Enlightenment and the Language of Hell

Robert O. Paxton, author of The Anatomy of Fascism and an authority on fascist movements, thinks we shouldn’t be too hasty in calling the negative or nihilistic aspects of the “new normal” by the name “fascism”. But while it is true that too many people bandy the word “fascist” about far too loosely and without comprehension, we don’t have to wait until fascism becomes full blown, mainstream, established fact and “objective reality”, or wait for it to strip away “the mask of sanity” and declare itself explicitly as “new normal”, to recognise fascism.  How long do you wait until you call the negative and nihilistic aspects of “post-truth society”, “the culture of narcissism”, “post-Enlightenment” or “end of history” by its name — fascism?

Fascism is, as Eugen Kogon called it, “the theory and practice of Hell” that comes speaking “the language of Hell”, as cultural critic George Steiner aptly described it (Jean Gebser’s “demonic”). From whence arises, then, the language of Hell that then becomes “theory and practice” as fascism?

What we call “Hell” as “underworld” is the realm of the repressed — those aspects of the human psychic whole that we deny expression and reality (including death or the thanatic pole of the psyche, as David Loy aptly points out). Hell, and the “torments of Hell”, exist only in that sense in which man passes judgement and sentence upon himself, and consigns vital aspects of himself to the oblivion of unconsciousness and ignore-ance but which persist as rage, neurosis, hysteria, and nightmare in the depths of “the unconscious”.

The return of the repressed, which begins largely with Nietzsche and is represented in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and subsequently formalised in Freud’s “discovery of the unconscious” and the “psychopathology of everyday life”, is coincident with the rise of fascism. The theory and practice of fascism is the deficient forms of myth and magic, respectively, and the rage of the repressed against its perceived oppressor — Reason. Fascist “enlightenment” or “awakening” is not what we normally understand by “enlightenment”. It is the summoning from the depths the rage and the nightmare of the dragon power or “ancient force” or “the Shadow” symbolised by the Kraken or by W.B. Yeats’ “rough beast” (in “The Second Coming“).

The enmity and even rage of the repressed towards “reason”, and even consciousness itself, is expressed as hatred of everything associated with “reason” (including liberalism, parliamentarianism, constitutionalism) and a preference for “the will” against thinking. Will is concerned with strength and power, and so with magic. Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda masterpiece The Triumph of the Will (1935) says it all, pretty much (which is available on YouTube).

The post-modern “loss of self” and the “return of the repressed” are coincident phenomena.

The repressed, however, is simply the unintegrated. As Seth put it, unless the return of the repressed in our time is accompanied by an “enlightened ego consciousness” (which is Steiner’s “ethical individualism”) capable of organising these unconscious energies into new transformed cultural patterns, it will be massively destructive, and potentially fatal for the continuance of the human species and the planet. The Buddhist principle here applies to the return of the repressed: “not by enmity is enmity ended. By friendship is enmity ended.” The meaning of this is essentially Gebser’s “integral consciousness” and Rosenstock-Huessy’s “articulation”. Both are, essentially, attempts to provide a framework for the integration of the return of the repressed into new cultural patterns. De-formation (nihilism) into trans-formation.

Fascism is indeed “the revolution of nihilism”. But that nihilism is conjoined with the return of the repressed and the rage of the repressed. Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which came to him as a vision, was written at the same time Nietzsche was pondering nihilism and the Dionysian. And Stevenson’s novella anticipates “the discovery of the unconscious” and W.B. Yeats’ ominous poem “The Second Coming”. We continue to ignore what is stirring in the depths to our peril.

“The discovery of the unconscious” in “the psychopathologies of everyday life” is a strange thing. Where was this “unconscious” before Freud? Actually, it was called “Hades” or “Hell” or “underworld”, just as “narcissism” is only a contemporary term for what was once called “idolatry”. Nietzsche must surely have known, as Heraclitus knew, that Hades was the alter ego of Dionysus, and that the return of Dionysus (the life force or vitality following “the death of God”) would be accompanied by tragedy and by “two centuries of nihilism”.  Fascist “theology” is also a rage against God or Jehovah, who is Blake’s Urizen, because it was this “God”, in the form of Universal Reason, that is the real represser.  Fascism’s very hatred of the ideal of Universal Humanity is its resentment of, and revenge upon, “God”, who was a symbol of this universality.

(Although I cannot prove it, I would suggest that the reason there is so much sexual child abuse amongst the clergy is precisely to take revenge against a repressive moralistic God. What better way to insult and take revenge on God than to violate the innocence of his “lambs”? Blake, I think, would concur with that. This resentment of God is, of course, not conscious, or the logic of Dr. Jekyll. It is the resentment of “Mr. Hyde”. And in the case of fascism, what better way to deny God than to rollback history to the Roman Empire?)

I would say that, in the present context, the reactionary succumbs to the return of the repressed and is drawn into the maelstrom of its rage, while the revolutionary must learn to consciously integrate the return of the repressed rather than become its plaything. This is, in any case, the plan of Gebser’s integral consciousness and Rosenstock-Huessy’s “metanoia” and grammatical method. Both may be described as being “counter-reactionary”.


One response to “Enlightenment and the Language of Hell”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    I don’t know if I mentioned this, but Peter Conrad’s recent publication of Mythomania might be considered a significant milestone in understanding further this “return of the repressed”.


    Only “mania” or frenzy is more often associated with the magical structure of consciousness than the mythical.

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