Lebenskünstler

Sacramentalism in the age of mercenary enchantment, or why there is no shame in my Romantic game – Imagination as the ecstasy of reason

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures on 12/08/2015

We Have Never Been Disenchanted – Eugene McCarraher

But is that the only way to understand the “different sense” to which Weber alluded so nebulously—that modernity marks the crossing of the Rubicon of disenchantment? Perhaps the sociologist who considered himself “religiously unmusical” heard faint notes of enchantment in modernity; perhaps, despite their wounds, the old divinities had not risen to give consent to their deaths. Were they really “disenchanted” when they assumed their “secular” form? Or do they still roam among us in the guise of “secularization”?

There are good reasons to think so, and some of them lie within one of the more tumultuous and aggressive of the allegedly “disenchanting” forces of modernity: capitalism, whose “laws of the market” Weber had identified as one refuge for the phantoms of divinity. Of course, capitalism has long been presumed to be a powerful solvent of enchantment. “All that is solid melts into air; all that is holy is profaned,” as Marx and Engels proclaimed in The Communist Manifesto. Far from being bastions of piety, the bourgeois masters of capitalism have “drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor … in the icy water of egotistical calculation.” What if those waters of pecuniary reason constituted a baptismal font, a consecration of capitalism as a covert form of enchantment, all the more beguiling on account of its apparent profanity?

…capitalism has been a form of enchantment, a metamorphosis of the sacred in the raiment of secularity. With money as its ontological marrow, it represents a moral and metaphysical imagination as well as a sublimation of our desire for the presence of divinity in the everyday world. Second, the most incisive forms of opposition to capitalist enchantment have come in the form of what I will call “the sacramental imagination,” a conviction that the material of ordinary life can mediate the supernatural.

In this view, capitalism perverts both the sacramental character of the world and our consciousness of that quality—neither of which can ever be extinguished, only assaulted, damaged, and left in ruins. As Gerard Manley Hopkins summarized it so well in the Romantic idiom of the sacramental imagination, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God…. There lies the dearest freshness deep down things”—a freshness spoiled, he ruefully added, “seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil.” The world does not need to be re-enchanted; its enduring and ineradicable enchantment requires our belated recognition and reverence.

But as the metaphysical regime of capitalism, monetary and commodity fetishism was at least as beguiling as any previous order of enchantment, especially as all its rivals were evaporating. If the proletariat is thoroughly permeated by pecuniary enchantment, why would the oppressed ever desire the transcendence of alienation and servility? With sufficient technical and political ingenuity—mass production, consumer culture, the welfare and regulatory policies of modern liberalism and social democracy—the sacramental tokens of commodity fetishism could retard and even extinguish the growth of revolutionary consciousness.

Weil traced the failure of the Marxist revolutionary imagination to its species of materialism. Like other nineteenth-century materialists, Marx conceived of matter as an inert and lifeless ensemble of forces; however “historical” his materialism claimed to be, the inertia of matter entailed subjection to the inviolable laws of the natural—and only—world. But if matter—including historical matter—is governed only by force, then the mechanisms of capitalist matter were, on Marx’s own terms, invincible. “Marx’s revolutionary materialism,” Weil observed, “consists in positing on the one hand that everything is exclusively regulated by force, and on the other that a day will come when force will be on the side of the weak. Not that certain ones who were weak will become strong … but that the entire mass of the weak, while continuing to be such, will have force on its side.” While Weil praised Marx for his acute portrayal of the apparatus of capitalist domination, she realized that the political implications of inanimate materialism were anything but emancipatory.

Rather than reactively dismiss materialism altogether in favor of some “spiritual” ontology of politics, Weil hinted at a sacramental alternative. Shortly before her untimely death in 1943, Weil—by then what could be described as a fellow-traveler of Christianity, someone lingering in the vestibule but never entering the sanctuary—speculated that just as “yeast only makes the dough rise if it is mixed with it,” so in the same way “there exist certain material conditions for the supernatural operation of the divine that is present on earth.” The knowledge of those “material conditions” for “supernatural operation” would, Weil surmised, constitute “the true knowledge of social mechanics.” If matter is not exactly “animate,” the material world of society and history could be a conduit for divinity. Because we have “forgotten the existence of a divine order of the universe,” we fail to see that “labor, art, and science are only different ways of entering into contact with it.”

This sacramental critique of Marxist metaphysics would not be that it is “too materialist” but rather that it is not materialist enough—that is, that it does not provide an adequate account of matter itself, of its sacramental and revelatory character. Sacramentality has ontological and social implications, for the “gift” that Williams identifies is “God’s grace and the common life thus formed.”

As the doyen of scholars of Romanticism, M. H. Abrams, explained, secularization has not been “the deletion and replacement of religious ideas” but rather their “assimilation and reinterpretation.” Romantics, in his view, provided an aesthetic asylum for the spirits of pre-modern enchantment. Like Thomas Carlyle’s Professor Teufelsdröckh, the philosopher-prophet of Sartor Resartus (1831), they longed to “embody the divine Spirit” of the gospel “in a new Mythus, in a new vehicle and vesture, that our Souls … may live.” But Romanticism did more than preserve an interior enclave for the supernatural; as Bernard Reardon perceived, it also named “the inexpungeable feeling that the finite is not self-explaining and self-justifying” and that “there is always an infinite ‘beyond’”—a beyond that lived in the midst of us, leaving numinous traces in the world of appearance. In other words, Romanticism is the modern heir to the Christian sacramental imagination.

Although divorced from orthodox theology, Romantic humanism echoed the traditional harmony of reason, love, and reality. When Romantics praised “enthusiasm,” “reverence,” and “imagination,” they restated the venerable Christian wisdom that reason is rooted in love, that full and genuine understanding precludes a desire to possess and control. Against the imperious claims of “Urizen”—Blake’s fallen “Prince of Light” and your reason reduced to measurement and calculation—Blake countered that “Enthusiastic Admiration is the First Principle of Knowledge & its last.” “To know a thing, what we can call knowing,” Carlyle surmised in Heroes and Hero-Worship (1840), we “must first love the thing, sympathise with it.” Arising from a sacramental sense of the world as a “region of the Wonderful,” Carlyle’s incessant admonitions to “reverence” and “wonder” were, at bottom, exhortations to love.

“Imagination” was the name Romantics gave to this erotic and sacramental consciousness. Yet imagination was not only a subjective enchantment; in the Romantic sensibility, imagination was the most perspicuous form of vision—the ability to see what is really there, behind the illusion or obscurity produced by our will to dissect and dominate. To Samuel Taylor Coleridge, if reason is “the power of universal and necessary convictions, the source and substance of truths above sense,” then imagination is its vibrant sacramental partner, “the living Power and prime Agent of all human perception … a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” For Romantics, imagination did not annul but rather completed rationality. During the French Revolution, Wordsworth observed, reason seemed “most intent on making of herself / A prime Enchantress.” Though warning of the brutality of instrumental reason—“our meddling intellect / Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things; / We murder to dissect”—Wordsworth described imagination as “Reason in her most exalted mood.” Imagination was, for the Romantics, the ecstasy of reason.

…Theodore Roszak praised the Romantics for their “sacramental consciousness,” which he hoped to enlist against a technocratic capitalism that now enjoyed a perverse “monopoly of the sacramental powers.” Consigning Marxism and other secular revolutionary theories to the dustbin of disenchantment, Roszak called on a new generation of radicals who knew that “politics is metaphysically grounded” to draw upon “primordial energies greater than the power of our bombs.”

As the Trappist monk Thomas Merton realized, those “primordial energies” could be as gentle as the rain. In “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” a haunting essay in Raids on the Unspeakable (1966), Merton imagined the sad perversity of a world reduced to inventory. As he listened to showers in the forest near Gethsemani, the Kentucky abbey where he lived, Merton hastened to convey the beauty of the rain before it “becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money”—they meaning business, determined to take everything free and incalculable and make it a paying proposition.

To Merton, this insatiable avarice indicated an evil much deeper than moral perversion; it emanated from a capitalist enchantment that only masqueraded as secularity. Business was launching an ontological regime in which “what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real”; in the cosmology of capital, “the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market.” Graphing the rain on the commercial axis of effective demand and scarcity of supply, the alchemists of commerce cannot “appreciate its gratuity.” Yet for those who saw the world as the lavish largesse of a loving and prodigal God, “rain is a festival,” a celebration of its own gifted and gloriously pointless existence. “Every plant that stands in the light of the sun is a saint and an outlaw,” he exulted. “Every blade of grass is an angel in a shower of glory.”

Who are the acolytes of Romantic sacramentalism in our own age of mercenary enchantment, when the specter of ecological catastrophe forms a global storm-cloud of the twenty-first century? Pope Francis I, for one, who in his recent encyclical, Laudato Si’ (2015), provides an erudite and often moving manifesto of the sacramental imagination. Opening with his namesake’s “Canticle to the Creatures,” the Pope proceeds to excoriate the economic system for pillaging the earth and its inhabitants; the biosphere “groans in travail,” as he cites Paul’s warning to the Romans.

But as Francis insists in his own epistle to the disenchanted, the root of the violence wrought upon the planet lies in an ontological blindness. Divine love is “the fundamental moving force in all created things,” Francis writes; the world is “illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion.” No doubt this will all seem foolish to the shamans and magicians of neoliberal capitalism, whose own imaginations are lavishly imprisoned in the gaudy cage of disenchantment. The Romantics would remind us that our capacity to act well relies on our capacity to see what is really there. For there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley.

“No one understands the human heart at all…” – The barbarism of reason

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures on 11/05/2013

The barbarism of reason – John Gray

Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) has been remembered as a poet who produced delicate verse inspired by a melancholy version of Romanticism, along with some sharp epigrams on the discontents that go with civilisation. This was always a crude view of the early- 19th-century Italian writer. Leopardi’s subtle sensibility eludes conventional intellectual categories and the true achievement of this subversive genius has been little recognised.

With astonishing prescience, he diagnosed the sickness of our time: a dangerous intoxication with the knowledge and power given by science, mixed with an inability to accept the humanly meaningless world that science has revealed. Faced with emptiness, modern humanity has taken refuge in schemes of world improvement, which all too often – as in the savage revolutions of the 20th century and the no less savage humanitarian warfare of the 21st – involve mass slaughter. The irrationalities of earlier times have been replaced by what Leopardi calls “the barbarism of reason”.

…An anthropologist of modernity, Leopardi stood outside the beliefs of the modern age. He could never take seriously the faith in progress: the notion that civilisation gradually improves over time. He knew that civilisations come and go and that some are better than others – but they are not stations on a long march to a better world. “Modern civilisation must not be considered simply as a continuation of ancient civilisation, as its progression . . . These two civilisations, which are essentially different, are and must be considered as two separate civilisations.”

His sympathies lay with the ancients, whose way of life he believed was more conducive to human happiness. A product of the increase of knowledge, the modern world is driven by the pursuit of truth; yet this passion for truth, Leopardi suggests, is a by-product of Christianity. Before Christianity disrupted and destroyed the ancient pagan cults with its universal claims, human beings were able to rest content with their local practices and illusions. “Mankind was happier before Christianity than after it,” he writes.

What fascinated Schopenhauer, along with many later writers, was Leopardi’s insistence that illusion is necessary to human happiness. Matthew Arnold, A E Housman, Herman Melville, Thomas Hardy, Fernando Pessoa (who wrote a poem about the Italian poet) and Samuel Beckett were all stirred by his suggestion that human fulfilment requires a tolerance of illusion that is at odds with both Christianity and modern science. A version of the same thought informs the work of Wallace Stevens, perhaps the greatest 20th-century English-language poet, who saw the task of poetry as being the creation of fictions by which human beings can live.

Leopardi was emphatic in affirming the constancy of human nature and the existence of goods and evils that are universally human. He was far from being a moral relativist. What he rejected was the modern conceit that aims to turn these often conflicting values into a system of universal principles – a project that fails to comprehend the irresolvable contradictions of human needs. “No one understands the human heart at all,” he wrote, “who does not understand how vast is its capacity for illusions, even when these are contrary to its interests, or how often it loves the very thing that is obviously harmful to it.” Modern rationalists imagine they do not succumb to this quintessentially human need for illusion, but in reality they display it to the full.

…The barbarism of reason is the attempt to order the world on a more rational model. However, evangelists for reason are more driven by faith than they know and the result of attempting to impose their simpleminded designs on the world has been to add greatly to the evils to which human life is naturally prone.

Some will find Leopardi unsatisfying because he proposes no remedy for modern ills, but for me a part of his charm comes from how he has no gospel to sell. The Romantic movement turned to visions of natural harmony as an escape from the flaws of civilisation. With his more penetrating intelligence, Leopardi understood that because human beings are spawned by natural processes, their civilisations share the ramshackle disorder of the natural world. Brought up by his father to be a good Catholic, he became a resolute atheist who admired ancient pagan religion; but because it was not possible to return to the more benign faiths of ancient times, he was friendly to Christianity in his own day, seeing it as the lesser of many evils: “Religion (far more favoured and approved by nature than by reason) is all we have to shore up the wretched and tottering edifice of present-day human life.”

Realising that the human mind can decay even as human knowledge advances, Leopardi would not have been surprised by the stupefying banality and shallowness of current debates on belief and unbelief. He accepted that there is no remedy for the ignorance of those who imagine themselves to be embodiments of reason. Today’s evangelical rationalists lag far behind the understanding of the human world that he achieved in the early decades of the 19th century.