The Darkness of This World
The Pursuit of Evil in
Our Gnostic Age
In the Light of a Setting Sun
Romanticism – which grew in opposition to Reason from the very beginning of the Enlightenment, their common parent – is a kind of religion.
In certain essential ways it most closely resembles the Gnostic creeds of early and medieval Christianity. Both Romantics and Gnostics depend on feeling and intuition for their “truth”, which stands in both cases in opposition to their culture’s norms. To rebel against conventional morality, they choose evil. Both rationalize their perversity as the means to a higher good. For the Gnostics, good lies in the heavens after life on earth is over; for the Romantics it lies in this life on this earth, just over the horizon, beyond the next revolution. Whether up there, or over there, both promise paradise.
In actuality, Romanticism led the way not to an earthly paradise but to earthly hells.
If Romanticism could be said to have a deity, it was “the Devil”. The Romantic imagination clung to him long after “God” had faded away. Germany “sold its soul” to him. Entranced by a Wagnerian fantasy of brutality, violence, war, conquest, “blood and beauty”, Nazi Germany chose evil, rode the storm triumphantly for a time, fulfilled its romantic dream in atrocity, and ended in flames and irreparable moral degradation.
Karl Marx prayed in romantic poetry to be empowered by the Devil, and metaphorically speaking his prayer was granted when Marxists took power after his death and tormented and destroyed millions of hapless victims. The Russian Bolsheviks were the first tyrants to govern in the name of the creed that bears his name. But they were not the first (or last) tyrants to govern Russia, nor the first Russians to choose evil.
The Enlightenment did not penetrate far into Russia. Even by the late nineteenth century, the Russian people were still deeply religious and the church was still immensely powerful. But a weariness with the old order, a romantic pessimism was spreading through the vast anachronism that was Tsarist Russia.
Dostoyevsky’s novel The Possessed (or The Devils or Demons), was published in 1872, eleven years before Karl Marx’s died. It has a cast of intellectual nihilist terrorists who typify the Romantic rebel in late nineteenth century Russia. They are against everything. Patronized, courted, and encouraged for the thrill of their scandalous philosophy of existential despair and malicious criminality by a stupid Governor’s wife – another type of civilization’s decline – they transgress all moral and conventional boundaries and eventually murder for the sake of murdering, and literally set the town on fire. One of them commits suicide and allows the others to blame him for their crimes, leaving an untrue note that he is the culprit. Why? Because nothing matters. Nothing. The man they look to as their leader, Nicolai Stavrogin, is the son of a wealthy landowner, an eccentric widow. She enjoys a protracted and chaste love affair of the mind with a once-daring but now perfectly tame intellectual rebel who has long since outlived his small fame. Young Stavrogin – handsome, rich, and privileged – is the rebel du jour, reckless and unpredictable. At his mildest, we learn when we meet him, he has publicly indulged his evil impulses by making defiant gestures against polite custom, saying and doing irrational things – such as biting a distinguished gentleman’s ear – deliberately to outrage society. In secret he has done far worse. He has committed a terrible crime that we learn about eventually: he raped a child, and the girl killed herself. Then, secretly again, he married a poor despised ill-used madwoman. Why? In penance? Out of compassion? Is he a saint as well as a sinner? Or is it a bizarre joke? Dostoyevsky perfectly describes what Stavrogin is doing: he is “living sarcastically”.
Dostoyevsky believed Russia was sick with nihilism and despair, and could be saved only by a return to Orthodox Christianity. But the sun was going down on “Holy Russia”. The Orthodox Church was no longer capable – if ever it had been – of distinguishing between its saints and its sinners.
In Orthodox eyes, which of the two – saint or sinner – was Grigori Rasputin, the man who more than any other single individual hastened Tsarist Russia into extinction?
Rasputin was a peasant monk who the royal family of Russia needed to believe was a mystic healer. They put all their hopes in him to cure the Tsarevich of hemophilia, the bleeding disease that threatened the life of the young heir to the throne, the only son of the Tsar. The peasant monk might also have been (it was both alleged and denied) a member of the Khlysty, a Gnostic sect that had arisen in the 17th century and lasted into the 20th century, to be ended along with everything else by the Communist revolution. The Khlysty believed in direct (“intuitive”) knowledge of the divine and redemption through sin.
Whether or not as a member of the Khlysty, Rasputin convinced numerous highborn ladies that they could be redeemed through sin. Their lust being sanctioned by so exciting a promise, they stripped naked for him, begged for his sexual attentions, and – according to some colorful accounts – would even lick his greasy fingers clean after he had been eating with his hands at the table of the Tsar. What is well attested is that the occult was in vogue in high society, and some of its luminaries seriously expected – because they deeply longed for – miracles. Rasputin was their master; to them he was the Devil himself, laughing among them.
His own motive in performing his part may only have been the simple one of enjoying himself. By many accounts he fed gluttonously, drank copiously, and copulated promiscuously.
The Tsarina could not live without him. She did as he told her. And just as she depended too much on her “holy healer”, the Tsar depended too much on her. By her insistence, the Tsar took into his own hands the direction of his country’s forces in the Great War, and he did not do it well. Persons in high places became concerned that Russia was being governed and misgoverned by the “mad monk” – and it was not too much of an exaggeration. He apparently had power even over the Holy Synod, though he had never been ordained a priest. It seemed that a lascivious peasant was working his will over church and state. The Tsar refused to send him away. Nothing could dislodge him.
Plots were hatched to kill him. And finally four would-be assassins – the Grand Duke Dmitri Romanov and Prince Felix Yusupov, along with a member of the Duma and an army officer – set about murdering him in the basement of the Yusupov palace on December 17, 1916; first with poison – but he stayed alive; then with a gun, shooting him many times – but still he did not die; then stabbing him and beating him on the head with a truncheon. Finally they dropped him, probably dead but by some accounts still alive, over a bridge and down through the ice of the River Niva. So ended his real-life performance as a “holy sinner”, or magus.
It had been a magnificent mockery – of religion, power, aristocracy, and morals – born of a brilliant, if instinctive, perception that the stupidity of the great laid them open to exploitation by bold native cunning. Had the Romanovs, in particular the Tsarina, and her noble ladies avid for sin, not been mystics themselves, not believed in miracles, they would not have fallen under Rasputin’s spell. The Orthodox Church itself – or part of it – romanticized mystic charlatans of his kind. Both the institutions of monarchy and church had become rotten stumps ready to be kicked over.
And kicked over they soon were. The downfall of Tsarist Russia began on April 16, 1917, just four months after Rasputin’s death, when Lenin returned from exile and began the process that brought the Russians under Marxian Communism.
Jillian Becker September 20, 2014
1. See The Darkness of This World Part One, essay 9, Faust (Two).
2. See The Darkness of This World Part One, essay 7, The Fiddler and His Proof.
3. Sergey Nechayev (1847-1882) and his fellow Nihilists were the real-life models for Dostoyevsky’s demons in The Possessed. The opening lines of Nechayev’s Revolutionary Cathecism are: “The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no personal interests, no business affairs, sentiments, ties, property, nor even a name of his own. Everything in him is wholly absorbed in the single thought and the single passion for revolution. Heart and soul, not merely by word but by deed, he has severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world, with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its ruthless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose – to destroy it.”
4. December 17 old style = December 30 new style.
The French Pandemonium (One)
Charles Baudelaire 1821-1867
Arthur Rimbaud 1854-1891
Antonin Artaud 1896-1948
Jean-Paul Sartre 1905-1980
A pandemonium is a gathering of all the demons or devils. Devils are expected to be noisy, so the word has come to mean a deafening cacophony of shrieking voices.
What the voices of this pandemonium clamor for, is “Evil”. It is not an insult to call them demons; it is an acknowledgment of their choice. They choose Evil, they call for Evil, they acclaim Evil, they are for Evil.
And what are they against? They are against What Is. They are against our civilization. They are against the bourgeois, whom they hold responsible for everything that’s wrong with our civilization: free enterprise industrialization; liberal democracy; parliamentarianism; conservatism.
It was in France that the clamor was loudest among certain poets and novelists and philosophers to épater le bourgeois – shock the bourgeois – in the nineteenth century, reaching a crescendo between the world wars of the twentieth century, rising again after the end of the second. A racket of foaming hate; a literary hue and cry after the middle-class citizen.
As you may have noticed, the bourgeoisie is, in fact, the all-achieving class. Almost everything of value since the Enlightenment, including the Enlightenment itself, has issued from the middle-class; every invention, every discovery, every advance, with so few exceptions they can be counted on a few of your fingers. But to the demons of poetry and philosophy and revolution, the bourgeois was everything that was wrong with Life: the bourgeois with his politesse, his prudence, his order and cleanliness, his comfortable house, his good-quality clothes, his well-stocked larder, his prosperity, his faithfulness to duty, his thrifty habits … “No, no,” the scornful voices yell, interrupting me. “Its not just that, it’s … it’s … it’s his complacency, his bad taste, his narrow-mindedness, his privilege, his exploitation of underdogs, his obsession with material things – and his stupid sexual inhibition. Those, don’t you see, are the unbearable traits that make him a worthy target of our artistic fury. He does not, cannot feel as we do. Down with him! Grind him into the dust!”
But it is the againstness itself that characterizes the demons. If every one of those despicable things about the bourgeois were overcome or destroyed (as every one of them was in Communist Russia), and civilization wholly laid to waste, the urge would rage on, its hunger unappeased, hunting its everlasting prey: What Is. To them, as to the Gnostics of old, everything that is here is bad; the good lies beyond.
Whatever words have been used to describe the Paris fashions in Scorn – modernism, post-modernism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction – they are all expressions of rebellion. To be a rebel is to be heroic. Despised and rejected by the bourgeois herd, the rebel is a martyr to his deep passion for art, his higher vision of a better world.
To protest against the bourgeois idea of what is good, the demons advocated doing whatever the bourgeois considered evil. They placed themselves in a French counter-tradition, a line that runs from Rousseau with his belief in the primacy of feeling and sentiment, through Robespierre with his Terror, the Marquis de Sade with his penchant for sexual torture, the nineteenth century poets Charles Baudelaire with his Flowers of Evil and Arthur Rimbaud with his Season in Hell, and on through the intellectual trend-setters – whom we will come to – of twentieth century French literature and their continuing effects. There are still reigning French demons in the twenty-first century. It is a dynasty of the defiant.
Baudelaire, a syphilitic, intoxicated himself with drugs – opium is the narcotic his poetry rhapsodizes – and wrote gorgeous descriptions of voluptuous sex with decomposing corpses; lyrics on physical and moral squalor; dramatic evocations of grief, anguish and dejection. He was a beautician of the sordid, a glamorizer of evil. He hero-worshipped “Satan”. His lush romantic poetry is about death, putrescence, crime, necrophilia, ennui, hell and the Devil; voluptuous sadism; the grotesque and the macabre.
“When she had sucked my marrow out, I turned/to her again for one more love-kiss burned,/though languidly, and saw her thus:/ a slimy leather bottle full of pus! … I fainted … and when I wakened … a quivering skeleton where we had lain/rattled and creaked like an old weathervane or a sign hung on an iron arm swung by the wind through nights of storm.” 
“I’d like, some night/ … to whip your flesh …/ and bruise … your breast/ … cut a wide deep wound/ and then, with dizzy rapture … infuse in you/ my venom …” 
Why? The poet explained: “When I have aroused universal horror and disgust, I shall have conquered solitude.”
In fact this perverse aesthetic of the shocking, the horrifying, the repulsive and the disgusting, far from arousing shock, horror, revulsion and disgust, made Baudelaire enormously popular in France and put the laurels of heroism on his brow. And through him the Romantic tradition of passion, terror and sadism ran on.
Arthur Rimbaud, the teenage poet, was born thirty-three years after Baudelaire and was doubtless influenced by him. Rimbaud too wrote poems about the frightful and the nauseating. He too wooed Satan.
“I am weary, I die. This is the grave and I’m turning into worms, horror of horrors! Satan, you clown, you want to dissolve me with your charms. Well, I want it. I want it! Stab me with a pitchfork, sprinkle me with fire.”
When he was eighteen, Rimbaud began a turbulent and violent sexual affair with the Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, who was ten years older than he and wrote lyrical, sentimental, melancholy poetry. Rimbaud stopped writing poetry by the age of twenty-one. Though he lived into his thirty-eighth year he wrote no more. He predicted, however, that “other horrible workers would come” (“viendront d’autres horribles travailleurs”) to carry on where he left off. The mission of the “horrible workers” was to “reach the unknown” by a deliberate “derangement of the senses” – achieved by committing crimes and descending into madness with the aid of drugs – so that they might “become prophets”.
And the “horrible work” was indeed carried on, from the nineteenth century into the twentieth. One of the “horrible workers” was Antonin Artaud, born in 1896, five years after Rimbaud’s death. Influenced by both Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Artaud conceived, in the 1920s, a theoretical Theatre of Cruelty – an idea that was to prove all too fecund. He was of dubious sanity through most of his life, and in his case psychosis was clinically diagnosed. He spent his last years in insane asylums, a certified lunatic.
Symbolists, Dadaists, Surrealists, with their visions of alternative worlds, were intent, each in his own way, on symbolically smashing, (words of violence are essential to convey the passion behind the intention), wrecking the world of rationality, sanity, sobriety, order, morality – in sum, civilization.
And civilization, headquartered in Paris, applauded them. That is to say, a large part of the bourgeoisie applauded them. And why not? The bourgeoisie is not after all narrow-minded. Cruelty, destructiveness, defiance, rebellion, the mission to dislocate the senses that the poems, pictures, novels, plays, philosophies served to advance, did not come at them from an alien source. Almost to a man, every one of these bourgeois-hating intellectual rebels was born into the bourgeoisie. Like everything else that affected the European culture, their contributions to it – mutinous as they were – came out of the middle-class. Their rebellion against their background resembles the common adolescent rebellion against parents: the “look at me how daring I am” naughtiness; the anger-baiting by whatever means might shock the old birds; the big tease of “seeing how far I can go”.
Jean-Paul Sartre, a very prominent “horrible worker” in the twentieth century, came from a solidly bourgeois background. His father was a naval officer. His mother was a cousin of Albert Schweitzer, the famous theologian and philanthropist who founded a hospital for lepers in Gabon, in north Africa. Young Jean-Paul earnestly studied philosophy, then wrote prolifically, and became famous. Throughout his adult life he praised what his forefathers abominated, and abominated what they revered.
“My personal goal,” he announced, “is to overthrow bourgeois society.”
In novels, plays, essays, Sartre presents the idea of a “real” or “pure” inner Self yearning for its liberation. It struggles, bravely and agonizingly, against the World-as-is – “the Other”, “the Given”, everything that is not the Self. The idea closely resembles – whether Sartre himself recognized the echo or not – the ancient Gnostic belief that within Man (or at least in superior men and women) is a Divine Spark, which will be liberated when it escapes from the prison of its own flesh and this base material world to which it is alien and in which it suffers.
In his novel Nausea (for example), Sartre’s young protagonist Roquentin feels disgust for his own body, and for the whole material world. The world is alien and inimical to him. He feels that he is essentially an imprisoned “inner Self” – different, special, “authentic” – who is capable of, and longing for, freedom. The existence of other people causes him his most acute suffering. They are not like him. They do not have that inner Self which is capable of freedom. They are “inauthentic”.
Sartre insists that “the authentic Self”  needs above all to decide for itself what is Good and what is Evil. And the decision cannot, apparently, match that of polite society. It has by some necessity to be as different from the norms of civilization as possible.
Echoing the old Gnostics (whether he knew it or not, and he surely did know it), Sartre has Roquentin feel that his world, the world he inhabits – which is to say civilization – is slime. It makes him nauseous. He fears having to take on a defined social role, such as that of a waiter in a restaurant (an example Sartre used in a philosophical discussion of what he called mauvaise foi – “bad faith”), and so become part of the world of slime. If he were to do something as cosmically appalling as, for instance, become a waiter, so accepting a role, and with it a morality, devised by the conglomerate of Others which we call our civilization, he would be an object rather than a subject; an “in-itself” rather than a “for-itself”. To have built such a civilization, and to impose its morality on such a being as the nauseated Roquentin, is – Sartre would impress upon us – the crime of the bourgeois.
We can be grateful to Sartre for one thing: his writings about other members of the pandemonium save us a lot of trouble. He has selected prime demons to praise in them the very ideas and qualities which we are discussing – ideas that darken our world. We can believe what Sartre says of them, because what he says mostly reveals what he himself was and thought – and his demonic noise is much the same as theirs.
His book Baudelaire, is a rich source of quotations from the poet laureate of Hell:
“As for myself, I say: the supreme and unique pleasure of love lies in the certainty that one is doing evil. – And man and woman know from birth that the whole of pleasure is to be found in evil.”
He proclaimed that Baudelaire’s soul was “an exquisite blossom”’ because he “‘desired Evil for Evil’s sake”. “In Satan,” Sartre wrote (speaking here, as so often, about himself as much as about his subject), “Baudelaire saw the perfect type of suffering beauty. Satan, who was vanquished, fallen, guilty, crushed beneath the memory of an unforgiveable sin, devoured by insatiable ambition, transfixed by the eye of God … Satan, nevertheless, prevailed against God, his master and conqueror, by his suffering, by that flame of non-satisfaction which … shone like an unquenchable reproach.” The vanquished, “because he was vanquished, carried off the victory”. And so: “being proud and vanquished, penetrated by the feeling of his uniqueness in the face of the world, Baudelaire identified himself in the secrecy of his heart with Satan.”
Baudelaire – Sartre recalls – would carry out sudden “gratuitous” acts, often destructive. Spontaneous, reasonless acts of destruction are commonly advocated by the demons. The explanation goes thus: If you act pointlessly, perform a sudden deed of purposeless violence and destruction, you have freed yourself from the compulsion of cause and purpose, and so from the restrictions of social convention, the limits imposed by law and custom, and even logic. The very “gratuitousness” proves your self-determination, therefore your “freedom”.
Why does such an act have to be violent and destructive? Because it must punish. It is an act of vengeance. Punish whom? The answer can only be “the Other” – which is to say, other people, society – in its chief dramatis persona, the bourgeois. Vengeance for what? For being in the way of the Self that would be free. For putting the restraints of civilization on it. For trying to pressure it into “inauthenticity”.
So a random act of destruction is a gesture for liberation. In other words, my words, it is an act of terrorism. Sartre’s philosophy, true to its Romantic revolutionary origins, inspired and encouraged terrorism. It taught, it preached: “As the freedom of your inner Self can only be achieved by doing what is forbidden, and as it is forbidden to kill – kill!”
To go so far as to kill in order to achieve your personal inner liberation is not only good, it is positively saintly. Sartre approves and endorses Baudelaire’s dictum: “In politics,” the poet of evil said,” the true saint is the man who uses his whip and kills the people for their own good.”
Sartre nowhere suggests that if you were to achieve the liberation of your authentic Self you would then be happy. That is not the purpose of that struggle in the course of which you may sacrifice other people’s lives. The achievement of “authenticity” – nebulous as the concept is – remains the sole objective. Not only does Sartre not promise happiness to the liberated “authentic” Self, he would have you despise happiness, reject it.
Happiness is a contemptible thing; yet another thing that is wrong with the bourgeois. Bad enough that the bourgeois perpetrates civilization, but he also pursues happiness. And that makes him base. “Baudelaire,” Sartre wrote, “belonged to this aristocracy of Evil” which would “never accept happiness because it was immoral”. And not only immoral, but also “ignoble”. “’Suffering’,” he [Baudelaire] said, “’is nobility’… No one is more despicable than the one who is happy.”
The sensitive man who suffers among the comfortable, the contented and the happy, knows that he is an alien, an exile. (From where, Sartre does not say.) He is a lonely “for-itself”; different from those who belong in the bourgeois world. He must assert his freedom – preferably by an act of violence – and then suffer. Freedom is a state he must attain, but it is a most unhappy state. We human beings, Sartre famously said, are “condemned to be free”.
The word “condemned” implies that there is no escape from freedom. It is our fate. Just as Karl Marx declared, contradicting himself, that social revolution was inevitable and yet could only be brought about by the proletariat making revolution, Sartre declared, contradicting himself, that we are all, as human beings, condemned to be free, and yet the authentic Self must struggle to liberate itself.
The phrase is a contradiction of the Roquentin message, and it presents a more dramatic contradiction in the psyche of the philosopher himself. Freedom both a compulsion and a punishment? Would Sartre then rather not be free? The phrase exposes a nostalgia in Sartre for subjection to some authority. And this may account for his emotional and political commitment to Marxism – even for a time to the Russian Communist regime, the total repressor of freedom.
Jillian Becker November 23, 2014
1. It is more than likely that he caught the disease willingly, as Thomas Mann’s fictitious “Dr. Faustus” does, and for much the same reason. See essay 9 above.
2. From Les Métamorphoses du Vampire, trans. C.F. MacIntyre, Les Fleurs du Mal, University of California Press, 1947.
3. From A Celle Qui Est Trop Gaie, Macintyre op.cit.
4. Baudelaire by Jean-Paul Sartre trans. Martin Turnell, New Directions, Norfolk Conn., 1950 p.87.
5. I do not of course mean to imply that all French writers were Romantics cultivating evil. Among the great unromantic novels of the nineteenth century there is for instance Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which could be said to confront the romanticism of hopeless ambition with compassionate but clear-eyed realism. But it was the Romantics, the “horrible workers” in Rimbaud’s words, who stoked the fires of destructive rebellion in generations of European intellectuals, until, in the twentieth century, they had grown so popular and powerful that they were able to create the New Left; incite seasons of violent protest demonstrations on city streets throughout Europe and even on other continents; inspire the formation of European terrorist gangs; and implant their anti-civilization ideology as a new dogma in schools and academies throughout the Western world.
6. From Night in Hell by Arthur Rimbaud, translation Paul Schmidt, Harper Colophon Books, Harper and Row, New York, 1976.
7. “In the 15 May 1871 letter he says that ‘Viendront d’autres horribles travailleurs’ (Other horrible workers will come along)—a prophetic assertion of his role as initiator of a process that would continue long after he himself had ceased writing.” – From The Poetry Foundation’s biography of Arthur Rimbaud (no author named).
8. Sartre can be heard saying this on a video clip published January 15, 2009.
10. Jacques Lacan, a Freudian psychoanalyst, wrote at length about the Self and the Other. He got the idea of “the Other” from Hegel. Lacan is one of the most opaque among these stygian writers. Example: “The Other is, therefore, the locus in which is concentrated the I who speaks with him who hears, that which is said by the one being already the reply, the other deciding to hear it whether the one has or has not spoken.” If after that you seriously want to know more about this fortissimo French demon – whom even Noam Chomsky, an American member of the rebel intelligentsia, has called a “charlatan” – see Lacan by Malcolm Bowie, Harvard University Press, 1991. The quotation in this note is from p.81.
11. Sartre derived the idea of the “authentic Self” from the writings of a near contemporary whom he deeply admired, the German philosopher (and Nazi), Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s definition of sin was “living inauthentically”.
12. The Gnostics believed that Man was created out of slime by an evil Demiurge, Greek for a craftsman. The Demiurge, often named Ialdabaoth, is identified in some Christian Gnostic creeds with the Creator God of the Jews, Jehovah. He is graded as the lowest God in the Gnostic hierarchy of the heavens.
13. Sartre op.cit. p.76.
14. Sartre op.cit. p.99. Sartre was an atheist, but not averse to using Christian imagery. He wrote that for the Self to assert its freedom “in a theocratic world” [one ruled by the Christian God], one must be “infinitely in the wrong”. He plainly relishes Baudelaire’s self-identification with Satan.
15. Sartre op.cit. p.66.
16. Sartre op.cit. p.74.
17. The Gnostic too believed himself to be a stranger in this world, exiled from the pleroma, the highest heaven, to which the divine spark in him would ultimately return.
18. Sartre was for personal freedom and also for totalitarian control. It may have been the irreconcilability of these two opinions that kept him from actually joining the Communist Party as many of his fellow demons did in the twentieth century.
The French Pandemonium (Two)
Georges Bataille 1887-1962
André Breton 1896-1966
Of all the cultivators of Evil in twentieth century France, none was so devout, so persistent, or plunged so deep into moral and material muck as Georges Bataille. He hungered and lusted for Evil. He was a coprophiliac, and a necrophiliac – committing, by his own confession or boast, an incestuous sexual act, in a state of “arousal to the limit”, upon his mother’s corpse in the moments after her death.
Bataille wrote that human beings, as a species, should move towards “an ever more shameless awareness of the erotic bond that links them to death, to cadavers, and to horrible physical pain.”
He was fascinated by the filthy, the stinking; by secretions, excretions, exudations; by things discarded, damaged, abandoned. “Bataille,” wrote one of his appreciators, “displayed a quasi-religious veneration toward objects and acts that, according to the mores of bourgeois convention, were targets of opprobrium … During the ‘30s, Bataille’s ‘literary’ activities centered on developing a theory of ‘base matter’, items and effluvia that remained impervious to assimilation by the all-consuming maw of bourgeois cultural respectability: feces, menstrual blood, cadavers, the baboon’s brightly colored anus, and so forth.”
But Bataille’s veneration of the disgusting was not just “quasi-religious” – it was intensely religious. It was Gnostic . This the admiring writer goes on to demonstrate, though without referring to the Gnostic precedent. He writes: “Herein lie the affinities between Bataille’s world view and the discourse of ‘negative theology’ or redemption through sin. … The duality between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’ obsessed him, but the habitual signs were reversed. He elevated acts of profanation or desecration to epiphanies: singular mystical moments of Oneness with the All. … For Bataille … the act of willfully violating taboos offered privileged access to the holy.”
Raised in a non-believing family, young Georges converted to Catholicism when he was seventeen, and even spent a year in a seminary studying to be a priest. When he became a priest of blasphemy, or holy sinner, he retained all the self-flagellating passion, all the pious devotion and aura of sanctity of the Catholic ecclesiastic. He remained throughout his adult life shut mentally in the box of religion with its atmosphere of incense and sulfur, its fixation on blood, pain, death and sin.
He contended that what was missing in ordinary modern life, what society lacked for full satisfaction, was the “expression of savage needs” that “subsist only at the limits of horror”. And what were the “limits of horror” in Bataille’s dream? Nothing less than ritual human sacrifice. The combination of agony, death, and religious rite was very much to his taste. He wrote: “Human sacrifice is loftier than any other – not in the sense that it is crueler than any other, but because it is close to the only sacrifice without trickery, which can only be the ecstatic loss of oneself.”
His best of all horrors was “ecstatic loss of the self” by choice: voluntary human sacrifice. He wrote: “The movement that pushes a man to give himself (in other words, to destroy himself) completely, so that a bloody death ensues, can only be compared, in its irresistible and hideous nature, to the blinding flashes of lightning that transform the most withering storm into transports of joy.” Oh, the intense joy of dying in excruciating pain! He and others in his circle formed a secret society which was to launch itself with a beheading. Every member was willing to be the sacrificial victim and have his head sawn off – but none would consent to be the executioner.
The external movement that he would have push him to transports of joy was Communism. Bataille’s apocalypse was the earthly one of Marxist revolution. He desired and expected “world socialist revolution”. He declared that – of course – he “preferred force to boring political and doctrinal debates” And that was his mildest expression of his political expectations. To satisfy him, the Marxist revolution would have to be extremely violent and terrible. He described his vision of it as a simultaneous mass slaughter, apocalypse, and cosmic orgasm: “Without a profound complicity with natural forces such as violent death, gushing blood, sudden catastrophes and the horrible cries of pain that accompany them, terrifying ruptures of what had seemed to be immutable [bourgeois civilization], the fall into stinking filth of what had been elevated [the great achievements of civilization] – without a sadistic understanding of an incontestably thundering and torrential nature, there could be no revolutionaries, there could only be a revolting utopian sentimentality.” And: “Revolt – its face distorted by amorous ecstasy – tears from God his naïve mask, and thus oppression collapses in the crash of time. Catastrophe means that by which a nocturnal horizon is set ablaze, that for which lacerated existence goes into a trance – it is the Revolution – it is time released from all bonds.” And would be a liberation for George Baaille personally, who believed (as did Jean-Paul Sartre) that he was a “me … in its prison”. (11)
Nothing less than the greatest degree of violence would ever do for Georges Bataille. That is the implication of his objection to a passage in which André Breton (the writer credited with being the inventor of Surrealism) recommends random massacre as an excellent form of self-expression. After what we’ve learnt about Bataille’s love of mass slaughter, we would surely look for his eager approval of Breton’s plans. And were they not brothers in the great French tradition of sadism? Well, yes: Bataille did regard Breton as a friend for a time; but as an enemy for a much longer time. He despised Breton’s work –“dislocation of the senses” though it was, to recall the famous phrase of Arthur Rimbaud – as “bourgeois”. They agreed that to kill people, any people, was a thoroughly admirable thing to do, but quarreled over how it should be done. Bataille quotes Breton as declaring in 1929: “The simplest surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd. Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization [this being his description of our civilization] in effect has a well-defined place in that crowd, with his belly at barrel level.” But this was too milquetoast for Bataille. He scorned this outpouring of terrorist passion as mere “poetic agitation” and demanded to know, “Where is the untrammeled frenzy of the heart?” 
Surely, one might think, this was a matter of “means justified by the end”? Did Bataille not expect, beyond his ideal “thundering and torrential” apocalyptic revolution, a final Marxian era of all being well, with the masses living peacefully and equally in an earthly paradise? The answer is no, he did not. Although – unlike most of his fellow demons – he described what that future ideal life would be like, his vision did not betray his tastes:
“The post-revolutionary phase implies the necessity of a division between the economic and political organization of society on the one hand, and on the other an antireligious and asocial organization having as its goal orgiastic participation in different forms of destruction.” To elucidate this wishful vision: In the socialist world to come, in addition to the new political and economic order that will be imposed [“organized”], there must also be enforced [“organized”] social disorder which will include compulsory orgies. Compulsory sexual orgies. Orgies of perverse sex. Populations will be forced into constant public performances of rape and sodomy and sadomasochistic torture. And in these orgies there must be “destruction”. Of what? Of people. He confirms this by adding: “Such an organization can have no other conception of morality than the one scandalously affirmed for the first time by the Marquis de Sade.” The Marquis de Sade had notoriously defended and advocated the committing of incest, rape, pedophilia, torture, infanticide, necrophilia, and had committed whichever of them he could whenever he could. He wrote of murder that it was “often necessary and never criminal”.
Bataille mentions some of the thrills that will arise from “the organizations that have ecstasy and frenzy as their goal”. They will be “the spectacular death of animals, partial tortures, orgiastic dances, etc.” That “etc.” – as if everyone would know what else ordinarily belongs with such events – is remarkable. It suggests Bataille came to believe that his “visions of excess” were quite common; that it was common for a person to enjoy watching torture to induce his own physical ecstasy. “One of man’s attributes,” he mused, “is the derivation of pleasure from the suffering of others, and … erotic pleasure is not only the negation of agony that takes place at the same instant, but also a lubricious participation in that agony, it is time to choose between the conduct of cowards afraid of their own joyful excesses, and the conduct of those who judge any given man need not cower like a hunted animal, but instead see all the moralistic buffoons as so many dogs.”
To summarize: It is not just good, but the highest good, that one should take great pleasure in the suffering of other people, because it is a terrific erotic trip. Not to indulge oneself in that “joyful excess” is to be a coward.
If there’s something surprising about George Bataille, it is that he never – as far as anyone knows – actually raped and tortured anyone to death. But he did not entirely content himself with thinking, dreaming and writing about rape, torture and murder.
It can come now as no surprise for us to learn that this man who longed for a society in which the frequent and compulsory infliction of pain and death would be organized as part of everyday life, was attracted to Nazism.
“Given what we know about Bataille’s predisposition to violence and sadomasochism, is it really surprising that he may have been seduced by a movement that openly flaunted its indebtedness to an aesthetic of shock and horror?” writes his appreciator. This view that Bataille was “seduced”, as if he was an innocent corrupted, is gravely mistaken; but it is perfectly credible that he was attracted to Nazism, to its “aesthetic of shock and horror”. Hitler and Mussolini surely manifested sufficient “frenzy of the heart” to impress Bataille.
He wrote: “The religious value of the chief is really the fundamental (if not formal) value of fascism … The chief as such is in fact only the emanation of a principle that is none other than that of the glorious existence of a nation raised to the value of a divine force (which, superseding every other conceivable consideration, demands not only passion but ecstasy from its participants). Incarnated in the person of the chief (in Germany, the properly religious term, prophet, has sometimes been used), the nation thus plays the same role that Allah, incarnated in the person of Muhammad or the Khalif, plays for Islam.”
Despite this approbation, it seems he never thought of himself as a “fascist”. Like all his compatriot demons, he viewed “fascism” – by which he meant Nazism as well as Mussolini’s movement – as a political opposite to Communism. With him, as with Western communists generally, this view survived the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 – and is still widely held by Marxists in the present day.
In the late 1930s, two years before the outbreak of the Second World War, Bataille and some like-minded intellectuals formed the Collège de Sociologie. Its theoretical aim was to return society to “the primitive” (an echo of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the ur-father of all the French demons). But then the war came, Germany conquered France, the Wehrmacht marched into Paris followed by the Gestapo, and the members of the Collège became afraid. Cruelty and violence, they learnt, were not just titillating notions; they were acts in reality. The Collège disbanded, and years later, one former member explained: “The war had shown us just how inane the College of Sociology’s endeavor had been. The dark forces we had dreamed of setting off had unleashed themselves entirely of their own accord, with results quite different from what we had expected.”
It is hard to imagine what results could be expected other than the ones that occurred. And the “dark forces” had not “unleashed themselves”. They – the shills of Evil, Bataille and Breton and the other demons – had created and mobilized them. Nazism was their wet dream come true. The receptiveness of the French intelligentsia – and of European leftist opinion as a whole – to the vicious ideas of Bataille and his like, is a thorny fact. When they saw and experienced those thrillingly naughty things actually happening, even the French demons themselves – being, almost all of them, bourgeois to the core – were terrified by it.
But did the reality of war, conquest, mass murder, “violent death”, “gushing blood” and “horrible cries of pain” wake them up, change their minds? No.
Did the Holocaust put an end to the games the aesthetes played with Evil? No.
As soon as the game-players, the shockers of the bourgeois, felt themselves safe again; as soon as the bourgeois world was re-established, and prosperity and plenty regained through the hard work of the resilient bourgeoisie, Evil recovered its appeal to the advocates of horror, and they crept out and stood up as staunchly for Evil as they had before – to be again enthusiastically applauded and generously rewarded for it by the bourgeois civilization they so despised.
Jillian Becker December 21, 2014
1. Richard Wolin, The Story of I: Unearthing Georges Bataille, Bookforum, Spring 2004.
2. Wolin op.cit.
3. Wolin op. cit. According to the Church Fathers, who destroyed the records of the second century Gnostics but wrote their own accounts of their beliefs and rites, the swallowing of menstrual blood was part of the sacred rituals of some of the sects. To hold sacred what the Pauline Church considered profane was certainly part of Gnostic doctrine, as it was of the personal revolt of Georges Batailles against conventional mores.
4. Wolin op.cit. Batailles was attracted, as one would expect, to the historical Gnostics. He found them interesting enough to write an essay titled Base Materialism and Gnosticism (included in Vision of Excess, cited in Note 6), but did not delve deeply into their origins and cosmogonies, about which he makes erroneous statements. He describes their practices and rituals in terms that should suggest his admiration and respect. Gnosticism, he wrote, “manifests above all a sinister love of darkness, a monstrous taste for obscene and lawless archontes [heavenly powers]”. “Certain sexual rites”, he opined, “fulfilled an obscure demand for a baseness that would not be reducible, which would be owed the most indecent respect”. Yet, amazingly, he seems not to have recognized them, from their orgies of perverse sex, their drug-taking, their rites with bodily waste, their promiscuous perverted sexual practices, their contempt for the material world, their cultivation of Evil and their belief in redemption through sin, as his own semblables.
5. Wolin op.cit.
6. George Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927-1939, edited and translated by Allan Stoekl, Manchester University Press, 1985. The quoted passage is the caption Bataille gave to an illustration (Figure 16) of the Aztec religious rite of tearing the heart out of a living human victim.
7. Bataille op. cit. p. 69, Sacrificial Mutilation.
8. Bataille op. cit. p. xiii, Introduction.
9. Bataille op. cit. p.137, The Psychological Structure of Fascism.
10. Bataille op. cit. p.134, Sacrifices.
11. Bataille op. cit. p.131, Sacrifices.
12. Bataille op. cit. p.39, The “Old Mole” and the Prefix Sur in the Words Surhomme [Superman] and Surrealist.
13. Bataille op. cit. p.101, The Use Value of D. A. F. de Sade.
14. The Marquis de Sade, Philosophy in the Boudoir.
15. Bataille op. cit. p.102, The Use Value of D.A.F. de Sade.
16. Bataille op. cit. p. 101, The Use Value of D. A. F. de Sade.
17. Wolin op. cit.
18. Bataille op. cit. p.154, The Psychological Structure of Fascism.
19. Wolin op. cit.
20. I doubt this is true of British or American intellectual circles. Since 1985, when Allan Stoekl’s translations of Bataille were published, “Anglo-Saxon readers can’t seem to get enough of Bataille”, writes Wolin in the article cited. This comes as a surprise to me. Neither in Britain nor America is he much talked or written about by those who would do so if that were the case. Though this is far from a reliable poll, it is interesting to me that most of the people – serious readers – to whom I’ve mentioned Georges Bataille, in England and the United States, say they don’t know anything about his work, and many do not even know his name. What Wolin asserts may be true (alas) of the liberal arts universities, but if so his personal popularity seems to be confined there. That is not to say, however, that the corrupt ideas of the French romantics, revolting against reason, have had no effect on America. The poison pumped out from America’s academic heart streams through the nation’s arteries and has, I contend, gone far in corrupting it intellectually and politically.
The French Pandemonium (Three)
Jean Genet 1910-1986
Michel Foucault 1926-1984
When the Second World War was over in Europe in 1945, and the enormities perpetrated by the Nazis had been fully revealed à tout le monde, Evil did not lose any of its popularity among the anti-bourgeois intelligentsia of France. If those who had survived war and occupation, deprivation and terror, and in some cases confinement, had a sense of being supped full with horrors, it seems to have been short-lived. Their appetite for blood, for torture, and even for mass murder, soon revived.
Most of the novels and plays of Jean Genet – works in which he “explored the potentialities of evil” – were published or performed after the war. He wrote fascinatingly about criminals. His play Haute Surveillance, first performed in 1949, is about a prisoner who, sentenced for committing only small crimes, murders a fellow convict in order to be recognized as someone capable of doing far worse. The bourgeois audiences found it shocking, but not the intellectual elite. In 1952 Jean-Paul Sartre published an essay about him titled Saint Genet. What made Genet a saint in Sartre’s eyes was his criminality. He was a saint because he was a thief. And – even more glamorously romantic – he was a homosexual prostitute in the days when that too could land a man in jail.
All convicted prisoners were victims of the bourgeois and his civilization, in the opinion of Michel Foucault, another of our demons. He declared: “Delinquency, solidified by a penal system centered upon the prison, thus represents a diversion of illegality for the illicit circuits of profit and power of the dominant class.” (It’s often hard to make out what Foucault is getting at, and interpretations by his expositors can be hardly less challenging, but we know what class he was alluding to here, from much that he wrote and said, and from the catch-phrases of the era.)
In the life and works of Foucault, all the strands we have been tracing are knotted together: the bourgeois’ rebellion against his own class; Romanticism; the supremacy of feeling; the Faustian choice; Marxism; nihilism; sadism; enthusiasm for human sacrifice; elective illness. Also, the Christianity-haunted pursuit of evil; “redemption through sin”; the reversal of values; the imprisoned “other” Self with esoteric knowledge of a high spiritual order: in a word, Gnosticism.
Foucault, the French demon par excellence, was a disciple of Georges Bataille. Their tastes were the same. Foucault endorsed the master’s praise for “erotic transgression”, rhapsodized over “the joy of torture”, and longed to assist his hero in carrying out human sacrifice as a holy act and a thrilling work of art. Together they schemed – but did not institute – a “theatre of cruelty” (as had the clinically mad Antonin Artaud before them), in which actual murder would be performed for an audience. They saw a profound moral value in murder – if the murderer gets a buzz out of it.
Some ideas emerge from Foucault’s writings distinctly enough to be examined. Among them, that the law-abiding bourgeois should be punished with violent oppression; mass reprisals are preferable to individual trials; and cruelty should be a normal way of life. Yet he is praised for being “always ready to protest the fate of the wretched and powerless”.
Even if some of his works can be interpreted as “protesting the fate” of the criminal, the lunatic and the sadist, “always” is going much too far. The mass of his oeuvres proclaims his enthusiasm for rendering anybody and everybody wretched and powerless, preferably maimed, and best of all dead.
He did not except himself. To “redeem existence” from “unbearable banality”, he hankered to be caught up in what he called “limit experiences” of pain, terror, madness, and fatal illness: “the overwhelming, the unspeakable, the creepy, the stupefying, the ecstatic”, embracing “a pure violence, a wordless gesture”. All this he sought for himself, and – though an intensely self-obsessed man – generously desired for others too; and if others did not want it, well, they should be forced to endure it. And even if the victims could not raise their consciousness so as to be overjoyed, the inflictions would not be wasted, because Foucault could wring for himself from their suffering, the last drop of excruciating pleasure.
And this pleasure should not – he fantasized – be only an occasional treat. A demon such as he should not have to perform acts of torture and life-endangerment only for a rare thrill, but such experience should be continually on tap. He believed, like Bataille, that cruelty should be a way of life – the only way of life, a constant part of everybody’s everyday life. “We can and must,” he wrote, “make of man a negative experience, lived in the form of hate and aggression.”
An admiration of Nazism would have been consistent with that opinion. After such a season of evil as the Nazis had provided, an “exploration” of it might have been a reasonable thing to undertake. But it wasn’t the Nazis and their deeds that interested Genet or attracted Foucault. Their enemy was still – or again – the bourgeois with his law and order; still and always the civilization of the Western world, that Britain and America had fought to preserve after France had fallen like a ripe plum into the outstretched hands of Adolf Hitler. Generally, Europeans on the Left did not hold the West to be a worthy victor. The triumph, in their eyes, belonged to Communist Russia, and their gratitude and esteem went to Joseph Stalin.
Foucault joined the Communist Party in 1950. Like Bataille, he expected Communism to turn everyday life into glorious hell. He said: “When the proletariat takes power, it may be quite possible that the proletariat will exert toward the classes over which it has triumphed a violent, dictatorial, and even bloody power. I can’t see what objection one could make to this.” 
But how could he, intensely and unremittingly self-obsessed as he was, find the anti-individualist ideology of Communism attractive? Apparently he wanted it to beat the individuality out of him. Like Bataille, he looked forward to “the Revolution” with “eschatological expectation”. Not only would it destroy the bourgeoisie and usher in violent and bloody dictatorship, it would also crush individuality. Then he, Michel Foucault, might at last “transcend his sense of personal alienation”.
Meanwhile, the Party, with its iron control over its members, its demand that they see as it would have them see, think as it would have them think, might transform him. He explained: “Being obliged to stand behind a fact that was totally beyond credibility, was part of that exercise of ‘the dissolution of the self’, of the quest for a way to be ‘other’.”
The “other” would emerge from the smelting furnace of Party discipline, pure, brilliant, triumphant. The Communist Party demanded that he lie, he lied obediently; but when his longing, searching, aspiring, banal self had not dissolved after three years of submission to its will, he withdrew from it. Even so, he did not renounce Marxism. For a time he associated sympathetically with Maoists. And he reveled in the romantic excitement of the New Left’s fun “revolution”. One of the favorite slogans of the “sixty-eighters” – the New Left student rebels who clashed with the police in Paris night after night, most violently in May 1968 – was “Be Cruel!”. They emblazoned it in graffiti on the walls of the Sorbonne. The command was surely inspired by the demons, who in turn found the students’ imperative an intoxicating affirmation of their philosophy. In 1969 Foucault, at the time professor of Philosophy at the University of Vincennes, joined a student rabble in throwing bricks and stones at the police – while (he confessed) being careful not to dirty his beautiful black velour suit. (He could afford to own luxurious things – including expensive cars – as his income was liberally supplemented by his wealthy bourgeois parents.)
While he flirted with collectivist ideologies and movements, his lonely quest for transfiguration continued. Oh, “to think differently from the way one thinks”! Writing, he supposed, might be a way “to become someone other than one is”. He also tried cutting himself, and taking mind-altering drugs. A true “horrid worker” he was doing what Rimbaud had prescribed: “deranging the senses to become a prophet”.
Another way, he thought, was through “transgression”. He recognized that this was the Faustian choice: do what was forbidden as a means of becoming different and astonishing. By “transgression” he did not mean only the breaking of bourgeois moral taboos but actual crimes; and not just ordinary everyday crimes, but crimes of the most atrocious sort, of “pure violence”, such as were dreamt up by his chief historical role model, the angel of anguish, the prince of pain – the Marquis de Sade:
“Ten corpses – a man, a wife, their eight children – lie in the smoldering ruins of a burned house. The libertine who torched it surveys her handiwork: ‘I examine the charred bodies one by one, recognize each: these people were alive this morning, and now, but a few hours later, here they are, dead, killed by me. And why did I do it? Out of fun. To spill my fuck. So this is what murder is’.”
De Sade had “suffered” incarceration when his fantasies of cruelty and murder were considered dangerous – as indeed they were. But to Foucault he was “not mad, but tragic”. Tragic because he was shut away so he couldn’t carry out all his fantasies. (He had carried out some, which was the reason for his being confined in a madhouse.)
Foucault sought pleasure in the pain of both body and mind. He mutilated his body and terrified his mind. As nothing was more terrible than death, he desired it most passionately. “Complete, total pleasure,” he declared, “is related to death.” He contemplated suicide, thought of it often through the greater part of his life, and claimed to have “attempted” it many times. He expected and intended that suicide would be the way he’d die. He made “lifelong preparation for it”. It would be “a simple pleasure”, a “suffering pleasure”. It would be a way of “exploring experience in its negativity”.
To take his death into his own hands would not only hasten that crowning moment of “complete, total pleasure”, it might also bring about, at last, the release of his other Self. The “other” Michel Foucault would be emancipated in his own death-throes, to experience “a moment of free existence in suicide”.
He fantasized about participating in a “suicide orgy”, and eventually, in full consistency, that was the way he chose. He went, equipped with instruments – or “toys” – of torture, to orgies of sex, drugs, pain, cruelty, and terror, knowing that they were a way to his death, and intending that that’s what they should be. He endured and wallowed in them in the bathhouses of San Francisco where homosexual men congregated, many of them infected with the HIV virus. And when he knew he had AIDS – incurable at that time – he returned to the bathhouses deliberately to infect as many other men as he could. It was slow suicide and slow murder; according to his philosophy, the transcendent “limit experience”. How much he really enjoyed the prolonged period of slow physical disintegration to which he condemned himself no one of course can know. But he did not try to cut it short by some swifter means to death in order to achieve that moment of exquisite agony in which he expected to feel himself – or his hidden Self – liberated by death.
Perishing, he seems to have been in awe of what he had chosen to do. He wrote of “actual sacrifice of life”. “Sacrifice” was the word he chose. Murder and suicide carried, to his mind, religious significance. His hagiographer Miller asks rhetorically: “Was this his own singular experience of a death-dealing ‘disease of love’?” It surely was, if love is the right word for brief physical connections in clubs and bathhouses where “you meet men who are to you as you are to them: nothing but a body with which combinations and productions of pleasure are possible. You cease to be imprisoned in your own face, in your own past, in your own identity”.
The very title of James Miller’s book, The Passion of Michel Foucault, speaks the message that all the Romantics we have been looking at, from Rousseau to Foucault, burn to have the world accept: that their rebellion against conventional values, their defiance of the civil order, even or especially their obscenest fantasies and most ruthless crimes are all performed in the interests of a higher morality, an ideal Good, way beyond the understanding of ordinary mortals. Because their extraordinary perception – a gift, a talent a genius which makes them innately superior but only hideously different in the eyes of their bourgeois contemporaries – is not understood, they are made to suffer, they are martyrs to that higher cause. Foucault spoke of “the intuitive” as being “the most elevated form of knowledge” – the very definition of the Gnosis, which the second century Gnostics held to be the possession of the specially gifted only.
Foucault wrote, quoting Bataille: “’Transgression affirms the limited being and it affirms the limitlessness into which it leaps’, opening a space of possible transfiguration and offering us moderns ‘our sole manner of discovering the sacred in its unmediated content’.” Again from the serpentine coils of language a meaning can be wrested: that the sacred can be known through desecration, and sin can be a means to transfiguration. So we are to understand that Foucault and Bataille (like Baudelaire and Genet, according to Jean-Paul Sartre) are holy sinners, or saints of hell. And there we have again that essential Gnostic doctrine: the way to salvation is through sin. Or, as Foucault himself put it: “transgression becomes a means to transcendence”. Or, in simple terms which serve to stress that the idea is nonsensical: go all the way down to go all the way up. 
His hagiographer, James Miller, declares, in part quoting Foucault himself: “In an implicit inversion of the apotheosis of Christ on the cross, the man martyred for his erotic practices reveals not the eternal glory of God in heaven, but the ‘lyrical core of man, his invisible truth, his invisible secret’.” He elaborates: “‘a compulsion to malignancy’, like a ‘thinking that is shattered’, far from being shameful, might provoke ‘an ascent into grace’.” It’s a hazy sentence, but what is distinct is the religious language. It suggests that a sinner, through his sin, can “provoke” his redemption. But Michel Foucault was not “martyred for his erotic practices”; he was made sick to death by his erotic practices. He died for no cause but his own sexual and emotional thrills, in a prolonged, consummate “limit experience” of dread.
Absurdly hyperbolic praise has been heaped upon him. Paul Veyne, professor of History at Vincennes, said of Foucault that he was “the most important event in the thought of this [20th] century”. Yet far from contributing to the advancement of mankind, his example was atavistic: to live by the dictates of the instincts, the appetites, and the emotions – in other words to be savage. And like the savage, he justified all he did as a service to mystical powers – named the powers of hell by Christianized Europe. So he praised the savage thought of his friend and idol Bataille as “a transubstantiation ritualized in reverse – an unholy communion with uncanny daimonic forces.” By “daimonic” he may have meant only mystical forces, but the connotation of evil is inescapable; and to judge by all we know of Foucault and Bataille, evil is what they longed for them to be.
Foucault and Bataille were themselves “uncanny daimonic forces” in the intellectual life of twentieth century France. Their immense popularity, the rapturous reception accorded their demonic works, could only mean that France itself was turning away – continuing to turn away – from reason and civilized values.
On the European battlefields of literature, philosophy, and politics, Romanticism has won an overwhelming victory. The “horrible workers” predicted by Rimbaud, have been elevated by public (bourgeois!) taste into the intellectual giants of contemporary thought. And they have influenced taste everywhere in the pan-European world. Now, in the early twenty-first century, in most of the faculties of the humanities, in most of the academies of the West, the French cult of Evil is virtually an orthodoxy – even in America.
Jillian Becker March 8, 2015
Unless otherwise attributed, the English versions of quotations are from The Passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller, Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1993. Miller’s book, though not entirely uncritical, is effectively hagiography. A more critical view of Michel Foucault and his works is Foucault by J. G. Merquior, Fontana Press, Harper Collins, 1985.
1. The Daily Telegraph’s obituary of Jean Genet, April 16, 1986.
2. The play was performed and published in English with the title Deathwatch.
3. Prolix, labyrinthine, and obscure as his writing can be, he is not the most opaque among his compeers. For sheer unintelligibility few can rival the “deconstructionist” Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). I quote at random from one of the enormous tomes of his translated works (A Derrida Reader, Columbia University Press, 1991, p.34): “The order of the signified is never contemporary, is at best the subtly discrepant inverse or parallel – discrepant by the time of a breath – from the order of the signifier. And the sign must be the unity of a heterogeneity, since the signified (sense or thing, noeme or reality) is not in itself a signifier, a trace: in any case is not constituted in its sense by its relationship with a possible trace.” In my own experience, knowing the context of such a passage, and familiarizing oneself with words (eg. “trace”) to which he ascribes a special meaning, does not aid comprehension. To sample texts by a bunch of his near rivals – including Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan who are among the better known in Anglophone countries – for the palm of incomprehensibility, try The Structuralist Controversy, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1970. Such writing destroys meaning, and in Derrida’s case particularly, it is intended to. For that reason, their work could be as lethal to Western civilization as a nuclear war.
4. Miller p.15.
5. Foucault concerned himself with the criminal in Surveiller et punir (Discipline and Punish), the lunatic in Folie et déraison (Madness and Civilization), and with the sadist passim through all his works. He admired R.D.Laing, the anti-psychiatry psychiatrist and cult figure of the New Left, who argued that “insanity is a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world”. In other words, the insane are “really” sane and the sane are “really” insane – just as the criminal are “really” innocent, and the innocent, who punish them, are “really” criminal. Like Laing, Foucault opposed the separation and confinement of lunatics. Promoted by Laing and others – possibly including Foucault – that opposition became popular, and resulted in the decision of most Western states to empty the insane asylums and close them down. “Release them into the community” was the way the bien pensant liked to put it. (“As if there really were such a thing, waiting to receive them in its warm embrace,” commented the psychiatrist and essayist Theodore Dalrymple.) Since then, untold numbers of mentally ill persons may be seen wandering and sleeping on city streets, bewildered, shelterless, vulnerable, defenseless, filthy, hungry, miserable and fated to early death.
6. Foucault said this in conversation with Noam Chomsky on a Dutch TV program, November, 1971.
7. Foucault defended himself from accusations of self-contradiction by saying: “Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same.”
8. Quoted from Philosophy in the Boudoir by the Marquis de Sade in Foucault ‘s book Folie et déraison (translated as Madness and Civilization – “civilization” being a synonym for “insanity” in Foucault’s perception?).
9. Miller pp. 260-261.
10. The Nazi philosopher Heidegger – an oracle to the French demons – put it thus: “To tap the primal essences of our own animal nature – that is transcendence.” And with that we hear the ghost of Rousseau, whose ideal was the “natural man”, mumbling assent in the background.
11. Quoted by Roger Kimball in The Perversions of M. Foucault, a review of James Miller’s book The Passion of Michel Foucault, in The New Criterion, March 1993.
12. Since Foucault knew that an epidemic of AIDS among homosexual men had broken out in San Francisco, he surely caught the disease as deliberately as Baudelaire – and Thomas Mann’s fictitious Faust – caught syphilis. And for the same reason: because he believed that the physical agony and mental derangement it would cause, would release his genius. At the same time the terrible adventure allowed him to “explore the depths and the heights”, as Goethe’s Faust yearned to do. And perhaps to reach transcendent heights by sinking to inhuman moral depths, as Heidegger (see note 10) recommended.
Georg Lukács (1885-1971)
Georg Lukács was the quintessential revolutionary romantic of the twentieth century, longing to avenge his inner desolation on the civilization that nurtured him. And as an active participant in two revolutions and two despotic regimes, that is what he did.
With this essay we come to the nub of the whole series. Like all the other self-absorbed intellectuals we have talked about, fictitious and real, Georg Lukács advocated the doing of evil as the necessary means to a higher good. But unlike the others, he found himself actually in possession of the power to harm and destroy other lives, and he used it with passion and pride.
He was born in Budapest in 1885. The son of a banker ennobled by the Emperor of Austro-Hungary, he was nurtured in luxury. In his late teens he started writing professionally, reviewing plays for a small circulation periodical. He promoted the staging of avant-garde drama. He also tried to write plays, but without success. He realized and accepted that he “would never be a producer” and regretted that he “was no writer” – by which he probably meant a writer of plays, novels or poetry.
In fact he wrote prolifically. His first book, Soul and Form, appeared in 1910; a collection of essays mostly in literary criticism. Their dominant themes are art, Romanticism, longing, God, love, death, and bourgeois life. The volume was greeted with critical acclaim. No less a judge of literary merit than Thomas Mann – who was later to be the most insightful and devastating critic of Lukács’s character – praised the work as “beautiful and profound”.
One of the essays is about some German and Swiss writers who, Lukács allows, created admirable works despite being bourgeois. “The bourgeois way of life signifies only a denial of everything that is beautiful, everything the life-instinct longs for”, he states with conviction.
This was not the disdain of the aristocrat for a class beneath him. (The von Lukács family, for all its wealth and title, would in any case have been classed as haut bourgeois rather than true nobility.) Nor was it (yet) a revolutionary’s contempt for the established order. It was the romantic artist’s repudiation of the average and ordinary. Lukács deemed himself an artist because, he wrote, “the essay is an art form”,(3) and essays such as his could be “intellectual poems”.
He concedes that a degree of genius is to be found in the works of those ordinary bourgeois men who were nevertheless writers. “This bourgeois way of life,” he wrote, “has no value whatsoever, in itself. For only the works which it brings forth confer value upon a life lived within such a framework and within such a form.”
What makes a life bourgeois, Lukács explains, is “first and foremost by the exercise of a bourgeois profession”. (One of the writers he examines earns his living as a judge, another as a clergyman, another as a government clerk. Lukács himself had no need to earn a living.) “A bourgeois profession,” he goes on, “as a form of life signifies, in the first place, the primacy of ethics in life”. These ethical men “do their duty”. The characters in the stories of one of them are “incapable of evil”; there is “no real sin” in their world. But that, to Lukács, far from being a fine thing, is a fault. The artistic achievement of these merely ethical men is, he declares, “great after its own fashion”. But he himself valued the aesthetic far above the ethical. The highest art could not be achieved by a person who binds himself to duty, but only by one who is capable of sin, intimate with beauty, and whose life-spirit longs for … the unreachable. For years his life-spirit burned with longing, seeking what it could not find; the search, and its frustration, being the tragic fate of such a soul as his.
“This longing is more than just something waiting for fulfillment, it is a fact of the soul with a value and existence of its own; an original and deep-rooted attitude towards the whole of life, a final, irreducible category of possibilities of experience,” he wrote. Such a soul “will always long for something he can never reach”.
In 1911, Lukács wrote a story titled On Poverty of Spirit. It is told in the form of a letter from a woman to the father of a young man who has killed himself. She recounts a conversation they had two days before his death, about the suicide of her sister, who had been the young man’s lover. He talks at length about his ideas and feelings, for the most part philosophically, but he does state plainly that he is guilty of her death “in the eyes of God”, in that he failed to “help” or “save” her. One can discern through the thicket of beautiful profundities, that he had refused to marry her because he wanted to dedicate himself wholly to his work as a writer. Furthermore, “she had to die so that my work could be completed – so that nothing remains in the world for me except my work.” But after all the argument about it and about, Lukacs wants us to understand that the young man did the right thing when he shot himself, because of his guilt and for other sound, if rather obscure and certainly long-winded, philosophical reasons.
On Poverty of Spirit was written after – and about – the suicide of his own lover, Irma Seidler, whom he had not married, being dedicated to his work as a writer. She had married someone else, had not been happy, and had drowned herself. The story he wrote was a confession of his guilt. But he himself did not do the right thing. It was enough that his alter ego did it in the story: the brilliant young man tragically performing an extreme act of penance in fiction rendered it unnecessary for Lukács himself to perform it. Besides, what he, the author, did was something better, higher: he gave the episode a “form” as a work of art. When Lukács spoke of “form” he meant art – always expecting the word to resonate in the minds of his cultured readers with Plato’s theory of “Forms” or “Ideals”. To him, a work of art was a revelation, or representative, or reminder of the “noumenal” reality that – so Plato and Kant have convinced Middle European intellectuals – lies behind, beyond, above this “phenomenal” world in which we live.
When he wrote Soul and Form, Lukács believed that the two worlds were irreconcilable; that a soul belonged to one or the other. (He does not say, but almost certainly knew, that in the creeds of the old Gnostic cults, the souls of the “Perfects” or “Pneumatics” belonged to a transcendent world, while the souls of the common “Hylics” were bound to the earth). His own soul – he knew – belonged to the higher, better, mystical world, the world of “essences”; the unreachable world. Here in this world, “abandoned by God”, he felt he was a stranger, an alien on earth; that humankind did not belong here; and that there was “an antagonism between the soul and the world”. That is what he meant when he asked rhetorically- cried out, so to speak, in his writing – “How can one bring essence into life? How can life become essential?” For years he searched for an answer. Morbidly pre-occupied with death, tragedy, and the condition of the human soul – above all his own – he wrote: “Man is abandoned to immanent meaninglessness.” He longed for “an extinction of selfhood” through “complete absorption of the ego into a higher being”.
Often he conjectured that the only answer was in death, and he brooded on suicide. He declares in Soul and Form: “Life is without value, without significance, and we [presumably he and all those who suffer the same spiritual anguish] would be ready to consecrate it every moment to death.”
His was an intensely religious temperament, but he was drawn neither emotionally nor intellectually to any organized religion; not to the Judaism of his ancestors, nor to Christianity – though his parents had him baptized in the Lutheran church in 1897 so that he could attend a good Lutheran school.
Karl Jaspers – later a famous philosopher – met Lukács in Heidelberg in 1913 and had no difficulty recognizing the nature of his contemporary’s mystical beliefs. He records: “Many came to Heidelberg [University] who were men of letters and potential candidates for Habilitation. Among them was Georg von Lukács from Budapest and Ernst Bloch from Mannheim. … At that time, they were Gnostics who shared their theosophical fantasies in their social circles.” It is probable that Lukács simply announced to Jaspers and all the company that he was a Gnostic. He was calling himself a “gnostic activist” in his writings years before he became in any way active in public life.
By “gnostic” he meant possessed of that intuitive knowledge which is a special gift to the specially gifted. What he intuitively knew which the ordinary (bourgeois) person could not know in the same way, was that there was a higher better world, the “intelligible” world: the “essential” world; the “noumenal” world. What he meant by “activist” is less clear. He seems to have meant that he not only thought philosophically that there is a higher better world, but that he also felt it. The activity was not muscular but emotional. It was not worked out by the intellect but immediately known by “intellectual intuition”, through which one might become “good”.
Become good? But had he not rejected ethical behavior? Certainly he had – and by “goodness” he did not mean anything so bourgeois as ethical behavior. He expounds his idea of what goodness is in Poverty of Spirit:
“Prince Myshkin [hero of Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot] and Alyosha [hero of Dostoyevsky”s The Brothers Karamazov] are good; what does that mean? … [T]heir knowledge [gnosis] became realized in deed, their thinking left the purely conceptual realm of knowledge, their view of mankind became an intellectual intuition: they are Gnostics of the deed.” … “Goodness is the miracle, the grace, and the salvation. The descent of the heavenly realm to the earth. … It is an abandonment of ethic. Goodness is not an ethical category; you’ll find it in no consistent ethical system. And with good reason. Ethics is general, binding, and far removed from men; it is the first – the most primitive – exaltation of mankind over the chaos of everyday life; it is man’s moving away from himself, and from his empirical condition. Goodness, however, is the return to real life, man’s true discovery of his home.” … “Goodness is madness, it is not mild, not refined, and not quietistic; it is wild, terrible, blind, and adventurous. The soul of the good one has become empty of all psychological content, of grounds and consequences; it has become a pure white slate upon which destiny inscribes its absurd command to be followed blindly, recklessly, cruelly to the end.” 
In the First World War, Lukács was conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian armed forces; but he dodged the draft with the help of a certificate from Karl Jaspers (who was a qualified doctor and psychiatrist), and through the use of his father’s connections – the calling in of a favor owed to the banker by a personage close to the royal and imperial government. Duly declared unfit for active service, Lukács did his patriotic duty as a letter censor in Budapest for a few months in 1915.
It was after the war, when his country was in the abjection and disorder of defeat, that he found the answer to his spiritual search, a solution to his loneliness, despair and longing. He recognized that the “higher being” into which his “ego” might be “absorbed” was the International Communist movement. In December 1918 he joined the newly formed Hungarian Communist Party.
The commitment of his soul to the Party was no less religious for being political. He saw Communism as a cure not only for his own discontent – his despair, or loneliness, or Faust-like boredom with the contemplative life – but for everyone else’s too. He assumed that everyone suffered from the same malaise as he did. As a general social phenomenon he called it “alienation”, and declared it to be the result of capitalism and the bourgeois order. Communism, he believed, was the salvation of all mankind, provided only that each soul had faith enough and submitted utterly to its church.
He was not to find total commitment easy for himself. Despite the strength of his wish to surrender his will to its authority, he could not accept its dogma uncritically. On and off through the rest of his life he was in dispute with more powerful dictators of Party orthodoxy. And he was to suffer for his heresies. His altercations with power landed him at intervals in prison, sometimes briefly in death cells.
From his start as a Communist, Lukács felt an urge to proclaim his interpretations of Marxian concepts. Marx had ruled that the proletariat was the revolutionary class, its “class consciousness” the sole dynamic of the revolution. Fine. Wonderful. He could totally, and did passionately, accept that as a vital, central doctrine. But what, he pondered, was “class consciousness”?
This was his answer: “Class consciousness is not identical with the actual empirical consciousness of the working-classes in any particular aspect of its expression. It has nothing to do with the de facto consciousness of laborers. It is neither “the sum” nor is it “‘the average” of what single individuals who compose the class think, feel, etc. Nonetheless, the historically significant action of the class as a totality is in the final analysis determined on the basis of this consciousness and is recognizable only out of this consciousness.” So as an individual member of the working-class you do not have it. Who does have it then? The Party. “The Party is the bearer of the consciousness of the proletariat.” 
In that conclusion, he was fully consonant with the thought of Marx and Engels as laid down in the Communist Manifesto. But the gimlet eye of the Party penetrated his opaque writings sufficiently to convince it that Georg Lukács preferred Hegelian “dialectical idealism” to Marxian “dialectical materialism”. This “revisionist” view repeatedly got him into trouble with the theorists of ideal collectivism and necessary oppression who ruled the Soviet Union and its empire. He accepted punishment with monk-like obedience.
As a “gnostic activist”, he continued to think. Thought that advanced the Communist cause, he explained, “became deed”. The work assigned to him by the Party was to think, and he thought fiercely. Like Robespierre, de Sade, Bataille, and Foucault, he was excited by the idea of a reign of terror. In order to establish the ideal Communist state, the Party once in power should practice random victimization. Every individual should feel himself isolated, able to trust nobody. The Party should lay down capricious rules, administer unexplained punishments indiscriminately and erratically, and by these methods “annihilate” the values of the monarchical and capitalist social-political order that it had replaced. This meant, of course, the forfeiture of individual freedom. The terrorized individual would desperately seek security through submission to the Party’s totalitarian command.
Lukács explained: “Capitalist objectification of consciousness brings about an excessive individualism and a mechanical reification of man. … The inner life of the Party is a constant fight against this capitalist bequest. The decisive organizational instrument of struggle can only be the utilization of the Party members in their total personality for Party work.” The Party must “absorb every member, his entire personality, his entire existence, into the life of the Party.” The Party members must desire this above all things: to become one with the Oneness which is the Party (as “Perfects”, gifted with the gnosis, when freed from this world of things, will return to the Pleroma from which they came, to become at last one with the divine). The Apocalypse of Christianity and the Revolution of Marxism meant the same thing: the end of the old world and the dawning of the new.
The dawn came. On the 20th March 1919, the Hungarian Communists, under the leadership of Béla Kun, seized power and proclaimed the Hungarian Soviet Republic. The four months and thirteen days that the new Republic lasted (March 21st to August 1st 1919), was time enough for the people to grow hungry, and they did. The city dwellers in particular struggled to find food. The Party leaders and their henchmen, however, made sure they got all they wanted. Lukács himself continued to live in comfort and plenty. He moved his parents out of their splendid house in Budapest to their country villa, and stayed on in the house himself.
Hunger was only a part of the sufferings of the Hungarians under their first Communist regime. The Commissars tried to implement the atrocious policy – passionately promoted by Lukács – of making every citizen feel afraid. They sent groups of violent bullies about the country under orders to murder men, women and children arbitrarily and indiscriminately on any pretext or none.
It was a blood-soaked summer. Shortly after the Soviet Republic was declared, it found itself at war with Czechoslovakia and Rumania. Lukács – who had had no training in arms, and had not been found fit to fight in the World War – was attached to the Fifth Division of the Hungarian Red Army as a top commander with no rank but the formidable title of “political commissar”. He took his responsibilities very seriously. When some units of his division ran away in panic without firing a shot, Lukacs picked eight men at random who belonged to their battalion, and “had them shot in the market place”. 
This sensitive aesthete, this melancholy introvert, this cultured philosopher, this world-weary mystic, was at least as willing to spill blood as any of his fellow tyrants. His official position in the new Hungarian government was People’s Commissar for Culture. His intention, he said, was to create “a spirit of brotherhood, mass faith [in the Party], and a new morality”. He could do this, he believed, “by spreading knowledge and art”. His first act to help spread knowledge was to close all the bookshops and stage book-burnings all over the country. Then he organized the distribution of the right sort of reading matter – Communist propaganda and his own works – by sending it in vans directly to the masses in the places where they congregated and displaying it on “flying bookstands”. He established the grandly-named National Council for the Products of the Mind. Among its schemes to re-educate the masses, was one to bring the peasants and proletarians to watch theatrical performances that dramatized political messages. But it failed. The actors refused to perform. They got away with their disobedience, probably because their announcements from the stage that they were on strike were greeted with loud and unanimous jubilation by the audiences, who had been marched from farms and factories into halls and theaters to be force-fed Lukács’s feasts of culture.
Others who offended him were less lucky. On his personal orders, a young medical student who displayed “counter-revolutionary tendencies” was stabbed to death and his body was flung in the Danube. Though Lukács did not wield the knives himself, and though he believed murder was “absolutely forbidden”, Lukács felt exalted by his effective part in the killing. To do so was to serve the higher morality, to sin for the greater good; which meant that he was not merely absolved from the sin, but by committing it, was sanctified. “Only he who knows that murder is absolutely forbidden may murder, thus taking on himself the conscience-burden of unforgiveable criminality as the greatest possible self-sacrifice for the Communist Party.”
At the end of July 1919, the Rumanians broke through the Red Army’s defenses and stormed into Hungary. Most of the Communist leaders fled, but Lukács “went underground”. (Actually, he hid in the garret studio of an artist, sleeping on her chaise longue.) When some of his comrades were caught and executed, and a new extremely vengeful government was installed in Budapest under Admiral Horthy on August 6th, Lukács escaped to Austria. But he was arrested in Vienna and imprisoned – in a lunatic asylum. A petition launched internationally, and signed by Thomas Mann among others, persuaded the Austrian authorities not to extradite him to Hungary where he was under sentence of death.
He stayed on in Vienna until, in 1930, he and his second wife moved to Moscow, where they remained – except for a break in Berlin in 1931 – until after the Second World War. He was put to intellectual work in the Marx-Engels Institute. In the years he lived in Soviet Russia, the Party tested his faith to the utmost. He survived Stalin’s “Great Terror” of the 1930s, and a purge of Hungarian Communists that the great dictator launched in the 1940s. Lukács was imprisoned along with many of his compatriots, but was spared execution when – again – influential persons (Communists this time) pleaded for his life. Some thousands of his fellow Hungarians were killed.
After the Second World War, Lukács returned to Hungary, then a satellite state of the Soviet Union and so again under oppressive Communist rule – visibly and menacingly supported by Russian troops and tanks. As a long-time member of the Communist Party, Lukács had little difficulty in acquiring a position in the Academy of Sciences and a professorship of Aesthetics. He took some part in the puppet government, chiefly it seems in helping it to remove from positions for which they were qualified those writers and academics whom he labeled as heretical, non-conformist, or dissident. More than a few of the many non-Communist intellectuals who were forced into unskilled labor or disappeared into prisons in the first four years after the war, owed their humiliation, deprivation and ruin to Lukács. But in a social order where nobody was to be trusted and nobody was secure, his turn had to come round again, and so it did: other members of the ruling elite attacked his political opinions and he too lost his university post in 1949. For some six years he played no part in public life. In the mid-1950s the Party recalled him to its service to help it purge suspected heretics from the Hungarian Writers’ Union.
On October 23, 1956, an uprising of workers and students brought a change of leadership. The Kremlin allowed a “liberal” prime minister, Imre Nagy, to take power and the Russian soldiers and tanks were recalled. Nagy appointed new ministers, and once again Georg Lukács found himself Minister of Culture. For a week the Hungarians rejoiced. Then Nagy announced that Hungary would withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, and four days later the Red Army and their tanks were back in much greater numbers. Thousands of Hungarians were killed and many more thousands wounded. The Russians dragged dead bodies behind their tanks through the streets of Budapest.
Lukács got wind of the return of the Russians the night before they reached Budapest, and he and his wife sought and were granted asylum in the Yugoslav embassy. But he was arrested anyway. Imre Nagy and other comrades of the regime were executed, but (yet again) Lukács was spared a death sentence. He was exiled to Rumania instead. In 1957 he was allowed to return home, but was deprived of all official positions, stripped of all honors, and kept out of the Party. Nevertheless, he remained a devout Marxist to the end of his life in 1971.
What will remain longest of George Lukács is a devastating fictionalized portrait of him by Thomas Mann in his great novel, The Magic Mountain. It is set in the Swiss Alps, in and around a sanatorium for the treatment of tuberculosis, and is about a Europe that was sickening towards its millions of deaths in the First World War. The figure of Lukács, Leo Naphta, is a (tubercular) Jesuit of rejected Jewish origin and fervid Communist mindset. He and an Italian rationalist humanist (suffering the same physical illness), Ludovico Settembrini, engage each other in a prolonged verbal duel through many chapters of the book – until their antagonism carries them beyond words to a duel with pistols, and Naphta shoots himself.
Naphta believes there is an “absolute purpose” which “sanctifies any means, even criminal”. Settembrini deplores the terrible idealism of the Communist Jesuit, by which “the individual is replaced by all-consuming, all-equalizing community” and experiences a “mystic annihilation in it”. Naphta revels in visions of agony and ecstasy, believing in his own capacity to rise to “the invisible heights of the spirit”, remote from human experience. He wishes all mankind “condemned to the terror of annihilation”.
Settembrini denounces Naphta’s collectivist heaven on earth as “the sterile utopia of the absolute spirit”. Though he is much entertained by their debates, which he conducts with calm courtesy, he is repelled and disgusted by his adversary’s nihilism – and his taste for extravagant luxury. Naphta’s cheap room is furnished with sumptuous things – lent to him by the Jesuit Order – laid over grime and decay. On his wall hangs a fourteenth century painting, a lurid Pieta, with “blobs of blood” on the tortured body of the deposed Christ. Thomas Mann sums up Naphta’s moral and physical condition with the perfect phrase, “voluptuous putridity”. And he understood the sickness of Naphta’s mind to be also the sickness of Europe.
As in the fiction, so in the reality: Georg Lukács’s Gnostic Christianity and Utopian Communism amounted to nothing more or less than a repudiation of life itself.
Jillian Becker July 19, 2015
Unless otherwise noted, I have used the English translations from Hungarian and German texts by Victor Zitta, from his book Georg Lukács Marxism, Alienation, Dialectics, Revolution, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1964. It is by far the best book I have found on Georg Lukács. The facts of Lukács’s life come from numerous sources, including Zitta.
1. Record of a Life (transcripts of tape-recorded interviews with Georg Lukács), Verso Editions, London, 1983 p.33.
2. Georg Lukács and Thomas Mann by Judith Marcus, Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1994 p.29.
3. Georg Lukács, Soul and Form, translation Anna Bostock, Merlin Press, London, 1974 p.18.
4. Marcus p.25.
5. Soul and Form, Bostock pp.17&21.
6. Georg Lukács, On Poverty of Spirit, translated by John T Sanders: appendix to a Columbia University Press edition of Soul and Form, New York, 2010.
7. Women, the protagonist says, cannot understand the sacrifice of life for “the Work”. Understanding requires “poverty of spirit”, and women are incapable of it. Even many men are incapable of it. “A normal and unclear person is never poor in spirit : his life always has countless possibilities ahead of it and in it; if one category has broken down, or if he breaks down in it, then he happily moves over to another one. Poverty of spirit is nothing more than a prerequisite, just a beginning stage in the proper way of living … Poverty of spirit is liberating myself from my psychological limitations in order to deliver myself up to my own deeper metaphysical necessity; delivering myself up in order, thereby, to realize the Work.”
8. “Lukács’s questions [asked in Soul and Form] ‘how can essence become alive?’ and ‘how can life become essential?’ find their answer in the ‘gnostic activist’ whose knowledge is action because his action is knowledge, for whom essence welds with existence.” Zitta p.59.
9. George Lukács, Die Theorie des Romans (The Theory of the Novel) (1920). This typically Gnostic statement is also echoed by existentialist writers of the twentieth century, notably Jean-Paul Sartre.
10. George Lukács, Die Theorie des Romans. He defines “transcendental homelessness” as the “longing of all souls for the place in which they once belonged” (a typically Gnostic notion), and also as “nostalgia for utopian perfection”.
11. Zitta comments (pp.57-58); “Lukács’s attainment of human love is dependent upon a rejection of normal human intercourse and communion; it stems from an a priori rejection of normal human love, into which he infuses a terrible suspicion that impels him to find ‘true’ human love – in accordance with his hyper-Romantic standards – possible only after the lovers had committed suicide. Unadulterated understanding and communion among lovers is impossible in this ‘ordinary’ life.” And Lukács’s idea that perfect love should be consummated – and consecrated – by each lover committing suicide was carried over into his Communism. “Death for the sake of the utopian community makes the loss of life worthy: moreover, faith in it replaces a need for individual immortality.” Zitta sees that this statement “casts illuminating light upon the spiritual genesis of contemporary radicalism”.
12. Marcus p.144.
13. Habilitation: a post-doctoral university degree that qualifies the successful candidate to be a university lecturer. Jaspers succeeded in 1913; Lukács – who held doctorates from the universities of Budapest and Berlin – failed.
14. Ernst Bloch became a well-known Marxist philosopher, and, like Lukács, he reposed mystical expectations in his Communist faith.
15. Zitta writes (p.55): “[‘Gnostic activism’] amounts to a radical rejection of an attitude of contemplation carried to extremes in his previous position, and no more compatible with sanity, for an attitude of total activism – a transformation of all thought into all deed (or emotion) exclusively and completely … “ The emphasis is mine, because years were yet to pass before Lukács’s “activism” could be said to have resulted in a deed. Zitta perceives a psychological movement in Lukács towards self-divinization. ”The ‘gnostic activist’, maintains Lukács, is innocent, in virtue of a grace that removes in him all second thought about and activity geared toward the realization of the ‘essence’, because the ‘gnostic activist’ is the very essence, the God-Man upon whom the world had waited. ‘In the hero who finds himself while creating himself, the pure essence awakens to life, the ordinary life sinks to nothingness.’“ So Lukács himself is the God-Man, the hero, the new Christ. “Those who consider themselves (as Lukács did) to have attained to a condition of sinlessness, a condition of perfection, invite indecencies and even crime, as a vindication of their perfection … ‘Actions normally regarded as sinful are not sinful in the perfect’.” (Zitta p.62. Quotations from Die Theorie des Romans) This was the case with the Perfects of Catharism, the 13th century Gnostic “heresy” in southern France, to destroy which the Catholic Church brought the Papal Inquisition into existence.
16. How Lukács moves from contempt for ethical values to the adulation of goodness can provide a vivid example of dialectical reasoning. Thesis: Conventional ethical teaching is that goodness is good, badness is bad, and people should strive to be virtuous and considerate of others for the sake of civilized order and the protection of life and limb and property, and not be vicious, cruel, and destructive. Antithesis: Conventional ethical teaching that people should be virtuous and considerate of others is narrow, unimaginative, boring, conformist, and thus bad; so oppose it by being vicious and cruel, for the sake of beauty, creativity, art and heroism. Synthesis: Goodness is good of course, but the real, ideal, higher goodness is not civilized but wild; not dutiful but adventurous; not considerate but cruel. (“Evil be thou my good”, Satan says in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, crisply stating the ethics of Christian Gnostics through the ages.)
17. “Alienation” is a revered concept in Marxist doctrine. Zitta (pp. 145-146) finds the origin of the idea as a social ill in Rousseau (though he did not use the word), and that it “acquires in its development an infinite variety of meanings, depending not upon its mysterious denotation but the idiosyncratic experiences which are connoted by it in each individual case: The experience of a certain nausea (see essay 11 above, The French Pandemonium (One), Jean-Paul Sartre] a dis-ease [sic] and dissatisfaction with prevailing manifestations of culture and civilization, an experience of a loss of human substance and spirituality, and experience of depersonalization, tornness, inadequacy, which are often defined with a variety of terms such as ‘anomie’, ‘deraciné’, ‘reification’, ‘objectification’, …etc. The pervasiveness of its influence is correlative to the mysteriousness of its meaning.” It is a term that fits with the Gnostics’ idea that they were strangers in this world made by a low God of base material, and they belonged to a higher better one where the true remote God dwells in infinite depths of glory. Lukács echoed the idea explicitly when he wrote in Soul and Form, of an “antagonism between the soul and the world”. Zitta (p.149) quotes Lukács’s own definition of alienation as “an awareness ‘that man’s self-created environment is no longer his home but his dungeon’”. And Lukács “shows that human constructs, such as laws, institutions, etc.” – which is to say civilization – “become estranged from man, do not correspond to his inner need, and that this leads man to long for different conditions more in harmony with his inwardness.” In his inwardness is “a feeling of solitude”. And (p.153) “in a rather lengthy, tedious, involved, and incoherent section of his essay Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, Lukács shows that ‘bourgeois’ thought is trapped in this malaise and cannot escape from it”. As another Marxist puts it (p.145) alienation – or reification – is “embedded in Capitalist society”. And, Zitta confirms (p.180), Lukács made a “great claim for reification as a malady of ‘capitalism’”.
18. Lukács repeatedly speaks about ‘the absorption of every member of the Party with his entire personality, with his entire existence, into the life of the Party’.” Zitta p.241.
19. George Lukács, Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein (History and Class Consciousness] (1923).
20. Lukács went on believing this despite severe discouragement. Although he adulated Marx, Hegel’s mysticism greatly appealed to him. See eg. The Ontology of Social Being: 1. Hegel; 2.Marx, Merlin Press, London, 1978. Readers may find, as I do, that these works, written near the end of Lukács’s life, are largely unintelligible. Typical sample from Hegel p. 67: “If the same law of dialectical process holds for the absolute as it does for the entire finite world, then the difference and opposition of ‘here’ and ‘beyond’ vanishes from a consistently carried through dialectical ontology, which means that all objects (processes) of the ‘here’, of finitude, the earthly, etc., have the same ultimate ontological structure as the absolute itself. Gradations within this ultimate and universal dialectical homogeneity change nothing fundamental in this basic structure. The ontological victory of universal, contradictory process raises the unitary conception of reality as a whole to a qualitatively higher level in comparison with every past attempt.” An attentive perusal of the whole book, or a thorough acquaintance with “the dialectic” of Hegel or Marx, or Lukács, would not make the passage meaningful. I choose it because its “here” and “beyond” indicate that what Lukács is on about is his obsession with the “noumenal” and “phenomenal” worlds, which he also calls the “transcendent” and “empirical” worlds; or, in Plato’s terms, the “ideal, or “real” or “essential” world (heaven, abode of the “soul”) contrasted with this “unreal” world of appearances or shadows. His concern with the two “dimensions” is the dominant motif of his mysticism. He convinced himself that Marxist revolution could and would unite the two, allowing the “alienated” (world- and life-rejecting) introvert such as himself to “become essential” in this life.
21. “His measures … were capable of being hatched only in the mind of an intellectual and moral delinquent with exotic and extravagantly grotesque tastes – a ‘gnostic activist’. … This pulverization of all values … led to a complete destruction of the personality. It enabled a person to be manipulated at the nod of those who had powerful means to reduce anxiety to a minimum in exchange for absolute relinquishment of identity.” (Zitta pp.98,99.)
22. George Lukács, Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein.
23. Zitta p. 98: ”Because the cities were left without food, the newly and suddenly mushrooming bureaucrats were impelled to resort to arbitrary confiscations so that at least they themselves could obtain their fill.”
24. Gangs known as “Lenin boys” roamed the country with orders to requisition food from the collectivized farms and punish any resistance. The instruction amounted to a license to commit atrocities. A notoriously brutal sub-group was known as “the Szamuely detachments” as they came under the personal command of Tibor Szamuely [not to be confused for an instant with his younger relation, the anti-Communist Russian historian of the same name]. No one knows how many were killed in cold blood. According to the Library of Congress Country Studies: Hungary: Hungarian Soviet Republic: Section 1 of 1: “Revolutionary tribunals carried out 590 executions, some of which were for ‘crimes against the revolution’.”
25. Record of a Life, p.65. Lukács states plainly that he did this, and indicates no race of remorse; rather he relates the horrible story with distinct pride, as a measure he took to “restore order”.
26. Zitta p.101.
27. Zitta p.100.
28. Zitta p.108. Lukács ordered the stabbing of the medical student “perhaps … because, as a morbid mystic, an ‘enthusiast’, he had to verify his innocence, his inability to commit sin or experience guilt”.
29. He did not write this specifically in connection with the murder of the young man, but in a review of a novel, The Pale Horse, by Ropshin [Boris V. Savinkov]. It reveals how he justified to himself his part the Red Terror. He also wrote in Taktika és Ethika (1919): “The murderous deed of only that person can be – tragically – ethical, who knows, knows unremittingly and beyond any doubt whatsoever that under no circumstances is it permitted to murder.” (Zitta p.224.)
30. Lukács disguised himself as a chauffeur, but as he had never learnt to drive he pretended to have a broken arm, and sat in the car with an arm in splints and bandages, while his “employer” (a lieutenant-colonel in the “White Army” bribed by Lukács ‘s still wealthy family) drove him over the border into Austria. (Record of a Life, p.69) All the Red fugitives thought they would be safe from legal reprisal in Austria, since the union of Hungary and Austria under the imperial crown had been dissolved in 1918. They were wrong.
31. His first wife, Ljena Grabenko, was a fugitive Russian terrorist whom he met on a visit to Paris in 1911. Her lover, an Hungarian writer named Béla Bálazs, persuaded Lukács to marry her in order to give her Hungarian nationality. She brought Bálazs to live with her and Lukács in Heidelberg. It seems probable that it was not Ljena herself but her revolutionary passion and history that Lukács found so romantically moving that he was willing to accept the mortifying ménage à trois – and Ljena’s numerous other infidelities. His torment came to an end when, after the Russian Revolution in 1917, she returned to her homeland, there to be sent to a labor camp, and never – as far as Lukács was concerned – heard of again. In 1923, while he was living in Vienna, he married his second wife Gertrud Bortstieber, the Catholic daughter of a rabbi.
32. The number of Hungarian Communists executed in Russia under Stalin’s orders is estimated to have been between 1000 and 5000; which means many, but nobody knows how many.
33. That Lukács embraced Marxism with religious devotion could not be more clearly shown than by this statement in his book Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein: “Assuming if not admitting that recent research had verified the factual incorrectness of each single utterance of Marx beyond any doubt, these results could be acknowledged without hesitation by every serious ‘orthodox’ Marxist; he could reject each single thesis of Marx without giving up, even for a moment, his Marxist orthodoxy.” Zitta p. 152.
34. Lukács affirmed, “There is no doubt at all that I was the model for Naphta.” Record of a Life, p.94.
35. I have used H.T. Lowe-Porter’s translation of Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) by Thomas Mann.
END OF PART TWO
CONTINUED IN PART THREE