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The Irish Times
November 6, 2004 Weekend; Book Reviews; Pg. 13
Political philosophy: An attack on European right-wing and 'left fascist' thinkers and their American followers is a kind of philosophical Nuremberg trials.
In Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus there is a character called Breisacher, a Jew, whom Mann describes as a private scholar and polyhistor and "a racial and intellectual type in high, one might almost say reckless development". Although Nietzsche's name is not mentioned - the life and personality of the novel's protagonist, the composer Adrian Leverkuhn, are in large part based on those of the philosopher - Breisacher is the quintessential Nietzschean. His specialty is the philosophy of culture, "but his views were anti-cultural, in so far as he gave out to see in the whole history of culture nothing but a process of decline". He sets J.S. Bach as the central figure in the "progressivist barbarism" that caused the deterioration of music from "the great and only true art of counterpoint" into the "effeminizing and falsification" of the "harmonic romanticism of modulation", a process in which even Palestrina had already played a "shameful part".
When he turns to the Bible and the history of his own race, Breisacher is even more extreme, seeing King David and his successor Solomon - "an aesthete unnerved by erotic excesses" - and "the prophets drivelling about dear God in heaven" as "the already debased representatives of an exploded late theology, which no longer had any idea of the old and genuine Hebraic actuality of Jahve, the Elohim of the people".
For Breisacher, the history of the modern world, and by "modern" he means the period from the pre-Socratics onward, is the history of an inevitable degeneration from the true and authentic primitive into weakness, softness and falsity.
Breisacher is a member of the circle surrounding the creepy Sextus Kridwiss, a collector of primitive art; other savants attending the Kridwiss evenings are Dr Egon Unruhe, a "philosophic palaeozoologist" who works on verifying the essential truths of the ancient Germanic sagas, in which "a sophisticated humanity had long since ceased to believe"; Professor Georg Vogler, a literary historian who has written a much-admired history of German literature from the point of view of racial origins; and the poet Daniel zur Hohe - Mann is always wickedly witty in the matter of names - a high-strung young man whose "dreams dealt with a world subjected by sanguinary campaigns to the pure spirit" and whose only published poetic work, The Proclamations, ends with the line: "Soldiers! I deliver to you to plunder - the World!"
Mann knew his proto-fascists from the inside, having been one himself, as he showed in his anti-democratic, anti-modern Meditations of an Unpolitical Man (1918).
When the phenomenon of Hitler and Nazism demonstrated to him in no uncertain terms how wrong-headed he had been, and how, as Richard Wolin puts it, "the flip side of apoliticism is a potentially lethal dearth of Zivilcourage", he abandoned his homeland for democratic America and dedicated himself to the anti-Nazi cause. The Hohes, the Voglers, the Unruhes, even, to their great cost, some of the Breisachers, remained behind to support the new regime, mostly, as did the real-life philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, by keeping silent and going into "inner emigration", but in some cases, such as that of Heidegger, by a total and extremely noisy identification with the Volk, the Reich, and the Fuhrer.
This trahison des clercs on the part of a considerable number of European philosophers, scholars and academics did not end with the defeat of Nazism, according to Wolin, whose book, the subtitle of which is "The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism", is a vigorous, full-frontal attack on European right-wing and "left fascist" thinkers and theorists and their contemporary followers in American intellectual life, among the latter of whom The Seduction of Unreason has already raised many a hackle.
For its literary and philosophical sympathisers - he lists W.B. Yeats in their number - fascism, Wolin writes, "reintroduces an aesthetic politics" and "allows for the reprise of an ecstatic politics amid the forlorn and disenchanted landscape of political modernity". The European counter-revolutionaries, such as Joseph de Maistre and Arthur de Gobineau
knew what they wanted as a replacement for liberal democracy: the "contrary of revolutions", the restoration of the old regime. Their German heirs - Nietzsche, Spengler, Carl Schmitt, and Heidegger - disillusioned denizens of modern society, knew that one could no longer turn back the clock. Instead, they decided to seize the bull by the horns. They embraced industrial society but only under the proviso that it be governed by a totalitarian dictatorship. Dictatorship was the most efficacious means with which to vanquish the debilities of political liberalism and reestablish the sublimity of "Great Politics" (Nietzsche).
Wolin sees this drive towards dictatorship and the aestheticisation of politics as a process that continues to this day, not only in the demagoguery of the likes of Jean-Marie Le Pen and Jorg Haider, but in the writings of such latter-day thinkers as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Indeed, The Seduction of Unreason may be taken overall as a tocsin sounded to rally the forces of reaction against European anti-democratic cultural theory in general, and postmodernism in particular. The latter is Wolin's bete noir; he considers it not a philosophical movement at all but a form of frivolous despair encompassing a broad assault on the "epistemological and historiographical presuppositions of modernity: objective truth and historical progress". He cites Jean Baudrillard's definition of the postmodern universe as one in which "there are no definitions possible . . . It has all been done . . . It has destroyed itself. It has deconstructed its entire universe. So all that are left are the pieces. Playing with the pieces - that is postmodern". The postmodernists and their shock-troops the deconstructionists, Wolin writes, "seek refuge in myth, magic, madness, illusion, or intoxication - all seem preferable to what 'civilization' has to offer". They are the direct heirs of Mann's Kridwiss circle who "could scarcely contain their mirth at the desperate campaign waged by reason and criticism against wholly untouchable, wholly invulnerable belief" - irrational belief, that is.
Wolin insists that the postmodernists are now in retreat. What he sees as "the current disaffection with postmodernism" is, he writes,
in no small measure attributable to recent political circumstances. Humanism's return spells postmodernism's demise. Totalitarianism was the twentieth century's defining political experience. Its aftermath has left us with a new categorical imperative: no more Auschwitzes or Gulags. We now know that an ineffaceable difference separates democratic and totalitarian regimes. Despite their manifest empirical failings, democratic polities possess a capacity for internal political change that totalitarian societies do not. A discourse such as postmodernism that celebrates the virtues of cultural relativism and that remains ambivalent, at best, vis-a-vis democratic norms is inadequate to the moral and political demands of the contemporary hour.
To some, perhaps many, readers this will sound suspiciously like a whistle in the dark. Curiously, too, in its rhetorical vigour the passage and others like it echo the pronouncements of the so-called "neo-cons" now running the show in the White House and the Pentagon. Wolin, a tough, old-style liberal democrat, would no doubt be appalled at such a comparison, but then, in a phrase he is fond of using, often in the nexus of politics, philosophy and literature "les extremes se touchent".
The Seduction of Unreason is a kind of philosophical Nuremberg Trials. Wolin puts in the dock not only the obvious miscreants such as Heidegger and Nietzsche -"was it really so far-fetched that such a thinker would become the Nazis' court philosopher?" - but other, less obvious fascist fellow-travellers. He is particularly acute in the cases of Jung - "There are more polite ways of putting it, but Jung was a fraud" - and Gadamer. The latter was a pillar of post-war German philosophy, but Wolin is relentless in following him into his lair to root out the weasel words by which, according to Wolin, he accommodated himself to Hitler's regime; Gadamer in his counter-Enlightenment worldview, Wolin writes, holds that "since human insight is intrinsically untrustworthy, the best course is to limit its use as much as possible. Should a confrontation between authority and reason arise, it is always safer to err on the side of authority".
In a brilliant chapter, 'Maurice Blanchot: The Use and Abuse of Silence', Wolin tackles one of the shadowiest yet also one of the most influential French intellectuals of the 20th century. There is no doubt that Blanchot is a very great thinker in the realm of aesthetics, and a strong influence in the work of Barthes, Foucault, Derrida and others, those who engaged and engage in "a generalized assault against the idea of 'representation' - the notion that mind is capable of portraying reality truthfully and objectively". Blanchot, who holds that art is important chiefly as a creator and preserver of silence - in a brief biographical epigraph to The Book to Come he describes his life as "wholly devoted to literature and to the silence unique to it" - is discovered by Wolin writing before the war for "a dizzying array of far-right journals", and calling for a revolution that will be "a series of bloody shocks, a storm that will overwhelm - and thus awaken" the French nation.
Like Paul de Man, who wrote anti-Semitic articles for collaborationist Belgian newspapers and after the war developed an extreme form of deconstructionist criticism which was seen by some - simplistically, surely - as an attempt covertly and symbolically to wipe out his own past, Blanchot in his emphasis on silence and impenetrability might be thought of by those same accusers as seeking quietly to erase past sins. "My supposition," Wolin writes, "is that underlying the theoretical antipathy to 'representation' as a figure for knowledge and truth is a subconscious 'will to nonknowledge': a desire to keep at bay an awareness of unsettling historical complicities, facts, and events."
Is Wolin correct in his views, justified in his judgments? The Seduction of Unreason is a wide-ranging yet subtle consideration of the intellectual's abiding fascination with absolutism, and as such it is a perceptive, compelling and invaluable document. His indignation at the folly and perversity of so many major European thinkers is wholly justified and peculiarly invigorating, and most of his charges against those thinkers seem unanswerable. Yet in his almost triumphalist assertions of "humanism's return" he will seem foolishly overconfident to some, and plain mistaken to others. The opposition to humanism, as contemporary philosophers such as John Gray have shown, is not necessarily a new barbarism, but a new honesty and, dare one say it, a new humility. The Enlightenment brought much darkness; it is possible to see Hitler and Stalin and Mao, with their millennial insistence on human progress and the need for a supra-rational organisation of society, as true sons of le Siecle des Lumieres. On the other hand, it is hard to deny Wolin's contention that "with a self-defeating Nietzschean glibness, postmodernism has burned its bridges to a traditional rhetoric of moral evaluation". But is a "traditional rhetoric" really what we need?
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Wolin's ambitious and provocative book is a masterly overview of "unreason" in Western thought. However, it suffers from an oversimplification of those who advocated "reason" and those who did not. To begin, the term "reason," and those who are "reasonable" in this text can easily be substituted for liberal democracy or those who support liberal democracy, while "unreason" is fascism plain and simple. What Wolin neglects, in his glossed-over history of French intellectuals in the thirties, is an account of just how untenable parliamentary politics had become. It was not merely the "lunatic fringe" who questioned liberal values, but in fact a great many "reasonable" people, whom, for historical reasons ( the rise of sociology and mass psychology, a genuine interest in learning from "primitive" culture, -- all, might I add, contributions made by "liberal" social scientists working with purely reason-based and positivist/ empirical methods) sought alternatives to the ineffective and hypocritically unreasonable democratic order that was beset with serious deficiencies. I name here a quick succession of multiple premiers, monetary inflation and other social and religious ills. Indeed, the situation was dire enough that it would have been unreasonable to actually believe that such a system could persist, hence the attraction of so many of the most brilliant interwar intellectuals to thought that was not propagated by 18th century encylo-pedants.
Georges Bataille, whose story makes up a central component of Wolin's argument, was just one of these intellectuals. But Wolin, repeating the same argument that Habermas made, calls Bataille a fascist, proof of which he finds in Boris Souverain's testimony, and the oftheard accusation, stemming from fractitious Surrealists like Breton, of "sur-fascism." But we must take pause here, for the term "fascism" was hardly the word it is now, and that lefties of all stripes often conjured it when the accused was touting an ideology that did not match the increasingly tyrannical party lines of the extreme left and the PCF. It was, sadly a time of paranoia. Though it sounds blithe to say so today, the moniker, when located historically, must thus be taken with a grain of salt.
If Wolin had attempted a more indepth assessment of Bataille, there is no way he would have rested on these cliches of the writer. For example, despite the fact Bataille's "The Psychological Structure of Fascism" is Bataille's brave and thought- provoking critique of the fascist state, Wolin reads this text as if it were Bataille's endorsement! While there are some slightly later passages in Bataille's notebooks that suggest he was deeply attracted to a certain kind of fascism, "The Psychological Structure," is not one of them, and given that it was written for an audience on the Left, Bataille would have been wiser than to merely endorse the political system he saw forming in Germany and Italy.
Once we overcome Wolin's oversimplified dichotomy ( anti-parliamentarian/anti-rationalist= fascist) we can come to understand Bataille as deeply anti-parliamentary and anti-fascist at once; anti-authoritarian in short. This view is clearest in what is his least rational project, the anarchic and spiritual community and religion, Acéphale created in desperation during a political crisis. Rather than a fascist "third way" as Wolin claims Bataille's neither-left-nor-right path to be, Acéphale was in fact a fourth way, an irrational (yes) attempt to find an alternative to Stalinist communism, fascism and liberal democracy. The Acéphale journal itself displays Bataille's acute awareness of the Nazi's "mis-use" of Nietzsche and Bataille takes great care in describing to his readers how Elisabeth-Foerster and other German vulgarisers twisted Nietzsche's vague and provocative words to suit their purposes.
Wolin's project is admirable. By digging at the root of post-structuralist and post-modern theory, he reveals the dangers upon which it is based. Nonetheless
Wolin proves his argument by creating an ahistorical division between 20th century intellectuals who chose reason and those who reject it. While the tactic helps Wolin by allowing him to expend with details that would hinder his argument, the result is a history of 20th century thought that is grossly oversimplified, and as a result, underestimates the nuanced history of ideas at play here.