Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939): THE SECOND COMING
Mark Sedgwick in Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century (2004) according to Joshua Green, has written the best modern primer on Guenon, Evola, and the Traditionalists, [and the politics of Steve Bannon]. This text is seminal for understanding the politics and machinations of Steve Bannon and his longing to restore America to a Western pastness that both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution--with its separation of Church and State allowed the future United States to escape.
Sedgwick posit that there are many sorts of "traditionalists" and many "traditionalist" movements. In the widest sense of the word, a "traditionalist" may be no more than a conservative, possibly a nostalgic person who hankers after the customs of his or her youth. A "traditionalist" may also be someone who prefers a specific established practice over something that has replaced it, as in the case of Marcel Lefebvre, the Catholic archbishop who rejected the conclusions of the Second Vatican council and established a schismatic church following the old Tridentine rite. He and his followers are commonly described as "Catholic traditionalists."
Sedgwick writes that Against the Modern World is the history of a movement that is "traditionalist" in a more precisely defined sense. The word "tradition" derives from the Latin verb tradere, to hand over or to hand down, and in an etymological sense a tradition is "a statement, belief or practice transmitted (especially orally) from generation to generation." The Traditionalist movement with which this book deals takes "tradition" primarily in this sense, as belief and practice transmitted from time immemorial--or rather belief and practice that should have been transmitted but was lost to the West during the last half of the second millennium A.D. According to the Traditionalists, the modern West is in crisis as a result of this loss of transmission of tradition, as was explained in 1927 in The Crisis of the Modern World. The solution? Most frequently, Oriental Metaphysics (1939), but sometimes Revolt against the Modern World (1934). Crisis of the Modern World and Oriental Metaphysics were the work of Rene Guenon. Revolt Against the Modern World was the work of Julius Evola.
The principal importance of these two books for the Traditionalist philosophy is that they advanced two interrelated concepts, "counter-initiation" and "inversion." In Traditionalist, "counter-initiation" is the opposite not of initiation as such but of initiation into a valid, orthodox tradition such as that represented by Vedanta. "Counterinitiation" is initiation into pseudo-traditions such as Theosophy, which are in fact the inversion of true tradition. Instead of leading to the Perennial Philosophy, Counterinitiation leads away from it. The place of initiation in the Traditionalist philosophy (the third of the three central elements).
More important than "Counterinitiation" is the related concept of "inversion." Guenon did not invent this concept, which is present in eschatological accounts of the Anti-Christ (who is the inversion of the true Christ), but it was to become a major element of Traditionalism. Counterinitiation is the inversion of initiation, but inversion is not restricted to questions of initiation. In its fully developed Guenonian form, inversion is seen as an all-pervasive characteristic of modernity. While all that really matters is in fact in decline, people foolishly suppose that they see progress.
Guenon wished to avert the extinction of the West. What was needed was an "intellectual elite"--"intellectual" being used in a special Guenonian sense of spiritual, metaphysical--to receive "traditional teaching" by "an assimilation of oriental doctrines" (unless surviving Western forms could be found, which Guenon thought unlikely), so as to push the West toward the restoration of a traditional civilization. Guenon thought this plan had only a possibility of success but believed it worth trying, since at the very least it would be of benefit to the members of the elite themselves, and if the elite does not have the time for sufficiently generalized activities to profoundly modify the Western mentality as a whole this elite would be symbolic "ark" floating o the waters of the flood and could thus serve as the focal point for activities through which the West, though probably losing its autonomous existence, would however receive the bases of a new development, this time a regular and normal one. But there would still be difficult problems: the ethnic revolutions would certainly be most serious. It would be much preferable for the West to acquire a civilization appropriate to its own conditions, sparing it from being more or less unpleasantly assimilated by traditional forms that are not made for it.
Guenon's proposed elite did not need to be large or organized at first, nor secret, since its activities would "by their very nature, remain invisible to the commonality, not because they are hidden from it, but because it is incapable of understanding them." Indeed, a premature attempt at organization, especially at any large organization, would be not only useless but dangerous, because of "the deviations that would inevitably occur," and because of the temptations of "immediate social action, perhaps even political action." However, there would be no harm in forming small "study groups," though the members of these would have to be careful because they would threaten "unsuspected low powers." Only once the ground had been properly prepared would a "strongly constituted organization" be needed and possible.
To be clear, Bannon was no liberal. With characteristic bombast, he championed the “deconstruction of the administrative state” and was complicit in Trump’s shocking assault on federal regulatory agencies. Nor should we mourn his departure. Bannon’s most dangerous contribution to American politics over the past year was to help mainstream the racist ideas of the alt-right and give them an official spokesperson inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. This, more than anything else, will be Bannon’s legacy. While his positions on the economy and foreign relations were ignored even before he was fired, the racist and nationalist themes in the Bannon play-book are certain to survive his departure. Trump, after all, is the president who saw “many fine people” among the neo-Nazis march-ing and chanting in Charlottesville. Inflaming far-right racism will continue to be a key political strategy for the Trump White House. In what turned out to be an exit interview with The American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner, Ban-non described the strategy that he and Trump both embrace. “The longer [the Democrats] talk about identity politics, I got ’em,” he said. “I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.” Having stripped out a lot of the economic nationalism he ran on, Trump is apparently fine carrying on with just the latter.
This is, in many ways, the worst-case scenario. The Party of Davos has won on foreign and economic policy. The right-wing Republican Congress will dominate domestic and budget policy. Trump will continue to waste lives and resources in endless wars without victory across the greater Middle East. He will continue to rack up massive trade deficits, undermining wages and security at home. And he’ll likely continue to go full Bannon on issues of race and immigration. With any luck, as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has noted, the malevolence of the administration will continue to be tempered by its incompetence, and Trump’s evident instability will not result in utter calamities. But he will keep training his fire on Muslims and immigrants, and use race-baiting politics to do real damage when it comes to voter-suppression laws and immigration enforcement. All the while, he will preen about corporate plant openings and make the occasional empty gesture toward an economic populism that would help workers, while signing off on policies that undermine them.
Bannon, for his part, will return to the Breitbart web-site from whence he came, and will presumably continue to peddle nativist and racist slurs as news while attacking many administration officials as globalist sellouts. Though Trump did indeed surrender on economic populism, Bannon helped build this horrifying Frankenstein.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF TRADITIONALISM
Sedgwick declares that La crise du monde moderne is Guenon's masterpiece. As well as being an improvement on previous works from the point of view of style and organization, La crise du monde moderne refines the Traditionalist concept of "inversion." In addition to a chapter on social chaos there is a discussion of individualism as both a modern superstition and a modern illusion: Guenon
explains how modern "individualism" in fact destroys real "individuality." Both social chaos and individualism were issues in 1927 and remain issues today. More important, La crise du monde moderne starts with a discussion of the Hindu concept of cyclical time, in which the final era, the kali yuga (literally "fourth age," glossed by Guenon as "dark age") is a 6,000-year period of decline. It is in the kali yuga that we presently find ourselves (according to both Guenon and most Hindu writers). The theory of cyclical time and kali yuga complete one aspect of the Traditionalist philosophy by providing the explanation for the state of affairs explored by Guenon elsewhere: inversion is a characteristic of the kali yuga.
TRADITIONALIST IN THE 1920S
Traditionalism in the 1920s was not yet a religious movement--there was no common practice or even belief--but rather was a philosophical movement, though a philosophy with a difference: the conviction that "if everyone understood what the modern world really is, it would immediately cease to exist."
Aagainst the Stream
In the years before the 1927 publication of his Crise du monde moderne, Rene Guenon constructed an anti-modernist philosophy, Traditionalism, which flowered chiefly after the 1960s. Before the Second World War, Traditionalism was a small intellectual movement (Guenon in Cairo and his various correspondents) with one single active organization, the Sufi order led by Fritjof Schuon in Basel. By the start of the 1960s the intellectual movement had lost its center and was becoming increasingly diverse. There were soon a handful of active organizations, mostly Sufi but some Masonic. Then over the next four decades Fritjof Schuon's order flourished before in part failing, Mircea Eliade transformed the academic study of religion, terrorists inspired by Baron Julius Evola caused havoc in Italy, and Traditionalism entered the general culture of the West. Finally it appeared in Iran, Turkey, and Russia. At the end of the twentieth century these were so many Traditionalist or partly Traditionalist organizations that it was no longer possible to count them.
Sedgwick posits that it might seem strange that Traditionalism should benefit thus from the 1960s, a decade in which modernity visibly advanced. This is in fact not so extraordinary. On the one hand, alienation from modernity appears to increase as modernity advances. On the other hand, the advance of modernity requires the rejection of the status quo, and the past can be appealed to as much as the future by those who reject the present. The Renaissance produced something new by looking back to the classical age, and the Reformation also produced something new by looking back to early Christianity. Modernity may be produced by anti-modernism, and anti-modernism by modernity.
Both Traditionalism and postmodernism reject "the tyranny and domination of the modernist idols of science, rationalism, and 'objectivity.'" Both see the Enlightenment as "narrow, oppressive, hierarchical, reductionist." For both, "rational scientific discourse is only one of the ways that human beings construct their 'stories' about reality."
The number of those who rejected Western modernity and were alienated from contemporary society increased during the 1960s, just as the attractiveness of such previously established alternatives as Moscow-aligned Communist parties began to decline. It was from among dissenters such as these that Traditionalists were always drawn. There were even more dissenters from Western modernist outside the West, of course and during the final quarter of the twentieth century some of them began to receive Traditionalist ideas with enthusiasm. The most interesting future developments in the history of Traditionalism may lie in these areas. Though it is too early to say, Traditionalism in the West may have run its course and may be in the process of being reabsorbed into the common stock of Western ideas from which it first emerged.
TRADITIONALISM AND THE FUTURE
Sedgwick claims that inversion comprehends regression and Counterinitiation. When a look at possibilities for initiation in the modern West makes clear the death of eroticism there, inversion can easily be synthesized with the search for Wisdom in the East. Perennialism does not follow automatically, but, when combined with these other two elements, it produces Traditionalism.
Inversion and the search for Wisdom in the East both have something in common with Orientalism, as analyzed by Edward Said. Said showed how much Western understanding of the Middle East derived more from the self-understanding of the West than from anything that actually existed in the Middle East. Being rational was part of the Western self-image: the Middle East was unlike the West, so it was irrational. In the nineteenth century, when Western women were seen primarily as moral and virtuous, the Western understanding of the Muslim woman
focused on the libidinous occupant of the harem. When the image of Western woman changed to emphasize emancipation, the Muslim woman was seen in terms of subordination and the veil. This model can be profitably applied even today: the Western press tends to ignore the possibility that public opinion might exist in the Middle East, except in references to the (dark, frightening, and irrational) "Arab street," because public opinion is what exists and matters in the West.
Sedgwick theorizes that the general Traditionalist view of the Orient is in many ways an inverse form of Orientalism. Both traditionalism and Orientalism are dualistic systems, both derived from the nineteenth century, and both share the important methodological failing of over-reliance on texts and under-reliance on observation. Like Orientalism, Traditionalism tends to portray the world outside the West as the mirror of the West. The difference is that the comparison is complimentary toward the non-West. Instead of contrasting a Middle East peopled by childlike irrational beings incapable of organization and self-discipline to a mature disciplined, scientific and rational West, Traditionalism contrasts a West characterized by modernity, materialism, and mere technical skill to a Middle East of tradition spirituality, and wisdom. This understanding of the Middle East is arguably no more accurate than that of the classic Orientalist.
REJECTION OF TRADITIONALISM
Sedgwick posits that the mainstream of the twentieth century was progressive, in the sense of hoping for progress, if not in the pre-First World War sense of believing in the inevitability of progress. No progressive has ever become a Traditionalist, not even a non-Western progressive.
"Hard" Traditionalism has been rejected not only by progressives and by the mainstream of twentieth-century Western history, but by two other distinct groups: fully traditional people, and most scholars. Almost the entire population of the Arab world has ignored Traditionalism, evidently because the Arab world is not modern enough to receive it. Religious fugues solidly embedded in their own traditions have also often rejected Traditionalism in whole or in part--Jacques Maritain for the Catholic Church, Seraphim Rose for the Orthodox Church, and Ahmad Qustas for Islam. That is except in the case of Russia's Alexander Dugin (Bannon non-Western hero, whose relationship to Bannon deserve a separate blog), Traditionalism has not usually claimed to be compatible with Christianity. Many Traditionalists, however, have regarded themselves as Muslim. Though any Muslim who subscribes to any form of universalism is departing from what is generally accepted to be the consensus of Islam, many Traditionalists might be judged Muslim by Muslims on the basis of their practice.
Mark Sedgwick claims that it is not the function of Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century to defend Traditionalism, but it seems clear that those who condemn Traditionalism as not serious are missing the point. Traditionalism makes a claim to represent the ultimate truth, just as religion or some types of philosophy do. As Douglas Allen said, "rational scientific discourse is only one of the ways that human beings construct their 'stories' about reality." To judge Traditionalism as one would a university thesis makes no more sense than to dismiss Christianity for having insufficient evidence of Christ's divinity, or to dismiss Islam for ignoring crucial elements of the doctrine of the Trinity. On the other hand, Guenon did submit his work to Sylvain Levi as a [PhD] thesis, and so Levi was right to recommend its refusal.
TO BE CONTINUED