Between Faust & Narcissus, Part 1"/>
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Postmodern Challenges:
Between Faust & Narcissus, Part 1

The wise old Faust in FAUST (1926), directed by F. W. Murnau

1,760 words

Part 1 of 3

Translated by Greg Johnson

In Oswald Spengler’s terms, our European culture is the product of a “pseudomorphosis,” i.e., of the grafting of an alien mentality upon our indigenous, original, and innate mentality. Spengler calls the innate mentality “the Faustian.”

The Confrontation of the Innate and the Acquired

The alien mentality is the theocentric, “magical” outlook born in the Near East. For the magical mind, the ego bows respectfully before the divine substance like a slave before his master. Within the framework of this religiosity, the individual lets himself be guided by the divine force that he absorbs through baptism or initiation.

There is nothing comparable for the old-European Faustian spirit, says Spengler. Homo europeanus, in spite of the magic/Christian varnish covering our thinking, has a voluntarist and anthropocentric religiosity. For us, the good is not to allow oneself to be guided passively by God, but rather to affirm and carry out our own will. “To be able to choose,” this is the ultimate basis of the indigenous European religiosity. In medieval Christianity, this voluntarist religiosity shows through, piercing the crust of the imported “magism” of the Middle East.

Around the year 1000, this dynamic voluntarism appears gradually in art and literary epics, coupled with a sense of infinite space within which the Faustian self would, and can, expand. Thus to the concept of a closed space, in which the self finds itself locked, is opposed the concept of an infinite space, into which an adventurous self sallies forth.

 

From the “Closed” World to the Infinite Universe

Giordano Bruno, 1548–1600, statue by Ettore Ferrari (1845–1929), Campo de’ Fiori, Rome

According to the American philosopher Benjamin Nelson,[1] the old Hellenic sense of physis (nature), with all the dynamism this implies, triumphed at the end of the 13th century, thanks to Averroism, which transmitted the empirical wisdom of the Greeks (and of Aristotle in particular) to the West. Gradually, Europe passed from the “closed world” to the infinite universe. Empiricism and nominalism supplanted a Scholasticism that had been entirely discursive, self-referential, and self-enclosed. The Renaissance, following Copernicus and Bruno (the tragic martyr of Campo dei Fiori), renounced geocentrism, making it safe to proclaim that the universe is infinite, an essentially Faustian intuition according to Spengler’s criteria.

In the second volume of his History of Western Thought, Jean-François Revel, who formerly officiated at Point and unfortunately illustrated the Americanocentric occidentalist ideology, writes quite pertinently: It is easy to understand that the eternity and infinity of the universe announced by Bruno could have had, on the cultivated men of the time, the traumatizing effect of passing from life in the womb into the vast and cruel draft of an icy and unbounded vortex.”[2]

The “magic” fear, the anguish caused by the collapse of the comforting certitude of geocentrism, caused the cruel death of Bruno, that would become, all told, a terrifying apotheosis . . . Nothing could ever refute heliocentrism, or the theory of the infinitude of sidereal spaces. Pascal would say, in resignation, with the accent of regret: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”

 

From Theocratic Logos to Fixed Reason

To replace magical thought’s “theocratic logos,” the growing and triumphant bourgeois thought would elaborate a thought centered on reason, an abstract reason before which it is necessary to bow, like the Near Easterner bows before his god. The “bourgeois” student of this “petty little reason,” virtuous and calculating, anxious to suppress the impulses of his soul or his spirit, thus finds a comfortable finitude, a closed off and secured space. The rationalism of this virtuous human type is not the adventurous, audacious, ascetic, and creative rationalism described by Max Weber[3] which educates the inner man precisely to face the infinitude affirmed by Giordano Bruno.[4]

 

From the end of the Renaissance, Two Modernities are Juxtaposed

The petty rationalism denounced by Sombart[5] dominates the cities by rigidifying political thought, by restricting constructive activist impulses. The genuinely Faustian and conquering rationalism described by Max Weber would propel European humanity outside its initial territorial limits, giving the main impulse to all sciences of the concrete.

From the end of the Renaissance, we thus discover, on the one hand, a rigid and moralistic modernity, without vitality, and, on the other hand, an adventurous, conquering, creative modernity, just as we are today on the threshold of a soft post-modernity or of a vibrant post-modernity, self-assured and potentially innovative. By recognizing the ambiguity of the terms “rationalism,” “rationality,” “modernity,” and “post-modernity,” we enter one level of the domain of political ideologies, even militant Weltanschauungen.

The rationalization glutted with moral arrogance described by Sombart in his famous portrait of the “bourgeois” generates the soft and sentimental messianisms, the great tranquillizing narratives of contemporary ideologies. The conquering rationalization described by Max Weber causes the great scientific discoveries and the methodical spirit, the ingenious refinement of the conduct of life and increasing mastery of the external world.

This conquering rationalization also has its dark side: It disenchants the world, drains it, excessively schematizes it. While specializing in one or another domain of technology, science, or the spirit, while being totally invested there, the “Faustians” of Europe and North America often lead to a leveling of values, a relativism that tends to mediocrity because it makes us lose the feeling of the sublime, of the telluric mystique, and increasingly isolates individuals. In our century, the rationality lauded by Weber, if positive at the beginning, collapsed into quantitativist and mechanized Americanism that instinctively led by way of compensation, to the spiritual supplement of religious charlatanism combining the most delirious proselytism and sniveling religiosity.

Such is the fate of “Faustianism” when severed from its mythic foundations, of its memory of the most ancient, of its deepest and most fertile soil. This caesura is unquestionably the result of pseudomorphosis, the “magian” graft on the Faustian/European trunk, a graft that failed. “Magianism” could not immobilize the perpetual Faustian drive; it has—and this is more dangerous—cut it off from its myths and memory, condemned it to sterility and dessication, as noted by Valéry, Rilke, Duhamel, Céline, Drieu, Morand, Maurois, Heidegger, or Abellio.

 

Conquering Rationality, Moralizing Rationality, the Dialectic of Enlightenment, the “Grand Narratives” of Lyotard

Conquering rationality, if it is torn away from its founding myths, from its ethno-identitarian ground, its Indo-European matrix, falls—even after assaults that are impetuous, inert, emptied of substance—into the snares of calculating petty rationalism and into the callow ideology of the “Grand Narratives” of rationalism and the end of ideology. For Jean-François Lyotard, “modernity” in Europe is essentially the “Grand Narrative” of the Enlightenment, in which the heroes of knowledge work peacefully and morally toward an ethico-political happy ending: universal peace, where no antagonism will remain.[6] The “modernity” of Lyotard corresponds to the famous “Dialectic of the Enlightenment” of Horkheimer and Adorno, leaders of famous “Frankfurt School.”[7] In their optic, the work of the man of science or the action of the politician, must be submitted to a rational reason, an ethical corpus, a fixed and immutable moral authority, to a catechism that slows down their drive, that limits their Faustian ardor. For Lyotard, the end of modernity, thus the advent of “post-modernity,” is incredulity—progressive, cunning, fatalistic, ironic, mocking—with regard to this metanarrative.

Incredulity also means a possible return of the Dionysian, the irrational, the carnal, the turbid, and disconcerting areas of the human soul revealed by Bataille or Caillois, as envisaged and hoped by professor Maffesoli,[8] of the University of Strasbourg, and the German Bergfleth,[9] a young nonconformist philosopher; that is to say, it is equally possible that we will see a return of the Faustian spirit, a spirit comparable with that which bequeathed us the blazing Gothic, of a conquering rationality which has reconnected with its old European dynamic mythology, as Guillaume Faye explains in Europe and Modernity.[10]

Notes

1. Benjamin Nelson, Der Ursprung der Moderne, Vergleichende Studien zum Zivilisationsprozess [The Origin of Modernity: Comparative Studies of the Civilization Process] (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986).

2. Jean-François Revel, Histoire de la pensée occidentale [History of Western Thought], vol. 2, La philosophie pendant la science (XVe, XVIe et XVIIe siècles) [Philosophy and Science (Fifteenth-, Sixteenth-, and Seventeenth-Centuries)] (Paris: Stock, 1970). Cf. also the masterwork of Alexandre Koyré, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1957).

3. Cf. Julien Freund, Max Weber (Paris: P.U.F., 1969).

4. Paul-Henri Michel, La cosmologie de Giordano Bruno [The Cosmology of Giordano Bruno] (Paris: Hermann, 1962).

5. Cf. essentially: Werner Sombart, Le Bourgeois. Contribution à l’histoire morale et intellectuelle de l’homme économique moderne [The Bourgeois: Contribution to the Moral and Intellectual History of Modern Economic Man] (Paris: Payot, 1966).

6. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

7. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adomo, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002). Cf. also Pierre Zima, L’École de Francfort. Dialectique de la particularité [The Frankfurt School: Dialectic of Particularity] (Paris: Éditions Universitaires, 1974). Michel Crozon, “Interroger Horkheimer” [“Interrogating Horkheimer”] and Arno Victor Nielsen, “Adorno, le travail artistique de la raison” [“Adorno: The Artistic Work of Reason”], Esprit, May 1978.

8. Cf. chiefly Michel Maffesoli, L’ombre de Dionysos: Contribution à une sociologie de l’orgie [The Shadow of Dionysus: Contribution to a Sociology of the Orgy] (Méridiens, 1982). Pierre Brader, “Michel Maffesoli: saluons le grand retour de Dionysos” [Michel Maffesoli: Let us Greet the Great return of Dionysos], Magazine-Hebdo no. 54 (September 21, 1984).

9. Cf. Gerd Bergfleth et al., Zur Kritik der Palavernden Aufklärung [Toward a Critique of Palavering Reason] (Munich: Matthes & Seitz, 1984). In this remarkable little anthology, Bergfleth published four texts deadly to the “moderno-Frankfurtist” routine: (1) “Zehn Thesen zur Vernunftkritik” [“Ten Theses on the Critique of Reason”]; (2) “Der geschundene Marsyas” [“The Abuse of Marsyas”]; (3) “Über linke Ironie” [“On Leftist Irony”]; (4) “Die zynische Aufklärung” [“The Cynical Enlightnement”]. Cf. also R. Steuckers, “G. Bergfleth: enfant terrible de la scène philosophique allemande” [“G. Bergfleth: enfant terrible of the German philosophical scene”], Vouloir no. 27 (March 1986). In the same issue, see also M. Kamp, “Bergfleth: critique de la raison palabrante” [“Bergfleth: Critique of Palavering Reason”] and “Une apologie de la révolte contre les programmes insipides de la révolution conformiste” [“An Apology for the Revolt against the Insipid Programs of the Conformist Revolution”]. See also M. Froissard, “Révolte, irrationnel, cosmicité et . . . pseudo-antisémitisme,” [“Revolt, irrationality, cosmicity and . . . pseudo-anti-semitism”], Vouloir nos. 40–42 (July–August 1987).

10. Guillaume Faye, Europe et Modernité [Europe and Modernity] (Méry/Liège: Eurograf, 1985).

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3 Comments

  1. Physis
    Posted December 13, 2010 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    Thank you very much Greg for the translation.

  2. Josh
    Posted December 14, 2010 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Hear, hear! Excellent essay, Greg. Looking forward to the next installations.

  3. Ich bin es
    Posted December 16, 2010 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    The first sentence is clearly wrong.Spengler never claimed that European culture was the effect of a pseudo-morphosis. For him it was the expression of the “Faustean soul” in the pure form. Spengler said that middle-eastern culture was the effect of a pseudo-morphosis, the blend between the old culture of Antiquity and the new culture of the “Magican soul”. Whether the claims of Spengler are valid is another matter (I am a bit sceptical though the Untergang des Abendlandes is a fascinating work.

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