I’m going to turn away from my recent thread on deconditioning to have a little rant about a theme I’ve been pondering for a while now: the relationship of Heathenry to Enlightenment and Romantic values. I guess I’ve been provoked by Sweyn Plowright’s article on the subject, as well as various other reflections, readings, and interactions.
There is plenty of material arguing the connection between Romanticism and Heathenry. It is an obvious intellectual link to make, the Romantics with their back-to-nature-and-paganism ideals seem like natural precursors feeding into the evolution of modern Heathenry.
On the other hand, we are told by various pundits, the spirit of Enlightenment has brought massive cultural dislocation, the injustices and perversions of industrialisation, the destruction of localised cultures, and an age of instrumentalist technocracy where the entire world has been stripped of its sacredness.
Whoa, wait a minute. The Enlightenment did that? The ideals of free expression, rational inquiry, and faith in humanity’s ability to grow and evolve produced all of the rubbish that fills modernity to the gills? Maybe I am missing something here. That doesn’t sound like a plausible theory at all.
I should jump in before I go any further and mention that I tend to side with the Romantics and always have. That’s as good a reason as any for me to write a piece which attempts to defend the rationalist current in Western thought: why imprison oneself in a single prism?
I think it is very cheeky to blame so many of the ills of modernity on the Enlightenment. Mass monoculture, the use of technology to engender sleepwalking populations, mass environmental destruction, global economic inequality that is orders of magnitude greater than it has ever been, the systematic violation of organic cultural orders and communities by nihilistic mega-corporations: these hardly sound like the Enlightenment ideal!
I think it is fair to say that the history of the development of the present predicament is a little more complex than just dumping the blame at the door of folks like Voltaire, who was such an ardent foe of injustice and cruelty and repeatedly personally put himself on the line for those values.
I’d like to see some of the more prominent Heathen windbags put to the tests that Voltaire bravely endured: I reckon they’d be exposed, in many cases, as little more than loud-mouthed frauds. Voltaire would abhor the way that the world has evolved, the way that so much of our modern technical genius has been built on and turned to unofficial but widely pervasive slavery. All these self-righteous anti-modernists who love to bitch and moan: they’re all resting on Voltaire’s laurels!
There seem to be plenty of Radical Traditionalists and the like out there who go on an on about how bad liberalism (surely the offspring of the Enlightenment) is, and how Romanticism is a much better taproot for cultural and spiritual rejuvenation in this time of nihilistic emptiness. Well they have some good points to make, but I think they fly off the handle and carry on a little too petulantly at times: here’s why.
Ok: the whole liberalism bashing thing. Without the tradition of free speech (to which Voltaire can probably take credit) we’d still be in a situation where arguing with the dominant paradigm would get one into serious hot water.
Radical Traditionalists and Heathens who rail against liberalism forget that without its “free speech” ideal they’d probably all be imprisoned, lynched, exiled, or burned at the stake (and their writings too…writings only possible because of the intellectual and educational traditions founded by the Enlightenment and promulgated through its ideological and technological offspring).
Of course free speech doesn’t actually exist in modernity because there are all sorts of unscrupulous powers in the world hoarding knowledge and the right to speak with authority. This is a hangover from the latter days of the Roman Empire, where in 381 Theodosius outlawed all forms of Christianity and paganism but for the orthodox Nicene formulation (there is a great book on this subject called, you guessed it, AD 381).
With this law Theodosius tore apart centuries of free debate between pagans of all stripes, and also tore apart the emerging view that even Christians should be allowed to have their say so long as they allowed overs to have theirs (it is worth remembering that in the early days of Christianity the religion was very different to how it is now).
Fast forward through a few centuries of backward Christian silliness and we find that the Enlightenment struck a bold blow (however flawed) against both autocratic power-mongering (surely a practice alien to the decentralised Heathen cultures) and the Christian monopoly on truth.
Without that assault: no attempt to clear a ground for freedom of expression. Without that attempt – and really it was always going to be deformed and lamed – the anti-Enlightenment, anti-liberalism complainers would all be dead or imprisoned or outlawed. Not that they would even have had the wherewithal to articulate their dissent in the first place, most likely. So a little gratitude where it is due, folks.
Romanticism: oh nature! Oh, poetry! Oh, feeling! Oh, the folk-of-the-land! Let’s all put on tights! Great, what a fantastic thing. I love it. I love Beethoven and Rilke and all that jazz. Well, maybe not the tights. How did they get in there anyway?
Then again, let’s face it: Romanticism is utterly obsessed with the notion of the Singular Genius who is going to save the day, the Ultimate Cultural Hero. At the same time it indulges all the most stupid excesses of human emotionality (Beethoven stands out as a particularly preposterous personality, go ahead, do some research) and loses the ability to distinguish between the base and the sublime. It all gets so bloody tasteless and pompous so easily.
Do we really need a bunch of Ultimate Cultural Heroes running around to save us? I consider that to be just as disempowering as the notion that we need Enlightenment-inspired “experts” to tell us what to eat or how to think (when anyone who is paying attention will have noticed that, for example, mainstream Nutrition Science seems to constantly have egg on its face as “certainty” after “certainty” of the last five decades of research gets torn to shreds…to reveal that traditional cuisines and cultures had it right all along – check out Michael Pollan’s great book In Defense of Food and prepare to get your mind blown).
I intensely dislike the idea of Ultimate Cultural Heroes, just as I dislike furrowed brows and grandiose misery. Have I indulged in this sort of silliness myself? Absolutely. But I was very young and stupid (as opposed to what I am now, young and stupid). The more I learn the more I realise that a furrowed brow is just…well, a furrowed brow. I’d rather be making silly faces because of how perplexed I am than because of how full of Romantic Genius I think I am.
Needless to say this sort of grandstanding is pretty alien to the old Heathen values, but it seems to animate certain modern Heathens with a puffed up silliness that the arch-Heathens would have howled in laughter at. I mean, really folks. I’m not going to name any names, but it doesn’t take a lot of effort to figure out the kind of notorious characters I have in mind if you are familiar with the Heathen scene.
The other problem with Romanticism is that it used history for its own, decidedly anachronistic, ends. Rousseau’s image of humanity’s original nature, for example, is a terrible piece of speculative anthropology (and incidentally, feeds nicely into liberalism, which just goes to show that you can’t always make hard and fast distinctions between schools of thought anyway).
Similarly, it is all very well to go on about how great the agrarian olden days were, but at the same time there was plenty of brutality, war, destruction, rapine, and all the rest. We haven’t solved those problems in modern times – quite the contrary in fact – but nor were they invented in modern times. Heathens love to go on about worshipping the ancestors, but you know what? A lot of my ancestors were utter jerks. It’s true, I’ve learned about my family history and/or known these characters personally and/or seen the effects of their actions on more immediate family. I’m not going to pretend my ancestors were all champs when they weren’t.
To me ancestor-worshipping is as much about settling the debts of wyrd they ran up and then dumped on their descendants as anything else. For those of us in this circumstance we can either use their nasty orlog as a crucible or we can drown like cowards. Read this book if you want to more know about that idea. Oh, and this applies just as much to mimetic ancestors – philosophers, artists, leaders, etc – as it does to actual relatives.
Look, none of this is to say we shouldn’t draw inspiration from Romanticism or any other cultural current in our attempts to make sense of this whole crazy Heathen gig we’ve got going. It is to say, however, that we’d look a lot less foolish if we declined to wallow in adolescent sentimentality. And if, in the case of liberalism, we had the good taste not to so self-righteously bite the lumpy and deformed appendage that feeds us.
Hmm…which inspires the image of Fenris munching on Tyr’s hand. I better stop now before someone accuses me of accusing other people of being giant-loving, Ragnarok-provoking so-and-sos. Which of course, they probably are without realising it. That’s usually how it goes, right?
Oh yeah, despite all this I still love John Ralston Sauls’ critiques of Rationalism and the like…but I think his perspective is probably more true to the Enlightenment than most of its actual offspring anyway…and probably a more useful expansion and development of Romanticism than any other, too.