The Faustian Fire

On the day of Ascencion and between the 10 days till Pentecost some thoughts

Part 2

As a contribution for Forum for Ethics, Virtues and Uprightness, we present this paper of Paul Kingsnorth from the Abbey of Misrule

The Faustian Fire

Reading Spengler in the springtime

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Spring is here in the west of Ireland. This year, this means the nights are still frosty, the fire is on in the evenings, and the birds are still hungry. Last weekend I ploughed and raked a section of my field, and then sowed it with native wildflowers. This week, the birds all got up earlier than me and ate the lot. There was barely a seed left this morning; only a lot of telltale little patches of blue and white bird shit where my seedbed had been.

Working on the land is like that: an endless battle to protect your little space from every other creature that also wants its bounty. And while I didn’t start this essay intending to compare the battle between bluetits and humans for control over seed with the battle between all of us for control of our cultural story – well, it looks like I just have.

Sometimes, when I am working on the land, I can clear my head of thoughts and questions. Other times – more often – the questions won’t leave; they swill around, they compost in my mind, they develop and grow tendrils and shoots. Sometimes they are even partially answered. At the weekend, as so often recently, the thought that wouldn’t leave me was a question that I have been mulling maybe for years: Why does the West hate itself?

Yes, I know: it’s a silly generalisation. Most people in the West feel nothing of the sort, and ‘the West’ in any case is a capacious notion; one I’m going to dig into next time. The question, if I am being sharper, ought to read something like: ‘Why do the cultural, institutional and intellectual elites of many Western countries, especially in the Anglosphere, appear to be consumed by cultural self-loathing?’

The culture war has not yet come to Ireland, praise be (though the sharp Irish writer Angela Nagle suspects it is on its way.) But it has consumed the public conversation, and much of the reality, in my homeland, Britain, and it is hard to watch, even from a distance. Hard to watch the factions at each others throats; hard to watch the endless, performative identity wars consume the brains of the cultural elite like a dose of CJD; hard to watch bizarre terminologies cooked up in California being parroted unquestioningly in London; hard to watch those who are supposed to be the guardians and protectors of your country turn around and knife it between the shoulders. 

Why is this happening and what is going on? Looked at through a wide lens, it is a deeply weird (not to mention WEIRD) phenomena. What sort of country is ashamed of itself? What people wants to be governed by a ruling class that holds it in contempt? What historical precedent is there for a lasting culture whose story-makers are embarrassed by their own ancestors? How can any culture continue into the future if it is teaching its children a deeply disturbing form of racialised self-loathing?

Defenders of the current moment will usually respond that such accusations are hysterical. What is happening in the West, they say, is a long-overdue ‘reckoning’ with our culture’s past: the empires, the colonies, the imposition of our ways of life on the rest of the world. They’re not wrong about much of that history, however partially they tell the story. We know, or we should, that there were plenty of dark chapters in the Western past. If any culture takes to the high seas with cannons blazing and proceeds to paint half the world red (on the map and often on the ground), then at some point a reckoning will arrive. Actions have consequences. God is not mocked.

But this is not a good enough explanation for what is now clearly a process of accelerating cultural disintegration. After all, plenty of other parts of the world – pretty much all of them in fact, humans being what they are – have dark pasts too, but you don’t see Russia’s cultural elites collapsing into spirals of performative shame over how Lenin and Stalin brutalised eastern Europe or killed millions of their own people (on the contrary, Uncle Joe is very popular there these days.) Japan’s murderous history in southeast Asia doesn’t seem to have led to a desire to dismantle its historic identity, and China is certainly not about to start apologising for the last four thousand years – count them – that it has been engaging in imperial expansion.

No, something else is surely going on in the West, and especially in the Anglosphere, which can’t be explained purely by historical karma. Over the last few years, a new and still-coalescing ideology, which has been gathering steam in the post-modern catacombs of America for decades, has burst out onto the streets and into the studios, and is now coursing through the culture, overturning what was until recently uncontroversial or unquestioned. The energy around it is not that of the self-declared love and justice. It tastes of deconstruction, division, intolerance, hatred and rage.

This thing attracts a lot of labels – critical social justice, left purity culture, victimhood culture, dictatorship of the minority, the Great Awokening and plenty more – but nobody can quite pin down what is happening. It is not really politics, for politics is about achieving practical results. It is not any kind of serious programme for change: the pieces of the newly dominant ideology don’t even fit together on their own terms. It is not debate, for real debate is suppressed, with threats and intimidation. It is not revolution, for which nobody has the cojones, let alone a plan, and it is not war, thankfully, though I’m not sure I’d place a bet on it staying that way (and neither apparently would the CIA.) 

Some – including me – see it best as a kind of pseudo-religion: the Sermon on the Mount minus forgiveness, love and God; a puritan eruption, brimming with sin but stripped of the possibility of redemption. English philosopher John Gray brusquely refers to it as an irrational cult, while the American writer Wesley Yang has suggested that it is the ‘successor ideology’ to liberalism, just as liberalism was the successor ideology to Christianity. (Yang describes the emerging value system as ‘authoritarian Utopianism that masquerades as liberal humanism while usurping it from within.’) Rod Dreher, among others, is tracking the emergence of a new totalitarianism; one which has no need of secret police and gulags, but operates via Big Tech and mob culture instead.

Perhaps they are all right. But why is it happening at all?

Further down the road, I’m going to dig a bit further into what might be going on under the surface of the so-called culture war. But for now I want to state the position I’ll be coming from: that this is a symptom, not a cause.

However deranged much of the newly dominant narrative may be, those pushing it are not the reason for the West’s ongoing fragmentation, any more than Donald Trump or the ‘alt right’ are. Something had to be wrong in the first place for any of this to take hold. A virus has a much higher chance of being devastating if the body’s immune system is already weakened. A healthy culture would not countenance the increasingly absurd claims of the cultural left, from ‘white fragility’ to biological sex being ‘assigned at birth.’ That in turn would not open a space for an equally determined, and equally disturbing, radical right, whose anger is rising in proportion to their opponents’ cultural power.

The resulting cultural tension, the violent language, the polarising stances, the hot-button issues, the radical intolerance, the deepening anger, the cancellations and impositions, the online battles that are distressing so many people – these are the waters we are all forced to swim in now. But the question that haunts me daily is a bigger one: what polluted the spring?

Which brings us, by a circuitous route, to Oswald Spengler.

Spengler’s book The Decline of the West has been sitting on my shelf for years, and I’ve been putting off reading it. Like its author, it has an intimidating aura. But as spring came I finally sat down with it. Published in 1918, the book – or rather the first of its two volumes – catapulted its author, a previously obscure private scholar, to fame. The combination of date and title might have been reason enough: Germany was emerging shattered from the First World War and beginning its spiral into two decades of catastrophe which would climax with the Second. Decline was very much in the air.

But it wasn’t just in Germany that the book took off. Across the West, after the horrors of the Great War, there was a sense that something was terribly wrong. A society that could create and pull much of the world into a hell like the Somme, or Passchendaele (where my own great-grandfather was a sniper) seemed to be suffering from some sickness. All of the pompous, self-regarding imperial tales the European elites had been telling themselves for so long: were they, after all, lies?

Spengler’s book The Decline of the West has been sitting on my shelf for years, and I’ve been putting off reading it. Like its author, it has an intimidating aura. But as spring came I finally sat down with it. Published in 1918, the book – or rather the first of its two volumes – catapulted its author, a previously obscure private scholar, to fame. The combination of date and title might have been reason enough: Germany was emerging shattered from the First World War and beginning its spiral into two decades of catastrophe which would climax with the Second. Decline was very much in the air.

But it wasn’t just in Germany that the book took off. Across the West, after the horrors of the Great War, there was a sense that something was terribly wrong. A society that could create and pull much of the world into a hell like the Somme, or Passchendaele (where my own great-grandfather was a sniper) seemed to be suffering from some sickness. All of the pompous, self-regarding imperial tales the European elites had been telling themselves for so long: were they, after all, lies?

Spengler took the long view. The Decline of the West is a comparitive history of civilisations, in which its author claims to have discovered a pattern of birth, growth and decline which can be applied to all major human cultures, from that of Ancient Egypt to that of the modern West. What sounds like a mathematical formula is then rendered in prose which is sometimes closer to poetry (Spengler preferred to call himself a poet, rather than a historian), employing overarching metaphors, sweeping historical claims, layers of polemic and an often-overlooked spiritual undergirding (a culture, to Spengler, was at root a spiritual, rather than a political, creation). All of this resulted in both the instant scorn of professional historians, and an entirely original piece of work. Those two things often go together.

Spengler’s model first divided the world up into discrete cultures, which each had a distinct form. He then explained, through comparative examples, what he believed the standard cultural cycle was. First, a ‘culture’ is born, in a specific part of the Earth. The place itself is the primary influence on the feel and form of the culture, which cannot function properly outside its birthplace. A young culture is ‘organic’; that is to say it grows from the bottom up. The peasant, said Spengler – the ‘eternal man’ – is the base upon which a culture is built. A culture is at root a product of the countryside and the small town. 

As the culture grows, it coalesces around a distinct ‘Idea’. Each culture exists to fulfill this Idea, though it may not know it. The culture rises and grows, reaches its full potential and then flowers. The Idea floats off into the world like pollen on the wind. This is the golden age. Having fulfilled itself, then, the culture ‘suddenly hardens, its blood congeals, its force breaks down and it becomes civilisation.’

At this point, it may create great monuments, build empires, erect glorious buildings, produce great art – yet its life force is already seizing up. Its peasantry is gone, sucked into the urban slums, the small towns have become sprawling cities, its spiritual life has ossified, and its arts have become self-referential. Civilisation has triumphed, and civilisation ultimately only has one final arbiter of value: money. 

Eventually, after a century or two of vainglory, such a civilisation becomes a globalised ‘cosmopolis’. Great ‘world-cities’, made up of people uprooted from landscapes far and near, are its heart, but despite their energy these cities – ‘the monstrous symbol and vessel of the completely emancipated intellect’, where ‘money and intellect celebrate their greatest and their last triumphs’ – are unable to create or maintain real culture. What was once animal has become machine.

At this point, claimed Spengler, the decline begins in earnest. The uprooting of everything and everyone, the quest for glory, the construction of empires and monuments, the accumulation of wealth and the subsequent dependency upon it: all of it creates an exploited, unhappy mass population in the ‘barrack-cities’ which are easy prey for corporations, media manipulators and demagogues. Here the arch traditionalist Spengler comes into strange alignment with the communist Karl Marx, with his theory of ‘alienation’, and with the uncategorisable Simone Weil, with her reflections on the consequences of rootlessness. All are in agreement that the creation of vast populations in industrial megacities are the precursor to turmoil. What kind – and whether the turmoil is to be welcomed or feared – is another question.

Spengler’s prediction on this front was clear: the age of cosmopolis was the beginning of the end of all civilisations, from the Chinese Warring States to Ancient Rome. The resulting decline in each case paved the way for ‘Caesarism’: the rise of demagogues promising to bring order to increasingly formless chaos. After several hundred years of such centralised tyranny, the civilisation would finally succumb to the weight of history and be replaced by another. This, he said, would be the fate of the West; and soon. 

So what did Spengler make of this thing we call ‘Western culture’: what did he mean by it, and what did he predict? What seems to set him apart from other comparative historians, aside from the poetry and the purple passages (always a plus for me) is the way he categorised cultures. This is the part of the book that academic historians really hate, which of course means that it’s the most interesting bit. Spengler bunched up great chunks of historical time in entirely unique ways. Rejecting the then-common division of past eras into ‘ancient’, ‘medieval’ and ‘modern’ – a schema which he said was too parochial, and flattered the West by placing it at the centre of the world – he invented his own pattern instead. 

First came ‘Appolonian culture’ – Spengler’s term for the Classical world. Appolonian culture, like all others, had its own distinctive forms – arts, architecture, literature and the like, all accreting around key symbols. The symbol of the Appollonian world was the column. Growing out of the ruins of the Appolinian world came a culture invented especially for the occasion by Spengler: the ‘Magian’, which took in Judaism, Byzantium and early Islam. Magian culture, too, had its own forms and poetry: primarily, as the name suggests, it was a time of mysteries, of questions without answers, of trust in the higher will. Its symbol was the cavern.

Then came the culture in whose dying days we are now all living: the splendidly-named ‘Faustian’ age. As the name suggests, the Faustian Idea – the soul, the essence which has driven the rise and fall of ‘the West’ – is expansion, curiosity and an endless forward-drive. An endless need for conquest, invention and exploration define the Faustian soul, which believes to its core that the whole world should follow its example, and that its values are universal.

Faustian culture, said Spengler, was born around the year 1000. Its summer was the high middle ages, its symbol the great Gothic cathedral, its golden age represented by the music of Bach. By the time of the sixteenth century Reformation the decay was setting in, and by 1800 Faustian culture had begun to atrophy into civilisation: Classicism and Romanticism were signs of an increasingly rigid civilisation already looking fondly back to its cultural or natural origins. 

With industrial revolution, Enlightenment and empire, the Faustian fire was carried to all corners of the globe, and its core Idea – the onward-push of economic growth, material expansion, ‘development’, ‘progress’ and all the other modern mythologies – was seeded across the world by the ‘expansion power of the Western soul.’ Organic lifeways were replaced by abstract systems, and modern science (‘no other culture possesses anything like it’) became the ‘servant of the technical will-to-power’. Religion declined, to be replaced first by liberalism (‘freedom from the restriction of soil-bound life’) and then socialism, which in Spengler’s broad usage meant the urge to politically reshape the whole world according to egalitarian lights. The Western left, in Spengler’s telling, as the Marxist revolution in Russia had so recently demonstrated, were Faustian too in their totalising universalism and their ruthless destruction of opposition.

But even as the West was conquering the world, its own soul was seizing up. By the twentieth century, the direction was clear, and for Spengler the Great War only confirmed it. Only disintegration, followed by Caesarism, a ‘return to formlessness’, awaited us now. The twenty-first century, predicted Spengler, would be the period in which this would begin. The only realistic response was to adopt some version of stoicism, and hope for the coming of a cultured and suitably strong Caesar to steady the ship as she sank.

It’s probably not necessary to labour the point that one of Spengler’s readers did indeed become leader of Germany fifteen years later, and tried to fill the role he believed the author had allotted for him. Spengler was not impressed: the parvenu Hitler was not the Caesar he was looking for, and he had no time for his racial theories about ‘Aryans’. But all Spengler’s talk about ‘blood’ and the ‘vigour’ of nations, not to mention his fear of ‘coloured races’ usurping ‘Prussians’, and the need for a strongman to respond, had fed the tiger which would come to eat his country. He had discovered that we don’t get to choose the shape of our Caesars, or their designs. All we can do is try to make sure we do not prepare the ground for them to spring from.

I expect that those academic historians could still kick a hundred holes in the details of The Decline of the West. What else are academics for? But it is hard to argue that the broad trajectory which Spengler offered was wrong. Now, as we watch a new period in our decline unfurl, with fear and trembling, I find it useful to keep his model in mind. I find it useful to remember that we are the men and women of the Faustian age; that we were formed by it, that its values are in us even if we think we reject them, and that, like any people formed by any culture, we find it hard to see beyond the horizon to what might come next. 

What is a culture? It is a story that a people tells itself. Whether or not that story emerges from the Earth and then creates a people to tell it – as Spengler believed and I am tempted to believe too – we build and rebuild our cultures every day, in the stories we tell to our children and ourselves. Stories about who we are, where we came from and where we’re going. Stories about the deeper meaning of human life, about what matters, about what we stand for and will not. Stories, ultimately, about Truth. When the story stops being told, the people will disappear; and vice versa. And when the story is turned in on itself, when its tellers lose faith in it, when it is mocked or abused from within, or when it simply burns itself out – then the people begins to dissolve: to come apart, to slough away from the centre, to stumble and eventually to fall.

Anyone who is familiar with my writing will know that I can’t seem to escape the influence of the Californian poet Robinson Jeffers. The simple reason is that Jeffers was a prophet of our times: like Spengler, though even more gloomily, he saw what they would bring us. From the 1920s until the 1940s – the same time Spengler was publishing – Jeffers wrote blistering, alienating verse about the rot at the heart of America and the West. After the US entered World War Two, the Cassandra of the clifftops could foresee the endgame: America would become the greatest empire the world had yet seen, and its very success – the bounty of greed and pride – would drive it and the West to their Ozymandian fate:

We shall have to hold half the earth: we shall be sick with self-disgust,
And hated by friend and foe, and hold half the earth—or let it go, and go down with it …

… but we have to bear it. Who has kissed Fate on the mouth, and blown out the lamp—must lie with her.

Spengler’s answer to the crumbling of the West was to await the coming of his new Caesar. Jeffers’ answer was to live in deep time – to try and observe life in his ‘perishing republic’ from the perspective of rock and ocean, from which all human deeds were ultimately small and ridiculous. But there is another way. Joseph Campbell writes about it in his book about mythic traditions, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Quoting the British equivalent of Spengler, the historian Arnold Toynbee, Campbell concludes that:

Schism in the soul, schism in the body social, will not be resolved by any scheme of return to the good old days (archaism), or by programs guaranteed to render an ideal projected future (futurism), or even by the most realistic, hardheaded work to weld together again the disintegrating elements. Only birth can conquer death – the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new. 

Only birth can conquer death. At the end of a culture, the real work is not lamentation or desperate defence – both instinctive but futile reactions – but the creation of something new:

Peace then is a snare; war is a snare; change is a snare; permanence a snare. When our day is come for the victory of death, death closes in; there is nothing we can do, except be crucified – and resurrected; dismembered totally and then reborn.

What, then, is the real significance of the orgy of cultural self-immolation sweeping through the nations of the West? Is it the clearing of the ground for a new way of seeing, a new ideology, a new culture? Maybe. But there is another possibility: that the culture war marks not the birth of a new value system but a last desperate gasp of the old one. It could be that the incoherent semi-ideology of ‘social justice’ will turn out not to be a successor culture at all, but the instrument of our final dismemberment: the flickering of the last thin flames of the Faustian fire.

This new ‘religion’, after all, is almost exclusively confined to Western elites: to the upper middle classes, the intellectuals, the wealthy and the comfortable. To the very people, in other words, who have benefited generationally from the Faustian impulse to conquer, remake and extract wealth from the wider world. Perhaps the drastic loss of cultural self-belief that the ‘woke’ moment represents is an ironic and fitting end for a culture whose pride drove it to conquer the world. ‘Sick with self-disgust’, as Jeffers put it, the West is turning on itself. After all, as Faust learned, if you make a deal with the devil, he’s going to turn up and collect on it in the end.

Whether or not that is true, the useful work now seems to me to be that outlined by Campbell: to conquer death by birth. As Simone Weil explained in the book I wrote about last timethe correct response to a rootless, lost or broken society is ‘the growing of roots’ – the name she gave to the final section of her work. Pull up the exhausted old plants if you need to – carefully, now – but if you don’t have some new seed to grow in the bare soil, if you don’t tend it and weed it with love, if you don’t fertilise it and water it and help it grow: well, then your ground will not produce anything good for you. It will choke up with a chaos of thistles and weeds. 

This, in practical terms is, the slow, necessary, sometimes boring work to which I suspect people in our place and time are being called: to build new things, out on the margins. Not to exhaust our souls engaging in a daily war for or against a civilisation that is already gone, but to prepare the seedbed for what might, one day long after us, become the basis of a new culture. To go looking for truth. To light particular little fires – fires fuelled by the eternal things, the great and unchanging truths – and tend their sparks as best we can. To prepare the ground with love for a resurrection of the small, the real and the true.

But first, we are going to have to be crucified. 

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