The Apocalypse of Modernity: Evolution and Conversion and Battling to the End by René Girard

Girard 03 G in Interview

Rene Girard in an Interview

History, and increasingly the mere daily record of events, are together apocalyptic, laying bare human nature for what it is primordially before the agonizing laboratory of the millennia creates the Christian society that its beneficiaries, swiftly taking it for granted, petulantly reject so that they might go “forward” into a liberated horizon beyond the one defined by the Gospel. “Progress” names that particular folly. A blood-drenched folly it is, beginning with the religious wars of the Seventeenth Century and reaching fullness with the mobilization of the whole society fomented by the Jacobins and institutionalized by their superman-successor, Napoleon Bonaparte. From the guillotine henceforth, modernity blurts itself sanguinely in the Commune, Leninism, Stalinism, Hitlerism, and resurgent Islam (Jihad), which continues belatedly the sparagmatic trend of the late and unlamented Twentieth Century. Yet despite the academy’s authoritative three-decades-long declaration of Dionysiac “Postmodernism,” despite the polysyllables of doctrine-inebriated intellectuals, Modernity in its lynch-mob vehemence has not succeeded in realizing its rainbow utopia. No fulfillment of the destructive quest heaves in prospect. Modernity spirals dizzyingly to its destined abyss, dragging with it those who know full well its madness but who find themselves sucked along with the lunatics into the maelstrom.

The contemporary West resembles nothing so much as an archaic society in the full panic of social breakdown, searching desperately for the scapegoats whose immolation will induce the gods to intervene. So perverse has Modernity become that people eagerly seek victim-status although of course they can only do so by indicting other people as their persecutors. The old gesture of designating the victim has therefore been turned inside out and the nomenclature along with it. Objects of collective passion, those who are about to die at the hands of the mob, are now called victimizer, not victims.

No one can fully understand the contemporary situation without first understanding archaic religiosity, and archaic religiosity only reveals its meaning in contrast with the higher, scriptural religiosity, which at one time informed the civilized condition. In the same degree as the contemporary West spurns the spiritual maturity of Judaism and Christianity, its situation reverts to archaic patterns. Thus, in the sacrosanct name of “Progress” – wretched regress. And in tandem with that regress travels the obliteration both of consciousness and conscience, as the individuated man dissolves into the moral crudity of the Caliban-collective. No one has understood archaic religiosity – no one understands the modern age as a case of accelerating sacrificial panic – with greater clarity and penetration than René Girard (1923 – 2015), who remained intellectually active until his death earlier this month. Two late books by Girard, Evolution and Conversion (2008) and Battling to the End (2010), demand attention from those who sense that the liberal-secular order ever more excruciatingly confronts and denies the revelation of its own nullity.

Continue reading

Voegelin on Gnosticism – A Revisitation

Gnosis 02

Eric Voegelin’s critique of modernity claims that Liberalism, the creed of the Enlightenment, is “Gnostic.” Voegelin (1901-1985) drew the term “Gnosticism” from its scholarly application in theological discussion to a strain of Late Antique religiosity. The term “Gnostic” refers to that array of sects and cults, the adherents of which saw themselves, as forming a saintly elect among the perishing masses on account of their possessing, as their souls, sparks of divinity that had become trapped in the world of matter. The ancient Gnostics abhorred the world of matter and claimed to sojourn in it only as exiles from a realm of pure light, which was the “real” world despite appearances. Voegelin labeled Gnosticism an anticosmic rebellion, a rebellion against reality, emphasizing the tendency of Gnostics to construct what – borrowing from novelists Robert Musil and Heimito von Doderer – he called a second reality built on principles contrary to those governing what morally and intellectually adjusted people understand to be the actual or first reality. Gnosticism for Voegelin constitutes a social pathology for the reason that the upholders of the second reality, once having invested their emotion in it, make it a fetish and regard criticism of it as lèse majesté. Organized Gnosticism tends to become a censorious war, a jihad, to protect the second reality from examination and, more aggressively, to coerce assent to the second reality’s existence.

It belongs to Voegelin’s critique of modernity as the re-emergence of Gnosticism that its object – the social pathology of the political religions – corresponds to an attitude (namely, rebuke) rather than to some specific doctrine that has persisted since antiquity. Voegelin never meant to argue that let us say the Valentinian speculation or Manichaeism as such could be identified with Marxism, National Socialism, Leninism, Feminism, Multiculturalism, or any other particular ismatic discourse. Yet, as Voegelin saw it, the ancient and the modern rebellions stubbornly resembled one another in their basic dispositions. When, therefore, in his posthumous In Search of Order (1987), Voegelin alludes to the characteristic modern “divinization of men,” he takes as his exemplar of the genus “the Feuerbach-Marx divinization of man,” whose purpose consists in “explaining divine reality as a human projection that, if returned to man, will produce full humanity.” That normative consciousness is false, that religion is false, that institutions are false and tyrannical, and that only an elite recognizes the situation: These motifs structure both ancient Gnostic speculation and modern ideological discourse – both of which envision their fulfillment in the abolition, one way or another, of existing reality.

Voegelin distinguishes the ancient and modern rebellions in this way: “At the extreme of the revolt in consciousness, ‘reality’ and the ‘Beyond’ become two separate entities, two ‘things’ to be magically manipulated by suffering man for the purpose of either abolishing ‘reality’ altogether and escaping into the ‘Beyond,’ or of forcing the order of the ‘Beyond’ into ‘reality.’ The first of the magic alternatives is preferred by the gnostics of antiquity, the second one by the modern gnostic thinkers.”

Continue reading

Rene Girard 1923 – 2015


I have just learned of the death of Rene Girard.  In a healthy society, Girard would have been recognized as a thinker of the first order – and in a spiritually revived society, he will receive that attribution.  My first “scholarly publication” was an interview with M. Girard prefaced by an introduction to his work in 1986.  Girard treated even my stupid questions as serious.  The experience was in many ways life-changing for me.  Other people report the same.  I did not know Girard well, but I knew him now and again over the years and found him invariably to be friendly, ordinary, magnificently clear-sighted, and helpful.  He will be sorely missed, not only by his family and close friends,but also by his many students and readers.  I offer below an essay from 2008 on “The Gist of Rene Girard.”

Continue reading

Showing my Face

Bertonneau comme Frenchman II

As I have made it a principle to use my real name in my posts, I thought it would complement the principle to show my actual face – just to prove, as it were, that I have a face and that I exist. The photograph also serves to illustrate my “take” on the mind-body problem – or rather its solution!.  I am, of course, raising a “Salut!” to my Gallic ancestors (it being All Hallows Eve) and to my friends at The Orthosphere.

In the Shadow of the Prodigy by Frank van Dun

Prodigy Van Dun

I happened to have been reading Frank van Dun’s novel In the Shadow of the Prodigy (2015) during the week of the United States Supreme Court’s latest trespass into the constitutional domain of law-making, formerly reserved to the legislative branch. The same week saw several new instances of Islamic savagery – in France and Algeria – and the collapse of the Greek economy. It is difficult to say whether these events colored my assessment of van Dun’s prose or the other way around. I have been carrying a knot in my stomach for days; my brow has been creased. One way or another, In the Shadow of the Prodigy is a book for our time, breaking up the white dazzle of overlapping crises that constitutes the contemporary scene into the refracted strands of its elementary colors. Van Dun’s story is a mystery, so I will be calling attention to it in such a way as not to divulge too many of its plot-points.

Continue reading

Gnosticism in Modern Scholarship

Gnosis 02 This is the third in a series of four articles exploring the phenomenon of Gnosis or Gnosticism from a “Non-Voegelinian Perspective.” Eric Voegelin (1901-1986) in The New Science of Politics (1952), Science Politics & Gnosticism (1965), and elsewhere used the term “Gnosticism” to refer to the “closed” or ideological-totalitarian systems that, for him, expressed the essence of modernity. Voegelin was a critic of modernity, just as he was a critic of the ideological-totalitarian systems, and in his usage the term Gnosticism (taking it out of quotation-marks) always carried a strong pejorative connotation. In Voegelin’s view, as expressed especially in the multi-volume study Order and History (1957-1965), Gnosticism sought to triumph but failed to do so in Antiquity, but then emerged anew in the early modern period to become the dominant Weltanschauung of the later centuries. Voegelin did not mean – as some took him to mean – that specific Gnostic doctrines, surviving in latency during the Medieval Period, then sprang back to life in all their details; rather, Voegelin argued that the difficulty of coming to terms with the “tension” (the perceived imperfection or even hostility) of existence inclined some people to deny existence by constructing an elaborate “second reality.”

The “second reality” eliminates, by various gestures of denial, anything inimical to the maladjusted ego in the real world. The “second reality” is a flight from reality – a fugue. The real world persists, which means that the advocates of the “second reality” find themselves in perpetual conflict, both rhetorical and psychological, with existence. Ideology, for Voegelin, is a magical gesture aimed at altering the structure of reality through unanimous declaration; the requirement for unanimity means that the Gnostic polity must quash all dissenting voices.

Voegelin did not evoke the topic of Gnosticism in a vacuum. The scholarship of Gnosis goes back to various students of G.W.F. Hegel, particularly to Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), whose pioneering study, Die Christliche Gnosis (Christian Gnosis, 1835), remains a touchstone. Nevertheless, the take-off of Gnostic scholarship happened in the Twentieth Century. A pivotal work appeared in The Gnostic Religion (1958), by Hans Jonas (1903-1993), reissued in a revised text in 1963, 1991, and 2001. With Kurt Rudolph (born 1929), whose Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism appeared in 1977, Jonas was a dominant presence in the field right up to his death. More recently, the names of Giovanni Filoramo (born 1945) and Yuri Stoyanov (born 1961) have become obligatory references. So has that of Michel Tardieu (born 1938) for his succinct book, Manichaeism (1981; English version 2008). It should be emphasized that Voegelin was never a primary scholar of Gnosticism. Jonas, Rudolph, and Filoramo, with whom the present essay deals, were and are primary scholars of Gnosticism. Their objectivity distinguishes them from well-known others (J. M. Robinson, for example, and Elaine Pagels) whose interest in Gnosticism is rather more advocative than rigorous. Continue reading

Just for Fun: Into Plutonian Depths

Planet Stories Vol. 4, No. 6 (Spring 1950).  Cover by Allen Anderson

Planet Stories Vol. 4, No. 6 (Spring 1950). Cover by Allen Anderson

A peculiarity of popular culture, which is also commercial culture, is that it dislikes competing with its own earlier iterations. Commercial culture therefore tends to be dismissive or even hostile in respect of its past, emphasizing its ever-renewed, up-to-date, and often cloyingly topical relevance, as its chief sales point. This state of affairs means that the consumers of popular culture, while they are aficionados of genre, often know little about the history of genre, what we might call the archive. Science fiction – which established its market in mass-circulation “pulp” magazines in the 1930s, and then prolonged its appeal in the form of the mass-circulation paperback in the 1950s – offers a case in point. One has only to compare Amazing Stories, Astounding, and Planet Stories, whose heyday was the 1930s and 40s, with the magazines that succeeded them during the Eisenhower presidency and into the 1960s: Galaxy, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the revamped Astounding that now called itself, perhaps a bit pretentiously, Analogue. The pulps were bulky in format, with three-color covers depicting space-dreadnaughts in combat, bug-eyed monsters assaulting human beings, and buxom women breasting the cosmos in metallic vacuum-proof bikinis. The “slicks” responded to a changing market, or to a changing and sometimes rather snooty notion of propriety, by shrinking themselves down to digest size and offering visually a more austere internal appearance. The magazine covers became solemn, satirical, or abstract, but as a rule they avoided sensationalism, and occasionally they bade fair, as in Ed Emshwiller’s many fine covers for Galaxy, to be artistic.

The pulps filled their pages with scientifically insouciant forays into interplanetary space, Suetonius-like pseudo-histories of galactic empires, and extraterrestrial hero-sagas that might well be described under the formula of Beowulf on Mars. The slicks, by contrast, bound their contributors to the rule of plausibility and preferred them to submit material that eschewed the motifs of grand invention and hero-quest in order to focus on sociological trends and dystopian speculation. When the mass-market science-fiction paperback appeared in the early 1950s, it mainly republished material that had originally appeared in the older periodical venues, but by the mid-1960s the character of the content had altered. Whereas the Ace paperback list corresponded largely to the pulps, the Ballantine, Avon, and Signet lists corresponded largely to the slicks. The slick disposition considered itself as representative of positive progress beyond the pulps in the direction of intellectual sophistication, political sagacity, and aesthetic refinement. Historians of the genre mainly endorse that self-evaluation. But is it so?

Even when they suffered from hasty writing, the pulp stories displayed a myth-like vitality and a powerful moral, if not exactly ethical, impulse that to some degree went missing from the genre about the time that the hyperbolically Romantic Planet Stories ceased publication in 1952, and when Galaxy and Analogue rose to the forefront of the genre. This longstanding suspicion – that the naïve phase of science fiction, superseded by the sophisticated phase right down to the present, often excelled its successor-phase in richness of imagery and narrative muscularity – has recently found happy confirmation in the entrepreneurial intuition of Gregory Luce, a well-known broadcaster on San Francisco area radio and television. Luce’s Oregon-based, web-mediated publishing enterprise, Armchair Fiction, in cooperation with online megastore Amazon’s publish-on-demand service, has undertaken since 2011 to return to print lost items of genre fiction, mainly science fiction, from the mid-Twentieth Century that have been out of print and hard to find for decades. The result is an enormous boon for fans and students of Pulp-Era stories of planetary adventure. That there is a market for such things is also, in its modest way, a sign that cultural amnesia, while prevalent, is not total.

Continue reading

Sketch of the Ecology of Knowledge


Since the 1960s everyone has been familiar with the idea of ecology. Nature, before humanity, as the ecologists argue, constituted a balanced and indeed a self-balancing system. James Lovelock in his various books with Gaia in the title argues that nature before humanity constituted a “homeostatic” system that was not only self-regulating but capable of responding to gross unbalancing influences by vigorous redistributions of the disturbance so as to restore the norm of homeostasis. These observations apply largely to nature considered as the terrestrial biosphere, but Lovelock’s theory extends by implication beyond the restricted earthly system – all the way out to the asteroid belt.

According to the theory of natural ecology, every element of nature is linked recursively, by plural feed-back loops, to every other element; the elements work together as a whole to maintain a settled norm overall. Environmentalism, a political development of the idea of natural ecology, claims, however, that the human element of the system is an emergent anomaly whose presence upsets the ability of nature to maintain homeostasis. Whether the environmentalist claim concerning humanity is true or false, the general notion that a self-regulating system might suffer disruption from influences that are somehow external to it is highly plausible.

The term ecology is an ingenious coinage, probably needed at the time it entered into usage. The Greek word oikos means “house” or “household”; the Greek word logos – as its derivative logic suggests – is not only the orderly discussion of a phenomenon but also the internally self-regulating, form-endowing law that renders a phenomenon thus-and-such rather than something else and that keeps the phenomenon in this character steadily so that it remains recognizable and amenable to cognition. The term ecology thus elegantly, although perhaps not intentionally, reflects the notion of the universe as an orderly artifact, corresponding to a rational plan and having a discernible goal – that of steady self-maintenance.

Continue reading

Movie Review: “San Andreas”


Not thirty minutes into the story of San Andreas, a colossal skyscraper falls on my old girlfriend’s apartment house in West L.A. and then a tsunami sweeps it all away.  So – pretty good stuff!  I am giving this movie four-and-a-half stars out of five.  I withhold half a star for the scenes in which the actors have lines.

Thinking these thoughts so that my friends don’t need to.  TFB.