The Politics of Cultural Despair

Fritz Stern’s The Politics of Cultural Despair is a study that attempts to understand Nazism as a product of Germany’s unique cultural and intellectual atmosphere in the decades before the rise of Hitler. It was originally written as a doctoral dissertation (later to be published as a book in 1961), and focuses on three key intellectual figures who influenced the development of Germanic ideology: Julius Langbehn, Paul de Lagarde, and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck. These three figures were social critics, diagnosing the decline of culture and presenting themselves as prophets of a new German spiritual rebirth.   In the Introduction, Stern describes his book as “a study in the pathology of cultural criticism” (p. 1), suggesting that these prophets of doom were simultaneously symptoms of their times as well as dangerous, pathological causes of Germany’s ill-fated drift toward Nazism.

Stern’s book is an engrossing analysis of the lives and works of a group of rather obscure thinkers whose ideas, in less odious form, also appear in the writings of other more well respected German authors; writers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Oswald Spengler. But whereas Nietzsche saw the advent of cultural nihilism as something that each individual human being must live through and learn from, and whereas Spengler foresaw the decline of Western culture as an irreversible inevitability, Lagarde, Langbehn and Moeller sought to offer a means of collective rescue; a strategy by which they could recover the spiritual heritage of their nation and thus reinvigorate German mass culture. In this way, they were, despite their shared prophesies of doom, optimists about the possibility of cultural renewal.

Stern uses the phrase “conservative revolution” to characterize the utopian strategies of these three figures. On the face of it, this might sound oxymoronic. After all, a conservative seeks, by definition, to “conserve” rather than to “revolt” against the status-quo. But in the case of Lagarde, Langbehn and Moeller, their conservatism had nothing to do with defending the existing state of affairs, but with the defense of an idealized past, an “ancient tradition” (p. 1) before the dawn of modernity. In this ancient past, the German people were united by a religious bond of blood under a strong national leader. It was a time before the emergence of liberalism, capitalism, parliamentary democracy and the death of God. It was, however, a time that never really existed at all. These “conservative revolutionaries” were antiquarians, and their goal was to reestablish an imaginary past as a concrete reality in the present.

For Paul de Lagarde, this was to be accomplished with the founding of a new Germanic religion. This new faith was to be based on an interpretation of Christianity stripped of its supposed false dogmas while reasserting its true, original inspiration. Lagarde attacked and criticized the Jewish, Greek and Roman influences on Christianity, advocating the “liberation” of the Gospels from this background, which he claimed glorified Jesus’ death rather than his life. Instead, the true, original spirit of Jesus needed to be resuscitated. According to Lagarde, Jesus was primarily a rebel against the traditions and doctrines of Judaism, not the messiah foretold in the Old Testament or the supernatural “son of God” described by Paul. In line with this, a new Christianity should be focused on this world, becoming fused with the concrete characteristics and needs of the German people, thus creating a faith that would give meaning and purpose to the German state. It would “become the spiritual basis for a new state, for a new hierarchical community that would accept the teleological belief that God had placed men at different stations in life for different purposes” (p. 80).

For Julius Langbehn, the solution to Germany’s spiritual crisis was to be found not in religion (although at the end of his life he did convert to Catholicism), but in art. In his most well known and influential book, Rembrandt as Educator, he offers Rembrandt as “the personification of a cultural ideal” (p. 154) that could rescue Germany from its cultural decline. In the figure of this artist, Langbehn found the antithesis of the modern German. According to him, Rembrandt embodied all of the qualities needed in order for Germany to heal its wounds and rediscover its spiritual strength: sensitivity to the mysteries of Being, an awareness of the contradictions inherent in human life, fierce individualism, spontaneity, willfulness, and Volksthümlichkeit, the characteristic of “belonging to, expressing, yet transcending his people and its traditions” (p. 158). His overall solution to Germany’s cultural crisis was to rebel against the Modern drift toward reason and to return to a primal, tribal form of community using the artist as a spiritual guide.

Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, like Langbehn, was an esthete who also looked to the artist as his hero. According to Moeller, Germany’s crisis was due to a forgetfulness of its primal spirit, and he believed this condition could be corrected by the propagation of a new breed of great, artistic men who would lead the nation toward a utopian future. As an admirer of Dostoyevski, he hoped to revivify the German spirit in the same way that he thought the Russian author had revivified his own country’s spirit. The rescue of Germany required the recognition that the Germans were in their essence, like the Russians, a “young” people, opposed to the “old” people of Britain and the US, and thus that the future belonged to them. Fate, therefore, dictated that Germany must expand its territory and accomplish the “domination of Europe” (p 253). In 1922, he published his most well known book, The Third Reich, which marked “the culmination of Moeller’s thought” as well as “the culmination of the Germanic ideology” (p. 311). In this book, he pronounced the need for a revolution that turned against the previous generation’s embrace of liberalism and modernity. German unity was to be reestablished in a nationalist form of socialism that would eliminate class struggle and reintegrate the workers with the goals of the nation as a whole in an organic, corporatist, hierarchical society.

Though not themselves Nazis, the dark sentiments and the proposed solutions advocated by these three authors were later integrated into the National Socialist platform. Their ideas proved popular because, like many Germans, they felt alienated from the world they inhabited, seeing it as a place where the old values and ways of life were withering away, producing an atmosphere of nihilism, anxiety, and increasing secularism. Populations caught in the grips of these kinds of feelings are prone to looking for saviors who promise a rescue; someone who understands the mood of alienation and who points the way back home. Stern observes that Lagarde, Langbehn and Moeller were all “simultaneously proud and resentful of their alienation” (p. 327). On the one hand they proudly trumpeted their own uniqueness as “outsiders,” while on the other they aspired to transform the sick, decaying society around them into a place where they would no longer be outsiders. In so doing, they successfully channeled the mindset of a significant portion of the pre-World War II German population.  Yet the utopia imagined by these “prophets” never did, and never really could, exist. Writing in 1961, Stern points out that these men comprise a “cultural type” that has made an “appearance in all Western countries” (p. 328). In fact, they never go away because the problems they see in the world never go away. Reading about them now, from the perspective of a citizen of the United States during the 21st Century, it is clear their type still exists here, in our own land, and that they are still, tediously, proposing the sorts of “solutions” that they always have.

I think the most fundamental problem with this type of intellectual (both then and now) rests not in their pessimism or their prophesies of doom, but rather in their optimistic and arrogant conviction that they know best how to fix the world once and for all. Doom, of a sort, is inevitable (as Spengler suggests) precisely because the world changes. The old ways of life are under constant attack from the new, and for those who feel as if their own values have been pushed aside and undermined by newly emerging cultural forces, it can feel as if everything is coming to an end. And in a way, it is. Nothing stays the same, we can’t stop the forward motion of time, and we all are going to die. These are painful facts that are difficult to come to terms with, and I sympathize with those who are troubled by them.

But I don’t sympathize with arrogance. Socrates taught us that the highest wisdom consists in knowing that you don’t know everything, and this is a lesson that “conservative revolutionaries” (and utopians of all types, both on the right and the left) either never learned or have forgotten. In their conceit, this type never seems satisfied with just expressing their fear, sadness and mournfulness for a lost past. Instead, they optimistically try to put their ideas into action, making “the leap from cultural criticism to politics” (p. 327). In this, they hope to change the world for the better, but ironically, again and again, they seem to end up making the world worse than it was before.

I once told my wife that the shoddiest kinds of politicians are also artists. Artists are used to molding various raw materials, according to their own will, into a unique vision of aesthetic perfection. When this mentality is translated into political action, it easily becomes oppressive, totalitarian and unhinged from reality. Contrary to Langbehn and Moeller, I think artists are very poor models for political leaders.

Business people are probably even worse.

 

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The Age of Reason

Age of ReasonThe Age of Reason is the first in a trilogy of novels written by Jean-Paul Sartre that take place in France around the time of World War II. I have yet to read the second and third novels in the series – The Reprieve and Troubled Sleep – but after finishing this first installment, I am eager to get started on them. Other than Nausea, which is one of my favorite books of all time,  The Age of Reason is the only one of Sartre’s fictional works that I have read. Nonetheless, I have reached the conclusion that Sartre is among the most masterful writers of philosophical fiction. I was absolutely captivated by The Age of Reason.

The Age of Reason deals with ideas and issues that are universally important and with which I am increasingly concerned as I move through middle age. The story’s characters exist in an atmosphere filled with the foreboding awareness of human finitude. The Spanish Civil War lurks in the background, and it is clear that a larger European conflict is on the horizon. The main protagonists are young enough to have a future to which they look forward, but they are also old enough to be aware that this future is not endless. They can see the signs of encroaching age in one another’s faces, and just as they are melancholy about the passing of their youth, they are also anxious about the direction of the future. Throughout the novel, our mental gaze is thus drawn both backwards and forwards, encouraging us to contemplate the passage of time and to regard with urgency the task of embracing life and the projects that we have chosen. The lesson that I took away from this book is that we should learn to value the potential of our personal future just as much as we cherish our youthful past.

The story focuses on Mathieu, a philosophy professor in Paris, who is in the midst of an existential crisis. The central theme of the novel concerns his struggles as he tries to understand the significance and purpose of his life while growing older and confronting his own freedom to choose between alternative life paths. As the novel opens, Mathieu finds out that his girlfriend, Marcelle, is pregnant with his child. The rest of the novel is structured around his frantic attempts to raise the money for an abortion.

Mathieu does not even consider the idea that he and Marcelle might keep the child and raise it together; although this is precisely what Marcelle does wish for. While she wants to get married and settle into a conventional middle-class life, Mathieu resists the very thought, considering it bourgeois. When Mathieu visits his brother, Jacques, to ask him for money, Jacques confronts Mathieu with the embarrassing reality that Mathieu cannot see:

“You are trying,” said Jacques, “to evade the fact that you’re a bourgeois and ashamed of it. I myself reverted to bourgeoisie after many aberrations and contracted a marriage of convenience with the party, but you are a bourgeois by taste and temperament, and it’s your temperament that’s pushing you into marriage. For you are married, Mathieu,” said he forcibly.

“First I’ve heard of it,” said Mathieu.

“Oh yes, you are, only you pretend you aren’t because you are possessed by theories. You have fallen into a habit of life with this young woman: you go to see her quietly four days a week and you spend the night with her. That has been going on for seven years, and there’s no adventure left in it; you respect her, you feel obligations towards her, you don’t want to leave her…Will you tell me how that differs from marriage – except for cohabitation?”

Sartre writes that during this exchange Mathieu “was furious with himself.” He was furious because he already knows what his brother says is true. He has fallen into a way of life that is easy and comfortable, all the while denying that this is the type of person he really is. Mathieu does not conceive of himself as a conventional, married family man. He sees himself as a radical philosopher, living outside of conventionality. And yet the very details of his life tell a different story. When his friend, Brunet, urges him to join the Communist Party and to fight against the fascists in Spain, Mathieu is still resistant. He actively choses to avoid a life of adventure and danger, even when the opportunity presents itself, and instead continues to live, de facto, a bourgeois life. He is not who he claims to be; and this is why he is furious with himself.

In the philosophical language of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy, Mathieu is in “bad faith.” He denies who he is and does not acknowledge his own complicity in choosing the life that he finds himself living. Like all humans, Mathieu is a “being-for-itself,” which means that he is free to make choices. Unlike animals or rocks, which are “beings-in-themselves,” a being-for-itself has a mind and thus can envision a future and work toward the realization of that future, making it his or her life project. In fact, such a being can do nothing else. Humans are doomed to choose. Even in refusing to make a choice, according to Sartre, we still, nonetheless, make the choice not to choose, and so remain responsible for the course that our lives take. Many people, like Mathieu, would like to deny this fact, but at a deep level, we all recognize it. Though we would like to relieve ourselves of responsibility for how our lives turn out, in fact we have no one to blame except ourselves. We are the only ones responsible for who we have become.

While Mathieu is frantically trying to raise a loan to pay for Marcelle’s abortion, he simultaneously finds himself infatuated with a young student by the name of Ivich. Ivich’s charms are solely related to her youthfulness, and Mathieu’s attraction to her is depicted by Sartre as a distraction from Mathieu’s despair concerning his own age. Ivich hangs out at cafes and clubs, drinks irresponsibly and is sexually flirtatious with both men and women. In Ivich, Mathieu sees a kind of freedom; but it is the kind of freedom inappropriate for a man of his age and social position. In a pivotal scene at a nightclub called “Sumatra,” Mathieu and Ivich bond with one another – temporarily – when, after Ivich drunkenly slashes herself with a knife, Mathieu pins his own hand to a table with the same blade:

He jabbed the knife into his palm and felt almost nothing. When he took his hand away, the knife remained embedded in his flesh, straight up, with its haft in the air.

…He felt benignantly impressive and was a little afraid that he might faint. But a sort of dogged satisfaction and the malice of a silly schoolboy took possession of his mind. It was not only to defy Ivich that he stuck the knife into his hand, it was a challenge to Jacques, and Brunet and Daniel, and to his whole life. “I’m a ghastly kind of fool,” he thought. “Brunet was right in saying that I’m a grown-up child.” But he couldn’t help being pleased.

This knife, sticking straight up and out of his hand, is Mathieu’s “fuck you” to the world; a middle finger rudely challenging public decency and manners. But, as he himself senses, it is a childish, immature gesture. It is the sort of thing that one might expect from Ivich, but not from a middle-aged professor of philosophy. Mathieu is, thus, on the one hand satisfied with his ability to break the mold and to act against his appropriate social role with this self-destructive performance. Yet on the other hand, he is also embarrassed that this is the way he chooses to utilize his freedom. It is silly and ultimately safe, since it requires nothing more than a bandage, whereas the choice to change his way of life would require a complete reassessment of his values and priorities. To truly break free and embrace his maturity, Mathieu must do something more than pin his hand to a table with a knife. He must choose a different life path. His realization of this truth is finally signaled when he loses his sexual fascination with Ivich and she begins to appear awkward and vulnerable to him rather than physically attractive.

The book concludes with Mathieu becoming alienated from everyone. He steals money from Lola, a singer at Sumatra, in order to pay for Marcelle’s abortion, but Marcelle refuses the money and instead decides to marry Daniel, an aging homosexual. It is at this point that Mathieu accepts that he is “alone” and that he is responsible for everything that has happened in his life and that will happen in his life. He cannot blame Marcelle, or Ivich or Brunet or Daniel or anyone else for how things have turned out. With this, Mathieu tells himself, “I have attained the age of reason,” and the novel comes to an end.

Throughout The Age of Reason, there are repeated allusions to Albert Camus, who Sartre had a falling out with before writing this book. One of the cafes that the characters frequent is called camus_350x312“Camus’s.” It is a place where “one always has the feeling that it was four in the morning.”  Mathieu also laments at one point that he has been “not a revolutionary, merely a rebel,” a clearly disapproving reference to Camus’ book, The Rebel. In these instances, Sartre seems to be setting himself against the sort of life that Camus advocated.

While Camus was also an existentialist, his brand of existential thinking was committed to non-violence and he was more critical of political causes than was Sartre. According to Camus, political revolutionaries have to settle on a final interpretation of the world in order to act. In so doing, they justify the killing of other human beings as means to their revolutionary political ends. But, claims Camus, this opens the door to the annihilation of the entire human race, since once a person is able to justify one death, there is nothing that stands in the way of justifying any death. That is why commitment to any revolutionary cause is undesirable; it encourages us to view fellow human beings as means to revolutionary ends, thus paving a slippery-slope that leads to atrocity.

Camus prefers the rebel’s stance to that of the revolutionary. The rebel refuses to settle with one, final interpretation of the world. Instead, he or she struggles with never-ending and on-going interpretation, remaining forever rebellious against the meaningless structure of reality. In his classic essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus likens his preferred way of life to the ancient Greek hero Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a steep hill and have it roll back down for an eternity. There is no ultimate purpose or cause that justifies this absurd state of affairs other than the individual’s willful decision to continue striving in defiance of the gods and of reality. In Sartre’s Age of Reason, one gets the sense that this is precisely the sort of position that has driven Mathieu to despair. He is exhausted with nihilism. He is sick of sitting up until “four in the morning,” arguing and debating endlessly, and getting nowhere. He wants to resolutely choose a life that will accomplish something. He wants to make a revolutionary change.

I identify with the character of Mathieu, but I also tend to have more sympathy with Camus’ take on rebellion than I do with Sartre’s desire for political, revolutionary action. I anticipate that in the remaining two books in Sartre’s trilogy, Mathieu will make some sort of resolute commitment, and that he will become a revolutionary. I, however, would like to see him continue to sit in cafes until four in the morning, philosophizing and struggling with nihilistic despair.

Modern Slavery

Jason McQuinn, founder of Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, Alternative Press Review and North American Anarchist Review, has founded another excellent journal titled Modern Slavery. Below is a description of the journal in his own words, as well as a link to the Modern Slavery website:

Modern Slavery is a new journal for the abolition of all forms of enslavement, published as an independent, not-for-profit project of CAL Press. “Modern Slavery” is the name we give to the ubiquitous institutional foundation of forced labor required for Modern Civilization. Modern Slavery is an oversized, 200-page, perfect-bound journal of high-quality essays, fiction, reviews and art that will be published twice a year. The first issue includes: Jason McQuinn’s “Introduction to Modern Slavery,” Paul Simons on “John Brown’s Body,” Ron Sakolsky’s “Mutual Acquiescence or Mutual Aid?” and the first chapters of unpublished books by Karen Goaman (The Old World is Behind You) and Wolfi Landstreicher (Strangers in an Alien World), along with Bob Black’s Beautiful Losers: The Historiography of the IWW” and much more. The first issue is now available for $15 postpaid in the US & $20 postpaid outside North America from CAL Press, POB 24332, Oakland, CA 94623, USA. Please visit the Modern Slavery web site at:http://modernslavery.calpress.org for more information.

Zizek

The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek will speak at the Palace of Fine Arts on Monday, April 23rd at 8pm.

City Arts & Lectures

My favorite Zizek quote?  “A lot of what I write is blah, blah, bullshit a diversion from the 700-page book on Hegel I should be writing.” (Guardian, 15 July. Quoted in The Philosopher’s Magazine, issue 55, 2011, p. 10)

Rooting for the Fascists in James Cameron’s Avatar

My paper “Rooting for the Fascists in James Cameron’s Avatar” appears in the latest volume (#16) of the journal Film and Philosophy, which is available at:

http://www.lhup.edu/dshaw/journal.htm

Conservative critics have united in attacking James Cameron’s newest blockbuster Avatar for its “liberal” political message. But underneath all of the manifest liberalism of Avatar there is also a latent message. In his valorization of the organic, primal, interconnectedness of Na’vi culture and his denigration of the mechanical, modern, disconnectedness of human culture, Cameron runs very close to advocating a form of fascism.

In this paper I describe the overarching philosophical perspective of fascism, and then I draw on the work of Jay Y. Gonen, who, in his book The Roots of Nazi Psychology, has distilled Hitler’s foundational ideological values to nine basic principles. I demonstrate how greatly these principles overlap with the ideals that Cameron attributes to the culture of the Na’vi in his film Avatar.