The darkness of this world (18) 1

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:

18

Conclusion

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.

The darkness of this world (17) 6

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.[1]

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.[2] “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[3] containing all things good and evil.”

NOTES

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.

Posted under Art, Articles, Christianity, Gnosticism, Mysticism by Jillian Becker on Sunday, October 11, 2015

Tagged with , , ,

This post has 6 comments.

Permalink

The darkness of this world (16) 6

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.

16

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.” …

The Darkness of This World (Part 3) 0

The Darkness of This World

essays on

The Pursuit of Evil in

Our Gnostic Age

PART THREE

15

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.”[1]

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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5]

Most of the demonstrators were satisfied after a while with making angry gestures and shouting for revolution. Many were to say that in retrospect the days of loud mass anger had been “fun”. In Germany, there were some who went to great lengths to make them tremendous fun. A group of “anarchist” communards chose to protest by performing satirical “happenings”. Led, amusingly enough, by a young man genuinely named Fritz Teufel (Teufel is German for the Devil), they put on public performances such as: setting fire to a huge papier mâché figure of President Lyndon Johnson and the American flag draped over a Christmas tree on West Berlin’s busiest shopping street; throwing mock “bombs” made of flour and eggs at important persons; sprinkling confetti and candy over police officers on patrol; hurling colored Easter eggs and bags full of paint at the façade of the US embassy. Teufel himself, gowned as a university Rector, rode a small clown’s bicycle with a klaxon into the Auditorium Maximum of Berlin’s Free University while a solemn ceremony was taking place. He rode, klaxing, all the way down the hall to the podium, dismounted, and climbed up to join the officiating bigwigs. From there he threw cigars to the applauding audience, while the real Rector, from whose office the gown and cigars had been lifted, stood helplessly by. Teufel got away with his clowning on that occasion, but was arrested and tried several times for other pranks. He made a joke of the legal process by letting off firecrackers in court. He acquired a large appreciative following.

Before the decade was over, most of the students had had enough, and the street and university protests petered out. But 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. So it happened that small gangs of terrorists emerged out of the student protest movement. Some of the “happenings” protestors, including Fritz Teufel, formed themselves into an “anarchist” group called the Movement Second June. They were jokers still, but serious jokers. They would use terrorism, but “wittily”. They took a huge bunch of flowers, concealing a gun, to a judge on his birthday, and when he came to answer their ring at his front door, they shot him dead with real bullets.

The world had to be changed by force. To prove their worthiness for that task 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., the jokers and then others resolved to use violence in the cause of anti-violence. The others were self-declared Communists. They would kill for peace. They would bomb for the revolution and the Communist paradise that lay on the other side of it.

One of the first world-changing bombs 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 Communist 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 led it.

There is nothing I would not do, however base, to change the world,” Ulrike Meinhof said. And to that end she and her merry band did abominable things: kidnapped, killed, burnt, shot, and bombed.

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.

But nothing – not a personal encounter with Communist shabbiness and dreariness, or news of the Russian gulags through the smuggled-out works of Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn – made them suspect for a moment that they might be wrong. Had not the most acclaimed thinkers of the age told them how right they were, how brave and noble? Besides, they felt they were right. They knew it instinctively, and their philosophers told them to trust their instincts.

In France, it looked for a moment as if Marcuse had given up hope of the European working-class too soon. In May of 1968, the trade unions called millions of workers out on strike, and the protesting students declared themselves “in solidarity” with them. The excitement on the streets reached feverpitch as protestors, strikers and most of the nation held their breath, in hope or dread that this might be the beginning of a real revolution. But the government propitiated the unions with concessions, and the police hardened their opposition to the students, and the horrible or delightful possibility of another French revolution receded and died.

The French students’ protest movement had, until the briefly sobering climax of May ’68, been more openly and intentionally frivolous than anywhere else in Europe. The mood is exhibited on every page of a 1968 manifesto issued by a group within the movement who called themselves the Situationists: The Revolution of Everyday Life, written by Raoul Vaneigem. For all its glee, it reeks of sulfur fumes from the French pandemonium. One of its founders was Guy Debord, writer and film-maker.

Although Debord himself is regularly classed as a Marxist theorist, there was one surprising difference between his coven and all the other demons under discussion: Debord and his followers declared themselves to be against the Communist Party – or at least against the French Communist Party. The Situationists were a strong influence on the French protestors, whose ranks were largely composed of Trotskyites, along with a sizable coterie of Maoists and other Marxist factions. The exuberant style of the demonstrations, the merry clashes with the police, were examples of Situationist “revolutionary art”. Except in the month of the strikes, when issues mattered to the strikers less than spectacle. Debord, who composed a “theory of the spectacle”, was credited with being one of the chief intellectual inspirers of the French movement.[6] His personal itch to make rubbish out of everything he could reach was applied to the cover of his first book, Mémoires. It was made of sandpaper, so it would damage the cover of any other book it touched.

The Revolution of Everyday Life, by Debord’s disciple, told its readers that acting together in rebellion against the status quo made them all artists; that the greatest and only valid art now is revolution, and revolution will bring about a transformation of the human species; that revolution is a poetry that can be made by all; that “we” are taking nothing less than the stuff of history itself and turning it into an artifact of perfection as perpetual revolution; that ‘we ourselves” are the artists and the art; that “radical art” ceaselessly creates and recreates itself; that there can never again be anything so ridiculous as “a work of art”; that poetry is in the situation you create in everyday life, that it lives in acts, in a life-style, and in the search for that style; that this poetry blossoms everywhere: “brutally repressed, it remerges in violence; it blesses uprisings, weds revolt”; it is in crime; for spontaneity alone makes art; it is the only creativity, and is a collective effort: “it bursts out fresh, uncorrupted, and the creations are the life situations worth living”.[7]

Ingredients of the life situations that were true art included marijuana, heroin, promiscuous sexual intercourse, and destruction. “Shit on the society of middle age and taboos. Become wild and do beautiful things. Smoke a joint. Whatever you see that you don’t like, destroy.”

The artists of situations must bring equipment to the acts of revolutionary creation. “Bring musical instruments,  fabric, records, blankets, tape recorders, and whatever else is fun.”

“Turn your hate into revolutionary energy. Go out and fight in the streets. Create terror at every street corner on Friday nights, and fight (with the police and anyone else who is not with you) on Saturday nights. Attack the institutions that make a man a slave, such as banks and American businesses.”

The ghost of Rousseau guided Vaneigem’s pen. “Be natural, wild, savage. Act on intuition, which alone is to be trusted. Do only and whatever you feel like doing. Be cruel.”

Defy and destroy the rotten world you were born into, treating whatever it holds to be good as bad, and whatever it holds to be bad, as good.

 

Jillian Becker    July 26, 2015

 

NOTES

1. One-Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse, 1964. Marcuse was one of the Marxist group known as the Frankfurt School. They had come together initially to oppose the Austrian School of free market economists. Marcuse himself did very well out of the capitalist system that he deplored, and was hospitably received and respectfully honored by capitalist America as a New Left advocate of its downfall.

2. There were precedents for proposing that a select group of intellectuals should take such a lead. Louis Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881), a contemporary of Karl Marx, believed that a small elite should carry out a socialist revolution and when it had succeeded, hand over power to “the people”. And Antonio Gramsci (1881-1937), a founder of the Italian Communist Party, believed that a “hegemonic” group of intellectuals would be necessary for the success of the revolution and the new Communist order, preferring that such a group should arise out of the revolutionary working class. While Marxist orthodoxy ordained that the workers were the “revolutionary class” and would inevitably rise in revolution and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, in practice all the Communist revolutions of the twentieth century were led by bourgeois intellectuals, including the Russian revolution of 1917.

3. The opacity of Althusser’s writing earns him a place among the most incomprehensible of his contemporary leftist theorists, “post-modernists” and “Structuralists”. He called himself a “structural Marxist”. Occasionally he comes near to matching the formidable unintelligibility of the “deconstructionist” Jacques Derrida. Eg.:- Althusser: “If Logic is nothing but the concept of the Idea (of the process of alienation without a subject), it is then the concept of this strategic subject we are looking for. But the fact that this concept is of the process of alienation itself, in other words, this subject is the dialectic, i.e. the very movement of the negation of the negation, reveals the extraordinary paradox of Hegel. The process of alienation without a subject (or the dialectic) is the only subject recognized by Hegel. There is no subject to the process: it is the process itself which is a subject in so far as it does not have a subject.” (Emphasis in the original. Context – or even acquaintance with the works of Hegel – will probably not help understanding.)  Source: Politics and History trans. Ben Brewster, Verso 2007, p.184. Now here’s Derrida: “If the trace, arche-phenomenon of ‘memory’, which must be thought before the opposition of nature and culture, animality and humanity, etc., belongs to the very movement of signification, then signification is a priori written, whether inscribed or not, in one form or another, in a ‘sensible’ and ‘spatial’ element that is called ‘exterior’. Arche-writing, the first possibility of the spoken word, then of the ‘graphi’ in the narrow sense, the birthplace of ‘usurpation’, denounced from Plato to Saussure, this trace is the opening of the first exteriority in general, the enigmatic relationship of the living to its other and of an inside to an outside: spacing. The outside, ‘spatial’ and ‘objective’ exteriority which we believe we know as the most familiar thing in the world, as familiarity itself, would not appear without the grammè, without difference as temporalization, without the nonpresence of the other inscribed within the sense of the present, without the relationship to death as the concrete structure of the living present.” Source: A Derrida Reader ed. Peggy Kamuf, Columbia University press, New York, 1991, pp. 42-43.

4. Althusser confessed to killing his wife. It is credible gossip that he did it because “she no longer believed in the dictatorship of the proletariat”. He was not only a murderer who got away with murder (being put into a mental hospital instead of a prison), he was also a charlatan who got away with claiming expert knowledge which he did not possess. His career as a Marxist philosopher was launched with his book Reading Capital; but in a memoir published after his death he confessed that he had not actually read Marx’s book when he wrote about it. Professor Roger Scruton writes (p.88) in Thinkers of the New Left (p.88): “In examining the writings of Alhusser, we shall be exploring one of the most important expressions of revolutionary language, in which no question can be posed, and no answer offered, except in terms that are barely intelligible to those who have not renounced their capacity to think outside them. In short, we shall be confronting a kind of mental disease … Lest the reader should doubt the need for this confrontation, it is worth mentioning that Althusser’s influence in contemporary Marxist circles is unrivalled, [and] that his mantic writings remain standard university texts in many departments of philosophy and politics …”

5. Full substantiation of what I say here about the protest movement and terrorist groups in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, with notes on sources and a bibliography, may be found in my book Hitler’s Children: the Story of the Baader-Meinhof Terrorist Gang.

6. In the light of his own preference for immorality and surprise, Debord might be expected to have laughed when, in May 1989, he was exposed as an agent of the CIA, paid through the American intelligence agency’s Paris office ever since he had started the Situationist International. But he simply denied it. In any case, it was probably not true. It’s hard to see what motive the CIA could have had for promoting insurgency and chaos in General De Gaulle’s France.

7. The Revolution of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneigem was republished in 2012, in English, when the resemblance of the “Occupy” movement in America to the Situationists was noticed by an enterprising publisher.

*

16

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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3] 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,[4] 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.[5] 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.”[6]

But adjusted to what society?

And what did the Austrian establishment have to say about all this? Did its post-war tolerance of free expression, its awe of art, its respect for psychoanalysis, extend to permitting drugged orgies?

Did the civil authorities ever see behind the walls of a Mühl commune? I asked. And was taken to see the schoolroom. It was light and airy. The national flag and a photograph of the president of Austria hung on the wall as in all schoolrooms throughout the republic. There were desks in straight rows, conventional textbooks and carefully marked exercise books. The official inspectors, I was told, came often, to make sure that the schooling conformed to state requirements, and up to that time no objections had been made to the circumstances in which the children were being raised and educated, and not a single child had been taken away.

But did the inspectors ever watch a “Direct Art Action”, one of the therapeutic performances that the children watched every day – and took part in? That question, and my next question about the age at which they started participating, went unanswered.

Originally, Mühl told me, the idea had been that the farm would supply all the food needed by the two Austrian communes. Ideally, the Organization of Conscious Life-Praxis would be self-sufficient. But the communards’ own efforts at farming turned out to be disappointingly unproductive. So they had handed over the cultivation of the land to a neighbor who gave them a small percentage of what he grew on it. The rest of their food they had delivered by retail suppliers. Ideally, they were vegetarians, but most of them did eat “some poultry and fish”. No factory-processed foods were allowed. And food deprivation was one of the forms of punishment for disobeying the rules or “not consenting to sexual demands”. Copulate or starve.

The anti-consumerist commune philosophy was also applied to cars. Mühl did not approve of private cars. “Buses for people and trucks for freight, ” he said, “should satisfy the need for transport.” In any case, the communards were not permitted to go anywhere without a very good reason (and , in practice though not in theory, without Mühl’s permission). The commune members seldom left the farm. “Coffee-houses, restaurants, hotels, the whole catering industry that satisfies the need for a social life of the small-family-man, are redundant to the people of the commune.”

There were, however, forty cars “belonging to the commune” on the day I was there. They were not used much, I gathered, except by Mühl and come of his close associates. And there were other cars belonging to day or weekend visitors. For not everyone who sought Mühl’s help to express and liberate himself had to become a member of the commune. Guest courses in Selbstdarstellung were provided, for which fees were paid in cash or labor. Those who could not pay cash, “would do some cleaning jobs”. But, Mühl assured me, “it’s well worth it to them because they’re allowed to join in the therapy and communicate socially and genitally with the group”.[7]

Mühl was against mass-production and consumer choice. The farm commune was, he said, a model of how “real” human needs should be satisfied: a few textiles from which “the simplest clothing, mainly work-clothes, were made on the farm” [by whom he did not say]. A few practical types of shoes were supplied: ‘No fashion, just comfort and sturdiness”. Very few electrical gadgets were allowed because the commune “could do without canned music, television and radio”. “Commercial movies” (feature films) were “unthinkable in the commune” – being the ”pathetic substitutes for the fulfillment of emotional and erotic desires of the small-family-man”. In other words, the only joy should come from sex and bodily functions in surroundings kept puritanically bleak.

Except for the volumes of photographs of the commune activities, the only books allowed were “non-fiction”. Novels, magazines, and “written theatre and music” were not acceptable. The only newspapers were their own newssheets, which were “for conveying information and not for entertainment”.

One of Mühl’s books of photos of the Art Action Self-Expression Therapy was titled Mama and Papa. Conventional citizens would class it as extreme pornography – even if allowances were made for the relaxed standards of the post-1968 permissive age. (An age in which the young were permitted more than any generation before them, but complained that they were not permitted enough.) It shows scantily dressed or naked men, women, teenage boys and girls, and young children. The text confirmed that some of the patients/artists were performing “with the equipment of surgeries and gynecological clinics”. But Mühl denied that it was pornography. He said he despised pornography as being a resource of the small-family-man, driven to it by “sexual poverty”, his “need” being “exploited by the entertainment, amusement and recreation industries”.

In Mama and Papa Mühl wrote (despising capital letters): “i’m for lewdness, for the demythologizing of sexuality. for intercourse not as a state-preserving sacrament, but as a mere physical function. i’m against the philistine porno-film, against the pornography of the business-man, of the fruit-dealer and confectioner. when i make a film [of sexual activity], i do not do it for my own enjoyment, but to provoke scandals. I don’t make them for my own pleasure, but for the audience, the masses stuck in mental stagnation and conformism, perverted by tradition and conformity.”

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.”

So “Direct Art” – combining psychotherapy, “action therapy”, revolutionary politics, performance art, assault on conventional values, and deliberate scandal-making – was prescribed as the cure for all the ills of humankind, for all that made modern life a hell on earth in the prosperous late twentieth-century western world. Until the ordinary man was transformed by Mühl’s Direct Art therapy, the ordinary man was a mere “Wichtel”, a manikin.

In plain fact, life at Friedrichshof was one long orgy – under the whip of Otto Mühl the ringmaster, who grew rich as he indulged his lust and his prurience.

And it was much the same in the Vienna commune, where Mühl’s stern presence was only intermittent. But there painting was still allowed, and even encouraged as an additional therapy if it was done as a group activity. One day the communards decided to paint a mural on a large unbroken stretch of interior wall. It would depict Heaven and Hell. Hell would be the here and now of Western civilization. Heaven would be the paradise that would soon come to cover this earth after the Revolution, which was being hastened on its way by the artists/patients/communards of the Action-Analysis (AA) Organization of Conscious Life-Praxis “breaking through sexual barriers”.

They halved the space to be painted with a vertical line. They all thought it good to start with Hell. After many hours of therapeutic labor during which nothing worthy of their talents appeared on the wall, they admitted they were unable to work together on the project, and no one among them felt confident enough to proceed alone. On no account would they consider abandoning the project, yet they seemed to have come up against an insurmountable difficulty – until it was proposed by one of them that they commission a professional artist to execute the work to their specifications. At first the idea was dismissed by most of them, with scorn for the sullying of art with commerce; but after a while they all came round to conceding that it wasn’t too bad an idea. Would they dare put it to the chief therapist? He – Mühl – would have to release the necessary funds. Somehow they got his consent.

They found an artist who was willing to accept the commission. An American. Over a few weeks he produced a mural of Hell in accordance with their instructions. Everything they hated about their world was there: authoritarian parent and teacher figures, police arresting protestors, American soldiers bayoneting Vietnamese peasants, inhibited and furtive sexual couplings, shops, banks, cars, movie theaters, St. Stephen’s Cathedral … and a row of little zeppelins, each labeled AA (for Action Analysis) in which the communards themselves, liberated through sexual Selbstdarstellung, would escape to Heaven.[8]

When Hell was finished, they told the artist to take a break while they thought about what Heaven should look like, what its contents ideally were. For days they talked about it among themselves. The days stretched into weeks. The muralist pocketed his fee and went home to America. Heaven remained an empty blank.

In time the Austrian police did catch on to what was happening in Mühl’s communes. Perhaps they paid an unannounced visit to Friedrichshof, and their report of what they came upon reached some philistine or skeptic who was deaf to the superior claims of art or psychoanalysis; for in 1999, Otto Mühl was sentenced to 7 years imprisonment for supplying illegal drugs to minors, and sexually abusing them.

 

Jillian Becker     September 27, 2015

 

NOTES

1. Of their art they have said: It is to entertain /it is not to entertain. It carries a moral message by being deliberately immoral/ it does not carry a moral message/ it is entirely amoral. It needs an audience/ it does not need an audience/ the audience deserves to be punished. I suffer for them/ I do no suffer even when I cut or beat or mutilate myself because I keep a distance from my suffering/ I suffer from and for the pains of mankind which I represent in art. It is religion/ it is not religion. It is ritual/ it is not ritual. It is not art but reality/ it is not reality but art/ it is reality mediated by art/ it is direct art because it is what is really happening although it is deliberately staged. It is political/ it is not political. It is intentionally obscene/ it is not obscene at all. Its virtue is that it is ephemeral/ it needs to be recorded for posterity.

 2. Deep in the consciousness of all these rebels lies Christian example. I quote from a Wikipedia entry on Junípero Serra (1713-1784), a Franciscan missionary in Spanish California (canonized by Pope Francis on his visit to the United States in 2015), who used this method to stir the consciences of others: “In one of his sermons in Mexico City, while exhorting his listeners to repent their sins, Serra took out his chain, bared his shoulders and started whipping himself. Many parishioners, roused by the spectacle, began sobbing. Finally, a man climbed to the pulpit, took the chain from Serra’s hand and began whipping himself, declaring: ‘I am the sinner who is ungrateful to God who ought to do penance for my many sins, and not the padre [Serra], who is a saint.’ The man kept whipping himself until he collapsed. After receiving the last sacraments, he later died from the ordeal. During other sermons on the theme of repentance, Serra would hoist a large stone in one hand and, while clutching a crucifix in the other, smash the stone against his chest. While preaching of hell and damnation, Serra would sear his flesh with a four-pronged candle flame.”

3. Though the arm-burning face-whipper insisted that “no masochism was intended”, his actions were of course sado-masochistic. Almost every artist in the Aktionismus movement was obsessed with pain, blood, torture, mutilation, violent death – in Hitler’s native land, less than thirty years after the Holocaust. Along with De Sade and Sigmund Freud, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895) was a patron spirits of Viennese Actionism. He was an Austrian whose name gave Europe its word for the perverse pleasure of seeking pain. He found exquisite joy in being whipped by women wearing furs.

4. One of Mühl’s most notorious Actions was titled “The Death of Sharon Tate”. His performers would enact the murders of the film actress and her friends by the Charles Manson gang, revelling especially in the killers’ act of plunging a dinner fork into her pregnant belly. Like leftists everywhere, they praised Manson because they thought he was an “anti-bourgeois, anti-sexist, anti-racist” rebel like themselves. Later, when they (along with the Left in general) found out that he kept women as his “slaves”, hated black people and hoped to start a race war against them, they dropped him from their pantheon – and “The Death of Sharon Tate” from their repertoire.

5. Fathers were not even identified, because to recognize paternity was to grant legitimacy to the “sick” convention of the “small-family”.

6. The children watched all the “therapeutic” sexual activities of the adults. Sons and daughters saw their mothers joining in the “work” of the commune. I did not find out at what age they began to participate. As for their growing up “healthy” because they would have no sexual repression, I have been told that the opposite is the case: children – even some of those who spent only a short time in an “AA” commune – have been diagnosed with severe mental disorders in later life. I can’t vouch for it, but I wouldn’t be in the least surprised. And what remedies could they seek? What Vienna offered them was what Vienna had already given them. Were the Freudians, Reichians, Jungians, Adlerians … all the professional progeny of the great Sigmund himself, confident they could cure the likely shame, and guilt, and post-rape stress, of AA Selbsdarstellung, and Aktionismus in general? If so, what could it be, that cure? Living through it all again in memory? Relating their nightmares? More drugs?

7. The day I visited Friedrichshof, someone’s granny was visiting too. She and I were both onlookers at a therapeutic session when there was discussion only. The topic was “How to deal with authorities”. It was a performance of a kind, in that it was laid on for me (and perhaps for the old lady) to see “what went on”. For her, it was just a visit to the farm where her granddaughter came for psychotherapy. She sat in the background calmly knitting. I doubt she had any notion of what they did when she – and I – were not there. I was soon to find out what they did from Mühl himself. I wonder if she ever knew.

8. I did not see the mural itself; only a black-and-white photograph of part if it; and the details of the image have become blurred in my recollection with time. To refresh my memory, I had it described to me by a pair of ex-communards, so while my account of it is approximate only, I believe the impression I give of it is fair.

*

17

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.[1]

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.[2] “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[3] containing all things good and evil.”

 

Jillian Becker     October 11, 2015

 

NOTES

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. See the Appendix for a description of 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.

*

Chapter 18

Conclusion

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 immigrant 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.”[1]

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.[2] “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.” [3]

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”, and “Merry Pranksters of all stripes could credibly set up shop as social evangelists spreading a chemical [ie drug] gospel”. [4]

The Black Panthers, the “Merry Pranksters”, 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.” [5] 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!’”[6]

Like the Europeans, they intended some of their actions to be satirical ‘’spectacles”, or “theater”. One group “disrupted a speech by [sometime secretary of state] Dean Acheson by showing up in Vietcong dress and snapping off rounds from concealed squirt guns”. And “the Action Faction [practiced] disruption and dirty tricks … [such as] terminating a lengthy debate over military recruiting at Columbia [University] by walking up to the U.S. Army colonel presenting the government’s case, smooshing a pie in his face, and running away. “[7]

And 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.”[8]

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,[9] 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”.[10] 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.” [11]

American rebels planned to firebomb a department store; the Europeans did it. Both attacked judges in their homes – in America, a judge who had presided over a trial of Black Panther terrorists.[12] The emotion, the pretexts, the plans, the actions, the slogans were much the same on either side of the Atlantic.

The gurus of the New Left themselves crossed the water. Marcuse, Foucault, Genet, among others, came and addressed their fans in American universities. Jean Genet, Sartre’s “St. Genet”, came to Stanford University. The Black Panthers were invited to meet him. “The Panthers arrived early … in their uniforms of black leather jackets and sunglasses, looking like some lost Nazi legion whose skin color had changed … The small Frenchman with bad teeth and shabby clothes … praised the Panther’s authenticity (a characteristic he said he also admired in the Marquis de Sade, whom he called ‘the greatest revolutionary of all, greater even than Marx’).“ [13] If to Genet, “authenticity” was a synonym for menace, violence, cruelty, there was this difference in the particular case of the Black Panthers: they were dedicated to menace, violence, and cruelty, but they didn’t give a toss for “authenticity”.

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.[14] 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.”[15]

As did the Gnostics of old, the New Left rebels reversed conventional values. And so many Americans have accepted the reversal that what convention once held to be immoral and criminal, is now widely, even predominantly believed to be good and normal.

“How does the Left maintain its belief against the crushing weight of its failures in the past?” Collier and Horowitz ask; and they reply: “By recycling its innocence, which allows it to be born again in its utopian faith. The utopianism of the Left is a secular religion (as the vogue of ‘liberation theology’ attests), its promise an earthly kingdom of heaven.”[16] And they note: ”[T]he Right seeks to conserve (and the Left to undermine) workaday democracy; the left seeks to defend (and the Right to defeat) the destructive fantasy of heaven on earth. This is why American Leftists in their ‘innocence’ embrace political evil in a way that American conservatives in their realism do not.”[17]

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.

 

Jillian Becker  January 3, 2016

 

NOTES

1. President Abraham Lincoln, December 1, 1862, in a message to Congress.

2. Destructive Generation by Peter Collier and David Horowitz. For only two of the chapters in the book is the individual author’s name given, one by each of them, so quotations are here ascribed to their dual authorship.

3. Collier and Horowitz pp.143-144.

4. Collier and Horowitz p.18.

5. Collier and Horowitz p.76-77. This description of J. J. is reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s portrait of Pyotr Stepanovitch Verhovensky in The Possessed (or The Devils), from which, incidentally, the epigraph of Destructive Generation is taken. I quote from the Constance Garnett translation: “He talked quickly, hurriedly, but at the same time with assurance, and was never at a loss for a word. In spite of his hurried manner his ideas were in perfect order, distinct and definite – and this was particularly striking. His articulation was wonderfully clear. His words pattered out like smooth, big grains, always well chosen, and at your service. At first this attracted one, but afterwards it became repulsive, just because of this over-distinct articulation, this string of ever-ready words. One somehow began to imagine that he must have a tongue of special shape, somehow exceptionally long and thin, extremely red with a very sharp everlastingly active little tip.”

6. Collier and Horowitz p.94.

7. Collier and Horowitz pp.69-70.

8. Collier and Horowitz p.144.

9. Collier and Horowitz. “They did not read the works of Marx, or of Marxists, Trotskyites, or New Left political philosophers.” p. 107. And: “[T]he New Left, to put it charitably, was not a thinking movement. It was vaunt and braggadocio. Despite all the ‘struggle sessions’, the intellectual nattering, and endless talk, the New Left always had an allergic reaction to ideas, and this is what has made it incapable, retrospectively, of grand disillusion.” p.295.

10. Collier and Horowitz pp.17-18.

11. Collier and Horowitz p.69.

12. Collier and Horowitz p.97.

13. Collier and Horowitz p.16.

14. An American Tragedy by Carol Iannone, Commentary Vol. 104 No. 2, August 1997.

15. Collier and Horowitz p.7.

16. Collier and Horowitz p.265.

17. Professor Eric Voegelin, in his book The New Science of Politics (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1987), discusses the Gnosticism that characterizes our age in a chapter titled Gnosticism – The Nature of Modernity. He discusses the gnosis of the Left; its true believers’ apodictic certainty that they view as “a special gift of a spiritual and cognitive elite”. He writes that the Gnostic belief in a better world beyond this one is shared by Marxists: that the only difference between the two is that the older belief (not confined to the Gnostic cults) was that the better world would dawn after an Apocalypse as a new spiritual existence in a heavenly afterlife, whereas the Marxists hold that it will come after a Revolution on this earth. He writes from a Christian viewpoint, and considers the Marxist view, which he calls “immanentizing the Eschaton”, to be wrong. The “immanentizers” would hasten history towards the Revolution that will change everything and make the earthly hell of “social injustice” transform into an earthly paradise yet to be described. Professor Voegelin rightly sees this vision to be erroneous – but only because he has faith in a different eschatology. The aspect of Gnosticism which he does not deal with is the reversal of values. He does not observe that because the modern Gnostics, like the old, want to spite this hateful world (or status quo), they defy it by actively pursuing what they themselves call evil.

*

Appendix

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.

 

Jillian Becker   January 10, 2015

Posted under by Jillian Becker on Saturday, September 26, 2015

Tagged with

This post has 0 comments.

Permalink

The darkness of this world (15) 7

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.)

The darkness of this world (14) 5

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.

*

Mystic Communism

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

The Darkness of This World (Part 2) 3

The Darkness of This World

essays on

The Pursuit of Evil in

Our Gnostic Age

PART TWO

10

In the Light of a Setting Sun

Romanticism – which grew in opposition to Reason from the very beginning of the Enlightenment, their common parent – is a kind of religion.

In certain essential ways it most closely resembles the Gnostic creeds of early and medieval Christianity. Both Romantics and Gnostics depend on feeling and intuition for their “truth”, which stands in both cases in opposition to their culture’s norms. To rebel against conventional morality, they choose evil. Both rationalize their perversity as the means to a higher good. For the Gnostics, good lies in the heavens after life on earth is over; for the Romantics it lies in this life on this earth, just over the horizon, beyond the next revolution. Whether up there, or over there, both promise paradise.

In actuality, Romanticism led the way not to an earthly paradise but to earthly hells.

If Romanticism could be said to have a deity, it was “the Devil”. The Romantic imagination clung to him long after “God” had faded away. Germany “sold its soul” to him. Entranced by a Wagnerian fantasy of brutality, violence, war, conquest, “blood and beauty”, Nazi Germany chose evil, rode the storm triumphantly for a time, fulfilled its romantic dream in atrocity, and ended in flames and irreparable moral degradation.[1]

Karl Marx prayed in romantic poetry to be empowered by the Devil,[2] and metaphorically speaking his prayer was granted when Marxists took power after his death and tormented and destroyed millions of hapless victims. The Russian Bolsheviks were the first tyrants to govern in the name of the creed that bears his name. But they were not the first (or last) tyrants to govern Russia, nor the first Russians to choose evil.

The Enlightenment did not penetrate far into Russia. Even by the late nineteenth century, the Russian people were still deeply religious and the church was still immensely powerful. But a weariness with the old order, a romantic pessimism was spreading through the vast anachronism that was Tsarist Russia.

Dostoyevsky’s novel The Possessed (or The Devils or Demons), was published in 1872, eleven years before Karl Marx’s died. It has a cast of intellectual nihilist terrorists who typify the Romantic rebel in late nineteenth century Russia.[3] They are against everything. Patronized, courted, and encouraged for the thrill of their scandalous philosophy of existential despair and malicious criminality by a stupid Governor’s wife – another type of civilization’s decline – they transgress all moral and conventional boundaries and eventually murder for the sake of murdering, and literally set the town on fire. One of them commits suicide and allows the others to blame him for their crimes, leaving an untrue note that he is the culprit. Why? Because nothing matters. Nothing. The man they look to as their leader, Nicolai Stavrogin, is the son of a wealthy landowner, an eccentric widow. She enjoys a protracted and chaste love affair of the mind with a once-daring but now perfectly tame intellectual rebel who has long since outlived his small fame. Young Stavrogin – handsome, rich, and privileged – is the rebel du jour, reckless and unpredictable. At his mildest, we learn when we meet him, he has publicly indulged his evil impulses by making defiant gestures against polite custom, saying and doing irrational things – such as biting a distinguished gentleman’s ear – deliberately to outrage society. In secret he has done far worse. He has committed a terrible crime that we learn about eventually: he raped a child, and the girl killed herself. Then, secretly again, he married a poor despised ill-used madwoman. Why? In penance? Out of compassion? Is he a saint as well as a sinner? Or is it a bizarre joke? Dostoyevsky perfectly describes what Stavrogin is doing: he is “living sarcastically”.

Dostoyevsky believed Russia was sick with nihilism and despair, and could be saved only by a return to Orthodox Christianity. But the sun was going down on “Holy Russia”. The Orthodox Church was no longer capable – if ever it had been – of distinguishing between its saints and its sinners.

In Orthodox eyes, which of the two – saint or sinner – was Grigori Rasputin, the man who more than any other single individual hastened Tsarist Russia into extinction?

Rasputin was a peasant monk who the royal family of Russia needed to believe was a mystic healer. They put all their hopes in him to cure the Tsarevich of hemophilia, the bleeding disease that threatened the life of the young heir to the throne, the only son of the Tsar. The peasant monk might also have been (it was both alleged and denied) a member of the Khlysty, a Gnostic sect that had arisen in the 17th century and lasted into the 20th century, to be ended along with everything else by the Communist revolution. The Khlysty believed in direct (“intuitive”) knowledge of the divine and redemption through sin.

Whether or not as a member of the Khlysty, Rasputin convinced numerous highborn ladies that they could be redeemed through sin. Their lust being sanctioned by so exciting a promise, they stripped naked for him, begged for his sexual attentions, and – according to some colorful accounts – would even lick his greasy fingers clean after he had been eating with his hands at the table of the Tsar. What is well attested is that the occult was in vogue in high society, and some of its luminaries seriously expected – because they deeply longed for – miracles. Rasputin was their master; to them he was the Devil himself, laughing among them.

His own motive in performing his part may only have been the simple one of enjoying himself. By many accounts he fed gluttonously, drank copiously, and copulated promiscuously.

The Tsarina could not live without him. She did as he told her. And just as she depended too much on her “holy healer”, the Tsar depended too much on her. By her insistence, the Tsar took into his own hands the direction of his country’s forces in the Great War, and he did not do it well. Persons in high places became concerned that Russia was being governed and misgoverned by the “mad monk” – and it was not too much of an exaggeration. He apparently had power even over the Holy Synod, though he had never been ordained a priest. It seemed that a lascivious peasant was working his will over church and state. The Tsar refused to send him away. Nothing could dislodge him.

Plots were hatched to kill him. And finally four would-be assassins – the Grand Duke Dmitri Romanov and Prince Felix Yusupov, along with a member of the Duma and an army officer – set about murdering him in the basement of the Yusupov palace on December 17, 1916;[4] first with poison – but he stayed alive; then with a gun, shooting him many times – but still he did not die; then stabbing him and beating him on the head with a truncheon. Finally they dropped him, probably dead but by some accounts still alive, over a bridge and down through the ice of the River Niva. So ended his real-life performance as a “holy sinner”, or magus.

It had been a magnificent mockery – of religion, power, aristocracy, and morals – born of a brilliant, if instinctive, perception that the stupidity of the great laid them open to exploitation by bold native cunning. Had the Romanovs, in particular the Tsarina, and her noble ladies avid for sin, not been mystics themselves, not believed in miracles, they would not have fallen under Rasputin’s spell. The Orthodox Church itself – or part of it – romanticized mystic charlatans of his kind. Both the institutions of monarchy and church had become rotten stumps ready to be kicked over.

And kicked over they soon were. The downfall of Tsarist Russia began on April 16, 1917, just four months after Rasputin’s death, when Lenin returned from exile and began the process that brought the Russians under Marxian Communism.

 

Jillian Becker    September 20, 2014

NOTES

1. See The Darkness of This World Part One, essay 9, Faust (Two).

2. See The Darkness of This World Part One, essay 7, The Fiddler and His Proof.

3. Sergey Nechayev (1847-1882) and his fellow Nihilists were the real-life models for Dostoyevsky’s demons in The Possessed. The opening lines of Nechayev’s Revolutionary Cathecism are: “The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no personal interests, no business affairs, sentiments, ties, property, nor even a name of his own. Everything in him is wholly absorbed in the single thought and the single passion for revolution. Heart and soul, not merely by word but by deed, he has severed every link with the social order and with the entire civilized world, with the laws, good manners, conventions, and morality of that world. He is its ruthless enemy and continues to inhabit it with only one purpose – to destroy it.”

4. December 17 old style = December 30 new style.

*

11

The French Pandemonium (One)

Charles Baudelaire 1821-1867

Arthur Rimbaud 1854-1891

Antonin Artaud 1896-1948

Jean-Paul Sartre 1905-1980

A pandemonium is a gathering of all the demons or devils. Devils are expected to be noisy, so the word has come to mean a deafening cacophony of shrieking voices.

What the voices of this pandemonium clamor for, is “Evil”. It is not an insult to call them demons; it is an acknowledgment of their choice. They choose Evil, they call for Evil, they acclaim Evil, they are for Evil.

And what are they against? They are against What Is. They are against our civilization. They are against the bourgeois, whom they hold responsible for everything that’s wrong with our civilization: free enterprise industrialization; liberal democracy; parliamentarianism; conservatism.

It was in France that the clamor was loudest among certain poets and novelists and philosophers to épater le bourgeois – shock the bourgeoisin the nineteenth century, reaching a crescendo between the world wars of the twentieth century, rising again after the end of the second. A racket of foaming hate; a literary hue and cry after the middle-class citizen.

As you may have noticed, the bourgeoisie is, in fact, the all-achieving class. Almost everything of value since the Enlightenment, including the Enlightenment itself, has issued from the middle-class; every invention, every discovery, every advance, with so few exceptions they can be counted on a few of your fingers. But to the demons of poetry and philosophy and revolution, the bourgeois was everything that was wrong with Life: the bourgeois with his politesse, his prudence, his order and cleanliness, his comfortable house, his good-quality clothes, his well-stocked larder, his prosperity, his faithfulness to duty, his thrifty habits … “No, no,” the scornful voices yell, interrupting me. “Its not just that, it’s … it’s … it’s his complacency, his bad taste, his narrow-mindedness, his privilege, his exploitation of underdogs, his obsession with material things – and his stupid sexual inhibition. Those, don’t you see, are the unbearable traits that make him a worthy target of our artistic fury. He does not, cannot feel as we do. Down with him! Grind him into the dust!”

But it is the againstness itself that characterizes the demons. If every one of those despicable things about the bourgeois were overcome or destroyed (as every one of them was in Communist Russia), and civilization wholly laid to waste, the urge would rage on, its hunger unappeased, hunting its everlasting prey: What Is. To them, as to the Gnostics of old, everything that is here is bad; the good lies beyond.

Whatever words have been used to describe the Paris fashions in Scorn – modernism, post-modernism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction – they are all expressions of rebellion. To be a rebel is to be heroic. Despised and rejected by the bourgeois herd, the rebel is a martyr to his deep passion for art, his higher vision of a better world.

To protest against the bourgeois idea of what is good, the demons advocated doing whatever the bourgeois considered evil. They placed themselves in a French counter-tradition, a line that runs from Rousseau with his belief in the primacy of feeling and sentiment, through Robespierre with his Terror, the Marquis de Sade with his penchant for sexual torture, the nineteenth century poets Charles Baudelaire with his Flowers of Evil and Arthur Rimbaud with his Season in Hell, and on through the intellectual trend-setters – whom we will come to – of twentieth century French literature and their continuing effects. There are still reigning French demons in the twenty-first century. It is a dynasty of the defiant.

Baudelaire, a syphilitic,[1] intoxicated himself with drugs – opium is the narcotic his poetry rhapsodizes – and wrote gorgeous descriptions of voluptuous sex with decomposing corpses; lyrics on physical and moral squalor; dramatic evocations of grief, anguish and dejection. He was a beautician of the sordid, a glamorizer of evil. He hero-worshipped “Satan”. His lush romantic poetry is about death, putrescence, crime, necrophilia, ennui, hell and the Devil; voluptuous sadism; the grotesque and the macabre.

Samples:

“When she had sucked my marrow out, I turned/to her again for one more love-kiss burned,/though languidly, and saw her thus:/ a slimy leather bottle full of pus! … I fainted … and when I wakened … a quivering skeleton where we had lain/rattled and creaked like an old weathervane or a sign hung on an iron arm swung by the wind through nights of storm.” [2]

“I’d like, some night/ … to whip your flesh …/ and bruise … your breast/ … cut a wide deep wound/ and then, with dizzy rapture … infuse in you/ my venom …” [3]

Why? The poet explained: “When I have aroused universal horror and disgust, I shall have conquered solitude.”[4]

In fact this perverse aesthetic of the shocking, the horrifying, the repulsive and the disgusting, far from arousing shock, horror, revulsion and disgust, made Baudelaire enormously popular in France and put the laurels of heroism on his brow.[5] And through him the Romantic tradition of passion, terror and sadism ran on.

Arthur Rimbaud, the teenage poet, was born thirty-three years after Baudelaire and was doubtless influenced by him. Rimbaud too wrote poems about the frightful and the nauseating. He too wooed Satan.

A sample:

I am weary, I die. This is the grave and I’m turning into worms, horror of horrors! Satan, you clown, you want to dissolve me with your charms. Well, I want it. I want it! Stab me with a pitchfork, sprinkle me with fire.”[6]

When he was eighteen, Rimbaud began a turbulent and violent sexual affair with the Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, who was ten years older than he and wrote lyrical, sentimental, melancholy poetry. Rimbaud stopped writing poetry by the age of twenty-one. Though he lived into his thirty-eighth year he wrote no more. He predicted, however, that “other horrible workers would come” (“viendront d’autres horribles travailleurs”)[7] to carry on where he left off. The mission of the “horrible workers” was to “reach the unknown” by a deliberate “derangement of the senses” – achieved by committing crimes and descending into madness with the aid of drugs – so that they might “become prophets”.

And the “horrible work” was indeed carried on, from the nineteenth century into the twentieth. One of the “horrible workers” was Antonin Artaud, born in 1896, five years after Rimbaud’s death. Influenced by both Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Artaud conceived, in the 1920s, a theoretical Theatre of Cruelty – an idea that was to prove all too fecund. He was of dubious sanity through most of his life, and in his case psychosis was clinically diagnosed. He spent his last years in insane asylums, a certified lunatic.

Symbolists, Dadaists, Surrealists, with their visions of alternative worlds, were intent, each in his own way, on symbolically smashing, (words of violence are essential to convey the passion behind the intention), wrecking the world of rationality, sanity, sobriety, order, morality – in sum, civilization.

And civilization, headquartered in Paris, applauded them. That is to say, a large part of the bourgeoisie applauded them. And why not? The bourgeoisie is not after all narrow-minded. Cruelty, destructiveness, defiance, rebellion, the mission to dislocate the senses that the poems, pictures, novels, plays, philosophies served to advance, did not come at them from an alien source. Almost to a man, every one of these bourgeois-hating intellectual rebels was born into the bourgeoisie. Like everything else that affected the European culture, their contributions to it – mutinous as they were – came out of the middle-class. Their rebellion against their background resembles the common adolescent rebellion against parents: the “look at me how daring I am” naughtiness; the anger-baiting by whatever means might shock the old birds; the big tease of “seeing how far I can go”.

Jean-Paul Sartre, a very prominent “horrible worker” in the twentieth century, came from a solidly bourgeois background. His father was a naval officer. His mother was a cousin of Albert Schweitzer, the famous theologian and philanthropist who founded a hospital for lepers in Gabon, in north Africa. Young Jean-Paul earnestly studied philosophy, then wrote prolifically, and became famous. Throughout his adult life he praised what his forefathers abominated, and abominated what they revered.

My personal goal,” he announced, “is to overthrow bourgeois society.”[8]

In novels, plays, essays, Sartre presents the idea of a “real” or “pure” inner Self yearning for its liberation. It struggles, bravely and agonizingly, against the World-as-is – “the Other”, “the Given”, everything that is not the Self.[9] The idea closely resembles – whether Sartre himself recognized the echo or not – the ancient Gnostic belief that within Man (or at least in superior men and women) is a Divine Spark, which will be liberated when it escapes from the prison of its own flesh and this base material world to which it is alien and in which it suffers.

In his novel Nausea (for example), Sartre’s young protagonist Roquentin feels disgust for his own body, and for the whole material world. The world is alien and inimical to him. He feels that he is essentially an imprisoned “inner Self” – different, special, “authentic” – who is capable of, and longing for, freedom. The existence of other people causes him his most acute suffering. They are not like him. They do not have that inner Self which is capable of freedom. They are “inauthentic”.

Sartre insists that “the authentic Self” [10] needs above all to decide for itself what is Good and what is Evil. And the decision cannot, apparently, match that of polite society. It has by some necessity to be as different from the norms of civilization as possible.

Echoing the old Gnostics (whether he knew it or not, and he surely did know it), Sartre has Roquentin feel that his world, the world he inhabits – which is to say civilization – is slime.[11] It makes him nauseous. He fears having to take on a defined social role,  such as that of a waiter in a restaurant (an example Sartre used in a philosophical discussion of what he called mauvaise foi – “bad faith”), and so become part of the world of slime. If he were to do something as cosmically appalling as, for instance, become a waiter, so accepting a role, and with it a morality, devised by the conglomerate of Others which we call our civilization, he would be an object rather than a subject; an “in-itself” rather than a “for-itself”. To have built such a civilization, and to impose its morality on such a being as the nauseated Roquentin, is – Sartre would impress upon us – the crime of the bourgeois.

We can be grateful to Sartre for one thing: his writings about other members of the pandemonium save us a lot of trouble. He has selected prime demons to praise in them the very ideas and qualities which we are discussing – ideas that darken our world. We can believe what Sartre says of them, because what he says mostly reveals what he himself was and thought – and his demonic noise is much the same as theirs.

His book Baudelaire, is a rich source of quotations from the poet laureate of Hell:

As for myself, I say: the supreme and unique pleasure of love lies in the certainty that one is doing evil. – And man and woman know from birth that the whole of pleasure is to be found in evil.”[12]

He proclaimed that Baudelaire’s soul was “an exquisite blossom”’ because he “‘desired Evil for Evil’s sake”. “In Satan,” Sartre wrote (speaking here, as so often, about himself as much as about his subject), “Baudelaire saw the perfect type of suffering beauty. Satan, who was vanquished, fallen, guilty, crushed beneath the memory of an unforgiveable sin, devoured by insatiable ambition, transfixed by the eye of God … Satan, nevertheless, prevailed against God, his master and conqueror, by his suffering, by that flame of non-satisfaction which … shone like an unquenchable reproach.” The vanquished, “because he was vanquished, carried off the victory”. And so: “being proud and vanquished, penetrated by the feeling of his uniqueness in the face of the world, Baudelaire identified himself in the secrecy of his heart with Satan.”[13]

Baudelaire – Sartre recalls – would carry out sudden “gratuitous” acts, often destructive. Spontaneous, reasonless acts of destruction are commonly advocated by the demons. The explanation goes thus: If you act pointlessly, perform a sudden deed of purposeless violence and destruction, you have freed yourself from the compulsion of cause and purpose, and so from the restrictions of social convention, the limits imposed by law and custom, and even logic. The very “gratuitousness” proves your self-determination, therefore your “freedom”.

Why does such an act have to be violent and destructive? Because it must punish. It is an act of vengeance. Punish whom? The answer can only be “the Other” – which is to say, other people, society – in its chief dramatis persona, the bourgeois. Vengeance for what? For being in the way of the Self that would be free. For putting the restraints of civilization on it. For trying to pressure it into “inauthenticity”.

So a random act of destruction is a gesture for liberation. In other words, my words, it is an act of terrorism. Sartre’s philosophy, true to its Romantic revolutionary origins, inspired and encouraged terrorism. It taught, it preached: “As the freedom of your inner Self can only be achieved by doing what is forbidden, and as it is forbidden to kill – kill!”

To go so far as to kill in order to achieve your personal inner liberation is not only good, it is positively saintly. Sartre approves and endorses Baudelaire’s dictum: “In politics,” the poet of evil said,” the true saint is the man who uses his whip and kills the people for their own good.”[14]

Sartre nowhere suggests that if you were to achieve the liberation of your authentic Self you would then be happy. That is not the purpose of that struggle in the course of which you may sacrifice other people’s lives. The achievement of “authenticity” – nebulous as the concept is – remains the sole objective. Not only does Sartre not promise happiness to the liberated “authentic” Self, he would have you despise happiness, reject it.

Happiness is a contemptible thing; yet another thing that is wrong with the bourgeois. Bad enough that the bourgeois perpetrates civilization, but he also pursues happiness. And that makes him base. “Baudelaire,” Sartre wrote, “belonged to this aristocracy of Evil” which would “never accept happiness because it was immoral”. And not only immoral, but also “ignoble”. “’Suffering’,” he [Baudelaire] said, “’is nobility’… No one is more despicable than the one who is happy.”[15]

The sensitive man who suffers among the comfortable, the contented and the happy, knows that he is an alien, an exile. (From where, Sartre does not say.)[16] He is a lonely “for-itself”; different from those who belong in the bourgeois world. He must assert his freedom – preferably by an act of violence – and then suffer. Freedom is a state he must attain, but it is a most unhappy state. We human beings, Sartre famously said, are “condemned to be free”.

The word “condemned” implies that there is no escape from freedom. It is our fate. Just as Karl Marx declared, contradicting himself, that social revolution was inevitable and yet could only be brought about by the proletariat making revolution, Sartre declared, contradicting himself, that we are all, as human beings, condemned to be free, and yet the authentic Self must struggle to liberate itself.

The phrase is a contradiction of the Roquentin message, and it presents a more dramatic contradiction in the psyche of the philosopher himself. Freedom both a compulsion and a punishment? Would Sartre then rather not be free? The phrase exposes a nostalgia in Sartre for subjection to some authority. And this may account for his emotional and political commitment to Marxism – even for a time to the Russian Communist regime, the total repressor of freedom.[17]

 

Jillian Becker    November 23, 2014

NOTES

1. It is more than likely that he caught the disease willingly, as Thomas Mann’s fictitious “Dr. Faustus” does, and for much the same reason. See essay 9 above.

2. From Les Métamorphoses du Vampire, trans. C.F. MacIntyre, Les Fleurs du Mal, University of California Press, 1947.

3. From A Celle Qui Est Trop Gaie, Macintyre op.cit.

4. Baudelaire by Jean-Paul Sartre trans. Martin Turnell, New Directions, Norfolk Conn., 1950 p.87.

5. I do not of course mean to imply that all French writers were Romantics cultivating evil. Among the great unromantic novels of the nineteenth century there is for instance Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which could be said to confront the romanticism of hopeless ambition with compassionate but clear-eyed realism. But it was the Romantics, the “horrible workers” in Rimbaud’s words, who stoked the fires of destructive rebellion in generations of European intellectuals, until, in the twentieth century, they had grown so popular and powerful that they were able to create the New Left; incite seasons of violent protest demonstrations on city streets throughout Europe and even on other continents; inspire the formation of European terrorist gangs; and implant their anti-civilization ideology as a new dogma in schools and academies throughout the Western world.

6. From Night in Hell by Arthur Rimbaud, translation Paul Schmidt, Harper Colophon Books, Harper and Row, New York, 1976.

7. “In the 15 May 1871 letter he says that ‘Viendront d’autres horribles travailleurs’ (Other horrible workers will come along)—a prophetic assertion of his role as initiator of a process that would continue long after he himself had ceased writing.” – From The Poetry Foundation’s biography of Arthur Rimbaud (no author named).

8. Sartre can be heard saying this on a video clip published January 15, 2009.

10. Jacques Lacan, a Freudian psychoanalyst, wrote at length about the Self and the Other. He got the idea of “the Other” from Hegel. Lacan is one of the most opaque among these stygian writers. Example: “The Other is, therefore, the locus in which is concentrated the I who speaks with him who hears, that which is said by the one being already the reply, the other deciding to hear it whether the one has or has not spoken.” If after that you seriously want to know more about this fortissimo French demon – whom even Noam Chomsky, an American member of the rebel intelligentsia, has called a “charlatan” – see Lacan by Malcolm Bowie, Harvard University Press, 1991. The quotation in this note is from p.81.

11. Sartre derived the idea of the “authentic Self” from the writings of a near contemporary whom he deeply admired, the German philosopher (and Nazi), Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s definition of sin was “living inauthentically”.

12. The Gnostics believed that Man was created out of slime by an evil Demiurge, Greek for a craftsman. The Demiurge, often named Ialdabaoth, is identified in some Christian Gnostic creeds with the Creator God of the Jews, Jehovah. He is graded as the lowest God in the Gnostic hierarchy of the heavens.

13. Sartre op.cit. p.76.

14. Sartre op.cit. p.99. Sartre was an atheist, but not averse to using Christian imagery. He wrote that for the Self to assert its freedom “in a theocratic world” [one ruled by the Christian God], one must be “infinitely in the wrong”. He plainly relishes Baudelaire’s self-identification with Satan.

15. Sartre op.cit. p.66.

16. Sartre op.cit. p.74.

17. The Gnostic too believed himself to be a stranger in this world, exiled from the pleroma, the highest heaven, to which the divine spark in him would ultimately return.

18. Sartre was for personal freedom and also for totalitarian control. It may have been the irreconcilability of these two opinions that kept him from actually joining the Communist Party as many of his fellow demons did in the twentieth century.

*

12

The French Pandemonium (Two)

Georges Bataille 1887-1962

André Breton 1896-1966

Of all the cultivators of Evil in twentieth century France, none was so devout, so persistent, or plunged so deep into moral and material muck as Georges Bataille. He hungered and lusted for Evil. He was a coprophiliac, and a necrophiliac – committing, by his own confession or boast, an incestuous sexual act, in a state of “arousal to the limit”, upon his mother’s corpse in the moments after her death.[1]

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.”[2]

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.”[3]

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.”[4]

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”.[5] 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.”[6]

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.”[7] Oh, the intense joy of dying in excruciating pain! He and others in his circle formed a secret society which was to launch itself with a beheading. Every member was willing to be the sacrificial victim and have his head sawn off – but none would consent to be the executioner.

The external movement that he would have push him to transports of joy was Communism. Bataille’s apocalypse was the earthly one of Marxist revolution. He desired and expected “world socialist revolution”. He declared that – of course – he “preferred force to boring political and doctrinal debates”[8] And that was his mildest expression of his political expectations. To satisfy him, the Marxist revolution would have to be extremely violent and terrible. He described his vision of it as a simultaneous mass slaughter, apocalypse, and cosmic orgasm: “Without a profound complicity with natural forces such as violent death, gushing blood, sudden catastrophes and the horrible cries of pain that accompany them, terrifying ruptures of what had seemed to be immutable [bourgeois civilization], the fall into stinking filth of what had been elevated [the great achievements of civilization] – without a sadistic understanding of an incontestably thundering and torrential nature, there could be no revolutionaries, there could only be a revolting utopian sentimentality.”[9] And: “Revolt – its face distorted by amorous ecstasy – tears from God his naïve mask, and thus oppression collapses in the crash of time. Catastrophe means that by which a nocturnal horizon is set ablaze, that for which lacerated existence goes into a trance – it is the Revolution – it is time released from all bonds.”[10] And would be a liberation for George Baaille personally, who believed (as did Jean-Paul Sartre) that he was a “me … in its prison”. (11)

Nothing less than the greatest degree of violence would ever do for Georges Bataille. That is the implication of his objection to a passage in which André Breton (the writer credited with being the inventor of Surrealism) recommends random massacre as an excellent form of self-expression. After what we’ve learnt about Bataille’s love of mass slaughter, we would surely look for his eager approval of Breton’s plans. And were they not brothers in the great French tradition of sadism? Well, yes: Bataille did regard Breton as a friend for a time; but as an enemy for a much longer time. He despised Breton’s work –“dislocation of the senses” though it was, to recall the famous phrase of Arthur Rimbaud – as “bourgeois”. They agreed that to kill people, any people, was a thoroughly admirable thing to do, but quarreled over how it should be done. Bataille quotes Breton as declaring in 1929: “The simplest surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd. Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization [this being his description of our civilization] in effect has a well-defined place in that crowd, with his belly at barrel level.” But this was too milquetoast for Bataille. He scorned this outpouring of terrorist passion as mere “poetic agitation” and demanded to know, “Where is the untrammeled frenzy of the heart?” [12]

Surely, one might think, this was a matter of “means justified by the end”? Did Bataille not expect, beyond his ideal “thundering and torrential” apocalyptic revolution, a final Marxian era of all being well, with the masses living peacefully and equally in an earthly paradise? The answer is no, he did not. Although – unlike most of his fellow demons – he described what that future ideal life would be like, his vision did not betray his tastes:

The post-revolutionary phase implies the necessity of a division between the economic and political organization of society on the one hand, and on the other an antireligious and asocial organization having as its goal orgiastic participation in different forms of destruction.”[13] To elucidate this wishful vision: In the socialist world to come, in addition to the new political and economic order that will be imposed [“organized”], there must also be enforced [“organized”] social disorder which will include compulsory orgies. Compulsory sexual orgies. Orgies of perverse sex. Populations will be forced into constant public performances of rape and sodomy and sadomasochistic torture. And in these orgies there must be “destruction”. Of what? Of people. He confirms this by adding: “Such an organization can have no other conception of morality than the one scandalously affirmed for the first time by the Marquis de Sade.” The Marquis de Sade had notoriously defended and advocated the committing of incest, rape, pedophilia, torture, infanticide, necrophilia, and had committed whichever of them he could whenever he could. He wrote of murder that it was “often necessary and never criminal”.[14]

Bataille mentions some of the thrills that will arise from “the organizations that have ecstasy and frenzy as their goal”. They will be “the spectacular death of animals, partial tortures, orgiastic dances, etc.”[15] That “etc.” – as if everyone would know what else ordinarily belongs with such events – is remarkable. It suggests Bataille came to believe that his “visions of excess” were quite common; that it was common for a person to enjoy watching torture to induce his own physical ecstasy. “One of man’s attributes,” he mused, “is the derivation of pleasure from the suffering of others, and … erotic pleasure is not only the negation of agony that takes place at the same instant, but also a lubricious participation in that agony, it is time to choose between the conduct of cowards afraid of their own joyful excesses, and the conduct of those who judge any given man need not cower like a hunted animal, but instead see all the moralistic buffoons as so many dogs.”[16]

To summarize: It is not just good, but the highest good, that one should take great pleasure in the suffering of other people, because it is a terrific erotic trip. Not to indulge oneself in that “joyful excess” is to be a coward.

If there’s something surprising about George Bataille, it is that he never – as far as anyone knows – actually raped and tortured anyone to death. But he did not entirely content himself with thinking, dreaming and writing about rape, torture and murder.

It can come now as no surprise for us to learn that this man who longed for a society in which the frequent and compulsory infliction of pain and death would be organized as part of everyday life, was attracted to Nazism.

“Given what we know about Bataille’s predisposition to violence and sadomasochism, is it really surprising that he may have been seduced by a movement that openly flaunted its indebtedness to an aesthetic of shock and horror?” writes his appreciator.[17] This view that Bataille was “seduced”, as if he was an innocent corrupted, is gravely mistaken; but it is perfectly credible that he was attracted to Nazism, to its “aesthetic of shock and horror”. Hitler and Mussolini surely manifested sufficient “frenzy of the heart” to impress Bataille.

He wrote: “The religious value of the chief is really the fundamental (if not formal) value of fascism … The chief as such is in fact only the emanation of a principle that is none other than that of the glorious existence of a nation raised to the value of a divine force (which, superseding every other conceivable consideration, demands not only passion but ecstasy from its participants). Incarnated in the person of the chief (in Germany, the properly religious term, prophet, has sometimes been used), the nation thus plays the same role that Allah, incarnated in the person of Muhammad or the Khalif, plays for Islam.”[18]

Despite this approbation, it seems he never thought of himself as a “fascist”. Like all his compatriot demons, he viewed “fascism” – by which he meant Nazism as well as Mussolini’s movement – as a political opposite to Communism. With him, as with Western communists generally, this view survived the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 – and is still widely held by Marxists in the present day.

In the late 1930s, two years before the outbreak of the Second World War, Bataille and some like-minded intellectuals formed the Collège de Sociologie. Its theoretical aim was to return society to “the primitive” (an echo of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the ur-father of all the French demons). But then the war came, Germany conquered France, the Wehrmacht marched into Paris followed by the Gestapo, and the members of the Collège became afraid. Cruelty and violence, they learnt, were not just titillating notions; they were acts in reality. The Collège disbanded, and years later, one former member explained: “The war had shown us just how inane the College of Sociology’s endeavor had been. The dark forces we had dreamed of setting off had unleashed themselves entirely of their own accord, with results quite different from what we had expected.”[19]

It is hard to imagine what results could be expected other than the ones that occurred. And the “dark forces” had not “unleashed themselves”. They – the shills of Evil, Bataille and Breton and the other demons – had created and mobilized them. Nazism was their wet dream come true. The receptiveness of the French intelligentsia – and of European leftist opinion as a whole – to the vicious ideas of Bataille and his like, is a thorny fact. When they saw and experienced those thrillingly naughty things actually happening, even the French demons themselves – being, almost all of them, bourgeois to the core – were terrified by it.

But did the reality of war, conquest, mass murder, “violent death”, “gushing blood” and “horrible cries of pain” wake them up, change their minds? No.

Did the Holocaust put an end to the games the aesthetes played with Evil? No.

As soon as the game-players, the shockers of the bourgeois, felt themselves safe again; as soon as the bourgeois world was re-established, and prosperity and plenty regained through the hard work of the resilient bourgeoisie, Evil recovered its appeal to the advocates of horror, and they crept out and stood up as staunchly for Evil as they had before – to be again enthusiastically applauded and generously rewarded for it by the bourgeois civilization they so despised.[20]

 

Jillian Becker   December 21, 2014

NOTES

1. Richard Wolin, The Story of I: Unearthing Georges Bataille, Bookforum, Spring 2004.

2. Wolin op.cit.

3. Wolin op. cit. According to the Church Fathers, who destroyed the records of the second century Gnostics but wrote their own accounts of their beliefs and rites, the swallowing of menstrual blood was part of the sacred rituals of some of the sects. To hold sacred what the Pauline Church considered profane was certainly part of Gnostic doctrine, as it was of the personal revolt of Georges Batailles against conventional mores.

4. Wolin op.cit. Batailles was attracted, as one would expect, to the historical Gnostics. He found them interesting enough to write an essay titled Base Materialism and Gnosticism (included in Vision of Excess, cited in Note 6), but did not delve deeply into their origins and cosmogonies, about which he makes erroneous statements. He describes their practices and rituals in terms that should suggest his admiration and respect. Gnosticism, he wrote, “manifests above all a sinister love of darkness, a monstrous taste for obscene and lawless archontes [heavenly powers]”. “Certain sexual rites”, he opined, “fulfilled an obscure demand for a baseness that would not be reducible, which would be owed the most indecent respect”. Yet, amazingly, he seems not to have recognized them, from their orgies of perverse sex, their drug-taking, their rites with bodily waste, their promiscuous perverted sexual practices, their contempt for the material world, their cultivation of Evil and their belief in redemption through sin, as his own semblables.  

5. Wolin op.cit.

6. George Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927-1939, edited and translated by Allan Stoekl, Manchester University Press, 1985. The quoted passage is the caption Bataille gave to an illustration (Figure 16) of the Aztec religious rite of tearing the heart out of a living human victim.

7. Bataille op. cit. p. 69, Sacrificial Mutilation.

8. Bataille op. cit. p. xiii, Introduction.

9. Bataille op. cit. p.137, The Psychological Structure of Fascism.

10. Bataille op. cit. p.134, Sacrifices.

11. Bataille op. cit. p.131, Sacrifices.

12. Bataille op. cit. p.39, The “Old Mole” and the Prefix Sur in the Words Surhomme [Superman] and Surrealist.

13. Bataille op. cit. p.101, The Use Value of D. A. F. de Sade.

14. The Marquis de Sade, Philosophy in the Boudoir.

15. Bataille op. cit. p.102, The Use Value of D.A.F. de Sade.

16. Bataille op. cit. p. 101, The Use Value of D. A. F. de Sade.

17. Wolin op. cit.

18. Bataille op. cit. p.154, The Psychological Structure of Fascism.

19. Wolin op. cit.

20. I doubt this is true of British or American intellectual circles. Since 1985, when Allan Stoekl’s translations of Bataille were published, “Anglo-Saxon readers can’t seem to get enough of Bataille”, writes Wolin in the article cited. This comes as a surprise to me. Neither in Britain nor America is he much talked or written about by those who would do so if that were the case. Though this is far from a reliable poll, it is interesting to me that most of the people – serious readers – to whom I’ve mentioned Georges Bataille, in England and the United States, say they don’t know anything about his work, and many do not even know his name. What Wolin asserts may be true (alas) of the liberal arts universities, but if so his personal popularity seems to be confined there. That is not to say, however, that the corrupt ideas of the French romantics, revolting against reason, have had no effect on America. The poison pumped out from America’s academic heart streams through the nation’s arteries and has, I contend, gone far in corrupting it intellectually and politically.

*

13

The French Pandemonium (Three)

Jean Genet 1910-1986

Michel Foucault 1926-1984

When the Second World War was over in Europe in 1945, and the enormities perpetrated by the Nazis had been fully revealed à tout le monde, Evil did not lose any of its popularity among the anti-bourgeois intelligentsia of France. If those who had survived war and occupation, deprivation and terror, and in some cases confinement, had a sense of being supped full with horrors, it seems to have been short-lived. Their appetite for blood, for torture, and even for mass murder, soon revived.

Most of the novels and plays of Jean Genet – works in which he “explored the potentialities of evil”[1] – were published or performed after the war. He wrote fascinatingly about criminals. His play Haute Surveillance,[2] first performed in 1949, is about a prisoner who, sentenced for committing only small crimes, murders a fellow convict in order to be recognized as someone capable of doing far worse. The bourgeois audiences found it shocking, but not the intellectual elite. In 1952 Jean-Paul Sartre published an essay about him titled Saint Genet. What made Genet a saint in Sartre’s eyes was his criminality. He was a saint because he was a thief. And – even more glamorously romantic – he was a homosexual prostitute in the days when that too could land a man in jail.

All convicted prisoners were victims of the bourgeois and his civilization, in the opinion of Michel Foucault, another of our demons. He declared: “Delinquency, solidified by a penal system centered upon the prison, thus represents a diversion of illegality for the illicit circuits of profit and power of the dominant class.” (It’s often hard to make out what Foucault is getting at, and interpretations by his expositors can be hardly less challenging, but we know what class he was alluding to here, from much that he wrote and said, and from the catch-phrases of the era.)[3]

In the life and works of Foucault, all the strands we have been tracing are knotted together: the bourgeois’ rebellion against his own class; Romanticism; the supremacy of feeling; the Faustian choice; Marxism; nihilism; sadism; enthusiasm for human sacrifice; elective illness. Also, the Christianity-haunted pursuit of evil; “redemption through sin”; the reversal of values; the imprisoned “other” Self with esoteric knowledge of a high spiritual order: in a word, Gnosticism.

Foucault, the French demon par excellence, was a disciple of Georges Bataille. Their tastes were the same. Foucault endorsed the master’s praise for “erotic transgression”, rhapsodized over “the joy of torture”, and longed to assist his hero in carrying out human sacrifice as a holy act and a thrilling work of art. Together they schemed – but did not institute – a “theatre of cruelty” (as had the clinically mad Antonin Artaud before them), in which actual murder would be performed for an audience. They saw a profound moral value in murder – if the murderer gets a buzz out of it.

Some ideas emerge from Foucault’s writings distinctly enough to be examined. Among them, that the law-abiding bourgeois should be punished with violent oppression; mass reprisals are preferable to individual trials; and cruelty should be a normal way of life. Yet he is praised for being “always ready to protest the fate of the wretched and powerless”.[4]

Even if some of his works can be interpreted as “protesting the fate” of the criminal, the lunatic and the sadist,[5] “always” is going much too far. The mass of his oeuvres proclaims his enthusiasm for rendering anybody and everybody wretched and powerless, preferably maimed, and best of all dead.  

He did not except himself. To “redeem existence” from “unbearable banality”, he hankered to be caught up in what he called “limit experiences” of pain, terror, madness, and fatal illness: “the overwhelming, the unspeakable, the creepy, the stupefying, the ecstatic”, embracing “a pure violence, a wordless gesture”. All this he sought for himself, and – though an intensely self-obsessed man – generously desired for others too; and if others did not want it, well, they should be forced to endure it. And even if the victims could not raise their consciousness so as to be overjoyed, the inflictions would not be wasted, because Foucault could wring for himself from their suffering, the last drop of excruciating pleasure.

And this pleasure should not – he fantasized – be only an occasional treat. A demon such as he should not have to perform acts of torture and life-endangerment only for a rare thrill, but such experience should be continually on tap. He believed, like Bataille, that cruelty should be a way of life – the only way of life, a constant part of everybody’s everyday life. “We can and must,” he wrote, “make of man a negative experience, lived in the form of hate and aggression.”

An admiration of Nazism would have been consistent with that opinion. After such a season of evil as the Nazis had provided, an “exploration” of it might have been a reasonable thing to undertake. But it wasn’t the Nazis and their deeds that interested Genet or attracted Foucault. Their enemy was still – or again – the bourgeois with his law and order; still and always the civilization of the Western world, that Britain and America had fought to preserve after France had fallen like a ripe plum into the outstretched hands of Adolf Hitler. Generally, Europeans on the Left did not hold the West to be a worthy victor. The triumph, in their eyes, belonged to Communist Russia, and their gratitude and esteem went to Joseph Stalin.

Foucault joined the Communist Party in 1950. Like Bataille, he expected Communism to turn everyday life into glorious hell. He said: “When the proletariat takes power, it may be quite possible that the proletariat will exert toward the classes over which it has triumphed a violent, dictatorial, and even bloody power. I can’t see what objection one could make to this.” [6]

But how could he, intensely and unremittingly self-obsessed as he was, find the anti-individualist ideology of Communism attractive? Apparently he wanted it to beat the individuality out of him. Like Bataille, he looked forward to “the Revolution” with “eschatological expectation”. Not only would it destroy the bourgeoisie and usher in violent and bloody dictatorship, it would also crush individuality. Then he, Michel Foucault, might at last “transcend his sense of personal alienation”.

Meanwhile, the Party, with its iron control over its members, its demand that they see as it would have them see, think as it would have them think, might transform him. He explained: “Being obliged to stand behind a fact that was totally beyond credibility, was part of that exercise of ‘the dissolution of the self’, of the quest for a way to be ‘other’.”

The “other” would emerge from the smelting furnace of Party discipline, pure, brilliant, triumphant. The Communist Party demanded that he lie, he lied obediently; but when his longing, searching, aspiring, banal self had not dissolved after three years of submission to its will, he withdrew from it. Even so, he did not renounce Marxism.[7] For a time he associated sympathetically with Maoists. And he reveled in the romantic excitement of the New Left’s fun “revolution”. One of the favorite slogans of the “sixty-eighters” – the New Left student rebels who clashed with the police in Paris night after night, most violently in May 1968 – was “Be Cruel!”. They emblazoned it in graffiti on the walls of the Sorbonne. The command was surely inspired by the demons, who in turn found the students’ imperative an intoxicating affirmation of their philosophy. In 1969 Foucault, at the time professor of Philosophy at the University of Vincennes, joined a student rabble in throwing bricks and stones at the police – while (he confessed) being careful not to dirty his beautiful black velour suit. (He could afford to own luxurious things – including expensive cars – as his income was liberally supplemented by his wealthy bourgeois parents.)

While he flirted with collectivist ideologies and movements, his lonely quest for transfiguration continued. Oh, “to think differently from the way one thinks”! Writing, he supposed, might be a way “to become someone other than one is”. He also tried cutting himself, and taking mind-altering drugs. A true “horrid worker” he was doing what Rimbaud had prescribed: “deranging the senses to become a prophet”.

Another way, he thought, was through “transgression”. He recognized that this was the Faustian choice: do what was forbidden as a means of becoming different and astonishing. By “transgression” he did not mean only the breaking of bourgeois moral taboos but actual crimes; and not just ordinary everyday crimes, but crimes of the most atrocious sort, of “pure violence”, such as were dreamt up by his chief historical role model, the angel of anguish, the prince of pain – the Marquis de Sade:

Ten corpses – a man, a wife, their eight children – lie in the smoldering ruins of a burned house. The libertine who torched it surveys her handiwork: ‘I examine the charred bodies one by one, recognize each: these people were alive this morning, and now, but a few hours later, here they are, dead, killed by me. And why did I do it? Out of fun. To spill my fuck. So this is what murder is’.”[8]

De Sade had “suffered” incarceration when his fantasies of cruelty and murder were considered dangerous – as indeed they were. But to Foucault he was “not mad, but tragic”. Tragic because he was shut away so he couldn’t carry out all his fantasies. (He had carried out some, which was the reason for his being confined in a madhouse.)

Foucault sought pleasure in the pain of both body and mind. He mutilated his body and terrified his mind. As nothing was more terrible than death, he desired it most passionately. “Complete, total pleasure,” he declared, “is related to death.” He contemplated suicide, thought of it often through the greater part of his life, and claimed to have “attempted” it many times. He expected and intended that suicide would be the way he’d die. He made “lifelong preparation for it”. It would be “a simple pleasure”, a “suffering pleasure”. It would be a way of “exploring experience in its negativity”.

To take his death into his own hands would not only hasten that crowning moment of “complete, total pleasure”, it might also bring about, at last, the release of his other Self. The “other” Michel Foucault would be emancipated in his own death-throes, to experience “a moment of free existence in suicide”.

He fantasized about participating in a “suicide orgy”, and eventually, in full consistency, that was the way he chose. He went, equipped with instruments – or “toys” – of torture, to orgies of sex, drugs, pain, cruelty, and terror, knowing that they were a way to his death, and intending that that’s what they should be. He endured and wallowed in them in the bathhouses of San Francisco where homosexual men congregated, many of them infected with the HIV virus. And when he knew he had AIDS – incurable at that time – he returned to the bathhouses deliberately to infect as many other men as he could. It was slow suicide and slow murder; according to his philosophy, the transcendent “limit experience”. How much he really enjoyed the prolonged period of slow physical disintegration to which he condemned himself no one of course can know. But he did not try to cut it short by some swifter means to death in order to achieve that moment of exquisite agony in which he expected to feel himself – or his hidden Self – liberated by death.

Perishing, he seems to have been in awe of what he had chosen to do. He wrote of “actual sacrifice of life”. “Sacrifice” was the word he chose. Murder and suicide carried, to his mind, religious significance. His hagiographer Miller asks rhetorically: “Was this his own singular experience of a death-dealing ‘disease of love’?” It surely was, if love is the right word for brief physical connections in clubs and bathhouses where “you meet men who are to you as you are to them: nothing but a body with which combinations and productions of pleasure are possible. You cease to be imprisoned in your own face, in your own past, in your own identity”.[9]

The very title of James Miller’s book, The Passion of Michel Foucault, speaks the message that all the Romantics we have been looking at, from Rousseau to Foucault, burn to have the world accept: that their rebellion against conventional values, their defiance of the civil order, even or especially their obscenest fantasies and most ruthless crimes are all performed in the interests of a higher morality, an ideal Good, way beyond the understanding of ordinary mortals. Because their extraordinary perception – a gift, a talent a genius which makes them innately superior but only hideously different in the eyes of their bourgeois contemporaries – is not understood, they are made to suffer, they are martyrs to that higher cause. Foucault spoke of “the intuitive” as being “the most elevated form of knowledge” – the very definition of the Gnosis, which the second century Gnostics held to be the possession of the specially gifted only.

Foucault wrote, quoting Bataille: “’Transgression affirms the limited being and it affirms the limitlessness into which it leaps’, opening a space of possible transfiguration and offering us moderns ‘our sole manner of discovering the sacred in its unmediated content’.” Again from the serpentine coils of language a meaning can be wrested: that the sacred can be known through desecration, and sin can be a means to transfiguration. So we are to understand that Foucault and Bataille (like Baudelaire and Genet, according to Jean-Paul Sartre) are holy sinners, or saints of hell. And there we have again that essential Gnostic doctrine: the way to salvation is through sin. Or, as Foucault himself put it: “transgression becomes a means to transcendence”. Or, in simple terms which serve to stress that the idea is nonsensical: go all the way down to go all the way up. [10]

His hagiographer, James Miller, declares, in part quoting Foucault himself: “In an implicit inversion of the apotheosis of Christ on the cross, the man martyred for his erotic practices reveals not the eternal glory of God in heaven, but the ‘lyrical core of man, his invisible truth, his invisible secret’.” He elaborates: “‘a compulsion to malignancy’, like a ‘thinking that is shattered’, far from being shameful, might provoke ‘an ascent into grace’.” It’s a hazy sentence, but what is distinct is the religious language. It suggests that a sinner, through his sin, can “provoke” his redemption. But Michel Foucault was not “martyred for his erotic practices”; he was made sick to death by his erotic practices. He died for no cause but his own sexual and emotional thrills, in a prolonged, consummate “limit experience” of dread.

Absurdly hyperbolic praise has been heaped upon him. Paul Veyne, professor of History at Vincennes, said of Foucault that he was “the most important event in the thought of this [20th] century”.[11] Yet far from contributing to the advancement of mankind, his example was atavistic: to live by the dictates of the instincts, the appetites, and the emotions – in other words to be savage. And like the savage, he justified all he did as a service to mystical powers – named the powers of hell by Christianized Europe. So he praised the savage thought of his friend and idol Bataille as “a transubstantiation ritualized in reverse – an unholy communion with uncanny daimonic forces.” By “daimonic” he may have meant only mystical forces, but the connotation of evil is inescapable; and to judge by all we know of Foucault and Bataille, evil is what they longed for them to be.[12]

Foucault and Bataille were themselves “uncanny daimonic forces” in the intellectual life of twentieth century France. Their immense popularity, the rapturous reception accorded their demonic works, could only mean that France itself was turning away – continuing to turn away – from reason and civilized values.

On the European battlefields of literature, philosophy, and politics, Romanticism has won an overwhelming victory. The “horrible workers” predicted by Rimbaud, have been elevated by public (bourgeois!) taste into the intellectual giants of contemporary thought. And they have influenced taste everywhere in the pan-European world. Now, in the early twenty-first century, in most of the faculties of the humanities, in most of the academies of the West, the French cult of Evil is virtually an orthodoxy – even in America.

 

Jillian Becker   March 8, 2015

NOTES

Unless otherwise attributed, the English versions of quotations are from The Passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller, Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1993. Miller’s book, though not entirely uncritical, is effectively hagiography. A more critical view of Michel Foucault and his works is Foucault by J. G. Merquior, Fontana Press, Harper Collins, 1985.

1. The Daily Telegraph’s obituary of Jean Genet, April 16, 1986.

2. The play was performed and published in English with the title Deathwatch.

3. Prolix, labyrinthine, and obscure as his writing can be, he is not the most opaque among his compeers. For sheer unintelligibility few can rival the “deconstructionist” Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). I quote at random from one of the enormous tomes of his translated works (A Derrida Reader, Columbia University Press, 1991, p.34): “The order of the signified is never contemporary, is at best the subtly discrepant inverse or parallel – discrepant by the time of a breath – from the order of the signifier. And the sign must be the unity of a heterogeneity, since the signified (sense or thing, noeme or reality) is not in itself a signifier, a trace: in any case is not constituted in its sense by its relationship with a possible trace.” In my own experience, knowing the context of such a passage, and familiarizing oneself with words (eg. “trace”) to which he ascribes a special meaning, does not aid comprehension. To sample texts by a bunch of his near rivals – including Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan who are among the better known in Anglophone countries – for the palm of incomprehensibility, try The Structuralist Controversy, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1970. Such writing destroys meaning, and in Derrida’s case particularly, it is intended to. For that reason, their work could be as lethal to Western civilization as a nuclear war.

4. Miller p.15.

5. Foucault concerned himself with the criminal in Surveiller et punir (Discipline and Punish), the lunatic in Folie et déraison (Madness and Civilization), and with the sadist passim through all his works. He admired R.D.Laing, the anti-psychiatry psychiatrist and cult figure of the New Left, who argued that “insanity is a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world”. In other words, the insane are “really” sane and the sane are “really” insane – just as the criminal are “really” innocent, and the innocent, who punish them, are “really” criminal. Like Laing, Foucault opposed the separation and confinement of lunatics. Promoted by Laing and others – possibly including Foucault – that opposition became popular, and resulted in the decision of most Western states to empty the insane asylums and close them down. “Release them into the community” was the way the bien pensant liked to put it. (“As if there really were such a thing, waiting to receive them in its warm embrace,” commented the psychiatrist and essayist Theodore Dalrymple.) Since then, untold numbers of mentally ill persons may be seen wandering and sleeping on city streets, bewildered, shelterless, vulnerable, defenseless, filthy, hungry, miserable and fated to early death.

6. Foucault said this in conversation with Noam Chomsky on a Dutch TV program, November, 1971.

7. Foucault defended himself from accusations of self-contradiction by saying: “Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same.”

8. Quoted from Philosophy in the Boudoir by the Marquis de Sade in Foucault ‘s book Folie et déraison (translated as Madness and Civilization – “civilization” being a synonym for “insanity” in Foucault’s perception?).

9. Miller pp. 260-261.

10. The Nazi philosopher Heidegger – an oracle to the French demons – put it thus: “To tap the primal essences of our own animal nature – that is transcendence.” And with that we hear the ghost of Rousseau, whose ideal was the “natural man”, mumbling assent in the background.

11. Quoted by Roger Kimball in The Perversions of M. Foucault, a review of James Miller’s book The Passion of Michel Foucault, in The New Criterion, March 1993.

12. Since Foucault knew that an epidemic of AIDS among homosexual men had broken out in San Francisco, he surely caught the disease as deliberately as Baudelaire – and Thomas Mann’s fictitious Faust – caught syphilis. And for the same reason: because he believed that the physical agony and mental derangement it would cause, would release his genius. At the same time the terrible adventure allowed him to “explore the depths and the heights”, as Goethe’s Faust yearned to do. And perhaps to reach transcendent heights by sinking to inhuman moral depths, as Heidegger (see note 10) recommended.

*

14

Mystic Communism

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”[1] – 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”.[2]

One of the essays is about some German and Swiss writers who, Lukács allows, created admirable works despite being bourgeois. “The bourgeois way of life signifies only a denial of everything that is beautiful, everything the life-instinct longs for”, he states with conviction.

This was not the disdain of the aristocrat for a class beneath him. (The von Lukács family, for all its wealth and title, would in any case have been classed as haut bourgeois rather than true nobility.) Nor was it (yet) a revolutionary’s contempt for the established order. It was the romantic artist’s repudiation of the average and ordinary. Lukács deemed himself an artist because, he wrote, “the essay is an art form”,(3) and essays such as his could be “intellectual poems”.[4]

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”.[5]

In 1911, Lukács wrote a story titled On Poverty of Spirit.[6] 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.[7] 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?”[8] 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.”[9] He longed for “an extinction of selfhood” through “complete absorption of the ego into a higher being”.[10]

Often he conjectured that the only answer was in death, and he brooded on suicide.[11] 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:[12] “Many came to Heidelberg [University] who were men of letters and potential candidates for Habilitation.[13] Among them was Georg von Lukács from Budapest and Ernst Bloch[14] 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.[15] 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.” [16]

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.[17] Communism, he believed, was the salvation of all mankind, provided only that each soul had faith enough and submitted utterly to its church.[18]

He was not to find total commitment easy for himself. Despite the strength of his wish to surrender his will to its authority, he could not accept its dogma uncritically. On and off through the rest of his life he was in dispute with more powerful dictators of Party orthodoxy. And he was to suffer for his heresies. His altercations with power landed him at intervals in prison, sometimes briefly in death cells.

From his start as a Communist, Lukács felt an urge to proclaim his interpretations of Marxian concepts. Marx had ruled that the proletariat was the revolutionary class, its “class consciousness” the sole dynamic of the revolution. Fine. Wonderful. He could totally, and did passionately, accept that as a vital, central doctrine. But what, he pondered, was “class consciousness”?

This was his answer: “Class consciousness is not identical with the actual empirical consciousness of the working-classes in any particular aspect of its expression. It has nothing to do with the de facto consciousness of laborers. It is neither “the sum” nor is it “‘the average” of what single individuals who compose the class think, feel, etc. Nonetheless, the historically significant action of the class as a totality is in the final analysis determined on the basis of this consciousness and is recognizable only out of this consciousness.” So as an individual member of the working-class you do not have it. Who does have it then? The Party. “The Party is the bearer of the consciousness of the proletariat.” [19]

In that conclusion, he was fully consonant with the thought of Marx and Engels as laid down in the Communist Manifesto. But the gimlet eye of the Party penetrated his opaque writings sufficiently to convince it that Georg Lukács preferred Hegelian “dialectical idealism” to Marxian “dialectical materialism”.[20] This “revisionist” view repeatedly got him into trouble with the theorists of ideal collectivism and necessary oppression who ruled the Soviet Union and its empire. He accepted punishment with monk-like obedience.

As a “gnostic activist”, he continued to think. Thought that advanced the Communist cause, he explained, “became deed”. The work assigned to him by the Party was to think, and he thought fiercely. Like Robespierre, de Sade, Bataille, and Foucault, he was excited by the idea of a reign of terror. In order to establish the ideal Communist state, the Party once in power should practice random victimization. Every individual should feel himself isolated, able to trust nobody. The Party should lay down capricious rules, administer unexplained punishments indiscriminately and erratically, and by these methods “annihilate” the values of the monarchical and capitalist social-political order that it had replaced. This meant, of course, the forfeiture of individual freedom. The terrorized individual would desperately seek security through submission to the Party’s totalitarian command.[21]

Lukács explained: “Capitalist objectification of consciousness brings about an excessive individualism and a mechanical reification of man. … The inner life of the Party is a constant fight against this capitalist bequest. The decisive organizational instrument of struggle can only be the utilization of the Party members in their total personality for Party work.” The Party must “absorb every member, his entire personality, his entire existence, into the life of the Party.”[22] The Party members must desire this above all things: to become one with the Oneness which is the Party (as “Perfects”, gifted with the gnosis, when freed from this world of things, will return to the Pleroma from which they came, to become at last one with the divine). The Apocalypse of Christianity and the Revolution of Marxism meant the same thing: the end of the old world and the dawning of the new.

The dawn came. On the 20th March 1919, the Hungarian Communists, under the leadership of Béla Kun, seized power and proclaimed the Hungarian Soviet Republic. The four months and thirteen days that the new Republic lasted (March 21st to August 1st 1919), was time enough for the people to grow hungry, and they did. The city dwellers in particular struggled to find food. The Party leaders and their henchmen, however, made sure they got all they wanted.[23] Lukács himself continued to live in comfort and plenty. He moved his parents out of their splendid house in Budapest to their country villa, and stayed on in the house himself.

Hunger was only a part of the sufferings of the Hungarians under their first Communist regime. The Commissars tried to implement the atrocious policy – passionately promoted by Lukács – of making every citizen feel afraid. They sent groups of violent bullies about the country under orders to murder men, women and children arbitrarily and indiscriminately on any pretext or none.[24]

It was a blood-soaked summer. Shortly after the Soviet Republic was declared, it found itself at war with Czechoslovakia and Rumania. Lukács – who had had no training in arms, and had not been found fit to fight in the World War – was attached to the Fifth Division of the Hungarian Red Army as a top commander with no rank but the formidable title of “political commissar”. He took his responsibilities very seriously. When some units of his division ran away in panic without firing a shot, Lukacs picked eight men at random who belonged to their battalion, and “had them shot in the market place”. [25]

This sensitive aesthete, this melancholy introvert, this cultured philosopher, this world-weary mystic, was at least as willing to spill blood as any of his fellow tyrants. His official position in the new Hungarian government was People’s Commissar for Culture. His intention, he said, was to create “a spirit of brotherhood, mass faith [in the Party], and a new morality”. He could do this, he believed, “by spreading knowledge and art”. His first act to help spread knowledge was to close all the bookshops and stage book-burnings all over the country.[26] Then he organized the distribution of the right sort of reading matter – Communist propaganda and his own works – by sending it in vans directly to the masses in the places where they congregated and displaying it on “flying bookstands”.[27] He established the grandly-named National Council for the Products of the Mind. Among its schemes to re-educate the masses, was one to bring the peasants and proletarians to watch theatrical performances that dramatized political messages. But it failed. The actors refused to perform. They got away with their disobedience, probably because their announcements from the stage that they were on strike were greeted with loud and unanimous jubilation by the audiences, who had been marched from farms and factories into halls and theaters to be force-fed Lukács’s feasts of culture.

Others who offended him were less lucky. On his personal orders, a young medical student who displayed “counter-revolutionary tendencies” was stabbed to death and his body was flung in the Danube.[28] Though Lukács did not wield the knives himself, and though he believed murder was “absolutely forbidden”, Lukács felt exalted by his effective part in the killing. To do so was to serve the higher morality, to sin for the greater good; which meant that he was not merely absolved from the sin, but by committing it, was sanctified. “Only he who knows that murder is absolutely forbidden may murder, thus taking on himself the conscience-burden of unforgiveable criminality as the greatest possible self-sacrifice for the Communist Party.”[29]

At the end of July 1919, the Rumanians broke through the Red Army’s defenses and stormed into Hungary. Most of the Communist leaders fled, but Lukács “went underground”. (Actually, he hid in the garret studio of an artist, sleeping on her chaise longue.) When some of his comrades were caught and executed, and a new extremely vengeful government was installed in Budapest under Admiral Horthy on August 6th, Lukács escaped to Austria.[30] But he was arrested in Vienna and imprisoned – in a lunatic asylum. A petition launched internationally, and signed by Thomas Mann among others, persuaded the Austrian authorities not to extradite him to Hungary where he was under sentence of death.

He stayed on in Vienna until, in 1930, he and his second wife[31] moved to Moscow, where they remained – except for a break in Berlin in 1931 – until after the Second World War. He was put to intellectual work in the Marx-Engels Institute. In the years he lived in Soviet Russia, the Party tested his faith to the utmost. He survived Stalin’s “Great Terror” of the 1930s, and a purge of Hungarian Communists that the great dictator launched in the 1940s. Lukács was imprisoned along with many of his   compatriots, but was spared execution when – again – influential persons (Communists this time) pleaded for his life. Some thousands of his fellow Hungarians were killed.[32]

After the Second World War, Lukács returned to Hungary, then a satellite state of the Soviet Union and so again under oppressive Communist rule – visibly and menacingly supported by Russian troops and tanks. As a long-time member of the Communist Party, Lukács had little difficulty in acquiring a position in the Academy of Sciences and a professorship of Aesthetics. He took some part in the puppet government, chiefly it seems in helping it to remove from positions for which they were qualified those writers and academics whom he labeled as heretical, non-conformist, or dissident. More than a few of the many non-Communist intellectuals who were forced into unskilled labor or disappeared into prisons in the first four years after the war, owed their humiliation, deprivation and ruin to Lukács. But in a social order where nobody was to be trusted and nobody was secure, his turn had to come round again, and so it did: other members of the ruling elite attacked his political opinions and he too lost his university post in 1949. For some six years he played no part in public life. In the mid-1950s the Party recalled him to its service to help it purge suspected heretics from the Hungarian Writers’ Union.

On October 23, 1956, an uprising of workers and students brought a change of leadership. The Kremlin allowed a “liberal” prime minister, Imre Nagy, to take power and the Russian soldiers and tanks were recalled. Nagy appointed new ministers, and once again Georg Lukács found himself Minister of Culture. For a week the Hungarians rejoiced. Then Nagy announced that Hungary would withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, and four days later the Red Army and their tanks were back in much greater numbers. Thousands of Hungarians were killed and many more thousands wounded. The Russians dragged dead bodies behind their tanks through the streets of Budapest.

Lukács got wind of the return of the Russians the night before they reached Budapest, and he and his wife sought and were granted asylum in the Yugoslav embassy. But he was arrested anyway. Imre Nagy and other comrades of the regime were executed, but (yet again) Lukács was spared a death sentence. He was exiled to Rumania instead. In 1957 he was allowed to return home, but was deprived of all official positions, stripped of all honors, and kept out of the Party. Nevertheless, he remained a devout Marxist to the end of his life in 1971.[33]

What will remain longest of George Lukács is a devastating fictionalized portrait of him by Thomas Mann in his great novel, The Magic Mountain.[34] It is set in the Swiss Alps, in and around a sanatorium for the treatment of tuberculosis, and is about a Europe that was sickening towards its millions of deaths in the First World War. The figure of Lukács, Leo Naphta, is a (tubercular) Jesuit of rejected Jewish origin and fervid Communist mindset. He and an Italian rationalist humanist (suffering the same physical illness), Ludovico Settembrini, engage each other in a prolonged verbal duel through many chapters of the book – until their antagonism carries them beyond words to a duel with pistols, and Naphta shoots himself.

Naphta believes there is an “absolute purpose” which “sanctifies any means, even criminal”. Settembrini deplores the terrible idealism of the Communist Jesuit, by which the individual is replaced by all-consuming, all-equalizing community” and experiences a “mystic annihilation in it”. Naphta revels in visions of agony and ecstasy, believing in his own capacity to rise to “the invisible heights of the spirit”, remote from human experience. He wishes all mankind “condemned to the terror of annihilation”.[35]

Settembrini denounces Naphta’s collectivist heaven on earth as “the sterile utopia of the absolute spirit”. Though he is much entertained by their debates, which he conducts with calm courtesy, he is repelled and disgusted by his adversary’s nihilism – and his taste for extravagant luxury. Naphta’s cheap room is furnished with sumptuous things – lent to him by the Jesuit Order – laid over grime and decay. On his wall hangs a fourteenth century painting, a lurid Pieta, with “blobs of blood” on the tortured body of the deposed Christ. Thomas Mann sums up Naphta’s moral and physical condition with the perfect phrase, “voluptuous putridity”. And he understood the sickness of Naphta’s mind to be also the sickness of Europe.

As in the fiction, so in the reality: Georg Lukács’s Gnostic Christianity and Utopian Communism amounted to nothing more or less than a repudiation of life itself.

 

Jillian Becker   July 19, 2015

 

NOTES

Unless otherwise noted, I have used the English translations from Hungarian and German texts by Victor Zitta, from his book Georg Lukács Marxism, Alienation, Dialectics, Revolution, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1964. It is by far the best book I have found on Georg Lukács. The facts of Lukács’s life come from numerous sources, including Zitta.

1. Record of a Life (transcripts of tape-recorded interviews with Georg Lukács), Verso Editions, London, 1983 p.33.

2. Georg Lukács and Thomas Mann by Judith Marcus, Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1994 p.29.

3. Georg Lukács, Soul and Form, translation Anna Bostock, Merlin Press, London, 1974 p.18.

4. Marcus p.25.

5. Soul and Form, Bostock pp.17&21.

6. Georg Lukács, On Poverty of Spirit, translated by John T Sanders: appendix to a Columbia University Press edition of Soul and Form, New York, 2010.

7. Women, the protagonist says, cannot understand the sacrifice of life for “the Work”. Understanding requires “poverty of spirit”, and women are incapable of it. Even many men are incapable of it. “A normal and unclear person is never poor in spirit : his life always has countless possibilities ahead of it and in it; if one category has broken down, or if he breaks down in it, then he happily moves over to another one. Poverty of spirit is nothing more than a prerequisite, just a beginning stage in the proper way of living … Poverty of spirit is liberating myself from my psychological limitations in order to deliver myself up to my own deeper  metaphysical necessity; delivering myself up in order, thereby, to realize the Work.”

8. “Lukács’s questions [asked in Soul and Form] ‘how can essence become alive?’ and ‘how can life become essential?’ find their answer in the ‘gnostic activist’ whose knowledge is action because his action is knowledge, for whom essence welds with existence.” Zitta p.59.

9. George Lukács, Die Theorie des Romans (The Theory of the Novel) (1920). This typically Gnostic statement is also echoed by existentialist writers of the twentieth century, notably Jean-Paul Sartre.

10. George Lukács, Die Theorie des Romans. He defines “transcendental homelessness” as the “longing of all souls for the place in which they once belonged” (a typically Gnostic notion), and also as “nostalgia for utopian perfection”.

11. Zitta comments (pp.57-58); “Lukács’s attainment of human love is dependent upon a rejection of normal human intercourse and communion; it stems from an a priori rejection of normal human love, into which he infuses a terrible suspicion that impels him to find ‘true’ human love – in accordance with his hyper-Romantic standards – possible only after the lovers had committed suicide. Unadulterated understanding and communion among lovers is impossible in this ‘ordinary’ life.” And Lukács’s idea that perfect love should be consummated – and consecrated – by each lover committing suicide was carried over into his Communism. “Death for the sake of the utopian community makes the loss of life worthy: moreover, faith in it replaces a need for individual immortality.” Zitta sees that this statement “casts illuminating light upon the spiritual genesis of contemporary radicalism”.

12. Marcus p.144.

13. Habilitation: a post-doctoral university degree that qualifies the successful candidate to be a university lecturer. Jaspers succeeded in 1913; Lukács – who held doctorates from the universities of Budapest and Berlin – failed.

14. Ernst Bloch became a well-known Marxist philosopher, and, like Lukács, he reposed mystical expectations in his Communist faith.

15. Zitta writes (p.55): “[‘Gnostic activism’] amounts to a radical rejection of an attitude of contemplation carried to extremes in his previous position, and no more compatible with sanity, for an attitude of total activism – a transformation of all thought into all deed (or emotion) exclusively and completely … “ The emphasis is mine, because years were yet to pass before Lukács’s “activism” could be said to have resulted in a deed. Zitta perceives a psychological movement in Lukács towards self-divinization. ”The ‘gnostic activist’, maintains Lukács, is innocent, in virtue of a grace that removes in him all second thought about and activity geared toward the realization of the ‘essence’, because the ‘gnostic activist’ is the very essence, the God-Man upon whom the world had waited. ‘In the hero who finds himself while creating himself, the pure essence awakens to life, the ordinary life sinks to nothingness.’“ So Lukács himself is the God-Man, the hero, the new Christ. “Those who consider themselves (as Lukács did) to have attained to a condition of sinlessness, a condition of perfection, invite indecencies and even crime, as a vindication of their perfection … ‘Actions normally regarded as sinful are not sinful in the perfect’.” (Zitta p.62. Quotations from Die Theorie des Romans) This was the case with the Perfects of Catharism, the 13th century Gnostic “heresy” in southern France, to destroy which the Catholic Church brought the Papal Inquisition into existence.

16. How Lukács moves from contempt for ethical values to the adulation of goodness can provide a vivid example of dialectical reasoning. Thesis: Conventional ethical teaching is that goodness is good, badness is bad, and people should strive to be virtuous and considerate of others for the sake of civilized order and the protection of life and limb and property, and not be vicious, cruel, and destructive.   Antithesis: Conventional ethical teaching that people should be virtuous and considerate of others is narrow, unimaginative, boring, conformist, and thus bad; so oppose it by being vicious and cruel, for the sake of beauty, creativity, art and heroism. Synthesis: Goodness is good of course, but the real, ideal, higher goodness is not civilized but wild; not dutiful but adventurous; not considerate but cruel. (“Evil be thou my good”, Satan says in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, crisply stating the ethics of Christian Gnostics through the ages.)

17. “Alienation” is a revered concept in Marxist doctrine. Zitta (pp. 145-146) finds the origin of the idea as a social ill in Rousseau (though he did not use the word), and that it “acquires in its development an infinite variety of meanings, depending not upon its mysterious denotation but the idiosyncratic experiences which are connoted by it in each individual case: The experience of a certain nausea (see essay 11 above, The French Pandemonium (One), Jean-Paul Sartre] a dis-ease [sic] and dissatisfaction with prevailing manifestations of culture and civilization, an experience of a loss of human substance and spirituality, and experience of depersonalization, tornness, inadequacy, which are often defined with a variety of terms such as ‘anomie’, ‘deraciné’, ‘reification’, ‘objectification’, …etc. The pervasiveness of its influence is correlative to the mysteriousness of its meaning.” It is a term that fits with the Gnostics’ idea that they were strangers in this world made by a low God of base material, and they belonged to a higher better one where the true remote God dwells in infinite depths of glory. Lukács echoed the idea explicitly when he wrote in Soul and Form, of an “antagonism between the soul and the world”. Zitta (p.149) quotes Lukács’s own definition of alienation as “an awareness ‘that man’s self-created environment is no longer his home but his dungeon’”. And Lukács “shows that human constructs, such as laws, institutions, etc.” – which is to say civilization – “become estranged from man, do not correspond to his inner need, and that this leads man to long for different conditions more in harmony with his inwardness.” In his inwardness is “a feeling of solitude”. And (p.153) “in a rather lengthy, tedious, involved, and incoherent section of his essay Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, Lukács shows that ‘bourgeois’ thought is trapped in this malaise and cannot escape from it”. As another Marxist puts it (p.145) alienation – or reification – is “embedded in Capitalist society”. And, Zitta confirms (p.180), Lukács made a “great claim for reification as a malady of ‘capitalism’”.

18. Lukács repeatedly speaks about ‘the absorption of every member of the Party with his entire personality, with his entire existence, into the life of the Party’.” Zitta p.241.

19. George Lukács, Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein (History and Class Consciousness] (1923).

20. Lukács went on believing this despite severe discouragement. Although he adulated Marx, Hegel’s mysticism greatly appealed to him. See eg. The Ontology of Social Being: 1. Hegel; 2.Marx, Merlin Press, London, 1978. Readers may find, as I do, that these works, written near the end of Lukács’s life, are largely unintelligible. Typical sample from Hegel p. 67: “If the same law of dialectical process holds for the absolute as it does for the entire finite world, then the difference and opposition of ‘here’ and ‘beyond’ vanishes from a consistently carried through dialectical ontology, which means that all objects (processes) of the ‘here’, of finitude, the earthly, etc., have the same ultimate ontological structure as the absolute itself. Gradations within this ultimate and universal dialectical homogeneity change nothing fundamental in this basic structure. The ontological victory of universal, contradictory process raises the unitary conception of reality as a whole to a qualitatively higher level in comparison with every past attempt.” An attentive perusal of the whole book, or a thorough acquaintance with “the dialectic” of Hegel or Marx, or Lukács, would not make the passage meaningful. I choose it because its “here” and “beyond” indicate that what Lukács is on about is his obsession with the “noumenal” and “phenomenal” worlds, which he also calls the “transcendent” and “empirical” worlds; or, in Plato’s terms, the “ideal, or “real” or “essential” world (heaven, abode of the “soul”) contrasted with this “unreal” world of appearances or shadows. His concern with the two “dimensions” is the dominant motif of his mysticism. He convinced himself that Marxist revolution could and would unite the two, allowing the “alienated” (world- and life-rejecting) introvert such as himself to “become essential” in this life. 

21. “His measures … were capable of being hatched only in the mind of an intellectual and moral delinquent with exotic and extravagantly grotesque tastes – a ‘gnostic activist’. … This pulverization of all values … led to a complete destruction of the personality. It enabled a person to be manipulated at the nod of those who had powerful means to reduce anxiety to a minimum in exchange for absolute relinquishment of identity.” (Zitta pp.98,99.)

22. George Lukács, Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein. 

23. Zitta p. 98: ”Because the cities were left without food, the newly and suddenly mushrooming bureaucrats were impelled to resort to arbitrary confiscations so that at least they themselves could obtain their fill.”

24. Gangs known as “Lenin boys” roamed the country with orders to requisition food from the collectivized farms and punish any resistance. The instruction amounted to a license to commit atrocities. A notoriously brutal sub-group was known as “the Szamuely detachments” as they came under the personal command of Tibor Szamuely [not to be confused for an instant with his younger relation, the anti-Communist Russian historian of the same name]. No one knows how many were killed in cold blood. According to the Library of Congress Country Studies: Hungary: Hungarian Soviet Republic: Section 1 of 1: “Revolutionary tribunals carried out 590 executions, some of which were for ‘crimes against the revolution’.”

25. Record of a Life, p.65. Lukács states plainly that he did this, and indicates no race of remorse; rather he relates the horrible story with distinct pride, as a measure he took to “restore order”.

26. Zitta p.101.

27. Zitta p.100.

28. Zitta p.108. Lukács ordered the stabbing of the medical student “perhaps … because, as a morbid mystic, an ‘enthusiast’, he had to verify his innocence, his inability to commit sin or experience guilt”.

29. He did not write this specifically in connection with the murder of the young man, but in a review of a novel, The Pale Horse, by Ropshin [Boris V. Savinkov]. It reveals how he justified to himself his part the Red Terror. He also wrote in Taktika és Ethika (1919): “The murderous deed of only that person can be – tragically – ethical, who knows, knows unremittingly and beyond any doubt whatsoever that under no circumstances is it permitted to murder.” (Zitta p.224.)

30. Lukács disguised himself as a chauffeur, but as he had never learnt to drive he pretended to have a broken arm, and sat in the car with an arm in splints and bandages, while his “employer” (a lieutenant-colonel in the “White Army” bribed by Lukács ‘s still wealthy family) drove him over the border into Austria. (Record of a Life, p.69) All the Red fugitives thought they would be safe from legal reprisal in Austria, since the union of Hungary and Austria under the imperial crown had been dissolved in 1918. They were wrong. 

31. His first wife, Ljena Grabenko, was a fugitive Russian terrorist whom he met on a visit to Paris in 1911. Her lover, an Hungarian writer named Béla Bálazs, persuaded Lukács to marry her in order to give her Hungarian nationality. She brought Bálazs to live with her and Lukács in Heidelberg. It seems probable that it was not Ljena herself but her revolutionary passion and history that Lukács found so romantically moving that he was willing to accept the mortifying ménage à trois – and Ljena’s numerous other infidelities. His torment came to an end when, after the Russian Revolution in 1917, she returned to her homeland, there to be sent to a labor camp, and never – as far as Lukács was concerned – heard of again. In 1923, while he was living in Vienna, he married his second wife Gertrud Bortstieber, the Catholic daughter of a rabbi.

32. The number of Hungarian Communists executed in Russia under Stalin’s orders is estimated to have been between 1000 and 5000; which means many, but nobody knows how many.

33. That Lukács embraced Marxism with religious devotion could not be more clearly shown than by this statement in his book Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein: “Assuming if not admitting that recent research had verified the factual incorrectness of each single utterance of Marx beyond any doubt, these results could be acknowledged without hesitation by every serious ‘orthodox’ Marxist; he could reject each single thesis of Marx without giving up, even for a moment, his Marxist orthodoxy.” Zitta p. 152.

34. Lukács affirmed, “There is no doubt at all that I was the model for Naphta.” Record of a Life, p.94

35. I have used H.T. Lowe-Porter’s translation of Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) by Thomas Mann.

*

END OF PART TWO

CONTINUED IN PART THREE

Posted under by Jillian Becker on Saturday, September 20, 2014

Tagged with

This post has 3 comments.

Permalink

The darkness of this world (9) 1

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.

Faust (Two)

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”.[5] 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.  …

Posted under Articles, Ethics, Germany, Gnosticism, History, Literature, Philosophy, Religion general, Theology by Jillian Becker on Sunday, April 27, 2014

Tagged with , ,

This post has 1 comment.

Permalink

The darkness of this world (8) 1

Today we have posted essay number 8, Faust (One), in the series titled The Darkness of This World. (Find it under Pages in our margin.)

Here are some extracts from it:

Post-Enlightenment Romanticism was an escape from the reality of “this world”, and a belief that there could be a better world realized in Art, or in a future brought about by political action. …

The Romantic Movement was seeded in France with the revolutionary idealism of Rousseau, and flowered first in England as resistance to the iron reality of the Industrial Revolution, but found its natural home in Germany. There God died, but the Devil lived on.

The death of God was announced by the German philosopher Nietzsche in 1882, but when had it occurred? God was still alive, tussling with the Devil for the souls of men when the first part of Goethe’s play Faust was published in 1808, so the event must have come about, quietly, sometime in the intervening seventy-four years.

The legend of Faust and his pact with the Devil had arisen in Germany soon after the Reformation began there [in 1517], and about two hundred years before the Enlightenment seriously weakened the power of the Churches. …

The legendary Faust is a man who chooses to sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for power, honor, wealth, fame; delight of the senses and satisfaction of the appetites, especially lust; and knowledge (of both the scientific and the intuitive sorts), for the duration of his life on earth, usually twenty-four years from the day of the compact. As his splendid life goes on, he wonders at moments if he could repent and be saved. He is exhorted by well-wishers to turn to God for mercy. But he chooses to renew his fatal pact. When he dies he goes to hell …

There was a real historical Dr Faust, “magician, necromancer, sodomist, astrologer and palm reader”, living in Germany in the early sixteenth century, and it was on his character, skills and escapades that the legend was based.

His birth name was Georgius Sabellicus. In 1505 he was helped by a certain Franz von Sickengen – who interested himself in mysticism and the magic arts – to obtain the post of schoolmaster in the Rhineland-Palatinate town of Kreuznach. Exposed as having forced boys of his classroom to perform “acts of lewdness”, Sabellicus disappeared from the school and the town. Two years later, as “Johannes Faust”, he was granted the degree of Bachelor of Arts in Theology by the University of Heidelberg. He came top of his class of fifteen, so either he was a brainy fellow, or he had already sold his soul to the Devil.

The graduate called himself “the Second Magus”, signaling that he was the successor to Simon Magus, the 1st century Gnostic teacher of St Paul’s day, written about scornfully in the New Testament and condemned by the Catholic Church as “the father of all heresies”.  (See our post, The father of all heresies, February 21, 2010.)

He stayed in Heidelberg for some years and acquired a dubious reputation as a man of extraordinary powers.

While most commentary on him both in his lifetime and for a few years after his death (which was probably in or about 1540) portrayed him as no more than a braggart, a fraud, and a petty thief, some took him more seriously. An agreement made between himself and the Devil soon became an essential ingredient of his legend. It was related in tones of thrilled horror that he had referred to Satan as his “Schwäger”, his brother-in-law. A demon spirit who takes the form of Helen of Troy occurs in almost all the versions of the story. (She had been Simon Magus’s consort. Though he had found her in a brothel in Tyre, he taught that she had been incarnated in one of her lives as Helen, “the most beautiful woman in the world”, and had descended again from the highest heaven to help him with his mission of redeeming mankind.)

The idea that supernatural powers could be bestowed on a man by the Devil, but had to be paid for with the man’s soul, probably arose from the anathematizing accounts by the Catholic church fathers of the Gnostic cults. Because the Gnostics did not worship the Creator God of the bible but another god whom they “knew” by the gift of intuitive knowledge (the Gnosis); because many of them declared the Creator God to be evil; and because the worship of their god took the form of drugged orgies, perverted sex (anal and oral in order to avoid conception), and the deliberate flouting of biblical commandments, they were considered by Catholics to be devil-worshippers, and their rites Satanic. Their doctrines and practices were deplored in the pulpits of Christendom, embellished with fearful details and scary myths, not only to condemn them and warn the awestruck laity against them, but because the clergy was genuinely full of superstitious terror of the Devil. For centuries Gnostic ritual was considered by Christian theologians to be devil-worship. The Catholic Church succeeded in wiping out Gnosticism in the Middle Ages, using the instrument of the Inquisition. (See our post The heretics of Languedoc, May 1, 2011.)

When the centuries of Church power were brought to an end by the Enlightenment, and Christianity itself took a beating, Faust and the Devil not only survived but flourished.

The Industrial Revolution made it possible as never before for individuals not born to riches and power to acquire them. To those who understood economics it was not an inexplicable phenomenon. But to those who wanted as little to do with the racket and dirt of industry as possible, who were nostalgic for the past, and who continued to believe in the supernatural though the priests had been shouted down by Reason, it was uncanny, magical; and ever-present envy had no trouble diagnosing the cause as demonic. So with the Devil living on in the psyche of Christian Europe long after God had died, Dr. Faust had a new lease of life. …

Posted under Articles, Christianity, education, Ethics, Europe, Germany, Gnosticism, History, Literature, Religion general, Theology by Jillian Becker on Sunday, April 20, 2014

Tagged with

This post has 1 comment.

Permalink

The darkness of this world (7) 1

The Darkness of This World 

essays on

Our Gnostic Age

7

On May 5, 1818, there was born, in the Prussian city of Trier, one of those rare persons who change the course of history. He did not live to see his prophecies warp the world. He died in 1883, and the first earth-shattering event of which he was an effective cause came thirty-four years after his death: the Russian Communist revolution of 1917.

Karl Marx was the second child and eldest son of a prosperous lawyer. Two years before his birth, his father, Herschel Marx, had taken a step that must have amazed, even outraged, a good many of his Jewish co-religionists in his (overwhelmingly Catholic) home city, which for generations had had its rabbis from the Marx family: he was baptized by the Lutheran church, becoming Heinrich Marx. Protestant Christianity itself did not attract him irresistibly, but he wanted to play a full part as a citizen of (largely Protestant) Prussia. He was a man of reason who admired the products of reason: machines, engines, modernity in general. In 1824, overcoming his wife’s opposition to the move, he had his seven children (an eighth was yet to come) baptized into the recently established Evangelical Church of Prussia, Lutheran and Calvinist.

In his late teens, Karl fell in love with an aristocrat, Jenny von Westphalen, the friend of his older sister, and at about the same time decided to become a great poet. He wrote love poems to Jenny, and hate poems to the world.

The poems are bombastic, full of religio-romantic imagery. Little meaning can be found in them. But they do reveal the character and mentality of their composer. They are emotional, defiant, rebellious, destructive, swaggering, and express above all a hunger for power. Typical is this monologue from a verse drama titled Oulanem, the eponymous hero speaking: “Ha, I must entwine me on the wheel of flame,/ And in Eternity’s ring I’ll dance my frenzy! If aught besides that frenzy could devour,/ I’d leap therein though I must smash a world/ That towered high between myself and it!/ It would be shattered by my long drawn curse,/ and I would fling my arms around cruel Being,/ Embracing me, ‘twould silent pass away,/ Then silent would I sink into the void./ Wholly to sink, not be … oh, this were Life,/ But swept along high on Eternity’s current /To roar out threnodies for the Creator,/ Scorn on the brow! Can Sun burn it away?/ Bound in compulsion’s sway, curse in defiance!/ Let the envenomed eye flash forth destruction –/ Does it hurl off the ponderous worlds that bind?/ …… And we, we Apes of a cold God, still cherish/…… The viper so voluptuously warm,/ That it as Universal Form rears up/ And from its place on high grins down on us! And in our ear, till loathing’s all consumed,/ The weary wave roars onward, ever onward! ”

The young poet cast off the Christian God he had been lightly brought up to believe in, but he clung on to the concept of Satan and the powers of evil. He wrote, in a lyric titled The Fiddler: “Why do I fiddle? Or the wild waves roar?/ That they might pound the rocky shore, / That eye be blinded, that bosom swell, / That Soul’s cry carry down to Hell./ … I plunge, plunge without fail/ My blood-black sabre into your soul. / That art God neither wants nor wists,/ It leaps to the brain from Hell’s black mists/ … Till heart’s bewitched, till senses reel:/ With Satan I have struck my deal./ He chalks the signs, beats time for me,/ I play the death march fast and free.” “

With lines such as these young Karl expected to be recognized as a towering genius who would be listened to by a dumbstruck Europe. He intended through the power of his words to have an effect on history – a dire and destructive effect, apparently, while waves rolled onwards and pounded rocky shores. But his poems were received less favorably than he had confidently anticipated. The editors of periodicals to whom Karl sent a selection for publication returned them without comment. Indeed it seems that only Jenny von Westphalen was moved by them, especially by those dedicated to her. “Jenny! Do I dare avow/That in love we have exchanged our souls,/That as one they throb and glow,/And through their waves one current rolls?

His father would have liked Karl to take up some useful and lucrative career, in engineering perhaps, or science; something that would have involved him in the amazing developments of the age. Reason was pouring out inventions for the improvement of everyday life: gaslight on the streets, steam powered trains and ships, factories with machines that mass-produced goods. But such mundane things were of no interest to the young man of passionate poetic vision. He would never even visit a factory. Heinrich Marx and his son Karl stood on opposite sides of the post-Enlightenment divide between Reason, which fertilized civilization, and Romanticism, which poisoned it. …

 

The whole of this essay may be found on our Pages, added to the earlier essays under the same title. Access it by clicking on The Darkness of This World under the Pages heading at the top of our margin, and scroll down to 7, The Fiddler and His Proof

Posted under Articles, communism, History, Marxism, Philosophy, Religion general, Socialism by Jillian Becker on Sunday, January 26, 2014

Tagged with , ,

This post has 1 comment.

Permalink
Older Posts »