In the Shadow of the Enlightenment
I’ve finally gotten around to reading John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West. This is part of a trilogy of books published by Ralston Saul (including The Doubter’s Companion and The Unconscious Civilization) that address the rise and fall of the Age of Reason, or The Modern Era more generally. (To date, I’ve only read The Unconscious Civilization). He followed up this trilogy with his acclaimed On Equilibrium, which is his answer to the decadence of the Age of Reason. I also have this book, but I haven’t read it yet.
Since I am not very far into Voltaire’s Bastards, it may be premature of me to offer up some comments on it, but I really wanted to bring it to your attention early, and especially if you follow the work of Jean Gebser on the history of consciousness. I’m quite certain that Ralston Saul was not familiar with Jean Gebser or his Ever-Present Origin. Nonetheless Voltaire’s Bastards (and the trilogy more generally) might be considered a crucial contribution to the history of consciousness in the same manner. Voltaire’s Bastards might be considered an extended treatment of what Gebser calls “the mental-rational structure of consciousness” having entered into “deficient mode”, i.e., disintegration and decadence.
In short, if you want to understand why things are the way they are in Late Modernity or Post-Modernity, Ralston Saul is your guide, although the fuller meaning of it may only become clearer in relation to Jean Gebser’s Ever-Present Origin and in placing Ralston Saul’s intellectual history of the Modern Era and the modern structure of consciousness within the broader historical dynamic of consciousness “mutations” described by Gebser.
Many of the themes raised in The Chrysalis appear in Voltaire’s Bastards and in Ralston Saul’s handling of Western intellectual history (or, history of the intellect). Much of it might even be considered a deft description of the process of enantiodromia, or ironic reversal at the extremity and limit. Ralston Saul doesn’t use the term “enantiodromia” (at least, I haven’t encountered it yet), but this Jungian-Heraclitean dynamic is aptly traced in his history of reason.
You may recall, from earlier posts, how I described this process of reversal that has gone largely unnoticed by the modern mentality, and how its belief in “progress” and the logic of progressive time has largely blinded it to the reality of this reversal of polarity. We are immersed in illusions and delusions and self-deceptions about this. Noting this situation is the starting point for Ralston Saul’s critique of modern rationality, which has become technocratic, rationalistic, instrumentalising, confusing the rationalistic with the reasonable, or amongst those things that Gebser describes as a mode of perception now become dangerously “deficient”.
This is what is so exciting for me about Ralston Saul’s approach. In the former Dark Age Blog and the present Chrysalis I attempted to describe how certain ages and eras are book-ended by polar figures as beginnings and endings: Promethean Man (forethought) morphs into his brother Epimethean Man (afterthought); Parsifal, the fool who becomes a knight, reverts once again in the form of Don Quixote, the knight who becomes a fool once more. Parsifal and Don Quixote (as Prometheus and Epimetheus) and how they bookend an age you have performed the whole process of enantiodromia — a reversal of polarities. In the figures of Cardinal Richelieu (1585 – 1642) and Robert McNamara (1916 – 2009), Ralston Saul identifies the same “bookends” of the Age of Reason and the process of enantiodromia, in terms of the efficient and deficient expression of the mental-rational consciousness. Richelieu and McNamara are representatives of a certain human type — the mental-rational consciousness — but in polarity. In Ralston Saul’s judgement, McNamara, while perhaps personally a “decent guy”, nonetheless represents a mode of the mental-rational consciousness that is intellectually “degenerate” (his word), or what Gebser calls “deficient” — the technocrat.
In that sense, we are living in “the shadow” of the Enlightenment — a reversal of polarity. It is perhaps, therefore, not entirely correct to say that we are now living in “post-modern” or “post-Enlightenment” times. In an earlier post, I pointed out that shadow or sinister side of the mental-rational in the form of Descartes’ fantasy of the “evil genius” or demon which came to assert itself. This all-knowing demon — wasn’t that exactly what the intellect aspired to become itself? Isn’t this “evil genius” the very image of Goethe’s Faustian Man? Descartes’ “evil demon” we then traced through Laplace’s “demon”, through Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, and through to the contemporary mass surveillance techno-corporate state and the ubiquitous exercise of technologies of social and political manipulation and control — ie, “perception management”.
There’s no question about it. Descartes’ “evil demon” who can make us see what isn’t there — who is the Lord of Illusions — is the same as William Blake’s mad Zoa Urizen, who is also the maker of the “Ulro”, the Land of Shadows. This is our present world. The chief feature of Descartes’ demon is that he is a perception manager. This polarity of the mental-rational consciousness structure, the coincidence of light and shadow, is why Gebser identified the hideous Gorgon as being the alter ego of Athena, goddess of reason; and why Heraclitus identified the god Dionysus as being the same as Hades, the dread god of the dead and of the underworld, who is the darkness.
Nietzsche must have known, must have intuited at some level, that Dionysus was intimately connected with Hades even if he never made that connection explicit. It is implied in his “two centuries of nihilism” and in his own presentiment that his name would be associated in the future with something terrible.
It is, therefore, not too difficult to identify the point where the shadow of the Enlightenment began to assert itself — the First World War was the form of this reversal, the overthrow of the reasonable by rationalisation, and by the technical problem of organising and managing “the masses” for both war and peace — communism, fascism, consumer capitalism are the post-war realities of mass politics, of “the System” and “The Great Society”. Ralston Saul hasn’t (as yet in my reading) identified this as the pivot point, but it’s pretty evident that the idea of reason as a moral power and ethical imperative died with the First World War, and the technocrat was born of it. Under the impress of the World War, the healthy scepticism of the Age of Reason reverted, instead, to cynicism and has become confused with it. For cynicism, too, is the shadow of scepticism. In that, Nietzsche was right — cynicism is a form of nihilism.
As I progress in my reading of Ralston Saul, I’ll try and keep you abreast of some of his more significant insights into the state of consciousness in Late Modernity, for his is a very apt description of what is only presently coming to be called “the new normal” in human affairs.