Reflections on the Aesthetic &
Literary Figure of the Dandy, Part III
Translated by Greg Johnson
Czech translation here
Chandala Figures of Decadence
The existential crisis that began around the middle of the 18th century led to nihilism, quite judiciously defined by Nietzsche as an “exhaustion of life,” as a “devaluation of the highest values,” which is often expressed by a frantic agitation and the inability to really enjoy leisure, an agitation that accelerates the process of exhaustion.
The abstraction of existence is the clear indication that our “societies” no longer constitute “bodies” but, as Nietzsche says, mere “conglomerates of Chandalas,” in whom nervous and psychological maladies accumulate, a sign that the defensive power of strong natures is no more than a memory. It is precisely this “defensive power” that the “differentiated” man must—at the end of his search for traditional mysteries—reconstitute in himself.
Nietzsche very clearly enumerates the vices of the Chandala, the emblematic figure of European decadence, resulting from the existential crisis and nihilism: the Chandala suffers various pathologies: an increase in criminality, generalized celibacy and voluntary sterility, hysteria, constant weakening of the will, alcoholism (and various drug addictions as well), systematic doubt, a methodical and relentless destruction of any residue of strength.
Among the Chandala figures of decadence and nihilism, Nietzsche includes those he calls “official nomads” (Staatsnomaden), who are civil servants without real fatherlands, servants of the “cold monster,” with abstract minds that, consequently, generate always more abstractions, whose parasitic existence generates, by their appalling but persistent sluggishness, the decline of families, in a environment made of contradictory and crumbling diversities, where one finds the “discipline” (Züchtung) of characters to serve the abstractions of the cold monster—a generalized lubricity in the form of irritability and as the expression of an insatiable and compensatory need for stimuli and excitations—neuroses of all types—political “presentism” (Augenblickdienerei) in which long memory, deep perspectives, or a natural and instinctive sense for the right no longer prevail—pathological sensitiveness—barren doubts proceeding of a morbid fear of the unyielding forces that made and will still make history/power—a fear of mastering reality, of seizing the tangible things of this world.
Victor Segalen in Oceania, Ernst Jünger in Africa
In this complex of frigidity, of agitated opposition to change, barren frenzies, and neuroses, one primary response to nihilism is to exalt and concretize the principle of adventure, in which the protester will leave the bourgeois world, with its tissue of artifices, moving towards virgin spaces that are intact, authentic, open, mysterious.
Gauguin left for the Pacific Islands.
Victor Segalen, in his turn, praises primordial Oceania and imperial China perishing under the blows of the Westernization. Segalen remains Breton, according to what he calls the “return to the ancestral marrow,” denounces the invasion of Tahiti by the “American romantics,” these “filthy parasites,” writes an “Essay on Exoticism” and “An Aesthetics of the Different.” The rejection of bits and pieces without much of a past cost Segalen an unjustified ostracism in his fatherland. From our point of view, he is an author worth rediscovering.
The young Jünger, still in adolescence, dreamed of Africa, the continent of elephants and other fabulous creatures, where spaces and landscapes are not ravaged by industrialization, where nature and indigenous people preserved a formidable purity, where everything was still possible. The young Jünger joined the French Foreign Legion to realize this dream, to be able to land on this new continent, glutted with mysteries and vitality.
The year 1914 gave him, and his whole generation, a chance to abandon an enervating existence. In the same vein, Drieu La Rochelle spoke of the élan of Charleroi. And later, Malraux, of “Royal roads.”
On the “left” (in so far as this political distinction has any meaning), one instead speaks of “engagement.” This enthusiasm was especially apparent at the time of the Spanish Civil War, where Hemingway, Orwell, Koestler, and Simone Weil joined the Republicans, and Roy Campbell the Nationalists, who were also lauded by Robert Brasillach.
The adventure and engagement, in the uniform of a soldier of the phalangist militia, in the ranks of the international brigades or the partisans, are perceived as antidotes to the hyperformalism of a colorless civilian life. “I was tired of civilian life, therefore I joined the IRA,” goes the Irish nationalist song, which, in its particular context, proclaims, with a jaunty tune, this great existentialist uprising of the early 20th century with all the ease, vivacity, rhythm, and humor of Green Éire.
But if political or military commitment fulfills the spiritual needs of those those who are bored by the unrelieved formalism of civilian life without traditional balance, the rejection of all formalism can lead to other less positive attitudes. The dandy, who departs from the balanced pose of Brummell or the delicately crafted criticism of Baudelaire, will want to experience ever new excitations, merely for the sterile pleasure of trying them.
Drugs, drug-addiction, the excessive consumption of alcohol constitute possible escapes: the romantic figure created by Huysmans, Des Esseintes, fled to liquor. Thomas De Quincey evoked “The Opiumeaters.” Baudelaire himself tried opium and hashish.
Falling into drug-addiction is explained by the closing of the world, after the colonization of Africa and other virgin territories; real, dangerous adventure is no longer possible there. War, tested by Jünger around the same time as “drugs and intoxications,” lost its attraction because the figure of the warrior becomes an anachronism as wars are excessively professionalized, mechanized, and technologized.
Amorality and anti-moralism are more dead-ends. Oscar Wilde frequented sleazy bars, ostentatiously flaunting his homosexuality. His character Dorian Gray becomes a criminal in order to press his transgressions ever further, with a pitiful sort of hubris. One might also recall Montherlant’s painful end and keep in mind his dubious heritage, continued to this day by his executor, Gabriel Matzneff, whose literary style is certainly quite brilliant but in whose wake the saddest scenarios unfold, carried on in secret, in closed circles, all the more perverse and ridiculous since the sexual revolutuion of the 1960s also allows enjoyment without petty moralism of many strong pleasures.
These drugs, transgressions, and sex-crazed buffooneries, are just so many existential traps and cul-de-sacs where unfortunates ruin themselves in search of their “spiritual needs.” They wish to “transgress,” but this, to the ironical observer, is nothing more than a sad sign of wasted lives, the absence of real vitality, and sexual frustrations due to defects or physical infirmities. Certainly, one cannot “ride the tiger”—indeed it would be hard to find one—in the salons where the old fop Matzneff lets drop tidbits of his sexual encounters to his creepy little admirers.
The true alternative to the bourgeois world of “little jobs” and “petty calculations” mocked by Hannah Arendt, in a world now closed, where adventures and discoveries are henceforth nothing but repetitions, where war is “high tech” and no longer chivalrous, lies in religious asceticism, in a certain return to the monarchism of meditation, in the return to Tradition (Evola, Guénon, Schuon). Drieu La Rochelle evokes this path in his “Journal,” after his political disappointments, and gives an account of his reading of Guénon.
The Schuon brothers are exemplary in this context: Frithjof joined the Foreign Legion, surveyed the Sahara, made the acquaintance of the Sufis and the marabouts of the desert and the Atlas Mountains, adhered to an Isamized Sufi mysticism, then went to the Sioux Indian reservations in the United States, and left a stunning and astounding body of pictorial work.
His brother, named “Father Galle,” surveyed the Indian reservations of North America, translated the Gospels into the Sioux language, withdrew to a Trappist monastery in Walloonia, where he trained young horses Indian-style, met Hergé, and became friends with him.
Their lives prove that adventure and total escape from the artificial and corrupting world of the Westernization (Zinoviev) remains possible and fruitful.
For the rebellion is legitimate, if one does not fall into the traps.
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