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.
His philosophy was, as Sedgwick acknowledges, "not especially original." But he had a charismatic impact. In the 1920s, Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, the curator of the Department of Indian Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, wrote that "no living writer in modern Europe is more significant" than Guenon. In the 1940s, Andre Gide believed that if he had read Guenon earlier, his life would have been changed.
Guenon's argument was that the 20th-century West represented
the final stage of a final age, the apotheosis of worldly decadence, in which materialism was emphasized over the spirit, individuality over community. The Renaissance, he proposes, was not a rebirth but a death; science,
rationality and humanism were products of delusion. A cure -- or at any rate, a refuge -- could be found in the primordial truths that underlay all religions before modernity's distortions. Guenon scorned democracy; he believed in a hierarchical religious elite and saw himself as one of its elect.
He was right about one thing: There was something revolutionary about the notion of the individual that developed after the Renaissance. He was right, too, that religious and aesthetic compromises were required in a democratic culture with its beliefs
in rights and liberties. But he
could not imagine any way for a
democratic culture of religion to develop: His religious truth left no room for reason or autonomy. The Reformation, for him, was a deformation. These views are what traditionalism shares with varieties of Islamic fundamentalism.
They are also what led it to flirt with various leadership cults and, ultimately, with fascism, most obviously in the work of an Italian traditionalist, Julius Evola (1898-1974), who was inspired by Guenon. Evola wrote about the Holy Grail, about esoteric belief and magic, but in the 1920s and 1930s he tried to influence both Italian fascism and German Nazism. Sedgwick suggests that Evola even visited SS headquarters in Germany, urging the organization to supplement its vision with his.
Evola wanted fascism to be "more radical" and Nazism to be less bourgeois. In his 1934 book, Revolt Against the Modern World, Evola wrote: "What is really needed
is a total catharsis and a radical `housecleaning." One method was to spur on "the most destructive processes of the modern era." It was a message hailed by right-wing Italian terrorist groups in the 1960s and, in different ways, by the left-wing terrorists who followed.
In a less blunt way, such tendencies were even evident in the early work of the Romanian scholar of religion, Mircea Eliade, who was influenced by both Evola and Guenon in the 1920s and 1930s. He later developed what Sedgwick calls a "soft traditionalism," devoting his career to studying archaic religions and their views, an interest that influenced the course of academic religious studies in the US. But in his earlier traditionalist days, when he hailed "a nationalist Romania, frenzied and chauvinistic," Eliade was lured by the attractions of Romanian fascism and the Iron Guards, a past that came to light only after his death in 1986, leaving an indelible blot on his reputation.
This doesn't mean that all traditionalist belief is fascistic or that its restless quest for lost religious truth is inherently problematic; indeed, much of value has come out of traditionalist examinations of art and religion. But its anti-modern and anti-democratic polemics can have disturbing consequences. And Sedgwick shows that inscribed in its origins is the belief that truth could only be attained by overturning the modern world and its Western host; moral considerations and human consequences are treated as irrelevant.
Traditionalism declared a war in which modernity itself was the enemy. Only in the total destruction of democratic individualism and liberal humanism could the lost wisdom be restored. In some arenas, that is the battle still being fought.
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