Tuesday 23 March 2021

Stages of Nihilism - 3. VITALISM


Liberalism and Realism have been leading men, for a century and more, down a false path whose end, if the path had not been deflected, would have been something like one of those "reverse utopias" of which we have now heard so much,--a more terrible "brave new world," perhaps, an inhuman technological system wherein all worldly problems would be solved at the cost of the enslavement of men's souls. Against this utopia of rationalist planning many protests have been raised in the name of the concrete and personal, of the unplanned and unsystematic needs of human nature that are at least as essential, even for a purely worldly "happiness," as the more obvious material needs; a protest, above all, in the name of "life," which, whatever it may mean, would clearly be stifled in the Realist paradise.

The chief intellectual impetus of the Vitalist movement has been a reaction against the eclipse of higher realities in the Realist "simplification" of the world. This granted, we must on the other hand acknowledge the absolute failure of Vitalism on this level. Lacking sufficient foundation in or even awareness of Christian Truth, those who have applied themselves to the correction of the radical defects of Realism have generally invented remedies for them which have not been merely powerless, but positively harmful, remedies which are actually symptoms of a more advanced stage of the disease they were intended to heal.

For just as Realism, while reacting against the vagueness of Liberalism, condemned itself to sterility by accepting the Liberalist obscuration of higher truths, so too did Vitalism undermine its own hopes by accepting as an essential presupposition the critique of absolute truth made by the Realism it was attempting to combat. However much the Vitalist may yearn for the "spiritual" and "mystical," he will never look to Christian Truth for them, for that has been "outmoded" for him as surely as for the blindest Realist. Typical of the Vitalist attitude in this regard is the lament of W. B. Yeats in his autobiography over "being deprived by Huxley and Tyndall, whom I detested, of the simpleminded religion of my childhood...." Whatever psychological justification such an attitude may have, it has nothing whatever to do with the truth of things; and the consequences have been nothing but harmful. There is no form of Vitalism that is not naturalistic, none whose entire program does not begin and end in this world, none whose approach to any other world is anything but a parody. The path of Nihilism, let us note again, has been "progressive"; the errors of one of its stages are repeated and multiplied in its next stage.

There is no question, then, of finding in Vitalism a return to Christian--or any other--truths. There is, however, inevitably some pretense among Vitalists to do so. Many critics have noted the "pseudoreligious" character even of Marxism, though that epithet is applicable only to the misplaced fervor of its more enthusiastic devotees, and not to its doctrine, which is too clearly anti-religious in character. In Vitalism the question of "pseudo-religion" becomes much more serious. Here a quite understandable lament over the loss of spiritual values becomes father, on the one hand to subjective fantasies and (sometimes) to actual Satanism, which the undiscriminating take as revelations of the "spiritual" world, and on the other hand to a rootless eclecticism that draws ideas from every civilization and every age and finds a totally arbitrary connection between these misunderstood fragments and its own debased conceptions. Pseudo-spirituality and pseudo-traditionalism, one or both, are integral elements of many Vitalist systems. We must be cautious, then, in examining the claims of those who would restore a "spiritual" meaning to life, and especially of those who fancy themselves allies or adherents of "Christianity." "Spiritualist" errors are far more dangerous than any mere materialism; and we shall in fact find, in Part Three of this work, that most of what passes for "spirituality" today is in fact a "new spirituality," a cancer born of Nihilism that attaches itself to healthy organisms to destroy them from within. This tactic is the precise opposite of the bold Realist attack upon truth and the spiritual life; but it is no less a Nihilist tactic, and a more advanced one.

Intellectually, then, Vitalism presupposes a rejection of Christian Truth together with a certain pseudo-spiritual pretension. Realizing this, however, we shall still be unprepared to understand the Vitalist movement if we are unaware of the spiritual state of the men who have becomes its bearers. In Liberalism and Realism the Nihilist disease is still relatively superficial; it is still mainly a matter of philosophy and restricted to an intellectual elite. In Vitalism, however,--as already in Marxism, the most extreme manifestation of the Realist mentality-the disease not only develops qualitatively, it also extends itself quantitatively; for the first time the common people too begin to show signs of the Nihilism that was formerly restricted to the few.

This fact is, of course, in perfect accord with the internal logic of Nihilism, which aspires, like the Christianity it was called into existence to destroy, to universality. By the middle of the 19th century perceptive thinkers were expressing apprehension at the prospect of the "awakened" multitudes, those who were to be exploited by the "terrible simplifiers"; and by the time of Nietzsche, the most powerful of Vitalist "prophets," the apprehension had deepened and become a certainty. Nietzsche could see that the "death of God" had begun "to cast its first shadows over Europe"; and though "the event itself is far too great, too remote, too much beyond most people's power of apprehension, for one to suppose that so much as the report of it could have reached them," still its advent was certain, and it was men like Nietzsche who were "the firstlings and premature children of the coming century"  [14] --the century, let us remember, of the "triumph of Nihilism."

The Christian Truth which Liberalism has undermined. and Realism attacked is no mere philosophical Truth, but the Truth of life and salvation; and once there begins to gain ground, among the multitudes Who have been nourished by that Truth, the conviction that it is no longer credible, the result will be no mere urbane skepticism like that with which a few Liberals console themselves, but a spiritual catastrophe of enormous dimensions, one whose effect will make itself felt in every area of human life and thought. Thinkers like Nietzsche felt the presence of the first shadows of this catastrophe, and so were able to describe it in some detail and deduce certain of its consequences; but not until these shadows had begun to steal into the hearts of the multitudes could these consequences manifest themselves on a large scale. Toward the end of the nineteenth century increasing numbers of quite ordinary men had begun that restless search--so much a part of our own contemporary scenes--to find a substitute for the God Who was dead in their hearts. This restlessness has been the chief psychological impetus of Vitalism; it is raw material, as it were, ready to be shaped after the pattern of the intellectual presuppositions we have just examined, by craftsmen inspired by the latest current of the "spirit of the age." We tend, perhaps, to think of this restlessness mainly in terms of its exploitation by Nihilist demagogues, but it has been an important stimulant of Vitalist art and religion also. And the presence of this component in most Vitalist phenomena is the reason why they--as opposed to the seeming "sanity" of Liberalism and Realism--present symptoms, not merely of intellectual deviation, but of spiritual and psychological disorientation as well.

It will be well, before passing on to a consideration of the more formal manifestations of Vitalism in philosophy and art, to take a closer look at some of the common manifestations of this inarticulate restlessness that underlies them A Is it as certain as we have implied that it is, after all, a Nihilist characteristic? Many will object that its significance has often been exaggerated, that it is simply a new form of something that has always existed, and that it is a ridiculous pretention to dignify something so common by the exalted name of Nihilism. There is, of course, some basis for such a judgment; nonetheless, it can hardly be denied that the modern phenomenon differs in several important respects from any of its predecessors. It exists today, for the first time in history, on a scale so vast as to be almost universal; It normal" remedies, the remedies of common sense, seem to have no effect whatever upon it, and if anything they seem to encourage it; and its course has exactly parallelled that of the extension of modern unbelief, so that if the one is not the cause of the other they are both at least parallel manifestations of one and the same process. These three points are so closely bound together that we shall not separate them in the following discussion, but examine them together.

The Fascist and National Socialist regimes were the most skillful in exploiting popular restlessness and utilizing it for their own purposes. But it is the "strange" fact--"strange" to anyone who does not understand the character of the age--that this restlessness has not been quieted by the defeat of its principal exploiters but has rather increased in intensity since then and--"strangest" of all--especially in the countries most advanced in the democratic and Liberal ideologies and most blessed with worldly prosperity, and in "backward" countries in direct proportion to their own progress toward these goals. Neither war nor Liberal idealism nor prosperity can pacify it--nor Marxist idealism either, for Soviet prosperity has produced the same phenomenon; these remedies are ineffective, for the disease lies deeper than they can reach.

Perhaps the most striking manifestation of the popular unrest has been in crime, and particularly in juvenile crime. Crime in most previous ages had been a localized phenomenon and had apparent and comprehensible causes in the human passions of greed, lust, envy, jealousy, and the like; never has there been anything more than a faint prefiguration of the crime that has become typical of our own century, crime for which the only name is one the avant-garde today is fond of using in another Nihilist context: "absurd."

A parent is murdered by a child, or a child by a parent; a total stranger is beaten or murdered--but not robbed--by an individual or a "gang"; such "gangs" terrorize whole neighborhoods by their prowling or their senseless wars with each other: and to what purpose? It is a time of "peace" and "prosperity," the criminals are as likely to be from the "best" as from the "worst" elements of society, there is no "practical" reason for their conduct and there is often complete disregard for precautions or consequences. When questioned, those apprehended for such crimes explain their behavior in the same way: it was an "impulse" or an "urge" that drove them, or there was a sadistic pleasure in committing the crime, or there was some totally irrelevant pretext, such as boredom, confusion, or resentment. In a word, they cannot explain their behavior at all, there is no readily comprehensible motive for it, and in consequence--and this is perhaps the most consistent and striking feature of such crimes--there is no remorse.

There are, of course, other less violent forms of the popular unrest. There is the passion for movement and speed, expressed especially in the veritable cult of the automobile (we have already noted this passion in Hitter); the universal appeal of television and cinema, whose most frequent function is to provide a few hours of escape from reality, both by their eclectic and "exciting" subject-matter and by the hypnotic effect of the media themselves; the increasingly primitive and savage character of popular music and of the perhaps more authentic expression of the contemporary soul, "jazz", the cult of physical prowess in sport, and the morbid worship of "youth" of which it is a part; the prevalence of and general permissiveness towards sexual promiscuity, condoned by many supposedly responsible elders as indicative of the "frankness" of contemporary youth and as being merely another form of the "open," "experimental" attitude so much encouraged in the arts and sciences; the disrespect for authority fostered by a popular attitude that sees no values but the "immediate" and "dynamic" and leads the most "idealistic" of youth into demonstrations against "repressive" laws and institutions.

In such phenomena "activity" is clearly an escape--an escape from boredom, from meaninglessness, and most profoundly from the emptiness that takes possession of the heart that has abandoned God) Revealed Truth, and the morality and conscience dependent upon that Truth. In the more complex manifestations of the Vitalist impulse, to which we now turn, the same psychology is at work. We shall do no more than suggest the wealth of these manifestations, for we shall examine most of them in some detail later in their role as forms of the it new spirituality."

In politics, the most successful forms of Vitalism have been Mussolini's cult of activism and violence, and Hitler's darker cult of "blood and soil"; the nature of these is too familiar to the present generation to need further comment in this context. It is perhaps not so obvious today, however, when the political barometer so clearly points to the "left," just how profound was the appeal of these movements when they appeared some forty years ago. Quite apart from the uprooted masses, who were the principle object of their exploitation, a not inconsiderable section of the intellectual and cultural avant-garde also became enthusiastic sympathizers of the Nihilist demagogues, at least for a while. If few among the sophisticated took either Naziism or Fascism as a "new religion," some at least welcomed one or the other of them as a salutary antidote to the "democracy," "science," and "progress" (that is, the Liberalism and Realism) that seemed to promise a future no sensitive man could envision without apprehension; their "dynamism," "vitality," and pseudo- traditionalism seemed deceptively "refreshing" to many who were breathing the stifling intellectual atmosphere of the time.

Modern art has had a similar appeal, and its similar reaction against lifeless academic "realism" has likewise led into strange fields. New and exotic sources and influences have been found in the art of Africa, the Orient, the South Seas, of prehistoric man, children, and madmen, in spiritism and occultism. Continual "experimentation" has been the rule, a constant search for "new" forms and techniques; inspiration has been found above all in the "savage," the "primitive," and the "spontaneous." Like the Futurists in their manifesto (though Futurism itself can hardly be taken seriously as art), the most typical modern artists have exalted in their works "every kind of originality, boldness, extreme violence," and they have likewise believed that "our hands are free and pure, to start everything afresh."

The artist, according to the Vitalist myth, is a "creator," a "genius," he is "inspired." In his art Realism is transformed by "vision"; it is a sign and a prophecy of a "spiritual awakening." The artist, in short, is a "magician" in his own realm in precisely the same way Hitler was in politics; and in both it is not truth, but subjective feeling, that reigns.

In religion--or, to speak more precisely, pseudo-religion--the restless experimentation characteristic of Vitalism has manifested itself in even more varied forms than it has in the schools of modern art. There are, for example, the sects whose deity is a vague, immanent "force"; these are the varieties of "new thought" and "positive thinking," whose concern is to harness and utilize this "force," as if it were a kind of electricity. Closely related to these are occultism and spiritism, as well as certain spurious forms of "Eastern wisdom," which abandon all pretense of concern with "God" explicitly to invoke more immediate "powers" and "presences."

Religious Vitalism appears also in the widespread cult of "awareness" and "realization." In a fairly restrained form this is present in the devotees of modern art and the "creative act" and "vision" that inspire this art. The indiscriminate quest for "enlightenment," as in those under the influence of Zen Buddhism, is a more extreme form of this cult; and the supposed "religious experience" stimulated by various drugs is, perhaps, its reductio ad absurdum.

Again, there is the attempt to fabricate a pseudo-pagan cult of nature," and especially of its most "primary" and "basic" elements: the earth, the body, sex. Nietzsche's "Zarathustra" is a powerful "prophet" of this cult, and it is the central theme of D. H. Lawrence and other novelists and poets of this century.

And there is the attempt, in most kinds of "existentialism" and personalism," to turn religion into no more than a personal "encounter" with other men and--sometimes--with a vaguely-conceived "God"; or, in pathological, atheistic "existentialism," to make a religion of "rebellion" and frenzied self-worship.

All of these Vitalist manifestations of the "religious impulse" share in common a hostility to any stable or unchanging doctrine or institution and a paramount concern with and pursuit of the "immediate" values of "life," "vitality," "experience," "awareness," or "ecstasy."

We have delineated the most striking features of Vitalism and given some suggestion of its extent; but we have yet to define the term itself and expose its Nihilist character. Liberalism, as we have seen, undermined truth by indifference to it, retaining however the prestige of its name; and Realism attacked it in the name of a lesser, partial truth. Vitalism, as opposed to both of these, has no relation to truth whatever; it simply devotes its whole concern to something of an entirely different order.

"The falseness of an opinion," said Nietzsche, "is not for us any objection to it.... The question is, how far an opinion is life-furthering, life-preserving...."  [15] When such pragmatism begins, Nihilism passes into the Vitalist stage, which may be defined as the elimination of truth as the criterion of human action, and the substitution of a new standard: the "life-giving," the "vital"; it is the final divorce of life from truth.

Vitalism is a more advanced kind of Realism; sharing the latter's narrow view of reality and its concern to reduce everything higher to the lowest possible terms, Vitalism carries the Realist intention one step further. Where Realism tries to reestablish an absolute truth from below, Vitalism expresses the failure of this project in the face of the more "realistic" awareness that there is no absolute here below, that the only unchanging principle in this world is change itself Realism reduces the supernatural to the natural, the Revealed to the rational, truth to objectivity; Vitalism goes further and reduces everything to subjective experience and sensation. The world that seemed so solid, the truth that seemed so secure to the Realist, dissolve in the Vitalist view of things; the mind has no more place to rest, everything is swallowed up in movement and action.

The logic of unbelief leads inexorably to the Abyss; he who will not return to the truth must follow error to its end. So does humanism, too, after having contracted the Realist infection, succumb to the Vitalist germ. Of this fact there is no better indication than the "dynamic" standards that have come to occupy an increasingly large place in formal criticism of art and literature, and even in discussions of religion, philosophy, and science. There are no qualities more prized in any of these fields today than those of being "original," "experimental," or "exciting"; the question of truth, if it is raised at all, is more and more forced into the background and replaced by subjective criteria: "integrity," "authenticity," "individuality."

Such an approach is an open invitation to obscurantism, not to mention charlatanry; and if the latter may be dismissed as a temptation for the Vitalist that has not become the rule, it is by no means possible to ignore the increasingly blatant obscurantism which the Vitalist temperament tolerates and even encourages. It becomes ever more difficult in the contemporary intellectual climate to engage in rational discussion with Vitalist apologists. If one, for example, inquires into the meaning of a contemporary work of art, he will be told that it has no " meaning," that it is "pure art" and can only be "felt," and that if the critic does not "feel" it properly he has no right to comment on it. The attempt to introduce any standard of criticism, even of the most elementary and technical sort, is countered by the claim that old standards cannot be applied to the new art, that they are "static," "dogmatic," or simply "out-of-date," and that art today can be judged only in terms of its success in fulfilling its own unique intentions. If the critic sees a morbid or inhuman intent behind a work of art, the apology is that it is an accurate reflection of the "spirit of the age," and it is implied that a man is naive if he believes that art should be more than that. The latter argument is, of course, the favorite one of every avant-garde today, whether literary, philosophical, or "religious." For men weary of truth it is enough that a thing "is," and that it is "new" and "exciting."

These are, perhaps, understandable reactions to the overly literary and utilitarian approach of Liberalism and Realism to realms like art and religion which use a language quite unlike the prosaic language of science and business; to criticize them effectively, surely, one must understand their language and know what it is they are trying to say. But what is equally clear is that they are trying to say something: everything man does has a meaning, and every serious artist and thinker is trying to communicate something in his work. If it be proclaimed there is no meaning, or that there is only the desire to express the "spirit of the age," or that there is no desire to communicate at all--why, these too are meanings, and very ominous ones, which the competent critic will surely notice. Unfortunately, but very significantly, the task of criticism today has been virtually identified with that of apology; the role of the critic is generally seen to be no more than that of explaining, for the uninstructed multitudes, the latest "inspiration" of the "creative genius."  [16] Thus passive "receptivity" takes the place of active intelligence, and "success"--the success of the "genius" in expressing his intention, no matter what the nature of that intention--replaces excellence. By the new standards Hitler too was "successful," until the "spirit of the age" proved him " wrong"; and the avant-garde and its humanist "fellow-travellers" have no argument whatever against Bolshevism today, unless it be that, unlike National Socialism, which was "expressionistic" and "exciting," it is completely prosaic and Realistic.

But perhaps most revealing of the infection of humanism by Vitalism is the strange axiom, romantic and skeptical at the same time, that the "love of truth" is never-ending because it can never be fulfilled, that the whole of life is a constant search for something there is no hope of finding, a constant movement that never can--nor should--know a place of rest. The sophisticated humanist can be very eloquent in describing this, the new first principle of scholarly and scientific research, as an acknowledgement of the "provisional" nature of all knowledge, as a reflection of the never-satisfied, ever-curious human mind, or as part of the mysterious process of "evolution" or "progress"; but the significance of the attitude is dear. It is the last attempt of the unbeliever to hide his abandonment of truth behind a cloud of noble rhetoric, and, more positively, it is at the same time the exaltation of petty curiosity to the place once occupied by the genuine love of truth. Now it is quite true to say that curiosity, exactly like its analogue, lust, never ends and is never satisfied; but man was made for something more than this. He was made to rise, above curiosity and lust, to love, and through love to the attainment of truth. This is an elementary truth of human nature, and it requires, perhaps, a certain simplicity to grasp it. The intellectual trifling of contemporary humanism is as far from such simplicity as it is from truth.

The appeal of Vitalism is, as we have already suggested, quite understandable psychologically. Only the dullest and least perceptive of men can remain satisfied for long with the dead faith of Liberalism and Realism. Extreme elements first-artists, revolutionaries, the uprooted multitudes--and then, one by one, the humanist guardians of "civilization," and eventually even the most respectable and conservative elements of society, become possessed of an inner disquiet that leads them into the pursuit of something "new" and "exciting," no one knows exactly what. Nihilist prophets, at first generally scorned, come into fashion as men come to share their unrest and forebodings; they are gradually incorporated into the humanist pantheon and are looked to for insights and revelations that will take men out of the barren desert into which Realism has led them. Beneath the trivial sensationalism and eclecticism that characterize the contemporary trend to "mysticism" and "spiritual values," lies a deep hunger for something more substantial than Liberalism and Realism have provided or can provide, a hunger that the varieties of Vitalism can only tease, but never satisfy. Men have rejected the Son of God Who, even now, desires to dwell in men and bring them salvation; and finding intolerable the vacuum this rejection has left in their hearts, they run to madmen and magicians, to false prophets and religious sophists, for a word of life. But this word, so readily given, itself turns to dust in their mouths when they try to repeat it.

Realism, in its rage for truth, destroys the truth; in the same way Vitalism, in its very quest for life, smells of death. The Vitalism of the last hundred years has been an unmistakable symptom of world-weariness, and its prophets--even more clearly than any of the philosophers of the dead Liberalism and Realism they attacked--have been a manifestation of the end of Christian Europe. Vitalism is the product, not of the "freshness" and "life" and "immediacy" its followers so desperately seek (precisely because they lack them), but of the corruption and unbelief that are but the last phase of the dying civilization they hate. One need be no partisan of the Liberalism and Realism against which Vitalism reacted to see that it has "over-reacted," that its antidote to an undeniable disease is itself a more potent injection of the same Nihilist germ that caused the disease. Beyond Vitalism there can be only one more, definitive, stage through which Nihilism may pass: the Nihilism of Destruction.

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