The Disappearance of the Moderate Conservative, II
I had a dream last night that may go a long way in providing an answer to the question I put in the last post. For what it’s worth, I’ll share it with you this morning. Oddly enough, this dream suggested that there was an implicit link between what I wrote in “The Concretion of the Spiritual” and the following post on “The Disappearance of the Moderate Conservative” which wasn’t apparent to me at first.
In the post on Gebser’s use of the phrase “concretion of the spiritual”, I interpreted that to mean “secularisation” and noted its ambiguity; that it also entailed a risk of corruption of the spiritual. Most usages of the word “secularisation” are decidedly negative in that sense, where it is seen as pollution of eternal truth by the orders of time. For that is what the word “secular” means — the order of time, the “order of the ages”. Blake calls the secular order “Generation” because “secular” is indeed related to the word “sex”, the domain of the pro-creative or generative.
In other words, “secular”, in being the order of time and times, is the impermanent and transient. It is the finite, changeable, and mortal world. It is this world of Time and Death, and pretty much has the same meaning as “samsara” and samsaric existence. As such, it is not deemed a fit home for the infinite or for eternal truth. The preservation of the purity of “eternal truth” or “perennial wisdom” from the distortions and corruptions of secularisation and unclean hands is what leads to “other worldliness” or secretiveness about the “mysteries”. The finite and mortal world is deemed an unfit vessel for the infinite and eternal.
Most uses of “secularism” are in that sense, and secularisation is the process of translating spiritual truths into materialistic terms, distorting and polluting them in the process. An example of secularisation as translation of the qualitative into the quantitative is perspectivism itself. During the Renaissance, the perspective artists defended perspectivism in painting to a skeptical and suspicious Church by arguing that the depiction of infinite space (depth perception) on a two-dimensional surface was in fact simply making eternity visible to the eye, and would be educational. This was probably the beginning of what we thereafter called “secularisation” of religious principles, as a translation of the purely qualitative into the quantitative mode. In fact, a lot of ecclesiastical types themselves became enthusiastic translators in that sense, believing that quantification was bringing heaven down to earth, and injecting the secular arm with spiritual truth. But that also meant a shift from the ear as organ of knowing to the eye as organ of knowing. “Seeing is believing”.
Thus began the Age of Quantification, and a very interesting account of that whole process is Alfred Cosby’s very informative book The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society 1250 – 1600. In other words, the secularisation process coincides with the development of perspective art. In other words, the early secularists were most often ecclesiastics themselves, who believed strongly that they were leavening and seeding and illuminating the secular order with profound spiritual truth.
Now, leap ahead a few centuries to Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s a book about the eclipse of quality and the crisis of over-quantification. Pirsig’s personal crisis was a reflection of the civilisational crisis that had arisen from the eclipse of quality or the spiritual. Instead of “spiritualising” the secular order, secularisation had corrupted and distorted the spiritual truth instead. Instead of “spiritualisation” we had instead the Kali Yuga. That was also Rene Guenon’s complaint in The Reign of Quantity.
In effect, secularisation in that sense corresponds to the meaning of Khayyam’s Caution: “only a hair separates the false from the true”, and to Blake’s Proverb of Hell that states: “anything possible to be believed is an image of truth”. But, of course, not the truth itself.
There is an enigmatic passage in the New Testament about “storming heaven” that seems to be about that whole process. It occurs in Matthew 11:12, and the dream I had made reference to that. “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” And yet another translation has it quite differently: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, life is given unto the kingdom of the heavens, and the valiant take hold of it.
That latter translation lends quite a different, and even contrary meaning to the first. That’s why its an enigma. In fact, I recall reading some Biblical scholar who puzzled over it, for Jesus he mused seemed to even approve of the storming of heaven. And that seems reflected in these two translations: a disapproval in the first, but an apparent approval in the second.
“Storming the heavens” would appear to mean here “secularisation”, and secularisation is ambiguous, part of what Gebser refers to as “the double-movement” of our times. Yes, the secular order has become shot through with profound spiritual truth. But that spiritual truth has become eclipsed and opaque, distorted and perverted. What is needed now is “diaphaneity” or “translucency” as Gebser calls it, or what Blake called “cleansing the doors of perception” — the proverbial scales falling from the eyes. Or, as Rumi also put it “purify your eyes and see the pure world”.
The process of secularisation, as quantification, and quantification as the translation of the qualitative or spiritual into mere “information” and as “sensory data”, would appear to have now over-reached the limit. This is Gebser’s “mental-rational” now functioning in “deficient mode”. In fact, that’s what Nietzsche means by his definition of nihilism: “all higher values devalue themselves” is the corruption of secularisation, or the vulgarisation of spiritual truth. It’s equivalent to Oscar Wilde’s definition of the cynic as “someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
The eclipse of the spiritual or qualitative is what is meant by “death of God”. And yet for someone like Blake it simply wasn’t true. It wasn’t “God” per se that was dead. It was the human senses and perception that had become deadened. Blake saw the secular order (or the Ulro) as shot through with evident spiritual truth: “Heaven in a Wild Flower and Eternity in the hour”, or the universe in a grain of sand, or “eternity is in love with the productions of time”.
My dream suggested that in this double-movement of secularisation, the “disappearance of the moderate conservative” and the eruption of the reactionary is related to this quantification as nihilism, and to the Kali Yuga. That is to say, to the same crisis of “quality” that Pirsig endured and recorded in his popular Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
There is also a book by Robert Musil with a suggestive title. It’s called The Man Without Qualities. I haven’t read the novel (it’s very lengthy apparently), but I have read a little summary of it. It seems to address that very issue that Pirsig also wrestled with, and which is really the issue of nihilism.
Yet something strange is occurring. Even as it approaches its limit, materialism is dissolving along with “matter” itself. That’s most especially true in physics. The Matter Myth as Paul Davies described it. It appears that “enantiodromia” is at work even now — reversal at the extremity. As matter reverts into pure energy, the qualitative begins to shine through the quantification. That “shining through” or “shattering truth” is what Gebser sees as “diaphaneity”, but he doesn’t see it arriving except in the form of universal crisis and “global catastrophe”.
So, what is it? Seizing hold of the “kingdom of heaven” is the work of either the violent or the valiant. It’s ambiguous because the human being is a paradox. It’s quite evident, I think, that Blake also approved of secularisation as his “marriage of Heaven and Hell”, and was dead set against “other worldliness”. For Blake, there was no “other world”. There was only the myopia (Single Vision) of reason and the blindness of the senses. And there’s something of that same sense in physicist David Bohm’s Wholeness and the Implicate Order.
The significance of Pirsig’s book is the growing consciousness of the deficiency of secularisation as being also a “vulgarisation” of the qualitative. But it seems that enantiodromia is also in play here. As one tendency descends deeper into the Kali Yuga, which we call the reactionary, another tendency is leaving the murk for its “lofty heritage” as Goethe put it, in an exact duplication at “the end of history” of his “two souls” verse in Faust,
“Two souls, alas, reside within my breast,
And each from the other would be parted.
The one in sturdy lust for love
With clutching organs clinging to the world,
The other strongly rises from the gloom
To lofty fields of ancient heritage”. — Goethe, Faust.
And I think there you have the ambiguity of the double-movement noted by Gebser, and of the violent and the valiant as the ambiguity or paradox of secularism and of “seizing the kingdom of heaven”.
The irony of conservatism is, of course, that it is supposed to conserve, not to become itself a species of nihilism, which is what “the disappearance of the moderate conservative” amounts to. The supposedly “new conservatives” are the “men without qualities” and that is reflected in the indecency and incivility of the public discourse. So, do they really bear being called “conservative” at all? I would instead describe it as reactionary.
Two dynamic tendencies moving in exactly contrary directions, deeper into the quantitative or rising towards the qualitative, makes for rising stress and tension in Late Modernity. So I don’t find it unlikely that this tension will one day explode in Gebser’s “catastrophe”.