West has again become a Traditional society, in the special sense of “tradition” coined by René Guénon. Though he does not say this, Hesse seems to have tried to map out a trajectory for the West like that of China after the Sung Dynasty. After several centuries of dramatic growth, chaos, and experimentation, Chinese culture turned toward consolidation under the banner of Neo-Confucianism. Like the Glass Bead Game, that philosophy is as comprehensive as it is final. However, Hesse is at pains to emphasize that a comparable transition in the West need not produce an alien world, much less the fascist outcome that some followers of Tradition favor. In the Age of Castalia, there are still political parties, elections, and newspapers. Nonetheless, the creativity of the modern era is over, as well as its violence and instability.

The Age of Castalia understands the prior thousand years in this way. Two trends had been in play since the end of the Middle Ages. One was the liberation of thought from authority, particularly from the Church of Rome. The other was the “covert but passionate search” for legitimacy for this freedom, for a new and sufficient authority arising from reason itself. The result was disaster, followed by recovery:

“[T]hey were already on the verge of that dreadful devaluation of the Word which produced, at first in secret and within the narrowest circles, that ascetically heroic countermovement which soon afterward began to flow visibly and powerfully, and ushered in the new self-discipline and dignity of the human intellect.”

The reformation of the life of the mind began, clandestinely at first, even in the 20th century. This was done under the impetus of musicologists and of the loosely organized religious movement called the Journeyers to the East (a reference to Hesse's novel of similar name, published in 1932).

After the crisis of civilization, intellectual life became monastic. People understood that their culture was no longer creative, but they also understood that there were still worthy goals to pursue. There was still the work of pious preservation, of systematization and sympathetic critique. The liberal arts began to aspire to the rigor of engineering. The Glass Bead Game was just part of a general turn toward synthesis.

By Knecht's time, no one is much impressed by Enlightenment philosophy anymore. Kant is little known, while the High Scholastics are part of the regular curriculum. On the other hand, everyone is familiar with the music of the 18th century. That's the only reason they think the 18th century is important. As Spengler predicted, the controversies of the modern era have become literally incomprehensible. A Castalian refers to a long-defunct economist sect, for instance, that is probably supposed to be Marxism, but it's hard to tell; the ideology is just too alien to mean anything to him.

Knecht's society is by no means a theocracy, but neither is it secular in the modern sense. This is, no doubt, a nod to another of Spengler's prophecies: the “Second Religiousness.” The Vatican, based on its moral authority, is again a force in culture and in world politics. (Knecht spends that time at the monastery to help Castalia negotiate an agreement to send an ambassador to the Holy See.) Protestantism has died out. However, historians within the Church remember Protestantism rather fondly. As Father Jacobus puts it: “They were unable to preserve religion and the Church, but at times they displayed a great deal of courage and produced some exemplary men.”

One might think that all this hierarchy and authority would provoke a backlash, but no. The elite schools and the hierarchy of Castalia are tolerable precisely because society is not going anyplace. The qualities of a great musician, for instance, are said to be “enthusiasm, subordination, reverence, worshipful service.” Maybe only superior people have those qualities, but their superiority does not include the sort of genius that demands attention for its novelty. The Magisters do not conceive avant-garde ideas and expect people to follow. The hierarchy is the embodiment of a consensus by which the hierarchs themselves are the most strictly bound.

However, though history may have ended, time has not stopped. In preparation for his resignation, Knecht warns the other Magisters, “The world is once again about to shift its center of gravity.” Ominous but unnamed developments in the Orient threaten not just peace, but life and liberty. Serious rearmament could be just a generation or two away. When that happens, Castalia may seem an over-expensive luxury, unless its spirit can be communicated to society as a whole.

The Order is not impressed:

“In the view of the majority, the calm that descended upon our Continent must be ascribed partly to the general prostration following the bloodlettings of the terrible wars, but far more to the fact that the Occident has ceased to be the focal point of world history in which claims to hegemony are fought out.”

Oddly for men who must convince their government every year of the indispensability of their institution, the Magisters also have little patience with Knecht's argument that the calm and sanity of Castalia has itself been a force for peace. Instead, the Magisters reply that Castalia, and indeed the life of the mind, are not historical factors:

“Rather, culture or mind, or soul, has its own independent history – a second, bloodless, and sanctified history – running parallel to what is generally called history.”

Knecht does not resign as Magister in order to sell war bonds. The short explanation for his departure from Castalia is that he had exhausted his own capabilities. There was nothing left for him but the “eternal recurrence” of routine. More important, though, was the characteristic way in which he fulfilled his destiny as a servant. Like St. Christopher, he possessed “a self-reliance which by no means debarred him or hampered him serving, but demanded of him that he serve the highest master.” Because of his introduction to history, he understands that the Glass Bead Game is not the final truth. The Game, too, will prove to be ephemeral:

“Yes, Castalia and the Glass Bead Game are wonderful things; they come close to being perfect. Only perhaps they are too much so, too beautiful. They are so beautiful that one can scarcely contemplate them without fearing for them.”

“The Glass Bead Game” is the story of the progressive “awakenings” in Knecht's life. He comes to realize that these gates through which he passes do not lead to any inner sanctum. Rather, they are awakenings to the reality of each new situation. The same can be said for the progress of the spirit in history. The lack of linearity, however, does not imply a lack of exigency:

“In history, too, moments of tribulation or great upheavals have their element of convincing necessity; they create a sense of irresistible immediacy and tension. Whatever the consequence of such upheavals, be it beauty and clarity or savagery and darkness, whatever happens will bear the semblance of grandeur, necessity and importance and will stand out as utterly different from everyday events.”

In some ways, “The Glass Bead Game” represents the road that Spengler did not take. At one point in the 1920s, Spengler replied to the charge that “The Decline of the West” advocated nothing but pessimism and despair with the assertion he could fittingly have called the book “The Fulfillment of the West” or the “Perfection of the West.” His thesis, after all, was that the West may have exhausted its creative potential, but that modernity was the age in which it would fashion the final forms of Western Civilization in art, science, politics and religion. His model of history was quite consistent with a future that was humane, peaceful, and orderly. Sadly, he was distracted from pursuing this insight by Nietzsche's nihilism and the sour politics of the Conservative Revolution. More and more, he foresaw a Faustian future of disaster and tyranny.

In “The Glass Bead Game,” however, Hesse took the hint. The most intriguing story in the book deals with the final stage in the life of Knecht's old mentor, the Magister Musicae:

“He certainly does not seem to me to be close to his life's end, but his way of taking leave of the world is unique…[I]t is as if he has been on his way elsewhere for some time, and no longer lives entirely among us…
[H]is cheerfulness, his curious radiance…While his strength is diminishing, that serene cheerfulness is constantly increasing.”

Many legends later grew up about the Transfiguration of the Magister Musicae, we are told. The interesting point is that the episode seems to relate Spengler's prediction of the Second Religiousness to the palpable aura of eternity said to surround some living saints. Knecht remarks:

“Even though whole peoples and languages have attempted to fathom the depths of the universe in myths, cosmologies, and religions, their supreme, their ultimate attainment has been this cheerfulness.”

The old Magister, however, was not just any kind of saint, but a specifically Castalian saint. The sanctity he manifested was intrinsic to the Game, which is the final form of the spirit of the West:

“With us scholarship, which is the cult of truth, is chiefly allied also with the cult of the beautiful, and also with the practice of spiritual refreshment by meditation. Consequently it can never entirely lose its supreme cheerfulness.”

Good Spenglerians (among whom we must number Spengler himself) tend to imagine the final stage in the life of the West as a heroic last stand, perhaps lasting centuries but ending in defeat. Evil Spenglerians, not a trivial class, hope for conquest and domination. Hesse's book hints at the possibility that the same insights into historical morphology might be put to quite a different use. Is the world ready for holy Spenglerians? Maybe someday.

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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