In recent weeks, largely due to a New York Times article, the name of Julius Evola has been circulating around the world of political magazines and blogs, a name that I would have thought would mostly be forgotten, at least outside of a handful of far-right groups and vaguely new age spiritual sects. And yet, it seems that the mostly-forgotten Evola has now gotten something of a reboot, thanks to his influence on the policies and thought of current reichsleiter Steve Bannon.
I shouldn't be too surprised. Apparently, Bannon is quite the fellow bookworm, not surprising, given his generally haggard and unkempt appearance. He bears a remarkable similarity to the monastically bearded, anti-Western propagandist of Putin's Russia, the sociologist Aleksandr Dugin.
But given the remoteness of Evola's ideas from the folksy anti-elitism, evangelical Christianity, and free-market enthusiasm that act as the main lodestones for the American right, it makes for quite the contradiction in terms. Rather, Evola is the sort of thinker that has long been popular among members of the European right, who have a tendency to express things in terms of peoples that have existed since time immemorial. If you look to the neo-fascists that currently plague France, Hungary, Greece, and Russia, it's not too hard to find Evola and his fellow travelers.
You may quite likely have never heard of him, but this philosopher (if you can call him that, he'd likely have shunned the term) and ideologue was one of the handful of post-Nietzschean thinkers whose stars rose brightly in the early years of fascism, only to come crashing down almost immediately after World War II. Strongly favoring tradition over progress, elitism over egalitarianism, mystical immediacy over analysis, organic over historical notions of culture, and myth over theory, Evola was one of those rare thinkers who actually put his concepts into practice, in both a vaguely pagan esotericism as well as providing an intellectual basis for Mussolini's rise to power.
Like many of his fellow right-wing intellectuals in the early 20th Century, he couldn't escape lingering associations with fascism, and his last major work, Ride the Tiger, published in 1961, implored those with “noble souls” to survive what he believed to be the destructive onslaught of a modern society in which the traditional formations had largely been obliterated.
Most of those far-right thinkers who did survive World War II with their reputations tattered but intact framed their arguments in terms of poetic and literary writing. Emil Cioran, Ezra Pound, Knut Hamsun, the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, all were outspoken fascists for whom analyses of their work would inevitably have to include a reconciliation of their thought and their artistic production. And yet, despite their violent distaste for modern society, all four used the most intense of modernist techniques to convey their desire for a more traditional existence. As in the poems of T.S. Eliot, as in the novels of Yukio Mishima, modernist experiment is used to illuminate the nature of modernity, in the hopes of pushing people back into the primordial.
The ideas of a handful of more philosophically inclined thinkers managed to continue, albeit in a reduced form. Oswald Spengler continued to have a lingering if largely negative influence, largely due to his discontent with the Nazis who claimed him as a prophet. Carl Schmitt, by casting politics in terms of theology, managed to lecture and write for years after the war, providing a tool for political analysis across the spectrum. And of course Martin Heidegger, while he disavowed his Nazi past and his tendency to give lectures in full brown uniform, still carries an obsession with immediacy, intuition, and authenticity that makes it remarkably easy to see why he drew his profoundly anti-modern conclusions.
There's an undeniable allure here.
If I go back to my late teens, I'd heretofore received my intellectual development on a steady diet of positive science and liberal democratic theory, which went together in John Locke-step. When I idolized rebels against the system, it was because the system itself was behaving in a corrupt and irrational fashion. My punk icons hated the simpering middle-class, Protestant politics of the Reagan era, my lost-generation icons revolted against the loneliness and phoniness of the newly moneyed America in the years following World War I. The good things were science, social democracy, the natural world. The bad things were organized religion, capitalism, artifice.
But when I began to examine more ardently anti-Enlightenment perspectives, they were bracing. I read Nietzsche, of course, as every snotty, smart teenage boy with an authority problem does, and loved the sheer flippancy of a “philosophy” delivered entirely through aphoristic zingers. Then out into Emil Cioran, Rimbaud, Mishima, Baudelaire, Dostoyevsky, none of whom much cared for the systematic qualities of the modern world. And then onward to Heidegger. At his most brilliant, in the Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger was like a hairy black spider crawling up my neck, telling me my reality was false. Following Heidegger, I read Antonio Gramsci, the imprisoned Italian Marxist who wrote on how concepts like “common sense” and “common knowledge” disguised the political agenda of the bourgeoisie.
For a brief moment, it became easy to swallow all of this whole. The rejection of the individual subject as an invention of Western metaphysics, the full-throttle rejection of Enlightenment ideals, the primacy of subjective experience over any supposedly objective experience, and the all-encompassing power of mythic narrative.
The ideas are so much sexier than their rivals, more radical, somehow more dangerous than the staid alternative.
Yet, at the end of the day, I couldn't shake the fact that these were an equally rigid system, and one which led the mind to some awfully dark places. Without any kind of reconstructive technique, these critiques – and they were primarily designed as and should be interpreted as critiques, not signposts – lead to a particularly dull helplessness. The way that so many of these romantically inclined, more intuitively driven writers and thinkers tried to find out was through a supposed transcendental authenticity. And that is the road that leads to fascism.
Throughout all my hemming and hawing, the “authenticity” factor always seemed to me to be total bullshit. Sure, modern America was a disingenuous, holographic state held together by false hopes and run by a loose-knit assemblage of squabbling financial elites via mass surveillance, but the horror seems to be everywhere, across time and space. Unlike the fascists, I see no nobility in Medieval or Confucian hierarchy, or in a figurehead representing the popular will, or in a world in which scientific method is subordinated to a unified and symbolically rich semiosphere under a beneficent godhead.
That yearning for some kind of anti-modern transcendence remains among the general populace, whether the ideologically committed or the terrified, and I suppose it's largely because the modern world can be an awfully scary place.
And so, periodically, people are tempted to return to a womb of supposedly eternal truths, to follow primeval myth or nationalist flag-waving rather than undertake the challenge of analysis. And I shouldn't be too surprised when I find that the leading scholars of the fascists have been reading the same books as me.