A few months back, I posted a piece on ironic reversal at our “end of history”. In it I noted the irony of the neo-conservative thesis — an irony that seems to have been lost on its true believers — that the “end of history” could be nothing but the absolute self-negation of the modern era, modern society, and modern civilisation; that “the end of history” could be nothing but the same “post-modern condition” that they pretended to deplore when it was enunciated by others. The “end of history” thesis served to affirm and justify Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” and “there is no such thing as society”.
The ironic reversal (or enantiodromia) implied in all this is, of course, that this “end of history” along with “there is no alternative” is the self-negation and deconstruction of the liberal democracy and its values, the historical victory of which it pretended to celebrate, for it could only result in a form of totalitarianism itself. This was the irony also recognised by Nietzsche when he wrote,
“Liberal institutions cease to be liberal as soon as they are attained: later on, there are no worse and no more thorough injurers of freedom than liberal institutions.”
We’ll leave aside, for the time being, the question of whether “the end of history” wasn’t in fact a Trojan Horse designed to legitimise fascism as the political form most logically suited to the conclusion of the Modern Era and the Modern Project. Even if it was a Trojan Horse, in that respect, it would still betoken the self-negation — the nihilism — of the Modern Era.
The “end of history” (and Thatcher’s “there is no alternative”) was only a sign, a token, of the breakdown of dialectical reason and of the mental-rational consciousness structure itself, where thesis and its anti-thesis have become identical (and which is the true meaning of con-fusion, or “melting together”). We have re-entered that ouroboric condition of mental stagnancy and standstill that Christianity once denounced as “paganism”, and which mentality was represented by the ancient symbol of the ouroboros,
It was against the symbolism of the ouroboros that the early Christians erected “the sign of the cross”, this repudiation of the ouroboros as definitive is still represented in the “mystic” Jacob Boehme’s illustration of the triumph of the cross over the ancient ouroboros,
This isn’t the place to go into details about this earlier revolution in human consciousness that is suggested in these contrasting symbolic languages — the cross against the ouroboros. What we want to focus on here is the resumption of the “pagan” condition represented by the ouroboros in consequence of “the death of God”, for the eruption and resurgence of fascism in our time is connected with the resurgence of what early Christians understood as “paganism” and the symbolic image of the ouroboros. And it is against this, too, that William Blake raged in his art and poetry. The ouroboric condition of “eternal recurrence of same” is also what Buddhism calls the realm of “samsara” or suffering. In our time, the ouroboros is represented in the tyranny of the clock and as the clockwork universe, which is also why Christianity accentuated the timelessness of eternity over the secular or time-bound order. This is very important for our understanding — “eternity” was not the eternal recurrence of the ouroboric cycle, but the timelessness of the “once-and-for-all”.
The ouroboric mentality has infiltrated our consciousness once again, and this is the essential meaning of the eruptions of fascism in Late Modernity and the nihilism of our time, for it is essentially implied in all types of reactionary attitudes and politics. There is no avoiding that conclusion. Human consciousness cannot progress or develop where the egregore of the ouroboros rules over the mind and spirit, for the ouroboros represents nature, and symbolises man as “natural” form and as bodily being only. This is sometimes the called “the classical” attitude.
It needs to be emphasised that no new future can enter into the charmed circle of the ouroboric consciousness. It is a fate, not a destiny freely chosen. There are no “alternative” pathways out of the ouroboric state. “Progress” as such is only progression along the circumference of a circle, a perpetual rotation. One can never be done with anything. It is not a coincidence that Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West follows the ouroboric model, and directly influenced fascist attitudes.
The second aspect of note about the ouroboric symbol is that it represents what is now called “creative destruction” as part of the so-called “new normal”. The self-devouring movement is also the self-regenerating movement. Nihilism and Genesis are treated as exactly the same process. This is, in fact, what cultural historian Jean Gebser refers to as the strange “double-movement” of our times — the baffling coincidence of contradictory tendencies in one and the same dynamic. “Creative destruction”, as a description of what Bauman also calls “liquid modernity”, is also fascism’s doctrine of “permanent warfare” as belonging also to a presumed “natural order of things”, which “natural order” can only be represented in terms of the ouroboros. The current confusion of the “whole” with the “totality” (they are strictly speaking, contraries, not synonyms) belongs to the same ouroboric confusion. Slavery and human and animal sacrifice were also “natural” to the ouroboric consciousness.
This “double-movement” takes the form of duplicity and self-contradiction in our speech and conduct. There is absolutely no difference whatsoever between the neo-liberal/neo-conservative dogma of “creative destruction” and the post-modern “deconstruction” that they denounce themselves as nihilistic. There is a whole series of “false oppositions” that disguise what are really completely identical positions and attitudes, and which speak therefore of a general breakdown of the modern consciousness structure. There is likewise absolutely no difference between demands for “ideological purity” and denunciations of “political correctness”. And if one is “decadence” and “nihilism”, then so is the other decadence and nihilism.
The importance of William Blake, Jean Gebser, and Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy lies in this — that they seek to erect a barrier against backsliding into the ouroboric state and consciousness. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality” is conscientiously designed to prevent the danger of just such a relapse (something that comes out in his short booklet The Multiformity of Man, and it is profitable to read it with that in mind). This is perhaps the predominant single idea in all of Rosenstock-Huessy’s writings and in his own proposals for a restructuration of consciousness or metanoia.
There are some very profound undercurrents to contemporary events — undercurrents or background dynamics — that will impact decisively on the human prospect, but that don’t seem to get much of an airing.
Still, as Hölderlin put it, “where the peril is greatest, there lies the saving grace also”. That, too, belongs to the strange ironies of Late Modernity and to Gebser’s insights into the dynamics of Late Modernity. Ironically, the apparent nihilism of Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society” also suggests the possibility of now completely transforming and reconstructing “society” itself. Those who are concerned with social transformation and renewal might even take a secret delight in Thatcher’s nihilistic attitudes toward society.
If society has dissolved and become “tabula rasa“, a blank canvas, we have pretty much a free hand to reinvent “society”. And if we are at “the end of history”, then the tyranny of “history”, precedent, and tradition is likewise abolished. It is possible to use the nihilism of our time to our advantage, to effect a complete transformation of society unhindered by fossilised concepts, reified abstractions, and institutions of “society” or “history”. We can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, in other words; employ ourselves the “useful idiots” of our “post-ideological” era, and move to master the situation.
At least, it is this prospect that allowed Nietzsche to remain cheerful about the human prospect despite his forecast of “two centuries of nihilism”, as has come about.
It is possible, which is why Gebser encouraged us to recognise and focus on the saplings, the new growth, emerging from the detritus of the downfall of the old and amidst the ruins of the old.
“We have only one option: in examining the manifestations of our age, we must penetrate them with sufficient breadth and depth that we do not come under their demonic and destructive spell. We must not focus our view merely on these phenomena, but rather on the humus of the decaying world beneath, where the seedlings of the future are growing, immeasurable in their potential and vigor. Since our insight into these energies pressing toward development aids their unfolding, the seedlings and inceptive beginnings must be made visible and comprehensible.”
That same sentiment is what Rumi expressed in his great poem “Green Ears”