“Th’expense of Spirit… is Lust in Action”

The following is part of an essay on Eric Voegelin that I published about a decade ago at another website.  The topic in the section that I repost here is Gnostic extremism.  In light of the DOMA decision and other items recently in the news, the discussion seems relevant. –

When the differentiated, fully transcendent God—either Plato’s God beyond the gods in Phaedrus or “The Father” to whom Jesus refers in the evangelists—breaks into reality the articulation of the breakthrough inclines no less than any other idea to false objectification, to a discourse of propositions to be endorsed or refuted and of things in the social fabric that one might alter, rearrange, or eliminate. As Voegelin carefully notes, however, not only is “existence… not a fact,” but “if anything, existence is the nonfact of a disturbing movement in the In-Between of ignorance and knowledge, of time and timelessness… and ultimately of life and death.”

Where the essay, The Gospel and Culture, focuses on the positive character of the sense of reality in the movement of history, the Eranos Conference lecture on Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme focuses on the impulse of alienation—on the lopsided destabilizing “Sense of Imperfection” or what one might call, drawing on a Voegelinian coinage, noetic pathology. The title, Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme, serves for a disjunction. Wisdom seeks to participate in the movement towards perfection without professing a doctrine and without designing to realize its dream in the realm of mortal existence. Opposite to wisdom stands the aspernatio rationis, the spurning of reason.

Voegelin begins by noting how haters of reality plague modern society: “Even in our so-called free societies not a day passes that we are not seriously molested, in encounters with persons, or the mass media, or a supposedly philosophical and scientific literature, by somebody’s Utopian imagination.” Such alienated people would impose on unwilling others the prison house of their rebellious dreams. Once again, the historical cases are well known. In his essay, Voegelin concerns himself with the analysis of the pathology. He places Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129—“Th’expense of Spirit in a waste of shame / is lust in action”—at the beginning of his analysis, commenting on its place in the erotic symbolism of the sonnets generally. Why does eroticism form part of the argument here? The healthy subject’s response to the divine tug always corresponds to a loving endeavor; such eros or amor is present in both the Platonic and the gospel text

“Expense” means a type of orgiastic expenditure; a “waste of shame” means a wasteland from which shame is absent. Shakespeare defines “lust” as the perversion of love through its subservience to the libido dominandi and its redirection to purely egocentric and mundane ends. Atop the poem’s erotic metaphors, Shakespeare builds a systematic related symbolism concerning the action of the libido in the epistemological and political realms. Voegelin quotes the poem’s catalogue of the libido’s methods—“lust / Is perjured, murderous, bloody full of blame, / Savage extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust”—and comments that Shakespeare’s list “characterizes to perfection the activities of a totalitarian ministry of propaganda.”

Skewing the truth, as we have seen, serves Voegelin for an equivalent of original sin. The individual “madness” in one ego’s “lust” is therefore but the simple of the collective “madness” in an ideological dictatorship disguising itself under the Utopian label. Like the criminal, the ideologue recoils in paroxysm from the world’s failure to conform to his wishes. He desires fiendishly to impose his will.  This identification of the criminal with the ideologue might at first seem rash, but the criminal’s propensity to justify his crimes finds an exact analogue in the ideologue’s propensity to adjust for the deficiencies in his theory, or in the application of his theory, by discounting the existence of actual persons harmed by his policy.

Voegelin moves through a sequence of texts—by the orator Gorgias, Plato, and the German satirist-poet Karl Kraus—until he arrives at Charles Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil (1848), often dismissed by conservative judgment as a manifestation of decadence. Not so, in Voegelin’s (entirely accurate) view. Rather, Baudelaire, two and a half centuries after Shakespeare, has experienced historically the very triumph of zeal that the bard foresaw in Sonnet 129: the Puritan and Jacobin regicides against l’ancien régime, revolutionary massacres, Napoleonic wars, colossal public lies, and the brutal suppression of truth in its dissent, representing, as Voegelin says of G. W. F. Hegel, “the hubris of enlightenment” in its character as “a revolt against reality.”

Truth is not a doctrine, but rather the recognition of the inalterable structure of existence and the limit of human intellectual competency to penetrate it, beyond which only a careful faith can take the subject. “The more clearly the word of the ‘saving tale’ speaks in history, the more obstinately man, or at least some men, will raise the question why existence should have a structure from which man has to be saved. And if a noetic answer is impossible within the fides of the vision, an imaginative dream must provide the answer without regard for noetic truth.”

Thus in his frequently anthologized “To the Reader,” Baudelaire, alluding to one of Plato’s symbols of existence in The Laws, sums up modern intellectual derangement in the figure of Lucifer: “On the pillow of evil it is Satan Trismegistus / Who soothes a long while our bewitched mind, / And the rich metal of our determination / Is made vapor by that learned chemist. // It is the Devil who holds the reins which make us go!”

Voegelin identifies Plato’s “Golden String,” representing the tug of the divine in The Laws, with Baudelaire’s “rich metal… made vapor.” Satan seduces, like the rebellious system-makers, with promises of transfiguration and godhood in exchange for a renunciation of faith. To the degree that a man condemns reality and dreams that he can alter its structure so also he yields to the allure, the magic, of the extreme; and he abjures the tug of the divine. Voegelin remarks that Baudelaire understood his age as a “satanistic situation” in which, with terrible jealousy, maddened speculators sought “self-divinization” through prevaricating word-magic, or ideology, and through the pharmaceutical alteration of brain chemistry.

Voegelin records that in Baudelaire’s book on drug taking, Artificial Paradises, the Symbolist poet says that the addict can perfectly well substitute Rousseau for hashish to achieve his inebriation. Ideology intoxicates. Intoxication, however, leads ultimately to death whether in the case of the dope fiend who slowly poisons his liver or in the case of the ideological usurpers of society and their mass of followers whose murderousness, once unleashed, devours all life

Like the devil or the pusher, the ideologue promises heaven on earth, a nihilistic swindle, as the gullible enthusiasts soon perceive but only too late. The antidote of the ideological death-swindle consists, Voegelin says in turning back to Plato once more, of the “noetic ascent [that] reveals the truth of order” and of the larger, encapsulating truth that existence has the form of an “undying struggle” of the psyche to eschew baseness and hew to the path of the immortalizing attraction.

Just as truth is not a doctrine, so the movement in reality, in the metaxy, is not a closed or even a predictable process that culminates in a specific empirical goal and then comes to a halt, as it were in Paradise. The movement in reality, in the metaxy, is open and unpredictable, revealing no specific empirical goal. Such openness and unpredictability are, of course, unsettling; existence therefore unsettles. The dipsomaniac man doses himself with narcosis or stimulation because he cannot bear the unsettling tension in reality; societies in crisis dose themselves with fierce ideological delusions also because they cannot bear the tension, as experienced collectively.

Addiction follows a curve: the addict must constantly increase the dose or substitute ever-stronger drugs to achieve a decreasing result of existence-alleviation, hence the appeal of the extreme in the modern deculturated societies of the west. The incessant agitation by excited people with feral causes, the hot impatience with the Constitutional order, the subscription by the masses to one side or other in a venomous party-dichotomy that resembles a perpetual low-grade civil war: these things run in diseased organic parallel with the increasing pornography and violence of so-called popular culture, the hedonism of a too-abundant and unformed leisure, and actual widespread pharmacological addiction. Order takes form as a unity and it dissolves as a unity.

Voegelin paints a stark picture, but he only paints the same stark picture bequeathed by the prophets, who railed against resurgences of barbaric ritual, and by the philosophers, who fought against the exculpatory sophistries of the demagogues and tyrants. Our condition being one of radical disinheritance from the continuity of structuring symbols, renewed dedication to those symbols offers the only possible restoration of cultural health in a deconstructive age. The duty of philosophy, says Voegelin in the last sentence of his essay, which will also be the last sentence of this one, is, finally, “to recover, through anamnetic meditation, certain structures of consciousness whose repression by the public unconscious is one of the causes of contemporary disorder.”

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