Careening Through History Without a Rear View Mirror
I guess one thing we're trying to do here is figure out if any general principles can be derived from something that seems so uniquely evil, i.e., the Nazi phenomenon. And not just banal things like "don't appease evil," or "genocide is bad," or "get rid of that stupid little mustache."
One of the important contexts of Nazism was romanticism, which was itself a reaction to the alienation that was felt as a result of the industrial revolution in particular and modernity in general. Veith writes that "people felt alienated from nature, from society, and -- because their identity had become such an enigma -- from themselves. The rationalism of the Enlightenment, which seemed responsible for this malaise, was answered in the 19th century by Romanticism."
Interestingly, romanticism is a regressive phenomenon that occurs in the context of progress, almost the way that a child will regress in the midst of psychological development. As a matter of fact, that's happening to my son right now, as he has suddenly developed the urge and the capacity to toilet train himself. Clearly, his ability to do this is a result of countless synaptic connections taking place below the surface. As a result, he's being ushered into a whole new and unfamiliar world. His desire to sit on the toilet is just the tip of the assberg, so to speak.
To cite one obvious example, he sees that most of his friends are housebroken, and he's suddenly self-conscious about it -- which is to say, a tad ashamed. But just a few weeks ago he wouldn't have had this introspective capacity, nor the ability to look at himself from the standpoint of the Other, which is a prerequisite for shame. This is why two year-olds and trial lawyers do not feel shame.
But just as with every previous developmental leap, he is clearly experiencing a lot of ambivalence about his new capacities, so he's also engaging in more regressive behavior -- at times more clingy, or more angry, or more frustrated, etc. One can well understand why. Just think back on your own relatively sudden transition from child to adolescent. I remember it well. One day you're hanging out with your friends, playing baseball, joking around, hating girls. The next day....
It's very disorienting. And it's now understood by developmental neurologists that one of the reasons it's so disorienting is that the brain literally disassembles at these developmental cruxes, and then reassembles at a "higher level," so to speak. In other words, human psychological development is not like an addition to your house, or building a new floor above the existing one. Rather, it's more the way a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. It's a transformation, not just a transition.
Anyway, it's these "in between" phases that are fraught with such difficulty, those interstices between one stage and another. That is precisely where a lot of the mind parasites get imported, because that is when the brain is much more "fluid," open, and unstable. Could the same thing be true of history? The first thing that comes to mind is Marxism, which specifically developed in that gap between the premodern and modern world. It is fundamentally rooted in the myopic fallacy that things were getting worse for the average worker, when the reality was that, for the first time in 10,000 years, they were actually getting dramatically better.
In this regard, Marx was not just economically illiterate, but completely ahistorical, a malady that continues to afflict the left to this day. The free market will eventually solve most problems that leftist solutions will only perpetuate or aggravate. But the leftist relies upon people being riveted only on the now, which then requires some sort of radical solution to redeem the future.
For example, how many Americans realize that gasoline actually reached its peak price in the early 1960s if adjusted for inflation, while it reached its low point in 1998? For the demagogues of the left, it is vital that you not know that, just as it was vital to Marxists that people be unaware of the fact that for the average laborer, the 18th century was almost a straight upward line in terms of increasing affluence.
So, let's play with this idea that sudden progress is going to bring with it sudden regression -- or at least make certain people more vulnerable to it. Yesterday we mentioned the 1960s. Why would the most affluent and pampered generation in history suddenly revert to neo-paganism, earth-worship, deconstruction, moral relativism, and a rejection of the very civilizational inheritance that allowed such unprecedented affluence to begin with?
It reminds me of an unfortunate incident that occurred last Sunday, when Mrs. G backed her car out of the garage, and in the process managed to amputate my driver's side view mirror. So for the last few days I've been rolling the Coonmobile without one, and it's more disorienting than you might think. You realize the extent to which successfully moving forward requires you to keep one eye riveted on the past. Without that view of the past, it can sneak up on you in surprising ways. Your every move risks colliding with someone else's unfolding line of spacetime. Furthermore, I found myself reflexively looking for the past in the usual place, but finding only a "hole" -- except that the hole was filled with the present.
It is no exaggeration to say that in the 1960s, the baby boom generation gleefully tore the rearview mirror off the vehicle of civilization, while simultaneously believing that they could put the pedal to the metal on the engine of progress. Is it therefore surprising that so many fatal accidents occurred? The breakup of the family, soaring crime rates, a naturalistic or surreal art that became a celebration of the primitive and subhuman, a deteriorating educational system at all levels, a general recrudescence of neopaganism, with its cult of the body and exaltation of the instincts, women emulating men, men emulating women, the rejection of our own Judeo-Christian wisdom tradition, etc. All because a few adolescents tore the rear view mirror off Dad's car. You know, guys like Obama's good buddy, Bill Ayers.
We all know that conservatives realize that liberals are usually well-intentioned but merely ignorant (or immature, or stupid), while liberals imagine that conservatives are evil -- that they are driven by sinister motives. You know the drill -- if you want to liberate the Iraqi people, you really want to enrich oil companies, or if you think Obama is a vacuous celebrity, you're really a racist, or if you think global warming is a hoax, you really hate the environment, etc., etc., etc. Being that leftists flatter themselves by calling themselves "progressives," like a child, they imagine that the conservative must be the opposite. You might say that they imagine that conservatives want to drive the historical car by looking only in the rear view mirror.
But obviously, if you try to do that, you will be no more successful than the leftist who tries to go forward without reference to the past. You'll inevitably get into a lot of accidents, but they will be of a slightly different nature.
Now, as it so happens, there are conservatives who do try to do that. But I don't like to call them conservatives, since it conflates them with the true conservative, who tries to drive forward while having a deep and panoramic view of the past, where objects may be much, much larger than they appear in your mirror.
I realize I'm rambling here, but one theme that leapt out in this book on Hitler is the parallel between the Nazi movement and the traditionalist movement as articulated by people such as Guenon, Schuon, and Coomaraswamy. First of all, let's eliminate up front the idea that I am calling them "Nazis," or some other such nonsense. However, you don't have to search very far before you discover a persistent critique of Traditionalism, to the effect that it is essentially a fascist movement. That is, it is entirely backward looking, authoritarian, cultish, romantic, and very openly repelled by all things modern.
As it so happens, Schuon spent most of his childhood in Basel, which is situated right over the border between Switzerland and Germany. He was born in 1907, and there seems to be little doubt that his childhood was immersed in the volkisch sentiments of the time, as discussed yesterday. For example, he writes of Basel as a "fairy tale city," where he developed a deep appreciation of its romanticism. His biography notes that he was "Germanic to the core," and "impregnated from childhood by that poetic and mystical culture whose particular expression in fairy tales and traditional melodies he never forgot.... His sensibility led him quite naturally in the direction of German romanticism, nurtured by the Middle Ages, at once chivalrous, enchanted and mystical."
But at the same time, he felt profoundly alienated, as if he were more comfortable in the past than the present: "An introvert, he felt like a stranger, misunderstood by those around him." This led him to explore museums "for the traces of past wisdom which seemed to him like windows opening onto a lost world." He was too young to have taken part in World War I, but interestingly, he reflexively blamed the war on modernity, when in fact, as we shall see, neither it nor its second act, World War II, can be understood outside the context of that same backward-looking romanticism that led Schuon in a very different direction. In other words, these wars may have used modern means developed by science, but they were thoroughly rooted in magic and mythology. Just as the current war against Islam, these were medieval people with modern weapons.
I want to re-emphasize that in no way do I intend to denigrate Schuon, whom I consider to be one of the most profoundly gifted spiritual geniuses in human history. But he's definitely not an "American" thinker, a metaphysic which I believe has the best chance to synthesize past and present into a viable future characterized by real progress. But now I'm out of time, so I'll have to continue this line of thought tomorrow.