Natalya Irtenina is a Russian science-fiction writer of traditional Orthodox worldview. This is the first half of her essay “Tradition and Fleeting Senses of Being,” as translated by Mark Hackard.
Can there be contexts that are completely free from Tradition? Even anti-tradition in the everyday meaning of this word is traditional since it also finds its beginnings in the Garden of Eden…
We shall begin with René Guénon. More precisely, his definition of the essence of traditional society:
The metaphysical doctrine is the most important element of traditional society, and all remaining spheres of human life are in turn either direct results of this doctrine or its application to one or another special level of existence… In such a way, genuine hierarchy exists in these societies everywhere and in everything; on the other hand, everything relative is not regarded as something all-together non-existent… However, [relative realities] are taken into account only through proper means, i.e. in the capacity of things secondary and contingent in conjunction with what place in reality one or another thing occupies, dependent on how removed it is from the realm of higher fundamental principles.
That is, the basic structural (not metaphysical) and organizing principle here is hierarchy, co-subordination of one to another and general subjection to the only Most High, the One.
From antiquity hierarchy in the West and the East was juxtaposed with an understanding of order, “Cosmos.” Universal existence in space and time was conceived of in categories of causality, common conditionality and harmony of plurality as a result of an organizing and balancing unified element. The medieval Christian consciousness, having apprehended this metaphysics of “primary origin,” moved further and in a natural manner raised the idea of rational world order to an absolute degree. The Absolute, as it should be, took transcendent forms, the idea of cosmos metamorphosed, and the principle of hierarchy only strengthened its positions, ascending to the Creator and expanding to all of man’s spheres of life without exception- both the ontological and social. The hierarchy of the Cosmos determined the place of each thing or creature according to the degree of its harmony with and proximity to the ideal of perfection.
Analyzing the worldview of the Middle Ages, one embodied in the aesthetic conception of Thomas Aquinas, the author Umberto Eco defines it as a “philosophy of cosmic order.” In such an understanding of the world, “God is regarded as the Prima Causa in relation to Himself and to his creation, for which he appears as the Actual, Final and Creative Reason… Here everything, beginning from the creation of the angels, world and man, the determination of passions and habits, and ending in the sacraments as instruments of redemption and death as the gates to eternal life- none of this is accidental, all of this has its explanation and functions within this integral whole.” (Eco, “Aesthetics of the Chaosmos”)
At the base of what is called traditional consciousness or thinking lies the principle of hierarchy, strengthened by the idea of an absence of randomness, the impossibility of reasonless, acausal being. For the person located “within Tradition,” “all things have a traditional character since they are regarded in direct connection with foundational principles.” (Guénon)
All of these sufficiently simple and well-known truths are repeated here only to demonstrate the nucleus of logical relationships in the system of traditional thinking and from this to cross over to the topological plane of the given analysis. On the topological plane, the integrity of traditional thinking is structured according to the principle of the “tree”: the roots (basic metaphysical principles), the trunk (the One, the highest level of hierarchy), and the widely branching crown (the Universum of the Cosmos, particularly human culture). Within the parameters of modern scientific rationalism (in the projects of philosophers, linguists, semioticians, structuralists, psychologists, psychiatrists, etc.), the tree principle has already long been legitimized as an epistemological, methodological reality, as an archetype and in general as “one of the strongest ‘universal’ structures of man’s thought and practice in apprehending the world.”
Freud considered the very unconscious to be tree-like, and observers of culture place within this signified principle the functions that support the memory of the human race and its creation of history. However, the model of the tree and its principle of structuring human knowledge and experience according to a type of branching out from a single trunk, a single point of reference, is not simply “one of” the ancient methods of thought and apprehension of the world. Without any doubt, this model of organization and ordering of the space of our existence is the only – from Sumer to the present day – unchanging and irreplaceable logical/topological model of traditional, hierarchic and non-relativistic thought. The Universum in this mindset stands not only as ordered according to the significance of each of its elements (their ideational adequacy in relation to the “higher principal”), but is also organized as a global, exhaustive system where absent things have no place and present things occur outside of time and independent of their actual existence.
Even so, the prevalence of “tree-like” thinking (the tree of life, tree of knowledge, the world tree, family tree, etc.) likely cannot serve as a sufficient foundation for lending this symbol the “significance of a principle of the activity of consciousness at the deeper levels of the human psyche.” Whether the unconscious is tree-like or not is a rather contentious matter. But it is doubtless that the realization of the tree principal in practice works to the satisfaction of the normal and primordial metaphysical demands of man, the source of which do indeed lie in his unconscious. The means of satisfying these demands, though, assume traditional forms only when such a need is assimilated by consciousness, i.e. the higher, not the lower (unconscious) layers of the psyche. Strictly speaking, creation of these “wooden” structures is the function of a human consciousness that harmonizes the world with the aid of hierarchy as a counterweight to the distorting and chaotic influences of the unconscious.
But the tree-like organization of a cultural space is still not total and really does represent “but one” of the “universal structures.” The metaphysical requirement can be satisfied not only “within Tradition,” but outside of it. However, in this case there is every basis to speak of a primitive and partial (incomplete and inadequate) satisfaction, since it is here that the deeper levels of the unconscious are directly activated, setting the direction and structure of this type of thinking, which we may term anti-traditional (unlike the tree).
Here the unconscious hardly plays the role of a beneficial ordering element; instead it sows chaos and distorts the forms and methods of satisfying the immemorial metaphysical requirement and the requirement for knowledge in general. Anti-traditional thought does not embark upon the path of ceaseless search for the “first principle” or the “one,” the transcendent absolute, etc. It has no need for this, and therefore the cultural Universum created and interpreted by this thought is structured differently in principle. Its model is the potentially limitless grid, the model of the structuralist labyrinth (the “rhizome” of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari), where every path may possibly intersect with any other. Here one finds neither center nor periphery, neither high nor low, neither beginning nor end. Naturally, we cannot even speak of hierarchy in such a setting; instead, the essence of the rhizome is principled anti-hierarchy, a disordered grid of interpretations. Any truth in the space of the rhizome is relative and replaceable by another, and its value and meaning are totally dependent upon the whims of the interpreter (the possessor of the relativist mindset). The claim of some philosophers that the principle of the rhizome is more ancient and universal than that of the tree is quite doubtful. Nonetheless, it is deeply rooted in human culture.
Umberto Eco draws a parallel between the modern hyper-interpretive theories (1960s-80s) of the deconstructionists (the exemplar of militant un-hierarchical, relativist thinking) and classical and medieval esotericism (conceptions of Gnosticism and Hermeticism). The Hermetic model of the Cosmos is an enormous hall of mirrors where all is reflected in all. Every given thing exists not in itself, but only inasmuch as it is a sign, a symbol referencing something else and everything in general. Ultimately the interpretation of the meaning of things departs into endlessness. In his novel Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco “throws back the curtain” namely on this Hermetic myth about the “final secret” concealed under a mass of other mysteries – a secret emptiness:
According to our wishes, coincidences can be found everywhere and between everything; the world literally turns into a grid, a floodgate of particles, among which everything refers to everything else.
The space of Hermetic knowledge is that of the rhizome, which Eco, following after Deleuze and Guattari, characterizes by its anti-genealogical quality, i.e. its acausality, the absence of a genetic axis and the possibility of a non-contradictory link between each of its elements and any other. Accordingly, this is unlimited semiosis (the endowment of something with meaning) and the equal significance of any objects, the potential readiness to confuse anything with anything else. And this is already the basis of syncretism, more famous in one of its significations under the odious name of eclecticism.
In Eco’s conception, syncretism is the direct road to “eternal fascism,” under which the Italian philosopher understands any manifestation of traditionalism, anti-liberalism and “obscurantism” impeding the progress of the Enlightenment. Having slightly corrected this thought, we can say that the worst variant of fascism, German National Socialism, in reality represents the product of realized potentialities in none other than anti-traditional thought. More precisely, we can define its version as a neo-pagan, totally conditioned mindset buttressed by absolute collectivism, hidden or overt occultism and the doctrines of the repressive state[i].
Although fascism did indeed come about as a natural and justified counter-action against Enlightenment ideologies cultivated by the anti-traditional consciousness, between Nazism and liberalism we do uncover much in common. Both are toiling over the same cauldron – the idea of the superhuman in man – though they approach this idea from opposite ends. Both use the same methods for processing the masses, appealing to the instincts of the crowd, etc.
If the model of traditional thought can be signified by the letter Ψ (everything grows out of and is nourished by a single trunk), then the neo-pagan model will look like a Ψ inverted (of course both definitions are quite conditional). In the latter case, although subordination of the system’s elements to the “one” is distinctly obvious, the space of the Universum unfolds not in the crown of the tree, but in the ramified system of roots. The culture of this “Brave New World” is steeped in the militant heritage of a pagan past bursting upon the present scene and sweeping away all in its path. The past lives in archetypes. Carl Jung, imposing upon the world his own conception about these conditional structures of the unconscious, admitted that “there is no insanity that men under the power of an archetype would not fall victim to.” Witnessing German fascism strengthening its positions in the 1930s, Jung wrote:
A whole nation resurrects the archaic symbol and even archaic religious ceremonies…The man of the past, living in the world of archaic ‘collective conceptions,’ has again attained influence in painfully evident real life.
But here we find not only the archaic and not only the past gone mad; it is here that namely the occult, esoteric and magical experiments of the past are reproduced – the resilient schemes of Hermetic “secret” knowledge that afforded the “elect” a means of uncovering new connections and relationships in the world. The latter is necessary for acquiring the mechanisms to coerce the Universum and attend to the transformation of the world. Socialism in this context differed just slightly from German Nazism; Marxism-Leninism placed magical functions in a scientific “sociology” enlisted to restructure not only the world, but man, and create his new type, a biological machine for building a radiant future. Universal magical sympathy in this view of the world ties into all existing things and phenomena. One thing refers to another, another to a third, a third to a fourth, etc. The task amounts to searching out the last factor to close the links in this chain – here is the secret center of power over the world, the point at which the secret laws of being are made known. Eco defines this phenomenon of human thought (wandering along the endless and tangled space of the rhizome) as semiotic extremism (against which Foucault’s Pendulum was directed).
The manipulation of the symbol gives power over the simple-minded masses, plunging them into trembling, fear and horror before its might. The symbol – the archetype, the unconscious – is a metaphysical requirement; this line is easily traced. What traditional consciousness attains in the face of God, neo-pagan, occult thought elevates the doctrine of a secret center dominating the life and history of humanity. The key to this idea (and also to this center) turns out to be “the interpretation founded upon the unlimited displacement of meaning,” “unyielding relativism.” Swept along from the Grail to the mystical rituals of the Rosicrucians; from the caves under the Himalayas where ancient magi-giants sleep to the mysterious island of Thule; from alchemical formulae to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion; and from the deeds of Germanic pagan gods to the coming millennium of the Reich, the neo-magical consciousness mixes into one bag traditions, cultures, religions, ideologies, doctrines, philosophical and metaphysical conceptions, folkways, rites, rituals, mystical revelations, pagan beliefs, alchemy and astrology, and also old wives’ tales, the sayings of a street parrot and the predictions of spirits spinning tables. And it’s easy, for in the space of the rhizome, all paths intersect, and not only once (If you haven’t reached your destination, just wait a bit longer).
Sic transit gloria mundi – syncretism, without any doubt, defiles the face of the land.
Syncretism, in the exact meaning of the word, consists of the uniting of elements of various natures – those which are not connected with each other on the basis of a single fundamental principle, but rather are gathered together by a wholly ‘external’ method…In any case, syncretism doubtless represents a profane conception.
It goes almost without saying that by “profane” Guénon meant “alien to tradition.”
In such a way, the model of neo-pagan thought is a hybrid of the inverted tree and the rhizome. On a flat surface one cannot imagine such a “miracle,” but rather only in three-dimensionality. At the foundation is the grid, from the intersections of which innumerable chutes reach upward to nourish a maimed tree – a trunk without branches, without a crown, without a future.
The Soviet system was, of course, of a somewhat different quality; in a strange manner messianic ideas of Christianity turned inside-out were combined with the realities of Antichrist’s earthly kingdom. We will not venture to propose a model of thought for Homo Sovieticus, suspecting that this in any case would be a rather twisted construction along the lines of Dali’s paintings.
Furthermore, the current inhabitants of planet Earth are forced by technical progress to live in temporally unstable conditions that demand the constant and ever-increasing absorption of data by the individual, whatever its type, degree of substantiality and importance, for adequate orientation in our environs. Without a regular and frequent (daily) “system reboot,” today’s life is simply impossible to imagine for the overwhelming majority of people. Plentiful flows of information supplied by television, the internet, the press, not to speak of the radio and special literature for professional necessities – all have become for many a habitual “hit,” a normal everyday dose if not for getting high, than at least as “fuel” to tolerably get us to the next morning, until the next hit. It’s become the standard “dope” that allows us to feel human, an esteemed member of society, a patriot, a citizen of the world and a worthy representative of one’s planet (if extraterrestrials suddenly invade). The list goes on[ii].
The requirement for gigantic loads of data (in aggregate calculation, not accounting for its per capita share) naturally brings about a need for new forms and methods of its transmission. The magnitude of this requirement is inversely proportional to the amount of an individual’s free time devoted to newspapers, TV and websites. The less time he possesses, the greater amount of information he needs (for the purpose of saving that very time). Here a great mystery is concealed. The modern art of presenting data creates new linguistic systems with their own internal laws. And these laws are subordinated to a general informational tendency revealing itself more clearly with every passing day. It can be expressed in one word – chaos.
The increased demand for diverse information grows along with the degree of disorder in its presentation. Simply put, everything is cast into one heap. “Into the fray rushed horses and men, and the volleys of a thousand cannons merged into an extended wail.” And there’s nothing funny about it. This paradox is easily explained – accurate scientific calculation demands the media’s introduction of directed disorder into internal systems to increase the capability of transferring information to the recipient. Chaos is a necessary humanitarian and commercial measure.
As a rule, modern information technologies are based on the rejection of 1) hierarchical principles, the delineation of information as important, secondary and worthless 2) principles of binary logic – the very significance of the antithesis “important/unimportant,” “necessary/unnecessary,” etc. is lost, and these concepts as applied to mass information are also made meaningless; 3) synonymous links – any information can undergo endless transformations and interpretations, in such a way creating various pictures of the world, and any fact can be replaced by any other. The field of possibilities here is limitless, and cultural conventions permit everything.
This form of thinking, defined and directed by information technologies, can correspondingly be designated as informational. Properly speaking, it is in its pure form the “rhizome.” Or relativism, a simulacrum of thought. There is no point in specifying that all of this is one and the same variety of anti-traditional thought, which still won’t stop us from breaking down its components.
It’s obvious that informational thinking is a child born of the union between the spiritual, and in a well-known degree the intellectual, degradation of society (the mother) and boundless technical progress (the father). The typical portrait of the average representative of the present liberal information society (drawn at times with shocking frankness and detail) is regularly encountered in a multitude of editorial, arts, philosophical and other academic publications. And no small number of these were painted long before the appearance of Homo Informaticus, based upon his predecessor and close kinsman, “the one-dimensional man” and the man of banality. Here is one such rendering from the pen of White Russian émigré philosopher Ivan Ilyin in a book from 1953:
The perceiver of objects does not in any primary sense experience everything superficially, frivolously and carelessly. He’ll take everything with shallow feeling, a light thought, diluted and capricious desire. His life is composed of grins and whims. Everything with him leads to empty words and idle, irresponsible deeds… He has no final questions or final answers. He knows neither spiritual necessity, sacred limits nor fateful decisions. He is a man of ‘many possibilities,’ sometimes directly contradictory to one another; he’s always ‘able to do something’ – ‘one way,’ ‘another’ and ‘still another,’ depending on calculation and agreeability. For him everything is ‘relative;’ he’s a relativist. And nothing is final and unconditional: he is essentially a nihilist…Such people are ‘inessential,’ and for them everything is ephemeral and inessential, just like themselves. Everything is unserious for them, everything is fun and entertainment; nothing is holy and nothing inviolable.
Yes, he is always and at his core a traveler: from one thing to another, from another to a third, and nowhere does he stay long, always searching for something “new” and “interesting” to fill the vacuum of his tourist-like existence. For him the entire world is the rhizome, without any up or down, without tortuous dead ends, precipices or fire to show the way. He doesn’t care which road he takes – he doesn’t even see the road, or whether it’s even under his feet. If he’s walking, it must be there. His steps mean he’ll arrive somewhere.
Over there – walls line the sides of his path, torches burn brightly, and behind him lies the corpse of a slain enemy. Somewhere nearby a pair of them are still hiding, though soon enough they’ll be smoked out. But his arm is shot through and hangs by a thread, two bullets are lodged in his stomach and blood is gushing – but not to worry, there’s a first-aid pack right ahead. The player’s health will be restored, and somewhere around here there’s a teleportation device; he’ll make it out. And if he doesn’t make it, it’s not the first time dying; life’s that way. Here alive, there dead, here you’re a persecutor, there the persecuted, today you’re a jackal, tomorrow a noble mafia don, but never just another lowly employee at the office supply store.
See Part II of “The Chaos Grid.”
[i] Speaking of neo-paganism, it follows to keep in view the aggressive tendency of this phenomenon against traditional Christianity and the Christian worldview. Christianity freed man from the stifling power of tribe and blood and returned to him the godlike qualities of a personality opposed to the chthonic unconscious. Neo-paganism frees man from his personality as an impediment on his path of dissolution into the “tribe,” the “collective,” of subordination to the total power of “shamanic” ideologues. Neo-paganism sets as its goal the incorporation of other non-Christian spiritual essences (matrices) into the structure of the personality in order to overwhelm and destroy will and individuality. In liberal journalism, this 20th-Century mass phenomenon received the name of totalitarianism and is perceived exclusively as political. Meanwhile, the political side is only its external attribute. At its base lies a religious process of substituting the One God with the institution of a bloody messianism/hysteria, the “salvation” of mankind (a portion of it) by means of a “world-fire” (the “occult revolution” of Nazism, the passage “beyond Good and Evil”).
[ii] One of the most pointed revelations: “Our ego is already decomposed into separate tendencies in accordance with a process of disintegration that has exploded upon society, which itself has transformed into personalized molecules. And the flaccid Socium is an exact copy of the indifferent ego endowed with insufficient strength of will, a new zombie, permeated with and managed by information. Lipovetsky, Zh. Era pustoty. Esse o sovremennom individualisme. SPb, 2001.