Part 1 of 2
Translated by Greg Johnson
In this brief review essay, Robert Steuckers provides an introduction to Spengler’s writings on prehistory and early world history, which contain surprising theses, stunning metaphors, and quite interesting departures from The Decline of the West. These writings are almost unknown because they were never finished and were only published in incomplete form decades after Spengler’s death.
Oswald Spengler’s morphologies of cultures and civilizations in his most famous work, The Decline of the West, are widely known. However, Spengler’s positions changed after the publication of Decline. So claims the Italian Germanist Domenico Conte in his recent work on Spengler, Catene di civiltà: Studi su Spengler (Napoli: Ed. Scientifiche Italiane, 1994), which is a thorough study of the posthumous texts published by Anton Mirko Koktanek, especially Frühzeit der Weltgeschichte [The Early Period of World History], which gathers the fragments of a projected but never completed work The Epic of Man.
In his reflections immediately following the publication of The Decline of the West, Spengler distinguished four stages of human history which he designates simply as A, B, C, and D. Stage “A” lasted a hundred thousand years, from the first phases of hominization up to the lower Paleolithic. It is during this stage that the importance of the “hand” for man appears. It is, for Spengler, the age of Granite.
Stage “B” lasted ten thousand years and lay in the lower Paleolithic, between 20,000 and 7,000–6,000 BCE. During this age the concept of interior life was born: “then appeared the true soul, as unknown to men of stage ‘A’ as it is to a newborn baby.” In this stage in our history man was first “able to produce traces/memories” and to understand the phenomenon of death. For Spengler, it is the age of the Crystal. Stages “A” and “B” are inorganic.
Stage “C” lasted 3,500 years: it starts with the Neolithic era, running from the sixth millennium BCE to the third. It is the stage when thought started to be articulated in language and the most complex technological achievements became possible. In this stage are born “cultures” whose structures are “amoebic.”
Stage “D” is that of “world history” in the conventional sense of the term. It is the stage of “great civilizations,” each of which lasts approximately 1,000 years. These civilizations have structures of the “vegetable” type. Stages “C” and “D” are organic.
Spengler preferred this psychological-morphological classification to the classifications imposed by the directors of museums who subdivided the prehistoric and historical eras according to materials used for the manufacture of tools (stone, bronze, iron). In keeping with this psychological-morphological classification, Spengler also rejected the idea of the “slow, phlegmatic transformation” or continuous development, rooted in the progressivist ideas of the 18th century.
Evolution, for Spengler, is a matter of catastrophic blows, sudden irruptions, unexpected changes. “The history of the world proceeds from catastrophe to catastrophe, without any concern with whether we are able to understand them. Today, following H. de Vries, we call them ‘mutations.’ It is an internal transformation, which affects without warning all the members of a species, without ‘cause,’ naturally, like everything else in reality. Such is the mysterious rhythm of the world” (Man and Technics ). There is thus no slow evolution but abrupt “epochal” transformations. Natura facit saltus [Nature makes leaps—Ed.].
In stage “C,” where the matrices of human civilization actually emerge, Spengler distinguishes three “culture-amoebas”: Atlantis, Kush, and Turan. This terminology appears only in his posthumous writings and letters. The civilizational matrices are “amoebas” and not “plants” because amoebas are mobile, not anchored to a particular place. The amoeba is an organism that continuously pulsates along an ever-shifting periphery. Then the amoeba subdivides itself as amoebas do, producing new individualities that move away from the amoeba-mother. This analogy implies that one cannot delimit with precision the territory of a civilization of stage “C,” because its amoebic emanations can be widely dispersed in space, extremely far away from the amoeba-mother.
“Atlantis” is the “West” and extends from Ireland to Egypt. “Kush” is the “South-east,” an area ranging between India and the Red Sea. “Turan” is the “North,” extending from Central Europe to China. Spengler, explains Conte, chose this terminology recalling “old mythological names” in order not to confuse them with later historical regions of the “vegetable” type, which are geographically rooted and circumscribed, whereas they are dispersed and not precisely localized.
Spengler does not believe in the Platonic myth of Atlantis, the sunken continent, but notes that an ensemble of civilizational remnants are locatable in the West, from Ireland to Egypt. “Kush” is a name that one finds in the Old Testament to indicate the territory of the ancient Nubians, the area inhabited by the Kushites. But Spengler places the culture-amoeba “Kush” more to the East, in an area between Turkestan, Persia, and India, undoubtedly inspired by the anthropologist Frobenius. As for “Turan,” it is “North,” the Turanic high-plateau, which he thought was the cradle of the Indo-European and Ural-Altaic languages. It is from there that the migrations of “Nordic” peoples departed (Spengler is not without racial connotations) to descend on Europe, India, and China.
Atlantis: Hot and Mobile; Kush: Tropical and Content
Atlantis, Kush, and Turan are cultures bearing morphological principles emerging mainly in the spheres of religion and the arts. The religiosity of Atlantis “hot and mobile,” is centered on the worship of the dead and the preeminence of the ultra-telluric sphere. The forms of burials, notes Conte, testify to the intense relationship with the world of the dead: The tombs always have a high profile, or are monumental; the dead are embalmed and mummified; food is left or brought for them. This obsessional relationship with the chain of ancestors leads Spengler to theorize the presence of a “genealogical” principle. The artistic expressions of Atlantis, adds Conte, are centered on stone constructions, as gigantic as possible, made for eternity, signs of a feeling of life which is not turned towards a heroic surpassing of limits, but towards a kind of “inert complacency.”
Kush developed a “tropical” and “content” religion. The problem of ultra-telluric life is regarded with far less anxiety than in Atlantis, because in the culture-amoeba of Kush a mathematics of the cosmos dominates (of which Babylon will be the most imposing expression), where things are “rigidly given in advance.” Life after death is a matter of indifference. If Atlantis is a “culture of the tombs,” in Kush tombs have no significance. One lives and procreates but forgets the dead. The central symbol of Kush is the temple, from which priests scrutinize celestial mathematics. If in Atlantis, the genealogical principle dominates, if the gods and goddesses of Atlantis are father, mother, son, daughter, in Kush, the divinities are stars. A cosmological principle dominates.
Turan: The Civilization of Heroes
Turan is the civilization of heroes, animated by a “cold” religiosity, centered on the mysterious meaning of existence. Nature is filled with impersonal powers. For the culture-amoeba of Turan, life is a battlefield: “for the man of the North (Achilles, Siegfried),” Spengler writes, “only life before death, the fight against destiny, counts.” The divine-human relationship is no longer one of dependence: “prostration ceases, the head remains high; there is ‘I’ (man) and you (gods).”
Sons guard the memory of their fathers but do not leave food for their corpses. There is no embalming or mummification in this culture, but cremation. The bodies disappear, are hidden in underground burials without monuments, or are dispersed to the four winds. All that remains of the dead is their blood in the veins of their descendants. Turan is thus a culture without architecture, where temples and burials have no importance and where only the terrestrial meaning of existence matters. Man lived alone, confronted with himself, in his house of wood or in his nomad’s tent.
Source: Nouvelles de Synergies européennes, no. 21, 1996.