Today we have posted under Pages (see the top of our margin), an Appendix to the series of essays by Jillian Becker, titled The Darkness of This World.
It is a short account of the ancient Greek cults of Dionysos and Orpheus.
It is provided in particular to explain why a contemporary “Action” artist of Austria, Hermann Nitsch – the subject of one of the essays – declared his rituals to be “Dionysian”. In general it amplifies the analogies drawn throughout the series between the rebellious pursuit of evil in post-Enlightenment European cultures and ancient Gnostic cults.
Dionysos and Orpheus
The worship of the Greek god Dionysos was a primitive mystery religion. He was the god of wine. He had many names, one of them Bacchus – the name the Romans used for him. Because the celebrants at Dionysian festivals performed passionate choral “dithyrambic” hymns out of which Greek drama developed, he became also the god of drama, music, and poetry.
“Dionysos” means twice born. In a Thracian and Theban myth, he is first born when Zeus begets him upon a mortal maiden named Semele. In a Cretan myth, Zeus, in the form of a snake, impregnates his own daughter Persephone – born to him by Demeter, the goddess of agriculture – and Persephone begets Dionysus-Zagreus, who has the horns of a bull. In both, he is abducted soon after his birth by the Titans, the sons of Earth. (In the Semele myth, they are prompted to do so by Hera, Zeus’s consort, the Queen of Heaven, because she is jealous of Semele.) They tear the babe limb from limb, and eat him. But the goddess Athene retrieves his heart in the nick of time and brings it to Zeus, who swallows it whole. Then Dionysos is born again from his father’s thigh. Zeus punished the Titans by burning them up in a flash of lightning. From their ashes, humankind arose.
In the rituals of the worship of Dionysos, bulls and goats were sacrificed, both beasts being held sacred to him. Celebrants became intensely inebriated and danced wildly to the loud music of pipes, drums and cymbals, until the “god entered into them”, a mystic condition for which the Greek word was Enthusiasm. With the god inside them, they were freed from all restrictions of law and reason and, transcending even the supposed limits set by nature, would tear an animal or human being apart with their bare hands and feast on the raw flesh. Bands of drunken men and woman (but in The Bacchae by Euripides, only bands of women called the Maenads), ran and danced, naked or partially clad in the skins of fawns, and smeared with the blood of the animal or human prey, night-long, in wild places, leaping over earth and grass and stone, and indulging every erotic desire.
The story clearly signals that the Dionysian Mysteries involved human sacrifice.
To be initiated into the Mysteries, a man would perform a “re-enactment” of the god’s birth, death and re-birth in order to “become one with the god”. The rite included a simulated Descent into the Underworld (the Katabasis) – the initiate probably going into deep dark caves – to seek the God; or perhaps to find Persephone who spent six months of the year down there; and symbolically bring him or her back up from Hades to the light. The initiate would then be let into the secret of the Liknon, or Arc – that it contained a goat’s penis, or (most likely when the ceremony was performed in temples rather than in the wild), a wooden phallus. He would then be invested with an oak or ash wand, the Thyrsus, and bear it in procession to a celebration with his fellow initiates, all of them communing with the god by imbibing lavish quantities of his good wine.
A woman too could be inducted into the religion. She would be called “an Ariadne”. Adorned as a bride of Dionysos, she would first undergo ceremonial flagellation, and be hanged on a tree, possibly to the point of near asphyxiation. She would then “descend into the Underworld to meet the god”, and on her return the Liknon would be opened, and she would publicly consummate her union with Dionysos by using the sacred phallus as his representative. She would then join the god’s love-fest with the drinking of wine.
The Dionysos cult was already somewhat tamed by the time – no one knows when, but certainly not later than the early 6th century BCE – when Orpheus came along and reformed it. He may have been a living man, a priest of Thrace (modern European Turkey), or a Cretan. But then again, he could be entirely mythical. Man or myth, legends surround his name. He was the musician who (Shakespeare wrote in Henry VIII) “with his lute made trees/ And the mountain tops that freeze/ Bow themselves when he did sing”; and who, by his musical charms, gained passage into the underworld of the dead to fetch back his wife, Eurydice – a mission which tragically failed when he looked back at her before they regained the land of the living.
Whether he was man or myth, to him is attributed a development that did happen – the transformation of the savage cult of Dionysos into a moral religion. (By no means the first – both Zoroastrianism and Judaism preceded it – but the first among the Greeks.)
The Orphics taught that human beings had a double nature, of earth and of heaven, mundane and divine, as did Dionysos, child of the King of Heaven and a mortal woman. Thus man was mortal, but had an immortal soul. He could liberate his soul from his base earthly nature through moral practices, so that when he died, it would rise to its real home in heaven where it would live eternally. A good soul would rise immediately upon the death of the body. A bad soul would be punished by being confined in another body, again and again until it learnt to be good.
For men and women to purify their souls (the Orphic religion held that women were equal to men in the eyes of the gods), they had first to be ritually cleansed in the blood of beasts. After that ceremony, he or she wore only white garments and abstained from drinking wine or eating meat, except as a sacrament. Many pleasures of the flesh were renounced. Right living was commanded, and the continual observance of the Orphic religious rules. The ideal way of everyday life for the Orphic was ascetic. Only by following this path would they find spiritual redemption, and their souls, rescued from all earthly strife and pain, be united eternally with the divine.
Did the Orphics perform the sacrament of Enthusiasm as the Dionysian celebrants had done? That is to say, did they gather in crowds for the drinking of wine, for blood-sacrifice, and the devouring of freshly killed raw meat; did they run naked through the countryside and dance wildly and have violent sexual intercourse? Were willing “victims” flagellated, and hung on a tree until they were near death, then “reborn” in imitation of the god? In a word, did the Orphics indulge in a Dionysian “orgion” – an orgy? The word was the name of this sacrament. But it has come to mean a wild party of many intoxicated people abandoning themselves promiscuously to the pleasures of the flesh.
Or was the Orphic orgion less savage than the older Dionysian rite? One might expect so, but we do not know. Legend has it that their ideal was, yes, to become enthused and steadily augment the divine element in them as the Dionysians had done, only not with wine, but by striving for a profound understanding of esoteric Orphic teaching – which could hardly have been done in the course of one wild night. They drank wine only as a sacrament (as later the Christians did in the ceremony of the Eucharist).
One might suppose that the Orphics, with their morality and respect for all life, would balk at the sacrifice of human beings. But it’s not known if they did. And the legend of Orpheus’s death suggests that human sacrifice retained a place in their mythology if not also in their rites. For in the story Orpheus himself, the good priest, the beautiful enchanting musician, was torn to pieces and devoured by orthodox worshipers of Dionysos.
His innovations, however, survived him. The Orphic bloodwashing ritual was carried over into the Roman cult of Mithras, the majority religion of the Roman army. The initiate would stand naked under a grid, upon which a bull was slain, so that its blood poured over him. More significantly, Orphism introduced the idea of an immortal soul into Greek religion and philosophy. For the Greeks, that idea had its beginnings in the Enthusiasm of the Dionysian Mysteries. (In the Hebrew scriptures, the belief that the individual soul rises to God after the body dies may be far older. In the book of Ecclesiastes, attributed to King Solomon who died in 931 BCE, “the Preacher” writes: “The earth shall return to the earth as it was, and the spirit unto God who gave it.” And even older, by perhaps as much as five centuries, are the Zoroastrian tales of the individual soul’s adventures immediately after escaping from its dead body.)
Pythagoras (born 571 BCE) embraced Orphism, and his school of thought held that the individual soul, though it migrated from body to body, had knowledge of the god. Plato (5th into 4th century BCE) believed that the soul, or spirit, was immortal. Plotinus (204-270 CE), and his followers the Neoplatonists, believed that the soul was eternal and indestructible, not born with any particular person it may inhabit, and not ending with him either, only moving on forever into bodies new.
Christianity, which may have initially derived the idea of the individual soul or spirit either from Judaism or Orphic-influenced Greek philosophy (or possibly both), teaches several contradictory doctrines about the individual soul: that it bears the record of the person’s life, is responsible for what that person did, and will be judged by God according to its record; but also that regardless of what the soul made the body do in life, whatever good and whatever evil, it was predestined for heaven or hell before it was born in a body. And whether the saving or condemning to its eternal fate will occur immediately after the death of the body or at the end of time, when all souls will convene before the divine Judgement Seat, remains unsettled. Parts of Christian mysticism and some of its ritual could plausibly be traced to the Orphics (though for most of them other sources cannot be ruled out). Obvious examples are: the idea of the immortal soul; the infant god being the son of a divine father and a mortal woman; the infant god being hunted by men who would kill him; a dying and resurrecting god; the god’s descent into an underworld and his return from it; his performance of miracles (notably the turning of water into wine which was also told of Dionysos); the ideal of spiritual purity, to attain which morally clean living is commanded; the rite of baptism (though in water not blood); the sacrament of the Eucharist.
The religions most evidently descended from the Orphics were the Gnostic cults. Their theogonies and rituals – but not morality – were closely similar. All the Gnostic sects that arose and proliferated from the 1st to the 13th century CE, taught that the inner self, or soul, had what one might call “godness” – a spark from the true godhead. Those who were gifted with the gnosis – ie. with intuitive knowledge of the divine spark within and of the deity who bestowed it – would rise in the spirit to become one with that deity, who dwelt in the highest heaven, far above the Creator god who made this base world of filthy matter.
Although the Orphics did not regard this world as entirely evil, their idea that the soul should be purified so as to rise to the absolutely clean spiritual sphere could easily be understood to imply that this world is filthy and bad. And the Orphics taught that the earthly body is the tomb of the heavenly soul. This was also a Gnostic doctrine, almost certainly derived from the Orphic Mysteries.
But there was a difference between Orphic and Gnostic doctrines about the destiny of the soul. In Orphic doctrine, death does not often release a soul to start its ascension to heaven immediately, but more often traps it in body after body that lives and suffers and dies on this earth, unless and until its redemption is won (an idea probably drawn from far eastern religions, such as Buddhism). In most Gnostic teachings, those who know they have divinity within them, rise in the divine spirit from the dead base filthy body immediately after death, and soar upward to the highest height. They know the passwords to speak to the powers and principalities that guard the way to the godhead, so they might be allowed to proceed on their upward way, until they reach the Pleroma, there to dwell eternally with the mystic godhead, the source of all existence.
Finally – and most infamously in the judgment of the Catholic Church Fathers – the Gnostics kept the Orphic sacrament, the orgion. They kept it in the Dionysian tradition: drugged, drunk, naked and lewd. But not as a summoning of the God to enter their bodies, take over their will, and force them to indulge their appetites and lusts. The Gnostic orgy was a rite of deliberate sinning. Because they believed that this world was entirely bad, anything that was done in opposition to it was good. Because Christian and Jewish morality forbade adulterous sex, homosexuality, sodomy, pederasty and bestiality, those were the very acts that it was incumbent on the Gnostics to perform – for what they held to be the immeasurably Higher Good.
Today we have posted the last essay, number 18, in the series by Jillian Becker titled The Darkness of This World.
Find it in full under Pages in our margin.
Here is part of it:
America the Last Best Hope?
A multitude of enlightened Europeans cultivated reason, and built a culture that was innovative, prosperous, powerful, and humane. Other Europeans wanted to destroy all that, and succeeded. Rebels from and against the prosperous educated classes – philosophers and poets, artists and politicians – taught generations to intoxicate themselves with fantasies of destruction, spoliation, and atrocity that could, and at times did, inspire real events of vast horror, suffering, and death. From each of them Europe seemed to recover for a while. But at the time of this writing, the rebels have triumphed. The dark vision prevails. Europe is rotten. Multitudes of Europeans, seeing nothing in their culture worth preserving and no point in its survival, reluctant even to beget children, are yielding to immigrating hordes of aliens from the Third World who lust for conquest and are governed by laws devised in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula in the Dark Ages.
So must the greatness of Europe be altogether lost? Surely not! Surely in the states of America, united on Enlightenment principles of liberty, reason, tolerance, and participatory government, European civilization will be preserved and enhanced? There where every citizen is free to pursue his own happiness, to hold property securely, to have his say in a government of limited powers, the United States will continue to prosper and advance? America, it is said, is a forward-looking “can do” society – innovative, prosperous, powerful and humane. “The last best hope of earth.” [As President Lincoln said of his country in a message to Congress on 1 December, 1862.]
And for a while yet it may continue to be so. But the seed of the evil flowers of the culture – Marxism, political sadism, and most potently poisonous of all, the political philosophies of the New Left – have found as fertile soil in America as in Europe.
The mainly bourgeois “anti-bourgeois” terrorist groups that rose with the “sixty-eight” protest movement in America, did evil just as intentionally as their European counterparts. And went in for the same posturing and frivolity. The US was at war in Vietnam, and the anti-draft demonstrations on university campuses gave a serious aspect to the American rebellion, but the war and the draft were pretexts rather reasons for it, as two leaders of the young radicals, Peter Collier and David Horowitz, confessed years later in their book – the best I have found on the subject – Destructive Generation: “The war in Vietnam was a gift of chance that allowed radical leaders to convince others of a need for a social apocalypse and of the necessity for their destructive strategies.”
These authors, long since cured of the romantic radicalism of their youth, look back and “wince” at the “homemade hankerings for Armageddon”. The Sixties, they write, was a time of “monumental idealism”, when “dewy-eyed young people in the throes of a moral passion … sought only to remake the world”. They would do this by destroying “the evil empire of ‘Amerika’” and freeing “the captive peoples of the world”. It was a time, they say, “when innocence quickly became cynical “ and “when a gang of ghetto thugs like the Black Panthers might be anointed as political visionaries”.
The Black Panthers and many of the “dewy-eyed” rebels intended to do what they fully recognized as evil in pursuit of their ideals. For instance, a man known as J. J. – a member of the white middle-class group that became the terrorist organization called Weatherman and later Weather Underground – was notable for “his [drug augmented] high energy, his nonstop, almost demonic chatter, his ability to carry listeners with him by the sheer force of his words rather than their depth”. And J. J.’s idea “was not to create a perfect state operating by the clockwork principles of Marxist law but to promote a chaos that would cripple America and ultimately cast it into a receivership that would be administered by the morally superior Third World. Unafraid to pursue his theme to its logical end, J. J. would add that people shouldn’t expect the revolution to achieve a Kingdom of Freedom ; more likely, it would produce a Dark Ages.” J. J. “[laid] out the ‘White Devil’ theory of world history. ‘We’re against everything that’s “good and decent” in honky America. … We will loot and burn and destroy. We are the incubation of your mother’s nightmares!’”
As in West Germany, France and Italy, the terrorist bombers of America demanded their rights under the law that they broke, mocked, and abominated. “Despite their incessant complaints of police brutality, Sixties radicals lived for the most part in a no-fault system, demanding their constitutional rights at the same time as they were abusing and denouncing the Constitution. They knew they had the option, which many of them ultimately used, of diving back into the System [and their comfy bourgeois lives] when they tired of being extrinsic. (For this reason New Leftism, although discredited in politics, continues to thrive in the ‘academic work’ of former radicals who returned for postgraduate degrees to the universities they had earlier tried to destroy.) It was an example of the cynicism that marked the decade – counting on the fact that America was exactly the sort of flexible and forgiving society they were condemning it for failing to be.”
The evil was done not only to shock their bourgeois parents, as their drugs, promiscuous sex, and bombs were meant to do and did, but for a very much higher good, of course. The very much higher good: “social justice”; “ending oppression” in the forms of “ racism”, “sexism”, “homophobia”, “classism”, “imperialism”, “colonialism”; all of which required the destruction of “the capitalist system”.
Most of them did not, however, describe themselves as Communists. Without reading the works of Marx, or of Marxists, Trotskyites, or New Left political philosophers, they all – in harmony with their European counterparts – looked forward to a political apocalypse; a revolution that they considered themselves to be hastening, that would change everything and replace the earthly Hell of oppression and social injustice with a Heaven of … something yet to be defined.
Collier and Horowitz write of “the decade’s transcendental conviction that there was something apocalyptic lurking behind the veil of the ordinary, and that just a little more pressure was needed to pierce the last remaining membrane – of civility, bourgeois consciousness, corporate liberalism, sexual uptightness, or whatever else prevented us all from breaking through to the other side”. And: “Again it was that hunger to reach the apocalypse just beyond, the essential act that would make them real revolutionaries.” And “the Weatherpeople, like all parvenus, spent considerable time working on a genealogy that would connect them with noble [sic] forbears: Russian narodniki and European anarchists, Cuban fidelistas and Vietnamese guerrillas.”
A work of fiction that impressively conveys the real evil of the 60s rebels is American Pastoral by Philip Roth. A percipient discussion of it and the issues it raised was published in Commentary magazine by Carol Iannone. I summarize the plot and quote her most illuminating comments relevant to my theme:
An only child – cheerful, affectionate, charming as a little girl – of a business man who in his youth had been an athlete and a Marine, and his beauty queen wife, grows up to be “overtaken by the 60s”, sets a bomb in a post office and kills a local doctor. She goes underground and kills three more people in another bombing.
“In his manly way” (Carol Iannone writes) the father “ tries to see where his own responsibility lies for what has happened to his much loved daughter … only to be forced again and again to confront the blazing chaotic irrationality of it all. What he cannot understand … is her hatred of America. ‘How could she “hate” this country when she had no conception of this country? How could a child of his be so blind as to revile the “rotten system” that had given her own family every opportunity to succeed? To revile her “capitalist” parents as though their wealth were the product of anything other than the unstinting industry of three generations …’”
“The 60s, in brief, are not just about the bomber young and their war with ‘Amerika’; in the 60s, ‘the indigenous American berserk’, have entered the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, touching everything and everyone with their ‘mockery of human integrity, every ethical obligation destroyed’.”
It entered the academies, and through them the mind of the nation, until the counter-culture has become The Culture. Collier and Horowitz write: “[N]owhere is the entrenchment of the Sixties mentality more complete or more destructive than in the university. That the Left should now dominate the academy involves a savage irony, of course. It was only after failing in their intent to burn down the university in the Sixties that radicals decided to get on the tenure track in the Seventies. Unimpeded in their long march through these institutions by fair-minded centrists of the sort they themselves now refuse to hire, these Leftists have brought a postmodern Dark Age to higher education – “deconstructing” objective truths to pave the way for chic academic nihilism: creating a curriculum of contempt for American history and culture; and transforming many classrooms into chambers of inquisition and indoctrination.”
The demonic achievements of the rebels were crowned by the election, in 2008, to the presidency of the United States of one of their own: Barack Hussein Obama, the son of a 60s counter-culturist mother and an African father who was both a Communist and a Muslim; and was associated eventually in the son’s mind with “colonial and imperial oppression” of his ancestral land, Kenya, when it was under British rule.
President Obama acceded to the White House with all his ideological baggage intact: the credo of the New Left plus admiration of Islam. And this at a time when Islam was becoming the main enemy of the Western world, practicing terrorism on a large scale, waging open warfare in the Middle East, and launching a migrant invasion of Europe that European governments allowed, encouraged, and all too willingly submitted to. Obama’s policies facilitated the European calamity, and he took steps to help Islamic Iran, which constantly reiterates its intention to destroy America and conquer the non-Muslim world, to become a nuclear power. He has lowered America in the eyes of the world. He and his minions treat the Constitution with contempt.
In the universities the counter-culture has become the orthodoxy. A majority of instructors indoctrinate students rather than educate them, teaching them what to think rather than how to think. Some Leftist representatives in Congress have passed a resolution to curb free speech. And the spirit of free enterprise, which made America rich and mighty, has been all but crushed by tyrannical regulation. Wealth has been taken from those who have earned it and given to those who have not. In short, the New Left has triumphed – though without attaining its heaven on earth.
Can the harm it has done be undone? At present the dark stream of unreason flows strongly. The resistance to it should be the vigorous self-interest inherent in human nature, the desire in most of us to succeed; and the lure of science, technology, all they give us for the betterment of our lives. Only as long as free personal endeavor and innovation continue to characterize America, will there be hope – if not the last, certainly the best – for our splendid civilization to survive in this, our only world.
Today we have posted in our Pages section essay number 17, The Orgiasts (Two), in the series by Jillian Becker titled The Darkness of This World (Part 3).
Here it is in full.
The Orgiasts (Two)
Hermann Nitsch (1938 – ): Hell’s bells and buckets of blood
Hermann Nitsch, one of the founders of the Action Art movement in Austria, publicly performed rituals with animal carcasses and their viscera, and naked human bodies deluged with blood, to the accompaniment of cacophonous music.
He also performed his rituals at private “festivals “ in the courtyard of his home, a baroque castle standing secluded near the Austrian-Czech border. His wife, a Jungian psychoanalyst, had bought it to provide the perfect venue for Hermann’s “Orgy Mystery Theater”. There, Nitsch intended his performances to rouse audiences to such excitement that an orgy would spontaneously erupt.
I witnessed a performance in an art gallery (where I was introduced to Nitsch as “the international press”, having credentials from a British newspaper), and was invited to the castle a few days later.
In preparation for his Action, the flayed and eviscerated carcasses of sheep, goats, oxen and pigs were hung by the stumps of their hind legs from rails and hooks, each against a backdrop of a stretched white sheet, their heads dangling, open-jawed, a few feet from the ground. (In a theater or gallery there would be up to three; but at the castle, ten or more.) Their viscera were heaped near their heads on a plastic sheet covering the ground.
The action began with Nitsch’s assistants bearing in a naked, blindfolded youth (in public these participants were more often boys, but sometimes girls took part too), lying supine on a white stretcher or a wooden cross, and setting him down with his face directly beneath the gaping mouth of a skinned beast beside the viscera.
Recorded music – mostly organ and brass – started plangent and reverberating but not loud. Then Nitsch entered, and strode purposefully towards the carcass in black rubber boots: a thick-set man of medium height with tonsured black hair, dressed all in black but for yellow rubber gloves. At the same time his assistants brought plastic buckets, blue, yellow, black and red, and set them down near the naked body. Nitsch took up a bucket and ladled red wine into the open rear of the dead beast so that it trickled down through its mouth on to the face below. The trickle was followed by a splash, and another, and another, until Nitsch flung the ladle aside and – the music growing louder – sent all that was left gushing through the carcass. He seized another bucket, and poured all it contained through the carcass on to the body. The next bucket that he emptied in the same way was full of blood. Bucket after bucket was brought and emptied, faster and faster. A bucket of wine alternated with a bucket of blood. The downpour became a deluge, now the shining wine, now the viscous blood. The music grew very loud. Whistles and rattles, pipes and drums were distributed to members of the audience so they could swell the noise. Many of the watchers began to stamp, clap, shout as the spirit moved them. Nitsch heaved up the buckets in a kind of frenzy, and flung their contents randomly at the carcass, the backdrop sheet, and the boy below. Bits of raw flesh were now in the blood. The music rose to a deafening pitch, and could be felt rumbling underfoot. The naked body was so drenched that not an inch of white flesh showed through the red. A slippery pool formed on the ground, with the bits of flesh floating in the mess, and as Nitsch continued to swing the buckets, gouts and gobs spattered the spectators. Some of them slithered in the pool of blood and wine. At last Nitsch gathered the slimy viscera in his arms, and reaching up, struggled to stuff them into the stiff cadaver, poking, punching, wrestling with them as they bulged out of his grasp. Some long pieces of intestines tore away and fell over his face while he struggled on blindly. He slipped and fell, letting go the guts to flop where they may. The recorded music stopped abruptly. The whistles and rattles, pipes and drums, clapping and stamping subsided. When Nitsch rose and gestured to his assistants, the blood-dyed, gore-smeared body was taken up and borne away. In the sudden silence, the spectators contemplated for a moment the bloodstained white sheet and the dripping carcass, and then another naked white blindfolded youth was carried in and set down beneath the next beast, the music started again, and the ritual was repeated.
Originally Nitsch slaughtered the animals himself as part of his Action, but the Authorities had objected that his method was cruel. They permitted him to carry on with his performances, but only if he bought dead beasts from licensed wholesale butchers. At the castle, the rites would go on for hours, sometimes through the greater part of a day or night. The spectator-participants would be intoxicated with drugs and wine – some of it from the castle’s own vineyard. (Nitsch told me that he himself preferred wine to the drugs his acolytes brought to the castle – the cannabis, marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and hallucinogens – because he found that drugs “discouraged eroticism”.) They would be further entranced by the corybantic music. Their nostrils would be filled with the raw fetor of blood and guts, augmented by both incense and its counter-smell of animal excreta sprayed from cans. They were expected to be participants in the rite “like any congregation at a religious ceremony”, Nitsch explained to me. “But participating more intimately than co-worshipers. More even than communicants. Like the members of ecstatic cults, they should achieve a kind of trance – which is a proof of therapeutic response.” The ceremonies would be brought to a climax with “copulation, all kinds of sex, including sado-masochistic interactions”. (But, he assured me, my presence at the castle as “the international press” precluded an orgy.)
His performances, he said, were “catharsis-therapy, comparable to psychoanalysis”. He gave me a book, a very thick volume, in which he describes dozens of his actual and imaginary Actions. An example: “Hundreds of Popes, crucified, having a poem read to them while the Emperor Nero, 40 castrated boys, and 3,200 pigs help make up the orchestration.”
And this also is in the book: “Classical psychoanalysis is replaced by sensations which disinhibit and intoxicate: actions with raw meat, damp body-heated guts, bloody excreta, blood warm from slaughter, tepid water, the pleasure of splashing, squirting, pouring, sullying is heightened to intense joy by tearing raw flesh, stamping into guts. The shredded abreactions-god drops into the association-field. The dramatic burrows its way into the excitement of cruelty. Chaos, orgiastic drunkenness, breaks upon us. The intensity of the experience allows a mysticism of aggression and cruelty to develop.”
“The ultimate purpose of the artist,” Nitsch said, “is self-liberation. He needs to break through to the essential, strongly felt experience of existence. Calls to bliss are mixed with the pain of overcoming. That is why it is a form of therapy.”
In many chambers of his castle, crosses were displayed, upside-down or draped in used menstrual bandages. There were monstrances and censers. Blood-stained priestly vestments were hung in rows along a wall. In a long shed, rows of meathooks dangled from overhead rails. And there was a once-consecrated chapel, painted white and gold, with wooden pews carved and polished, and an altar. On the ceiling were frescoes of chubby cherubs with rosy flesh among diaphanous white veils and whipped-cream clouds, holding Christian symbols. Blasphemous rites, Nitsch said, were celebrated there.
Yet Nitsch vigorously denied that Catholicism had anything worth mentioning to do with his work for self-liberation. “My art is Dionysian”, he said. “There is both creation and destruction in our existence. All flows together in the River of Life. So in one festival I must represent all aspects of existence. My work contains cruelty but the opposite of cruelty too. People come here to eat, drink, wander in my garden, my orchard, my vineyards, and enjoy it all. That is important. But the shock of the performances is important. Cathartic, like the old Greek tragedies.”
Nitsch himself seemed a generous and even gentle person, not cruel. He denied that to stage performances with carcasses, guts, and blood-drenched people, was to feed an appetite for the sight of suffering. “On the contrary,” he said, “it channels such desires into art actions which might otherwise require sadistic expression in real life. Here the Opfers [the ‘victims” or “sacrificies” – the German word has both meanings) are all volunteers and none of them is ever hurt.” Not even psychologically? None had said so. “They understood that this too was part of the Heraclitean river of Life containing all things good and evil.”
1. I was commissioned by the Sunday Times Magazine to write about a festival of Performance Art held in Vienna from the 21st to the 30th April, 1978. A Magnum photographer was sent with me. My story was duly printed, with photographs. The cover of the magazine displayed one of the pictures of a Nitsch ritual. Two days before it was to be distributed with the newspaper, the editor became anxious about the pictures. He submitted the whole issue to the editor-in-chief, who apparently said: “You cannot put a picture of all that blood on the Sunday morning breakfast tables of the nation.” So the whole thing was spiked.
2. Nitsch’s performances were indeed modeled on the rituals of the cult of Dionysos, the Greek god of wine. In those rituals, bulls and goats were sacrificed, both beasts being held sacred to him. Celebrants became intensely inebriated and danced wildly to the loud music of pipes, drums and cymbals, until the “god entered into them”, a mystic condition for which the Greek word was Enthusiasm. With the god inside them they were freed from all restrictions of law and reason and, transcending even the supposed limits set by nature, would tear an animal or human being apart with their bare hands and feast on the raw flesh. Bands of drunken men and woman (but in The Bacchae by Euripides, only bands of women called the Maenads), ran and danced, naked or partially clad in the skins of fawns, and smeared with the blood of the animal or human prey, night-long, in wild places, leaping over earth and grass and stone, and indulging every erotic desire. The name for this sacrament was an “orgion” – an orgy. An appendix to these essays will describe the cult, and its reformed version in the cult of Orpheus; and how the Orphic Mysteries contributed to the dogma and rites of both Christianity and Christian Gnosticism.
3. The (3rd century?) Greek biographer, Diogenes Laërtius, in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers, summarizes the philosophy of Heraclitus (535-475 BCE) thus: “All things come into being by conflict of opposites, and the sum of things flows like a stream.” And: “Of the opposites, that which tends to birth or creation is called war and strife, and that which tends to destruction by fire is called concord and peace.” An echo of these ideas is sounded in the “dialectical idealism” of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), one of the most culpable philosophers in the flowing stream of European – especially German – thought, right up to the thinkers of the New Left.
Today we have posted essay number 16, The Orgiasts (One), in the series by Jillian Becker titled The Darkness of This World (Part 3). (Find it under Pages in our margin.)
Here is part of it.
The Orgiasts (One)
Peter Weibel (1944- ): Riot as Art
Otto Mühl (1925-2013): Crime as Art
When the tumult and the shouting of the “sixty-eighters” died down in Western Europe, and the terrorists were dealt with by the law courts, and the shallow ideas of the New Left had crystallized into an orthodoxy as “political correctness”, the shocking of the bourgeois – the chief impetus of the movement – was carried on for years in “Action Art”.
In Austria, which claimed to be its home, the political dimension of Action Art (Aktionismus) was inspired by the satirical “happenings” which anarchist groups performed as part of the sixty-eight fun-revolutionary protests.
Though at first the movement was just as dedicated to the defiance and denigration of the civil authorities as the student protests, Austrian Aktionismus actually came to be sponsored for a time by the state. By the late 1970s, exhibitions of Action Art were funded by the government, and even opened ceremoniously by ministers of culture. The artists were celebrities: acclaimed by the media, honored in the universities, given awards and generous grants. Many Austrians were proud of them.
But at the start, when the artists first performed their obscene acts, and painfully assaulted their audiences, they were arrested. Even then they were not held for long. There was an outcry from the progressive intelligentsia: “This is ART. Couldn’t the official barbarians understand that?” The official barbarians hung their heads in shame. This was an age when almost anything was allowed to ART. Criminal violence it may be, but it may not count as crime when it was ART.
In the summer of 1968, a group of Austrian Actionists toured Germany – Munich, Essen, Cologne – with a repertoire of performances in support of the student rebellion. They appeared in sports-halls and amphitheaters “before audiences of 2,000 and more”. They built a water cannon “with extra strong pressure” to turn on to the audience. One of them, Peter Weibel, explained to me (some years later):”The idea of the gathering was rebelling for Vietnam, and the audience had come to demonstrate that they were in solidarity with the Vietnamese who were suffering from American aggression. We believed that solidarity only counts if you are suffering too. But there the audience was, just sitting and not suffering at all. They were there to protest for Vietnam, but they were eating, drinking, doing nothing but waiting to be entertained, exhibiting the typical schizophrenic condition of this society. So we turned water on them.”
The audience did not accept the assault passively, not even for the sake of Art or Vietnam. They threw bottles back at the artists, and then the artists whipped them.
“But first I hurt myself. I worked with fire. Before turning the water on them or whipping them I burnt my own arm. I put chemicals on my skin and set fire to it. This was to show that I earned the right to make them suffer by suffering myself. It was saying to them, ‘Look, I’m in pain so I have the right to be taken seriously.’ In Cologne I had to go to hospital afterwards, and there they didn’t believe me that this was an art action. They called the police and the police thought I had been experimenting with explosives. But my intention was to make rituals. No masochism was intended. While I was burning I was smiling all the time, to say, ‘Look, you can trust me, I won’t lose my nerve.’ ”
He had to work hard on his whipping technique because, he said, “I used a very long whip and I couldn’t make it move fast enough at first, and people in the audience used to catch hold of it and pull me towards them, or jerk it out of my hands, until I learnt how to do it properly so that I cut their faces before they could do anything. The end was always a riot. The police came to stop it, we were arrested, and then we were fined. But that was part of the Action. ‘WAR, ART, RIOT’ the show was called. It was a campaign. Like a military campaign, only with Art.”
In that same momentous summer, one of the founders of the Action Art movement, Otto Mühl, along with other Actionists, put on a performance in the auditorium of the University of Vienna titled ART AND REVOLUTION. They announced that it was for the victims of the Vietnam war. Mühl described it to me as “pissing, shitting, beating, and masturbating while singing hymns”. He and the other artists were arrested and imprisoned.
By the later 1970s, Mühl had stopped giving public performances, preferring to concentrate on “self-expression psychoanalysis and therapy through sexual activity and all other natural functions”. His theories on psychotherapy, he said, were “derived from those of Wilhelm Reich – and also of course from Sigmund Freud, our Viennese Urvater of psychoanalysis.”
Otto Mühl had founded two communes: one in Vienna, and one on a farm, Friedrichshof, in the Burgenland near the border with Hungary (which was then, and for another two decades, under an oppressive Communist regime obedient to the Kremlin). He named the country commune “The European Center of the Action-Analysis (AA) Organization of Conscious Life-Praxis”. Followers of his movement formed “branches” in Berlin, Hamburg, Kiel, Bremen, Oslo, Geneva, and Paris. At the start of his campaign Mühl visualized a “world commune organization, a global society made up of communes”, all of them following the pattern set at Friedrichshof, for the better health and happiness of mankind. In 1976, membership of his organization peaked at a little over 500.
Central to Mühl’s “praxis” was Selbstdarstellung, or “SD”, meaning self-expression, carried out in groups under a Self-Expression Leader whose aim was “to exorcise the small-family person” – der Kleinfamilienmensch – from the communard-patient. The process, Mühl maintained, was “Action Analytical Art”. His Selbstdarsteller had to become a performance artist. Before an audience of fellow communard-patients, he/she “wanders through childhood and corrects the damage that was done” to him/her. “The audience will be deeply moved when the patient recreates the scenes of his childhood damage, lets himself fall into a birth-experience and demonstrates the meaning of health as a new-born baby. From the re-enacted birth-experience – often accompanied by an enactment of ‘the killing of Mummy and Daddy’ – the final self emerges in the Selbstdarstellung, which is also called ‘dissolving the genital armoring’.” Beyond that, he’d explain, “lies not only cure but true liberation”; that is to say, an ability to experience “psychophysical orgasm” by which the patient/artist is liberated to enjoy “full sexual and social freedom”. The person has “found his/her identity in orgasm”.
What actually happened in the performance ending with a rebirth? What was Otto Mühl’s work as an artist-therapist? Simply sexual activity in public. “Free sexuality is an integral part of commune-society. The exclusive two-person relationship is a sickness of the small-family person” Mühl told me. (He also, in an unguarded moment, confided to me that he was “surprised to find that many of the male patient-artists developed impotence in the course of the treatment”.)
Although the achievement of personal liberation from authority was one of the chief aims of the therapy, the commune had strict rules. Both men and women, for instance, had to have their heads shorn of all hair and to dress in uniform trousers with a flap in front “to facilitate work” – namely, copulation-masturbation-therapy. The enterprise was dedicated to the defiance and destruction of “authoritarianism”, and the method was regulated in a sternly authoritarian manner.
It was a life-style of enforced asceticism, combined with extreme libertinism. All bodily functions were on display; the bathrooms and toilets had no doors. No member was allowed privacy, or money, or any personal property. “The commune rejects commercial and profit thinking.” On joining, a member made over all his property and wealth to the organization, including real estate and income from any source, even student grants. Members were discouraged from making contact with their “small family” (more commonly called, in English, the “nuclear family”) or anyone in the outside world, because “society predetermines their emotional misery, as if the world were ruled by an evil spirit”.
The communal life itself, according to Mühl, was “an art form”. So was every performance of “direct art actions”, which consisted of persons – often, if not always, drugged – performing sexual activities before the rest of the assembled group, “with objects, animals, excreta” and fellow communards of either sex and every imaginable erotic desire. Photographs of the actions were taken, collected, edited, and published in professionally printed and bound volumes.
Children were admitted to the Mühl communes with their mothers. Some were born in them. “Children”, Mühl said, “grow up in the commune without sexual repression, so they will be healthy and socially well adjusted. The sexual activity of the parent is not concealed because nobody is made to feel that it’s forbidden.”
But adjusted to what society? …
The practice of any conventional form of art was discouraged (though Mühl himself painted in a private studio standing apart from the main buildings of the commune). “It is enough that the commune life is itself an art-form,” he said.
And so, in his theory, was death: “killing people is an element of art to come.”
“to make art – you do not need a piano – detergent and jam and urine will do – art may slip into every material and out of every hole – everybody can do art if he can find the pepper – boycott the pigs controlling the mass media – do not buy newspapers or tv-sets or cinema tickets – blast the opera houses – from now on all there is will be presented directly, coitus, torture, medical operations, destruction of people and animals and other objects is the only theater worth seeing – the rest is nonsense! – the inner life will be reduced to bodily acts – religious and political pigs can only be stopped by brutal use of all means – pornography [contrary to other statements] is a suitable means for curing society of genital-panic – the elements of art to me are eating, drinking, shitting and pissing, fucking and killing people. – these are the hot irons of our times – murder as art.” …
Today we have posted essay number 15, The Fun Revolutionaries, in the series by Jillian Becker titled The Darkness of This World (Part 3). (Find it under Pages in our margin.)
It is about the New Left rebel movements in Europe in 1967 and 1968; the Baader-Meinhof gang; the “Paris May”; and the political philosophers who incited and excused the violence that led to terrorism.
Here is part of it. As usual, we draw attention to the importance of the information in the footnotes (not added here).
The Fun Revolutionaries
Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979)
Louis Althusser (1918-1990)
Guy Debord (1931-1944)
The New Left arose in the Western world in the late 1960s. Its name was not intended to distinguish it from the Leftist regimes of Russia and China, and its philosophers and activists did not become famous for criticizing Stalin and Mao Zedong. What made it “new” was chiefly a momentous change in a central Marxist doctrine, forced upon it by History herself: the working class was no longer the bearer of “revolutionary consciousness”.
What had happened? The workers in the capitalist West had simply let the side down by becoming prosperous, and – what was worse – happy in their prosperity. They could not, would not, be persuaded it was in their interest to overthrow a system that provided them copiously with the good things of life.
It was a disappointing and downright treacherous development, and Communists found it hard to get their heads round it. While the revolution was still inevitable, who would become the dictator of the new order if not the proletariat? Some theorists reached in desperation for the Lumpenproletariat, the underclass of vagabonds, beggars, low-life criminals, which Marx himself had rejected as revolutionary material. But most shifted their hopes to the underdeveloped Third World with its vast reserve of underdogs, the “victims” of “imperialism” and “colonialism”.
One of the most prominent theorists of the New Left, Herbert Marcuse – considered by many to be its progenitor – reached for both the underclass and the Third World. He wrote: “The people [ie. the workers] recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment … [But] underneath the conservative popular base is the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colors, the unemployed and the unemployable. They exist outside the democratic process. … Thus their opposition is revolutionary even if their consciousness is not.”
He recognized, however, that the revolution needed to be led by persons who could understand what he was talking about. Who could those be but the young educated sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie?
They represented, Marcuse said, “the most advanced consciousness of humanity”. It was their mission to lead the exploited but ignorant “substratum” against the established order. They could understand that while the capitalist order might look good, really it was bad. Its material abundance lulled people into an illusion of contentment. Its tolerance was really a form of repression. By leading the revolution, they could liberate the free from freedom and rescue the well-provided-for from plenty. And they did not actually have to give up anything, or go anywhere to do it. They must only “give themselves to the Great Refusal”; say “no” to liberal democracy and capitalism, and with their advanced consciousness, feel at one with distant victims.
The thousands of young rebels who marched down the streets of West European university cities on Sundays and fine spring evenings in 1967 and 1968, did not have to read the works of Sartre, Foucault, Lukács, Marcuse … to know what they thought and taught. The intellectual atmosphere of the West was saturated with their ideas. Rising generations had only to breathe to be intoxicated with a passionate hatred of freedom and everything else the West stood for.
They knew Marcuse’s flattering description of them; and they knew that not every Marxist professor agreed with it. Louis Althusser did not think the student protestors could or should lead the revolution which he continued confidently to expect the workers to bring about. But he did allow them to consider themselves working class; to “identify with” the proletariat. Louis’s wife Hélène told him that she saw no proletariat – or none likely to make revolution and establish a dictatorship in fulfillment of Marx’s prophecy. In Louis’s eyes, that was sin and apostasy. So he strangled her to death.
What did the student protestors say it was all for, the anger, the tumult and the shouting? Gently-reared, well-nourished in safe and comfortable homes, educated in lavishly equipped academies, these beneficiaries of Western Europe’s post-war economic recovery (greatly assisted by America’s Marshall Plan) had no cause of their own. But Marcuse told them they were oppressed by plenty and repressed by tolerance. And Althusser told them they could be let off being bourgeois as long as they felt they were working class. They did not have to be for anything, only against their country, class, and civil order: against capitalism; against the bourgeois; against “authoritarianism”; against having to taking exams; against the “military-industrial complex”; against nuclear arms in the hands of Western powers (but not in the hands of the Soviet Union); against war in general, and the current war in Vietnam in particular, where America was supporting the South in conflict with the Communist North. America embodied almost everything they were against. America was “imperialism” itself.
Released by Marxist philosophy from the bonds of conventional morality, and being well supported materially by their compatriots whose labor allowed the country to afford the luxury of gesture politics, they joined together fiercely and joyfully in the marches, the sit-ins and teach-ins, the interruptions of public events in lecture rooms and concert halls, the abuse of figures in authority, and sometimes in actual physical clashes with the police – those ready representatives of “authoritarianism”. They felt brave, while knowing that the police would not hurt them. When, occasionally and without intention, in the midst of a skuffle, the police did hurt one of them, they were blissfully outraged, and claimed they had “brought the fascist out of the policeman” so everyone could see how right they were to protest.
Most of the demonstrators were satisfied after a while with making angry gestures and shouting for revolution. Before the decade was over they had had enough of it, and the movement petered out.
But in Germany there were a few who could not bear to give up the fun, the excitement, the romantic pretence that they were leaders of a revolution. To prove their worthiness for that role and show themselves to be more dedicated, more daring, more active, more heroic, more self-sacrificing, more angry in the cause of pacifism than all the rest, they resolved to use violence in the cause of anti-violence. They would kill for peace. They would bomb for the revolution and the Communist paradise that lay on the other side of it.
So it happened that in Germany small gangs of terrorists emerged out of the student protest movement. One of the first bombs planted by German terrorists maimed a child for life, and destroyed the livelihood of a painter who was working through the night on the walls of a newspaper office, by blowing off his hand. The most notorious group called itself the Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion). It was better known by the name the media gave it: Baader-Meinhof, after one of the men, Andreas Baader, and one of the women, Ulrike Meinhof, who formed and led it.
“There is nothing I would not do, however base, to change the world,” Ulrike Meinhof said. And she and her merry band did abominable things: kidnapped, killed, burned, shot, and bombed, to improve the world.
For a while they felt quite safe. Their parents were professors, politicians, lawyers, teachers, doctors, clergymen, journalists, businessmen, some even movers and shakers of the Federal Republic of Germany, and most of them had been sympathetic to the protest movement. Many of them were impressed – as their children expected them to be – by the lengths the “absolutists” were prepared to go to for the higher good and their own liberation from bourgeois values. The older wiser heads opined, “Their hearts are in the right place, only their methods are wrong.” Only maiming and slaughtering their neighbors; only putting fear of injury, agony, and death into all who went about their business in public places.
As a result of this indulgence, the terrorists were genuinely astonished by the punishment meted out to them when they were arrested, tried, and found guilty of grave crimes. The fun was over for them then. They finally had to believe that they would actually be imprisoned for a very long time, perhaps for the rest of their lives; they, “the most advanced consciousness of humanity”, who had only done what the best minds of their parents’ generation had urged them to do! The courts did not appreciate that what they had done was necessary for the establishment of heaven on earth. The Judges did not share the opinion the status quo had to be swept away so that the inevitable new world could be born. They and the general public had only to peer over the Berlin Wall at that part of Germany which had been flung – along with the other east European countries – under the jackboot of Soviet Russia after World War II, to be sure that they would rather be repressed by tolerance and enslaved by plenty than live over there with scarcity and fear.
Some of the terrorists, including Ulrike Meinhof, who passed through Communist Germany on their way to and from terrorist training camps in the Middle East, did not like what they glimpsed. The glimpse told them that a life there would not do for them. Although they had voluntarily taken the lampshades off the lamps in their West Berlin communes to demonstrate their scorn for luxury, they had never had to go without central heating, ample food and good quality clothes; and they who had chosen to drive to the scenes of their robberies, arsons and murders whenever possible in a (stolen) Mercedez Benz, laughed and shuddered at the cheap plastic-bodied Trabants with their noisy two-stroke engines and their smelly exhaust which they sighted and smelt in sparse numbers on the strangely empty and ill-kept roads of East Berlin.
In truth the entire student protest movement was frivolous. It was all posture and gesture. All fake, the pity and the indignation – everything except the conceit. Worse, it was mockery. For such as they, the most fortunate of the human race, to claim to be fellow sufferers with selected victims of oppression and poverty, was to make mock of them and their plight. The charade of insurgency was performance art on a grand scale. But neither they nor their hooray-chorus of philosophers and professors saw it for what it was. Despite their “advanced consciousness”, they were oblivious to the cruel sarcasm of their masquerade. …
Full substantiation of what is said here about the Baader-Meinhof gang can be found in Jillian Becker’s book Hitler’s Children. (Click on its cover in our margin.)
Today we have posted essay number 14, Mystic Communism: Georg Lukács, in the series by Jillian Becker titled The Darkness of This World (Part 2). (Find it under Pages in our margin.)
Here is part of it. We hope you won’t neglect the footnotes (not added here). They are laden with information.
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”, 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. …
Jillian Becker July 19, 2015
Today we post under Pages (listed at the top of our margin), essay number 13 in Part Two of the series titled The Darkness of This World, by Jillian Becker.
It continues the discussion of French writers whose works are concerned with Evil, praise it, and argue passionately that it should be done.
The title of this essay is The French Pandemonium (Three). Its subjects are the twentieth century writers Michel Foucault and – to a lesser extent – Jean Genet.
Here is part of the essay:
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.” …
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.” …
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. …
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. …
The immense popularity of Bataille and Foucault, 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.
You can find all of it here.
Today we post under Pages (listed at the top of our margin), essay number 12 in Part Two of the series titled The Darkness of This World, by Jillian Becker.
It continues the discussion of French writers whose works are concerned with Evil, praise it, and argue passionately that it should be done.
The title of this essay is The French Pandemonium (Two). Its subjects are the twentieth century writers Georges Bataille, and – to a lesser extent – André Breton.
Here is part of the essay:
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. …
You can find all of it here.
Today we post under Pages (listed at the top of our margin) the next essay in the series by Jillian Becker titled The Darkness of This World (Part Two).
The title of the new essay is The French Pandemonium (One).
It continues a discussion of the Romantic movement which – the series argues – arises from the same need in the human psyche that requires religion. In France, the most influential poets, novelists, essayists and philosophers have been those who have cultivated rebellion against what they call “bourgeois society”. Some of the most eminent of them bluntly declare that their rebellion is a choice of Evil.
Of course not all the French writers of the post-Enlightenment centuries have been Romantics or conscious advocates of Evil. But those who “chose Evil” stoked the fires of destructive rebellion in generations of European intellectuals and have had by far the greater effect on history. In the twentieth century they became so popular and powerful that they helped create the New Left; incited seasons of violent protest demonstrations on city streets throughout Europe and even on other continents; inspired the formation of European terrorist gangs; and implanted their anti-civilization ideology as a new dogma in schools and academies throughout the Western world, including America. As the series continues it will explain how the anti-Americanism of the Left, even in America itself, springs from the European intellectual movement against our civilization.
Here is the first part of the essay:
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. …
You can find all of it here.
Today we have posted essay number 9, Faust (Two), in the series titled The Darkness of This World. (Find it under Pages in our margin.)
Here is part of it. We hope you won’t neglect the footnotes (not added here). They are laden with information – colored by the authors’ personal judgments and prejudices.
To understand what happened in Europe in the twentieth century, the wars, the barbaric cruelty, the murder of tens of millions in cold blood; to diagnose the sickness that beset every country on the mainland of the continent, Germany most severely; to know why European man is dying a long slow death on his own heath, it is helpful to read the great German writer Thomas Mann.
In his novel Doctor Faustus, first published in 1947, the Faust figure is a German musician named Adrian Leverkühn. On leaving school in the early 20th century, young Adrian enrolls at the University of Halle as a theology student, but soon abandons his studies to devote himself to composing music.
Fearing that he is not gifted enough to fulfill his ambition, he conceives a terrible plan. He deliberately catches syphilis by insisting on having intercourse with a prostitute who has the disease, in the hope and faith that he will catch it and so become insane – because he believes madness is necessary to genius. This is his conscious bargain with evil, the selling of his soul to the Devil, in exchange for power to compose great music. When in due course the disease does reach his brain, he imagines he has a conversation with the Devil by which the contract is confirmed. The Devil will grant him twenty-four years from the day of their dialogue, years of “great time, mad time”, to create the astonishing works he can produce now that his faculty of reason has become deranged. He will know “the heights and the depths” of life, and so be filled with knowledge of the truth – the “truth” of subjective experience.
Thought and reason, the Devil explains, are impediments to the creation of great Art. Leverkühn’s art will be intuitive, “Dionysian”; springing from the instincts, from feeling, from the heart, not from the rational mind. The Devil assures him that all genius is demonic. “There is no ingenium that has nothing to do with hell,” he says. What makes Art great is “enthusiasm unparalysed by thought or reason”. Art is “made genuine by disease”, and “creative, genius-giving disease [is] a thousand times dearer to life than plodding healthiness”. Art, instinctive art – so the Devil instructs the mind he is corrupting – is anti-bourgeois, anti-civilization. It is a religion – a demonic religion. (What used to be religion, the Prince of Darkness says, “is over except for the Devil. The bourgeoisie dispenses with it.” And elsewhere the fictional narrator of the story – a Catholic – observes: ‘Theology, confronted with that spirit of the philosophy of life which is irrationalism, is in danger, by its very nature, of becoming demonology.”)
So art is a disease of the artist, and of civilization. As both it is highly valuable, this dark force many times declares or insinuates, speaking either as himself when he chats with the brain-sick Leverkühn, or through the mouths of certain persons among the composer’s teachers, friends and acquaintances. These persons, more devilish than Adrian Leverkühn himself ever becomes, are weak men, erudite sensitive aesthetes, sickly or deformed, one of them “slightly” consumptive. They consciously “elevate culture as a substitute for religion”. Most of them are admirers of Leverkühn’s works – and also of National Socialism, with which they soon become passionately enamored. What they call “the blood and beauty” of brutal mass murder excites them intensely. A poet among them praises “obedience, violence, blood, and world-plunder”. To listen to them is to understand how Hitler’s Reich was made possible and why it quite easily became a reality. …