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1. Long Live Death!

Why is everyone so afraid of death?

Granted, it is directly opposed to our instinct of self-preservation; but in reality, our intellect should recognize it as the road to the ultimate freedom – a world free of boxes, restrictions, the prison of existence itself.

As the Japanese saying goes, “while duty is heavier than a mountain, death is lighter than a feather”.

Life is a constant barrage of insults, injuries and injustices, punctuated by brief moneys of success and happiness; yet their very fleeting nature, by holding out an illusory hope of sustained bliss, just further reinforces life’s burdens. As Milan Kundera wrote:

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?

Yet death is complete dissipation into thin air, nirvana. Sublime ∅blivion.

Its just that the road to death is hard and painful, ending in a cliff. Yet did we fear or hate our existence before birth? Of course not. We couldn’t. We were free of the shackles of reality binding us to life – and the fear of the primeval darkness of the thereafter.

Rationalism is death; Claws of Cthulhu. Hence the fundamental irrationality of the human aversion to, and fear of, the eternal peace of the benign Void.

2. Totalitarian Aesthetics

Totalitarianism is a form of unity, and as such suicide. It co-opts everything and concentrates all power in the hands of One Leader. The urge to fall into a single body or mass, the feeling of vertigo, the abyss of sublime oblivion.

Such is the totalitarian aesthetic – monumental, militaristic, millenarian. The final triumph of the will over reason; for all reason leads to this suicide. A challenge to the Gods themselves.

…..The future of the West is not a limitless tending upwards and onwards for all time towards our presents ideals, but a single phenomenon of history, strictly limited and defined as to form and duration, which covers a few centuries and can be viewed and, in essentials, calculated from available precedents. With this enters the age of gigantic conflicts, in which we find ourselves today. It is the transition from Napoleonism to Caesarism, a general phase of evolution, which occupies at least two centuries and can be shown to exist in all Cultures…..

…..The last century [the 19th] was the winter of the West, the victory of materialism and scepticism, of socialism, parliamentarianism, and money. But in this century blood and instinct will regain their rights against the power of money and intellect. The era of individualism, liberalism and democracy, of humanitarianism and freedom, is nearing its end. The masses will accept with resignation the victory of the Caesars, the strong men, and will obey them…..

…..Life will descend to a level of general uniformity, a new kind of primitivism, and the world will be better for it…..

(O. Spengler, 1918)

3. The Power of the Text

[No picture. For a text is worth a thousand pictures.]

All the great epics have already been written. Fantasy and sci-fi can only reference the all-encompassing monomyth. Art has long sunk into abstract oblivion, or the wry regurgitation of old forms (sarcasm is the lowest form of wit). God is dead. The Romantic struggle to return to belief only produces pale imitations of the original, a meaningless reaction superseded by the (third) nihilism of transparency.

The apocalypse is finished, today it is the precession of the neutral, of forms of the neutral and of indifference. I will leave it to be considered whether there can be a romanticism, an aesthetic of the neutral therein. I don’t think so – all that remains, is the fascination for desertlike and indifferent forms, for the very operation of the system that annihilates us. Now, fascination (in contrast to seduction, which was attached to appearances, and to dialectical reason, which was attached to meaning) is a nihilistic passion par excellence, it is the passion proper to the mode of disappearance. We are fascinated by all forms of disappearance, of our disappearance. Melancholic and fascinated, such is our general situation in an era of involuntary transparency.

…The system is itself also nihilistic, in the sense that it has the power to pour everything, including what denies it, into indifference.

There is no more hope for meaning. And without a doubt this is a good thing: meaning is mortal. But that on which it has imposed its ephemeral reign, what it hoped to liquidate in order to impose the reign of the Enlightenment, that is, appearances, they, are immortal, invulnerable to the nihilism of meaning or of non-meaning itself.

This is where seduction begins.

Baudrillard, On Nihilism.

We live in a world of poshlost.

Corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature—these are obvious examples. Now, if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know.

- Nabokov (1973)

The tyranny of the System. Those who write the texts rule. References upon citations upon references, binding us into an iron cage, a paper prison. Impossible to break out of the mesh. A matrix so fine we don’t even see it. Realizing its existence is enlightenment. And madness.

Against this hegemony of the system, one can exalt the ruses of desire, practice revolutionary micrology of the quotidian, exalt the molecular drift or even defend cooking. This does not resolve the imperious necessity of checking the system in broad daylight.

This, only terrorism can do.

It is the trait of reversion that effaces the remainder, just as a single ironic smile effaces a whole discourse, just as a single flash of denial in a slave effaces all the power and pleasure of the master.

The more hegemonic the system, the more the imagination is struck by the smallest of its reversals. The challenge, even infinitesimal, is the image of a chain failure. Only this reversibility without a counterpart is an event today, on the nihilistic and disaffected stage of the political. Only it mobilizes the imaginary.

- Baudrillard, On Nihilism.

Now all that’s left to the prophet of the postmodern testament is either the reproduction of the old forms, or their destruction. No new ideas, only citation, revision, – and annihilation.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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This is my second follow-up post to The Belief Matrix, in which I attempted to advance a universal model for civilizational responses to subsistence crises (The Malthusian Loop) and the Western challenge (The Sisyphean Loop). This time I will look at Germany, a nation that was always torn between its hard-assimilated Roman / Western identity, and German Romanticism – the nativist reaction against the “Idea of the West” (as previously loosely-defined, a set of concepts like the scientific method, rule of law, economic rationalism, and liberalism).

Before World War One, Germany was a confident, expanding power, but one wracked by insecurity. It was encircled by France and Russia on land, and contained by Great Britain at sea. The increasing cooperation between those three nations reinforced Germany’s suspicions and made it resentful about being denied its rightful place in the sun (all the best colonies had already been snapped up by the time Germany came to the imperialist game). In retrospect, much has been made of the balefulness of the Prussian militarist tradition, the influence of German nationalist groups, and the Kaiser’s bombastic antebellum rhetoric as one of the enabling factors of Germany’s Sonderweg. However, one should also note that in 1900 Germans enjoyed a higher level of adult enfranchisement than the British (22% versus 18% of the population, albeit with the caveat that the Reichstag’s powers were far more circumscribed) and that the anti-war Social Democrats won 34.8% in 1912.

The Teutonic Spirit

That said, imperial Germany was different from the Western liberalisms (Great Britain, France and the US) – not even so much in its political economy, an uneasy fusion of “Western” industrialism and “Eastern” autocracy, but also in its reflection in the psychological make-up of the German people, whose defining trait is a constant internal struggle between “civilized” Roman values (Rationalism / “The Idea of the West”) and “barbarian” Teutonic instinct. From Peter Viereck’s Metapolitics: From Wagner and the German Romantics to Hitler, first published in 1941 (well into WW2):

Almost every major German figure bears within himself both sides of this contrast. That is why German thinkers and bards talk more of “two souls in one breast” than do the thinkers of any national culture. . . . They treat their souls as a fond mother treats an enfant terrible: scolding yet egging on. That may make them “geniuses” and “daemonic,” but this inner conflict over the Roman wall is not always so harmless. Sometimes it is psychologically accompanied by projection, fanaticism, hysteria, instability, delusions of persecution plus persecution of others, and convulsive outbursts of physical violence.

He quotes Gustav Pauli:

Romanticism is Germanic and reached its purest expression in those territories which are freest from Roman colonization. Everything that is regarded as an essential aspect of the romantic spirit, irrationalism, the mystic welding together of subject and object, the tendency to intermingle the arts, the longing for the far-away and the strange, the feeling for the infinite and the continuity of historic development.

There are many more interesting musing on the Teutonic character, particularly in his thesis that the “schizoid polarity in German minds” is not inconsistent with the “German craving for discipline, authority, ruthless order”, since “the excessive and traditional discipline by the German state” is but the “the direct product of the excessive lack of inner discipline of the individual German”, that is, of “their intoxication with chaos, their Faustian romanticism”.

And since “nothing is more typical of the chaotic romantic temperament than this very attempt to escape from itself into the prison of limitless authoritarianism”, this leads to the German “worship [of] a prison-camp type of state with fanatic hysteria so long as it saves each of them, as romantic individuals, from his inner mental and emotional anarchy”. (Hence leading to the rejection of traditional ethics, focused on the individual, in favor of the adulation of the “organic”, all-powerful state. )

Fukuyama on Germany at the start of the war in The End of History:

In Germany, above all, the war was seen by many as a revolt against the materialism of the commercial world created by France and that archetype of bourgeois societies, Britain… But in reading German justifications for the war, one is struck by a consistent emphasis on the need for a kind of objectless struggle, a struggle that would have purifying moral effects quite independently of whether Germany gained colonies or won freedom of the seas…

The Reich Loop within the Belief Matrix

Above is the application of the Belief Matrix model to German history in the 20th C. Note the changes / improvement of terms from the previous model. On the horizontal axis, the Acceptance (of tradition) was replaced by Sobornost – a catch-all term for a deep sense of internal peace and unity between races, religions, sexes, etc, within a society, or in the words of Russian philosopher Nikolai Lossky, “the combination of freedom and unity of many persons on the basis of their common love for the same absolute values”. A good example of such a society would be the 1950′s-1960′s United States, when inequality was (relatively) low, people left the keys in their car doors and there were (as yet) few hippies / feminists / commies / etc to disturb the peace.

Its opposite, formerly Rejection (of tradition), is Poshlost, which according to different commentators is “petty evil or self-satisfied vulgarity”, “triviality, vulgarity, sexual promiscuity, and a lack of spirituality”, “not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive”, and “corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature”. This is again a good catch-all term for categorizing declining cultures that had lost their belief in themselves, such as Weimar Germany or 1990′s Russia.

On the vertical axis, I replaced the vague Belief in the West / Anti-West (vague because the “Idea of the West”, which is what I meant by using the “West” in this context in previous posts, is not altogether synonymous with specific “Western” countries such as France or the US) with Rationalism (“The Idea of the West” / liberalism / Mediterranean / Greco-Roman civilization / Enlightenment ideal, – NOT necessarily democracy, which in Aristotle’s original conception is the tyranny of the many, and is if anything closer to sobornost than to rationalism – i.e., democracy is perpendicular to liberalism, the two being rather difficult to reconcile) and Romanticism (“irrationalism, the mystic welding together of subject and object, the tendency to intermingle the arts, the longing for the far-away and the strange, the feeling for the infinite and the continuity of historic development”, the sublime, etc – much like postmodernism, it is very hard to define, for definition is contrary to its very spirit).

The Genesis of the Modern Reich Loop

In 1914, a confident, growing Great Power – albeit one beset by labor unrest, social tensions and an acute sense of strategic weakness – rushed into a world war that it was, by most counts, responsible for (it declared war on Russia first and invaded Belgium). This was the first total war of the modern age and decidedly shaped the destiny of the coming century:

After the failure of the Spring Offensive in 1918 and the introduction of fresh, well-equipped American troops, backed by the world’s first industrial power, Germany’s surrender was probably inevitable; by the end of the year, its home front in collapse. The enemy blockade had cut off vital imports such as phosphates for agriculture, fuelled massive inflation (ersatz substitutes could no longer cope) and stirred social discontent… Nationalists would reinterpret the German request for an armistice in November 1918 as a perfidious “stab in the back” by Jews, socialists and civilian politicians – the so-called “November criminals”, and this myth would later contribute to the rise of Hitler.

This was part of the general post-war disillusionment. Gloomy poems and art… war cripples; veterans unable to adjust to civilian life; socialist agitation and right-wing reaction; Spengler’s The Decline of the West; the feeling that it was all for nothing: these are some of the things characterizing the post-war period.In Germany, the once-high fertility rate fell by half within just a decade from 1914 to the 1920’s; until then, a uniquely rapid demographic transition.

The Treaty of Versailles and resulting political turmoil pushed Germans into the top-left part of the Belief Matrix – the Region of Disillusionment. Yet the lack of belief that characterizes the Region of Disillusionment makes it profoundly unstable. The tortured souls caught up in there cannot resist the Romantic seduction of a Great March back to the right of the Belief Matrix, back to sobornost, to save themselves from their “inner mental and emotional anarchy”.

Though the Weimar Republic temporarily stabilized after 1924 under the stewardship of Gustav Stresemann, who brought about a short bout of economic prosperity and reconciliation with the Western powers, this was cut short by the Depression – which comprehensively discredited the Weimar project for a second time in a decade. Add in the political instability inherent of the Weimar system of democracy, the popular fear of Communism and the underlying Romantic / totalitarian tendencies in German society*, and ultimately it is not that surprising that the Nazis ended up coming to power by 1933. * Again from Viereck:

Mein Kampf was a bestseller long before the German people, voting uncoerced in the free Reichstag election of September 1930, increased the Nazi seats from 12 to 107 and made them the biggest party in Germany. By then, Hitler had said in Mein Kampf (to pick a typical threat at random): “If at the start [of World War I] we had held under poison gas twelve or fifteen thousand of these Hebrew subverters of our people… then the sacrifice of a million Germans at the front would not have been in vain.

The Descent into Nazism – “The Wagnerian Volk-Mysticism of Metapolitics”**

One undeniable achievement of the Nazis was that they restored a sense of self-belief to the German people, but one based on racialist fanaticism on the top-right of the belief matrix, where Romantic mysticism is wedded to sobornost. In the top-right of the Belief Matrix, despotisms arise.

** This summation of the spirit of Nazism comes from Viereck, as does the passage below:

Painfully, over eons, civilization stamps its traditional and conservative values on men. Only within these values, or traffic lights, are freedom and objective justice possible. One by one Hitler efficiently smashes the traffic lights of the “common basis of humanity”. With them, freedom and objective justice effectively vanish in Germany. Nazism scorns personal freedom and objectivity and all universal, unnational values as being the “superficial” civilization of the sunny Mediterranean, in contrast with the “deeper” Kultur of northern fogs, that misty metapolitics, that “queer mixture of mysticism and brutality”.

From Rumor and Reflection, Bernard Berenson – written in February 1942.

Nazism is an attempt on the part of Germany to Asiatize itself completely, destroying and eradicating everything in itself that spells Europe, which Europe is equivalent to Mediterranean. It began with the easiest to accomplish, the wholesale massacre of the Jews, always the spearhead of Mediterranean civilization.

From Goebbels:

National Socialism has understood how to take the soulless framework of technology and fill it with the rhythm and hot impulses of our time.

Götterdämmerung 1945.

As a geopolitical power in its own right, much like the German states after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 – Germany ceased to matter as a sovereign Great Power.

The Rediscovery of Rationalism

During the 1950′s-1970′s, denazification and the re-imposition of rationalism (liberal democracy in the West, socialist democracy in the East) plunged Germany to the bottom-right, the only area on the belief matrix where liberal democracy can effectively thrive in the long-term, kept inside by the centripetal forces of liberty cycles. Both halves found a new prosperity. In the West, there was a Wirtschaftswunder, enabled by the Marshall Plan, economic deregulation, cheap energy and the possibility of rapid convergence to US / British levels of GDP per capita because of the wartime destruction of its industrial base. The return to sobornost, which the Nazis made possible, ironically reinforced Germany’s ultimate reconciliation with rationalism.

[German historical TFR (total fertility rate) on thick line - since children could be considered a rough indicator of confidence in its future, demography may offer an insight into the state of a society's belief in itself. The beginning of the drop from the 1890's is a natural fertility transition due to urbanization and greater female literacy, but the post-WW1 drop is unprecedentedly rapid and corresponds to a period of poshlost. It recovered somewhat during prewar Nazism and postwar democracy, before plunging again from the late 1960's to sub-replacement level rates - where they remain to this date].

However, the situation in West Germany changed radically from the late 1960′s (see Belief Matrix graph) as economic growth slowed, fertility began to decline rapidly and there appeared new concerns like environmentalism and German historical guilt re-the Holocaust. West Germans began to move to the left on the Belief Matrix, losing faith in their nation. This transition took longer to begin in East Germany, but after the collapse of socialism in the late 1980′s, the sense of disillusionment there was vastly greater, as its newly-discovered freedoms were accompanied by demographic collapse, deindustrialization and disrespect from the “Besser-Wessis”. Despite the limitations on political and civil rights under the GDR, significant numbers of East Germans believe life under was it better – and pine for the return of the sobornost it ultimately represented [my emphasis].

Today, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, 57 percent, or an absolute majority, of eastern Germans defend the former East Germany. “The GDR had more good sides than bad sides. There were some problems, but life was good there,” say 49 percent of those polled. Eight percent of eastern Germans flatly oppose all criticism of their former home and agree with the statement: “The GDR had, for the most part, good sides. Life there was happier and better than in reunified Germany today.” …

… “From today’s perspective, I believe that we were driven out of paradise when the Wall came down,” one person writes, and a 38-year-old man “thanks God” that he was able to experience living in the GDR, noting that it wasn’t until after German reunification that he witnessed people who feared for their existence, beggars and homeless people.

… “In the past, a campground was a place where people enjoyed their freedom together,” he says. What he misses most today is “that feeling of companionship and solidarity.” The economy of scarcity, complete with barter transactions, was “more like a hobby.” Does he have a Stasi file? “I’m not interested in that,” says Schön. “Besides, it would be too disappointing.”

… People lie and cheat everywhere today, he says, and today’s injustices are simply perpetrated in a more cunning way than in the GDR, where starvation wages and slashed car tires were unheard of. Schön cannot offer any accounts of his own bad experiences in present-day Germany. “I’m better off today than I was before,” he says, “but I am not more satisfied.”

Schön’s reasoning is less about cool logic than it is about settling scores. What makes him particularly dissatisfied is “the false picture of the East that the West is painting today.” …

In other words, belief is necessary for national survival, whereas freedom is tangential. You don’t even have to ask the East Germans, looking at their fertility rates is enough.

(And in a sense, that describes pretty much all of Europe. In modern societies, it is not individually rational to have more than one or at most two children. The long-term result, barring a technological silver bullet like artificial wombs or robots, is an accelerating national decline and possibly collapse – or the reversal of the very same rational values that made the demographic collapse possible in the first place. Better hope the reversal will not be an overcompensation, e.g. fascism or religious fundamentalism).

Return to the Reich?

Today, Germany is in a strange and unusual position – though it is almost certainly locked into secular decline, it has been unshackled from its long strategic dormancy imposed by the Cold War superpower.

Germany has one of the world’s most advanced industrial economies, but is uncomfortably reliant on manufactured exports to provide the savings needed to sustain its welfare state and rapidly aging population. Speaking of which, its fertility rate has fallen to well below replacement level rates of 2.1 children per woman in the early 1970′s – one of the earliest such fertility transitions (and predating Russia’s by 20 years, which is the reason Russia has some chances of recovery in the next few years). Amazingly, every single year since 1972 saw fewer babies born in West Germany than in 1946, just one year after a crushing defeat and military occupation (the equivalent year for East Germany is 1990).

Furthermore, Germany is the only place in Europe (with the sole exception of culturally-similar Austria), where even the desired TFR is at a sub-replacement level of 1.8 (real TFR is 1.4). Nor is immigration a solution given the sheer scale of the influx needed to maintain current working-age populations and German xenophobia. Projecting to 2050, it would need annual immigration of 487,000 people just to keep the labor size constant and 810,000 to maintain a 3:1 ratio between workers and retirees. This is politically unrealistic. So bearing in mind that Germans have not been reproducing themselves for a full generation now (and have no desire to start doing so) and the infeasibility of large-scale immigration, this means that Germany’s chances of solving its demographic problems in the foreseeable future are next to zero.

Will the world continue to soak up German exports? Probably not as much as before, because of the impending dangers to globalization from peak oil and geopolitical disruptions. (Although one advantage Germany does have is in its strengths in energy efficiency, which constitutes a powerful comparative advantage in a world of soaring energy costs). Even as state revenues drop as the labor force shrinks, welfare demands will increase (e.g. old-age pensions, which already took up 11.8% of the GDP in 2000).

The Bundeswehr is of Cold War vintage, designed to fight a traditional Great Power war on the North European Plain, but with as yet minimal power projection capabilities. (Not that Germany, a mostly land-locked nation with a minimal colonial heritage, would even be able to do much with it). France will lock up the immense energy and fertilizer reservoirs of North Africa, and it will not be interested in sharing its (relative) energy and demographic bounties with a weakening Germany. The world’s major maritime powers will joust in a new scramble for Africa; Sweden looks set to regain its old status as the predominant Baltic Power; and there is little point in surmounting the Alps to expand into Italy.

Facing a subpar energy future, the loss of export markets in a protectionist world, a rapid demographic decline, and an unprecedented fiscal crisis, Berlin will again look east – as it so often has in the past in times of stress. It is in its strategic interests to draw closer to Moscow, given the mutual desirability of setting up a bilateral relationship based on trading Russian commodities (natural gas) for German machine tools and technology, as occurred so often in the past. (For instance, in the Treaty of Rappallo (1922), the two international pariahs signed a peace agreement, forgave each other’s debts and signed a free trade accord. Russia also helped Germany circumvent the Treaty of Versailles by allowing Germany to use its territory to continue military-related R&D and weapons testing, far from the prying eyes of Western spies). Furthermore, Russia could use a neutral-to-friendly Germany as a shield to consolidate its power in the post-Soviet space.

As so often happened in the past, Poland will fall in the way of this Russo-German relationship. Russia is interested in pushing American influence out of East-Central Europe, converting the region into a neutral buffer for its empire. Germany will be interested in furthering its economic penetration of the region, given the losses of some of its other export markets, and in preventively blocking Russia’s further expansion into Europe proper; in addition, there’s also its traditional craving for more Lebensraum.

However, Poland will be supported directly by France, which has a direct interest in guaranteeing its sovereignty in order to prevent the rise of a German-dominated Europe (or a contiguous Russo-German bloc, which would amount to the same thing); and despite its likely retreat from Eurasian power politics in the face of mounting domestic problems, the US too will likely contribute to Polish security (preventing the rise of a Eurasian hegemon will still figure amongst Washington’s priorities). Interestingly, Britain will probably try to maintain neutrality and good relations with all sides: its desire to support France and Poland in order to avoid a united European hegemon, will be counterbalanced by its growing energy dependence on Russia.

The future shape of the post-Pax Americana Europe is already taking shape:

First, Germany is beginning to close ranks at home, and not in terms of political parties. During the past year, rhetoric in the press and among politicians has shifted inexorably away from such modern values as multiculturalism. This is partially due to growing dissatisfaction with Schroeder’s government, but there also are glimpses of something darker. For instance, after state elections in Schleswig-Holstein brought a small ethnic Danish party to power Feb. 20, party leaders found themselves the target of hundreds of threats — some from public figures — of which some of the more polite noted that “what is legal is not always legitimate.”

Countries under stress tend to pull together, and that often can mean identifying outsiders in their midst. The German economy has not performed well for 15 years. It is now in its third recession since 2001, unemployment has reached a 73-year high, and beginning in 2006, changes in social welfare laws mean that literally millions of Germans will cease to receive benefits payments. If these realities do spark some kind of social backlash, it could prove significant that Germany hosts Europe’s largest Turkish population and immigrants from a smattering of many other nationalities. There are plenty of outsiders to choose from.

Second, Berlin is resuscitating relations with Moscow. Germany is Russia’s largest energy and trade customer, and the Schroeder government has gone to great pains to push that relationship even further. Alone among European and NATO states, Germany has kept mum during the recent goings-on in Ukraine, and it alone is standing aside even as the rest of the West is pursuing a broad geopolitical advance throughout all of Russia’s former provinces.

A German-Russian alignment is not only logical in a geopolitical sense, but relations have a long way to grow before hitting any natural constraints. Though the two fought each other bitterly during World War II, it is often forgotten that they cooperated deeply until they actually bordered each other. Right now, there are a dozen countries in the zone of territory between them — broadly the same countries that were there in 1939, when Molotov and Ribbentrop decided to carve out the future.

After 60 years in a geopolitical coma, Germany is not just turning a page, it is beginning to write a new book. This in no way means that Germany is doomed to return to its fascist past, but neither is it a foregone conclusion that the Germany of the future will be an American ally, a British ally or especially a French ally (in fact, the past 60 years are the only period in which Paris and Berlin have seen eye-to-eye).

Where Germany will evolve is anyone’s guess: For all practical purposes, Berlin is only now waking up. A new balance of power must now be crafted. At present, Germany and Russia are both feeling quite unsettled, and some 21st-century version of the Treaty of Rapallo appears to be in the cards. That does not mean war is inevitable.

What is inevitable is change. The least likely result of a major power emerging at the heart of a continent is business as usual. And if history is any guide, Germany’s re-emergence during the next few years will slam into Europe with all the subtlety of, well, the German army.

Germany is a spiritually bifurcated and psychologically tortured nation; though it played a major role in manufacturing the Faustian world of machines, rationalism and the intellect, it is safe to say that a nation which produced the likes of Nietzsche, Spengler and Heidegger possesses a profoundly mystical soul, and secretly yearns to return to its past-and-future despite the ostensible comfort of its material surroundings. The imposition of liberalism on its soil was artificial, not organic, and its social effects have been disastrous of late.

Furthermore, Germany is now facing an unprecedented set of challenges stemming from its economic malaise, demographic collapse and the imminent global energy crisis. The USSR has retreated, NATO is retreating, and the US itself will soon follow; as the last constraint, the EU looks strong, but at its heart it is nothing more than a paper tiger (a very big one, admittedly) that will likely dissolve in the upheavals ahead, leaving behind only a glorified free trade zone, if that.

Germany is now becoming an increasingly free actor in Europe, free to follow its own optimal geopolitical strategy. Although it is now relatively pacifist and militarily weak, but history shows that can metamorphose with unsettling rapidity – just compare the Germany of 1929 with the Germany of 1939. Then as now, momentous change is on its way. This is not to imply that it will become fascist or even abandon its current political system (though those are distinct possibilities), but it will become more a more illiberal, authoritarian and expansionist state.

The return of the Reich is nigh.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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The classic Marxist argument holds than an emerging bourgeois class, its wealth based on commerce, industry and capital accumulation, was constrained and frustrated in its political ambitions by the nobility. France was divided into Three Estates, the Third Estate which bore the taille (the main direct tax), the nobility (subject only to the capitation poll tax and viengtième) and the clergy (only required to donate a pre-negotiated don gratuit). The ‘privileged’ orders maintained monopolies, held the right to collect the tithe or seigniorial dues and enjoyed many exemptions, e.g. on military service, the corveé and most taxes. L.S. Mercier in his Tableau de Paris succinctly summed up the many grievances against the aristocracy – “The castles…possess misused rights of hunting, fishing and cutting wood…[and] conceal those haughty gentlemen who separate themselves effectively from the human race…who add their own taxes…beg eternally for pensions and places…[and] will not allow the common people to have either promotion or reward”. The last point was expounded on by the Abbé Sieyès, in the heady atmosphere of 1789, when he wrote, “All the branches of the executive have been taken over by the caste that monopolizes the Church, the judiciary and the army. A spirit of fellowship leads the nobles to favor one another over the rest of the nation”. These illustrated the main complaints of the Third Estate against the nobility – they were perceived as venal, reactionary and parasitic, a foreign blot on the French nation.

Yet the above view that 18th century France saw the bourgeoisie superseding the old nobility economically but being frustrated in their social ambitions by them is a flawed and simplistic narrative. The arguments of the revisionist school, which challenged the French Marxist interpretation of the Revolution as the replacement of the nobility by the bourgeoisie as the dominant class, are many and covering all major revisionist historians (Cobban, Taylor, Doyle, etc) is futile in an essay of such length. However, Schama’s Citizens encompasses their arguments in one book, albeit one we have to treat with caution due to its constant and unwarranted bias against the revolutionaries, harkening back to historical dramatizers like Carlyle, Dickens and Baroness Orkzy.

In a nutshell, Citizens considers the old regime to have been surprisingly modern – progressive, prospering, addicted to science and change. Old-style feudalism was supposedly already pretty much vanished from the countryside – most dues were equivalent to money rents. French state-funded pure science was the equal of any in Europe and was translated into many useful applications, particularly in military technology. Economic growth proceeded at 1.9% per annum in the late 18th century, a rate only matched during the era of the Empire and its artificial Continental System. Transport (from 1760 to 1780 travel times by coach from Paris to Bordeaux fell from fourteen to five days), communications and trade) were developing rapidly, unifying the French market. Industry burgeoned, growing at an impressive average of 3.8% per annum from the 1760′s to the Revolution) and was the most developed in Europe outside Britain. Growing literacy and the rise of a public opinion fueled an explosion in newspapers, pamphlets and encyclopedias.

Also incorporated is Doyle’s insight that by the late 18th century, nobility could be easily bought (France had 120,000 nobles in 1789, an order of magnitude greater than in Britain) and that the late ancien régime underwent fusion between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. While officially engagement in commercial activities was to be punished by derogation, in practice France’s leading industrialists were also nobles – for instance, the Duc d’Orléons, the King’s own brother, owned glass-works at Cotteret and textile plants at Montargis and Orléons. Such examples could be multiplied indefinitely. Moreover, the biggest frictions were not between the commercial bourgeoisie and nobles, but between different sections of the nobility – the usually successful urban nobles of Paris and the booming peripheral cities like Lyons, Marseilles, Bordeaux and Nantes, and the rural gentry, which comprised 40% of the noble population and frequently had nothing to distinguish themselves from the commoners around them than by their titles, and thus had the most to fear from a loss of privileges. This was the main reason behind the 1781 Ségur Law, which limited sales of military ranks to the old nobility and was primarily aimed against the recently ennobled nouveau riche. Furthermore, there is evidence that even the more ordinary bourgeoisie (which number some 2.3mn souls on the eve of the Revolution) admired and aspired to nobility – for instance, in December 1788 the lawyers of Nuits declared, “The privileges of the nobility are truly their property. We will respect them all the more because we are not excluded from them…why, then, suppose that we think of destroying the source of emulation which guides our labors?” For every corrupt and unpopular intendant there would be a progressive like Saint-Sauveur in Languedoc, who applied science to solve economic and public health problems in his province. To quote Schama in extenso, assuming modernity to be a “world in which capital replaces customs as arbiter of social values, where professionals rather than amateurs run the institutions of law and government, and where commerce and industry rather than land lead economic growth”, the “great period of change was not the Revolution but the late eighteenth century”.

So instead of being a class war between bourgeoisie and nobility, there is evidence that it was ideas, a reaction against this brave new world of ‘money and death’, that generated the Revolution. This new social phenomenon was based on several sources – foremost, philosophy and reviving interest in antiquity, all reinforced by the decline of absolutism throughout the eighteenth century and the rapid spread of literacy. Louis-Philippe, the Comte de Ségur, recalled in 1826 – “We were inclined to surrender whole-heartedly to the philosophical doctrines put forwards by men of letters…we took secret pleasure in the fact that these men attacked the old edifice that seemed to us to be so Gothic and ridiculous. Censorship in the last decades of the ancien régime was relatively light and forbidden books and pamphlets could be bought even near the entrance to the Palace of Versailles, where they found willing customers amongst the aristocrats and courtiers who as often as not were the subjects of their vitriol and ridicule. Rousseau captivated people with his aspiration to candidness, simplicity and Virtue; Voltaire criticized the bloated upper hierarchy of the Church; Montesquieu proposed the division of government into the legislative, executive and judicial branch, replacing the old feudal system of the Estates. In general invective was directed against the system of monarchical rule – writing the Rights of Man in 1791, Tom Paine summarized these sentiments by stating that “what is called the splendor of a throne is no other than the corruption of the state, which “indiscriminately admits every species of character to the same authority”.

A renewed interest in the ancient world stirred ascetic Roman ideals of asperity, simplicity and readiness to sacrifice, as exemplified by the tale of the Horatii (which inspired the famous David painting, Oath of the Horatii). Modern manifestations of the Roman ideal were seized upon, as illustrated by the emergence of patriot citizen heroes during the French involvement in the American Revolutionary War (against a monarchy!) – e.g. du Couëdic, a ship commander who became a patriot hero after his Pyrrhic victory over a British frigate in which he was mortally wounded and his sloop practically destroyed. And finally there was the reflection of these ideas in the popular culture of the time – plays caricaturing the privileged orders (e.g. The Marriage of Figaro), David’s paintings and the polemics of folks like Mercier and Linguet. Thus as we can there was more to the background of the Revolution that social and economic turbulence – also playing a great rule were new ideas like equality of opportunity, the virtues of simplicity and patriotism, and a return to an imagined past while being propelled forwards technologically – as gushingly envisioned in Condorcet’s futurist writings.

The other side of the Marxist argument is that, in Albert Soboul’s words, “The French Revolution was the crowning achievement of a long economic and social evolution that made the bourgeoisie the master of the world”. He has a point regarding his evaluation of the Revolution’s lasting legacy – in particular, that of its Constituent Assembly. The Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) was the foundation for civil equality – Clause 2 states, “These [natural and inalienable] are liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression”. Guilds and price controls were abolished and the Le Chapelier Law (1791) prohibited workers’ associations. That said, many of the liberal reforms of that era were simply a continuation of previous royal policies. The main Revolution-inspired tax, a common one on land and movables, had precedents in Calonne’s reform proposals of 1786 and free trade was in favor from Turgot to the Eden Treaty. The removal of internal customs barriers and the emancipation of Protestants both happened in 1786 under the ancien régime.

The Revolution opened up careers to talent, which could only favor the bourgeoisie since urban workers and peasants did not have the educational opportunities to exploit this. However, in the short term, because of the Revolution’s distrust of professional associations (links to old regime corporatism and privilege), medicine and law were “thrown open to the market, with minimal qualifications required”, resulting in “revolutionary France being a happy hunting ground for quacks and charlatans”. Afterwards, the militarized bureaucracy that was the Napoleonic state employed 250,000 officials, five times more than the old regime and about 10% of the entire bourgeoisie, who even enjoyed the rudiments of a contributory pension system. The army was very successful in adapting to the new society, as Napoleon could testify. So the bourgeoisie, as in middle class, gained authority – but what about the other meaning of bourgeois, as in capitalist?

The Revolution affirmed property rights and produced aforementioned pro-capitalist legislation. However, in the short term it was a catastrophe – war and British naval superiority, coupled with revolts in the provinces led to the eclipse of France’s most dynamics economic sector in 1789, overseas trade, as well as the cities that sustained it (Bordeaux, Marseilles, Nantes, etc). Emigration and persecution of the old noble elites caused the collapse of Lyon’s silk industry. Granted, military campaigns and the Continental System created artificial demand for cotton and metallurgy, but these also collapsed following the defeats after 1812. From a long term perspective, the ruling class remained confined to land-owning nobles and bourgeoisie as before, who invested in land rather than industry, especially because of the mass sale of the biens nationaux – for instance, one asked what kind of Frenchman is mad enough “to risk his fortune in a business enterprise…[and not]…one of the confiscated estates”. France had to wait for the railways to really ‘take-off’ into its industrial revolution and its main impact, meanwhile, was in its ideas – nationalism, civil equality, sovereignty and meritocracy, which were born in the last decades of the ancien régime and propagated through Europe by French armies. “The people thought kings were gods upon earth…[now] it’s more difficult to rule the people”, according to Kolokotrones, a Greek brigand and patriot.

Following our analysis of the origins and results of the Revolution – in which we say that although its repercussions did impact somewhat on the social structure, the main motivations seem to have been based on ideas, not class – it’s time to look at course of the Revolution itself. The first and most famous French Revolution was, according to Lefebvre, actually four revolutions. The first was the ‘aristocratic revolt’, which, due to circumstances and Louis XVI’s indecisiveness and assorted gaffes, succeeded in calling up the Estates-General to approve new taxes. However, the privileged Estates’ insistence on the ‘forms of 1614′ transformed the debate – “King, despotism and constitution have become only secondary questions. Now it is war between the Third Estate and the two others”, according to the Abbé Sieyès. Eventually though, faced with deadlock and ominous signs from the government, they joined in common with a doubled Third and took the Tennis Court Oath. The popular revolution stormed the Bastille, took control of Paris and destroyed the capital’s hated customs wall on hearing rumors of a royalist plot to dissolve the National Assembly by force. Meanwhile the peasant revolution destroyed feudalism from below via the widespread burning of seigniorial obligations. The King was forced to back down. With its newfound power, the bourgeoisie used the National Assembly to enact Enlightenment-influenced civil equality reforms.

The above account is not as simply as it might appear. The composition of the Third Estate in the Estates-General of 1789 was actually mostly composed of venal office holders (43%) and lawyers (25%), while only 13% were involved in commercial activities. Furthermore, the Third was actually more conservative than the Second on the vast majority of economic and social issues! Also the Estates were prepared to fuse together into a National Assembly to demand a constitution and afterwards, all (former) orders overwhelmingly supported measured to eradicate privileges (e.g. the August Decrees).

The other major period as regards social interpretations is from the purge of the Girondins in June 1793 to the Thermidorian reaction in July 1794. Now the legacy of this period – the Maxima, forced loans, laws against hoarding, the Vendôme Laws – is certainly not pro-bourgeois under any understanding of the term. According to a variant of the Marxist interpretation, the bourgeois bent over backwards to appease the sans-culottes by implementing economic Terror. In this way war pressures (the levée en masse and its associated release of democratic sentiments), food shortages and radicalization of the clubs (e.g. Cordeliers) was to be sublimated and redirected against the Republic’s foreign enemies.

The problem with this interpretation is the assumption that the sans-culottes had a powerful political identity and goals of their own. They were in fact politically passive. They did not lash out when their champions were destroyed (e.g. Roux imprisoned under the Law of Suspects in September 1793, the Hébertists guillotined for their excessive zeal in March 1794, etc). All their journées during the period – the overthrow of the King, the purge of the Girondins, demands for the Maxima – were in any case supported by a large number of Assembly deputies. Finally, they faded as a political force after Thermidor once the war started going much better, despite the winter of 1794-95 being one of the harshest on record and rampant inflation following the abandonment of the Maxima. This is illustrated by the failed uprisings of Germinal and Prairial. One cause of this is that the “popular societies of the sections rarely numbered more than 400 members”, meaning that only 5% to 10% of Parisians actively participated (and were mainly drawn from artisans and shopkeepers), in contrast to the sectional battalions which numbered around 100,000 men. Thus they were too weak without the support of bourgeois Jacobinism. They defined themselves culturally (not politically) as favoring fraternity, liberty and candidness, and in opposition to the corrupt, superficial ‘aristos’. It wasn’t really a class with common social backgrounds, but rather an intellectual and cultural fad which predated the worker movements of the 19th century, e.g. in its politicized social goals and partial tolerance of a feminist movement.

Although in general the Jacobins shared moderately well-off bourgeois backgrounds, what defined them were their ideas. Robespierre dreamed of a Rousseaun Republic, a Romantic vision of Virtue as absolute end. But “virtue without which terror is harmful and terror which without virtue is impotent” – political Terror was necessary for the preservation of the Republic from its internal enemies and to inculcate virtue. Rationality, incorruptibility, candidness, the Supreme Being were virtue – and those who dared stand against it (Hébertists, dechristianizers, feminists, Enragés, etc) were to be smitten down by the guillotine. Even as the Convention passed Saint-Just’s Vendôme Laws (the transferal of the lands of émigrés to landless French patriots), the deportation of French vagrants to Madagascar was being seriously discussed. Furthermore, it was more about “punishing political crime and rewarding political virtue” than any social consideration, especially considering it “[only appeared] as an appendage to a prolonged denunciation of disloyalty”. The Thermidorian reaction was a grouping of republican moderates intent on ending the Terror, and consequent reprisals against the Terrorists were a matter of vengeance, not class war, since they were almost all bourgeois themselves.

While the Marxist view of the Revolution as a social struggle (transition from feudalism to capitalism) is useful in analyzing social changes between 1789 and 1799, it is bankrupt as an explanation for why tendencies already embedded in ancien régime France erupted so suddenly and violently. It was an unqualified boon only for landed middle-class bourgeoisie who were focused on a career of state service, but was disastrous for those in commerce (at least in the short-term). In general the bigwigs of the nobility retained their positions, and social conditions worsened for the urban poor because of the much reduced influence of the Church, which had been the main system of social support in the old regime. Amazingly, despite population increase, the number of hospitals in 1847 was 42% less than in 1789. However this was in a sense just an acceleration of late 18th century trends, when worker incomes plunged, economic inequality soared and the system was increasingly decried by polemicists like the doom-mongering Mercier. French reality fermented with the intellectual revolution of the Enlightenment to produce a social and above all an intellectual one. It was a revolution primarily inspired and fueled by ideas – not by class conflict.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
What a picture wants? Sublime emotions, not words or analysis.
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The sea billows in its elemental rage and snow-capped mountains loom above the thick fog ahead. A schooner and dinghy flounder in a fury of air and water, forlorn and forsaken. Sailors can be made out on the two ships, frantic atoms against a backdrop of deadly beauty. Insignificant, they stand out. After all, the sublime needs a human presence (yardstick?) to be appreciated.

The painting is ‘Stormy Sea’ (1868) by Ivan Aivazovsky. He was one of the most prolific Russian artists and is especially famous for his mastery of the seascape, which ranged from the calm (‘The Coast at Amalfi’) to the catastrophic (‘The Storm’).

What does it mean to ‘want’? Negatively defined, it is to be deficient in something, such that the absence of it grates on the soul. When we look at a picture, in a sense it becomes a part of us, a simulation in that part of the brain responsible for visual processing. Conflicts can appear between our innate sense of aesthetics and the simulation that was thrust into our mind. Presumably then, a picture is in want of something if it is deficient in something – an object, or perhaps something more general, say lighting. Or maybe it completely fails to arouse any interest and can be dismissed. In any case, let’s say a picture wants what we want of it.

However, in ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, Kundera wrote, ‘we can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.’ In other words, wanting cannot be an enterprise based on pure reason – since we live life only once (that we know of, anyway), we have no basis for comparison had we decided to want another way. Einmal ist keinmal. When we perceive pictures, we do it from the prism of time and space – a form of intuition, according to Kant in the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’. They become for us (to use the existentialist slang). So when looking at pictures and their wants, we must cast aside the Apollonian and embrace the Dionysian. (This also conveniently saves me from exposing my ignorance of the jargon of art criticism. Should I really be writing this?).

People seek to add beauty in their lives. It is the silent orchestra to which they march to, the invisible sketch along which they tread. Commanding admiration, it is a source of social power that has been exploited since the cave art of the Upper Paleolithic.

Yet beauty has no moral value of its own. Dostoevsky remarked that ‘beauty is mysterious as well as terrible’; according to Schopenhauer, it reaches its pinnacle in the form of the sublime, a concept of greatness beyond mortal imagination. Schopenhauer saw beauty (pleasure through peaceful contemplation of a benign thing) rising to sublimity (pleasure through seeing a vast, threatening thing capable of undoing the observer) and reaching a terrifying crescendo in the ‘fullest feeling of sublime’ – knowledge of the vastness of the universe in all its dimensions and the consequent insignificance of the observer.

The power of nature has been the motif par excellence of art that seeks the sublime since the Romantic period. (I say ‘seeks’, because a storm on a canvass can never threaten the life of an observer in the same way a real storm could. At best, it can build shaky bridges to the sublime, by creating a simulation of the real storm inside the mind of the observer. On another, not entirely related note, movies and especially video games can create such ‘simulations’ much more effectively than a novel or painting – yet Film Studies are derided and I know of no Video Games courses. But I digress).

This subliminal, transcendent power of nature is made explicitly clear in ‘Stormy Sea’. Humans and their petty constructions are utterly powerless against Poseidon’s trident. The best they can do is cling onto their ships (finite chunks of wood hacked out of seamless, elemental Gaia) and pray her revenge doesn’t snuff out their finite, atomistic lives. And all the while the mountain towers all of them, as if it wants to bear them down into the water by the sheer scale of its presence.

I want this painting to go further. I want the waves to break apart the ships and spill its cargo across the waters. Not out of vindictiveness, but because I appreciate the aesthetic. ‘Apocalypse’ is derived from a Greek word that literally means a ‘lifting of the veil’, a kind of revelation to a chosen elect of the eschaton, which refers to the end of the world or similar big, bad thing. For the Apocalyptic in art is nothing less than the pinnacle of the human aesthetic. It is the act by which beauty morphs into sublimity; a graceful disrobement that lays bare the sublime in all its consummate transcendence.

The ships are physical manifestations of the human soul. In the painting, there is a break in the clouds which illuminates the ocean beneath it. There is a dark land mass from the left. (The dinghy, more ‘human’ in scale and spirit than the schooner, lies closer to both light and darkness). Light is traditionally associated with hope and good; dark with despair and evil. Yet here they are in a cruel transposition, for the choice is either drowning in the illuminated water (succumbing to false hope) or seeking salvation on the black earth. Will they choose bliss, ignorance, the unbearable lightness of being; or will they choose the heavy burden of reason (which can dash them against its treacherous rocks)? And will they have a choice?

Therefore myself, I want the picture to come alive. Let the simulation play itself out. It might be deterministic… but the sublime soul knows that contemplation of the ungentle seas and rippling sky has value of its own. After all, gaming is fun.

As for the picture itself, I don’t know what it wants. I do know what it doesn’t want, though. People writing essays purporting to know what it wants.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.