Friday, August 4, 2017

Evola in Middle Earth

As part of my Western Culture & Counter Culture project I’m studying the various “grand narratives” that have been told about the history, meaning, and direction of Western civilization – from optimistic stories of evolution and progress to their darker and more pessimistic counterparts. Perhaps the most uncompromising example of this latter category, and one of the most influential, was published in 1934 (and republished several times after, in expanded editions) by the controversial Italian esotericist Julius Evola (1898-1974) under the title Rivolta contro il mondo moderno (Revolt against the Modern World). I decided it might be time for me to finally read it, and so I did, in an excellent French translation by Philippe Baillet.
Well, it proved to be quite a ride. Having read various discussions of Evola over the years, I was broadly familiar with the nature of his worldview and ideas (including, of course, his fascist sympathies and antisemitic tendencies) so I cannot say that I began with an empty slate. However, actually reading Revolt against the Modern World from cover to cover is an altogether different experience from just reading about it. Let me begin on the positive side. Impressive about Evola’s book is the remarkable degree of internal logic and consistency of vision with which he deconstructs every imaginable belief or assumption that modern people tend to take for granted, exposing the whole of it as one long series of errors and perversions of the universal metaphysical truth on which all Traditional societies were based. He manages to strike a tone of “academic” authority that gives the impression that he knows what he is talking about, and it is not so hard to understand that a book like this can make a deep impression on readers who feel alienated from contemporary global consumer culture and would like to see it destroyed. With a radicalism reminiscent of contemporary Islamic Jihadists, Evola tells his readers that modernity is the very negation of everything valid and true.

Antihistorical Consciousness

So what is his alternative? This is where it quickly gets problematic. First of all, while Evola’s modern Right-wing admirers like to claim “historical consciousness” for themselves while blaming their “Liberal” enemies for having no sense of history, Evola himself makes perfectly clear that any attempt to find evidence for his historical narrative will be an utter waste of time. He claims that “Traditional man” had a “supratemporal” sense of time, and therefore the reality in which he lived cannot be grasped by modern historical methods at all. In an absolutely crucial passage in the Introduction (poorly translated in the English standard edition, unfortunately, so my translation below is based on the Italian original while taking inspiration from the French version) he takes care to emphasize

… how little esteem we have for everything that, in recent years, has officially been considered under the label of “historical scholarship” in matters of ancient religions, institutions, and traditions. We want to make clear that we wish to have absolutely nothing to do with such an order of things, as with all that derives from the modern mentality; and as for the so-called “scientific” or “positive” perspective, with all its empty claims of competence and monopoly, in its best cases we consider it to be more or less the perspective of ignorance. … In general, the order of things with which we will be principally concerning ourselves is the one in which all materials that have a “historical” and “scientific” value are those that are the least important; whereas everything that, as myth, legend, and saga, is deprived of historical truth and demonstrative force, by that very fact acquires a superior validity and becomes the source of a more real and more certain knowledge. Precisely this is the boundary that separates traditional doctrine from profane culture. …
The scientific anathemas in regard to this approach are well known: Arbitrary! Subjective! Fantastic! From our perspective it is neither arbitrary, subjective or fantastic, nor is it objective or scientific as understood by moderns. All of that does not exist. All of that stands outside of Tradition. Tradition begins at the point where one is able to place oneself above all that, by adopting a supra-individual and nonhuman perspective. That is why we have minimal concern for discussion and “demonstration.” The truths that the world of Tradition can make us understand are not of a kind that one can “learn” or “discuss.” They either are, or they are not. One can only remember them, and this happens when one is liberated from the obstacles represented by the various human constructs (beginning with all the results and methods of the “researchers” considered to be authorities), when one has evoked in oneself the capacity to see from the nonhuman perspective, which is the Traditional perspective itself.

Clearly this means that any critical objection, any disagreement, any reference to historical evidence that might possible undermine Evola’s narrative, and indeed any reference to historical sources at all, will have no impact whatsoever. And this fits perfectly with the extreme authoritarianism that is typical of Evola’s attitude: the reader is given to understand that it is not really Julius Evola who is speaking to us in these pages – no, he is speaking on behalf of the supreme source of superhuman metaphysical truth itself (the nature of which, by the way, remains very vague). Disagreement is therefore synonymous with spiritual ignorance: one is not supposed to ask questions but to listen and accept.

Doctrine and Storytelling

So what is this supreme Source of Truth telling us? Revolt agains the Modern World consists of two parts: the first is doctrinal and discusses the various elements of “the World of Tradition,” whereas the second should perhaps not be called historical – for how could it be that, on the foundations just outlined? – but does tell a grand story of spiritual decline and degeneration through the ages. Like Guénon, one of his major influences, Evola distinguishes between four stages of human and cultural development, from the Golden Age to the modern world (the kali yuga). The metaphysics of Tradition according to Evola are built upon the primacy of Being; on the notion of one absolute Spiritual Center that is the exclusive source of legitimate Authority, reflected in an ideology of Sacred Kingship; on the notion of a “natural” social hierarchy of four castes, with spiritual leaders at the top and servants (including slaves) at the bottom; on the primacy of masculine “virile” qualities over their feminine counterparts; and on an ascetic warrior ethics grounded in honour and heroic values. If anything stands out as central in this overview, it is Evola’s obsession with power.
            The second part is built upon the doctrine of “four ages,” with reference to Hesiod (the ages of gold, silver, bronze, and iron) and Hindu scriptures. Evola tells us that during the Golden Age, the region that is now the North Pole was inhabited by a pure race of superior beings who exemplified a “non-humain spirituality.” Due to some primal catastrophe, the representatives of this Hyperborean race began migrating southward towards what is now North America and the continent of Atlantis. This was the beginning of the Silver Age and the first stage of degeneration. Basic to the story that follows is the idea of a basic hostility between the heaven-oriented, solar, heroic, and masculine people from the North and their earth-oriented, lunar, matriarchal counterparts from the South (as is well known, Bachofen’s Das Mutterrecht [1861] had a huge influence on Evola in this regard). Cultural contact led to wars and interbreeding, so that the original purity of the Northern race got mixed and its culture began to decline. From there on it all goes downward. Things get ever more complex and messy during the Third Age, as the “heroic” descendants of the ancient superior culture progressively lose their vitality and the culture of the original spiritual elite slowly but certainly loses the battle against “anti-Traditional” forces. In spite of temporal revivals, notably during the the Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire during the Middle Ages, we steadily move foreward (or rather, downward) towards modern culture with its degenerate values of liberalism, humanism, egalitarianism, democracy, and so on. If Part I of Revolt is marked by Evola’s obsession with power, Part II is marked by an incredibly virulent hatred and supreme aristocratic contempt for modernity and everything it stands for.

The Deadly Sword of Philology

Of course it will be useless for me to apply the instruments of historical criticism in order to point out the utter absence of any credible evidence for Evola’s narrative: in making any such attempt, according to Evola’s admirers I will merely be demonstrating my own ignorance of the truth, and my naïve belief in such useless illusions as “critical discussion,” “historical thinking,” or “scholarly methods.” Trust in such merely human approaches betrays the false assumption that there exists such a thing as “progress in knowledge,” that is to say: it reflects the modernist delusion that it is possible to make advances in our understanding of the past, by learning important things about it that were not known before and by correcting earlier interpretations. No such progress is possible: it is excluded from the outset that I will ever discover anything important that Evola doesn’t already know. All I’m allowed to do is “remember” the eternal truth (obviously in terms of Plato's anamnesis), and if what I remember would turn out to conflict with anything that Evola is telling us, this could only mean that it’s not real memory: I must have made it up myself. Evola, of course, has made nothing up – how could he? It is not him who is saying all these things. He speaks for Tradition.

Still, although I know it’s pointless, I’ll make just one little attempt. Part II of Revolt is preceded by two mottos, one of which is taken from Jacob Boehme. Evola is quoting Louis-Claude de Martin’s French translation (1800) of Boehme’s first book, the Aurora:

Je vous dis un secret. Voici le temps où l’époux couronnera son épouse: mais où est la couronne? Vers le Nord … Mais d’où vient l’épouse? Du centre, où la chaleur engendre la lumière, et se porte vers le Nord … où la lumière devient brillante.
[Translation: I tell you a secret. Behold the time when the bridegroom will crown his bride: but where is the crown? Toward the North … But from where does the bride come? From the centre, where the warmth brings forth the light, and is directed towards the North … where the light becomes brilliant]

Evola clearly saw this quote as a wonderful confirmation of his belief in a superior spiritual Light coming from the North. Of course it takes an unrepentant modernist like myself to be so deluded as to think it might be worth my while to check the source. Was Boehme really speaking about Evola’s North? You guessed it – I checked anyway. And what did I find? This is what Boehme actually wrote:

Sihe Ich Sage dir ein geheimnis. Es ist Schon die zeit / das der Breutigam Seine Brautt kröntt / Raht fritz wo ligt die kron / Kegen Mitternacht. … Von wannen kömpt aber der Breutigam. Auß der mitten / wo die Hitze das licht gebüred / vnd ferdt kegen mitternacht … / da wird das licht Helle. [emphasis in original]
[Translation: Look. I am going to tell you a secret. The time has come for the bridegroom to crown his bride. Guess, dear fellow, where is the crown to be found? Toward midnight. … Whence issues the bridegroom? From the middle, where the heat gives birth to the light, shooting towards midnight … That is where the light is growing bright]

What is going on here? Boehme spoke about “midnight,” not the North: that translation came from Saint-Martin. Interestingly though, it turns out that there was a solid foundation to this choice of word. As explained by Andrew Weeks in a footnote (p. 325 nt 12), Boehme had a very peculiar way of alluding to the 24-hour cycle and the geographical locations in relation to divine revelation. The light had begun to shine in the Holy Land (Dawn, i.e. East), the “sleeping” Papacy in Rome represented the midday of revelation (12.00) in the South of Europe, then it moved northward to the Reformation in Germany, which is in the Middle between the South and the Scandinavian North, which represents the midnight of revelation (0.00) because this is where Lutheranism spread unopposed. So we are dealing here with a movement of progressive Christian revelation that moves from the South to the North. It is therefore clear that the “crown” in the North has nothing to do with a hyperborean race migrating southward; rather, the light that moves from the Middle to the North is the light of Christian truth that goes into the opposite direction. Admittedly, Boehme also spoke of the North in a different sense (inspired by Ezekiel 38:15): as a wild place inhabited by a savage people that “had not known the true light of God from the beginning unto this very time” (Aurora, Preface, in Weeks ed., p. 91). As the prince of darkness saw that the people were being saved by the fragrance of the divine tree of life, he planted a “savage tree” of his own in that very same place in the North (indeed: “toward midnight”) and proclaimed that this was the tree of life (see Weeks, p. 91 with nt 17). If one takes this into account, the only way in which Boehme’s quotation could be construed as referring to the Hyperboreans is by claiming that they were precisely those people mentioned in Ezekiel: the virile Northern opponents of the effeminized Southern force of Jewish and Christian revelation. This would mean that Evola was reading Boehme against the grain, taking the side of the “prince of darkness” and his savage tree; but more importantly,  it would go straight against the meaning of the passage about the crowning of the bride by the bridegroom, where the light coming from the Middle is clearly the positive power that grows stronger as it moves northward. In sum: although Midnight in Boehme’s quotation does indeed refer to the North, it has no reference to Evola’s ideas about the North and is actually written from the perspective of his opponents.
             It’s a complicated story (more so than I first realized myself: I want to thank Francesco Baroni and Hadi Fakhouri for alerting me to the background for Saint-Martin's translation), but the point is simple. It is only on the basis of strict philological criticism, going back to the original sources and analyzing the intended meaning of terms in their initial context,  that one can possibly evaluate the truth of any of the countless historical claims on which Evola builds his narrative. If one would take the (considerable) trouble of doing so, then the narrative would quickly start crumbling before one’s gaze. One would discover the enormous extent to which Evola was relying on dated, questionable, or wholly corrupt sources and on scholarly interpretations riddled with assumptions that often tell us more about the authors and their culture or personal preoccupations than about the texts and traditions they were studying.
            So are we simply dealing here with the typical naïvety of an amateur historian? I don’t think so. I am convinced that Evola’s highhanded statements about the total irrelevance of historical scholarship reflect an acute awareness on his part that these methods and technical tools had the power to undermine and destroy everything he wanted to say. If he dismisses textual criticism or philological analysis ex cathedra, describing them as the feeble props of deluded ignorants, this is because he knows that in reality they are deadly weapons against which his claims would be utterly helpless. Better discredit your critics in advance so that your readers will not even bother taking their arguments seriously. Better make use of the popular and populist resentment of “academics” in their ivory tower, of all those “specialists” who are making everything so difficult instead of telling a clear and simple story that normal people can understand. We find a similar strategy in the current conservative and rightwing campaigns of denying climate change (Trump: “just look out the window!”), undermining the credibility of science and academic research, attempting to defund Humanities programs, and spreading the trope of “alternative facts”. Science and scholarship are inconvenient to these antimodernists because they hinder them in saying what they want to say and doing what they want to do. Never let evidence stand in the way of a good story. We find the same approach in Evola. In sum, I do not think he doesn’t take historians seriously, on the contrary: he is afraid of them. He knows that his weapons are no match for theirs, and so he seeks to avoid a direct confrontation.

Transpolitical Conservative Liberalism

If Evola’s grand narrative of historical decline is a fantasy, then does this leave us with anything worth salvaging? Even if one does not accept his specific understanding of “Tradition,” one might still be inclined to agree in general terms with the idea that premodern cultures were superior and modernization is therefore a process of decline instead of progress. Or instead of thinking in terms of either decline or progress, one might argue that traditional and modern societies both come at a price, so we need to strive for a healthy balance between the advantages and disadvantages of both, rather than making an either/or choice. This would be my position. Now it is very interesting to observe that, whatever the official ideologies might say, a deep longing for premodern conditions is by no means restricted to the Right wing of the political spectrum but is widespread among its “progressive” opponents as well. While reading Revolt, I was struck by the structural parallels with one of my own all-time favourite novels, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It is well known that Tolkien’s work became something close to Holy Scripture among the Hippies during the 1960s and remains a classic in the Pagan community that came out of that era.

Obviously the enemy Saruman, with his “mind of metal and wheels,” mirrors the spirit of the Industrial Revolution and its destructive effects on nature (the Ents) and traditional communities (the Shire). In other words, he stands for modernization as a negative force. All readers of Tolkien instinctively take the side of the Hobbits (that is to say, of traditional culture) and the Elves (that is to say, of an elite culture that embodies high spiritual values). Quite as instinctively, they embrace the notion of a sacred “bloodline” of Kings who are destined to rule: it would be ridiculous to imagine a democratic Middle Earth where Aragorn would have to stand for election and get his legislation through parliament. Middle Earth is a traditional hierarchical society where everybody seems to accept his or her appointed rank and station, where families are intact, where men are real men and women are real women. It is inhabited by a whole series of higher and lower races (Elves at the top, Men in the Middle, Orcs at the bottom), and although these may form coalitions of friendship, it is well understood that ultimately they are supposed to stay in their own homelands. Nor would they wish otherwise: they are all proud of who they are and determined to protect their own culture.
All of this is very clearly Conservative rather than “Liberal,” and Traditionalist rather than Progressive. Nevertheless, few readers understand Lord of the Rings as a political manifesto, and the novel has been widely experienced as a source of deep inspiration among such typical “Lefties” as the Hippies or most Pagans since the 1960s and their descendants or sympathizers up to the present. Of course some important footnotes should be added here, about ideological critiques of Tolkien on the Marxist Left and a deliberate embrace of traditional community values in Right-wing paganism. I’m aware of those complications, but what interests me here is the very broad base of readers (including myself) who appear to be perfectly capable of loving Lord of the Rings while rejecting right-wing authoritarianism and embracing universal “Liberal” human values such as freedom, equality, or democracy.
So this is where it all gets very complicated. How can Tolkien’s perspective be so compatible with “Liberalism” and “the Left” if his ideal society exemplifies “Traditionalist” values promoted by authors on the “Right” such as Evola? It’s not a new problem either. During the 1960s and the following decades, the new Liberal culture that flourished on the Left in California and elsewhere in the United States embraced the scholarship on myth and symbolism associated with Eranos luminaries such as Carl Gustav Jung, Mircea Eliade, or Joseph Campbell. All these authors were very clearly conservatives, and much has been written about their relation with fascism and antisemitism; but the fact is that their work was experienced as deeply inspiring by American “Liberals” from the 1960s to the 1980s at least, and had a big influence on them.
In short, there seems to be such a thing as Transpolitical Conservative Liberalism. Transpolitical because it does not fit the neat ideological straightjacket of Left versus Right as conventionally understood. Conservative because it seeks to protect traditional values that are being threatened by the forces of “modern progress.” Liberal because it also believes in freedom and equality as values that should be universal for all human beings.

Human and Non-Human Conservatism

Evola is clearly not on that side though. His vision is marked by a strong and perfectly explicit emphasis on human inequality and an obsession with power and authority. Both elements are grounded in his personal psychology: they follow logically, in his case, from his deep-seated desire for absolute autonomy, that is to say, of total freedom for himself. From an early age on, so he tells us in his autobiography Path of Cinnabar, his all-consuming wish was to be absolutely free and autonomous: he did not want to be dependent on anything or anyone whatsoever. In terms of the German Idealist philosophers he was reading at the time, the whole of reality had to be subject to his absolute “I” (das Ich), which had to transcend the physical world and all its contingencies. So extreme was this desire that it brought him close to suicide, until a Buddhist fragment convinced him that in extinguishing his personal existence he would not be achieving freedom but would in fact be demonstrating his failure to achieve it. This is not the place to discuss the “magical” philosophy that came out of this realization, fascinating though it is. Important for our present concerns is Evola’s obsession, throughout his life, with the absolute power and unquestionable authority of a spiritual elite imagined as standing at the very top of a hierarchy: far above the ignorant masses, the contingencies of history, the limitations of material existence, or anything else that could possibly trouble its “non-human” purity and spiritual independence. Needless to add, such dreams are dreamed only by those who imagine that they themselves are lucky enough to stand at the top of the hierarchy.
            It is hardly surprising that such a man would be lacking in all human warmth and empathy for others. Evola was known as a cold fish who did not care about anyone but himself, and this is not the critique of a hostile outsider. Evola himself described his character in these terms:

A spontaneous detachment from what is merely human, from what is generally regarded as normal, particularly in the sphere of affection, emerged as one of my distinctive traits when I was still in my early youth … [S]uch a detached disposition  … was the cause of a certain insensitivity and cold-heartedness on my part. But in the most important of all fields, his very trait is what allowed me to recognize those unconditioned values which are far removed from the perspective of ordinary men of my time (Path of Cinnabar, 6-7).

One has to agree, Evola was not an ordinary man. But much more important, given his current influence in Right-wing circles, is his utter contempt for human beings qua human beings. His commitment was explicitly to what he called the non-human. Any true spiritual values, as he understood them, had to be the exclusive preserve of a spiritual elite far above the common run of humanity. Whatever might happen to the masses of “ordinary” human beings was none of his concern: in his ideal world, they simply have to obey, and will be forced into submission if they dare to resist the dictates of “legitimate authority.”

The Faultline

It is precisely in this regard that Evola’s Rightwing conservatism is utterly incompatible with the perspective of its “Liberal” counterparts – including those that share a deep concern with “Conservative” values. If Middle Earth is a Traditional society threatened by Saruman’s modernism, then Evola is much closer to the mindset of Sauron than that of Gandalf, Aragorn, the Hobbits, or the Elves. They are fighting against Mordor because it seeks to destroy everything that makes life worth living: freedom, peace, friendship, love, happiness, beauty, brotherhood, tolerance, mutual understanding, and the willingness to transcend boundaries of race and culture (exemplified, of course, by the friendship that develops between Legolas and Gimli). The traditional society they want to conserve and protect exemplifies precisely those values. Sauron, on the other hand, is obsessed with one thing only: power. He demands absolute authority, submission to his will.

Evola’s case has exemplary significance in the current political debate. What ultimately divides the “New Right” from its “Liberal” opponents is not the dilemma of Tradition versus Modernity, or Conservatism versus Progress: about those issues, difficult as they may be, it is possible to find common ground. Only one principle is not negotiable: that power and authority must be at the service of humanity, and not the other way around.