This is the modern world: “What’s Left?” September 2020

SFMOMA. Photo by Henrik Kam

I’m old.

I’m 68 years old. My dad died of a heart attack at 67 on December 16, 1993, not quite two months after his wife—my mom—died of lung cancer at 64. I look at this two ways. He lived just one month and two days after his 67th birthday. As of today I’ve lived a year plus two months and change longer than he did when he died almost 27 years ago. I’m now 13+ months past my own 67th birthday. So I’m feeling reassured.

I’m also considered old Left by “the kids” these days. That’s despite having developed my politics during the period of the New Left—the time of SDS, the New Communist Movement, a resurgent rank-and-file labor movement, and a revived anarchism. Which is doubly ironic because we in the New Left called the Left of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s—the Stalinist CP-USA and its loyal opposition the Trotskyist SWP—the Old Left. Frankly, I’m darned uncomfortable with and a bit distrustful of the current youthful Left based not on class but on non-class identities embraced by the “new” populist postmodernism. So I’m pissed off that I’m now considered a sad old Leftist anachronism.

Finally, I feel old in a metaphysical sense. To understand this, let’s start with a curious pair of books: Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904) and The Education of Henry Adams (1907), both written by Henry Adams. My parents had a two-volume Time Life “great books” series paperback edition of The Education of Henry Adams that I discovered in their library one rainy weekend and read in one sitting. Editions of Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres were harder to come by, but I discovered a Doubleday Anchor paperback in a used book store years later to round out my own education of Henry Adams.

Henry Adams

Henry Brooks Adams (1838-1918) was the scion of Boston brahmins, member of the famous Adams family which included the 2nd and 6th US presidents, and an American historian who produced a nine volume study of Jefferson’s and Madison’s presidential administrations. He was also a man of letters, writing two novels to boot, whose life straddled the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. He was obsessed with the erosion of faith by science, convinced that a world of order and unity was disintegrating into chaos around him. Adams distilled the history of western civilization down to the metaphor of the Virgin and the dynamo in these two books. His first book, subtitled A Study in 13th Century Unity, was a historical and philosophical meditation on the 12th century Norman construction of the Mont-Saint-Michel cathedral and the 13th century cult of the Virgin at Chartres. For Adams, Europe in the century from 1150 to 1250 was “the point in history when man held the highest idea of himself as a unit in a unified universe.”

That old order, the Ancien régime, the Europe of the Middle Ages was manorialism and feudalism, chivalry and serfdom, the Holy Roman Empire and the Crusades; of nobility, clergy and peasantry unified in Christian holy war against infidel Islam according to Adams. He admired the infusion of religious ideals throughout European economic, political and military institutions in this age when philosophy, theology and the arts were all informed by faith. In Mont-Saint-Michel he symbolized this organic unity of reason and intuition, science and religion in the statue of the Virgin Mary in Chartres cathedral. In turn he saw in the scholasticism of St. Thomas Aquinas, with its emphasis on human reason, the beginning of the destruction of this coherent, totalizing world view.

For Adams, the humanism of the Renaissance, the individual faith of the Reformation, the universal reason of the Enlightenment, the liberté, égalité, fraternité and démocratie of the French revolution, the modern era’s nation-states and national capitalist economies all furthered the disintegration of this organic unity, replacing the singularity of faith with the fragmenting logic of science. In The Education, Adams described this historical transition as “evolving the universe from a thought” to “evolving thought from the universe.” The movement from religious spiritualism to scientific materialism produced “Multiplicity, Diversity, Complexity, Anarchy, Chaos,” with no way to prevent the proliferation of conflicting, contradictory thoughts from scientific observation of the universe. Adams symbolized this atomizing scientific world view in the mechanistic force of the dynamo he saw at the 1900 Great Exposition in Paris. He subtitled his two volume philosophical and autobiographical reflection on the woeful inadequacy of his “education” for the modern world A Study of 20th Century Multiplicity.

Friedrich Nietzsche

When the Virgin was central, man was at his pinnacle of unity with the universe. Yet when the dynamo of human achievement replaced faith, man was eventually subordinated to mere mechanical forces. The primary paradox embodied in Adams’ Virgin/dynamo metaphor has been described by others in different ways. Friedrich Nietzsche decried the “collective degeneration of man” into the “perfect herd animal” of our democratic era when, under corrupt “modern ideas,” human beings behave “too humanely.” He maintained in Beyond Good and Evil that: “[e]very elevation of the type ‘man’ has hitherto been the work of an aristocratic society—and so it will always be: a society which believes in a long scale of rank and differences of worth between man and man and needs slavery in some sense or other.” In his Revolt Against the Modern World, Julius Evola praised Medieval Europe for “its objectivity, its virile spirit, its hierarchical structure, its proud antihumanistic simplicity so often permeated by the sense of the sacred” which made man heroic. When the humanism of the Renaissance supposedly “emancipated itself from the ‘darkness of the Middle Ages’ […] [c]ivilization, even as an ideal, ceased to have a unitary axis.” Degeneration and decadence inevitably followed, marked by “restlessness, dissatisfaction, resentment, the need to go further and faster, and the inability to possess one’s life in simplicity, independence, and balance” in which man was “made more and more insufficient to himself and powerless.”

So I understand it. I get the lure of traditionalism in its organic, anti-individualist, communalist aspects, even though I’m firmly rooted in modernity, a contented child of the modern world. Which is why I’m leery of postmodernism. I’m appalled by the collapse of Leftist class politics to identitarianism and populism. I hoped that the nation-state would be transcended by a stateless, classless, global human community, not disintegrate into ultraviolent tribalism. I’m an abject atheist now terrified that the world’s religions are splintering between ultra-orthodoxy and neopagan revival. And I’m horrified that, throughout all of this, capitalism will still prevail.

On the one hand, I think that “things fall apart; the center cannot hold” once the orthodoxy of a tradition is rejected. I see this in the history of the Catholic faith I rejected, and in the Marxist faith I’ve acquired that Doris Lessing has argued “could not prevent itself from dividing and subdividing, like all the other religions, into smaller and smaller chapels, sects and creeds.” On the other hand, I think that capitalism has a totalizing, globalizing impulse that is built on cycles, each of which engenders a Leftist reaction that attempts to supersede capitalism. The Left that arose out of industrial capitalism nearly succeeded in smashing that system. I don’t see the same potential arising out of the postmodern Left.

Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson

There is little scholarly disagreement that Friedrich Nietzsche is at the heart of postmodernism in centering an “incredulity toward metanarratives.” I consider the revival of this “radical conservative” and “aristocratic individualist” philosopher—much admired by Fascists—to be generally troublesome for a postmodernism that claims to be Leftist. Postmodernism becomes highly problematic when it attempts to rehabilitate philosophers like Martin Heidegger who enthusiastically if opportunistically joined the Nazi party, only to think better of his decision later. Thus far we have an intentionally fragmentary, pluralist, vaguely leftist populism. Once we reinstate overt Nazis like Carl Schmitt and recruit parafascist Traditionalists like Julius Evola, we arrive at the European Nouvelle Droite of Alain de Benoist. He championed a Traditionalist identitarian “Europe of a thousand flags” comprised of separate tribal ethnies. This is rightwing populism pure and simple.

“I believe that the emergence of postmodernism is closely related to the emergence of this new moment of late, consumer or multinational capitalism,” writes Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. “I believe also that its formal features in many ways express the deeper logic of that particular social system. I will only be able, however, to show this for one major theme: namely the disappearance of a sense of history, the way in which our entire contemporary social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past, has begun to live in a perpetual present and in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions of the kind which all earlier social formations have had in one way or another to preserve.”

I’m not just old, I’m crotchety. Postmodernism obliterates not just tradition, but history. I am, and we are, nothing without history.

Fred Jameson, portrait by Mark Staff Brandl

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and The Education of Henry Adams (2 volumes) by Henry Adams
Revolt Against the Modern World by Julius Evola
Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism by Fredric Jameson
Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique by Alex Callinicos
The Illusions of Postmodernism by Terry Eagleton
The Sokal Hoax ed. by editors of Lingua Franca
Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont
The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism ed. by Stuart Sim
The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism by Richard Wolin

 

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To praise the modern world: “What’s Left?” October 2010, MRR #329

I enjoy the modern world.

I like brewing a cup of pu-erh tea, an aged, bricked leaf imported from China. I like catching up on current events by reading my Weekly Guardian or Christian Science Monitor in the comfort of my soft bed. I like typing these words on this cool 14-inch Titanium MacBook Pro, even though it’s nearly three years old.

This is all very civilized, and I’m a big fan of civilization, modernity, science, and all that. Call me a booster for modernism, I don’t mind. I’ve got my criticisms of Marxism, but I’m a Marxist insofar as I assert the importance of a concept of totality, and of the possibility for a theory of everything. I like to point out that postmodernism’s ongoing debate with modernism is occurring in the modern world, in a world of rampant capitalism, enshrined science, and mass culture. Whether or not there are any more “grand narratives” is rather incidental to this basic reality.

Equally inconsequential, for different reasons, is primitivism’s carny hokum. Sure, there are a half dozen ways in which modern civilization is teetering on the brink of collapse. The popularity of post-apocalyptic fantasies and survivalist/prepper milieus speak to these ubiquitous fears. The idyllic hunter-gatherer societies touted by primitivists is utopia in the literal sense of that word however. That is, no place. Nowhere, and not possible. Because this fantasy is consistently envisioned and proposed despite the inescapable fact that civilization’s collapse would produce suffering, brutality and slaughter beyond measure, my guess is that some type of delusional disorder is involved, at the very least. Actually, I’ve always suspected that the great human die-off is a secret primitivist wet dream, born of their profound misanthropy.

The anti-civilization critique offered up by certain ultraleftists, brought to the fore by the Invisible Committee’s incorporation of recent French intellectual currents, is much more nuanced. This critique accentuates the capitalist production of human alienation, and highlights the bonds of human community, friendship, and love destroyed by modern civilization. I clearly sympathize with, and take much from this assessment. But since the solution to civilization and its discontents is dependent on the equally unlikely prospect of international communist revolution, or as “The Coming Insurrection” would have it permanent insurrection, we are again left with a critique without teeth.

The challenge to modernity and the modern world that I take seriously is what I will broadly call anti-modernism. Anti-modernism is going to take a little while to unpack, so be patient. Let’s begin with how I encountered this anti-modernist perspective personally.

I was a sputnik kid, a child reared after the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite into earth orbit and the US went apeshit tracking youngsters into math and science so that we could beat the Reds in the space race. I was encouraged to be a nerd, before the word existed. I wasn’t big on math, but I did love science. I was twelve, in seventh grade at Barton Elementary in San Bernardino, California, and I did a science project for the school fair that wound up at the county-wide mega science fair, held at the Orange Show Fairgrounds.

Aside from elementary, junior and senior high schools, the US military, various companies, and the occasional individual had booths at the Fairgrounds. Not all of the exhibitors were strictly science-oriented either, with some definitely crossing the line into pseudoscience. I recall a rather dramatic stand with a working Tesla Coil spitting out miniature lightning bolts, alongside diagrams purporting to illustrate perpetual motion machines. The sponsors of the booth were into exposing the vast conspiracy to suppress Nikola Tesla’s supposed discovery of limitless wireless power, and they had an interest in virtually everything occult. I scrounged together all my change to purchase a rather shoddily mimeographed, stapled book entitled The Hollow Earth: The Greatest Discovery in History by Dr. Raymond Bernard, AB, MA, PhD, from their booth. That bizarre, smudged volume was my introduction to a lunatic fringe that, thanks to the internet, has become all too commonplace.

Occult, metaphysical, esoteric, paranormal, psychic, supernatural; these terms cover an immense and extremely nebulous territory. To give the subject some coherence, I’ll stick to my very narrow thread of fascination during those years.

My dad worked in civil service connected with the US military, and due to military base downsizings, he moved the family to Layton, Utah, where I spent nine miserable months when I was thirteen. The Hallow Earth became a secret obsession of mine in the Mormon wasteland. The book’s thesis was that the earth was hollow and possessed of a central sun, that access to the earth’s interior could be gained through holes in the north and south poles, and that this hidden world was inhabited by a superior race of technologically advanced beings who were responsible for UFOs. In the process of hacking out these themes, the book also touched on the legendary lost continents and civilizations of Atlantis and Lemuria, the mysterious, unitary knowledge allegedly possessed by all ancient human civilizations, and the vast network of tunnels, caverns and underground cities rumored to exist between the outer surface and the inner world. Bernard’s The Hallow Earth claimed to weave these disparate ideas into a coherent whole, and even though I was a hardcore science geek, I was captivated by the audacity and quasi-scientific nature of the book’s assertions. I was also a fan of science fiction, and this was like science fiction that professed to be real, yet couldn’t quite be proven false.

Dad got us out of the Mormon hellhole as quickly as possible, and by fourteen, I was a student at Balboa Junior High in Ventura, California. Now, Ventura is near Ojai. Ojai is home to the Krotona Institute, established by the Theosophical Society, which was founded by Madame H.P. Blavatsky who was mentioned in passing several times by Bernard in The Hollow Earth. Theosophy is a wacky set of ideas, based on the teachings of Blavatsky, who believed in Atlantis and Lemuria, and who claimed to have discovered a secret, universal esoteric core of wisdom to all of humanity’s major and minor religions. In turn, Theosophy styles itself a synthesis of religion, philosophy, science and metaphysics. Theosophy was mystical, New Agey horseshit before mystical, New Agey horseshit existed. Thanks to very tolerant parents, I attended a number of lectures by prominent Theosophist J. Krishnamurti at Krotona. There I encountered a wizened old codger named Albert who took me aside after one of Krishnamurti’s talks, proclaimed that “Theosophy was for pussies,” and gave me a dog-eared copy of The Crisis of the Modern World by René Guénon, the founder of Traditionalism.

Finally, we’ve arrived at the most prominent form of anti-modernism, Traditionalism. Not all anti-modernists are Traditionalists, but all Traditionalists are anti-modern. Mistakenly equated with Perennial Philosophy, Traditionalism identified a “primordial tradition” which was directly inspired by on-going revelation from a transcendental source and from which all of humanity’s great religions were derived. All exoteric religious traditions, at their core, embodied a single, enduring esoteric truth or principle that made them different expressions of the same divine essence, and hence equally valid spiritual paths to enlightenment. This primordial tradition based on divine revelation was at the heart of an authentic spiritual civilization that Traditionalism identified with the ancient world, which meant that modernity was a degeneration and corruption of nothing less than a golden age. Indeed, Traditionalist anti-modernity rejected anything in the modern world that conflicted with traditional understandings of the universe, to include evolutionary science. And pre-modern social structures, like feudalism, were glorified because they were considered to be products of true Traditional beliefs.

Frankly, I found Guénon’s The Crisis of the Modern World so abstruse and alien, I didn’t develop an understanding of Traditionalism until much later, and then only through the side door by studying Henry Brooks Adams. Scion of Boston Brahmins, member of the famous Adams family (as in the 2nd and 6th US presidents), historian and man of letters, virulent anti-Semite, Henry Adams was born in 1838 and died in 1918. His life thus straddled the turn of the century.

Henry Adams was not a Traditionalist, but rather a traditional conservative, a Burkean conservative, much like his junior T.S. Elliot. Traditional conservatism is a political track that parallels spiritual Traditionalism so closely at times, it’s quite easy to step from one to the other. Once having understood Adams’s take on the modern world, I found it easy to grasp the Traditionalist ethos.

Obsessed with the erosion of faith by science, convinced that a world of order and unity was disintegrating into chaos around him, Henry Adams distilled the history of western civilization down to the metaphor of the Virgin and the dynamo in a curious duet of books; Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and The Education of Henry Adams. The first book, subtitled A Study in 13th Century Unity, is an historical and philosophical meditation on the 12th century Norman construction of the Mont-Saint-Michel cathedral and the 13th century cult of the Virgin at Chartres. For Adams, Europe in the century from 1150 to 1250 was “the point in history when man held the highest idea of himself as a unit in a unified universe.”

This was the Europe of the Middle Ages; of manorialism and feudalism, chivalry and serfdom, the Holy Roman Empire and the Crusades; of nobility, clergy and peasantry unified in Christian holy war against infidel Islam. Adams admired the infusion of religious ideals throughout European economic, political and military institutions in this age when philosophy, theology and the arts were all informed by faith. In Mont-Saint-Michel he symbolized this organic unity of reason and intuition, science and religion in the statue of the Virgin Mary in Chartres cathedral. In turn he saw in the scholasticism of St. Thomas Aquinas, with its emphasis on human reason, the beginning of the destruction of this coherent, totalizing worldview.

The humanism of the Renaissance, the individual faith of the Reformation, the universal reason of the Enlightenment, and the egalitarian democracy of the modern era all furthered the disintegration of this organic unity, replacing the singularity of faith with the fragmenting logic of science. In The Education, Adams described this historical transition as one from “evolving the universe from a thought” to “evolving thought from the universe.” This movement from religious spiritualism to scientific materialism produced “Multiplicity, Diversity, Complexity, Anarchy, Chaos,” with no way to prevent the proliferation of conflicting, contradictory thoughts from scientific observation of the universe. Adams symbolized this atomizing scientific worldview in the mechanistic force of the dynamo he saw at the 1900 Great Exposition in Paris. A two volume philosophical and autobiographical reflection on the woeful inadequacy of his “education” for the modern world, Henry Adams subtitled the second book A Study of 20th Century Multiplicity.

When the Virgin was central man was at his pinnacle of unity with the universe, yet when the dynamo of human achievement replaced faith man was eventually subordinated to mere mechanical forces.

The primary paradox embodied in Adams’ Virgin/dynamo metaphor has been described by others in different ways. Friedrich Nietzsche decried the “collective degeneration of man” into the “perfect herd animal” of our democratic era when, under corrupt “modern ideas,” human beings behave “too humanely.” He maintained in Beyond Good and Evil that: “[e]very elevation of the type ‘man’ has hitherto been the work of an aristocratic society-and so it will always be: a society which believes in a long scale of rank and differences of worth between man and man and needs slavery in some sense or other.” In his Revolt Against the Modern World, Julius Evola praised Medieval Europe for “its objectivity, its virile spirit, its hierarchical structure, its proud antihumanistic simplicity so often permeated by the sense of the sacred” which made man heroic. When the humanism of the Renaissance supposedly “emancipated itself from the ‘darkness of the Middle Ages’,” “[c]ivilization, even as an ideal, ceased to have a unitary axis.” Degeneration and decadence inevitably followed, marked by “restlessness, dissatisfaction, resentment, the need to go further and faster, and the inability to possess one’s life in simplicity, independence, and balance” in which man was “made more and more insufficient to himself and powerless.”

Julius Evola brings us back to Traditionalism. A contemporary of Guénon’s, an aristocratic metaphysician, Evola was cozy with Italian Fascism and German National Socialism as well. He’s become the darling of today’s neo-Nazis, his brand of ultra-right Traditionalism an inspiration to the New Right. Evola’s reactionary politics are by no means exceptional when we examine those who also called themselves Traditionalists (Schuon, Burkhardt, Lings, Coomaraswamy, Nasr, deLubicz) and those who sympathized with Traditionalism (Campbell, Eliade, Smith, Danielou). Hajj Muhammad Legenhausen makes the point that “Traditionalism is politically reactionary” in his essay “Why I Am Not a Traditionalist.” He argues that Traditionalism is a modern European reaction against modernism, and amounts to a modern ideology in every sense of that word, despite its disdain for modern ideology. Claiming to be concerned solely with metaphysics, as an ideology Traditionalism nevertheless “sets out a general program of social and political direction” that more often than not is rightwing, whether conservative, reactionary or fascist.

Legenhausen makes the case that Traditionalism was also simplistic, intellectually dishonest, and procrustean in its approach to religion, as when it conflates the anti-idolatry of the monotheistic Abrahamic religions with the ultra idolatry of pantheistic Hinduism. Mark Sedgwick’s recent book, Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century, makes the case for Traditionalism as “a major influence on religion, politics, even international relations” according to Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, author of The Occult Roots of Nazism. “Famous scholars, theosophists and masons, Gnostic ascetics and Sufi sheikhs, jostle with neo-fascists, terrorists and Islamists in their defection from a secular, materialist West” as embodied in Traditionalism. Unfortunately, the neo-fascists, terrorists and Islamists have come to dominate this type of anti-modernism, even making common cause with particular elements of the far Left with pretensions of going beyond Left and Right. The Communist/neo-Nazi Red-Brown alliance in post-Soviet Russia is the most obvious example.

Shit by any other name…

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