Monday, August 25, 2014

The enemies of reason

I have just finished reading the late James Webb's The Occult Underground. For a book first published in 1971, it has worn quite well. It was originally published as The Flight from Reason and that is a far better description of its theme, but a much less marketable title. In an area that I do know about, late 19th century radical thought, he made loads of mistakes – for example, Geddes was not a mystical thinker, Gandhi was already a vegetarian when he came to London, Kropotkin did not flee Russia after a murder, etc. - and his topic, the revival of esoteric thought, has been the subject of earlier and later study. For example, both Orwell and Adorno wrote about the links between mystical thought and the far right, whilst the occult nature of Nazism has spawned a library of books. But there is something quite fun about reading a book that kicked off a sceptical look at mysticism and its broader place in the history of ideas, not just the far right, especially one that has such a promising line at the beginning:
The neglected genius is a familiar figure of mythology; but there are those neglected lunatics who are worthy of study. 
And my, were they lunatics. According to Webb, they blended a half understood Eastern philosophy into a "sort of spiritual porridge." Political utopians and romantic nationalists fed from the same trough. Fake spiritualists, believers in mesmerism, frauds and charlatans pulled in believers by the score. Sects proliferated - schismatic Protestants, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, followers of a reinvented neo-paganism, deluded ghost-hunters and psychical researchers, mainstream religious revivalists, and many others. And if you want an example of the intellectual contortions they went through, look at this tragi-comic example of how Annie Besant reconciled her conversion to Theosophy and belief in reincarnation with the theory of evolution, in this case using "clairvoyant investigations" to discover her own personal evolution into becoming human.
The evolutionary leap was taken when Mrs. Besant was incarnated in a large, monkey-like body, in which form she was particularly attached to an entity already human, who was to become the Buddha. One night the Buddha and his family were attacked by savages. During the ensuing fight, the Besant-monkey saved the Buddha at the cost of its own life. The aspirations of this relatively humble creature provoked a stream of cosmic reactions so that "in the very moment of dying the monkey individualizes, and thus he dies – a man." 
Blimey! Have you noticed that most believers' imagined past lives are usually those of significant or interesting people? They rarely see themselves as humdrum. What I find sad about Besant is that she had been a formidable campaigner for women's' rights and contraception, a socialist and trade unionist, organising the female workers of the Bryant and May match company in their celebrated 1888 strike, active in working class education and secretary of the National Secular Society for seventeen years. Then she fell for Blavatsky's facile, perennialist nonsense.

And this is why the book still has an appeal today. I groan when I see supposed leftists come out with pseudo-scientific rubbish about GM crops, form alliances with Islamists, flirt with anti-Semitism, indulge in paranoid conspiracy theories, and talk in hushed, reverential tones about ancient wisdoms and authentic, 'natural' cures. How on earth did this happen? Mainstream studies see this as down to the influence of Romanticism and the idea of nature. Paul Berman has fingered what he called irrational death cults as one of the inspirations behind Islamist terrorism, but Webb did more, giving us a speculative structural explanation of why the occult should explode into life at the end of the nineteenth century, seeing the growth of irrational thought as the product of an intellectual sea change.
The occult is rejected knowledge. It may be knowledge that is actively rejected by an Establishment culture, or knowledge which voluntarily exiles itself from the courts of favor (sic) because of its recognized incompatibility with the prevailing wisdom. The word "occult" means "hidden", and in this idea lies the key to the occult's forbidding appearance. Something may be hidden because of its immense value, or reverently concealed from the prying eyes of the profane. But this hidden thing may also have achieved its sequestered position because the Powers That Be have found it wanting. Either it is a threat and must be buried, or simply useless and so is forgotten. 
For centuries, reason and science were an insurgent force against establishment religion and the power of the nobility. But then, in an intellectual revolution, they became orthodoxy. The victory was not clear-cut, there were fudges and compromises, but Darwin had overthrown god. Science as a method of enquiry, as opposed to a body of knowledge, had prevailed. The long struggle between Plato's idealism and Aristotle's materialism for pre-eminence was over. Aristotle had won.

Esoteric mysticism, The Tradition as Webb called it, became the opposition; rejected knowledge. And so it flourished as an act of rebellion, by both conservatives and radicals, as anti-establishment thought. Freed from the constraints of orthodoxy, it fragmented into many weird and wonderful ideologies. And so religious reaction, conspiracy thought, political utopianism, and the like all share a common root, fear and revulsion of the new age of reason.

Take Pseudo-science, for example. Webb wrote:
The pseudo-sciences, in fact, are not sciences at all, but offshoots of an approach which is similar to the Tradition, even if there is no direct connection. It is, therefore, not merely rejection from the Establishment which pushes homeopaths into the arms of the occultists, but a fundamental kinship.
And Webb gave a key role in this transformation into radical respectability to Theosophy.
In the last analysis the achievement of H.P.B. (Helena Petrovna Blavatsky) was to make what seems today a markedly eccentric society part of the "progressive" thought of the late 19th century. 
Later writers have tried to be break away from what they saw as Webb's manichean view of the opposition of esotericism and reason. For example, Marco Pasi wrote:
 … these occult organizations offered a social space where new conceptions of culture and society could be formulated and experimented with. This would be in itself a good reason – if there were no other – to argue that occultism, as part of the larger historical body of esotericism, has contributed significantly to the shaping of modernity, verging, in this case, rather towards the progressive, liberal pole of the cultural and political spectrum. 
I don't think Webb would have demurred, but he might also have pointed out that belief in bollocks is not a necessary precondition for social and cultural experimentation.

Webb's occult net was spread wide, perhaps too wide, but in looking at mystical underpinnings of even secular ideas, he was echoing the nineteenth century freethought movement, which sought to secularise ways of thinking, not just reject religious ideas. And when one looks at New Age ramblings, deep green primitivism, neo-feudal traditionalism and the deep distrust of science that comes out of climate change deniers, anti-vaccination campaigners and the opponents of GMOs, you can see that they share a common theological and eschatological mind-set. Rather than the hard task of using reason and science to further human emancipation, they chose to challenge and bury them under a pile of mystical 'woo' - reaction posing as radicalism. Some of this is harmless enough, but we are also seeing its malign, totalitarian side in murderous action in Iraq and elsewhere at the moment. Reason may no longer be an insurgent against the establishment, but it now has a counter-insurgency to fight.

1 comment:

Dave said...

Excellent article,

This encompasses many Trot articles that disdain the 'mainstream media' which is mystical woo for fact based journalism we do not like, or fact based journalism that does not take into account Trot based historicism. Meaning again, 'mainstream rejection of badly reasoned analysis.