Saturday, September 2, 2017

Imaginary Homelands: Stefan Zweig, Gershom Scholem, and George Prochnik

George Prochnik

Two great Jewish writers and intellectuals of the twentieth century, Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) and Gershom Scholem (1897-1982): on one side we have the cosmopolitan advocate of humanistic tolerance, mutual understanding, and peaceful European integration who was forced out of Europe and died in isolation far from home in Brazil, while on the other side we have the Zionist and pioneering scholar of kabbalah whose search for the deep historical and existential roots of his Jewish identity led him to leave Europe behind of his own volition to build a new home in Palestine. The American author George Prochnik has published an impressive biographical diptych about these two famous personalities and their very different experiences and perspectives: The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World was published in 2014, and Stranger in a Strange Land: Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem came out in 2016. I found these two books to be full of valuable insights that carry deep relevance for the political and cultural conflicts we are currently experiencing. Just like about a century ago, once again we find the Humanistic and Enlightenment ideals of “cosmopolitanism and secular liberalism” pitted against the Counter-Enlightenment forces of “nationalism, religion, and identity politics.” What can we learn from comparing Zweig and Scholem?

Stefan Zweig in 1917

“I love the Diaspora,” Zweig wrote to Martin Buber in 1917. He went on to explain that he had “never wanted the Jews to become a nation again and thus to lower itself [sic] to taking part with the others in the rivalry of reality” (Exile, 134). When Buber responded by restating his Zionist convictions, Zweig insisted: “the more the dream threatens to become a reality, the dangerous dream of a Jewish state with cannons, flags, medals, the [sic] more than ever am I resolved to love the painful idea of the Diaspora” (135). Zweig felt perfectly at home in his native Austrian culture because he considered himself a citizen of Europe and the international republic of letters. Frankly, he could afford it. Born in 1881 in a very affluent Jewish family in Vienna, he seems to have been absolutely fine with both the ideals and the realities of cultural and ethnic assimilation that had worked out so beautifully for him. Almost to his own surprise – he never had a particularly high opinion about himself as a writer – all doors to fame and success seemed to open almost by themselves and he enjoyed a dream career as a writer. The world was his oyster. 

Gershom Scholem at twenty-seven
What a difference with Scholem! Born in 1897 as the son of a printer living in Berlin, he was sixteen years younger than Zweig and rebelled violently against his bourgeois father with his strong assimilationist views. If Zweig felt he belonged to the German people (meaning the German-speaking peoples of Europe), Scholem would later dismiss such feelings of belonging as “a lurid and tragic illusion” for Jews, even on the level of culture alone (147; Stranger, 9). While Zweig was a typical representative of Liberal Humanism in the tradition of his hero Erasmus, Scholem’s deep concern was with his Jewish identity and he became a vocal activist on behalf of the Zionist cause. For Zweig, leaving Europe meant exile. For Scholem it meant liberation.

The Cosmopolitan Idealist

Reading Zweig’s autobiography Die Welt von Gestern (The World of Yesterday) in tandem with Prochnik’s The Impossible Exile about Zweig’s final years means receiving an introduction to the original meaning of Liberalism as an ethical and humanitarian ideal with deep roots in European history. Zweig had no sympathy for the American culture of capitalist consumerism that – especially in the form of its radical “Neoliberal” upgrade since the 1980s – is so often confused with Liberalism today. On the contrary, he felt that “global dance crazes, mass fashion, popular cinema, et cetera were leveling the cosmos of human expression ‘into a uniform cultural schema’,” and feared that “[t]he United States had inaugurated a ‘rush into servitude’ of the masses, clearing the way psychologically for dictatorships of every variety to seize power. If the Great War marked the first phase of Europe’s destruction, he concluded, ‘Americanization is the second’” (Exile, 235-236). Of course such words sound uncannily prescient today. In fact, reading Prochnik’s description of how the refugee Viennese psychoanalyst Ernst Kris discussed Hitler, I could not help noticing that he might as well have been talking about Donald Trump. The principles of demagoguery seem universal:

[Hitler] once said the masses were so dumb and so feminine, they would take anything you told them, so long as it was expressed in the manner of advertising catchphrases. “Truth is of no avail, but there must be an ideology behind it, something to inspire the imagination,” Kris explained (152).

As an alternative to the degenerate culture of American consumer capitalism, Zweig did not advocate a return to nationalism or a revival of populist Blut und Boden sentiments but quite their opposite: a Pan-European humanism grounded in tolerance and mutual understanding as guiding ideals that should be passed on from one generation to the next by means of responsible education, or Bildung. His confidence in this approach seemed boundless:

Reverence for Bildung, that magically potent idea of holistic, rigorously intellectual character development, predicated on fluency in the canon of Western knowledge, had made it impossible for educated Germans to take Hitler seriously, Zweig wrote. It was simply inconceivable that this “beer-hall agitator” who had not even finished high school, let alone college, “should ever make a pass toward a position once held by a Bismark, a Baron von Stein, a Prince Bülow.” In consequence, Zweig said, even after 1933 the vast majority still believed Hitler was only a kind of stopgap, and that the Nazis would prove a transient phenomenon.
What Zweig did not make explicit in his memoir was that he’d made this mistake himself. No one placed a greater trust in the redemptive power of cultural education than did Zweig, who expressed his faith, even after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, that the Third Reich would prove only a brief hiccup en route to the unification of Europe – the coming “world Switzerland,” as he labeled it. It took years for Zweig to really absorb the notion that the masses’ indifference to intellectual and cultural achievements might be a lasting condition. … The best response to Hitler’s popularity was not to demonize his supporters, Zweig believed, but to communicate to them the value of the rich German cultural legacy that was being jeopardized by Nazi politics (62-63).

Today, of course, it is very easy for us to dismiss such statements as tragically naïve – much easier, in any case, than it is to explain how and why an attitude of dismissive cynicism about such highminded ideals should be any more likely to succeed! As Prochnik puts it – and I agree –, “Illusions are not to be eliminated but encouraged, since only the powers of imagination can summon a vision of a more humane future” (255). Zweig did believe deeply in the value of building bridges, by cultivating generosity and empathy (137) instead of hatred and suspicion. Seeking out alternatives to the privileged milieu of his own upbringing, during his younger years he spent much of his time “at motley bars and cafés squeezed between ‘heaving drinkers, homosexuals and morphine addicts’,” for (as he commented) “the worse someone’s reputation was the more I wanted to know him personally” (90). This fascination with the so-called “losers” and social outcasts who populated the seedy underbelly of bourgeois society was linked to an acute ethical awareness that “between power and morality there was rarely a bond but rather an unbridgeable gap” (358). The power that came with his own position as a famous writer never seems to have blinded him to the moral arbitrariness of the privileges he enjoyed. In other words, he never thought that his talent and success made him “better” than others. Having been accepted as a refugee by several countries in succession, these are his words to one of his benefactors in the last of them, Brazil:

You have been kind enough to honor me, to welcome me among you. I should feel proud and happy. But I must confess to you that at a time like this I am not able to feel happy and still less to feel proud. On the contrary, I feel heavy at heart that you should show me such friendship while countless people, our own and others, are suffering. We as human beings, and especially as Jews, have no right in these days to be happy. … We must not imagine that we are the few just people who have been saved from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah because of our special merits. We are not better, and we are not more worthy than all the others who are being hunted and driven over there in Europe (208).

The inevitable counterpart to Zweig’s humanitarian idealism was the deep despair he felt about the collapse of European culture and civilization caused by the Nazi takeover: as Prochnik puts it, towards the end of his life he seems to have lost all hope because he had “ceased to believe his works were part of any larger edifice” (259). He was haunted by premonitions of catastrophe, years before they became reality: “my nose for political disaster tortures me like an inflamed nerve” he told Joseph Roth in 1936 (130, cf. 218, 285). Just days before the Anschluss he was watching in helpless horror as his fellow-Austrians were blissfully doing their Christmas shopping and going about their daily affairs: “Don’t you understand? All this will be gone in a few months’ time. Your homes will be plundered. Your clothes will be changed for prison garb” (176).

Prochnik gives much attention to the international refugee crisis that followed the Nazi takeover: “The trickle. The stream. The flood. And then people surging all over the globe, falling from the skies, splashed up by the seas, hurled helter-skelter by the wildly spinning red-and-black wheel” (204). In an analysis that should sound bitterly familiar to us today, he points out that even though the numbers of refugees that actually made it to America were astonishingly small, intentional propaganda and general paranoia caused many Americans to believe that their country was overrun with “millions of refugees,” “swamped with exiles to the point where millions of jobs and democracy itself were at risk” (205). Where have we heard such things before? For Zweig personally, exile brought the bizarre realization that while his “intellectual fatherland” no longer considered him to be German, the British did classify him as “German,” that is to say, as an “enemy alien” (164-165). In short, he found himself rejected by both Germans and non-Germans.
What then about his Jewish identity? It didn’t help either. In a highly illuminating passage, Prochnik points out that for Zweig, the defining experience of exile turned out to be that of “being forced to identify with people who bore no relation to him” (164). He wrote that most Jews in Western Europe had no clue about why they were being thrown together for persecution (163):

[they were] no longer a community and had not been one for a long time. They had no law. They did not want to speak Hebrew together. Only exile swept them all together, like dirt in the street. … If Shylock’s famous question – “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” – was intended to show that the Jews share a common humanity with all mankind, Zweig approached the injustice of anti-Semitism by revealing the total absence of common ground between the Jews themselves (164).

And that brings us to one of the most harrowing passages in the book, at least to this reader. Prochnik begins by discussing the famous passage in the 2nd chapter of Mein Kampf where Hitler describes how he became an anti-semite. On the streets of Vienna he saw an orthodox Jew in a long caftan with black curls, and found himself wondering “Is that a German?” His conclusion was that only the German language made it possible for Jews to pass as real members of the Volk: in fact they were cosmopolitans who could “speak a thousand languages,” and “if they ever got into power they would force everyone to speak an international language such as Esperanto” (155). From there, Prochnik cuts straight to a scene shortly after Zweig went into exile. He spent an evening in a Yiddish theater in London together with Otto Zarek, where they watched a performance about Jewish ghetto life in Russia:

… after the show Zarek was struck by Zweig’s state of acute nervous agitation. He could not contain his inner excitement. “These old Jews,” Zweig said, “in their grotesque dresses, their beards unshorn, their eyes flaming, these adherents to Chassidism … they are our brethren.” It was only the measures toward assimilation taken by their great-grandparents that had kept them from looking just like those Jews did, Zweig told Zarek. Had it not been for their near forebears, the two of them would have ended up “believing in what they believe,” considering “our life in the midst of the Western world as just a transitory period – we, too, would harbour in our very hearts, the dreams of our eventual ‘return to the land of our forefathers’.” Zweig comes within a hair of saying, “There but for the grace of God.” But Zarek said that Zweig’s voice took on a note of despair and resignation, as he registered that he hadn’t, after all, quite dodged the bullet (156).  

Prochnik hardly needs to spell it out. To his enormous distress, Zweig was experiencing the very same kind of instinctive prejudice that had made Hitler an antisemite, and of course he was far too sensitive and intelligent not to realize it. In his own life he had always sought to emulate the spirit of Schiller: “I write as a citizen of the world. Early did I exchange my fatherland for mankind” (156). But now Hitler had deprived him of the community of language that constituted his true spiritual fatherland, and - not unlike what happens to the rich kid in Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” - those outcasts and “others” with whom he felt no spontaneous kinship had suddenly become his closest brethren whose company he could not avoid: “go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse…”
            Once upon a time Zweig had told Buber that he loved the diaspora, but now he had become a refugee himself and there was nothing he loved about it. He was longing not for the land of Israel (it struck me that he never seems to have considered seeking refuge in Palestine), nor for the Austria in which he had grown up. He missed Europe: his invisible community of the spirit, his universal republic of humanitarian brotherhood, his true cosmopolitan fatherland that represented inner freedom and unlimited possibilities, a land without borders that would welcome all comers. This was his true home, and it had come crashing down all around him. In the long run, the loss proved unbearable. On 22 February 1942, Stefan Zweig was found dead in his Brazilian home. He and his young wife Lotte had committed suicide together.

Stefan and Lotte Zweig on their deathbed

Quite like his model of Enlightened Liberal Humanism Erasmus (whom he painted in sharp contrast to Luther as the archetypal “fanatic” with evident traits of Hitler), Zweig had never been a fighter. “I can only write positive things; I can’t attack” (65, cf. 290). Irmgard Keun once described this natural-born pacifist as “one of those noble Jewish types who, thin-skinned and open to harm, lives in an immaculate glass world of the spirit and lacks the capacity themselves to do harm” (246).

The Dialectical Zionist

In this regard his disposition could not have been more different from that of Scholem. While Zweig was ultimately powerless to defend himself against the forces that destroyed his glass world of the spirit, Scholem seems to have been born a rebel and a firebrand, a fighter by nature. It would seem that throughout his life, the only way he could conceive of anything whatsoever was in terms of dialectical struggle ruled by the paradoxical logic of coincidentia oppositorum. For Zweig, losing all hope could only mean that no hope was left – obviously. But Scholem’s logic worked differently: “In his final years he was very hopeless. He said that now the only thing that remained was hope,” his widow recalled (426). The paradoxicality of such a remark has Scholem written all over it.
            This profoundly dialectical mentality ruled Scholem’s life and career. I consider it the key not only to understanding his concepts of Zionism and of Jewish mysticism, but ultimately to understanding everything he ever did or thought. Consider the following list of conflicts and oppositions, which makes no claim to completeness:

Scholem emigrated “from Berlin to Jerusalem” in spite of (or rather, I suspect, because of!) his core conviction that Zion was a messianic dream that could not and in fact should not be realized in this world. As a scholar searching for the roots of authentic Judaism, he explored the broader world of Hellenistic “paganism” and its legacy: I think he was driven by an intuition that the secret of Jewish life could be found precisely in the culture of the idolaters. As a model “historian’s historian,” he insisted on strict philology and textual criticism but applied these methods precisely to the “non-historical” world of mythical symbolism that appeals to the imagination rather than to strict literalism. While Jerusalem was in a state of siege, and extreme violence was rampant, he sat down to write a famous essay (analyzed at length by Prochnik) exploring the notion of “redemption through sin.” Scholem’s life-long search was for the authentic secret at the heart of Jewish tradition, as an alternative to the Germany he rejected, and yet the hermeneutics that allowed him to discover Jewish secrets was grounded in German scholarship, German Idealism, German Romantic speculation. He never ceased emphasizing that der Liebe Gott lebt im Detail, so that only by focusing on the particular and the unique could one gain lasting insights and discover general or even universal truths - and yet, he knew that without such general perspectives and a search for the universal, one would never succeed in opening the closed shell of the particular in the first place, and would fail to discover its hidden contents. Scholem could be described as a Jewish representative of the interwar “conservative revolution” who tried to impact the future of Judaism not by rejecting past traditions but by preserving and reviving them. In short, Scholem was a modernist struggling (like all modernists) with modernity itself. He was a rationalist driven by the energy of the non-rational: “my secularism is not secular” (58-59).

Whereas Zweig’s despair ended up killing him, Scholem’s dialectical mindset seems to have enabled him to use it as a creative force, as he wrote in a letter to Hugo Berman in 1947: “I live in despair, and only from the position of despair can I be active” (Briefe I, 331). In an earlier discussion of Scholem, I concluded that, for him

… the fact that eternity cannot appear in time mean[t] that the hope that sustains Jewish identity through history can only be called an “aspiration to the impossible.” Under these conditions, the historian must have the courage to “descend into the abyss” of history, knowing that he might encounter nothing but himself, and guided by nothing but a desperate hope for the impossible: that against all human logic, the transcendent might inexplicably “break through into history” one day, like “a light that shines into it from altogether elsewhere” (Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy, 297).

Prochnik reads Scholem’s story as a mirror of his own. His book consists of two interwoven narratives, one of which traces the first four decades of his subject’s life (from his adolescent years of Sturm und Drang in Berlin to his reaching maturity as a scholar in Jerusalem during the 1930s), and one that describes his own deeply personal search for an authentic Jewish identity that led him and his wife Anne to emigrate from New York to Jerusalem in the mid-1980s. Scholem’s beginnings were very different from Prochnik’s though. He depicts himself and his wife as a couple of young starry-eyed idealists driven to Jerusalem on the wings of “a dream of compassion” (87). By contrast, the young Scholem was an angry extremist who “went into overdrive” (109) around the age of seventeen:

Thinking about the collapse of Europe led him to picture the Land of Israel as a kind of womb, streaming with the ages, awaiting insemination. … Scholem took solitary walks … during which he would scream out speeches that he ordinarily whispered. People stared at him, and he blushed. … He imagined a novella about his own suicide … “I would shoot myself after concluding that there was no solving the gaping paradox in the life of a committed Zionist.”
Paradoxes, rages, fears, and desires were flying off the fabric of his being like burst buttons and seams. Raving on the street in some paroxysm of humiliation and fury, he might have hurled himself in front of a train or off a bridge. He might also have leaped on his father with any weapon at hand. He seems to come within a razor’s breadth of some irrevocable act of destruction. Scholem’s whole story might have ended before he ever reached Jerusalem. He craved too desperately for an impossible purity (110).

Reading such passages, I could not ignore the contemporary parallels, uncomfortable as they might be. Prochnik describes a youthful Zionist hothead, in full rebellion against his father’s demand that he sacrifice his Jewish identity by “assimilating” and becoming an obedient member of German bourgeois society. Today we have the phenomenon of youthful Jihadist radicals born in the West, who likewise refuse the dictates of cultural “integration” and declare total war on Liberal society in the name of Islamic purity. Scholem’s brand of Jewish identity politics seems an extreme counterpart to the Liberal universalism represented by intellectuals such as Zweig, and often enough he would find himself brandishing “the torch of ethnic-historical particularity against the ambient moral glow of universal ideals” (105).
Still it is important to emphasize that, for all his violent feelings of revolt, Scholem’s Zionism was predicated on the ideal of a peaceful settlement between Jews and Arabs. Having arrived in Jerusalem, he became a core member of the Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace) movement that would later be described by one of its founders, Hugo Bergmann, as “the last flicker of the humanist nationalist flame, at a historical moment when nationalism became among all the nations an anti-humanist movement” (304). Sympathetic as its ideals might be, Prochnik does not spare his critique: Brit Shalom’s slogan “Neither to dominate nor be dominated” sounds somewhat less commendable if one realizes that its “commitment to absolute political equality with the Arabs was presumptuous at a time when Jews were still less than 20 percent of Palestine’s overall population” (305). Likewise, Scholem’s commitment seems to have been inspired more by “his aspirations for the ideal manifestation of Zionism” (307) than by any deep sense of fellowship with his Arab neighbors.
Prochnik does not try to conceal the similarity of such attitudes to those of Anne and himself during their years in Jerusalem. Like Scholem, they desperately wanted to believe in the Zion of their dreams, but they had trouble seeing what was actually going on all around them in the state of Israel. Wondering what it must have been like for Scholem to enter Jerusalem for the first time, in late September 1923, Prochnik expresses doubt about whether the actual land of his forefathers had any reality for him at all:

Did Scholem in fact see where he was once he arrived here – really notice it? In the hundreds upon hundreds of pages he wrote from Jerusalem, he barely makes mention of the natural surroundings. He might be writing from space, from a black box theater, or – most plausibly – from between old manuscript pages” (243).

Prochnik’s own descriptions of Israel are far more attuned to the natural environment, but he admits with brutal honesty that he and Anne – for all their idealism and excellent good intentions – had been utterly oblivious to the social and political realities of the state of Israel, until Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination on 4 November 1995 finally opened their eyes: “Anne and I hardly realized…,” “we gathered…,” “we had no clue…,” “we didn’t comprehend…,” “we had no notion…,” “without ever grasping…,” “we didn’t follow…,” “we could not fathom…,” “we could not begin to comprehend…,” “Anne and I could not understand…,” “knowing as little as we did…” (all on pp. 380-383). In terms of the ethical contrasts that underpin Prochnik’s two books – humanism versus fanaticism, like Erasmus versus Luther, liberalism versus authoritarianism, like Zweig versus Hitler – it was only after having returned to the US that Prochnik recognized the adversary who had been at work all along without him paying attention: Benjamin Netanyahu. “Only long after Rabin was dead did I realize how Netanyahu had always been there, placing himself at exactly the right spot relative to the firestorm to whip up the flames without getting singed, always preserving plausible deniability for the worst excesses committed by the followers he goaded” (356-357). Netanyahu had been whipping up his right-wing supporters against the peace process from the beginning (355), and it is chilling to reach Prochnik’s description of those rallies:

A chorus of support arose from amid the crowd: “In blood and fire we will do away with Rabin!” Torches were hurled at the police monitoring the demonstration. Chants of “Bibi! Bibi!” alternated with choruses of “Nazi! Nazi!” as images of Rabin with his head at the center of a bull’s-eye framed with the word “Traitor!” in Hebrew and English were brandished aloft (356).

In this violent context of populist hate-mongering, it appears that some enemies of the peace process resorted to kabbalah, in a particularly cruel refutation of Scholem’s attempts (rightly criticized by Prochnik, with reference to the scholarship of Jonatan Meir, 252-258) to deny it any relevance to modern and contemporary society:

Leaflet "Song of Peace" with Rabin's blood on it
On the evening of Yom Kippur, right in front of Rabin’s official residence a few blocks from our apartment, a group of men stood in a circle draped in prayer shawls chanting softly. … [I]t later emerged that these men were uttering what they understood to be a kabbalistic curse, the Pulsa da-Nura, Lashes of Fire. At its climax, the leader raised his gaze to the prime minister’s residence and chanted, “I deliver to you, the angels of wrath and fire, Yitzhak, the son of Rosa Rabin, that you may smother him and the specter of him. … May you be damned, damned, damned!” The medieval legend surrounding this curse declares that its recipient will die within thirty days. And to the group’s satisfaction and awe, exactly thirty days later, Rabin was murdered.
Yigal Amir, Rabin’s assassin, performed mystical rites just before pulling the trigger. As Rabin stood above him on the stage singing “Song of Peace,” Amir waited in the darkness, practicing the esoteric art of Gematria … Concentrating on lines from Genesis … a passage that includes the line “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces” – Amir found that by sliding forward one letter from each word to join the following word, the words “a flaming torch passed between” transformed into “fire, fire, there is evil in Rabin.” And then Amir knew his bullet would strike home (357-358).

Rabin’s assassination killed the dream: “Our sense of magical solidarity with the Land and the people dissipated like smoke after an explosion” (378). George and Anne Prochnik packed their things, took their children, and fled the scene: “Clutching the children. Clutching each other, we were blown into the air forty thousand feet above the earth and cast through the sky to America” (409). Back home they discovered that the end of their dream of compassion meant the end of their marriage as well.

... and all that remains is hope

Prochnik’s two books have at least one obvious thing in common: they are all about broken dreams. Zweig’s Humanist dream of Europe was destroyed by Hitler – so cruelly and so completely that he saw no future and decided to kill himself, taking his wife with him. Scholem’s Zionist dream suffered shipwreck on the hard rocks of nationalist Realpolitik; the German culture that had nourished his very understanding of Judaism was reduced to smoking ruins; and his people were murdered on an industrial scale and with a maniacal determination that defies imagining. As for Prochnik’s mystical and messianic dream of Jewish community - grounded as much in his understanding of Scholem’s antinomian dialectics of kabbalah and modernity as in the liberal and humanitarian idealism represented by Zweig -, it was blown to pieces by Yigal Amir and transformed into a cruel nationalist Blut und Boden caricature by orthodox fanatics and right-wing politicians.

Stories of failure and the loss of illusions. So what is the point? Why bother reading about dreams that do not come true - while nightmares do? Are we to conclude simply that all these highminded ideals about a better world and all these aspirations towards a better future are bound to end in disappointment and despair, leaving the final word to violent hatred, bloodshed, fanaticism, cynism, nihilism, power, and domination? Was it all in vain? Of course Prochnik asks himself the same questions, and he ends by quoting a wonderful legend about the Baal Shem that was told by Scholem at the end of Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. Scholem in turn had heard it from the novelist S.J. Agnon, who might have found it in a Hasidic collection published in 1906. Its point is that even when all seems lost and gone forever – “when the sacred fire can no longer be lighted, the prayers can no longer be spoken, and the sacred place is no longer known” – in the end it is sufficient that the story can still be told. Perhaps this might explain why even stories that end badly, like those told by Prochnik, have the power - paradoxically - to inspire their readers rather than leaving them crushed and defeated. It is of vital importance that such tales be told, for they are all about hope, and hope remains alive as long as its memory remains alive - after all, whatever can be remembered in our personal or collective imagination can be imagined as real, and whatever can be imagined as real has not lost its potential of being realized. Sometime. Somewhere. Somehow.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Evola in Middle Earth

As part of my Western Culture & Counter Culture project I’m studying the various “grand narratives” that have been told about the history, meaning, and direction of Western civilization – from optimistic stories of evolution and progress to their darker and more pessimistic counterparts. Perhaps the most uncompromising example of this latter category, and one of the most influential, was published in 1934 (and republished several times after, in expanded editions) by the controversial Italian esotericist Julius Evola (1898-1974) under the title Rivolta contro il mondo moderno (Revolt against the Modern World). I decided it might be time for me to finally read it, and so I did, in an excellent French translation by Philippe Baillet.
Well, it proved to be quite a ride. Having read various discussions of Evola over the years, I was broadly familiar with the nature of his worldview and ideas (including, of course, his fascist sympathies and antisemitic tendencies) so I cannot say that I began with an empty slate. However, actually reading Revolt against the Modern World from cover to cover is an altogether different experience from just reading about it. Let me begin on the positive side. Impressive about Evola’s book is the remarkable degree of internal logic and consistency of vision with which he deconstructs every imaginable belief or assumption that modern people tend to take for granted, exposing the whole of it as one long series of errors and perversions of the universal metaphysical truth on which all Traditional societies were based. He manages to strike a tone of “academic” authority that gives the impression that he knows what he is talking about, and it is not so hard to understand that a book like this can make a deep impression on readers who feel alienated from contemporary global consumer culture and would like to see it destroyed. With a radicalism reminiscent of contemporary Islamic Jihadists, Evola tells his readers that modernity is the very negation of everything valid and true.

Antihistorical Consciousness

So what is his alternative? This is where it quickly gets problematic. First of all, while Evola’s modern Right-wing admirers like to claim “historical consciousness” for themselves while blaming their “Liberal” enemies for having no sense of history, Evola himself makes perfectly clear that any attempt to find evidence for his historical narrative will be an utter waste of time. He claims that “Traditional man” had a “supratemporal” sense of time, and therefore the reality in which he lived cannot be grasped by modern historical methods at all. In an absolutely crucial passage in the Introduction (poorly translated in the English standard edition, unfortunately, so my translation below is based on the Italian original while taking inspiration from the French version) he takes care to emphasize

… how little esteem we have for everything that, in recent years, has officially been considered under the label of “historical scholarship” in matters of ancient religions, institutions, and traditions. We want to make clear that we wish to have absolutely nothing to do with such an order of things, as with all that derives from the modern mentality; and as for the so-called “scientific” or “positive” perspective, with all its empty claims of competence and monopoly, in its best cases we consider it to be more or less the perspective of ignorance. … In general, the order of things with which we will be principally concerning ourselves is the one in which all materials that have a “historical” and “scientific” value are those that are the least important; whereas everything that, as myth, legend, and saga, is deprived of historical truth and demonstrative force, by that very fact acquires a superior validity and becomes the source of a more real and more certain knowledge. Precisely this is the boundary that separates traditional doctrine from profane culture. …
The scientific anathemas in regard to this approach are well known: Arbitrary! Subjective! Fantastic! From our perspective it is neither arbitrary, subjective or fantastic, nor is it objective or scientific as understood by moderns. All of that does not exist. All of that stands outside of Tradition. Tradition begins at the point where one is able to place oneself above all that, by adopting a supra-individual and nonhuman perspective. That is why we have minimal concern for discussion and “demonstration.” The truths that the world of Tradition can make us understand are not of a kind that one can “learn” or “discuss.” They either are, or they are not. One can only remember them, and this happens when one is liberated from the obstacles represented by the various human constructs (beginning with all the results and methods of the “researchers” considered to be authorities), when one has evoked in oneself the capacity to see from the nonhuman perspective, which is the Traditional perspective itself.

Clearly this means that any critical objection, any disagreement, any reference to historical evidence that might possible undermine Evola’s narrative, and indeed any reference to historical sources at all, will have no impact whatsoever. And this fits perfectly with the extreme authoritarianism that is typical of Evola’s attitude: the reader is given to understand that it is not really Julius Evola who is speaking to us in these pages – no, he is speaking on behalf of the supreme source of superhuman metaphysical truth itself (the nature of which, by the way, remains very vague). Disagreement is therefore synonymous with spiritual ignorance: one is not supposed to ask questions but to listen and accept.

Doctrine and Storytelling

So what is this supreme Source of Truth telling us? Revolt agains the Modern World consists of two parts: the first is doctrinal and discusses the various elements of “the World of Tradition,” whereas the second should perhaps not be called historical – for how could it be that, on the foundations just outlined? – but does tell a grand story of spiritual decline and degeneration through the ages. Like Guénon, one of his major influences, Evola distinguishes between four stages of human and cultural development, from the Golden Age to the modern world (the kali yuga). The metaphysics of Tradition according to Evola are built upon the primacy of Being; on the notion of one absolute Spiritual Center that is the exclusive source of legitimate Authority, reflected in an ideology of Sacred Kingship; on the notion of a “natural” social hierarchy of four castes, with spiritual leaders at the top and servants (including slaves) at the bottom; on the primacy of masculine “virile” qualities over their feminine counterparts; and on an ascetic warrior ethics grounded in honour and heroic values. If anything stands out as central in this overview, it is Evola’s obsession with power.
            The second part is built upon the doctrine of “four ages,” with reference to Hesiod (the ages of gold, silver, bronze, and iron) and Hindu scriptures. Evola tells us that during the Golden Age, the region that is now the North Pole was inhabited by a pure race of superior beings who exemplified a “non-humain spirituality.” Due to some primal catastrophe, the representatives of this Hyperborean race began migrating southward towards what is now North America and the continent of Atlantis. This was the beginning of the Silver Age and the first stage of degeneration. Basic to the story that follows is the idea of a basic hostility between the heaven-oriented, solar, heroic, and masculine people from the North and their earth-oriented, lunar, matriarchal counterparts from the South (as is well known, Bachofen’s Das Mutterrecht [1861] had a huge influence on Evola in this regard). Cultural contact led to wars and interbreeding, so that the original purity of the Northern race got mixed and its culture began to decline. From there on it all goes downward. Things get ever more complex and messy during the Third Age, as the “heroic” descendants of the ancient superior culture progressively lose their vitality and the culture of the original spiritual elite slowly but certainly loses the battle against “anti-Traditional” forces. In spite of temporal revivals, notably during the the Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire during the Middle Ages, we steadily move foreward (or rather, downward) towards modern culture with its degenerate values of liberalism, humanism, egalitarianism, democracy, and so on. If Part I of Revolt is marked by Evola’s obsession with power, Part II is marked by an incredibly virulent hatred and supreme aristocratic contempt for modernity and everything it stands for.

The Deadly Sword of Philology

Of course it will be useless for me to apply the instruments of historical criticism in order to point out the utter absence of any credible evidence for Evola’s narrative: in making any such attempt, according to Evola’s admirers I will merely be demonstrating my own ignorance of the truth, and my naïve belief in such useless illusions as “critical discussion,” “historical thinking,” or “scholarly methods.” Trust in such merely human approaches betrays the false assumption that there exists such a thing as “progress in knowledge,” that is to say: it reflects the modernist delusion that it is possible to make advances in our understanding of the past, by learning important things about it that were not known before and by correcting earlier interpretations. No such progress is possible: it is excluded from the outset that I will ever discover anything important that Evola doesn’t already know. All I’m allowed to do is “remember” the eternal truth (obviously in terms of Plato's anamnesis), and if what I remember would turn out to conflict with anything that Evola is telling us, this could only mean that it’s not real memory: I must have made it up myself. Evola, of course, has made nothing up – how could he? It is not him who is saying all these things. He speaks for Tradition.

Still, although I know it’s pointless, I’ll make just one little attempt. Part II of Revolt is preceded by two mottos, one of which is taken from Jacob Boehme. Evola is quoting Louis-Claude de Martin’s French translation (1800) of Boehme’s first book, the Aurora:

Je vous dis un secret. Voici le temps où l’époux couronnera son épouse: mais où est la couronne? Vers le Nord … Mais d’où vient l’épouse? Du centre, où la chaleur engendre la lumière, et se porte vers le Nord … où la lumière devient brillante.
[Translation: I tell you a secret. Behold the time when the bridegroom will crown his bride: but where is the crown? Toward the North … But from where does the bride come? From the centre, where the warmth brings forth the light, and is directed towards the North … where the light becomes brilliant]

Evola clearly saw this quote as a wonderful confirmation of his belief in a superior spiritual Light coming from the North. Of course it takes an unrepentant modernist like myself to be so deluded as to think it might be worth my while to check the source. Was Boehme really speaking about Evola’s North? You guessed it – I checked anyway. And what did I find? This is what Boehme actually wrote:

Sihe Ich Sage dir ein geheimnis. Es ist Schon die zeit / das der Breutigam Seine Brautt kröntt / Raht fritz wo ligt die kron / Kegen Mitternacht. … Von wannen kömpt aber der Breutigam. Auß der mitten / wo die Hitze das licht gebüred / vnd ferdt kegen mitternacht … / da wird das licht Helle. [emphasis in original]
[Translation: Look. I am going to tell you a secret. The time has come for the bridegroom to crown his bride. Guess, dear fellow, where is the crown to be found? Toward midnight. … Whence issues the bridegroom? From the middle, where the heat gives birth to the light, shooting towards midnight … That is where the light is growing bright]

What is going on here? Boehme spoke about “midnight,” not the North: that translation came from Saint-Martin. Interestingly though, it turns out that there was a solid foundation to this choice of word. As explained by Andrew Weeks in a footnote (p. 325 nt 12), Boehme had a very peculiar way of alluding to the 24-hour cycle and the geographical locations in relation to divine revelation. The light had begun to shine in the Holy Land (Dawn, i.e. East), the “sleeping” Papacy in Rome represented the midday of revelation (12.00) in the South of Europe, then it moved northward to the Reformation in Germany, which is in the Middle between the South and the Scandinavian North, which represents the midnight of revelation (0.00) because this is where Lutheranism spread unopposed. So we are dealing here with a movement of progressive Christian revelation that moves from the South to the North. It is therefore clear that the “crown” in the North has nothing to do with a hyperborean race migrating southward; rather, the light that moves from the Middle to the North is the light of Christian truth that goes into the opposite direction. Admittedly, Boehme also spoke of the North in a different sense (inspired by Ezekiel 38:15): as a wild place inhabited by a savage people that “had not known the true light of God from the beginning unto this very time” (Aurora, Preface, in Weeks ed., p. 91). As the prince of darkness saw that the people were being saved by the fragrance of the divine tree of life, he planted a “savage tree” of his own in that very same place in the North (indeed: “toward midnight”) and proclaimed that this was the tree of life (see Weeks, p. 91 with nt 17). If one takes this into account, the only way in which Boehme’s quotation could be construed as referring to the Hyperboreans is by claiming that they were precisely those people mentioned in Ezekiel: the virile Northern opponents of the effeminized Southern force of Jewish and Christian revelation. This would mean that Evola was reading Boehme against the grain, taking the side of the “prince of darkness” and his savage tree; but more importantly,  it would go straight against the meaning of the passage about the crowning of the bride by the bridegroom, where the light coming from the Middle is clearly the positive power that grows stronger as it moves northward. In sum: although Midnight in Boehme’s quotation does indeed refer to the North, it has no reference to Evola’s ideas about the North and is actually written from the perspective of his opponents.
             It’s a complicated story (more so than I first realized myself: I want to thank Francesco Baroni and Hadi Fakhouri for alerting me to the background for Saint-Martin's translation), but the point is simple. It is only on the basis of strict philological criticism, going back to the original sources and analyzing the intended meaning of terms in their initial context,  that one can possibly evaluate the truth of any of the countless historical claims on which Evola builds his narrative. If one would take the (considerable) trouble of doing so, then the narrative would quickly start crumbling before one’s gaze. One would discover the enormous extent to which Evola was relying on dated, questionable, or wholly corrupt sources and on scholarly interpretations riddled with assumptions that often tell us more about the authors and their culture or personal preoccupations than about the texts and traditions they were studying.
            So are we simply dealing here with the typical naïvety of an amateur historian? I don’t think so. I am convinced that Evola’s highhanded statements about the total irrelevance of historical scholarship reflect an acute awareness on his part that these methods and technical tools had the power to undermine and destroy everything he wanted to say. If he dismisses textual criticism or philological analysis ex cathedra, describing them as the feeble props of deluded ignorants, this is because he knows that in reality they are deadly weapons against which his claims would be utterly helpless. Better discredit your critics in advance so that your readers will not even bother taking their arguments seriously. Better make use of the popular and populist resentment of “academics” in their ivory tower, of all those “specialists” who are making everything so difficult instead of telling a clear and simple story that normal people can understand. We find a similar strategy in the current conservative and rightwing campaigns of denying climate change (Trump: “just look out the window!”), undermining the credibility of science and academic research, attempting to defund Humanities programs, and spreading the trope of “alternative facts”. Science and scholarship are inconvenient to these antimodernists because they hinder them in saying what they want to say and doing what they want to do. Never let evidence stand in the way of a good story. We find the same approach in Evola. In sum, I do not think he doesn’t take historians seriously, on the contrary: he is afraid of them. He knows that his weapons are no match for theirs, and so he seeks to avoid a direct confrontation.

Transpolitical Conservative Liberalism

If Evola’s grand narrative of historical decline is a fantasy, then does this leave us with anything worth salvaging? Even if one does not accept his specific understanding of “Tradition,” one might still be inclined to agree in general terms with the idea that premodern cultures were superior and modernization is therefore a process of decline instead of progress. Or instead of thinking in terms of either decline or progress, one might argue that traditional and modern societies both come at a price, so we need to strive for a healthy balance between the advantages and disadvantages of both, rather than making an either/or choice. This would be my position. Now it is very interesting to observe that, whatever the official ideologies might say, a deep longing for premodern conditions is by no means restricted to the Right wing of the political spectrum but is widespread among its “progressive” opponents as well. While reading Revolt, I was struck by the structural parallels with one of my own all-time favourite novels, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It is well known that Tolkien’s work became something close to Holy Scripture among the Hippies during the 1960s and remains a classic in the Pagan community that came out of that era.

Obviously the enemy Saruman, with his “mind of metal and wheels,” mirrors the spirit of the Industrial Revolution and its destructive effects on nature (the Ents) and traditional communities (the Shire). In other words, he stands for modernization as a negative force. All readers of Tolkien instinctively take the side of the Hobbits (that is to say, of traditional culture) and the Elves (that is to say, of an elite culture that embodies high spiritual values). Quite as instinctively, they embrace the notion of a sacred “bloodline” of Kings who are destined to rule: it would be ridiculous to imagine a democratic Middle Earth where Aragorn would have to stand for election and get his legislation through parliament. Middle Earth is a traditional hierarchical society where everybody seems to accept his or her appointed rank and station, where families are intact, where men are real men and women are real women. It is inhabited by a whole series of higher and lower races (Elves at the top, Men in the Middle, Orcs at the bottom), and although these may form coalitions of friendship, it is well understood that ultimately they are supposed to stay in their own homelands. Nor would they wish otherwise: they are all proud of who they are and determined to protect their own culture.
All of this is very clearly Conservative rather than “Liberal,” and Traditionalist rather than Progressive. Nevertheless, few readers understand Lord of the Rings as a political manifesto, and the novel has been widely experienced as a source of deep inspiration among such typical “Lefties” as the Hippies or most Pagans since the 1960s and their descendants or sympathizers up to the present. Of course some important footnotes should be added here, about ideological critiques of Tolkien on the Marxist Left and a deliberate embrace of traditional community values in Right-wing paganism. I’m aware of those complications, but what interests me here is the very broad base of readers (including myself) who appear to be perfectly capable of loving Lord of the Rings while rejecting right-wing authoritarianism and embracing universal “Liberal” human values such as freedom, equality, or democracy.
So this is where it all gets very complicated. How can Tolkien’s perspective be so compatible with “Liberalism” and “the Left” if his ideal society exemplifies “Traditionalist” values promoted by authors on the “Right” such as Evola? It’s not a new problem either. During the 1960s and the following decades, the new Liberal culture that flourished on the Left in California and elsewhere in the United States embraced the scholarship on myth and symbolism associated with Eranos luminaries such as Carl Gustav Jung, Mircea Eliade, or Joseph Campbell. All these authors were very clearly conservatives, and much has been written about their relation with fascism and antisemitism; but the fact is that their work was experienced as deeply inspiring by American “Liberals” from the 1960s to the 1980s at least, and had a big influence on them.
In short, there seems to be such a thing as Transpolitical Conservative Liberalism. Transpolitical because it does not fit the neat ideological straightjacket of Left versus Right as conventionally understood. Conservative because it seeks to protect traditional values that are being threatened by the forces of “modern progress.” Liberal because it also believes in freedom and equality as values that should be universal for all human beings.

Human and Non-Human Conservatism

Evola is clearly not on that side though. His vision is marked by a strong and perfectly explicit emphasis on human inequality and an obsession with power and authority. Both elements are grounded in his personal psychology: they follow logically, in his case, from his deep-seated desire for absolute autonomy, that is to say, of total freedom for himself. From an early age on, so he tells us in his autobiography Path of Cinnabar, his all-consuming wish was to be absolutely free and autonomous: he did not want to be dependent on anything or anyone whatsoever. In terms of the German Idealist philosophers he was reading at the time, the whole of reality had to be subject to his absolute “I” (das Ich), which had to transcend the physical world and all its contingencies. So extreme was this desire that it brought him close to suicide, until a Buddhist fragment convinced him that in extinguishing his personal existence he would not be achieving freedom but would in fact be demonstrating his failure to achieve it. This is not the place to discuss the “magical” philosophy that came out of this realization, fascinating though it is. Important for our present concerns is Evola’s obsession, throughout his life, with the absolute power and unquestionable authority of a spiritual elite imagined as standing at the very top of a hierarchy: far above the ignorant masses, the contingencies of history, the limitations of material existence, or anything else that could possibly trouble its “non-human” purity and spiritual independence. Needless to add, such dreams are dreamed only by those who imagine that they themselves are lucky enough to stand at the top of the hierarchy.
            It is hardly surprising that such a man would be lacking in all human warmth and empathy for others. Evola was known as a cold fish who did not care about anyone but himself, and this is not the critique of a hostile outsider. Evola himself described his character in these terms:

A spontaneous detachment from what is merely human, from what is generally regarded as normal, particularly in the sphere of affection, emerged as one of my distinctive traits when I was still in my early youth … [S]uch a detached disposition  … was the cause of a certain insensitivity and cold-heartedness on my part. But in the most important of all fields, his very trait is what allowed me to recognize those unconditioned values which are far removed from the perspective of ordinary men of my time (Path of Cinnabar, 6-7).

One has to agree, Evola was not an ordinary man. But much more important, given his current influence in Right-wing circles, is his utter contempt for human beings qua human beings. His commitment was explicitly to what he called the non-human. Any true spiritual values, as he understood them, had to be the exclusive preserve of a spiritual elite far above the common run of humanity. Whatever might happen to the masses of “ordinary” human beings was none of his concern: in his ideal world, they simply have to obey, and will be forced into submission if they dare to resist the dictates of “legitimate authority.”

The Faultline

It is precisely in this regard that Evola’s Rightwing conservatism is utterly incompatible with the perspective of its “Liberal” counterparts – including those that share a deep concern with “Conservative” values. If Middle Earth is a Traditional society threatened by Saruman’s modernism, then Evola is much closer to the mindset of Sauron than that of Gandalf, Aragorn, the Hobbits, or the Elves. They are fighting against Mordor because it seeks to destroy everything that makes life worth living: freedom, peace, friendship, love, happiness, beauty, brotherhood, tolerance, mutual understanding, and the willingness to transcend boundaries of race and culture (exemplified, of course, by the friendship that develops between Legolas and Gimli). The traditional society they want to conserve and protect exemplifies precisely those values. Sauron, on the other hand, is obsessed with one thing only: power. He demands absolute authority, submission to his will.

Evola’s case has exemplary significance in the current political debate. What ultimately divides the “New Right” from its “Liberal” opponents is not the dilemma of Tradition versus Modernity, or Conservatism versus Progress: about those issues, difficult as they may be, it is possible to find common ground. Only one principle is not negotiable: that power and authority must be at the service of humanity, and not the other way around.