Tue, Jul 13, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Traditionalism harbors a special hate for the modern world

By Edward Rothstein  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The Western world is decadent. Its emphasis on individualism is corrupt. Its materialism is dangerous. Its vision of modernity reflects not progress but regress. The West will destroy itself. But if it doesn't, its destruction should be helped along. True salvation can be found only by returning to ancient disciplines and beliefs.

Such views may not seem totally unfamiliar. Similar doctrines are held by Islamist terror groups and by those finding common cause with them. Writers like Paul Berman have already shown a connection between Islamist ideas and 20th-century Western fascism, with its own atavistic hatreds of modernity. Some of these ideas have emerged on the political left, as well, appearing in Marxist thought and inspiring the anti-globalization movement. Their impact on the political and religious landscape has been profound.

But how did such ideas develop? One surprising source turns out to be a little-known group of 20th-century European intellectuals. They passed these ideas on to small groups of ardent followers, but their books and pamphlets gradually shaped a worldwide

subculture of belief and devotion. Their loose-limbed movement, which began in the 1920s, has been called traditionalism.


The pioneers of traditionalism are not well known, but are now the subject of a new book by Mark Sedgwick, a historian of Islam who teaches at the American University in Cairo. He began writing Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century, thinking that it would be a study of Islam in the West, since many traditionalist figures were converts to Islam.

But he found that these conversions -- many done in secret -- were associated with broader religious theories. As he searched Web sites, sought reluctant interviewees and probed an esoteric culture, he also came upon traditionalism's intersection with fascism, the influence of traditionalism on American religious studies and the influence of traditionalism on Islamic thought. The careers of its original advocates also turned out to be elaborately eccentric: magic and sorcery mixed with Hinduism and Sufism; scholarship mixed with calls for revolution; devotion mixed with cult.

Sedgwick's history of traditionalism, the first scholarly effort by an outsider, also sheds light on contemporary passions. While the book is flawed by awkward organization and the need for more systematic examination of traditionalist ideas, it also makes clear how important this neglected movement is. On his Web site (www.traditionalists.org), Sedgwick lists more than 200 traditionalist organizations and Web sites in 34 countries. Even the arts now reflect traditionalist influence. The British composer, Sir John Tavener, whose seven-hour work, The Veil of the Temple, will receive its US premiere on July 24 as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, writes religious minimalist music and praises traditionalist writers, describing one, Firthjof Schuon (1907-1998), as he "in whose mystical presence I live."

One of the central documents of traditionalism is a relatively brief book, first published in 1927, The Crisis of the Modern World. Its author, Rene Guenon (1886-1951), born in France to Catholic parents, had been a student of mathematics but soon turned to theosophy, Masonry, medieval Christianity, Hinduism and finally Islam. Guenon moved to Cairo and later seemed to retreat into solitude, fearing evil sorcery.

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