Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Age of Deliberate Barbarism

Apropos the previous post:

Having quoted the line from Victor Hugo, “World, all the ill comes from the form that gods take,” Henri de Lubac, one of the great Catholic theologians of the mid-20th century, wrote, quoting François Fénelon along the way:

Away, then, with all the projections, sublimations and creations of our passions or our dreams, of our fears and anger, of our nightmare or desires! Away with the gods who “seem to have been invented of set purpose by the enemy of mankind, in order to sanction crime and turn the divine to ridicule!” Away with the gods of nothingness which leave us to ourselves and keep us in bondage! Away with all the false gods! [The Discovery of God, 6]

The current gaggle of late-comers to the task of riding the world of “religion” are predictably naïve in thinking that they are the avant-garde, when in truth they are merely preparing for the next doomed but disastrous attempt to bring the old gods back. 

Martin Heidegger spent his last years busily retouching a reputation tarnished by his membership in the Nazi party during World War II. In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, he spoke in the oracular tones required by his delicate circumstance, saying, among other things: “only a god can save us.” Friedrich Nietzsche, however, also late in life, wrote The Antichrist, in which he lamented: “almost two thousand years and no new god.”

For all his madness, Nietzsche here glimpsed an important anthropological effect of the Christian revelation, and he recoiled from it. The word Nietzsche used to characterize what he loathed most about the cultural effect of Christianity was the word pity. He failed to see the specificity of the moral impulse he repudiated. It isn’t pity; it is empathy for victims as victims that the Gospel awakens, and it is that empathy that has had a mounting effect on cultural life during the last “two thousand years,” Nietzsche’s obvious allusion to Christianity.

Nietzsche was under no illusions as to why no new gods have emerged; he knew full well it was because of Christianity, and the titanic task he undertook was to set aside this tradition once and for all in order that humanity might return — his famous “eternal recurrence” — to the greatness of classical culture, which is to say, culture hospitable to the emergence (out of violence) of new gods.

“As soon as man ceases to be in contact with great mystical or religious forces,” writes de Lubac, “does he not inevitably come under the yoke of a harsher and blinder force, which leads him to perdition? It is what Vico called the age of ‘deliberate barbarism’, and that is the age in which we live.”

Indeed, Giambattista Vico’s cyclical theory of history, so reminiscent of Oriental notions of time and culture, find more than an echo in Nietzsche’s notion of the eternal return, a flat rejection of biblical historical consciousness. Barbarism was for Vico what Dionysian madness was to Nietzsche, the necessary and unavoidable prelude to the greatness that would mysteriously issue forth from violence in the form of a new epoch and/or a new god. Martin Heidegger, his gnomic verbal elusiveness notwithstanding, was perfectly aware of this.

Nietzsche set his face against the empathy for victims aroused by a Christianity, and his task was to find a way to override or outflank precisely this empathy, this “pity.” The way he finally proposed, quite logically, is pitilessness. Nietzsche addressed his homilies about the Übermensch and his hymns about the generative power of Dionysian chaos to those who he knew would come after him, urging them not to flinch. (Many have tried not to, with varying degrees of success.) The task from which they are not to flinch was never explicitly defined, but it was to coincide with humanity’s reacquisition of its ancient god-making and Reich-founding powers. Seen anthropologically, and precisely through the anthropological lens represented by the work of René Girard, this represents the unique problem of evil in our time: evil no longer self-concealing, no longer carried out by those able to inoculate themselves to the moral horror of what they are doing, but evil presided over by those who, terrifyingly, know what they are doing. Nietzsche might not call these things evil — except to beckon his acolytes “beyond good and evil” — for he was as averse to this staple of Judeo-Christian moral thought as he was to the word sin. The supermen (and superwomen) to whom he issued his call were those who know that to be delivered from banality they must not shed tears over the victims lost in the Dionysian god-making procedures.

Nietzsche must be given credit for recognizing what nineteenth century Christians were unable to recognize: that it was Christianity that was desacralizing the world, but even before René Girard provided substantial anthropological and theoretical substantiation, perceptive thinkers began to see the effect of the Gospel in this regard. “One of the signs of a mature spirit,” wrote Henri de Lubac, “is without doubt to renounce false forms of transcendence.”

One must ‘reject the gods’ … ‘all the gods’. That is precisely what the disciples of Jesus taught us to do from the beginning. If they were taken for atheists, it was not because they were making the banal claim to have discovered another god — who would simply have been one among many: but because they proclaimed him who is totally different from the gods, and who frees us from their tyranny. They denied everything that the men around them took for the divine — everything that man, at every epoch, tends to deify in order to adore himself and tyrannize over himself, in and through his gods. [The Discovery of God, 179-80]

“The Gospel,” de Lubac insisted, “is the only ‘twilight of the gods’.”

René Girard has shown us what the god-making laboratory looks like. It looks like Golgotha, but one that ends, not with the realization of the victim’s innocence and the dispersal of the confounded mob, but with the mob’s celebration of its victory in a holy cause. Archaic myths are replete with precisely this variation on the story that the New Testament tells from the point of view of its victim, each of them coinciding with the birth or rebirth of a “god” — the idol in whose service the community feels it has performed a sacred duty. The efficacy of such rituals, of course, depends on how thoroughly intoxicated by the violence its perpetrators are and that depends on the degree to which the truth about the victim has become irrepressible. This is not to say that those exposed to the revelation of the Cross will not succumb to the logic of sacred violence, for the power of the social contagion it sets in motion remains enormous. It means, rather, that, to the degree that they have been exposed to the truth of the victim, people will be both less completely caught up in the madness of scapegoating violence and/or that they will awaken from its spell with a moral hangover more readily than will those not exposed to this truth.



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