Tuesday 23 March 2021



The destruction of the Old Order, however, and the organization of the "new earth" are not the only items in the historical program of Nihilism; they are not, perhaps, even its most important items. They are but the preparation for a work more significant and more ominous than either: the "transformation of man."

This was the dream of the pseudo-Nietzscheans, Hitler and Mussolini, of a "higher humanity" to be forged through a "creative" violence; "this is the mission of our century," said Hitler's propagandist Rosenberg: "out of a new life myth to create a new human type." [50] We know from Nazi practice what this "human type" was, and the world would seem to have rejected it as brutal and inhuman. But the "mass change in human nature" to which Marxism looks is an end that is perhaps not very different. Marx and Engels are unequivocal on this subject:

Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution: this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew. [51]

Putting aside for the moment the question of what kind of men are to be produced by this process, let us note carefully the means utilized: it is again violence, which is as necessary to the formation of the "new man" as it is to the building of a "new earth." The two, indeed, are intimately connected in the determinist philosophy of Marx, for "in revolutionary activity, change of self coincides with the change of circumstances." [52] The change of circumstances, and more to the point, the process of changing them through revolutionary violence, transform the revolutionaries themselves. Here Marx and Engels, like their contemporary Nietzsche, and like Lenin and Hitler after them, subscribe to the mystique of violence, seeing a magical change to be wrought in human nature through indulgence of the passions of anger, hatred, resentment, and the will to dominate. In this regard we must make note also of the two World Wars, whose violence has helped to destroy forever the Old Order and the old humanity, rooted in a stable and traditional society, and has had a large role in producing the new uprooted humanity that Marxism idealizes. The thirty years of Nihilist war and revolution between 1914 and 1945 have been an ideal breeding-ground for the "new human type. "

It is of course no secret to contemporary philosophers and psychologists that man himself is changing in our violent century, under the influence, of course, not only of war and revolution, but also of practically everything else that lays claim to being "modern" and "progressive." We have already cited the most striking forms of Nihilist Vitalism, whose cumulative effect has been to uproot, disintegrate, and "mobilize" the individual, to substitute for his normal stability and rootedness a senseless quest for power and movement, and to replace normal human feeling by a nervous excitability. The work of Nihilist Realism, in practice as in theory, has been parallel and complementary to that of Vitalism: a work of standardization, specialization, simplification, mechanization, dehumanization; its effect has been to "reduce" the individual to the most "Primitive" and basic level, to make him in fact the slave of his environment, the perfect workman in Lenin's worldwide "factory."

These observations are commonplace today; a multitude of volumes has been written about them. Many thinkers are able to see the clear connection between the Nihilist philosophy that reduces reality and human nature to the simplest possible terms, and a Nihilist practice that similarly reduces the concrete man; not a few, also, realize the seriousness and the radicalness of this "reduction" even to the extent of seeing in it, as does Erich Kahler, a qualitative change in human nature.

(The) powerful trend toward the disruption and invalidation of the individual ... manifestly present in the most diverse currents of modem life--economic, technological, political, scientific, educational, psychic and artistic--appears so overwhelming that we are induced to see in it a true mutation, a transformation of human nature.[53]

But few even of those who realize this much have any real awareness of its profound significance and implications (for these are theological, and so completely outside the scope of any merely empirical analysis), or of a possible remedy (for that must be of the spiritual order). The author just quoted, for example, draws hope from the prospect of a transition into "some supraindividual form of existence, " thus revealing that he has no higher wisdom than that of the "spirit of the age," which indeed--as we shall see--has thrown up the ideal of a social "Superman."

What, more realistically, is this "mutation," the "new man"? He is the rootless man) discontinuous with a past that Nihilism has destroyed, the raw material of every demagogue's dream; the "free-thinker" and skeptic, closed only to the truth but "open" to each new intellectual fashion because he himself has no intellectual foundation; the "seeker" after some "new revelation," ready to believe anything new because true faith has been annihilated in him; the planner and experimenter, worshipping "fact" because he has abandoned truth, seeing the world as a vast laboratory in which he is free to determine what is "possible"; the autonomous man, pretending to the humility of only asking his "rights," yet full of the pride that expects everything to be given him in a world where nothing is authoritatively forbidden; the man of the moment, without conscience or values and thus at the mercy of the strongest "stimulus"; the "rebel," hating all restraint and authority because he himself is his own and only god; the "mass man," this new barbarian, thoroughly "reduced and "simplified" and capable of only the most elementary ideas, yet scornful of anyone who presumes to point out the higher things or the real complexity of life.

These men are all one man, the man whose fashioning has been the very purpose of Nihilism. But mere description cannot do justice to this man; one must see his image. And in fact such an image has quite recently been portrayed; it is the image of contemporary painting and sculpture, that which has arisen, for the most part, since the end of the Second World War, as if to give form to the reality produced by the most concentrated era of Nihilism in human history.

The human form, it would seem, has been "rediscovered" in this art; out of the chaos of total abstraction, identifiable shapes emerge. The result, supposedly, is a "new humanism," a "return to man" that is all the more significant in that--unlike so many of the artistic schools of the 20th century--it is not an artificial contrivance whose substance is hidden behind a cloud of irrationalist jargon, but a spontaneous growth that would seem to have deep roots in the soul of contemporary man. in the work, for example, of Alberto Giacometti, Jean Dubuffet, Francis Bacon, Leon Golub, Jose Luis Cuevas--to take an international sampling [54]--there seems to be a genuinely "contemporary" art that, without abandoning the disorder and "freedom" of abstraction, turns its attention away from mere escape toward a serious "human commitment."

But what kind of "man" is it to which this art has "returned"? It is certainly not Christian man, man in the image of God, for no "modern" man can believe in him; nor is it the somewhat diluted "man" of the old humanism, whom all "advanced" thinkers regard as discredited and outmoded. It is not even the "man" disfigured and denatured in the earlier "Cubist" and "Expressionist" art of this century; rather, it begins where that art leaves off, and attempts to enter a new realm, to depict a new man.

To the Orthodox Christian observer, concerned not with what the avant-garde finds fashionable or sophisticated, but with truth, little reflection should be required to penetrate to the secret of this art: there is no question of "man" in it at all; it is an art at once subhuman and demonic. It is not man who is the subject of this art, but some lower creature who has emerged ("arrived" is Giacometti's word for it) from unknown depths.

The bodies this creature assumes (and in all its metamorphoses it is always the same creature) are not necessarily distorted violently; twisted and dismembered as they are, they are often more "realistic" than the figures of man in earlier modern art. This creature, it is clear, is not the victim of some violent attack; rather, he was born deformed, he is a genuine "mutation." One cannot but notice the likeness between some of these figures and photographs of the deformed children born recently to thousands of women who had taken the drug Thalidomide during pregnancy; and we have doubtless not seen the last of such monstrous "coincidences."

Even more revealing than the bodies of these creatures are the faces. It would be too much to say that these faces express hopelessness; that would be to ascribe to them some trace of humanity which they most emphatically lack. They are the faces, rather, of creatures more or less "adjusted" to the world they know, a world not hostile but entirely alien, not inhuman but "a-human."[55] The anguish and rage and despair of earlier Expressionists is here frozen, as it were, and cut off from a world to which they had at least the relation of denial, so as to make a world of their own. Man, in this art, is no longer even a caricature of himself; he is no longer portrayed in the throes of spiritual death, ravaged by the hideous Nihilism of our century that attacks, not just the body and soul, but the very idea and nature of man. No, all this has passed; the crisis is over; man is dead. The new art celebrates the birth of a new species, the creature of the lower depths, subhumanity.

We have dealt with this art at a length perhaps disproportionate to its intrinsic value, because it offers concrete and unmistakable evidence--for him who has eyes to see--of a reality which, expressed abstractly, seems frankly incredible. It is easy to dismiss as fantasy the "new humanity" foreseen by a Hitler or a Lenin; and even the plans of those quite respectable Nihilists among us today who calmly discuss the scientific breeding of a "biological superman," or project a utopia for "new men" to be developed by the narrowest "modern education" and a strict control of the mind, seem remote and only faintly ominous.

But confronted with the actual image of a "new man," an image brutal and loathsome beyond imagination, and at the same time so unpremeditated, consistent, and widespread in contemporary art, one is caught up short, and the full horror of the contemporary state of man strikes one a blow one is not likely soon to forget.

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