Tue, Jul 13, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Traditionalism harbors a special hate for the modern world

By Edward Rothstein  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

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.

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