Between Faust & Narcissus, Part 3
Part 3 of 3
Translated by Greg Johnson
The Babbitt with the Sartrean Paradox
In 1945, the tone of ideological debate was set by the victorious ideologies. We could choose American liberalism (the ideology of Mr. Babbitt) or Marxism, an allegedly de-bourgeoisfied version of the metanarrative. The Grand Narrative took charge, hunted down any “irrationalist” philosophy or movement, set up a thought police, and finally, by brandishing the bogeyman of rampant barbarism, inaugurated an utterly vacuous era.
Sartre and his fashionable Parisian existentialism must be analyzed in the light of this restoration. Sartre, faithful to his “atheism,” his refusal to privilege one value, did not believe in the foundations of liberalism or Marxism. Ultimately, he did not set up the metanarrative (in its most recent version, the vulgar Marxism of the Communist parties) as a truth but as an “inescapable”categorical imperative for which one must militate if one does not want to be a “bastard,” i.e., one of these contemptible beings who venerate “petrified orders.” It is the whole paradox of Sartreanism: on the one hand, it exhorts us not to adore “petrified orders,” which is properly Faustian, and, on another side, it orders us to “magically” adore a “petrified order” of vulgar Marxism, already unhorsed by Sombart or De Man. Thus in the Fifties, the golden age of Sartreanism, the consensus is indeed a moral constraint, an obligation dictated by increasingly mediatized thought. But a consensus achieved by constraint, by an obligation to believe without discussion, is not an eternal consensus. Hence the contemporary oblivion of Sartreanism, with its excesses and its exaggerations.
The Revolutionary Anti-Humanism of May 1968
With May ’68, the phenomenon of a generation, “humanism,” the current label of the metanarrative, was battered and broken by French interpretations of Nietzsche, Marx, and Heidegger. In the wake of the student revolt, academics and popularizers alike proclaimed humanism a “petite-bourgeois” illusion. Against the West, the geopolitical vessel of the Enlightenment metanarrative, the rebels of ’68 played at mounting the barricades, taking sides, sometimes with a naive romanticism, in all the fights of the 1970s: Spartan Vietnam against American imperialism, Latin-American guerillas (“Ché”), the Basque separatists, the patriotic Irish, or the Palestinians.
Their Faustian feistiness, unable to be expressed though autochthonous models, was transposed toward the exotic: Asia, Arabia, Africa, or India. May ’68, in itself, by its resolute anchorage in Grand Politics, by its guerilla ethos, by its fighting option, in spite of everything took on a far more important dimension than the strained blockage of Sartreanism or the great regression of contemporary neo-liberalism. On the right, Jean Cau, in writing his beautiful book on Che Guevara understood this issue perfectly, whereas the right, which is as fixated on its dogmas and memories as the left, had not wanted to see.
With the generation of ’68—combative and politicized, conscious of the planet’s great economic geopolitical issues—the last historical fires burned in the French public spirit before the great rise of post-history and post-politics represented by the narcissism of contemporary neoliberalism.
The Translation of the Writings of the “Frankfurt School” announces the Advent of Neo-Liberal Narcissism
The first phase of the neo-liberal attack against the political anti-humanism of May ’68 was the rediscovery of the writings of the Frankfurt School: born in Germany before the advent of National Socialism, matured during the California exile of Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse, and set up as an object of veneration in post-war West Germany. In Dialektik der Aufklärung, a small and concise book that is fundamental to understanding the dynamics of our time, Horkheimer and Adorno claim that there are two “reasons” in Western thought that, in the wake of Spengler and Sombart, we are tempted to name “Faustian reason” and “magical reason.” The former, for the two old exiles in California, is the negative pole of the “reason complex” in Western civilization: this reason is purely “instrumental”; it is used to increase the personal power of those who use it. It is scientific reason, the reason that tames the forces of the universe and puts them in the service of a leader or a people, a party or state. Thus, according to Herbert Marcuse, it is Promethean, not Narcissistic/Orphic. For Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse, this is the kind of rationality that Max Weber theorized.
On the other hand, “magical reason,” according to our Spenglerian genealogical terminology, is, broadly speaking, the reason of Lyotard’s metanarrative. It is a moral authority that dictates ethical conduct, allergic to any expression of power, and thus to any manifestation of the essence of politics. In France, the rediscovery of the Horkheimer-Adorno theory of reason near the end of the 1970s inaugurated the era of depoliticization, which, by substituting generalized disconnection for concrete and tangible history, led to the “era of the vacuum” described so well by Grenoble Professor Gilles Lipovetsky. Following the militant effervescence of May ’68 came a generation whose mental attitudes are characterized quite justly by Lipovetsky as apathy, indifference (also to the metanarrative in its crude form), desertion (of the political parties, especially of the Communist Party), desyndicalisation, narcissism, etc. For Lipovetsky, this generalized resignation and abdication constitutes a golden opportunity. It is the guarantee, he says, that violence will recede, and thus no “totalitarianism,” red, black, or brown, will be able to seize power. This psychological easy-goingness, together with a narcissistic indifference to others, constitutes the true “post-modern” age.
There are Various Possible Definitions of “Post-Modernity”
On the other hand, if we perceive—contrary to Lipovetsky’s usage—“modernity” or “modernism” as expressions of the metanarrative, thus as brakes on Faustian energy, post-modernity will necessarily be a return to the political, a rejection of para-magical creationism and anti-political suspicion that emerged after May 68, in the wake of speculations on “instrumental reason” and “objective reason” described by Horkheimer and Adorno.
The complexity of the “post-modern” situation makes it impossible to give one and only one definition of “post-modernity.” There is not one post-modernity that can lay claim to exclusivity. On the threshold of the 21st century, various post-modernities lie fallow, side by side, diverse potential post-modern social models, each based on fundamentally antagonistic values fundamentally antagonistic, primed to clash. These post-modernities differ—in their language or their “look”—from the ideologies that preceded them; they are nevertheless united with the eternal, immemorial, values that lie beneath them. As politics enters the historical sphere through binary confrontations, clashes of opposing clans and the exclusion of minorities, dare to evoke the possible dichotomy of the future: a neo-liberal, Western, American and American-like post-modernity versus a shining Faustian and Nietzschean post-modernity.
The “Moral Generation” & the “Era of the Vacuum”
This neo-liberal post-modernity was proclaimed triumphantly, with Messianic delirium, by Laurent Joffrin in his assessment of the student revolt of December 1986 (Un coup de jeune [A Coup of Youth], Arlea, 1987). For Joffrin, who predicted the death of the hard left, of militant proletarianism, December ’86 is the harbinger of a “moral generation,” combining in one mentality soft leftism, lazy-minded collectivism, and neo-liberal, narcissistic, and post-political selfishness: the social model of this hedonistic society centered on commercial praxis, that Lipovetsky described as the era of the vacuum. A political vacuum, an intellectual vacuum, and a post-historical desert: these are the characteristics of the blocked space, the closed horizon characteristic of contemporary neo-liberalism. This post-modernity constitutes a troubling impediment to the greater Europe that must emerge so that we have a viable future and arrest the slow decay announced by massive unemployment and declining demographics spreading devastation under the wan light of consumerist illusions, the big lies of advertisers, and the neon signs praising the merits of a Japanese photocopier or an American airline.
On the other hand, the post-modernity that rejects the old anti-political metanarrative of the Enlightenment, with its metamorphoses and metastases; that affirms the insolence of a Nietzsche or the metallic ideal of a Jünger; that crosses the “line,” as Heidegger exhorts, leaving behind the sterile dandyism of nihilistic times; the post-modernity that rallies the adventurous to a daring political program concretely implying the rejection of the existing power blocs, the construction of an autarkic Eurocentric economy, while fighting savagely and without concessions against all old-fashioned religions and ideologies, by developing the main axis of a diplomacy independent of Washington; the post-modernity that will carry out this voluntary program and negate the negations of post-history—this post-modernity will have our full adherence.
In this brief essay, I wanted to prove that there is a continuity in the confrontation of the “Faustian” and “magian” mentalities, and that this antagonistic continuity is reflected in the current debate on post-modernities. The American-centered West is the realm of “magianisms,” with its cosmopolitanism and authoritarian sects. Europe, the heiress of a Faustianism much abused by “magian” thought, will reassert herself with a post-modernity that will recapitulate the inexpressible themes, recurring but always new, of the Faustianness intrinsic to the European soul.
1. The classic among classics in the condemnation of “irrationalism” is the summa of György Lukács, The Destruction of Reason, 2 vols. (1954). This book aims to be a kind of Discourse on Method for the dialectic of Enlightenment-Counter-Enlightenment, rationalism-irrationalism. Through a technique of amalgamation that bears a passing resemblance to a Stalinist pamphlet, broad sectors of German and European culture, from Schelling to neo-Thomism, are blamed for having prepared and supported the Nazi phenomenon. It is a paranoiac vision of culture.
2. To understand the fundamental irrationality of Sartre’s Communism, one should read Thomas Molnar, Sartre, philosophie de la contestation (Paris: La Table Ronde, 1969). In English: Sartre: Ideologue of Our Time (New York : Funk & Wagnalls, 1968).
3. Cf. R.-M. Alberes, Jean-Paul Sartre (Paris: Éditions Universitaires, 1964), 54–71.
4. In France, the polemic aiming at a final rejection of the anti-humanism of ’68 and its Nietzschean, Marxist, and Heideggerian philosophical foundations is found in Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut, French Philosophy of the Sixties: An Essay on Anti-Humanism, trans. Mary H. S. Cattani (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990) and its appendix ’68–’86. Itinéraires de l’individu [’68-’86: Routes of the Individual] (Paris: Gallimard, 1987). Contrary to the theses defended in first of these two works, Guy Hocquenghem in Lettre ouverte à ceux qui sont passés du col Mao au Rotary Club [Open Letter to those Went from Mao Jackets to the Rotary Club] (Paris: Albin Michel, 1986) deplored the assimilation of the hyper-politicism of the generation of 1968 into the contemporary neo-liberal wave. From a definitely polemical point of view and with the aim of restoring debate, such as it is, in the field of philosophical abstraction, one should read Eddy Borms, Humanisme—kritiek in het hedendaagse Franse denken [Humanism: Critique in Contemporary French Thought (Nijmegen: SUN, 1986).
5. Jean Cau, the former secretary of Jean-Paul Sartre, now classified as a polemist of the “right,” who delights in challenging the manias and obsessions of intellectual conformists, did not hesitate to pay homage to Che Guevara and to devote a book to him. The “radicals” of the bourgeois accused him of “body snatching”! Cau’s rigid right-wing admirers did not appreciate his message either. For them, the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, who nevertheless admired Abel Bonnard and the American “fascist” Lawrence Dennis, are emanations of the Evil One.
6. Cf. A. Vergez, Marcuse (Paris: P.U.F., 1970).
7. Julien Freund, Qu’est-ce que la politique? [What is Politics?] (Paris: Seuil, 1967). Cf Guillaume Faye, “La problématique moderne de la raison ou la querelle de la rationalité” [“The Modern Problem of Reason or the Quarrel of Rationality”] Nouvelle Ecole no. 41, November 1984.
8. G. Lipovetsky, L’ère du vide: Essais sur l’individualisme contemporain [The Era of the Vacuum: Essays on contemporary individualism] (Paris: Gallimard, 1983). Shortly after this essay was written, Gilles Lipovetsky published a second book that reinforced its viewpoint: L’Empire de l’éphémère: La mode et son destin dans les sociétés modernes [Empire of the Ephemeral: Fashion and its Destiny in Modern Societies] (Paris: Gallimard, 1987). Almost simultaneously François-Bernard Huyghe and Pierre Barbès protested against this “narcissistic” option in La soft-idéologie [The Soft Ideology] (Paris: Laffont, 1987). Needless to say, my views are close to those of the last two writers.
9. Cf. Laurent Joffrin, La gauche en voie de disparition: Comment changer sans trahir? [The Left in the Process of Disappearance: How to Change without Betrayal?] (Paris: Seuil, 1984).
10. Cf. Furio Colombo, Il dio d’America: Religione, ribellione e nuova destra [The God of America: Religion, Rebellion, and the New Right] (Milano: Arnoldo Mondadori, 1983).
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