Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Traditionalism & Anti-Modernism: A Guide For The Perplexed Pagan (Aldous Huxley, JRR Tolkien, Joscelyn Godwin, TYR Journal, Arthur Versluis ....)

"Fear is the mind killer."

As soon as the word "Traditionalism" is mentioned in certain company one will immediately be deluged with a hail of denunciations involving the words "racist", "fascist", "nazi", and so forth. This post is intended as a user-friendly guide for anyone who wants to get beyond the noise and actually learn something about Traditionalism, and it's kissing ideological cousin, Antimodernism.

All of this material should be approached with a critical eye.

1. Michael Strmiska's 2010 review of the journal TYR: Myth--Culture--Religion
The Pomegranate 12.1 (2010) 118-121 (link to pdf - it works now!)

For progressive minded Pagans with little or no first-hand knowledge of Traditionalism, Michael Strmiska's review of the Radical Traditionalist journal TYR is a good place to start. Strmiska is himself a very interesting figure in modern Paganism: he is both a self-described "leftist-liberal" (see his "Political Pagan" blog), and a professional academic (on the faculty at SUNY Orange), and, like many Pagans today, he is someone whose personal spiritual interests are very wide ranging: from Germanic Heathenry (in the 90s he had a Fullbright Fellowship to study Old Norse literature) to Advaita Vedanta. He is also the editor of the scholarly anthology: Modern paganism in world cultures: comparative perspectives. Strmiska convincingly critiques the notion that TYR's Radical Traditionalism should "raise a red flag of warning to anyone who fears modern Norse-Germanic Paganism being overtaken by or associated with right-wing nationalism." Strmiska backs this up with quotes from editorials in the first two issues of TYR, and also with personal communications he had with co-editor Michael Moynihan.

2. Tolkien and the Primordial Tradition
by Joscelyn Godwin

This essay by Professor Godwin is a genuine tour de force. The opening sentences set the stage for what is to follow:
When it becomes normal for people to cease believing in what they cannot reach with the senses, and when the established authorities on the supersensory are as contradictory and ignorant as is the case in our present civilization, then the truths that belong to all mankind — the Perennial Wisdom — must find other ways into the hearts and minds of men. Fortunately those who have been born into Western civilization have not been deserted entirely by the powers which look to the education of the human race (education in the original sense of drawing out the wisdom innate in every man). Like so much good teaching, their work may take place unconsciously, but its effect is not thereby diminished: rather the contrary, since society and upbringing have imbued many people so strongly with modern prejudices that the conscious entertainment of traditional wisdom is an almost unthinkable heresy for them.

3. Antimodernism by Arthur Versluis
, Winter 2006 vol. 2006 no. 137, pp. 96-130 (link to pdf)

This far ranging essay masterfully captures the breadth and depth of Antimodernism. One of the most rewarding aspects of Versluis's "Antimodernism" is the way that he handles the inescapable observation that "antimodernism is fundamental to the creative impulse in modernity." Versluis goes beyond the "usual suspects" associated with Traditionalism, and especially has quite a bit to say about important literary figures such as T. S. Eliot and Henry David Thoreau. Unfortunately, almost half of this thirty-five page article is dedicated to two representatives of the violent "direct action" brand of antimodernism: the Unabomber and the Earth Liberation Front. This actually makes for quite interesting reading, but the most useful information is contained in the rest of the essay dealing with antimodernism in it's broadest sense. Versluis is a highly respected scholar of Esotericism, and is Chair of the Department of Religion at Michigan State University. (here is a link to his personal website)

4. "Getting There Too Quickly: Aldous Huxley and Mescaline"
by Peter Bebergal at "The Revealer" blog

Aldous Huxley's name doesn't always come to mind when the subject of Traditionalism is being discussed, but his writings on "Perennial Philosophy" have helped to popularize a more genteel and (mostly) non-radical kind of Traditionalism.

An excerpt:
In 1937 Huxley moved to California and within a few years was introduced to the Vedanta Society of Southern California by his friend, the writer and scholar Gerald Heard. Huxley had been developing his perennial philosophy, the idea that religious traditions are historically and culturally relative but that they each validate, in their own way, that human beings are divine and that the purpose of our lives is to come into a relationship with the numinous behind the phenomenal world. Huxley believed the realization of our latent divinity to be a possible remedy to what he perceived as a Western material and spiritual crisis. Vedanta was the method Huxley had been looking for.

Vedanta is the philosophical underpinning of Hinduism, itself a dreamscape of multiple deities and stories of epic battles. Vedanta distills all of the multi-armed, elephant-headed, sword-wielding gods into one simple idea. The most important of the Vedic literature, The Upanishads, teaches that brahman, the supreme reality of all things, and atman, the manifestation of the divine in the human soul, are one and the same, a pure and perfect whole. Our purpose during our gross bodily manifestation is to recognize the divinity within all things. When we come to this, Vendata tells us, we will also see that every religion is merely a different way of expressing the same principle, the same overarching truth that there is no separation between the soul and God.

5. Anarchist Traditionalism: Hakim Bey

A post at Mark Sedgwick's Traditionalists blog

This post by Sedgwick (author of Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century. Oxford University Press, 2004) summarizes a recent interview of Hakim Bey (aka Peter Lamborn Wilson) conducted by Arthur Versluis. The full interview was published as “A Conversation with Peter Lamborn Wilson,” in the Journal for the Study of Radicalism 4, no. 2 (Fall 2010) pp. 139-165. Here is an excerpt from Sedgwick's summary:
In the Versluis interview, Lamborn Wilson makes clear that what he now values in Traditionalism is its critique of modernity, not its “proposal” for responding to modernity. As an anarchist, Lamborn Wilson gives the state–and especially the all-powerful contemporary state–a prime position in his own critique of modernity. His own proposals lead in a number of directions, none of them revolutionary in the normal sense, given his perception that the state always manages to co-opt revolutions. He stresses that his proposals should be taken in a poetic as much as a literal sense. The most famous of them is the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ),“an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerrilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it” (TAZ, quoted in Sellars 2011). A less famous proposal, more emphasized in his interview with Versluis, is a form of “even more traditional Traditionalism” reminiscent of that of Khozh-Akhmed Noukhaev: to go back even further into the past, to before the state, to the tribe, and to the form of religiosity associated with it: individual spirituality. The tribe, Lamborn Wilson, admits, is not perfect: “Violence is real, and it will always be real, and disappointment and death are always there.” But at least the tribe is not the state.

6. A detailed review of Joscelyn Godwin's The Golden Thread
by John Robert Colombo writing for the gurdjieffbooks blog

An in-depth review of a very good and very important book. An excerpt:
Chapter 1: The Prisca Theologia. Interestingly Godwin begins his survey not at the beginning but in medias res: with the work of Georgios Gemistos Plethon, a fifteenth-century Byzantine who had a sense of “a ‘primordial theology’ (prisca theologia).” Plethon looks back on the Chaldean and Persian and Thracian “illuminates” and connects them with Pythagoras and Plato. In doing so he influences Cosimo de’ Medici who revives Plato’s Academy and appoints the scholarly priest Marsilio Ficino to head it. Here is a clear statement of the “‘perennial philosophy’ (philosophia perennis), the wisdom common to Jews, Christians, and pagans.” Godwin is right at home here but then begins to free-associate. The balance of the chapter is far-ranging, taking into account the “incorruptibility” of the bodies of saints, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the “mundus imaginalis” described by Henry Corbin, etc. The author refers to “a continuity of theurists” as “the stream of European magic … continuing to this day.”

7. The Strange Case of Savitri Devi, & The eternal return of Nazi nonsense
by Koenraad Elst (Flemish independent scholar)

Although this might be considered somewhat of a diversion, it is no more so than Versluis' discussion of the Unabomber. In fact, Koenraad Elst does a great service by shining a bright light on some of the darker aspects of the contemporary scholarship that passes for "Esoteric Studies". In particular, Elst takes aim at one of the leading figures in the modern "study" of Esotericism: Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke. Here is an excerpt from the second essay:
Christian Bouchet dismisses Goodrick-Clarke as a "pseudo-historian" (p.83). That seems a bit exaggerated to me, if not downright unfair. I'd rather accept the criticism of those disappointed readers who object that Goodrick-Clarke's first major book, The Occult Roots of Nazism, belies its own promising title, possibly chosen by the publisher with an eye on its sales potential, by concluding (p.217) that the so-called occult roots of Nazism are only a myth. Some would clearly have preferred Goodrick-Clarke to uphold the myth rather than debunking it. On the other hand, it must be admitted that for a debunker of "Nazi occultism" fantasies, Goodrick-Clarke is strangely persistent and attached to this subject, on which he keeps churning out hefty volumes. To Bouchet, the explanation is that, apart from having struck gold in the material sense, Goodrick-Clarke is an "anti-fascist militant" (p.83) intent on turning the biography of Savitri Devi into a support for "his delirious ideas and his conspiratorial view of history which interconnects Hollywood-type neo-Nazis, partisans of Deep Ecology, New Agers, Animal Rights advocates etc." (p.92)

Now, to come to the contents of Bouchet's criticism of Goodrick-Clarke as a historian, he alleges that: "Goodrick-Clarke has dispensed with all research work and has merely relayed Savitri Devi's own sayings without analysing or criticizing them." (p.92, likewise p.87) The problem is that this single source, her autobiography, is not supported by any independent evidence, and that she can easily have refashioned her past: "For the period from her birth until after World War 2, we have to trust Savitri Devi Mukherji for her life story. However, it is obvious that she herself has arranged her biography a posteriori in order to harmonize it with the themes defended in her books." (p.88)

8. What is Intellectual History?
by Stefan Collini (English, Cambridge) writing for History Today magazine

The study of The History of Ideas is to Traditionalism as Cartesian Analytical Geometry is to Calculus. You must have the first in order to be able to "see" what is going on in the second.
'[T]he history of ideas' was the label chosen in the 1920s and 1930s by the American philosopher-turned-historian, A.O. Lovejoy, to designate his own idiosyncratic approach to the life of the past, an approach which consisted essentially of isolating the universal 'unit-ideas' out of which, he claimed, all more complex doctrines and theories were composed. Through his many pupils and his founding in 1940 of the Journal of the History of Ideas, Lovejoy's approach dominated the field in American universities for at least a generation, leading to the compilation of immensely thorough but essentially arid lists of the sightings of particular 'unit-ideas'. Lovejoy's own practice was, as is so often the case, better either than his preaching or than the imitative practice of his disciples, and his most famous work, The Great Chain of Being (1936), remains an extremely impressive tour de force. Though his influence has fallen away in recent decades (and the journal he founded has become less mechanical and sectarian in its approach), the term 'the history of ideas' is, at least in the United States, still sufficiently often identified with his work as to cause misunderstanding all of its own.

Other relevant posts from this blog: