Anxiety, Nostalgia, Resentment and the Alt-Right

Regimes of the authoritarian right are popping up like weeds. And a few months ago, in writing about “Brand Trump”, I made bold to suggest that the drivers of this wave or malaise presently called “Alt-Right” were, essentially, the three devils of anxiety, nostalgia, and resentment. These are the drivers also associated with that post-modern pandaemonium — or “havoc” in Peter Pogany’s terms — that Jean Gebser referred to earlier as the coming “maelstrom of blind anxiety” as an aspect of chaotic transition.

Writing in The Guardian today, Sasha Polakow-Suransky has picked up on the same three drivers in a lengthy article entitled “The ruthlessly effective rebranding of Europe’s new far right“, which is probably worth taking note of precisely for those reasons given by Gebser in his Ever-Present Origin and expanded upon by Peter Pogany in Havoc, Thy Name is Twenty-First Century.

Here I want to focus on this sense of nostalgia moreso than the anxiety or resentment components, even though all three are implicated in the reactionary disposition and attitude. Gebser deals at some length with anxiety and its meaning, and Nietzsche at great length about the meaning of resentment as the opposite of gratitude, but neither speak much to this third element — nostalgia. All three are, however, implicated in the whole phenomenon of “identity politics” also, as an aspect of the fragmentation and disintegration of the mental-rational consciousness structure, its ideals of universality, and of the personality and character structure of modern man that is so much the theme of the post-modern “loss of self”.

“Nostalgia” is a composite of two Greek words: nostos, meaning the return home after a journey, and algos, meaning “pain” or suffering. Nostos or the homeward turning is a potent theme in much Greek literature, particularly in The Odyssey and the adventures of Ulysses. The Nostos is not only involved also in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, but in the parable of the Prodigal Son as well as The Lord of the Rings. The journey motif expresses a rhythm of movement to the extremity where one meets pain or pining, and the return or repose, which is especially characteristic of the Prodigal Son, whose “journey into a far country” finds him finally living in pain as a swine amongst swine, at which time he comes to remembrance of himself and of his origins and begins the homeward journey or the Nostos. In German, this pain of distantiation from one’s origin or home is called, also, Heimweh or homesickness.

To put this another way, anxiety and pain and the sense of loss are proportionate to the degree of distantiation from origin or “home”, idealised as a lost paradise.

For Gebser, however, origin has very little to do with beginnings or with time. Origin is ever-present and is “the vital centre”. Pain is proportionate to the degree of distantiation of the ego-consciousness from the vital centre or ever-present origin. Nostalgia is, in those terms, a measure of the ego-consciousness’s own self-alienation from it’s vital centre which is its sense of homelessness or rootlessness and a loss of self. This is also the meaning of Yeats’ poem The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The ever-widening gyre is the journey of the Prodigal Son, the falcon which is the human ego consciousness, in its increasing distantiation from origin or the vital centre. This corresponds to William Blake’s statement that “Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy”. “Reason” here may be said to be synonymous with “the ego-consciousness”, which in Blake’s mythology is the Zoa Urizen, and in Yeats’ poem is the falcon. This distantiation into rootlessness and fragmentation at the circumference is called “Mind at the end of its tether”, as H.G. Wells also once put it.
Nostalgia is the pain of “lack” and longing, as the Buddhist sociologist David Loy has explored in Lack and Transcendence. “Longing” is a peculiar word to describe the sense of lack, isn’t it? It implies length or distance or remoteness or duration. But it has little to do with space or time and much more to do with psychological distantiation. — the rootlessness of the ego-consciousness as self-alienated being. This problem of alienation has been seen as the chief problem from Marx through the Existentialists, and they all offered up their own solutions, but it was already implied and prefigured in the parable of the Prodigal Son.
Nostalgia is the pain and longing of alienated being called “Ego Nature” or simply “human nature” for its vital centre, but which it displaces or dislocates to somewhere or someplace outside itself in space or time (or, for that matter in “brands” and “brand images”).  This sense of its roots or life lying “outside” or externally in some other time or some other space is a measure of its own alienation or distantiation from the core of its being.
This alienation is the spiritual crisis of Modern Man, the rootlessness of the ego-consciousness, which is expressed as anxiety, nostalgia, and resentment, and it has very little, if anything at all, to do with time past or with “beginnings” or “endings”. It is the great danger for the reasons given by Walter Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
“Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, is now one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic.”
And this alienation of the ego-consciousness from its vital centre (or “soul” is you will) is what worried Gebser, too, about the “maelstrom of blind anxiety” become nihilism.
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2 responses to “Anxiety, Nostalgia, Resentment and the Alt-Right”

  1. Charles Leiden says :

    I agree. This could be called the age of anxiety. The book One Cosmos under God Robert W. Godwin is fascinating.
    Godwin’s book is about four singularities: matter, life, mind and spirit.

    He writes in the chapter on mind: “…we are the only species that comes into the world with an almost infinite potential that may or may not be fulfilled.” What keeps us from reaching this potential? Here he writes about the new understanding about how the human mind actually develops, “until fairly recently, no one considered bonding and attachment to have any great significance for how the the human mind actually develops.” Modern attachment theory is very significant. We are born into a matrix. This matrix is a “a fluid, shifting, unitary space between (usually) mother and infant, as if they were a single organism.” Our “earliest social interactions are imprinted into the biological structures that are maturing during the brain growth spurt that occurs in the first two years of human life, and therefore have far-reaching and long-enduring effects.” This situation can lead to pathology. He emphasizes this insight “that our earliest relationships, in the degree to which are they unsatisfactory, lead to a paradoxical situation in which the poor parental bond is internalized and turned into a psychic entity that compulsively seeks to reenact the situation later in life.”
    The author calls these effects “mind parasites” — complexes, fixations, repetition compulsions that operate independently of our conscious will and tend to subjugate it.”

    These “mind parasites” Godwin suggests, are what keep us from reaching our true potential. “the belief in these entities is often prelude to action, generally unpleasant. That is, mind parasites are projected into the outside world because they cause internal anxiety. But projecting them outward does not actually eliminate the anxiety. Rather it simply “mentalizes the environment, so that the the objective world, rather than the subjective world, is experienced as a dangerous and threatening place” What happens on a individual level parallels what happens on a group level. The book articulates interesting and insightful ideas about the prevalence of group violence in the past/present and the origin of scapegoating and group sacrifices. This is still going on today.

    • Scott Preston says :

      I’ve made note of Godwin’s book. Sounds like his “mind parasites” are another interpretation of the Jungian “Shadow” that Baker addresses also in her book Dark Gold. I take these as being the same.

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