Saturday, December 26, 2015

Profile 2016

The world is changing. At this end of the year, with Christmas coming up and a New Year just around the corner, I feel a need to gain some perspective on what is happening all around us, and how it is affecting our very ways of thinking, our very ways of living, our very conceptions of what is possible, our very expectations of where we are going, and most importantly, our very ways of imagining where we should be going.
The reflections that follow have had a long gestation period. For years now, the realization has been slowly dawning upon me that we are living in extraordinary times of irreversible transformation for which there is no historical precedent. We are entering uncharted territory and have no script to predict, or even begin to understand, what might be ahead of us. Of course, as a historian I know very well that the world has always been changing: creative innovation is the rule, stasis is an illusion, and unheard-of events may happen any time. That’s how it has always been. But something larger is happening now. Until rather recently I still felt that as an academic and intellectual, I was playing my little part in a great story that might be described (for better or worse) as the story of “Western Culture” – and I saw no reason why it wouldn’t last. Let me hasten to add that I don’t mean this in a provincial manner: I’ve always been extremely interested in the rest of the world, in different cultures and different ways of life, because I’m a curious person who likes to look beyond the boundaries of his familiar world. Nevertheless, my identity and guiding values have been formed by the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual history of Europe. That has always been my world.
And now it is changing. In my darker moods I fear that very soon – sooner than I used to consider possible – a time may come when (to paraphrase Galadriel at the opening of the Lord of the Rings movie) much that is of great value will be lost forever, because “no one will live who still remembers it”. Yes, I feel a bit like the Elves… Increasingly, I fear that the culture that I love and care for is disintegrating and vanishing around me, and the leaves are falling. Winter is coming.

I don’t mean to stay with such a dark and pessimistic mood. Towards the end of this text I will be looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. But first I want to take a few steps back to try and gain some perspective. What are the essential changes happening around us, that might explain my feelings of decline and loss?

1. The Reign of Neoliberalism

Firstly we have seen the global ascendency of what, for lack of a better word, I will call neoliberal capitalism. I don’t mean to go into any deep analysis here, because I think most of us have a pretty good idea of what it is. Since the Thatcher/Reagan era of the 1980s, slowly but surely our minds have been taken over by the idea that everything in the world can be described in terms of “markets”, and that the only ultimate values are economic values. The result is a systematic reversal of the normal relation between means and ends. We used to think that money was the means to achieve desirable ends: you obviously needed money to create good systems of healthcare, you needed money to create good institutions of learning, and so on. Money was a means that served non-economic ends that we valued in and for themselves. That logic has been reversed. Healthcare and education (to stay with those examples) are now defined as products on a market. As such, they are no longer desirable ends that are considered intrinsically valuable, just for what they are, but have become the means to achieve a new and different end: that of maximizing profit. Healthcare and education are now sold for money. The internal logic of this system says that we do not really care that much whether people are actually healthy or well educated: what counts is whether they are buying healthcare or education, at minimal costs and for maximum profit. In short, health and knowledge are no longer basic values. The only true value left is monetary or economic value.
We are seeing this dynamic everywhere, including, of course, the universities. In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, and kick-started by the most extreme right-wing government in Dutch history (Rutte I), I watched it spiraling wholly out of control. Like many of my colleagues, I began to feel that if I was still doing my work (trying to teach my students something real, trying to focus on content, trying to keep my eye on the ball), I was doing so not thanks to the University system but in spite of it. The institution had been turned into a factory, designed to produce a product for profit: although administrators and politicians keep invoking “excellence” and emphasizing the need for “quality” in education, the truth is that (like everywhere else in the neoliberal economy) quality has become irrelevant to how the system works. It recognizes only quantifiable data that lend themselves to statistical analysis and can be translated into economic and financial terms. As a result, universities are no longer institutions devoted to “higher learning”: they are now running on an operating system that subverts the very ends (goals, objectives) they were once supposed to be promoting. Last year, at the University of Amsterdam, students and staff revolted against the systemic financialization and corporatization of the academy. They occupied the administrative center of the Faculty of Humanities, and after they got expelled, they occupied the Maagdenhuis, the University’s administrative center. Similar protests are happening at other universities around the world, and I very much hope that these grassroots revolutions will have a positive effect. However, I’m afraid that real and lasting change will prove to be impossible as long as neoliberal capitalism remains in place as the operating system of higher learning in Europe. An upgrade of that system is not enough. On the contrary: by perfecting its functionality even further, we will only make matters worse. We need a new operating system grounded in the very principle that is anathema to the current one: that quality in education and research cannot be quantified and translated into financial terms, but is an irreducible core value entirely independent of (and incommensurable with) the logic of economic calculation.

 2. Information Overkill

The second major change I observe in our world is information overkill. The information revolution has been gathering steam roughly since the early 1990s, in perfect parallel with the ascendency of neoliberal capitalism. Of course, the basic facts hardly need to be stated here: we all know how incredibly powerful the new information technologies are, how much we are benefiting from the miracles they accomplish, and how utterly dependent we have become on them. But while the benefits are very real (of course, like everybody else, I’m profiting from them every day and would hate to miss them) they come at a heavy price. In this case the problem is not the reversal of means and ends, but the ever-increasing impossibility of distinguishing between reliable, less reliable, and unreliable information. There is another way of saying this: it gets harder and harder for all of us to draw the crucial distinction between information and knowledge (in fact, I have found that more and more people respond with profound puzzlement to the very idea that there is a difference at all). We have unlimited amounts of information at our fingertips, but just cannot tell anymore what is true and what is not. This goes even for highly specialized fields of knowledge. There was a time when I could gain a reasonably complete and accurate overview of the scholarly literature on a given topic; but nowadays I am overwhelmed, even in areas that I know very well, by a daily tsunami of publications online (which, by the way, almost inevitably tend to be given preference over offline materials, simply because it’s already far too much to handle anyway). Nobody can keep up anymore, and the situation is aggravated by the fact that traditional selection criteria no longer have much of a bearing on the actual quality of publications: truly excellent stuff appears online for free, while too much that makes it into peer-reviewed “top journals” is of unremarkable or even mediocre quality. This in itself can be explained largely through the two developments under discussion here. The impact of neoliberal capitalism on academic publishing means that selling the product (in this case: getting your stuff published in a peer-reviewed journal) has become much more important than the actual quality of that product. And moreover, authors need to anticipate what the market seems to want from them: if your work is too daring, original, or creative, too “out of the box”, that may lessen your chance of acceptance. As for the dynamics of information overkill, it results in journal editors and anonymous peer reviewers receiving far too many requests, resulting in hasty and superficial reviews, processed hastily and superficially by journal editors, who do not have the time either – all in the context of an increasingly impersonal bureaucratic machinery of editorial decision-making. As a result of all this, scholars are no longer working the way they used to work. The really good ones among us used to be studying a given topic thoroughly and systematically, attempting to get to the very bottom of things because we still felt there was a bottom to be reached. But that illusion is gone, and so we find ourselves “mining data” instead, or just cherry-picking more or less at random. Too often we feel we just don’t have the time for deep and concentrated study of just one particular source, or one particular scholar’s work. For what about all those countless other sources? What about all those other scholars whose work is still waiting in line to be read too? Are we sure we are reading the right article at this moment? Perhaps we should be reading one of all those countless others out there… But how should we choose? How can we possibly know which ones deserve our attention and which ones are just a waste of time, if we haven’t at least “scanned” them first? And so we keep “mining”, hastily and superficially; or otherwise we resign ourselves to the inevitable and just start picking selectively, more or less at random.

It seems to me that these two core developments are intimately related to four further new developments. These, too, are irreversibly changing our world at present. They might be seen as a second level built upon the first.

 a. Disempowerment

To begin with, we are witnessing a systematic disempowerment of citizens, resulting in a huge democratic deficit. Neoliberal capitalism has created a situation where international banks and corporations run by unelected CEOs and managers are much more powerful than national states, so that the results of democratic elections lose most of their relevance. Ordinary citizens feel in their guts that it doesn’t matter anymore what political party they vote for, because politicians have no other choice than pursuing “business as usual” anyway (see, for instance, the recent Greek Drama): what little power we used to have to determine our fate has been taken away from us. Deep resentment and frustration over this fact is then channeled towards convenient scapegoats such as “the immigrants” or “the Muslims”, diverting attention away from those who are actually responsible (for instance, although it is evident that the financial crisis is product of neoliberal capitalism, the Dutch neoliberal capitalists won the next election and remain in the driving seat!). This dynamics has been analyzed endlessly, but perhaps there has been less attention to the disempowering effects of the second element highlighted above: that of information overkill. Even where we still have something to choose, we no longer know what to choose, because we no longer know how to select reliable information from the staggering amounts of online disinformation, mythmaking, fear-mongering, propaganda, “spin”, and sheer nonsense. 

 b. Brain Change

A second and very different development could be described as brain change. The rise of information technology and its omnipresence in our daily lives – the fact that all of us are spending more and more of our lives gazing at computer screens or portable devices – means that we are using our brains to do things that are very different from what they used to be doing. We are continually training them to excel in those kinds of tasks that we need to handle our computers efficiently, but the flip side is that we are no longer training those skills that are needed for different but equally important tasks. We are especially good at switching our attention quickly from one thing to another, but we are losing our ability to concentrate on one single thing and stay concentrated for a long time. We are very good at “scanning” information quickly, but we are losing the ability of deep thinking and the sustained reflection required for converting data into actual knowledge. Having a lot of information available says absolutely nothing about how well we understand what that information really means. But such understanding requires muscles in the brain that are being trained less and less.  

c. Historical Amnesia

A third development I would describe as historical amnesia. For me, as a scholar in the Humanities, this one is particularly painful, because it undermines the very foundations of what my own work has always been about. Over the last decades, education reforms have been dominated by the idea that students need to learn skills rather than acquire knowledge: what you know is not so important, as long as you can find the information you need at the moment you need it. This educational philosophy is based upon a fundamental mistake. We have overlooked the fact that in the absence of knowledge, information becomes meaningless, and data selection (informed choice) becomes impossible. Having placed the cart before the horse, we find ourselves helpless in the face of information overkill. As for my second element, the logic of neoliberal market capitalism: within that context, historical knowledge has no practical utility or economic value and is reduced essentially to the status of a “hobby” (more specifically: a left-wing hobby, as right-wing politicians in my country like to add). It is perceived as an object of mere private interest or leisure activities, like going to the Opera, so why should society support it with taxpayers’ money? The results of these ideas have become obvious in recent years. In so far as we are still learning history at all, we tend to focus on isolated episodes from the modern and contemporary period (with World War II as an all-time favorite) and on social, political, and economic history. Ancient and pre-modern history is becoming irrelevant (“it’s all over, isn’t it?”); and most importantly, we are losing sight of the general storylines of Western cultural and intellectual history (not to mention non-Western history, in spite of all the talk about globalization). Over the last ten years or so, I have seen my students become ever more clueless whenever I referred to such things as “Late Antiquity”, “the Middle Ages”, “the Renaissance”, “the Scientific Revolution”, “the Enlightenment”, “Romanticism”, and so on and so forth. Most of them have only the vaguest ideas about when that was, what it all meant, where it all came from, and why they should care. In short, we are rapidly losing our sense of orientation in historical time. But if we no longer know where we come from, this means we cannot tell where we are; and as a result, we will finally lose our sense of who we are. This is because human beings are wired to define their identity through memory: individual amnesia means we no longer know who we are and what we’re all about, and historical amnesia does the same for society as large. We become clueless, disoriented, directionless.

 d. Evaporation of Values

 Which brings me to my fourth point. At the risk of sounding a bit dramatic, there’s no better way to describe it than as a fundamental evaporation of values. In a way, this brings me full circle, for I began by highlighting the fact that neoliberal capitalism recognizes no other values than those that lend themselves to economic calculation. The notion that something has value in and for itself – intrinsic quality, not measurable in terms of quantity – is literally impossible to consider or even imagine within the neoliberal/capitalist paradigm. It’s like asking a mechanic to take account of the color of a machine: he won’t see the point. He will tell you that it runs just as well, regardless of whether the cogwheels are painted green or blue. And he is right, of course. But colors do have value for us as human beings, and so do values. Color doesn’t matter to the machine, but it matters to us: we attach value to it. Now where will we get our values under conditions of historical amnesia? This is not a matter that can be figured out by “finding the right data, getting the right information”. Beyond some very basic values grounded in animal biology (e.g. “pleasure = good / pain = bad” – but even those can be reprogrammed, as anyone knows who has studied the history of martyrdom), we basically get them not from information but from culture and memory: values are literally “cultivated” from one generation to the next, on the basis of what is remembered. We used to pass on values derived from European culture, notably classical antiquity, Jewish and Christian religion, Enlightenment rationality, and modern science; but instead of living traditions, these have all become mere options of consumer choice, available to us as a bewildering mass of unassorted data that come without criteria or guidelines for selection and evaluation. Please note: none of this implies that values are necessarily good. For instance, Islamic State is currently cultivating a set of values that not just condone but actually advocate the murder, rape, and torture of “infidels”. But horrible as they may be, these are values, part of a much larger and functional valuation system for which these people are willing to sacrifice their lives. So we have no reason whatsoever to sentimentalize “values”; but we should recognize their incredible power of motivation, of bestowing a sense of meaning and direction, of telling people what things are worth living and dying for. What I’m claiming here is that our reigning paradigm of neoliberal capitalism combined with rampant information overkill and historical amnesia leaves us clueless in that regard. We are deeply insecure about our values, because neither “the market” nor “the data” can provide them. This makes us incredibly weak in the face of cultures or ideologies that know perfectly well why we are here and where we should be going.


So where should we be going, and why? I began by admitting that, these days, I often feel like the Elves. Winter is coming. But perhaps I’m too much wedded to the past. Perhaps I’m in a state of mourning, simply because I’m too much in love with European culture. In spite of all its horrors, crimes, and tragedies, I still love and admire it. I hold it dear for its incredible beauty, wisdom and – not in the last place – its profound ambivalences and never-ending struggles. At the end of the day, I prefer to see the history of Europe as a hero’s story, a story of how we have been trying to improve ourselves in spite of ourselves, setting ourselves goals that might be impossible to attain but that we tried to reach anyway - often at great cost to ourselves and to others. I don’t want to believe that this struggle has been pointless. 
So where is the light at the end of the tunnel? I don’t presume to have the answer, and I surely cannot look into the future. I’m just trying to gain some perspective here. One thing seems clear to me: surely the only way forward is by setting our sails precisely towards what we are currently lacking. To discover what that is, we might ask ourselves what the two basic factors of neoliberal capitalism and information overkill share in common. It seems to me the answer is very simple: the absence of quality. Neoliberal capitalism is incapable of handling quality and therefore converts it into quantity; and the replacement of knowledge cultivation by information overkill requires that quality be sacrificed to data accumulation.
So what we need to do is ask ourselves the question that Robert Pirsig asked in his classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974): what is quality? Don’t be fooled by appearances or first impressions: this is not just an abstract or philosophical question, suitable for polite discussion with a glass of red wine in the evening. It’s an existential pursuit, inseparable from the search for true values. If taken with full seriousness, and if deeply understood (and I don't pretend that I'm so successful in doing either, for it’s very hard to do) it will claim the whole of our lives and determine all that we do. We might ask this question explicitly, or just implicitly, perhaps using different terms, or expressing it through action rather than through words. But it will still be the pursuit of quality.

So that is my suggestion for a light to guide us towards the exit of a long tunnel that, admittedly, I have been painting in very dark colors. Perhaps it’s not much, but it’s the best I have to offer. It is not an answer but a question – not a fixed goal to be reached, but an open path towards the future. If we stop asking this question – because we have lost interest or just don’t see the point – then I’m afraid it’s all over with us. But I don’t think that will happen. Even with “brain change” working against us, I have to believe that the search for quality is just too deeply ingrained in what it means to be human. Even with the daily attacks of hypnosis by the popular media, to which we are all exposed, human beings will keep looking for values and meaning – simply because we cannot help ourselves. So I guess that’s my message for the New Year: Stay awake! Let’s refuse to be fooled. Let’s not allow ourselves to be lulled into compliance with a meaningless world made of markets and data, for though it dominates the present, it literally has no future: nothing to strive or hope for. Let’s keep using our imagination to look for what’s real.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Theosophy in Secret Germany

Melchior Lechter, Panis angelorum (1906)

In my very first blogpost on Creative Reading (2012) I wrote about the German poet Stefan George and his "hidden church of the spirit." At first sight, this elite cult of refined esthetics and homo-erotic spirituality might seem to have pretty little in common with madame Blavatsky (ridiculed by George himself as “die dicke Madame”, “the fat madam”) and the popular movement of Theosophy that was making headlines in the same period. However, in his excellent recent monograph Der George-Kreis und die Theosophie, mit einem Exkurs zum Swastika-Zeichen bei Helena Blavatsky, Alfred Schuler und Stefan George (The George Circle and Theosophy: with an Excursus about the Swastika symbol in Helena Blavatsky, Alfred Schuler and Stefan George) Jan Stottmeister shows that by making the comparison nevertheless, we can learn  much that has been forgotten about the cultural climate of the early twentieth century. The book begins with well-documented overviews of modern Theosophy and the esthetic milieu of the fin-de-siècle. What these networks had in common, in spite of all differences, was their counter-culturalism: “From 1889 ... to the turn of the century ... George moved in counter-cultural milieus that, by communicating knowledge about secrets, constituted themselves as the esoteric Other to the outside world. The outside world was the bourgeois society of the late 19th century, experienced as disenchanted, rationalized, dominated by mass culture, and hopelessly ugly. Estheticism and occultism, the esthetics and hermeneutics of secrecy, symbolist art programs and secret teachings, the intermingling roles of artist and visionary, artistic/religious and other alternative religious constructions of meaning – all belonged inseparably together within this milieu. Whether "the secret" meant the essence of a poetry that, following Mallarmé, should remain linguistically aloof and beyond the public gaze, so as to be revealed only to "âmes d'élite" (elite souls) capable of understanding it; or whether it meant the knowledge claimed by charismatic leaders of Orders that promised to initiate their pupils into the secrets of the world – such distinctions were subordinate to the general desire of demarcating oneself, socially, intellectually, and habitually, from the dominant culture of materialism (p. 91).
Melchior Lechter, Shambhala (1925)
However, as George began establishing his circle after 1900 – by demarcating his vision from that of competing groups such as the "Cosmic Circle" of Munich (dominated by Alfred Schuler and Ludwig Klages), staking his claim of ultimate and undisputable authority, and instituting his cult of the "divine boy" Maximin – it became intolerable to der Meister to think that his pupils might show allegiance to any other "Masters" (such as the Theosophical Mahatmas) or to any other boyish vehicle of divinity (such as Jiddu Krishnamurti, the Indian boy elected by the Theosophists as their future World Teacher). As Stottmeister shows, the central figure in George's competition with Theosophy was the nowadays forgotten artist Melchior Lechter (1865-1937; for the only collection with full-color prints of his paintings, glass-paintings, prints and designs, see the catalogue Melchior Lechters Gegen-Welten of 2006).
Lechter turns out to be a fascinating character. He admired J.-K. Huysmans’ famous novel of extreme fin-de-siecle decadence, A rebours, and followed the example of its protagonist, Des Esseintes, by turning his house and atelier into a private artistic “Counter-World” (Gegen-Welt) against bourgeois society: a place where everything breathed a refined atmosphere of sacrality more reminiscent of a Catholic church than a living space. It became the favourite meeting place of George’s circle in Berlin; and among all George’s friends, only Lechter was recognized by Der Meister as a “Master” in his own right. Most notably, all George’s volumes of poetry first appeared in limited bibliophile editions designed by Lechter, who thereby dominated the visual imagination of George’s religion of art. However, Lechter was not just an extreme fin-de-siècle esthete, but also a great admirer of Madame Blavatsky. In his mind, these two perspectives seem to have gone perfectly together; and so it is not suprising that hidden references to his Theosophical beliefs are omnipresent in his artistic production, including his works commissioned by George. Stottmeister’s analyses of this discreet Theosphical presence in works of art are precise, detailed, full of interest, very well informed, and last but not least, written (like the whole book) in excellent prose with a fine sense of subtle humor whenever the occasion calls for it.
Melchior Lechter, Sacred Tower in the Mountains with the Four Sources of the Streams of Life (1917)
The fascination with Theosophy among members of his circle did become a problem for George. Sometimes he seems to have tried making opportunistic use of it for his own purposes, as in an intriguing conversation reported by Herbert Steiner (no relation of the founder of Anthroposophy Rudolf Steiner, discussed at length elsewhere in Stottmeister’s book), who claims that George described himself as a messenger sent by the Mahatmas (p. 199-200). But in the end, there could be only one Master in George’s universe. In October 1910, Melchior Lechter made a trip to India, together with another central member of the George circle, Karl Wolfskehl. Both had becomes members of the Theosophical Society briefly before (p. 254). They paid no less than five visits to Adyar, had a private meeting with Annie Besant, accompanied her and her followers on walks, listened to lectures, and met the young Hindu “vehicle of the world teacher” Jiddu Krishnamurti. Back home, Lechter published an account of his trip to India as Tagebuch der indischen Reise (Diary of the Indian Journey, 1912) and sent it to George as a Christmas present. This proved to be a fatal miscalculation. George refused to answer and cut all ties of friendship with Lechter. They had a few awkward meetings in later years; but as usual with George, the break was final and irreversible. Henceforth, George’s books were published without Lechter’s designs. For Lechter himself, the break was deeply painful.
While Melchior Lechter is the central figure in Stottmeister’s analysis, separate chapters full of fascinating information are devoted to other figures relevant to the relation between George and Theosophy, notably the composer Cyrill Scott; the poet Karl Wolfskehl (the true “inventor of the George cult”, according to Stottmeister, p. 254); the writer, spiritualist, Theosophist, and alchemist Alexander von Bernus; and even the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. Finally, Stottmeister shows that Friedrich Gundolf’s deeply apologetic book George (1920) is permeated not only by an agenda of hero-worship premised on George’s unique spiritual superiority (he is described, in biblical terms, as “The Way, the Truth, and Life”, p. 287) but also, simultaneously, by an urgently felt need to demarcate him sharply from the competition of Theosophy, “the worst idea of modernity” (p. 290).
Henceforth (and this is a familiar story in the study of Western esotericism) the dimension of Theosophy and occultism was written out of standard scholarly treatments devoted to Stefan George and his circle. Just as (to mention just one parallel) Swedenborg was reduced in academic Kant scholarship to no more than a ridiculous Spirit Seer without serious philosophical import, Theosophy got reduced to no more than the flaky brainchild of “die dicke Madame”. In a sharp and perfectly justified critique of the dominant academic trend in Germany after World War II, Stottmeister remarks (with obvious reference to Adorno’s famous definition of occultism as “the metaphysics of the stupid guys”) that “from an academic perspective, the occultist interests of the smart guys – Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin, to mention just those closest to Adorno – are no longer noticed. In the decades after World War II, henceforth historians of modernity just know about one type of occultists: Nazis” (323). The deep irony is that such notions of “Nazi occultism” have been embraced as historically correct by generations of German academics, in blissful ignorance of the fact that they were thereby lending credence to occultist pseudo-histories themselves (largely originating from Pauwels & Bergier’s bestselling Morning of the Magicians, but given credence, as demonstrated by Stottmeister, by the authoritative work of George Mosse).
These concluding remarks about the question of National Socialism – inevitable in a book like this, given the oft-debated question of how George’s “Secret Germany” is related to the Third Reich – prove to be the upbeat for a truly impressive Appendix of more than seventy pages, devoted to “Helena Blavatsky, Alfred Schuler, Stefan George, and the Western History of the Interpretation of the Swastika Sign” (pp. 327-398). This appendix should definitely be translated into English as soon as possible. The Swastika sign was not just adopted by the Nazis as their symbol, but also appears prominently in the seal of the Theosophical Society (as well as in Blavatsky’s private seal), on Melchior Lechter’s designs of books from the George Circle, as well as in the work of Alfred Schuler (the central figure of the Munich “Cosmic Circle” that originally overlapped with George’s circle). As such, it looks like a red thread among George and Theosophy that requires interpretation. Stottmeister has excellent things to say about what he calls the “Swastika effect”, which makes it psychologically impossible for us to see the swastika without being reminded of the Nazis. In fact, however, the sign became popular first “in apolitical contexts: as the sign of an occultist society that actually promoted the brotherhood of races and nations, as a favourite ornament in Jugendstil and Art Deco design, and as a profane business logo for products of all kinds (p 330). Ironically, from our present-day perspective, it was seen as a sign of good luck. Against the background of popular 19th century theories of race and evolution, including antisemitic argumentations for Aryan supremacy such as Emile Burnouf’s La Science des Religions (1870), Stottmeister provides a sterling analysis of how the swastika symbol adopted from India functioned in the context of Blavatsky’s “race-theoretical anti-racism”, followed by equally impressive discussions of Alfred Schuler’s obsession with the symbol and, of course, its appearance in the circle around Stefan George. Any further non-political use of the Swastika became impossible after World War II, of course, for as Stottmeister notes, “historical contextualizations were powerless against this reconditioned visual perception. The Good Luck sign had been transformed irreversibly into a sign of Horror” (p. 344).
Still, powerless or not, what is the point of historical scholarship if we do not insist that fiction can be distinguished from fact and that it is important to do so? Like all good researchers in the modern study of Western esotericism, Stottmeister gives us a careful deconstruction of ingrained academic myths that have been taken for granted by scholars for generations and have obstructed and distorted our view of historical reality. This pars destruens is necessary in order to clear the ground for the pars construens that should follow in its wake: that of reconstructing our standard ways of imagining Western culture from the bottom up.
Melchior Lechter, Orpheus (1896)

Thursday, August 20, 2015

On the Death of Khaled Asaad

This week, IS tortured and killed Khaled Asaad, the antiquities chief of Palmyra. He was decapitated at a public square, and his body was hung from a Roman column in one of the ruins to the restoration of which he had devoted more than fifty years of his life. He was 81 years old.
After having neglected my blog for a year, this news hit me so hard that I felt I needed to write about it. But what is there to say? As with all the previous news about the atrocious horrors perpetrated by IS, my overwhelming feelings are grief and fury, combined with a debilitating sense of powerlessness. The Nazis have returned in our midst, only this time they do not do their torturing and killing behind barbed wire fences or prison doors but proudly display them on the internet. We are watching it on TV and reading about it in the newspapers, and then move on to our daily business. Because what can we do?
Just one thing. Speaking out about the values that we represent, or should represent, and mustering the courage to fight for them in word and deed, wherever we have a chance of doing so. This goes for everybody, anywhere in the world. But having been raised in a European country and devoting my life to studying, writing, and speaking about its cultural traditions, I may perhaps be excused for focusing on Western civilization. We are told that Khaled Asaad was murdered for the crime of "overseeing 'idols' in the ancient city" and "attending 'infidel' conferences as Syrian representative". This makes him one of the most recent casualties in a culture war that has been raging for thousands of years: that of exclusive monotheism against its mortal enemy, "pagan idolatry". We should not delude ourselves: historically, our "own" dominant Western culture has not been on Khaled Asaad's side but overwhelmingly on the side of his murderers. The idea that paganism and idolatry is the ultimate abomination that must be rooted out and destroyed, along with anybody who practices or sympathizes with it, goes to the heart of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic identity (though it should be added that while Christianity and Islam gained the power to put the idea into bloody action, post-biblical Judaism never had that chance and rather found itself on the receiving end of atrocities, as we know all too well). Moreover, (pace Peter Gay c.s.) it goes to the heart of Enlightenment rationalism as well, which inherited the Protestant view of paganism and idolatry. This story is not well known, precisely because our dominant cultural institutions are grounded in the very same bias and therefore prefer to tell the story differently. But the painful truth is that, culturally and historically, we are hardly in a position to mount our high horse and condemn IS for continuing our very own battle against the religious culture of the ancient world and everything it stood for. "We" have been every bit as brutal and cruel as they are being now, and until much more recent times than we care to remember.
But here is the paradox. In spite of everything, I deeply care about this same Western culture, for it has richly provided us with all those ultimate values that IS is trampling upon. In spite of all its horrors, a deep commitment to the Good, the Beautiful, and the True runs through the story of Western civilization as well - and this tradition is deeply indebted to the very culture of classical antiquity and Hellenistic civilization that IS would like to destroy. But I'm afraid that during the last couple of decades, we have rapidly been losing touch with these foundational values on which our very culture and civilization were built. Most of us no longer know who we are, what we are supposed to stand for, or why we should. The Good has been made subject to the laws of the marketplace (economic value trumps moral values: the question of what we should do is irrelevant if it cannot be paid for, right?). The Beautiful has been reduced to esthetics and leasure time activities (likewise for sale, of course). And as for the True - the province of science and scholarship, my own domain of activity - well, that is just a matter of opinion, isn't it? This is why the Humanities are declining, and too many of us (academics included) find it hard to see any difference between knowledge and information. This is why we have lost our ability to explain what we are all about. I don't mean to be cynical, but I'm afraid that this is the point of history at which we have now arrived as a culture and a society: we are in decline, and we know it. No wonder that we feel so vulnerable. No wonder that for so many people (not just "elsewhere" but at home as well) "Western civilization" no longer inspires admiration and respect but is becoming an object of hatred, contempt, or simple indifference. I hate to say it, but IS has a story. We don't.
Back to Khaled Asaad. From all that I can tell, I think that he was "one of us". By this I mean that he belonged to all of us who want to devote our lives to real values: knowledge, understanding, generosity, love, beauty, awe. It won't do to respond to his death only with some academic reflections on culture and civilization, although that must be done too (after all, those were the values he deeply cared about and that ultimately cost him his life). We must take our stand next to him, for his horrible death has made him a symbol of everything that is being threatened today and needs to be defended by us, at whatever cost.